What Is The Value In An LIS Technology Course

As a part-time library science educator I pay attention to trends in LIS education. A notable one is the increase in courses that spend an entire semester introducing students to web 2.0 and other trend technologies. I ask ACRLog readers, many of whom are the future employers of LIS students, if this seems like a good idea to you. A typical LIS student gets to take 12 courses, maybe fewer if he or she receives field experience credit. What is the value for you in having your future employees spending 12 to 16 weeks learning how to create and use blogs, wikis, social networks and podcasts? This may be one of those “it depends” type questions as in it depends what is really being learned and how will it be applied in the workplace.

Now maybe I’m being narrow-minded here. Yes, right now these technologies are all the rage, and you could take the perspective that the courses are focusing on teaching students to be risk takers who can experiment, take chances, exploit new technology, etc. All good lessons indeed. But does that require a semester long course? Could a week dedicated to the topic of hot new technologies communicate the same information, especially in the context of a broader course about developing skills that will allow for constant adaptation to the latest technologies. Are there better ways to ingrain these desirable skills in our LIS students?

Personally, I’d much rather see more LIS programs introducing instructional design courses that would give students a far more powerful understanding of how and why to incorporate technology into practice – and knowing when it is and isn’t appropriate based on field assessment. This approach would be far more likely to give our future employees a theoretical foundation that informs their practice and pedagogy, and which provides them with a skill that can be applied to an endless number of technology innovations over the course of their careers. As the use of educational technology ramps up in higher education, those entering academic librarianship today need to think of themselves not simply as librarians using technology to promote information storage and retrieval, but as learning technologists who apply technology to help faculty and students achieve academic success.

The current web 2.0 technologies will no doubt be bypassed by disruptive new technologies before we know it, and then what will our library 2.0 savvy students be left with from these courses. Put another way, are you still using those skills you learned in that course you took on putting cd-roms and laserdisks to practice in libraries? On the other hand, I suspect you learned how to search DIALOG. As an academic librarian you probably don’t use that system anymore, but you do make regular use of all the skills you developed related to online information retrieval. It was the theory that informs your practice. Those are the types of courses we need, the ones that teach an understanding of the practice of academic librarianship that will be of value to students in a landscape of shifting technology and user expectations.

What I DID Learn in Library School

Since earning my degree, I’ve seen lots of comments on listservs (NEWLIB) and posts on blogs (Annoyed Librarian and Chronicles of Bean) about what people think they should have/wish they would have learned in library school. There’s the endless debate over whether or not our Masters programs are preparing librarians well enough or even whether or not they’re necessary. Well, I want to take a moment and say that I’m extremely happy with my MLIS education. Sure, there were plenty of things I didn’t learn and have had to pick up on the job, but most of these seem specific to my library and I’m sure I would have to re-learn them should I move to a new library (library instruction request procedures, reference policies, etc.). For the most part, though, I’m proud of my education and grateful that it provided me with a good amount of information and resources to survive (and dare I say, flourish) in this profession.

So, without further ado, here’s my list of things I’m glad I learned in library school:

1. The Importance of Continuing Education. From the start, our professors taught us that continuing education is possibly one of the most important aspects of librarianship. Whether you participate in a free web seminar, attend workshops at conferences, or set up journal alerts to keep up with the latest happenings, continuing education is a must. While in school, I was lucky enough to have many opportunities to participate in these sorts of things, which definitely helped me get into the “continuing ed” mindset.

2. Why We Should Pay Attention to the Environment. My Academic Libraries professor stressed the need to keep a keen eye on the world of higher education. She reminded us that academic libraries are intrinsically connected to the politics of their parent institution; trends in higher education can most definitely trickle down to libraries. For this reason, The Chronicle of Higher Ed is one of the top reads in my RSS Feed.

3. How to Collaborate with Faculty. Having a strong, friendly relationship with the faculty on campus is crucial to the success of an academic library. I learned this firsthand during my field experience. I assisted the art liaison in working together with members of the art department to select books and discuss programs. I have been very thankful for that experience in my current job, where collaborating with faculty is a huge part of what I do.

4. How to Give a Good Presentation. Another thing we were taught in library school was to never underestimate the value of a well-done PowerPoint presentation. It won’t hold its own, but it will certainly make what you have to say a lot more attractive. I can’t even count the number of group projects, presentations, etc. that we were required to do. I can tell you, however, that my presenting skills have stayed well-maintained and I always jump at the chance to use PowerPoint as a visual aid.

5. The Infamous Reference Interview. When I started library school, I had absolutely no idea what a “reference interview” was. When we had to role play in reference class, I thought it was a little odd … I mean, don’t people just ask what they want to know? Working at a reference desk has given me that answer: no. Although no library school could ever teach you everything you need to know about reference resources (that’s specific to your library), I value knowing how to find out what someone REALLY wants to know.

