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Identity Crisis: The Reality of Preparing MLS Students for a Competitive and Increasingly Digital World

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This is a guest post by Mary Kendig, a student of the Master of Information Science program and the research coordinator for the DCIC Center at the University of Maryland.

The Problem                                                   

With the explosive emergence of computers and information technology since the 1960’s, electronic records have overwhelmed librarians and archivists. Federal agencies have responded in kind as evidenced by 30 years of investments in research partnerships and e-records. Over $11 million and 90 projects have been counted from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and tens of millions more from NARA, NEH, IMLS, LOC, Mellon, and others.

As access portals are built and information infrastructure is constructed, is vital for librarians, archivists, and curators to collaborate in the design of digital archives and repositories, in concert with computer engineers, data scientists, and programmers. However, when digital software or information system projects are required to sustain online collections, programmers and computer scientists are at the helm to update, migrate, and build these storage systems.

The trend to not hire librarians and archivists for libraries and archives is not limited to information infrastructure. Upper management and project leader positions are filled with business majors and project management institute certificates, regardless of their experience with libraries or MLS education. Even simple website modifications to increase online traffic and digital record use is offered to social media coordinators and basic programmers rather than public outreach librarians. The data and computational social science librarian for Stanford University Libraries is Dr. Ken Nakao, a Stanford graduate with a chemical engineering degree. The research data manager for New Castle Libraries in the United Kingdom, Dr. Chris Emmerson, gained his doctorate in Transportation Engineering.

Greg Jensen, software architect, working with UMD's Cyberinfrastructure Center to store records gifted by NARA.
Greg Jensen, software architect, working with UMD’s Cyberinfrastructure Center to store records gifted by NARA.

I correlate this recent trend to the current education offered in Master of Library of Science (MLS) programs. Despite our awareness in the 60’s and efforts in the 90’s to maintain electronic records, MLS programs have been slow to enact major modifications to their programs that will train students for the future. Interview current MLS students and those who received their degree in the last 5 years, and they quietly confess their degree did not adequately prepare them for the electronic record influx. Monitor any MLS program in the United States and abroad, and one will notice name modifications as well as slow yearly program revisions.

In the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, the MLS program has undergone multiple iterations through their “re-envisioning the MLS” efforts; this is reflected in the program’s Fall 2016 name change from Master of Library Science to Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS). While previous coursework centered on traditional archiving, the program now embraces more electives in digital curation and data management for libraries, offering a specialization in Archives and Digital Curation. Several universities have dropped “library” or “archival” from the name all together; for instance, the University of Iceland now offers the Master of Information Science with specialization options such as Electronic Records Management. When asked about the removal, Dr. Jóhanna Gunnlaugsdóttir admitted that employers outside libraries were confused or uninformed regarding the degree. Furthermore, graduates could only attain small reference positions within their own library institutions and failed to gain upward mobility.

While universities attempt to rebrand their programs to give students competitive advantage, course revisions arise slower. For many MLS programs, database or information system design is not a mandatory requirement, even though catalog records and digital collections are managed through these systems. Programming is an afterthought, despite many repositories and catalogs now providing Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). With probabilistic methods and algorithms, researchers in

Students attending an ArchivesSpace lecture by Dr. Adam Kriesberg outside of normal coursework
Students attending an ArchivesSpace lecture by Dr. Adam Kriesberg outside of normal coursework

the Traces through Time project at the National Archives (UK) are attempting connect people within genealogical records across collections and assign confidence that the connection is accurate, requiring major coursework in data science. Only recently have MLS programs strived to embed technology and data intensive skills into their programs, and many students elect to enroll by their own desire to attain well-paying jobs following graduation.

The opportunity to work with medieval transcripts in the rare book special collections is limited to a select few. It is time for MLS students to fully embrace available digital jobs and data management positions. As educators and industry professionals, it is time we admit that across the United States, Europe, South America, and Asia, the Master of Library and Information Science program is facing an identity crisis amongst the digital revolution, and students are facing the consequences.

Please take a moment to catch your breath and reflect on my message, however controversial you feel it is!

Good. I am aware that stating a problem is vastly different than solving a problem, in regards to simplicity and bureaucratic politics across the profession. With this in mind, I will be reflecting on existing/potential solutions over the next several paragraphs, which will include three major statements and explanations.

1. We need to offer and encourage students to enroll technology intensive courses and programs.

There was a time when textual processing and special collection courses supported students entering libraries and archives. However, as budgets are cut and libraries go digital, the path to sustainable and well-paying careers involves co-developing infrastructure to hold, curate, and provide access to online collections and data. To qualify for these careers, job listings require various programming languages, experience in information system design or web enabled databases, automation techniques, and data analysis.

