Thursday, July 26, 2012

30th Year Reflections/8: Theory and Practice

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.” — attributed to Yogi Berra
One day, while working in the library during graduate school, I had a minor run-in with one of the staff, a subject bibliographer (thankfully not my boss). I don’t remember any of the specifics of the incident except that it had something to do with a suggestion I made about connecting my work in the library with what I was learning in library school. This practitioner of the craft (or art) of librarianship wanted nothing to do with my proposal or the faculty connected with the school. She was rather heated in her remarks and I was taken aback by the ferocity of her response. It was clear to me that she had no interest—at least in this case—of mingling theory with practice, a position I felt unjustified on her part. Perhaps she was just having a bad day. But then who was I, a wet-behind-the-ears librarian wannabe, to suggest such a thing to an exalted professional. It was a mildly numbing experience. The fact that I still remember the occasion means it made an impression; it is not how I would want to treat a budding professional. I still think she was wrong (in any number of ways). It would have been (and is) a good thing, perhaps a great thing, to connect the classroom with the workplace.

At the same time I realize the limits of such desire, of a classroom confined by resources, facilities, or curricular direction. As an example: for the past six years I’ve taught a course on preservation and conservation at St. Catherine University as an adjunct faculty member in their graduate library and information science program. The absence of an onsite conservation lab combined with my own inexperience in actual “bench work” forces me to construct the syllabus in such a way as to emphasize managerial or planning aspects of preservation as opposed to actual hands-on experience. If my students want to learn how to rebind a book then they’re in the wrong class. However, they will be able to carry on an intelligent conversation with a conservator and know what a well-provisioned conservation lab or bindery looks like.

Part of this relates to styles of learning and what makes something “stick” in one’s mind. I’ve rarely read an instruction manual for computer software (which perhaps dates me to a time when software actually came with printed manuals). Remember such word-processing gems as MultiMate or WordStar, or my favorite flat file database program PC-File by Buttonware? It made more sense to me to dive in, see how the software operated, what it did, and then ask questions at the point of need (and receive useful answers from whatever “help” functions were attached to the program). For a few of these programs I became the “expert user” at work because I knew (and had experienced) all the little nuances the software could offer (or throw at me); it was my version of a computer game. As a result, I was sometimes targeted by others to assist them when problems arose (occasionally resulting in late night phone calls from harried colleagues, something that gave me an appreciation for those who work in “technical support”).

Some things make more sense when you can see or touch them. It was fine to discuss archival theory in class but what made it really “click” was when, as part of a 120 hour practicum, I was face to face with boxes of material and told to create a finding aid for the collection. One of my most treasured professional possessions is a copy of a memo written by my practicum supervisor to my archives administration professor (in order to change a grade from “Incomplete” to “A”). Writing about me the supervisor said: “His ability to communicate the required information within our format was as natural as any intern I’ve handled. I seldom had to change a word on the inventories he prepared.” My supervisor gave me a copy of the memo years later when we become colleagues. How’s that for a collegial way of rolling theory and practice together?

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