Can information professionals afford apprenticeships? A thought experiment

I have a gift for picking despised professional niches. I used to run institutional repositories, and if there’s a niche in academic librarianship more despised than that, I’m honestly not sure what it might be. From the frying pan into the fire—now I teach library school. If nothing else, I’ve greatly expanded the universe of librarians and archivists who despise my work!

Critiques of library school, even fairly savage ones, are nothing new; they’re an ordinary occupational hazard. (I used to write them myself, back in the day.) What’s more, critiques often come from the best, the brightest, and the most employable, those whose skillsets pre-MLS overlap most with what many libraries need: the Ph.Ds, the expert programmers and sysadmins, the experienced administrators. Given that, the worst response I could possibly muster would be empty Trithemius-like chest-thumping transparently aimed at protecting my own job: but tradition! but ethics! but the intellectual core of the profession! The best and the brightest would eviscerate me, and I’d deserve it. If what I do doesn’t serve the information professions, much less those who work in them, I have outlived my usefulness and should be put out by the curb for recycling. That’s only right.

So I’ve no intention of defending library-school curricula or library-school pedagogy in this column. That horse has been beaten to an indiscriminate zombie pulp already, many a time. Besides, I can’t reasonably defend everyone’s curriculum or everyone’s pedagogy; like any self-reflective teacher, I have days I wonder whether I even dare defend my own. I won’t assert that every library job currently requiring or desiring an MLS needs someone with MLS training, either; that’s an immediately-indefensible argument, considering the strong presence of non-MLS workers from rural libraries to research libraries.

What I’d rather do is examine a named alternative, apprenticeship, a little more closely. The grass may indeed be greener, but if it’s anything like my yard now that spring has finally sprung in earnest, it’s also full of choking weeds.

Let’s first recognize that apprenticeships already exist, beyond the practicums that many library schools offer (and some, the one I teach in included, require). Quite a few academic libraries have two-year post-MLS internships, for example, and many archives offer internships as well. Should these be the new on-ramp into the profession? I see no show-stopping reason internships couldn’t be extended into public and special libraries as well. Some positions aren’t suitable—K-12 and public-library youth services, with their strict in loco parentis obligations, might well prefer some pre-weeding of their employment pools—but many are.

I’ve had former students do brilliantly in post-MLS internships in academic and government libraries. What I notice about the internship programs in which my students have excelled is that they’re carefully designed to fulfill interns’ need to make their mark quickly within the profession: earmarked professional-development funds, readymade mentoring, tough-love requirements for professional authorship and service. Absent the MLS, I believe the training and mentoring needs, and associated costs, inherent to these apprenticeships would only increase. (They wouldn’t increase for every conceivable apprentice, true. Across the entire pool of apprentices, I do believe employer costs would increase, if only because of the longer initial learning curve, not to mention the need to cross-train for career flexibility if we want professionals and not mere Taylorist worker bees. I’m open to challenge on this point!) This means is that the best-designed apprenticeships will shift the costs of building professional onramps, from the future professional currently paying library-school tuition to the professions themselves. Can the professions afford that? I don’t know.

I also notice that good internships are not the only kind of internships out there. Some of my archives-track students lament that internships are all they can find once they graduate—not all they can land, all they can find in the jobs listings, suggesting that at least some archives are consciously and intentionally relying on contingent labor. If that weren’t bad enough, a worrisome number of those internships are Dickensianly abusive, not in the slightest aimed at making interns more competitive for permanent employment. (The same, my former students tell me, is sometimes true of other apprenticeship-like arrangements in archives, such as part-time and limited-term jobs.) In other words, apprenticeships offer considerable opportunity to exploit those who wish to work in libraries and archives. This is nothing new in business and industry, of course, in the chase to reduce labor costs as near zero as makes no odds; the Internal Revenue Service, ironically, is the exploited intern’s last line of defense these days. Academe knows the phenomenon as well: the adjunctification of undergraduate teaching. I’m not at all sure “as cheap as possible” is a labor model we want to see penetrate the information professions any more than it already has, however. It doesn’t just harm the interns themselves, unconscionable though that is; it drives down the price of all professionals, as their putative employers rely on intern-mills instead.

