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The MLS Project Series. And no, I’m not bitter about #ala11!!!

This entry is part 1 of 9 in the series The MLS Project

As the ALA Mardi Gras…er, I mean, convention, rolls up the carpet on another year, I’m struck by how active and positive and amazing so many of my peers are. Unlike me, the original misanthrope, who is not at all bitter that I was #alaleftbehind. Nope, not me. At all. Bitter? HA! As if.

…Right, so now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s get to what I was doing instead of partying networking at #ala11:

Classes, work, and The MLS Project by Boyd Keith Swigger. I mentioned this book on this blog earlier, stating that a) I had not finished it yet but that b) anyone who wants to debate the future of the MLS needs to read this book or STFU.

Now having finished the book, I hold opinion b) even more strongly. There isn’t an argument on the defense or offense of the MLS that hasn’t already been made and addressed in Swigger’s book (you may think you are being creative and busting ideas wide open, but trust me, you really really aren’t). That is because most of the discussion going on now is but a mere shadow (or mirror) of what went on during the creation of the MSL, sixty years ago.

The fact that the topics, complaints, and suggests are pretty much the same as they were in 1951 is fairly damning, IMHO.

However, there is so much to unpack in this thin little tome that I feel to simply recap it in a short blog post not only does the book a disservice, but our entire profession as well. Over the next month or so I will devote a full blog post to each of the book’s eight chapters. I am aiming for twice a week but eh, I do have summer classes, vacation, and a new full time job to consider. I’ll try.

The next post in the series will give an overview of the book and the author, by way of introduction. After that I will take each chapter in turn.

I look forward to feedback on this project. This is, of course, a platform for my own opinions both on the book and the MLS project itself, however I welcome dialogue on the issue. Most of all I hope that you pick up a copy of the book and read it for yourself. You will be shocked by what you find there; I certainly was.

MLS Project: The Overview

This entry is part 2 of 9 in the series The MLS Project

As promised, here is my overview of the book, The MLS Project:

Boyd Keith Swigger, the author of The MLS Project, is a professor at Texas Woman’s University (TWU) with a strong background in both history (his A.B. was in History in the Humanities, one of his M.A.s was in American History, and his Ph.D. was in American Civilization) and library management. As stated on his professional page at the TWU’s website (http://www.twu.edu/slis/swigger.asp), his research focuses on the nature of professionalism, particularly as related to librarianship. Given Dr. Swigger’s background and academic interests, he was the perfect choice to write a concise, historical overview of both the creation of the Master’s of Library Science in 1951 and its aftermath. However, as Swigger makes clear, it is not a monograph on the history of library schools but is instead focused on outcomes assessment of the original goals as set forth when the American Library Association created the MLS paradigm in the late forties/early fifties.

Swigger first explains what he means by the phrase “the MLS project” (the decision of the ALA in 1951 to restructure accredited librarianship higher education with the creation of a Master’s in Library Science) by dissecting the history of librarianship which lead to the decision that some kind of professional designation was needed, following that with what the goals of the MLS project were (and are). From there the book ranges into questions that are quite dense, despite the diminutive size of the book (which weighs in at a mere 154 pages), such as the nature and definition of “profession”, status, and prestige.

In these arcane debates Swigger approaches the history of librarianship as a both an academic question and a serious modern professional quandary for the field in chapters such as “Intellectual Foundations and Library Schools” and the prosaic “Librarians’ Work.”  There are reams of research that went into this book, the purpose of which Swigger writes “is to recount the reasons ALA enacted [the MLS project] and to consider its consequences by reviewing relevant data”.

He finishes the book with the chapter “What Could Be Done?”, stating that “evidence shows that the MLS project has been costly, has created confusion outside librarianship and polarization within, and has accomplished some but not all of its objectives”. It is a fairly damning wrap up, but Swigger also proposes several alternatives to continuing the current system, some more radical than others (which I will discuss in more detail in a later post).