There is an emerging coalition of librarians, archivists, and computer scientists, composed of researchers and educators from Canada, the UK, and the US, who are responding to the technological challenges by introducing computational methods to libraries and archives. Under the moniker of Computational Archive Science (CAS), the coalition is promoting an interdisciplinary field concerned with the application of computational methods and resources to sustain large-scale records/archives processing, analysis, storage, long-term preservation, and access. In this vein, the Library of Congress has recently explored the theme of “collections as data”, as seen in its conference September 27, 2016 titled Collections as Data: Stewardship and Use Models to Enhance Access. In the past two years, this coalition has strived to develop novel coursework to sustain MLS students in electronic record management and information careers.

Based on present research and problems faced by modern institutions, the coursework ranges from computational linguistics and network analysis to graph databases and big data infrastructure. To better equip students, MLS programs must introduce the theory and practice of managing digital born records and information objects at scale. The courses must expose students to technology, software, and techniques utilized by computer engineers and data scientists to sustain large record collections. Exposure includes physically working with these tools on existing collections and repositories at scale. A semester long practicum with institutional collections may be necessary to give students hand on experience with electronic record accession, processing, maintenance, migration, and storage.

In addition to offering more technologically intensive courses, MLS programs must mandate basic online information infrastructure courses. At a minimum, relational database or information system design should represent a core requirement. Electronic record management in digital repositories should take its place amongst the introduction courses. Even if students are disinterested in building infrastructure for online collections, they must be exposed to the technology.

2. We need research organizations/projects for students to gain digital skills and hands on experience

With coursework reflecting digital provenance theory, appraisal techniques, and OAIS standards, students need time to work through the motions of physically implementing digital projects and electronic preservation. This must include exposure to existing software and computer skills necessary to move electronic objects through the record lifecycle; this includes born-digital records and paper records digitized for preservation purposes. For optimum experience, students must be involved from project conception to completion and lessons learned, and have the opportunity to lead the project or make major project decisions

I work for the Digital Curation Innovation Center (DCIC) at the University of Maryland, an iSchool center dedicated to integrating research and education through Big Record and Archival Analytic partnerships. We have over 50 student volunteers who work on these projects to gain hand

Visualization analyzing archival data from US Holocaust men and women in 1940 France by created Yuting Lao, PhD, Information Science at University of Maryland

s on experience with curating digital collections, both born-digital and digitized, or building infrastructure to maintain records at scale. Students volunteer for the DCIC because they are able to experiment with industry software and techniques on projects provided by library and archival institutions. For example, in the Mapping Inequality Project, students digitize historical maps and stretch them across modern

google maps to understand geographical and societal changes. These maps were collected from the US National Archives through team digitization efforts. In the Overseas Pension Project, students digitally reunify US Civil War letters from foreign soldiers attempting to collect their veteran pensions, health records describing their various conditions, and state pension tables through graph and relational databases to improve genealogical services and understand important economic data. In the St. Louis Voyage Project, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum supplied data from patrons and users so that students could visualize the experience of the SS St. Louis and its passengers. Finally, in the DRAS-TIC Project (Digital Repository at Scale That Invites Computation), students are engaged in developing and testing innovative cyberinfrastructure that scales to billions of records and leverages distributed scalable NoSQL frameworks. In each project, MLS students are working with institutional professionals, fellow data scientists, and programmers to curate these historical collections and build infrastructures to maintain them.  Our institution is not unique in its endeavors, as the Digital Curation Centre in Edinburgh explores data curation and management in academic libraries.

With realistic research organizations and projects, students are equipped to handle the problems faced in implementing digital projects and preserving electronic records within their institutions. Furthermore, the students can point to physical project deliverables to say, “I designed that and I can design it for you.”

3. We need to collaborate with institutions to provide beneficial learning environments for students

The MLS field study can be the core foundation to student success in locating employment opportunities following graduation. Sadly, so many students view the field study as another program checkbox rather than the opportunity of a lifetime. This is likely due to the common practice of pairing students with institutions that give students the “busy work” of our profession or are unable to handle a student for the semester.

If MLS programs are demanding students to enroll in semester long courses that require 120 hours of

onsite institution work, then the environment must be rich and beneficial to the student, especially if the work is unpaid. Ideally, the environment must include technological elements and introduction to

St. Louis Voyage Project students meeting with USHMM coordinators and archivists
St. Louis Voyage Project students meeting with USHMM coordinators and archivists

systems for maintaining records. Furthermore, the student must work with employees facing modern institution problems, such as budget cuts or locating resources for funding. These experiences must instill leadership and decision making skills into the students so they are equipped to handle electronic record influxes with a diminishing budget.

