A New Model of Librarian Education for the Networked Environment

Brendan A. Rapple, Ph.D., O'Neill Library, Boston College


With the advent of the electronic library, the teaching function of librarians is becoming more and more crucial. However, though library schools are facing the challenge of preparing librarians to utilize the technological and electronic tools of the modern library, they are inadequately training them in the complexities of teaching such tools. Consequently, I propose the creation of new M.L.S. programs that contain a significant element of training in pedagogy, particularly pedagogy adapted for the networked environment. I also argue that the length of all M.L.S. programs be increased to two years.

Recently there has been much discussion of the imminent virtual library. However, though the amount of information available electronically is increasing exponentially and though some kind of library without walls will undoubtedly exist in the future, the complete virtual library is not yet here; nor, I believe, will it be here for a long time. Most university libraries are still in the rudimentary stages of planning for this new paradigm. In the meantime, the traditional library with shelves and shelves of volumes will continue and years will elapse before librarians working in a physical library building become obsolete.

Considering the thorough changes libraries have been undergoing over the past decade and the electronic advances that will ensure that changes will continue at a geometric rate in the future, it is probable that it will not always be obvious to patrons how to utilize the electronic library and how to retrieve appropriate information effectively and efficiently. Librarians will still be needed and will continue to refine their client-centered function as intermediaries and facilitators (Brodie and Mclean 46). Indeed, with increasing computerization it is likely that even more personnel will be required to become adept at teaching patrons to identify, retrieve, and use electronic resources (Rice-Lively and Racine 36). Moreover, though it is true that great numbers of users are now utilizing the Internet as well as dialing in to multifarious online bibliographic catalogs and full-text databases from office and home, still by no means is everything available electronically from without the library. The majority of scholars must continue to frequent the physical library and utilize print materials for much of the literature they use in their research. As many patrons still have difficulty finding and using aspects of these traditional resources, the mediating function of librarians will not soon be in jeopardy.

Though young students are sometimes more at home with technology than are faculty members, the former frequently experience great difficulty functioning successfully in the electronic research library. Oberman fittingly speaks of their "feeling of alienation" (Oberman 1996, 321). Their skills at computer games are often not transferable to the technology of the modern library. The traditional library was always difficult for many young students to use effectively; numerous others find the vastly increased resources and tools of its electronic counterpart just as, or more, perplexing. Accordingly, it is essential that librarians continue to play their established role in providing library instruction. A particular area where many students continue to fall down is in evaluating the worth of material, a problem that is compounded due to the vast amount of resources and information now readily accessible electronically. Younger people, of course, have always tended to believe everything that was written in print. Today many make the mistake of trusting everything they read on a computer screen (Kay 148). It is the librarian who will play a major role helping students critically evaluate the worth of information that is now so readily available (Llull 88).

Many librarians will continue to employ traditional teaching methods. On most campuses they will provide bibliographic and other library instruction in the classroom setting, physically present among students. However, many will also utilize more and more electronic methods that patrons can access any time of the day from anywhere. For example, librarians might make videos of how to utilize the library's and other information resources that patrons can access at the touch of a button. It is likely that more and more videoconferencing of reference librarians similar to the program introduced at the University of Michigan will be introduced. In addition, it will be increasingly that patrons will be able to use from any workstation, both within and without the library, software that will bring them step by step through the library's CD-ROM and online databases as well as guide them in utilizing effectively the vast array of Internet resources. Librarians, individuals who intimately know patrons' needs, should be important players in creating this software and other electronic tools for teaching library and information skills.

Furthermore, in the encroaching university networked environment librarians should play a major role in helping faculty develop new pedagogical services. Strategies might include team teaching with instructors, holding joint office hours with them; providing professional help in creating home pages for the professor and his or her courses; in placing course lectures, graphics, other media, and bibliographies on the Web where students can access them from anywhere twenty-four hours a day; in devising assignments that can be completed electronically; and in manifold other ways. Certainly, if faculty require students to use the Internet as part of a course, then "the advice and skills of an Internet-savvy librarian become all but essential" (Gilbert 59). The goal, in short, is for librarians to become more overtly educators, as well as allies with professors "in creating a climate of collaboration for achieving broader educational goals" (Sager 52). It is desirous that in the increasingly electronic library, faculty and librarians will come to see themselves as different though equal peers in the educational process.