Reviews of this critically important, breakthrough work are thin on the ground, and causes one to wonder if the profession as a whole is ignoring it because it does not deliver happy news. Swigger does not soften any blow and backs up every supposition with hard data. It may not be what the profession wants to hear, but the book only proposes a conclusion that most have already come to: the MLS project did not meet its goals, and sixty years later we are still struggling with many of the same issues that gave rise to the creation of a Master’s in Library Science in the first place.

MLS Project: Chapter 1

This entry is part 3 of 9 in the series The MLS Project

“The purpose of this book is to recount the reason ALA enacted the [MLS Project] and to consider its consequences by reviewing relevant data.” (The MLS Project by Keith Boyd Swigger, page 3)

As I discussed in my overview, Swigger is not writing a history of the MLS, but a very focused outcomes assessment (page 4) based on the goals the ALA Board of Education had when it restructured accreditation standards sixty years ago. They suspended accreditation for a couple of years, and when “the [ALA] Board of Education resumed accreditation in 1953, it was guided by new standards, adopted in 1951, that embodied a commitment by the ALA and library schools to recognize the MLS degree as the first professional credential … The new accreditation was the first step in a process of redefining the term ‘librarian'” (page 2).

Librarianship as a profession had been headed this way since Dewy first championed librarians back in the 1880s. The new standards as represented by the Master’s of Library Science degree was to herald a new era of increased professional status, prestige, and income. But, as Swigger states, now that it is sixty years later “…rather than sitting on the verge of revered old age, [the MLS project] finds itself confronted with many of the same concerns that it was intended to dispel…” (page 2). The book is a breakdown of how the situation has remained predominantly unchanged from 1953.

Swigger is careful to make clear that the MLS project is still ongoing. While his book is fairly damning, he views this as simply a step towards reconsidering what the MLS project should be in light of the facts (page 4). A very helpful, to me, aspect of this was the time he took to elaborate exactly what accreditation is and how it is implemented. While I’ve always had a basic awareness that accreditation is important, I’ve never quite grasped the significance of it. Swigger explains the two types of accreditation that exist in the United States university system: institutional accreditation (usually regional) and professional/specialized accreditation (usually by professional organization, such as the ALA). He then explains the ALA accreditation (which is solely for master’s programs, not for whole schools nor for undergraduate or doctoral programs, a surprise to me) and why this was considered such a monumental step forward in 1953.

He also points out that even the library schools themselves do not actually agree on what an MLS is: “Together, the library schools’ accredited master’s degree programs have nearly twenty different titles” (page 6), examples being information science, library and information science, library studies, library and information studies. What does your degree say, and how does match (or not) mine?

This short historical overview is informative, and is just the set up for the nitty-gritty that follows in chapter two (“Goals of the MLS Project”). For now I’ll simply comment that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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MLS Project: Chapter 2, “Goals of the MLS Project”

This entry is part 4 of 9 in the series The MLS Project

This was the most eye-opening chapter for me, because it clearly demonstrated that the issues that created the MLS Project sixty years ago are the same damn issues we are fussing about today. Common goals between all parties in discussions of the 1940s were (see if this looks familiar) recruitment; differentiation between undergraduate and graduate program content; a stronger intellectual base for librarianship; increased status, prestige, and income for librarians (page 15). While Swigger doesn’t come out and say it (yet), I felt this was a ringing clear confirmation that the MLS Project has, on the whole, failed.

First off, two major problems that seem to be duplicated today are, first, that actual research (such as Swigger’s) is playing a small part of the discussion (“Like most social policy debates…the discussion was more historical than logical. Research played only a small part, at best.” (p.14)) and secondly, that the purpose of the MLS was not to advance librarianship education much less library theory or practice, but simply to advance the professional status of librarians (page 14). As Swigger states, “Noticeably absent from most of the discussions was the explicit attention to improvement of the quality of library services.” (p.16)

This isn’t to suggest that quality library/information services isn’t on the table at all, because most blogs I read and people I talk to are genuinely concerned with delivering above and beyond professional expectations. But I have seen little in regards to bringing this issue to the table of changing library school curriculums. There is a reason for that, which Swigger delves into in later chapters, but the heart of it is that as the system stands now most MLS/MLIS programs cannot change without sacrificing accreditation, quality, and funding.

