Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A partial response to Revolting Librarians Redux

One of the essays in the Roberto and West book caught my attention. I started making small notes here and there, and it turns out the notes got a bit long, so I figured I probably needed to write things out, if nothing else, to sort things out for myself. The essay in question is:

Nevins, Jess. "What Library Schools Still Aten't Teaching Us." Revolting Librarians Redux: Radical Librarians Speak Out. Eds. Katia Roberto and Jessamyn West. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &Co., 2003. 45-53.

A quick glance at the librarian sector of the blogosphere will reveal a few bloggers now and then discussing the shortcomings of library schools. These discussions usually center around L2 with discussions on things like needing to teach more about social software (for a recent example of a class on social software for library school, Sara Houghton, the Librarian in Black, points to an upcoming course at the University of Toronto on social software taught by Amanda Etches-Johnson). Teaching that is necessary, to an extent. Nevins thinks of more basic things. For instance, we never learned in my library school how to fix copiers, printers, remove paper jams, or how to use a multiple line phone. Now, you may say that you are professional, that's the secretary's/student worker's/staffer's job. In reality, you never know when you'll need these and other office skills, so make it a point to gradually learn. Nevins also mentions secondary library skills. These are things like knowing how to use a library system like SIRSI or Innovative. Believe it or not, you can come out of library school not knowing things like these unless you had a library job involving circulation or other technical service. I can attest to this. Since I had a public services job, I was not taught how to use the library system. The thinking was that there was no need for me to learn it. Not even my cataloguing class covered this in the sense we mostly used OCLC's online practice environment for cataloguing exercises. What little I know I have learned at work and in small bits. I can access our library system, but it is slow since I have no reason to use regularly. After all, I don't do circulation, cataloguing, or any other technical service. So I learn as I can and as time allows. So, library schools need to do better in this area of secondary library skills.

Nevins goes on to mention dress and hygiene. This I am not as ready to agree. If you made it to graduate school, you should know about this by now, even if you don't practice it. I don't automatically buy the well-dressed engenders trust line. My workplace is fairly casual, and it has not stopped me from being effective. Overall, I do dress for occasion, a little up for teaching, a little down on Fridays. I think this is common sense. Manners, however, may be another matter. Definitely there should be opportunities to practice things like table manners and dressing for success. Our university career services did this kind of thing: nice dinner events where you dressed professionally, practiced your table manners, and got to converse with practicing professionals in the context of possibly job hunting. While I never attended, given that one of the things my parents did right was teaching good social manners, a lot of kids of all ages may lack these skills. A good librarian should be able to move from jeans and t-shirt to a tuxedo (or dress for the ladies) with minimal effort. While this casual guy can never aspire to be as debonair as this fellow, I know when to break out the cuff links if need be.

Furthermore, Nevis mentions teaching about teaching. Nevins notes that the teaching skills can be taught (47), but this is rarely done in library schools. Unless you take the BI class in your library school, you may never be exposed to this. I came to library school with substantial teaching experience. If I needed reassurance of this, the librarian who taught the BI class in my library school flat out told me she did not want me there. She was not being anti-social; she figured there were other courses I could take. Plus, I had a graduate assistantship iin instruction that allowed me to expand on my teaching experience. So, can teaching be taught?

As a teacher, I would have to say yes and no. You can teach the presentation techniques and such skills. You cannot teach the temperament, patience, creativity, and dynamism that goes with teaching. If you bring those traits, a teacher will show you how to refine and enhance them. If you don't have such traits, you can't learn what is not a part of you. This does not make you a bad person or a lesser person. It just means you probably should do something else. Now, given that public service librarians are called to teach in various forms, a reader considering the public service path in librarianship would be wise to consider this. Needless to say, teaching is integral to an actual instruction position like mine. Now, I am not saying this to alienate people or because I know better. I am still learning about the teaching craft. I am just trying to tell people what they need to know if they are in library school or about to enter library school. There's a difference between a little bit of jitters when it comes to presenting in front of people and the ability to actually teach. The first you can learn to overcome with practice. The second you may or not have. If you don't, there are other paths in librarianship.