I have often thought it odd that most faculty, after spending years in study in order to obtain their terminal degree, begin teaching at the college or university level with little or no preparation or training in how to teach. On the other hand, kindergarten, primary, high school teachers all undergo rigorous training. Of course, it is equally odd that most librarians who engage in library instruction have received minimal pedagogical preparation. As mentioned, what may termed traditional teaching methods by librarians will persist and will be complemented by new instructional approaches. But whether a librarian teaches a group of students in the classroom, or instructs impersonally though the medium of software or other electronic means, she or he should be thoroughly trained in diverse aspects of pedagogy. Surely librarians will be more effective in their traditional teaching and in helping to institute and participate in the envisioned new pedagogical models in the rapidly changing electronic environment if they are skilled in teaching, in transmitting knowledge? (Patterson 7)

With librarians becoming increasingly indispensable to teach library and other informational skills, it may be asked how they are acquiring skills in teaching and in transmitting knowledge. Clearly many are learning on the job, while many others come to their librarian position imbued with pedagogical experience and training from previous teaching careers. But what role are library schools playing in preparing future librarians to teach? To provide a definitive answer is not easy, however, due to the great variety of MLS curricula and programs. Perhaps this is an interim period and the current mélange of library school programs will eventually settle into some consensus where the common denominator is larger than at present. Still, it seems that few schools are placing particular emphasis on preparing their students to engage in future library instruction. Though this, I believe, is a major problem, it is an understandable one due to the short duration of study required by most MLS programs. One year, the typical period of full-time study required to gain the professional qualification in most ALA accredited library schools, is not long enough to allow adequate coverage of pedagogical topics with which a new library school graduate should be acquainted.

As Richard S. Halsey has observed, "few other professions claim they can build a professional within a mere 12 months" (10). For example business administration, social work, and health services management and hospital administration, all typically require two years of full-time study for the professional master's degree. So, why exactly is the MLS, with a few exceptions, only one year's duration? Do we not regard the discipline of library and information science to be as intellectually rigorous, as broad ranging, and as complex as the above mentioned ones? The field of librarianship is vast, a fact patently attested to from the great diversity of current MLS curricula. Clearly, not everyone agrees on just what knowledge and skills library schools should imbue in their graduates. But even if some general consensus were reached on what core subjects all library school students should master in their professional training, it seems that there can remain very little time in a one-year MLS program to devote to any specialized and extended treatment of bibliographic or library instruction.

Most individuals who commence library degrees still come from extremely diverse academic backgrounds. And once in the program students, as George Bobinski has observed, have to receive a grounding in the core areas of librarianship as well as be allowed "to specialize -- all within a relatively short curriculum and time span" (19). What is needed by the typically disparate body of library school students is the completion of a rigorous and intellectually challenging two year MLS program that covers, broadly as well as in depth, many aspects of library and information science and provides adequate time for sound specialization. Wallace and Heim, though they acknowledge that there exist disadvantages in expanding the basic program, are correct: "It is not really possible . . . to build a substantial specialized component into the standard one year master's program" (99). Lengthening the MLS to two years will inevitably aid the development of real specialization, specialization that is spread over perhaps a year's study and is not limited, as is so often the case at present, to a mere two or three courses, if that, in a given area. While a number of specialization areas might be offered depending on the particular library school, I strongly advocate that serious consideration be given to providing a specialization in library pedagogy.

Some years ago Richard Hacken observed that many "Librarians themselves may need reinstruction on how to instruct" (489). Today this understatement still has point. For all too often B.I. of a mind-numbing quality -- Willie Parson speaks "of a predictable, often dehumanizing nature" -- is conducted by librarians who have few teaching skills and these limited abilities have not always improved with experience (371). But where are librarians to receive adequate training and preparation to improve their teaching ability? Presently only a minority of library schools offer full courses in pedagogy and user education. Admittedly, more schools provide such teaching as constituent parts of other courses, but can much of value be learned in a few hours? (See Mandernack 194). Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that "Politics is perhaps the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary." We might amend that opinion today to include bibliographic and other library instruction! While not everyone can become a skillful pedagogue, the great majority, whatever their innate pedagogical talents, can have their skills honed. As Ellen Meltzer has aptly stated: "While it is true that librarians cannot be instilled with ebullience that they don't possess, or with that nebulous quality known as élan vital, they can learn the methodology and philosophy of teaching others to use libraries . . . . They can be made aware of the politics of instruction -- selling it to the staff, administration, and faculty. And they can be taught effective teaching methods" (34). If we do not accept this, we do damage to the very notion of schools or faculties of education and the preparation of primary, secondary, and other levels of teachers.