One of the more revealing aspects of this chapter was Swigger’s coverage of a landmark study published in 1950 by Robert Leigh,  “The Public Library in the United States, which described the general situation of public libraries and and library education…” (p.12) This study   stated that librarianship was a skilled occupation on its way to being a profession, partially based on the fact that Leigh found two-thirds of work done to be technical or clerical, not professional. (page 12) Is that really so different from today?

In the end, Swigger shows that the purpose of the MLS was not to advance librarianship education much less library theory or practice, but simply to advance the professional status of librarians! “Librarians looked at what they could control and saw that they did have great influence on education…” (p.13)

The rest of the book goes on to do a thorough outcomes assessment of the MLS project, but I would say that the most damning conclusion was already reached here in chapter two: if we, as a profession, are still fighting the same paper tigers we were bitching about in 1950, then MLS programs (whatever slight advantages they have given us) have failed completely.

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MLS Project: Chapter 5: Intellectual Foundations and Library Schools

This entry is part 5 of 9 in the series The MLS Project

 “Instead of the progressive training in librarianship envisioned in 1948, with technical courses at the undergraduate level and professional courses at the master’s level, the master’s programs now carry the full burden of instruction in both skills and principles of librarianship.” (p.71)

I would take that further to say that most students I talk to, and my own observations, view the MLIS program as nothing more than a vo-tech style introduction to the profession. To be perfectly frank, that makes a mockery of the whole institution of master’s degrees, which are perceived as upper level education at a more complex level than what is offered at the undergraduate level. Ironically, this means that we are perpetuating our own problems in regards to a lack of professional prestige and status by the very institution we hoped would solve those problems: the MLS degree. It is viewed by other academics as a “lesser” degree, and even within our own profession it is seen mostly as a “union card” gateway to professional advancement. Talk to any practicing librarian, and most will admit that even if they learned some important things about information studies in grad school, they did not need an MLS/MLIS in order to do the job they are doing. This indicates that over the course of the last 50 years the MLS Project has become exactly what it set out to dispel.

This relates to what Swigger breaks down as a difference between theory and competencies. As it stands, most MLS programs float somewhere in the middle, doing neither very well. The theory has been shoved aside for the sake of competencies, for the most part. The result, as Swigger describes it, is that “there is a paucity of theory to describe the relationships between the roles, functions, and activities of libraries and other social institutions, or the relationship between libraries and individuals.” This is reflected in a recent blog post “What IS a library?” http://librarianbyday.net/2011/11/19/what-is-a-library/ by Bobbi Newman concerning the difficulty of describing what a library is these days, which applies just as well to what a librarian is, which is really is hard to describe, without getting so esoteric as to be nonsensical. Compare to professions such as law or medicine: a lawyer practices law, and a medical doctor practices medicine. Even a scientist in the most esoteric branches can usually get away with a distillation of their profession, such as astrophysicist or anthropologist.

What have we got?

Chapter five also delves into the thornier, and still very unresolved issue, of what the name of our profession actually is. Library Science? Library Studies? Information Studies? Information Science? There are turf wars and rubric wars going on here that have as much to do with the changing nature of the profession due to the digital revolution as much as it does with not having a good definition to start with.

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MLS Project: Chapters 3 and 4

This entry is part 6 of 9 in the series The MLS Project

Chapters 3 (Librarians’ Standing: Status, Prestige, and Income) and 4 (Recruitment of New Librarians):

“The goal of improved standing involved an enhancement of rewards and the regard in which society holds librarians, as well as improved standing in relation to particular groups, specifically the library workers not regarded as real librarians and the professionals among whome they sought to be regarded as peers.” (p. 23)

Chapter three throws some statistics against an observation that most MLIS professionals are already aware of: that librarians “have not been particularly successful in advancing their status compared to that of the professionals with whom they would like to be peers.” (p. 28) It was about this point in the book that I began to wonder about the whole MLS Project, and thinking that it was misguided from the start. If the goal of better education is to improve status, as compared to improving the profession, it seems doomed to fail (this is revisited in Chapter . Particularly in regards to more academically rigorous professions such as law and medicine and science, creating an MLS degree program for the sake of creating an MLS degree program was counterproductive. It is one thing to demand recognition for the profession, and wholly another to stand around for fifty years patting ourselves on the back.