In addition to rich internship experience, institutions must actively engage with MLS programs through coursework, projects, and funding. The DCIC actively works with the National Archives, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Library of Congress, and National Park Service to provide collections, experience, and funding for MLS students. The Michigan State Archives actively engages with the school of Information at the University of Michigan. In the summer, students at the University of Iceland can enroll into a course that involves visiting and researching libraries across the country. The need for collaboration was further echoed by US National Archives specialist Mark Conrad at IEEE Big Data conference in December. In his presentation Collaboration is the Thing Conrad encourages researchers and institutions to “kick the tires” on new technology and notes several examples of collaboration in action with NARA. When institutions interact with academic programs, the active learning benefits both organizations. Students are exposed to the modern problems facing archives and libraries and are equipped to tackle them while institutions have access to advantageous research and work pools.

Final Thoughts

I am not afraid to admit that my analysis could very well be incorrect or jaded. In the end, the separation between librarians/archivists and computer/data scientists might have value.  Recently, attending the 12th International Digital Curation Conference in Edinburgh, my attention was directed to applying digital curation workflows to data science, academic libraries, and STEM research. Following several presentations on data management plans, text mining, and archival software storage for biological data

Overseas Pension Project students presenting digital archive research to the International Digital Curation Conference
Overseas Pension Project students presenting digital archive research to the International Digital Curation Conference

, I commented to one of my student researchers, “I wish these types of courses were required in MLS programs so students could learn to work with this data and feel comfortable with such advance techniques.” I was shocked when they did not agree and responded that students did not necessarily join the MLS programs to build infrastructure for historical records or work in STEM driven libraries. After the conference, a different student admitted that they may drop the archives and digital curation specialization altogether because the presentations greatly modified their perception of working in modern libraries and archives.

As a previous NARA employee, federal librarian, and one semester MLS student, the student complaints of ill preparedness for library and archival careers in digitally motivated institutions haunts educators and research coordinators. I stand by my analysis; if we continue to separate librarians and archivists from technology, we put students at a severe disadvantage as archives, libraries and museums increasingly become digital, both through the influx of born-digital records and digitization of existing analogy collections.

It is time for library educators, archival professors, and program advisors to break from the past and modify their courses to include hand on experience with technology and project management. There is an urgency for MLS students to go beyond the theoretical study of provenance theory, OAIS standards, and managing textual records in cultural institutions. The MLS programs must swiftly implement information system courses, database design, and big data infrastructure into their programs, or at least offer a more technologically driven path. If current practice continues, we are knowingly setting up the students for failure despite our awareness of what the future holds.

As I read about the digital lab projects and library consortiums discussed in the Signal, I know universities and institutions are arming themselves for the digital revolution. I look forward to educators, industry professionals, and administrators collaborating to better train and equip their students to prepare for the fight. Librarians’ and archivists’ identity will remain constant as their mission is to preserve and provide access to information. The identity crisis is in the ability to continue the mission.

Comments (6)

  1. I agree with much of this. I don’t necessarily think that all or even most librarians should be able to do the nitty-gritty of programming, designing databases, etc., but knowing the basics and the lingo will help them work better with the IT people who will set up these things. If you don’t know what is possible, it is hard to even request what you want from a programmer or designer.

    Maybe it’s because I work more on the library side of things than the archives side these days, but I definitely think we need to keep the word “library” in our names, discussions, etc. Most people have a very strong POSITIVE gut reaction to the word, “library.” I have found that if you start with that, especially in advocacy efforts with legislators, you can catch their attention, and they are then willing to listen further to discussion of things like digital preservation, big data, and other things that we do. If you jump right in with terms like “information,” “data,” and “digital curation,” they just don’t have the same sort of emotional response, and it is more difficult to get them to engage.

  2. A lot of this resonates with me. While I took some basic tech classes offered at my institution, I was frankly scared of more of the tech courses as being out of my league. I work with digital records at a state archive now, but I didn’t specialize in them in graduate school and now regret it. Some digital initiatives are moving so fast and beyond anything I understand that I wonder if I’ll eventually be unable to keep up.

  3. While I don’t disagree with the points about the increasing relevance of technological education for librarianship, I feel inclined to point out that many ALA-accredited degree programs are not only aware of this need but actively addressing it. While Maryland may have finally added the “information” into its MLS degree in 2016, my degree from 10 years ago already incorporated that in both name and idea.

    Here at Syracuse University (where we have been the School of Information Studies since 1974!), our MSLIS students are drowning in course opportunities in topics like database and information system design, algorithmic thinking, data science, “big data” and more. We offer a Certificate in Data Science that students can earn as part of their MSLIS degree. Additionally, all students are required to do at least one internship, fostering both hands-on experience and collaboration with pertinent institutions.

