On not going to library school

My colleague @lynrobinson has written an intriguing blog post on the theme of Don’t go to library school: you won’t learn anything useful. In part this is a response to Deanna Marcum’s thought-provoking report Educating the research librarian: are we falling short?.

While I don’t have anything to add to Lyn’s account of how we at the #citylis London library school are dealing with these kind of challenges, there are three points in the report which I think are worth additional comment.

Deanna Marcum addresses one familiar trope of modern library angst; that services rather than collections are what matter nowadays, and that education and recruitment need to change to match. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Libraries are, presumably, still primarily about the communication of information and knowledge; otherwise what are they? Coffee shops? Art galleries? Advice and advocacy centres? All these things are worthwhile, but they aren’t libraries. And the information and knowledge must be instantiated in documents; and while the nature of documents is certainly changing, they remain documents. We can assume more than one document may be of potential use in any circumstance; and more than one document of the same kind is, well, a collection. So, even thought the nature of collections is changing just as much as that of the documents of which they are comprised, I would argue that documents and collections remain at the centre of the library/information world.

The report also suggests, in similar vein, that because information organization is collection-centred rather than user-centred, it should take less of a central place in library/information education. Hmm, up to a point again. Certainly #citylis has never made cat and class the centre of its curriculum, nor do we now invest a disproportionate amount of our teaching to it now; but does any modern library school do so? And the demise of information organization would be news to the molecular biologists who rely on the Gene Ontology, to the hobbyist and fan communities who devise elaborate folksonomies for their materials, and to the organizations who create and fuss over taxonomies to make sense of their knowledge. It may not be Melville Dewey, but it is information organization, and if library/information folk are not involved with it so much the worse for it, and us.

A third point raised in the report is the need, in the circumstances of large research libraries, for subject expertise as opposed to ‘general’ library/information skills, particularly when librarians may be ‘embedded’ in academic departments. This caused me to suffer a severe attack of déjà vu all over again. As regular readers (yes, I know you’re there) of this blog will know, a previous post gave an account of my early years in pharmaceutical research. And there too, more than a few years ago, we agonized over exactly the same issues. Should the information officers have PhDs and laboratory experience in chemistry or biology, or should they have a scientific background plus library/information qualifications? Should they be based in research teams, or in a central information unit? The solution went in cycles, as these things do, until eventually the obvious answer couldn’t be ignored any longer; that both subject and library/information expertise and are needed. In a large research library, these would perhaps be different people; in a smaller setting they would have to instantiated in one. In our modest way at #citylis we have always tried to cater for this, by encouraging entrants to our courses for a wide variety of subject backgrounds, including those with PhD and MD qualifications, and by encouraging study of subject-specific information provision, particularly in our module on information resources and information literacy.

The essential knowledge and skills to be covered on a library/information masters are changing and expanding. But that’s no reason not to go to library school; rather the reverse.

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