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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2011

The Demise of the Library School

Readers Left with Lots to Ponder from Big Book

The Demise of the Library School: Personal Reflections on Professional Education in the Modern Corporate University
Richard J. Cox. Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press, 2010; 348 pp; ISBN: 978-1-93611-718-5, paper $35 USD.

By Toni Samek

Library and information education has had an evolving relationship with the university for more than a century. The Demise of the Library School by Professor Richard J. Cox, lead educator in the University of Pittsburgh school of information sciences’ archives, preservation, and records management specialization, is a well-written volume of personal and professional thoughts on the state of professional graduate library and archives programs in higher education today.

While there is an abundance of published commentary about the traditional library school’s transition to the information school or iSchool of the 21st century, Cox’s work is fresh because he anchors it in the changing tides of higher education and provides a sophisticated context for the variation. Much of his treatment is rooted in economic explorations such as decision making based on corporatist efficiencies. While the book is billed as “personal reflections,” those contemplations are based on years of experience in the academic trenches and so the content is more universal than the book’s label suggests.

Although engaging, the monograph is long-winded and could benefit from further editing. There is too much repetition and reiteration in the text. The essential message, however, is well worth considering and the book’s audience should be wider than those teaching, learning and labouring in the library and information studies communities, including archives groups.

Cox makes a strong case for how the success of the academic enterprise rests, in no small part, on the high functioning of its library and information systems. Indeed, all of us in the academy have a vested interest in access to information, privacy and confidentiality, intellectual property, stewardship and preservation of library and special collections and archival materials, intellectual and academic freedom, the free flow of people and ideas, open Internet access, maximum user access to database content and so on. (Just think how many of us are on high alert over Access Copyright on the eve of 2011.)

Perhaps the most urgent audience for this book is people who are new to the academy and who may not know to what extent the time-honoured institution is now wavering. They can learn some important lessons about how higher education is being transformed by a transfer from education to vocation, the new ubiquity of distance delivery models, an eroding professoriate, the rise of the contingent worker model, increase in the number of adjuncts in relation to faculty, full implications of tuition sovereignty, new inte­grity and civility codes, and emergent distributed faculty.

Perhaps of greatest interest — and what I view to be the heart of the book’s intellectual contribution — is Cox’s assessment of how professional schools have been the first to devolve in this fashion and arguably with library and information studies at the lead in no small part due to the focus on technology (not technology education) in related programs.

In his words: “It might be that the professional schools have lost some of their edge because the rest of the university looks more like them. Now, professional schools are asked to count students as customers, make decisions enhancing revenues, and to take on work that generates additional funds. For sure, some of the work at solving practical problems continues, but the process of deciding what problems to consider is now heavily influenced by business factors. This means serious trouble for the future of library schools.” (p.129)

For those of us who have been around campus for a time, Cox’s discussion of the swings in university life and labour will be familiar. His disclosure of faculty meetings devoid of intellectual matters is almost painful to read in its matter-of-factness. We can recognize all of the competitive signs of survival in Cox’s iterations: cost recovery models, ever new programs for undergraduates and doctoral students, “innovative” certificates for professionals, the race for internationalization and its companion fee structure, dwindling cores in curricula, labour restructuring (e.g., educational technologists designing courses for teachers to facilitate or moderate), speech codes, and management movements toward post-tenure review.

And for those of us in the overlapping fields of library and information studies, we can interpret Cox’s description of the modern corporate university through our own crossings from library schools, to library science schools, to library and information studies schools, to iSchools. Cox is fair-minded and does not promote one over the other — and he is not resistant to change. But he does question what education these programs stand for in the present day — what is their “grand narrative” — apart from unit survival on campus that is?

Most of us come to the academy to contribute in our chosen field. These days, it is harder to do that without also tackling “information.” In my view, this book wisely cautions us to pay attention to the library we want, the open Internet access we want, the databases we want, the archives, special collections, book and record depositories, digital repositories … and the list goes on, because they are partially in the hands of current and future students in the library and information studies programs. Some of our expectations rest in their hands.

Probably many of the other parts of our prospects lie in the hands of those in the other professional schools (e.g., MBA, law). And for that reason alone this is a book worth reading. Cox raises our awareness of how risk management and information technologies — and the relationships between the two — are setting the future directions of the academy, beginning, for example, with interdepartmental communications (e.g., email systems).

Cox is a seasoned academic with a stated commitment to quality education, community, ethics, social responsibility and public good. His questioning voice is rational and informed. We do not have to be archivists to understand the basic politics around saving the human re­cord — what records get saved, by whom and why. It is the same for academics more broadly — what programs and disciplines will survive, who decides and how.

The future of library and information studies is in the balance and thus so is knowledge and its organization. Any of us engaged in negotiating the future of a field can see how it is, in part, wrapped up in the wiring of campus information systems. This then is a big book in more than one sense of the word.

Why do students come to university and what do they experience when they get there? What are our responsibilities to cultivate intellectual curiosity, reading, writing, literacy in all its forms, critical thinking, intellectual freedom and open and frank debate, continuous learning, knowledge dissemination and public policy? To what extent will such fundamentals be determined by current models of computer literacy and information literacy in service of business and the marketplace? And what role therein will the library and iSchools play both consciously and unconsciously? This is what I am left pondering after reading this book.

Cox writes: “Given the nature and mission of LIS (library and information studies) schools, I wonder just why it appears that we hear so little about such matters of academic freedom in the classroom in these schools. Considering what we teach and what our students are preparing to do, one might guess that the old library school and its successor could be a beehive of controversy. Generally, however, they’re pretty quiet. Why is that?” (p. 41)

Subsequently, Cox observes: “Over the past century we have watched libraries and archives being destroyed because they represent symbolic identity and community memory. Destroy them, and you destroy a people’s identity.” (p. 59) What is the future of academic identity? Is it delivering (not teaching) technical information competency credentials, workshops, institutes and in-service training programs? Is information security akin to knowledge stewardship? Is information a specialty? Is the professional school with curricular flexibility and course-based graduate programs inherent to the modern university?

That is what this book asks. And the questions are good ones.

Toni Samek is a professor in the school of library and information studies at the University of Alberta and a member of CAUT’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee.