What An Academic Librarianship Course Should Offer

A few weeks ago I invited ACRLog readers to participate in a survey which asked respondents to rate academic library course topics as essential, important or marginal. Respondents were also able to make suggestions for additional topics. Over a hundred readers responded to the survey. Here is what they had to say.

First, some information about the respondents. Over 50% have been in the academic library profession 6 years or less. We’ve had past indicators that ACRLog, like most library blogs perhaps, is read by the “new(er) to the profession” demographic, and this respondent data appears to support that. There was almost an even split on taking an academic librarianship course; 54% never took one and 46% did. Again, that sounds reasonable to expect. Not everyone who ended up in an academic library was thinking about it when they went to library school, so an academic librarianship course may have seemed less important at the time. Also, there are several LIS schools that have never, and still do not, offer an academic librarianship course.

The survey asked respondents to identify, by choosing from a list of 30 topics, what should be the most essential topics for an academic librarianship course. Respondents also indicted which topics were “important” and “marginal”. The topics most frequently selected as essential are:

higher education industry (current issues)
academic freedom/tenure
academic library standards
public service operations
reference services
information literacy
collection management
scholarly communication
student issues
future of academic librarianship

Those items that received the highest percentage of “essential” ranking were information literacy, instruction and higher education industry. I think this list confirms that most of the topics on my course syllabus are the ones that practitioners want LIS students to study. The one activity that made it into the essential category was “a required presentation”. I can certainly understand that because it relates to instruction skill, and the presentation is a crucial part of the job interview. I used to have students do a five-minute presentation on their class project (a study/analysis of a single academic library that the student visits and reports on during the course), but gave it up. The presentations were not well crafted or delivered, and I could see it was really painful for the students to sit through them. So I agree entirely that LIS students need to learn how to present effectively, but there’s just no room for that in most courses. My recommended solution is for the LIS programs to offer a number of short workshops, perhaps a full-day, where skilled practitioners would be tapped to offer a “how to” session to give LIS students these important skills that can contribute to interview and workplace success.

The topics most frequently selected as important were:

visit to an academic library
academic library field study
higher education accreditation
higher education organizational structure
faculty status for librarians
tech service operations
web 2.0 technology
library as place
e-resource management
faculty issues
career advice/keeping up skills
community colleges

Again, all these topics are covered in my academic librarianship course. In addition to what students can learn from the class discussion, recorded lecture content and supplemental reading, guest speakers cover many of these topics in their presentations. My course features both F2F guest lecturers and those who visit via distance learning systems. That visits to and field studies of academic libraries are considered important suggests that out-of-the-classroom learning opportunities are vital to the development of a future academic librarian. I heartily agree. Visiting academic libraries and talking to the academic librarians one meets there is a fundamental learning method, not just for LIS students but even veteran practitioners.

So what topics did the respondents think were just marginal for an academic librarianship course?

academic library leadership
human resources management
metadata services
special collections / archives
higher education history

Of these topics, leadership/management issues comes as the biggest surprise. It seems to be much on the minds of practitioners so I expected it to rank higher as a priority. I do spend some time on higher education history the first night of the course as I think it’s helpful to have that foundational information, but the other topics are better covered in those courses designated to give LIS students a primer on administrative, leadership and management.

I received a lengthy list of “suggested topics” that an academic librarianship should include – those items not among the 30 from which respondents could choose. There are too many to list here, but here are some of those that appeared more than once:

publishing and presenting for tenure
how to survive your first year as an academic librarian
project management
decision making
organizational politics
writing skills
reading the Chronicle
instructional technology for teaching
green library practices
mission statements
liaison relationships
dealing with deadwood
course design
vendor relationships
involvement in campus activity

A number of these, while not listed on the syllabus as official course topics, do come up as discussion topics at any point throughout the course. Marketing would be a good example because the students explore that as part of the course project and there’s usually some discussion about their findings. Reading the Chronicle is also covered through class assignments. Again, some of these skills are covered elsewhere in the LIS curriculum, but they could certainly be discussed in the context of academic library environments. The mention of writing skills is interesting because I find my students’ writing to be all across the quality spectrum. Fortunately, most are quite proficient. While I certainly want to help those who need improvement it can be incredibly time consuming and beyond the scope of what I can realistically accomplish. Like presentation skills this is something, while quite important, that needs to be dealt with outside the course.

