Convergence or Divergence in Education for the Information Professions: An Opinion Paper

by Thomas J. Galvin

This opinion paper has been prepared as a springboard for discussion at a panel session titled Convergence or Divergence in Education for the Information Professions: A Dialog Between Educators and Consumers, sponsored by ASIS SIG/ED, to be held on October 9, 1995, at the ASIS Annual Meeting in Chicago. Moderated by SIG/ED Chair Samantha Hastings, University of North Texas, panelists will include Miriam A. Drake, Dean and Director of Libraries, Georgia Institute of Technology; Timothy L. Ericson, Director, Archives and Special Collections, Golda Meir Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Thomas J. Galvin, Professor, Information Science & Policy, University at Albany-SUNY; F. William Summers, Professor, Library and Information Studies, Florida State University; and James G. Williams, Professor, Information Science, University of Pittsburgh. Following this article is a questionnaire to give ASIS members a chance to express their views before the Annual Meeting on some of the questions that the panel will address.

A long standing tension exists in education for the information professions between unification (convergence) and specialization (divergence). Exemplifying and exacerbating this tension are such persistently controversial issues as striking an optimal balance between theory and practice in professional curricula; the appropriate place, if any, in the curriculum for skills training; and whether the most important obligation of a professional school is to give students the practical knowledge and skills needed for entry-level jobs or to provide a theoretical base for lifelong career development? These issues are further complicated by the existence of multiple career entry paths and educational options for many categories of information professionals, by status hierarchies both within universities and within the information professions themselves, and by the historic division between educators and practitioners.

The Problem

This paper presents some persistent issues and unresolved questions in the education of information professionals, issues that can be characterized collectively under the broad rubric of "Convergence or Divergence" in professional education. The purpose is to identify forces within the field that tend to bring educational programs together, by contrast with forces that tend to separate academic programs leading to different information careers, or at least to information careers with different job titles.

Even at best, this continuing tension can never be fully resolved. But such tensions, if controlled, can serve to improve the quality of educational programs. By contrast, uncontrolled tension will result only in further fragmentation and weakening of both academic programs and of the profession itself. These issues of convergence or divergence in educational programs are best addressed through constructive dialogue between educators and practitioners, rather than by the schools simply resolving them unilaterally. Finally, the purpose of this paper is more to pose questions as a stimulus for meaningful discussion, rather than to offer definitive answers.

Is There a Unified Information Profession?

It is clearly fruitless to propose unified educational programs built on common intellectual foundations for the preparation of information professionals unless there is at least a perception of some degree of unity among practitioners in the several distinct information career specializations. If in the content of their work, software engineers believe that they share little or nothing in common with archivists, EDP managers or school library media specialists, then it makes no more sense for them to share common academic programs than it would for opticians to be trained alongside podiatrists or embalmers, who share only a common concern for the human body and its parts.

The forces of divergence and separatism have, for at least the last 40 years, been in the ascendant in information science education. Emerging specializations, such as information resource management, telecommunications network management, information systems design, information counseling and preservation, have been quick to distance themselves both educationally and occupationally from librarianship or archival administration. It is, of course, always incumbent on a newer occupation to emphasize the ways in which it differs from existing jobs, and by implication, the ways in which its methods are superior to those of the established fields. Consider the pains taken by clinical psychologists, clinical social workers and psychoanalysts, to distinguish themselves from psychiatrists. Compare the parallel efforts of the pioneer information scientists to distance their field, no matter how fuzzy its initial definition, from librarianship.

Separatism may, however, be only a transitional stage in the development of new career specializations, analogous perhaps to the manner in which schools of librarianship have typically responded in their curricula to such newer information technologies as non-print media, computers or microforms. Initially, these tended to be addressed in separate courses, often taught by adjunct practitioner-faculty with specialized knowledge of the new medium or machine. But over time, as these technologies became institutionalized in libraries, they also were incorporated into the standard library school curriculum. The special course in cataloging audio-visual media became, for example, a unit or two in a more general course in the organization of knowledge.

Will time bring a convergence of professional identity among archivists, records managers, systems analysts, MIS directors and GIS specialists? Or will it remain useful to distinguish both professionally and educationally between those whose primary focus is on the technology, such as programmers or telecommunications network designers, and those whose principal concern is the content of records and/or the end user, such as librarians or archivists?

