Waving Not Drowning

lyn's tweet feed from 29/03/16Unusually, libraries have been making the news this week. The publicity surrounding the BBC’s investigation into public library closures has generated much controversy about the – admittedly not new – phenomenon of the alleged decline of libraries and librarians.

Two responses come naturally to a provider of library/information education, concerned at the implication that we are educating students for a terminally declining profession. We can rebuke the sloppy journalism that writes of the decline of ‘libraries’ and ‘librarians’, when what is meant is the much more limited, though still important, context of the public library service in the UK. We can deplore the shallow voices that proclaim, as they have been doing for nearly two decades now, that we don’t need libraries any more, now that we have Google/Wikipedia/smartphones.

This though, isn’t really enough. Complain though we might about the limitations of reporting, and the ignorance of some commentators, we cannot ignore the dramatically changing library/information landscape, and we need to be continually reconsidering what we offer to meet changing demands. Not that we haven’t already been doing so; a post I wrote almost a year ago [Time for the Blue Whale] outlined our thinking of that time about the way library/information education needed to adapt. But, in view of the current bruhaha, it’s worth setting out how #citylis sees itself adapting to meet the challenges.

The five points here are really an elaboration of the ideas in my earlier post, not a replacement for them.

Wide horizons

We support public libraries, of course we do, and we object strongly to many of the more stupid attitudes being expressed at the moment. We cover public library issues on our courses, and will continue to do so. But only a minority of students will ever be professionally active in the public library sector. Along with many others commenting on the current controversy, we remind ourselves that the library/information sector is much bigger than this one aspect. Even if all public libraries in the country went out of business, which is unthinkable, there would still be a vibrant library profession, and a need for library education.

Wider horizons

As I pointed out in my earlier post, and as many others have reiterated, library/information skills are relevant, indeed increasingly relevant, way beyond the wider bounds of any conception of the library/information sector. Our subject is the whole communication chain of information recorded in documents. We will continue to emphasise these wider implications in our courses; both to cater for the increasing proportion of our students who do not see themselves as library/information professionals, and to help those who do prepare to support this wider application of our perspectives and skills.

We’ve been here before, but it’s different now

While it is idiotic to say that library are obsolescent because of Google and smartphones, we cannot, and do not, ignore the changes brought about by technology. We are unashamedly digital, and want all of our students to leave with a good appreciation of the possibilities of technology. For those who want it, we will be offering more opportunities for gaining skills in metadata, coding, data analysis, social media, and the like. But this has to be balanced by a continued interest in the historical core, and development of our subject; if we don’t know where we’ve come from, we can’t really understand where we are, still less where we’re going. New technologies and resources often do not bring new issues and behaviours; just a new variant on what’s gone before.

Making friends

Another thing that we have said before, but which is very relevant in thinking how library/information education can flourish in difficult times, is that we are a meta-discipline. Our concern is information and documents, but that gives us an overlap with several other disciplines. It is well-known that LIS has no unique place within the academic landscape, shown by the varied range of faculties in which the subject is placed in different universities. In our case, we overlap City University’s Schools of Technology and of Arts/Social Sciences. This could be seen a weakness, but we intend to turn it into a strength in our course provision, by involving the whole range of information interests, from performance art to robots, and from philosophy to cult media fans. Information is central to many conversations and domains.

Theory and practice

Something else we have emphasised in the past, but which will stand statement, is that we try to strike a balance between theory and practice in LIS education. If we were focused just on training our students for immediate practice, then we would rightly be concerned about the ‘decline of a profession’ headlines that we are now seeing (inaccurate though they may be). But we don’t do that. On the contrary, we focus very firmly on the body of theory, concepts and principles that will allow our students to thrive in the future information environment, however it develops and changes. That doesn’t mean that we neglect skills; on the contrary we are putting more emphasis on directly linking conceptual and skills-based materials, partly though curriculum changes and partly through addition of more optional workshops, seminars, etc.

So, it would be tempting to simply rail against those who wrongly report that all libraries are in decline, and that library/information professionals are no longer needed. But we prefer to acknowledge that, wrong-headed as many of their pronouncements are, there is a sea-change in the sector taking place. #citylis will change, and is changing, to meet the need for graduates with a thorough understanding of the world of information, and an ability to impact it. And the need for those people is increasing, not declining.