Nevins also mentions book purchasing. What we really need to know I think is how to negotiate contracts for databases and online resources. I learned the basics of purchasing in my collection development class, but I could have used more on negotiating with vendors. Professor Michael Stephens brings this up here. While I have no interest in doing acquisitions work, I still think some lessons on this area would have been valuable. If I had my way, I would design my collection development course to have a strong component of this. This does make appreciate the librarian at our workplace who handles the electronic resources and licenses.

In addition, Nevins mentions professional writing. This was a big peeve of mine in library school: that professional writing was minimal other than some papers for classes. This is especially crucial for those going into the academic path, where tenure line positions are common. Tenure line positions require publication for tenure; the "publish or perish" attitude is alive and well in such places. The fact that I was an English major in a previous life reinforced this for me. I had issues with some of the politics at the graduate school where I got my first master's degree, and dropped out of the doctorate, but I have to give them credit for one thing: every graduate class always encouraged writing with a view to conference presentation or eventual journal publication. We should be doing more of this in library schools. We also need more on other types of professional writing from reviews to press releases to memos to grant writing. I did have a class that included a grant writing unit. Whatever remaining advice I got on writing professionally in librarianship I got from the librarian who taught my humanities reference class. She was always giving us ideas and advice. I think we should "bottle" some of that, or at least make a course around it. I know I would make a course on this if I had my way.

There are other things in the essay I found interesting. The author mentions "keeping up" at the end, but it is not less important. I have written some thoughts on the matter, but as I look at previous writings, I see that I learned a lot of this on my own. In library school, some of the professors mentioned the need for this, but unless you asked further, you'd never learn how to do it. And with all the resources available, it is not only a matter of keeping up. It is a matter of selecting what to keep up with, to decide what is necessary and what can be skipped.

Now, if I could run things, I would at least want to design two courses for library school in addition to any small ideas I mentioned earlier. Before I do so, here are the caveats. One, to teach at the university level usually requires a doctorate. The exception is usually for "grunt" courses, things like introductory classes that adjuncts with a master's degree teach. Since I have no intention of completing a doctorate in LIS, odds are slim that this vision of mine can come to pass. I personally think to teach in graduate library school, your MLS should be enough, since it is (allegedly) the terminal degree of the profession, but that is my view. Anyways, I can dream.

First, I would want to design a good, solid instruction class. Not just how to do BI. I want pedagogy, curriculum design, lesson planning, learning theory, and a lot of practice. This should be a class in library school, not some fancy workshop sponsored by one of ALA's branches that costs an arm and a leg to do. This is needed while you are in library school, not after you crash and burn in a couple of BI sessions after you get hired lacking teaching experience. I would not go as far as requiring it for every librarian, but for public services, it probably should be required. This class would draw on experts from education as well as librarianship; way I see it, we should partnering a bit more with the school of education, if there is one, for things like this. Also, it would provide for teaching opportunities in the library. It would include a solid grounding in teaching fundamentals, and it would include integrating technology. However, this would not be a technology intensive class; that would be another class. This is the "how to teach" class.

Second, I would want some class that, for lack of a better label, we might call "Librarianship as a Profession." We are professionals; we should be acting like such, and teaching those with no clue about it. This one would cover a lot of the secondary things Nevins mentions from etiquette to office skills to keeping up. This may work as a short class, one of those that only take about nine weeks in a semester, say for a credit hour. What I observed in library school is that the first, and often only, look at being a professional and at the profession occurs in the first intoductory reference class. It's the class we all take with the scavenger hunts, and if we are lucky, they threw something in about our ethics along with the reference interview. My proposed class would address the ethics and the philosophy as well as the behavior. I want this class to be the "what you need to know to be a librarian, but everyone thinks you already know it, and you are too shy/clueless to ask so let me help you out" class. It would have to be a blend of the theory (values, philosophy of librarianship, etc.), and the practical (interviewing, conferencing, public relations, submitting papers, so on). I know at this point the concept for this one is too broad, but it is something I will likely tinker with over time. It is, for me at least, a work in progress.

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