by John Glover, MLIS Day
According to eminent sages of the LIS practitioner community, practice makes hirable. Not perfect - hirable. Theory is conceptually useful, prepares us for the future, makes us even more attractive at cocktail parties, etc., but apparently it doesn't count for peanuts on the job market. We are furnished with a number of opportunities to gain practical experience here, but it's time for the MLIS program to re-examine its attitude toward fieldwork and practical education.
In the MLIS Student Handbook, discussion of the role of practice is limited to directed fieldwork, which is optional, and the practical/service element of the portfolio, the interpretation of which is flexible. In a field where a Master's degree by itself won't get you in the door at most jobs, we need practical experience. Note that this is not to devalue the importance of theory in our education. Before entering the iSchool I was convinced - and five quarters, a conference, and fieldwork have been enough to confirm for me - that we do need theory to prepare us for the future. Without an understanding of the principles of information science, none of us will be able to survive the changes sure to come over the course of our careers. This understanding will not, however, compensate for the fact that there are thousands of us walking around with diplomas in hand and that we need practical experience to get jobs. This is especially true in the Pacific Northwest (to say nothing of Seattle) where competition for jobs is fierce.
If we collectively fail to enter the profession, then the iSchool will have failed. This program exists primarily to prepare future information professionals, as embodied in the iSchool's mission statement:
The School, consisting of its students, faculty, staff and administration, is dedicated to educating students for professional careers and leadership roles in the information professions including library and information science. Through our specific goals and objectives in instruction, research, service and outreach we create and will continue to create a dynamic learning environment dedicated to preparing our students to respond not only to the opportunities of today, but to the challenges they will face in the 21st century.
I applaud what the iSchool faculty have done over the last half-decade at UW, most especially their implementation of a forward-looking view of the field and LIS education. It should go without saying, however, that we will not be any help to anyone - not the iSchool, not the community, not ourselves - if we don't get jobs.
This is the point at which, were this a discussion being held in an official meeting in Mary Gates Hall, someone would suggest that a study or improvement of this situation be undertaken by students to remedy what we see as a problem. I'm sorry, but this, friends and neighbors, is egregious passing of the buck. Professional preparation must be recognized as something that should be a fundamental part of our program, not an "add-on" scraped together (or not) by each student.
Yes, it is our job as students to get a job, but it is the iSchool's job as an institution devoted to the production of information professionals to see that we have strong support along the way. We have come to one of the nation's premier LIS programs and invested substantial amounts of time, energy, and money for an education leading to a fruitful career path. While none of us chose to attend a school specializing purely in vocational training, at the same time, most of us are not here just because we thought it would be a thrill to study information. Many of us, myself included, have had wonderful fieldwork experiences and advisors pointing us in the right directions, but many of us have not and will not before graduation.
None of this is to say that if some of us don't get hired, the iSchool is at fault. We do not all have the same interests, skills, or luck, and some of us probably will not get jobs in the field. I accept that and think this would be tolerable… if we had all received equivalent preparation. Vannevar helps those who help themselves, to be sure, and it's our responsibility to go out there and get those internships, fieldworks, and LIS jobs. To do this well, however, we need certain kinds of help that we aren't collectively getting right now. This is how the iSchool can help us:
- Provide substantial content and evaluative information along with the DFW contact database. As nice as a database with DIALOG-level functionality would be, this could simply be a non-circulating three ring binder filled with reports filed by past DFW students and kept in the Student Services office.
- Foster mentoring and internship possibilities with local organizations. The iSchool has, in fact, been doing this, but it would be exceedingly helpful if solid internship programs and contacts could be maintained with local libraries and companies.
- Make an explicit, positive statement about the fundamental importance of practical experience in LIS education. This is a step that should be taken both by incorporating this element into the iSchool's philosophy of learning and by instituting a mandatory fieldwork practicum for all MLIS students.
The iSchool is a wonderful school and a wonderful community. I don't think I could be happier elsewhere and I believe that my education has been fantastic to this point, both in the classroom and in the field. I think the right decision was made, when the iSchool was born as we know it today, to base our education on a foundation of theory. While this theory will continue to be critical for us in the future, however, we need practice to help us begin our careers in the present.