An Interview with 2006–07 ALISE: President Connie Van Fleet

Diane Zabel

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Connie Van Fleet is well known to RUSQ readers. She edited the journal (in conjunction with Danny P. Wallace) for twelve years. Upon completing her final term as editor, she assumed leadership for the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE). ALISE is the premier organization for faculty teaching in graduate programs in library and information science in North America. Connie graciously took time out of her busy schedule to respond to my questions about library education and LIS students.

All of a sudden librarianship is becoming portrayed as a hot occupation. Last spring, U.S. News & World Report (see “The Best Careers for 2007,” in the issue dated March 19, 2007) ranked librarianship as one of the top twenty-five careers for 2007. This summer, the New York Times (see “A Hipper Crowd of Shushers,” in the July 8, 2007 issue) ran a story on how librarianship is becoming a career choice for Generation Xers. Have library schools noticed a marked increase in applications over the last year or two?

I loved those articles and really got quite a kick out of sharing the NYT piece with my students. It’s great to see librarianship getting attention and respect. I think those articles, however, reflect recognition of a trend, rather than drive enrollment figures. Enrollment in ALA-accredited programs has been increasing steadily since an inexplicable dip in 1999. In fact, according to the ALISE statistics, enrollment in accredited masters’ programs grew by about 8% per year between 1999 and 2006, resulting in an increase of over 65%. The 2007 statistics have just been collected from the schools and have not yet been analyzed, but it is my sense that this upward trend is continuing.

Who is attending graduate programs in library and information science these days? Is there a demographic profile of the typical student enrolled in a master’s degree program? Is librarianship a second career for many individuals?

There is a very diverse group of individuals who attend graduate programs in library and information science for a variety of reasons. The profession may still be overwhelmingly female and white, but we are seeing more men and ethnic groups represented in the program. I think the data gathered in Fall 2006 probably gives a pretty accurate picture of this year’s class. It shows that enrollment in MLIS programs was 71% female and 29% male. Of those students for whom ethnicity data is reported (such reporting is illegal in Canada), 74% of the students were identified as white, with about 4.4% black, 4.34% Hispanic, and 3.37% Asian. Nearly 5% were international students. Perhaps the most dramatic change is in the age of those attending graduate programs in library and information science: 40% were under the age of 30; 69% were under 40; and 87% under 50 years old. The majority (73.7%) of students reside in the state or province in which they attend school.

Librarianship still remains a second career for many individuals. We don’t have statistics on students who come into our programs with advanced degrees or from other careers, but my experience at three different universities and my impression from speaking with other faculty indicate that a number of students come to us from a variety of professions, including law, music, education, business, and retail sales. We also see a number of library workers who enroll in school for advancement or professional development.

It appears that there has been an explosion in online course offerings in library and information science. Are there data on how many students are enrolled in distance versus residential programs? Are there some master’s degree programs that are a hybrid? Has ALISE or any other body sponsored research evaluating the quality of online programs?

We don’t have figures that indicate the balance of enrollment in distance and residential programs that have been aggregated on the national level, nor do we have directly comparable data on those enrollments. ALISE is currently working on a project to evaluate the data elements we collect for the ALISE Statistical Report, so this is certainly an area for us to look at.

The Statistical Report does tell us that well over 80% of schools with ALA accredited master’s programs offer distance education courses in a variety of formats. Web courses are the most frequently offered: nearly 1,100 sections were offered in academic year 2004–2005. On-site but off campus face-to-face courses remain popular and were the next most frequently offered, followed by hybrid or multimedia courses and video. Many programs offer a combination of on-site instruction and other delivery mechanisms. Some others have completely separate online programs. The majority of online programs, however, require some sort of intensive, on-campus experience.

There have been several research studies that explore the quality of online programs. The WISE (Web-based Information Science Education) project is a consortium of schools that works to enhance online pedagogy as well as to share courses. (See www.wiseeducation.org/home_p-home.aspx) Perhaps the most influential factor in program quality, however, is the ALA Committee on Accreditation. The ALA Standards for Accreditation require that schools meet the same standards of quality in their distance education programs as they do in their on-campus programs.

Is there a core curriculum in library and information science? If so, what does it look like? I am sure RUSQ readers would be interested in learning whether or not reference (if it is still known as that) is generally a required course.

This is an area that seems to provoke a great deal of discussion. Is there a course by course congruence among the required courses in all of the ALA accredited programs? No. Are the basic concepts outlined in the ALA Standards for Accreditation found across all of the programs? Yes. I found Renee McKinney’s analysis of curricula of ALA accredited schools and the ALA Draft Core Competencies very revealing. She found that nearly 95% of the schools offered courses to address all eight of the core competencies. Ironically, for those who keep up with such concerns, a Knowledge Organization course was required in all but one of the ALA schools (and that one not yet fully accredited).

“Reference” is not mentioned in the ALA core competencies, but it seems to fall under “Knowledge Dissemination: Service.” According to McKinney’s analysis, nearly 75% of the programs offer a required course in this area.

In my quick review of curricula of ALA accredited programs, the majority of programs (34) have a “reference” course as a core requirement and another few include the course as a guided (or second tier) elective. That is, reference is one of a second level of required courses. Another eight offer such a course as an elective. I defined a reference course as one that, regardless of its title, included the components of a basic reference course: exploration of users and user needs, interpersonal interaction and question analysis, and information resources and retrieval processes. By far the most frequently used course title is some iteration of “information sources and services.” Variations of “reference and information services” or just plain “reference” are still used in many schools. I cannot estimate how many students and faculty use “reference” as shorthand for more elaborately titled courses, but I think the practice is fairly widespread.

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