    As a library educator, what I find is a different take on this issue: despite our robust tech education offerings, that is rarely what draws prospective students to the library profession or degree. Students want to work with medieval transcripts in the rare book special collections, and although we do our best to persuade them that the tech courses are crucial, that’s not what attracted them to librarianship in the first place. Conversely, people attracted to the technological topics are rarely interested in forgoing the earning potential of a tech career for a librarian’s salary. I think it’s less of an identity crisis problem and more one of societal value: until library salaries can attempt to even enter the same stratosphere, this imbalance will continue.

    So I find this blog post’s call for the implementation of things that already exist at Syracuse University and several other programs a bit disingenuous. I think instead it’s important that prospective students thoughtfully and systematically consider school to which they apply, and not just base their selections on which program is cheapest or whether or not its offered online (which seems to be much of the case these days). How do we match students who are interested and willing to take on the technological needs of the future of librarianship to the schools with strength in those areas, and match the students devoted to manuscripts and rare books to specialized programs that serve that niche?

  4. This is a wonderfully thought provoking post, Mary, and many thanks for raising the questions which need to be raised. It provokes me to comment in 3 concentric circles – starting with myself and moving out.

    1. I reflect first on my own experience. I am not an archivist or librarian. My qualifications are in archaeology and computing. So I fell into digital preservation almost by accident of having to manage complex data sets from fieldwork projects. I never really thought of it as an archive question at first: it was just something else I had to get on with in the context of supporting research. I think this aspect of ‘falling into digital preservation’ is a shared one. In fact it’s one of the appealing aspects of meeting people who work in this field – you can almost always get a cracking good story of how they ended up here. And no one (in my generation) had ‘digital archivist’ as a career option. That will change, and it will be for the better as the generations that follow can avoid all the crazy mistakes that I made. But in a practice in which risk is reduced by having multiple different perspectives, it would be to our detriment if we lost that diversity.

    2. I think then about the organization I now work for – the Digital Preservation Coalition. It’s part of our mission to build ‘competent and responsive workforces ready to address the challenges of digital preservation’. Note the focus is not on students or curricula but on professionals: but one of our favourite events each year is the ‘What I Wish I Knew Before I Started’ student conference. It looks like a conference but it’s more like a careers day, where we put people at the front line of digital preservation in front of students and ask them ‘what is your day really like’. When it works well it’s transformative about the student’s expectations and preparations, because it cuts through all the published research to core professional skills. It’s a simple forumla but it’s also a drop in the ocean. I wonder how we could maximise it.

    3. I think next about the times in which we live and our wider economic context. Here’s my unsubstantiated take on it. The early days of digital preservation (say 1995-2005) happened to coincide with a period of economic boom which we thought was just normal. Digital preservation grew up with certain assumptions of how the world would be, and what was reasonable to expect. The bottom fell out of those assumptions in 2008 with profound implications. Consider for example the widespread recruitment freeze and redundancy rounds that followed 2008-2011. Instead of hiring new starts with keen new digital skills, within about 18 months of the banking crisis employers started shedding many hundreds (globally thousands?) of archivists, conservators and librarians. The normal employment cycle stalled so, instead of recruiting from masters programmes, the first generation of new digital archivists were in fact re-deployed existing staff recruited from the global redundancy pool instead of tech-savy-developer-kids. (Masters programmes in digital preservation and curation have been closing at exactly the time these skills have been most needed.) Setting aside the morale crisis and freeze on wages, this pretty much blew any chance of a new profession as existing professional channels were reinforced. Digital preservation roles were inadvertently cast as non-technical by agencies who didn’t really understand it but were desperate to find work for staff: and salaries were fixed at levels congruent with library and archive posts and which inhibited the recruitment or retention of in-demand developer skills. Oh and the same analysis gives some background on the turn to ‘parsimonious preservation’ or ‘minimal effort ingest’ They are signs of the times. That’s my take on the history of DP, and very UK-centred. I am happy to be challenged: maybe US has been sheltered from this though? Can you see some of these phenomena within your own experience?

  5. Oh and have you seen the DIGCurV framework on professional skills? It derives from a European initiative but seems very strongly relevant to much of the conversation about what MLS courses need to do to adapt to this new world@ See for the skills framework; and for the project.

  6. What about people who graduated ten years ago. Why can’t more experienced people also take advantage of practical training opportunities. I have taken some classes but without actual work experience, it is impossible to break in. And I know I would be good at it. I would even do a six month low wage temp gig just for the experience. But those are only for recent grads or current students. I have considered lying and saying I am a student just so I could do the internship.

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