What is The Purpose of Library School?

Here’s a standard view of the purpose of library school

library school should prepare you not for your first job, but for your last one. In other words, you should have a theoretical and ethical grounding that will ultimately serve you as a library director.

I heard this little piece of professional dogma during my first library school orientation, and it continues to have a kind of currency I don’t really understand, and which I think completely misses the point.

First of all, the idea that school ought to prepare you for the highest possible professional position you can attain in your field is a peculiar one,  and is, as far as I can tell, sui generis to the library profession. Lawyers don’t go to law school to train to be Supreme Court judges or President of the United States; the point of law school is to learn to think like a lawyer so one can enter the legal profession as a qualified professional. The point of getting a PhD. in philosophy is to prepare to be a practicing philosopher and an academic, to teach, and do research, and to advance your field; not to learn how to be department chair or president of a university. K-12 administrators do have degrees in educational administration, but this is an advanced degree in their field, on top of their initial professional education and qualifications required for them to be teachers. Maybe MBA’s think they’re training to be CEO’s and run major corporations, but taking seriously the beliefs of the deluded is probably not something we should start doing.

It also seems odd to assume that all librarians want to be library directors. I’ve never heard someone say they want to go to library school for this reason. Sensibly, people go to library school because they want to be professional librarians and not a “paraprofessional.” This requires an M.L.S. That is the point of library school: to become a professional.

One time during library school, somewhere around the beginning of my second semester, I caved in and bought a notebook. It had never, up to that point, actually occurred to me to write down something someone said; but one unfortunate day I found myself, after coming late on the first day of class, sitting in the front row about half an inch from one of my professors, and felt bad for just sitting there, with nothing on my desk, staring straight ahead like I was constantly in a low level of physical pain. So I bought a notebook, and carried it to all my classes. For about a year I never wrote anything down. Then, on the first day of our required research methods course, I heard something I thought was important, and actually wrote it down.

Now, I’d love to be able to share it with you, but I’m pretty sure I threw out that notebook when I moved to California. But I remember the gist, and what was really impressed on me in that course is that the goal is to become a professional, and that what professionals do is look for ways to do what they do better: to improve practice. I didn’t think about it a whole lot at the time; in retrospect, however, it’s clear that this left quite an impression on me. What we were learning to do, it was stated,  was to change our thinking so that we’d begin to think like professional librarians. This meant that we were to begin to reflect critically on our practice by assessing a situation, looking for improvements, and learning how to collect data and develop studies that would actually measure whether or not our strategies were effective. This changed my thinking about things. Because of of my background, when I came to library school my thinking was abstract and theoretical. Then, when I was learning on the job, I was mostly just concerned to learn the profession, and didn’t think I was really doing all too well with that, much less in a position to suggest ways we might do things differently. Once I started to be more comfortable, though, and especially during and after my research methods class and working with my adviser,  I started to be able to combine these things: the ideas I learned in philosophy, in psychology, in education, and even, alas, information science, were things that I could apply, and transfer, in order to improve our practice, and help our students learn.

That is the point of library school: to learn to think like a professional librarian and to improve what we do as a profession for the best interests of our users. Yeah, the people who do this best may become library directors and managers, but that’s not the point, and no library director or manager is going to be able to do much by way of making a good library if they don’t have professionals working for them who are good at what they do. Being good at what you do requires you to look at what has worked in the past, figure out what might work in the future, and to read and develop research that advances our knowledge and understanding. This is why we need good library schools – preferably with a required research component – and good professional mentors engaging in these practices to train our students. These people will not be library directors: they’ll be the people on the ground, professionals working in and thinking about libraries. This is why the point of library school is to train library professionals of all types, in a variety of skills, not just those useful to, or that will allow you to be, a library director.

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2 Comments

Filed under Education, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel, The Library Game

2 responses to “What is The Purpose of Library School?

  1. Pingback: Why Librarians Should Be Actively Engaged in Research, Or: Somebody Has to Think about What The Hell We’re Doing Here | Rule Number One: A Library Blog

  2. Pingback: Do the Classes You Take During Library School Matter? | Rule Number One: A Library Blog

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