Chapter four continues throwing statistics at the MLS Projects outcomes assessment in regards to professional recruitment. Like most of the facts Swigger presents, these numbers show that while the MLS Project had a mildly positive effect, it was far from the expected (hoped for) outcome, and could possibly be explained by factors that have nothing to do with the MLS Project.

These two chapters really served up notice of where Swigger takes his argument, and while they are short (as is the whole book) they are well researched and difficult to argue. Swigger makes the important statement here that “recruitment, image, and characteristics of librarians are interrelated topics” in his discussion of the popular image of the librarian and our insecurities about that image. It has become a feedback loop that gets reinforced with every new class of MLIS students, an argument that furthers my conclusion that we are our own worst enemies.

But then, I was attracted to the information studies profession because of my perception of the “librarian image,” which was iconoclastic, intelligent, culturally fringe, creative, and independent. Which gets back, then, to the idea of whether the MLS Project was trying to create a new image for library science as opposed to capitalize on the one it already had. While the old “Marion” stereotype (from the character Marion in the musical The Music Man) is lamented, perhaps we would have been better served by making her our heroic champion. Of course, the difficulty with that was (and is) that Marion was a woman; from the start, the MLS Project was clearly defined by a desire by male library professionals to bring their career out of the “female ghetto” of librarianship.

I’m not suggesting that the MLS Project was a tool of the patriarchy on purpose but rather that the social mores of the era it grew out of, which was the mid-20th century, were very sexist and tied to traditional aspirations of success. Sexism was intrinsic to the values of society at the time, and “woman’s work” was a genuine slur. It might be that the MLS Project should be reframed in gender terms, not in order to place blame on one gender or the other but to critically analyze whether it was doomed from the start.

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MLS Project: Chapter 7: Librarians and Professionalism

This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series The MLS Project

“In [MLS advocates’] approach to professionalism, they have confused two issues: whether librarianship is a profession, which is a factual question, and whether it ought to be a profession, which is a question of values.” (p.107)

This is the chapter I made the most notes about, because I’m something of a theory whore. So bear with me. Or skip it, honestly I won’t mind. However it does make for some interesting food for thought.

The core problem with the MLS, as described here, is that the issue of professionalism was reduced to a “trait model”, that is, “the method for an occupation to become accepted as a profession is to acquire the traits of the recognized professions.” (p.116)

Swigger does a lot to back up this argument. His analysis of the faults of the trait model go on for a few pages, but the most informative aspect of his argument is that applying an ideal type as a recipe (“lawyers have degrees; lawyers are professionals; therefore professionals have degrees”) is a recipe for disaster. He also discusses the symbiotic relationship of librarians to libraries (can you have librarians without libraries? It is a valid question given the digital revolution, but it is also valid in regards to defining what a librarian’s job is at a more theoretical level). As Swigger points out, “the issues of libraries’ roles in the future are ultimately ideological issues, not technological ones” (p.113), despite appearances.

This in turn gives rise to the next argument that Swigger makes, which is that the problem with “using the trait model as a checklist is that the social need addressed by an occupation or profession may change substantially.” (p.115) No kidding.

There is a very powerful paragraph on page 117 that starts, “The MLS Project experienced difficulties in developing a library science…” and is addressing the utter lack of a sophisticated body of knowledge and theory within the field. There is theory, I will grant you, but sophisticated? Not so much, in my experience. I found much more complex and deep theory of information studies in the humanities courses I took (in connection with the History of Text Technology certificate offered via the English Department). Swigger poses the question of why we are not asking “What is beautiful librarianship?” which is something I’m not sure has been seriously addressed since Ranganathan.