Divergent Paths of Entry

A hallmark of the well-established professions like law or medicine is that they exert strict control over the content, quality and locus of academic preparation for the practice of those professions. The day has long passed when the aspiring lawyer could prepare for the bar by a combination of home study and apprenticeship. The modern counterpart of young Abe Lincoln would instead attend the Harvard Law School on a scholarship for the economically disadvantaged. Among the information professions, however, new entrants continue to emerge from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and career paths. The chief exception is librarianship, where the ALA-accredited MLS has become, if still not mandatory for initial professional employment, at least the essential credential for professional job mobility.

The "anything goes" approach to pre-service education is by no means characteristic only of the lower-paid, less prestigious information specializations such as public librarianship or archives. Well-paid corporate MIS directors, as well as their public sector IRM counterparts, commonly reach the tops of their respective career ladders with little or no formal academic preparation in information or computer science. So long as the information professions remain, for the most part, careers "open to the talents," they will likely continue to be characterized by highly diverse entry pathways, and by the absence of common educational requirements as minimum qualifications either for initial employment or career advancement. Archivists, in particular, have recently given a good deal of serious thought to narrowing the pathways for pre-service education, and their analysis of the issues is potentially applicable to a broad range of information-related careers. (1)

The Current Educational Melange

Along with the spectacular growth that characterized the job market for information professionals (particularly in the private sector) over the last four decades has come an explosive proliferation of academic programs offered by a wide range of colleges and universities as preparation for information related careers. Reflecting the shift in the domestic economy from a manufacturing to a service and information focus, business schools have initiated or expanded undergraduate and MBA specializations in management information systems. Graduate programs in public administration have added MPA concentrations in information resource management. Geography departments have developed specialized curricula in geographic information systems. And, as traditional public sector library job markets have dried up, schools of librarianship have been struggling, with varying degrees of success, to convert themselves from single product industries into multipurpose schools of the information professions.

The University of Pittsburgh is a striking case in point. In only 25 years (a mere nanosecond as time is measured in the academic world), Pittsburgh's School of Library & Information Science has grown from 541 graduate students enrolled in two library science degree programs (MLS and Ph.D.) under a full-time faculty of 21 in 1970 to a total enrollment of 736 undergraduate and graduate students pursuing 10 different information-related degrees and certificates, with a full-time faculty of 35 in 1995.(2)

With bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in library science, information science and telecommunications, as well as specialized curricula in school library-media management, archives and assorted other lines of professional career endeavor, Pittsburgh has consciously transformed itself into a comprehensive school of the information professions. Syracuse, Drexel, Albany and many other library schools have followed Pitt's lead, with varying degrees of success, as a preferred alternative to voluntary extinction.

But no school, no matter its size, has yet succeeded in developing a campus-wide monopoly. Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Albany all continue to offer what many students and employers consider more desirable academic alternatives outside the LIS school. In the 1980s, for example, the University of Pittsburgh simultaneously established master's level degree programs in telecommunications in both the School of Library and Information Science and in the Graduate School of Business. At approximately 16,000 students, the University at Albany, hardly a giant among research universities, continues to prepare information professionals in the Computer Science and Geography and Planning departments of its College of Arts and Sciences, as well as in its Schools of Business, Public and International Affairs, and in the former library school, now renamed the School of Information Science and Policy.

Divergent academic loci for entry level professional education result in what must, for employers and people outside the field, be a baffling proliferation of credentials. Master of Library Science, Master of Information Resources Management, Geographic Information Specialist, MBA with or without an MIS specialization, Master of Public Administration, Master of Telecommunications, Master of Archival Studies, BS in IS, or in MIS, to name only a few. Imagine if medicine or social work or nursing were characterized by a similar variety. The implications for the person in need of care would be staggering. Society has enough trouble now distinguishing among psychiatrists, with MDs, psychologists with Ph.D.s, and clinical social workers with MSWs.

Do we, as information professionals, really want to continue to confuse both prospective employers and potential clients by this hodgepodge of degrees and certificates? Evidently we do.

The Case for Divergence

In LIS schools offering a variety of credentials at several levels (undergraduate, first professional, doctoral), it is not surprising to find a corresponding diversity of curricula. What is surprising is that the same array of curricular options is often found even in those schools and departments of library and information studies that offer only a single credential, the first professional degree in librarianship.

Most common are two separate curricular tracks, one in general library and information studies and the other in school library media services. The latter are often tailored to specific state teacher-librarian certification requirements, which vary substantially from state to state. The University at Albany, with a masters level student population of 167 and a full time faculty of 13, is currently struggling to support two master's degrees - MLS and MSIS - and within the MLS program specialized curricular tracks in school library-media services, archives/records administration, health sciences IRM, as well as an undergraduate concentration in information science. And, in their spare time, the faculty co-sponsor and support an interdisciplinary information science Ph.D. program with five other schools and departments.(3) In my observation, Albany is fairly typical of LIS programs generally in its faculty size and programmatic diversity.

