One of the advantages of remaining in the same town as your graduate institution is the chance to participate in alumni forums. At these events, faculty solicit feedback from alumni on their professional experiences, with an eye to improving future curriculum. I attended such an event last week. In the midst of a very thoughtful discussion, one question was raised that is still tumbling around in my brain.
Should library students be taught “library history”? (i.e. how libraries came to be, early pioneers, etcetera)
Currently, the University of Michigan’s Library and Information Services (LIS) track does not a course devoted just to library history and theory. In contrast, the Archives and Records Management (ARM) track (of a similar structure) does. Having double specialized in both tracks**, I have a slightly different perspective on this issue than most alums. The ARM intro class (where all the theory and history was imparted) was far from my favorite. While I’m grateful to have a strong knowledge of the history of the profession, a lot has changed in the archives world (see: glut of electronic records) and knowing what people were doing a hundred years ago isn’t incredibly helpful on a practical level. Especially in the current tight job market, where hands-on experience is golden. Remember, this is a two-year program. Minus three mandatory foundation courses, there’s a lot of ground to cover in a very short time.
Yet, I’d also argue that knowing the history of the profession can be very powerful. Neither libraries nor archives were established without a lot of hard work and thinking on the part of many individuals. Bogged down by recent budget cuts and hiring freezes, it’s easy to think that our profession has never faced such adversity before. But that, of course, is wrong. The challenges might have been different but libraries have always struggled to meet the demands of their communities, whether that means establishing the first children’s rooms, serving new immigrant populations, or figuring out how to introduce e-books into the collection. The truth is, the profession has never not been in flux. It’s important for librarians and archivists to realize this so that they’re better prepared to innovate themselves. A history course provides much needed perspective.
What do you think? Did anyone take a “library history” course in graduate school? Was it valuable for you? Any current students with thoughts?
*That’s right. I’m taking my English major cred to my grave.
** My abbreviated degree is ARM/LIS. Such a satisfying lame joke.