Joe Janes: One size LIS does not fit all

I’ve heard the “what are they teaching in library school these days, anyway?” comments for as long as I’ve been an educator; it comes with the territory. It’s natural, and healthy, that all of us are invested in the process by which people become members of our profession. However, in the last few years, another couple of tropes have entered the fray: that there are too many students in our programs and that the number is growing, that there aren’t enough jobs for them, and that students and recent graduates feel betrayed and even lied to as a result. That has extended, in some conversations, into calls for somebody to do something about this, such as, perhaps, ALA through its accrediting functions. Taken together, these seem to indicate substantial questions or misgivings about LIS education and its infrastructure. As an educator and proud member of the profession, that’s concerning to me as well.

The most recent statistics that we have about LIS education are from 2013, as reported on the ALA accreditation website. They show a total of about 16,500 students enrolled in all accredited programs, a decrease of 1,360 from the prior year. Moreover, 37 of the 57 programs reported a decrease in total headcount from 2012 to 2013. (They also show a slight dip in numbers of minority students enrolled, but an increase in members of minority groups as a proportion of all students, which is encouraging, though as always there’s much more to be done on this front.)
They also report 7,326 degrees awarded. Is that too many, too few, just about right? That’s hard to say; we all know the job market isn’t what it was several years ago, as libraries have been consolidating and merging positions to contend with their constraints. For context, ALA also reports on their web site that there are about 165,000 degreed librarians working in libraries of all types (plus 200,000 other paid staff), and the Occupational Outlook Handbook projects a 7% increase, for a gain of about 11,000 positions, from 2012-22. Whether these numbers are wildly out of whack or not, I’ll leave to everybody’s individual judgment.

I will say, though, that while it might be seductive to think that some sort of external control on enrollment would help students and job-seekers, that’s a simplistic and unworkable idea. Who is in a position, or has the tools, to decide on and manage how many students each program should have, and ensure that the programs will continue to be viable and provide a high quality education, responding to often rapid fluctuations in interest, demand, the job market, institutional idiosyncrasies, and who knows how many other factors?

The content of the classes would be as hard to control as their size. It’s all well and good to generalize about “what are they teaching these days,” but “they” refers to nearly five dozen programs that range in size from 40 students to 1,800, from five full-time faculty members to over 50, in small liberal arts colleges and major research universities, with specializations and focus areas unique to each. Would any of us seriously want, now, to prescribe exactly what all students take, in the face of a professional domain undergoing profound and ongoing change, to pin our degree programs down like dead moths when the only thing I promise my students is that the information world they graduate from will be very different from the one they enter? No way.

So, how do we move forward? This, mercifully, is straightforward, though not always easy: Engage. If you’re a practitioner, and you like what you see in people you’re hiring, say so. If not, say so. Talk to the people in programs near you and share your ideas and suggestions, offer to speak in classes, be on panels, work with student groups. Get on accreditation site review panels and contribute your expertise. If you’re an educator, get in the game. Talk—no, actually, listen to the professional community, and be open and prepared to take its ideas seriously.

As somebody who’s been in this field for a long time, and dedicated to preparing future generations to take their place in it, I want all our programs to be of high quality and high value. I want them to produce professionals for the challenges that lie ahead, and a greater diversity of opportunity for both what those graduates can do and where and how they do it. I want them to start with librarianship and its principles as a rock solid base to build on, with as many other facets added on as we can get to help them to be successful in a future we can often only guess at.

This article, written by Joe Janes, was featured in Library Journal's Academic Newswire enewsletter.