The current programmatic variety can be sustained in a higher education environment characterized by scarce resources only by considerable overlap in curricular content. If the same courses are considered applicable to the preparation of librarians, records managers, archivists and information brokers, then logic would suggest that those specializations perhaps have more similarities among them than they have differences. If it is possible to craft a single core curriculum to prepare information professionals to fill positions as varied as elementary school library media specialist, corporate chief information officer, historical society preservation specialist, then is there reason to hope that, with time and effort, it might be possible to construct a unified curriculum to prepare MIS directors, computing center user services specialists, reference librarians and state government information resource managers?

It might be possible. But the yin of the quest for a common intellectual foundation for the several information professions is everywhere counterbalanced by the yang of academic empire building and by a resource allocation system in higher education that rewards territorialism and discourages collaboration. What could change this situation? What would motivate universities to get their academic acts together and to substitute strong, unified academic programs in information studies for those that are currently scattered, fragmented and often chronically under-supported?

The answer, of course, is the customers! If alumni, employers, professional societies, accrediting agencies and prospective students all demanded convergence and unification, universities, in this time of intense competition for bodies to fill seats, would unquestionably respond. But this is unlikely to happen so long as the community of practice continues to believe that it derives more benefit from divergence than it would from convergence.

Why should this be the case? One obvious answer is the quite legitimate need of practitioners for occupational identity and for professional status. It is widely believed (although not universally true) that specialized academic degrees lend prestige and status to an occupation and that jobs requiring a graduate degree for entrance are more prestigious and better compensated than those one can enter with a bachelor's degree. At Pittsburgh, for example, one of the first LIS programs to develop a separate degree in telecommunications, the most compelling arguments to offer a new MST degree, as distinct from the MSIS, were grounded in the understandable wish of graduates to possess a distinctive credential that, in the immediate post-divestiture mid-1980s, was in high demand among employers, at a time when demand for programmers and systems analysts, at least locally, had begun to slacken. Add to this pressure from corporate employers and a willingness on the part of the telecommunications industry and its trade association to provide money, equipment and personnel to mount a new program in telecommunications, and presto! - a new specialized degree was born! It seemed very unlikely at that time (1985) that such resources would have been available to broaden the scope of the existing information science program to include telecommunications, although, in hindsight, this might have made better pedagogical sense.

Indeed, even the original decision, made in the early decades of this century, to move education for librarianship from on-the-job, apprenticeship training to university settings, as well as the decision in the late 1940s to raise the entry level ante from a four year bachelor's degree in library science to a fifth year master's degree, can both more easily be accounted for by professional status considerations than by any pedagogical rationale. The core courses I took as an MLS student at Simmons College in 1954 were identical in content to those taken by Simmons undergraduates in the final year of their (now discontinued) BLS program. Even Lester Asheim, that eloquent advocate for upgrading professional education in librarianship, was forced to admit, after the transition from BLS to MLS, that many of the so-called new courses turned out to be only "the old courses with new names."

There is one further status issue peculiar to the information field, one currently being hotly debated among library educators and librarians - the issue of "the L word." Blaise Cronin initiated the most recent round of this controversy at the February 1995 conference of the Association for Library and Information Science Education, with a passionate denunciation of "the shrill, and frequently irrational, defense of the word library in the face of compelling arguments to re-title our schools and re-focus our academic programs." Library Journal's Editor in Chief, John Berry, promptly picked up the gauntlet by counseling his readers that "if the school or program to which you send potential library leaders from your community or staff decides to drop the 'L' word, urge those students to enroll elsewhere." A month later, Cronin's decanal predecessor at Indiana University, Herbert White, awarded Berkeley a failing grade in the truth-in-advertising test by virtue of the absence of the word library from the new name of its School of Information Management and Systems.(4) Even the American Library Association seems to be selling out, having in January of this year renamed its former Standing Committee on Library Education; henceforth, it will be known simply as the Committee on Education. (5)

It is unpleasant to face the reality of the negative image of library science and librarianship on campus, especially in the major research universities. But the fact is that professions higher on the academic pecking order, like business, computer science and even public administration, have often been unwilling to join forces with library science, fearing a loss of prestige. Cronin may indeed be on to something when he observes that "It is probably not coincidental that many of the most innovative and research oriented schools in both the US and UK (Berkeley, Sheffield, Syracuse) have removed the "L" word from their titles and flagship academic programs. (6)