Page 117 also has an important comparison of librarianship to law, profession to profession, and why it is pretty much a given that the two will never be seen equally in terms of prestige and status. Swigger does not mention, as I have brought up previously, the fact that librarianship has been viewed historically as a feminized profession, whereas law has always been the provenance of the social elite (middle to upper class white men, for the most part). I still feel this is a critical issue to address openly if we are going to attempt to identify Information Studies as a professional profession; are we simply trying to ape the masculinized ideal of what a professional is or are we willing to try to retrofit what a valid “profession” is to librarianship as it stands? That is, instead of running from the “Marion Librarian” stereotype as fast and hard as possible (as the MLS Project was designed to do) are we going to fight to hold up our feminized history as its own valid model of professionalism? (I would like to point out that Marion the Librarian was the hero of the musical, smarter than pretty much everyone around her, better read, better educated, and held herself to a very high level of professionalism in her career…the fact that she was a soprano was incidental).

The rest of the chapter delves into two other “models of professions”: “power” and “jurisdiction”, which are both important but too complex for me to recap here in a meaningful way. However one thing that got me thinking is that for the public to recognize librarianship as a profession, we as professionals would have to be viewed as solving an important problem. Most people today, especially in the Google era, see no problems with information searching or wrangling because most of those problems are “behind the scenes,” so to speak. If anything, the digital age is ushering a new era of invisibility for information professionals.

I’ll finish this part of the series with two quotes that encapsulate the issue as Swigger sees it, and as I feel it truly stands:

  • “The concept of professionalism in the MLS project was flawed because it focused on the characteristics and rewards of librarians rather than on the needs of clients or the kinds of expertise required to serve them.” (p. 126)
  • “The question ‘Is librarianship a profession?’ is unproductive. A more important question is ‘What are the functions of libraries as social instruments?’…until librarians can answer the question of function without rhetorical flourishes, more complex questions and answers will perplex them.” (p.129)

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MLS Project: Chapter 6, “Librarians’ Work”

This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series The MLS Project

Here Swigger breaks down his negative analysis of the outcomes assessment of the MLS Project:

  • Recognition of the MLS as a prestige/status degree of higher learning and competencies: By focusing all efforts at the master’s degree level, the ALA and other proponents of the MLS overlooked the crucial necessity of undergraduate-level (entry level) training. With no where to get that kind of training, the MLS became the defacto dumping ground for those courses: “The MLS is not only an entry-level degree to the profession, but the courses are also entry level to library science.” (p.95)
  • Technological ignorance: “A major unforeseen consequence of the MLS project is that is rendered library education inadequate in scope to deal with preparing librarians for the information technology revolution.” (p.96)
  • A caste system: “The economic and status gains of those who have accredited degrees have been accompanies by a sharp declines in the status and pay of library technicians, yet it is not clear that the work itself is different.” (p.97)
  • Inconsistency and confusion: “The MLS project sought to achieve status for librarians without clarifying their roles except through credentials. The persistent problem is how to define the role of librarians, if it is different from the support staff.” (p.98) Here Swigger also addresses the insidious rise of “knowledge workers” in the corporate world, the information wranglers behind such behemoths as Google and Amazon, who are often practicing information science at very high levels of expertise without any sort of relationship to the library (information studies) profession.

Swigger ends the chapter with the statement that librarians themselves are at the root of the problems. I pretty much agree with him down the line, particularly as my own graduation date draws ever nearer. I remember vividly the conversation with one of my peers who stated that he simply wanted to work in the industry, not go back to school, and that if the MLIS program we were both enrolled in had proven to be “difficult and demanding like other mater’s programs” he would not have bothered to pursue it. Quite frankly his opinion is not a minority one, in my experience.

If this is the expectation we have of our own professional training, then yes, we are the root of the problem.

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MLS Project: (Finally!) Chapter 8: What Can Be Done?

This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series The MLS Project

“Evidence shows that the MLS Project has been costly, has created confusion outside librarianship and polarization within, and has met some but not all of its objectives. The same complaints from librarians about recognition are made decade after decade…” (p. 136)

Here Swigger gets to the question all of us want to answer, but it is important that this chapter comes last. Everyone wants to give our two cents about what needs to be done, but without the solid grounding provided by Swigger of the history and outcomes of the MLS Project, most of us should just shut up. Including me, because honestly, my early ideas about solutions proved to be neither unique nor exceptionally helpful in light of Swigger’s analysis.

Swiggers gives four very different but realistic options for addressing the status of the MLS Project:

  • Continuation of the present system, with some fine tuning of curriculum;
  • Separation of library education from information science education though creation of new accrediting agencies for master’s degrees;
  • Recognition of bachelor’s degrees, either in lieu of or in addition to accreditation of master’s degrees;
  • Development of multiple models for professional training (e.g. certification/licensing).

I think anyone who has been watching the debate about these issues as it filters through blogs online will recognize each of these options as having been put on the table at one point or another.

The first one, continuation of the present system, is summed up Swigger with a nicely turned phrase:  “…there is no reason to expect different outcomes as long as one keeps on doing the same things.” (p.138)

The second solution, which is to essentially strip out “information science” from “library science” would be costly and, more importantly, confusing. The current atmosphere of uncertainty about how either field is defined, much less whether they are indeed separate fields at all, makes this option the opposite of a solution. It would, in fact, probably compound all the existing problems.

However Swigger does end his discussion of this option with an intriguing concept: “Recognition of IS undergraduate degrees as legitimate credentials for entry-level librarians would go far to enhance the difference between librarianship and information science and to clarify the nature of each.” (p.140)  I’m not entirely sure I agree with that, but then, my own personal view is that librarianship is actually under the umbrella of information science, not the reverse.

My personal favorite solution is the third, which is to reinstate a bachelor’s level track of education that would create entry-level professionals and para-professionals in the field, while still allowing for a terminal master’s degree for those who want to pursue either an academic or managerial track in the field. Swigger makes a very strong argument for this, based on the idea that “form should follow function,” that is, the education should be geared towards the actual work graduates will do.

Sadly, the “disadvantages” of this option that Swigger lists boil down to territorialism and mutual distrust by the schools, a shying away of responsibility by the ALA, and both a sense of entitlement and a fear of status loss by ALA members who hold an MLS/MLIS (these are not random accusations, as Swigger backs these statements up with facts quite effectively). In short, the reasons not to implement this very sensible solution are petty in the extreme. Very disappointing.

The fourth option, “multiple models of professional training,” essentially refers to relying on certification and licensing of individual librarians as opposed to the accreditation of schools. Swigger spends several pages on this, discussing as an example how school librarians/media specialists are one sub-group of librarians for whom an MLS is not always required, as different states/school boards have certification requirements that do not include the applicant possessing an MLS, but rather passing a test and possessing a master’s degree in any field. While this isn’t a bad suggestion (Swigger clearly likes it a lot) I only see a monumental amount of bureaucracy and confusion. Certification isn’t a bad idea for specialized sub-fields, but I think that Swigger does not make a strong enough argument for it to serve as replacement for the MLS Project model.

Finally, Swigger states that while the MLS Project was in no way a success in that it did not meet the desired outcomes envisioned by those who implemented it, it is not really a failure, either. It was simply an attempt to solve a problem that didn’t work really well. It’s time for information science professionals to admit that, and look for new solutions.

To close this series off, I’d like to quote Swigger from his final recap. I think this statement clearly addresses both the problems with the MLS Project as it stands and how we can resolve them, if we are willing to accept some change and responsibility:

“Each option described above rests on its own principle, but the principle underlying the general proposition that there should be multiple models for preparation for library work is simply this: organizations and institutions that survive are those that adapt to circumstance rather than attempting to force their will on the world.” (p.148)

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