Is there a theory-practice divide in MLIS education?

Since beginning my MLIS degree I have met a number of students (at conferences, online, in Second Life, and in class) complaining about one of the following:

1. “My program focuses way too much on theory. I really want to learn the practical components of working in a libarary. I wish we were back in the guild days when apprenticing was the main way of learning.”
2. “My program focuses way too much on the practice of working in a library. Why aren’t we learning the theories and concepts which are the foundation of the LIS discipline and encouraged towards a PhD?”

Do MLIS programs have a responsibility to produce professionals or researchers?
Does this dichotomy actually exist?

I am eager for responses to this issue, and will publish an editorial in February about the discussion which arises. If you are uncomfortable with posting your responses to the comment board - please email me at [email protected] with “Editorial” in the subject line - but this is really to foster healthy discussion - so post!


6 Responses to “Is there a theory-practice divide in MLIS education?”

  1. Ian Says:

    Amy, thanks for getting this discussion started. I’m not one to complain, but as I’ve sat numbly through some horribly boring classes, I’ve come to understand the viewpoint of Student #1 above.

    While some emphasis on research is important, I really do believe my MLIS education has been altogether too research-focused. When the dust settles on my degree I’ll likely be working in a library, or some other information resource centre, learning through experience what I should have learned at school. These are important things like lobbying governments, fundraising, balancing budgets, programming, etc., most of which were brushed aside in favour of research principles, case studies, and wilderness survival exercises.

    I would love to see a greater connection between my library school and my school library. Of course, no one can expect to get a master’s degree without sitting through a few courses, and maybe someday the difference between the median and the mean will be useful, but I think we should be trained as librarians, archivists, knowledge managers, whatever, professionals. That way, when we’re done we can actually do our jobs, not just write about them.

    But I’m not one to complain.

  2. James Says:

    I definitely identify with Ian and Student 1. Having no actual experience working in libraries, I feel particularly bereft of any practical experience or knowledge. Maybe I’m paranoid, but I envisage the day when I have my degree and am working at a library, and one of my colleagues (perhaps a technician who is being paid less than me) says, or maybe just thinks, “You mean, you have that fancy degree but you still don’t know about X basic task or principle of working in libraries?” Such a scenario would make me feel ridiculous, to say the least.

    Of course, I can also understand why Student 2 wants this theoretical knowledge. She or he probably wants to go on to do a PhD, or perhaps has already spent years working in a library and is looking to spend more time looking at the “bigger picture”, musing on the future of libraries, and getting promoted to that position which requires an MLIS degree.

    So, if both viewpoints are valid to an extent, perhaps we should be given more choice in terms of whether or not we want to focus on the theoretical or the practical. Of course, this would diminish the standardization of the degree, which is something the ALA might take issue with. Not to mention the increased costs, etc. associated with offering a greater variety of content. But who cares about such pedestrian concerns as politics and money?

  3. Eli Guinnee Says:

    Generally speaking, library schools are for theory and there are very good reasons for that.

    My experience having worked as a paraprofessional for several years without an MLS and then spending the last three years in an MLS program is that there really is a huge amount theory and it really is important that we focus on theory before we enter into a professional career

    Librarianship is deceptively complicated, especially in these days of rapid change in the way information is created, organized, stored, and accessed. On one hand, there is simply too much to learn to waste class time on practice. On the other hand, the classroom setting is an inefficient way to learn practical techniques. Most library skills are best learned on the job, and I don’t see a way around that. You won’t learn how to catalog until you have a cataloging job, you won’t learn circ systems until you’ve had a circ job, etc., etc. So, I’m in favor of a relatively strict separation of theory and practice (although there are obviously a few courses in every program that are by necessity practice-based, and most theory-based courses are improved by at least some practice).

    Theory is about a lot more than research and writing; theory is about gaining a larger context, about understanding how everything fits together, about understanding how librarianship affects and is affected by the larger world, about understanding legal and ethical issues-these are things that you don’t gain from practice, but that are absolutely vital for the effectiveness and relevance of libraries in the future.