6. Networking, Networking, Networking. The professors couldn’t stress it enough — grab up every opportunity to network that you possibly can; you never know when that person can be of assistance to you down the road. This may seem obvious, but I had honestly never thought that much about networking before I got to library school. Now I feel a lot more confident making the initial contact, knowing how beneficial it really can be.

7. Taking Baby Steps in Publishing. Probably one of the most important things I learned is that the old “publish or perish” mantra doesn’t have to be a scary thing. Starting out small is the best way to lead yourself into the world of publishing. I know that the blogging I do for ACRLog and the reviews I write for Public Services Quarterly will make it a heck of a lot easier to finally get myself moving on writing an actual paper (a day that is probably coming soon!).

There are plenty of other things I’m glad I learned (including a number of very helpful ideas and theories in my Information Literacy Instruction class), but I’ll just finish off by saying a sincere “thank you” to Dean Paskoff and the faculty of the School of Library and Information Science at Louisiana State University. You definitely made it easier for me to make the transition from undergraduate to Masters student to new librarian!

Why Do I Teach (Dialog) in LIS?

There’s a meme going around in the faculty blogosphere in which folks are talking about why they teach their subject; Barbara Fister recently talked about why she is a librarian here on this blog. I’ll write more about why our faculty colleagues teach in a future post, but the meme started me thinking about why I teach reference and advanced reference for Simmons GSLIS. In short, I teach because I love being a librarian and I want to pass that enthusiasm on to future librarians. I get excited by providing good service to my patrons (I’m chatting with one right now — multitasking!).

I also love the thrill of showing students resources that are just right for the task at hand. When new library students first see the DK Illustrated Visual Dictionary and say “I want this!” I am thrilled that I have taught them about a particular resource. The same thing happens with ProQuest’s Historical New York Times, MedlinePlus, and sometimes the New Dictionary of the History of Ideas (check out my source list for reference and see if I have included your favorites).

I also enjoy the harder task of teaching students to search well. In the introductory reference class, my students answer about 80 carefully-crafted faux reference questions designed to get them to construct a search in a particular way or use a specific resource (developing a question which can only be answered by the National Union Catalog Pre-1956 Imprints is no mean feat!). They start with the local OPAC and move towards more and more complex questions, and it is exhilarating for me to see them grow into very accomplished searchers.

I teach Dialog in advanced reference. I agonized recently about whether or not to continue teaching it, as my students are very unlikely to encounter Dialog in their library careers. And yet each time I think about not teaching Dialog, I always stick with it. Carol Tenopir makes some excellent arguments in favor in a May 2001 Library Journal column “Why I Still Teach Dialog.” I agree with many of these, particularly the part about learning how databases are structured beneath the hood, as it were, and showing them Dialog’s terrific Bluesheets (would that all databases had Bluesheets!)

Ultimately, Dialog teaches excellent searching skills. There are no shortcuts in Dialog; potential searchers must learn its archaic ways and odd syntax, and they fear the DialUnits building up as they flail and learn. Yet it is both the syntax and cost which make Dialog such a good teacher. The odd syntax (remember typing hillary(w)clinton, or even hillary()clinton instead of using “hillary clinton”) forces them to consider exactly what they want to retrieve from their search. And students of Dialog must learn to construct good searches before they log on to Dialog, because in their final project, they are graded partially on how much they spent on their search. Both the odd syntax and the cost force them to create good searches, and this will hold them in good stead as they sit at a busy reference desk or answer a frantic IM and help their patron find relevant materials quickly.

So I have decided once again this semester to continue to teach Dialog. I will not succumb to my practioner’s desire to have students focus learning the EBSCO interface or the lovely new WilsonWeb interface, because as we know, these will change. I would rather have them learn how a library database is constructed so they can apply that knowledge to any database they encounter within the next 20 to 40 years. Plus, as the Loose Cannon Librarian said when I solicited opinions whether or not folks needed to learn Dialog, knowing Dialog gives new librarians “street cred” with their elders.

I’ve decided that teaching EBSCO and Wilson is like giving hungry students fish – which is important! – but that teaching them Dialog is like teaching them to fish: search skills learned through Dialog will last them a lifetime.

Editor’s note: I am excited to be blogging here at ACRLog, where I plan to write occasional posts about what’s going on in the faculty blogosphere. In my full-time life, I am an Electronic Resource Librarian at the University of Connecticut, and in my spare time (ha!), I teach for Simmons GSLIS @ South Hadley (see above). My regular blog contains my non-official thoughts about librarianship and cognitive science (and the occasional interaction between the two); see http://cogscilibrarian.blogspot.com/.