It is now high time that MLS students be provided the opportunity to specialize at length in the theory and practice of pedagogy and take suitable courses in curriculum theory, educational psychology, individual differences, education and cultural diversity, communication theory, teaching methods, and so on. As Lori Arp has pointed out, "Understanding learning theory is essential to providing good bibliographical instruction. Learning theory transforms not only what we teach but how we teach, for different theories suggest different teaching methods and approaches" (5). The librarian indeed has a future and it is one that will be more and more focused on the provision of appropriate, preferably conceptually-based, teaching.

It must be underscored that it is not just a matter that teaching librarians will be effective at showing patrons how to use a database or find a specific resource. A good pedagogue is less interested in the inculcation of mere mechanical skills and the knowledge appropriate for a single topic or situation than in imparting concepts which are transferable. Rather, teaching librarians will play a crucial role in helping patrons become independent learners in an increasingly information-focused world. I agree with Cerise Oberman who, arguing for an increased emphasis on the pedagogical function of the librarian, believes it "time to experiment with teaching methodologies, such as active learning, which places primary importance on promoting thinking" (Oberman 1995, 114). Certainly, any simple procedural-focused approach will be insufficient to meet the demands created by the electronic library. May it be suggested that theories which have been utilized in pedagogical environments without the library might now be increasingly employed within.

After a first year devoted to core education in librarianship, it is in the second year of the MLS program that students should be provided opportunities to specialize in pedagogy, or indeed in some other area. Moreover, it would seem particularly fitting for library students who wish to concentrate in teaching to take classes in the university's faculty or school of education (Shonrock and Mulder 147) This would also have the benefit of helping to build bridges between traditional library subjects and those in other departments, a valuable and increasingly necessary process, especially since the tendency of certain library schools towards isolation from the rest of the university community has been adduced as a conspicuous reason for their recent demise (Paris 41).

As Margaret Stieg has observed, any decision to extend the duration required for the MLS will be based essentially on a cost-benefit analysis (124-125). However, an examination of this topic requires another, and longer, paper. But what would happen if there were no choice, that is if all MLS programs were at least two years in length? Adopting the mantle of seer, I predict that this would not spell the end of library schools. On the contrary, for many it would help their revitalization. Not only would students continue to attend them; in fact, when it was realized that MLS programs were improved student numbers might greatly increase. Furthermore, higher standards in librarian education and training should result in an improved library workforce as well as greater appreciation in the work world for the library profession. This should in time lead to greater remuneration for librarians. In conclusion, I reiterate my conviction that if library schools are to educate librarians successfully for the next millennium, it will be essential that they provide a major specialization in teaching and pedagogy. Though I acknowledge that the logistics of the resultant restructuring may not be easy, I am also convinced that in many cases a valuable component of the undertaking will be the expansion of the MLS to two years.

Works Cited

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Bobinski, George S. "How Do Current Library School Curricula Prepare Librarians for all Types of Specializations?" The Bookmark Vol. 48 (Fall 1989): 19-23.

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Patterson, Charles D. "Librarians as Teachers: A Component of the Educational Process," Journal of Education for Library and Information Science Vol. 28 (Summer 1987): 3-7.

Rice-Lively, Mary Lynn, and Racine, J. Drew. "The Role of Academic Librarians in the Era of Information Technology," The Journal of Academic Librarianship Vol. 23 (January 1997): 31-41.

Sager, Harvey. "Implications for Bibliographic Instruction," in Gary M. Pitkin (ed.), The Impact of Emerging Technologies on Reference Service and Bibliographic Instruction (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1995): 49-62.

Shonrock, Diana and Mulder, Craig. "Instruction Librarians: Acquiring the Proficiencies Critical to Their Work," College & Research Libraries Vol. 54, No. 2 (March 1993): 137-149.

Stieg, Margaret F. Change and Challenge in Library and Information Science Education (Chicago and London: American Library Association, 1992).

Wallace, Danny P. and Heim, Kathleen M. "Creativity in Library and Information Science Education: Implications for Curriculum Design," Journal of Library Administration Vol. 10, No. 2-3 (1989): 91-105.