I don’t know about you but I found the responses to the survey most informative. On one hand it affirms that much of what I cover in my academic librarianship course are the topics that practitioners find to be most essential or important. What about others who teach these courses? What do you think? The responses also provide me with some new ideas for additional topics of discussion. Why not spend some time talking about how academic librarians can contribute to the green campus movement? So many thanks to those of you who took a few minutes to respond to this survey. We are all stakeholders in the LIS education of our future academic librarians. Practitioners, it seems, have much to contribute to, and much to gain from, the development of a quality curriculum.

19 thoughts on “What An Academic Librarianship Course Should Offer”

  1. I, too, am surprised that leadership and management were considered to be negligible skills. Wouldn’t folks want their supervisor to have learned about management in library school, especially if they have no real-world experience? Many grads will start off in supervisory positions, and I will definitely appreciate the management skills I learned in my MLS program when I become a supervisor.

  2. That administrative and management topics did not make the top of the list should not surprise you. There are separate courses for library management. Indeed, the topic is so important that I think it SHOULD be covered in a separate course as there is too much to cover in a general course on academic librarianship.

  3. I’d disagree a bit with Toni — unless you have significant experience already, the chances of a new grad getting a supervisory position are negligible. Most of the supervisory jobs that I saw (and I graduated in December) required 5ish years of experience. Unless you took the very-slow route of 1 class at a time and were already working in a library, you don’t have that kind of experience.

    So I think this is explained by the combination of three factors: the assumption/understanding I outlined, the fact that many of us newer librarians are expecting to pay our dues before we get a mid-level job, and the fact that this is exactly what SHOULD be covered in a management class (but was not in mine).

    I also read something recently about how many of us Gen Ys/Millennials are not really interested in climbing the corporate ladder, because we see the hours & stress that higher level managers have to deal with, and we’re not interested. We want to have a good work/life balance, and that’s hard to do when you’re in a management position — there will always be spillover. I think I’m the exception to this rule, as I do want to get up into a more management-like position. (But, for me at least, that aspiration comes with the assumption that there will be an increase in people coming into libraries who actually are willing to experiment with new services & programs, “get” the Internet, and that’s it’s not going to be the same-old same-old “why bother” attitude.)

  4. I’ll echo what Herman said about the leadership/management topics: because this is often a separate class required of LS students, it might seem redundant to cover it in a course on Academic Libraries.

    Along these same lines, I suspect you had such high responses for instruction because it’s often not covered in other courses, or at least not as a stand alone. Indeed, instruction is one of the few areas of librarianship that isn’t covered by foundation classes. Most LS students take required classes in cataloging, reference, management, and collection development, but not instruction, which is not just an off-shoot of reference, though it’s often presented that way.

    So until library instruction works its way more thoroughly into LS curriculum, Academic Libraries courses might be one good place to include it.

    In regards to presentations: I agree that presentation skills are an important component of instruction, but they are also important for just about any academic librarian. I also think the best way to develop these skills is not to take a workshop on it, but to present, time and time again. Students might be bored by their classmates, but they just might learn something about how not to do a bad presentation. Perhaps there’s a way to make the presentations more interesting for everyone, instead of just giving up on this part of the assignment.

  5. A class in library management (not specifically academic) was part of the required core courses at SJSU, but it was broad and general and focused on touchy-feely aspects of personnel management AIRC, and it didn’t really give me what I needed. I was hired as a supervisor (the lone person with the job title ‘librarian’ plus faculty status) in my first professional position, and I’ve found that the management aspects of the position are far more challenging than any others. A class on academic library management, focusing on dealing with contract and union regulations, how to write performance reviews when you can be grieved for writing something negative (however well documented it is), how to inspire staff to perform well when you have neither carrots (bonuses, promotions) nor sticks (dismissal) at your disposal, and similar issues, would have been extremely useful.

  6. <>

    Whoa I disagree with that. There are many useful ways to incorporate public speaking into a class, and such presentations (or student-led discussions) are great opportunities to make a class more interactive, which results in a better learning environment. A starting part, for example: every class, have a few students summarize an article or blog post they found relevant to that week’s subject matter. Then you can build up to having the students present a stock investment decision or a small business plan (which is what my business information students have to do) or whatever works for the class.

