The MLS Project: an assessment after 60 years by Boyd Keith Swigger

This post is on this book: Swigger, B. K. (2010). The MLS Project: An Assessment after Sixty Years. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press.

In this book, Swigger sets out to assess whether the MLS Project, the shift of accreditation by the American Library Association from the bachelor’s degree to the master’s degree in library science as entry into the profession in the 1950s, has achieved its objectives.

Did the project transform the practice of librarianship? Did it change the nature of library education? Did the social standing of librarianship as an occupation improved?

The promise of historical treatment caught my fancy. I personally found the book thought-provoking.

I don’t think I know enough to give a critical review. I’m just going to pen down what I found useful and interesting.

Is librarianship a profession?

I have always thought so but have been questioning it lately.

Swigger said that this question can be a factual question or a question of values but that librarians, in general, have mixed the 2 up. As a factual question, the definition of “profession” is established and librarianship is examined to see if it meets that definition. The question of values is asking whether librarianship ought to be a profession. Swigger argues that librarians have been trying to use the factual question to prove the value question with the trait model of professions which since the 70s consists of the following. An occupation is a profession if it is:

  1. based on a liberal education
  2. requires a definite period of training offered by special schools
  3. involves a definite body of knowledge rather than mere skill
  4. results in practical work rather than solely research or investigation
  5. devoted to service to society rather than to financial gain
  6. concerned with some one human or social need
  7. governed by a code of ethics
  8. usually represented by a national organization
  9. requires mental rather than manual labour

The problems with this over-reliance were pointed out by Pierce Butler in 1951 where he said that an eager librarian “has always been inclined to imitate the outward forms of the other professions before attaining the corresponding internal development”. I understand what he was trying to say. Have we been using the traits as a checklist and by checking the items off this list convinced ourselves that we are professionals? It is insufficient that librarians are convinced that librarianship is a profession. The society at large must accept that too. And the sad truth is that they don’t and I do not think it is society’s fault.

I think the question is no longer whether librarianship is a profession. Society has clearly made that decision. We are not. We may disagree but we aren’t the ones making the decision. The question now is whether librarianship is relevant.

Occupational irrelevance has been, in my opinion, by far the biggest challenge for librarians in the 21st century.

Melvil Dewey has argued for the professional nature of librarianship based on a large part on the unique role librarians played in guiding reading by book selection. The circumstances for this role have changed dramatically. Although we may want to think of ourselves as gatekeepers to the world’s knowledge, we aren’t anymore. It has probably never been the fact that we offer superior intellectual guidance to our patrons which makes them come to us but that access to reading materials were restricted. Once that restriction was removed, we were swept out of the way. Ubiquitous access has “dethroned” us.

This is a good thing. Now we have to think seriously about how we truly add value to a patron’s pursuit of knowledge. If the world of information, represented by the Internet now, is compared to a jungle, we could perhaps say that libraries are like botanic gardens. Flora and fauna arranged in a meaningful and research-friendly manner. People can visit and enjoy the things in a botanic gardens without venturing into the vast jungle. So, if the Internet is the jungle, and libraries the botanic gardens, what does that make librarians? What do they call the folks who work in the botanic gardens.

It is a case of mediation. I firmly believe that information mediation work still has a place in a society overflowing with information. Perhaps it is the demonstration of quality information mediation that will help librarians gain status and prestige in the present information society.