It’s no coincidence that the technologically-savvy often show the worst contempt for library schools, incidentally. They would likely gain most by the elimination of the MLS, since libraries and archives do not usually pay market price for technologists; the MLS serves as a clear signal that libraries and archives need not do so, in fact, because MLS-holding technologists wouldn’t bother with the MLS if all they wanted was market price for their existing skills! Even where libraries and archives do manage to squeeze out more dollars for technologists, even where they prefer but do not require the MLS, the results are not typically competitive in the larger labor market. Without the MLS, however, market logic would return in force. Technologists would rejoice! Everyone else in libraries and archives… well, the money pool isn’t expanding, so the math would seem obvious.

Perhaps appropriate formal and informal supervision by the profession could stop the abuses, existing and potential, of “labor-lite” models such as paid and unpaid internships. It hasn’t entirely halted them so far (am I the only one who remembers the howling over Library Corps?), but in an MLS-less world, the scrutiny currently lavished on keeping library schools honest, from job-placement surveys to top-ten lists to accreditation, could be trained on apprenticeships instead. But we have all this oversight now, one might object, and library schools are still awful! Indeed. Does that mean apprenticeships—including for those desperately-wanted technologists—will be awful as well? It seems a Faustian bargain, particularly if the information professions want the best and brightest, rather than merely the cheapest and most vulnerable to abuse.

Apprenticeships, particularly unpaid ones, raise another spectre as well: privilege and social justice within the information professions’ labor force. If we glance next door to computing and its supposed “meritocracy,” we find quickly that women, ethnic minorities, and other oppressed groups find themselves shut out for various reasons, some of which the information professions have unfortunately inherited as they import non-MLS technologists. Library schools haven’t solved these issues as they relate to access to the information professions, but we do work to mitigate them: targeted recruiting, scholarships, prizes, and grants are important parts of the picture, of course, but so are time-shifted distance education and technology education designed for the non-programmer. Can apprenticeships escape the bonds of geography, as distance programs do? Can they promote appropriate representation within the professions without falling afoul of anti-affirmative-action movements in state legislatures? How free can apprenticeship’s selection processes be of unconscious bias, given that hiring committees meet their prospects before judging them? Can they improve on library-school admissions, where evaluators generally do not meet candidates until well after admitting them? (Granted, I wish the applications I review had names redacted, since I’m as vulnerable to unconscious bias as any; even so, I do appreciate what I don’t know about those applicants, and I also work hard to acknowledge and minimize my own unconscious bias.) Whatever qualification system the information professions choose, I think we can agree that we don’t want it to reinscribe the same old patterns of oppression that libraries and archives exist in part to help redress.

My last words to the many, many professionals who despise my work, then: I’m sorry, but you are not my most pressing clientele, you who would do just fine in the information professions without me. Make no mistake, I enjoy teaching you, I learn a lot from you that I pass on to my other students, and I do earnestly try not to waste your time and money. Substantially, though, my mission—and, I think, that of the MLS, however poorly we manage it in practice—ranges alongside that of a community college: to open doors to as many as possible, not just those already suited to the profession because of prior privilege or even prior experience, not just those who can buy their way in through donating unpaid labor. Groups that would be disadvantaged by an apprenticeship system, or any system that lets some but not others bypass the MLS, may not include you, but I will make bold to assert that they do include some of your colleagues, and you are not necessarily more important to the profession than they are.

Apprenticeships might be able to serve such folk also—paid apprenticeships, if the profession can afford them, might well have an inherent advantage over library schools, even—but it will take quite a bit of conscious thought and design first.

Note: This post is copyright 2013 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”