    Isn’t it odd that most undergrad students have speaking intensive requirements of some sort in their curriculum, but grad students are necessarily expect to do public speaking?

    Thanks for the interesting summary.

  7. It’s funny, for those wanting to go into the “public” side of academic librarianship (reference, instruction, etc.) there is little in the way of management (in the ‘manage an organization’ sense) needed for the first year or three, imho.

    The leadership aspect is an important one to bring in, though. Leading from the trenches is what new hires should be encouraged to do. Technology and delivery modes are changing so quickly that “established” library instructors are often a bit out of sync with their students. I’m the “young guy” at MPOW & I’m 40 — in my view, we could really use a 20-something new librarian to come in and shake up how we do instruction. I’m adopting the technologies my students are living; they see the technologies differently than I do (and I like how the students keep me semi-up to date.)

    The day-long workshop on instruction and/or presentation strategies is a good idea. A cross-disciplinary course in speech/human communication/public speaking or joining Toastmasters is another good way to pick up public speaking skills. Talking and reading about public speaking won’t help nearly as much as being required to get up and do it. An academic librarianship course is one of many great places to get the students’ feet wet.

    Trust me, it will suck so much less if you bomb out in front of your library classmates than if you bomb out in front of a fresh crop of undergrads. The undergrads will be in your face for 4 years – and not very nicely if their first impression is that you’re a bozo who can’t speak 🙂

  8. Toni said: “Many grads will start off in supervisory positions…”

    And shame on the library community for supposing even for an instant that an MLS (even if it includes a management/leadership class) makes one ready to supervise or lead.

    This is the single biggest problem I’ve encountered in my academic library — librarians with zero leadership skill, experience, or potential charged with leading important initiatives.

  9. I agree with Joan. Please consider adding the presentations back into your class, if there’s time. Practice helps. Even if students will never be good public speakers, they need the practice in prepping for a meeting and making a concise argument or recommendation. (Concise is key!)

    Or, there’s the ever-popular conference format – the poster session. One group brings posters and the rest visits each one and asks the presenters questions for one session, and then swap it around for the next session(s). Everyone submits feedback. It teaches them to get to the point and gets them out of their chairs to wake them up.

  10. Kyri Freeman listed a bunch of things that should be covered in an “academic library management”. I would suggest all of those topics should have been covered in the general library management class that Kyri took as those things are relevant to all types of libraries.

  11. Now that you know what to cover, what do you want your students to discover? The course should model active learning and top notch instructional design, both of which can be hampered by the imperative to “cover.”

  12. I am conducting a focus group at ALA annual in Anaheim on this very subject. If you are interested in participating please read the following.

    What are you expecting from MLS grads today?

    As part of its ongoing assessment activities, the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at Simmons College has asked Claudia Morner of JMA Consultants Incorporated to conduct a series of focus groups to learn what employers of graduates with a master’s degree in library and information science want in new employees. The question she will ask is “what should recent MLS graduates be able to know, do, and think about?”

    Opinions gathered at the focus groups on student outcomes will be presented to the faculty and dean of the school and will help ensure that the program meets the changing needs of library science employers.

    One focus group will be conducted at ALA Annual in Anaheim, at the Hilton Anaheim, 777 Convention Way, on Monday, June 30, 2008 from 4-5:30.

    If you are interested in sharing your thoughts, please contact Claudia Morner at mornerjones@verizon.net to sign up for the focus group. Light refreshments will be served.

  13. It seems to me one of the big questions any academic libraries course should ask is “what is an academic library for?”

    And I’d be very surprised if “learning” weren’t the most significant answer.

    Even if students take a course in instruction (and that should most definitely be something future academic librarians take) the significance of learning as a key purpose of academic libraries has significance for all kinds of library issues, including reference, collection development, space, standards, organization ….

  14. Barbara, that’s a great way to frame the issue — that academic libraries are for learning. Thanks.

  15. Comment from Susan
    Time: September 11th, 2008

    How can you help me take a course as a Librarian ? Do you know of any correspondence course ?

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