Changes in Our Librarian Education for the 21st Century – Revisited


In my original Post Changes in Our Librarian Education for the 21st Century in May, 2010, I wrote the following.

Unfortunately, much of the MLS theory gets lost in the face of reality dealing with customers and daily issues. The standing joke of “What they don’t teach you in library school.” has grown legs for a reason. An MLS program is not intended to be a skills program. Advanced degree programs are inherently theory based and not training and practicum based. However, information with immediate application in addition to contemporary theory is highly useful. One example is the University of Michigan Library: The Future of Libraries (YouTube) with an excellent perspective on what libraries and librarians should become.

If SLIS are to stay relevant, like we all want libraries to do, they need to become more – more nimble at including current professional demands and requirements, not just “tried & true” library theory. Schools of library and information science MUST get more relevant and cutting-edge curriculum NOW to address these 21st Century librarianship issues. Tomorrow is too late.

It’s always nice to find out that what one wrote 19 months ago is still their opinion today, and still relevant. Schools of library and information science (SLIS) should seriously consider a bachelor’s degree program to provide “skilled” librarians for the workplace.

In a very recent New York Times, Education Life, article, What You (Really) Need to Know, former Harvard President Lawrence Summers posed some very interesting ideas about higher education. I believe many of these concepts could find application in our schools of library and information science (SLIS) – especially in a bachelor’s degree program.

Summers wrote about the rapidly changing world as compared to the stability of the university curriculum as “Part of universities’ function … to keep alive man’s greatest creations, passing them from generation to generation.” He also acknowledged that the structure of higher education has remained static.

With few exceptions, just as in the middle of the 20th century, students take four courses a term, each meeting for about three hours a week, usually with a teacher standing in front of the room. Students are evaluated on the basis of examination essays handwritten in blue books and relatively short research papers. Instructors are organized into departments, most of which bear the same names they did when the grandparents of today’s students were undergraduates. A vast majority of students still major in one or two disciplines centered on a particular department.

But the most interesting part of his article was his speculation that “Suppose the educational system is drastically altered to reflect the structure of society and what we now understand about how people learn. How will what universities teach be different?

Here are some guesses and hopes.”

1. Education will be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it. This is a consequence of both the proliferation of knowledge — and how much of it any student can truly absorb — and changes in technology.

In SLIS master’s program curriculum the emphasis is on theory. This does not mesh well with the idea that librarians need to learn skills and to operate in a collaborative environment. They should be prepared to enter the professional workplace where mastery of facts is less important than being able to think creatively and innovate new technology and ideas.

2. An inevitable consequence of the knowledge explosion is that tasks will be carried out with far more collaboration. … More significant, collaboration is a much greater part of what workers do, what businesses do and what governments do. Yet the great preponderance of work a student does is done alone at every level in the educational system. … As greater value is placed on collaboration, surely it should be practiced more in our nation’s classrooms.

Views on ‘collaboration equates to cheating’ are changing in the face of the reality Summers points out. Strategic Partnerships is one of the new 21st Century librarianship skills that must be developed. Library science majors collaborating with business majors, marketing majors, and computer science majors is a good thing!

3. New technologies will profoundly alter the way knowledge is conveyed. Electronic readers allow textbooks to be constantly revised, and to incorporate audio and visual effects. … In a 2008 survey of first- and second-year medical students at Harvard, those who used accelerated video lectures reported being more focused and learning more material faster than when they attended lectures in person.

This is not news to any librarian, whether they are in the stacks or in the classroom. Learning this new technology is best accomplished by using this new technology, and where better to learn than in the classroom as an integral part of the curriculum.

4. As articulated by the Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” we understand the processes of human thought much better than we once did. … Not everyone learns most effectively in the same way. And yet in the face of all evidence, we rely almost entirely on passive learning. …

“Active learning classrooms” — which cluster students at tables, with furniture that can be rearranged and integrated technology — help professors interact with their students through the use of media and collaborative experiences.

If current SLIS have one strength, this is probably it. Even when I went through the MLS at ESU in 1995-6, it used this methodology, and it was very effective. It incorporates many other tenets of what librarians need to learn.

5. The world is much more open, and events abroad affect the lives of Americans more than ever before. This makes it essential that the educational experience breed cosmopolitanism — that students have international experiences,

At the risk of sounding like I’m bragging, the 2011 in Review of this 21st Century Library Blog showed many viewers from every continent. I gain much information from librarians in other countries. Collaboration is international today, not just local. Exposure to this reality should begin in SLIS.

6. Courses of study will place much more emphasis on the analysis of data. … As the “Moneyball” story aptly displays in the world of baseball, the marshalling [sic] of data to test presumptions and locate paths to success is transforming almost every aspect of human life. … [C]ertainly the financial crisis speaks to the consequences of the failure to appreciate “black swan events” and their significance. In an earlier era, when many people were involved in surveying land, it made sense to require that almost every student entering a top college know something of trigonometry. Today, a basic grounding in probability statistics and decision analysis makes far more sense.

For many years now people have been predicting change in the world, in the way it does business, they way it accesses information, but SLIS curricula have not kept pace with ANY CHANGES. University curriculum committees are notoriously slow to make changes, yet universities are supposed to be the incubators of ideas and innovation. Why aren’t we seeing any of that in SLIS curriculum?

Summers ended his article with the following.

A good rule of thumb for many things in life holds that things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then happen faster than you thought they could. Think, for example, of the widespread use of the e-book, or the coming home to roost of debt problems around the industrialized world. Here is a bet and a hope that the next quarter century will see more change in higher education than the last three combined.

It took many years for the e-reader to become a reality, but now Kindle is the fastest selling item in Amazon history. It also took many years before the tablet computer became a reality, but iPad launched an avalanche of mobile computing, as did the iPhone before it. Now mobile communication devices are everywhere doing virtually everything.

Technology is advancing exponentially, society is advancing exponentially, but education is barely advancing. WHY? Librarians can and are making changes in the way their libraries do business! We’re seeing excellent examples of that in practice in local libraries. SLIS are a collection of librarians, so why are we not changing librarian education? WHY DO SLIS WAIT UNTIL THERE IS A CRISIS TO MAKE CHANGES?

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