Open Journal Systems

World Libraries | Volume 5 | Number 1 | Marco Editorially Speaking

Function or dysfunction?

Would it be a fair international generalization to say that something has gone wrong with library education? In North America and the UK we find library schools merging with other departments, or closing altogether. A number are in trouble with accrediting bodies, not because of how they do things but because of what they are trying to do. From Belfast to Berkeley; from Strathclyde to London, Ontario, we discover symptoms of friction between the profession and its schools, and between the schools and their parent institutions. There is no agreed curriculum in the Anglo–American schools, nor indeed in the schools of any country: and the differences are in major conceptual areas. Globally we have failed to come together even on the basic issue of program level. Although there is a slow trend toward placing the library education curriculum at postgraduate level, most of the world still teaches our subject as an undergraduate discipline.

The sensible IFLA standards for library schools (1976) are widely cited but apparently never used as a basis for program planning and evaluation. In the US, which has its own sensible standards for library education, there is continued agitation within the schools to do away with them or to blame them for program failures. Countries like India that desperately need guidance for their library education efforts, in the form of strong, enforceable standards, stagger along without it. In much of the world we note the low value attached to a library degree, with the concomitant difficulty of recruiting the brightest and the best students.

What to do? Many of us have thought a long time about such problems, since they began (or we first noticed them) in the turbulent 1960s. The student revolt, social movements, the computer. Our looming Jungian shadow, information science. What to do now?

Sometimes a flash of common sense will redirect a field that has gone adrift. Consider the rise of psychology against behaviorism, of psychiatry against psychoanalysis, or criticism against deconstruction. The protest against such limiting movements was based on the perception, long delayed, that they were not doing what they were supposed to do. Behaviorism did not deal with the great issues of psychology (memory, desire, motivation, choice), psychoanalysis did not cure neuroses, deconstruction did not explain the value and beauty of art. They were dysfunctional movements.

One discipline that has remained lively without forgetting its purpose is architecture. “Form ever follows function,” said the great master Louis Sullivan. That which a building will do should determine its character. This maxim seems to hold true for all landmark structures, and no design that is less than functional is considered successful—library buildings offer too many examples of vivid failures in that regard. Library educators are also architects, if we observe one dictionary definition for architecture: “any design or orderly arrangement.” Design of library education programs should be based on what it has to do, which is to prepare entrants into the profession for the tasks they will perform in libraries. Our method is properly inductive, drawn from experience rather than from speculation and prophecy. Our architecture aims at the reality of a known function.

We did that rather well until the 1960s. Library automation instruction followed the early efforts in libraries to do things with the computer (who remembers book catalogs?). Training in OCLC came after the first public demonstration of the system in 1971. We taught about online databases as they appeared on the real stage, and about online circulation as libraries installed it. But with the coming of the personal microcomputer in the early 1980s everything started happening too fast for us. We began to be visionaries—a big handicap for a teacher—and tried to teach what few if any libraries were doing, but what we thought they could do or ought to do. Can function follow form?

Of course we also keep teaching what libraries do, and what they no longer do, if in a muted, apologetic fashion. Our programs have grown in bulk, carrying the past, present and future in a fragile container, with subjects spilling out and insecure patches being applied. If we try to do too much, by definition we cannot do it.

Another great architect is associated with the maxim “less is more.” Maybe Ludwig Mies van der Rohe read it (in the writings of Andrea del Sarto; it is also a good slogan for a painter), maybe he just thought of it—no matter. His buildings, in their simple, undecorated, functional mode gave the world’s cities their “international style”: the classic big&38211;box high rise tower that is ubiquitous on every skyline. Can we also do less, rather than more?

Can we dispense with curricular segments that are disconnected to the real story of librarianship? We are seduced by the shadow of information and its so–called science into many odd subplots. Common sense tells us, if we will listen, that librarians are not essentially computer programmers, database designers, spreadsheet users, typesetters, printers, marketers, or producers of communication messages. Particularly in the developing countries, where every human and financial resource has to be carefully utilized, the baroque architecture of so many library education programs must be modified to match the simple conditions of libraries they serve. Can that be done without compromising the professional level and quality of the programs?

It seems hard to do, but not as hard, I think, as blueprinting the World Trade Center or Sears Tower. Those architects are a clever lot, good with maxims and with buildings. But aren’t we as clever as they are, more or less?


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