    If you’ve entered a masters program without any prior experience, it’s really your own responsibility to use practicums and volunteer projects to get some practical experience. It will improve your chances of getting a job, of course, but just as importantly it will help you to figure out what kind of job you want. Cataloging class might be a hoot, but you might find that cataloging for a career is not your cup of tea.

  4. laura krier Says:

    I agree with Eli that learning the theory and ideas behind the practice of librarianship is crucial. I actually find my program to be a little too practice-based at times, and it IS quite difficult to gain effective practical experience outside of the library. Hence, the practical tasks we do don’t always make sense or seem like useful learning tools. I feel that the faculty in my program are attempting to walk a difficult line between teaching the theory or the practice, and perhaps need more guidance to succeed.

    In fact, I think that finding a way to combine some hands-on experience while still imparting a solid foundation in the theory is the route library schools should be taking. There are useful ways to impart practical experience in the classroom, and I think all students would benefit from those activities, coupled with the knowledge about why they’re being done.
    It seems a lot of schools are beginning to incorporate practical activities into the curriculum, but they should be especially conscientious about not losing the theory with it. I don’t see why the two can’t coexist. Eli, above, stated that there just isn’t enough time to cover both, but to be perfectly honest, my library school experience so far, and many others, from what I’ve heard, haven’t been especially difficult or challenging. I’m sure we’re all smart enough to handle it.

    Of course, I took it as a given when I started library school that I had to get a job or internship in a library and I think all students should consider that just as crucial a part of their education as their classroom experiences.

  5. Meghan Says:

    I must say I agree with Laura. Practical experience and theoretical learning should (and one may argue, must) be combined to give the full experience. Why can’t there be practicums incorporated into every MLS program in the same way education programs have practicums? One half or full day every week would be relatively little to give up compared to what would be gained in experience. It would likely be the most challenging part of the LIS experience, and I, for one, would be more than happy to have this kind of opportunity integrated into the curriculum from the very beginning.

  6. Matthew Says:

    People often forget about the practical dimension of theoretical exploration. Most of the courses I’ve taken have been theoretically based, but the assignments provided by the instructors for those courses have been designed to provide us with practical examples of working with theoretical concepts, which is quite practical, theoretically speaking (assignments such as developing strategic plans, information literacy initiatives, outlines of research projects, proposals for the implementation of a set of principles within a specific library setting). Its not that there’s a dichotomy established between practice and theory: its a situation where practice and theory exist symbiotically within each and every context, every practice having a theoretical dimension from which it arose (the understanding of which helps in the comprehension of the practice), every theory having practical tests that must be undertaken to discover whether or not the principles are realistic, or, in which situations are the principles realistic, in which are they not. IT staff are provided with a curriculum that focuses more attention on the practical dimension of theory (theories that are taken for granted as having a certain degree of truth value, and, because of this supposed truthfulness, a number of practices have developed in response, practices that must be learned in order for the organism to function effectively). Graduate programs in Library and Information Studies are developed (in theory) to teach managers how to critically evaluate the best practices present within an informational organism, insuring that they are healthy, diagnosing ailments ahead of time (best practice is a troublesome concept due to the ways in which it encourages stereotypical, one-dimensional thinking, although, it is also quite valuable when it discovers effective strategies which have a pseudo-universal application [an application which must be critically evaluated as time passes in order to remain relevant within new political and ethical paradigms [speaking out against Nazi-esque horrors][applying theory to practice practically]]); which can be exceedingly difficult if they are detached from the individuals who are responsible from implementing the practical positions developed by their theoretical and critical evaluations. Hence, the importance of each department working WITH one another (rather than against) whenever a situation arises where infrastructure changes must be undertaken. Try implementing that theory practically!

    Note: if Graduate School’s in Library and Information Studies are designed to teach managers to be critical overtly, my experience has been that in order to succeed, one must ensure that their critical evaluations fit the framework understood by the instructor to represent best critical practice. The unfortunate reality of intellectual management: you’re free to develop whatever system you want, just make sure it matches or complements that which your boss and financial backers support, or be prepared to open up your own business, where everyone else is free to theorize whatever they want, as long as it responds to what you . . . (being theoretically practical).

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