Thursday, August 23, 2012

30th Year Reflections/12: Identity Crisis

“The identity crisis for librarians has undoubtedly had a subtle but important influence on the collapse of library schools….In most institutions of higher learning, library schools have suffered greatly not only from how they perceive themselves but also from how they are perceived by other parts of the institution. They apparently have been easy prey.” 

— Larry J. Ostler, Therrin C. Dahlin, and J. D. Willardson, The Closing of American Library Schools: Problems and Opportunities (1995)

For the past couple of weeks I have been engaged (primarily during lunch, on the bus, and during any other free time I can carve out) in some basic background reading and research as I start to flesh out the story of the demise of my graduate professional school. By 1982 the University of Minnesota library school was in a coma and would linger on life support for three more years before it expired. An earlier post made passing reference to the time I spent—along with other students, many more active than I—fighting to keep the school alive. Obviously, we lost the fight. Now, in retrospect, what strikes me as I review the literature from the time—yet does not surprise me—is how much energy the library profession spent (and continues to spend) on questions of professional education and identity.

Education and identity issues are too complex to address in a short post such as this. But let me lay down a few contemplative markers (in no particular order):

1. Early library education was rooted in a philosophy that stressed technical proficiency. This philosophy dominated library education for at least a century. Is this still the case?

2. A dissenting and minority voice called for liberally educated students and a greater emphasis on theory (as opposed to practice). Is this voice still in the minority?

3. We are identified by some (outside and inside) the profession as service providers. We are also identified primarily as a female profession, comparable in some ways to nursing or teaching. What difference, if any, do these distinctions make?

4. According to some within the profession it is difficult, if not impossible, to build professional theories around a notion of service.

5. At some point in the past there was a split in the profession between public and academic practitioners. Is the profession, in terms of areas of practice (and theory), even more fragmented today? If so, is this detrimental to both issues of education and identity?

6. The profession is seen by some as a second career option, possibly a fallback position if original career trajectories are stymied. On a related note, the profession has opened itself to “feral” candidates who do not possess the traditional master’s library degree. What impact, if any, does this have on professional education and identity?

7. At its core is the profession “reactive” or “proactive” in relation to external forces such as the economy, higher education, technology, or government policy?

Shortly before the University of Minnesota library school entered its final slide toward death it was diagnosed by a number of groups. The American Library Association’s Committee on Accreditation gave the school a clean bill of health. University administrators, internal review panels using outside experts, and faculty outside the school were less charitable. The school, they said, was isolated, unproductive, and behind the times. Was this a smokescreen created by administrators to hide behind while they dealt with real financial pressures facing the university? Was the school “easy prey”? Who provided the more accurate diagnosis?

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