Continuity and change

By Phoebe Ayers, MLIS day


When I decided to get a MLIS degree, I didn’t realize that my chosen profession had an identity crisis. Growing up in the Internet age, I was expecting a changing profession. However, as a child raised in the public library (or so it seemed) with a penchant for history, I was also expecting continuity – that I would learn library techniques that had been developed and refined over decades or even centuries.

I did find both continuity and change in the profession, as I realized that librarians often want to identify with their history, but also disassociate from it so that their institutions can survive in an “information age.” In this program I also found both continuity, from our many decades as the only library school in the Pacific Northwest, and radical change, as the Information School has expanded and the very idea of what it is to be a librarian (or information scientist) is questioned.

The crisis of identity in the profession at large is mirrored in the iSchool. The emphasis on information science here is not new, as the school was called the Graduate School of Library and Information Science well before it became the Information School. But the division of students within the school into separate programs focusing on the different purposes to which information skills can be put creates tension, as does the varied levels of attention by the administration for the MLIS and other degrees, as whatever program is newest seems to generate the most excitement. The iSchool, like the profession, is still in flux, and from a student perspective it sometimes feels like our training and education is schizophrenic. The existence of many parts and conflicting goals within the iSchool, and even within each program, means that often people like me who are interested in everything the school has to offer are conflicted about which direction to go in, while people with a strong interest often feel like they can’t fully indulge it.

For example, some MLIS students who identify as “librarians” and who want to work in a public library or other traditional setting feel that their needs are not valued in the program. Some “information science people” in the MLIS program, on the other hand, crave more classes and support in finding internships and projects. The school media program and law librarian program students often feel excluded from the larger student body, thanks to their specialized focus, while the evening MLIS program is being cut altogether. Students in other programs in this school also face ambiguity: informatics students have to face the fact that few people (including the other students in the iSchool) can actually define the term “informatics,” while the PhD students face the prospect of teaching students with wildly differing goals and perspectives, while at the same time maintaining their own disparate areas of research. MSIM students have the joys of navigating (along with distance MLIS students) a newly-created program that has not yet been fully road-tested. And coming soon, a new component will be added in the day MSIM program.

Looking at all this, it’s not surprising that it’s difficult to throw one banner, that of the iSchool, over all these disparate parts. Although there is undoubtedly much common ground, it isn’t always visible either in formal classes or informal student organizations. There isn’t, for instance, an associated student body organization at the iSchool. ALISS, the parent organization of the Silverfish, remains a MLIS-centered organization despite the lack of any overt indication in the name (the Association of Library and Information Science Students) that it should be. The only student organization that has thus far bridged the gap between programs is ASIS&T, which is a student chapter of a larger organization. The lack of cohesion within the school and within parts of the programs – particularly the “L” and the “I” in the MLIS program – is frustrating to students who will also have to deal with a similar problem in the field that they are entering.

So what is the solution to these problems, both in the iSchool and in the profession at large? Moore’s law dictates that computing power will double every 18 months; the names for what library and information people do seem to change at least that often. But does what we do really change that much? Or can we find continuity with the past and with each other while our field is changing? What are our common goals, across programs and across the field?

As demonstrated by the series of articles about the different programs that ran last year in the Silverfish, there are similarities in what students across programs are learning, and in our purposes for learning it. And although there is necessarily separation – librarians want to be librarians, while managers want to be managers – learning skills from both the “L” and the “IS,” as well as the new “M” aspects of the iSchool can benefit everyone. The recognition of this on a curricular level is, in my opinion, one of the great strengths of the iSchool.

We as students can put the structure of the iSchool to good use in finding our commonalities, and by combining our strength we can help bridge the gaps within the school and the profession. The energy produced by the various programs, viewpoints and people here can be harvested. An organization to represent the entire iSchool student body could be an important first step. Asking for continued strong interest and attention from faculty and administration for all segments of the school, including traditional librarianship, would be another. We can help preserve continuity, but we can also use this exciting change for our own purposes. If we do so, we will walk away knowing better our wider profession and how we are going to shape the future.





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