Theory, Practice, Vocationalism, Application

Early on, I identified theory and principle vs. application and practice, along with preparation for the first job vs. preparation for a lifetime career, as persistent tensions both within education for the information professions, and between educators and practitioners. Both, in turn, are directly related to the more fundamental convergence or divergence paradigm. Quite simply, the more narrowly specialized curricula and courses become, the more likely they are to teach skills, techniques and practical tips, not so much at the expense of theory, but because there is simply little or no theory that is narrowly specific to telecommunications network design or to surfing the Internet. One must, after all, fill the 15-week semester with something! (7)

There is surely no sin in vocationalism in a professional program of study. Librarianship, archival administration, records management, information brokering, are, like all professions, applied disciplines. Having once long ago, before information technology liberated me from dependence on a secretary, made the mistake of hiring one who turned out to have studied only "the theory of shorthand," I am not now likely to choose to have my appendix removed by a physician whose knowledge is limited to "theory of the appendectomy." Like all of the issues presented in this paper, theory vs. application is not an "either-or" choice, but a matter of "some of both." The question worth asking then is, how much of each? What is the optimal mix? And how does that optimal mix change over time, with changing conditions in the field?

In the 1960s, when resources were relatively abundant and credentialed graduates were scarce, schools of the information professions were able to rely more heavily on employers to provide a professional finishing school for new graduates than they can today, when the supply-demand ratio has been reversed. Thirty years ago, the new MLS entering an urban public library system could, with confidence, count on there already being at least two experienced professionals in any branch. Today, a single professional, often a new graduate, is likely to be the only professional overseeing one or more branches. There is simply nobody there to learn the practical techniques from! Small wonder students demand that we teach them everything they will ever need to know to be librarians, or archivists or information managers, or that they conclude that if it is good for a new information professional to know one programming language or one set of database searching protocols, it must be twice as good to know two, and four times as good to know four.

For information professionals seeking a first job today, the cruel catch-22 is that, if all beginning jobs require experience, then how is the new professional ever supposed to gain that experience? Internships are, at best, a partial solution. There are fewer good internships available, because good internships are expensive to provide, and neither the schools nor prospective host institutions have any spare cash available to pay for them. The extended master's program, librarianship's original proposed solution to the problem of building an internship component into the curriculum, appears not to have caught on, because employers were simply not prepared to recognize an extra term or two of study by a higher starting salary. If graduates of a one-year master's program are paid the same as graduates of a two-year program, why take a two-year degree?

So, the pressure grows on the schools - from anxious students at one end to more demanding employers on the other - to cram more and more practical, vocational content into the pre-service curriculum. And information technology, which ought to liberate the professional from low-level drudgery, instead requires of the student only more and more hours at the terminal devoted to mastery of the more and more arcane protocols expected of the contemporary keyboard virtuoso.(8)

A Case for Convergence

The argument for convergence among educational programs is most simply stated in pragmatic terms. Diversity, duplication and fragmentation are costly for universities and confusing to employers and to the general public - who at best have only a fuzzy notion of what information professionals do or what information science might be about. Divergence and fragmentation commonly result in weak, inadequately staffed, underfunded academic programs. Such programs typically do not encourage or reward faculty for doing research. Small, weak, isolated, low prestige, underfunded programs are easy targets for elimination in difficult financial times.

Weak, marginal programs also add little to the prestige of practicing information professionals. Such programs tend to be not only financially, but intellectually, impoverished. Not only is little theory-building done in such programs, but even the small body of theoretical knowledge that is specific to information science is often neglected. How many new graduates from MLS, MIS, records management, archival studies or computer science programs can give a satisfactory account of Bradford's law of scattering, of McGregor's Theory X and Theory Y, of the concept of marginal cost as applied to information products and services, of Shannon and Weaver's communication model, of the life cycle of information or of the significance of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States for the management of personally identifiable data? Yet these are the forms of knowledge that will remain useful, long after UNIX, SGML and object-oriented programming languages are reduced to the status of historical artifacts in the museum of computing curiosities.

Contrary to the popular wisdom, specialization and unique academic credentials in reality often serve to narrow and limit, rather than to enhance, both career options and job mobility for new entrants. The excessive curricular emphasis on skills and techniques that is often characteristic of highly specialized academic programs can rather quickly doom the new professional to technological obsolescence. To center a professional curriculum on current information technology is truly to build it on sand. Moreover, for the last 20 years, increasing numbers of graduates of traditional LIS programs have sought employment in non-traditional (i.e., "non-library") environments. Just as the "site specific" Master of Hospital Administration degree gives new management professionals far fewer career options than does the generic MBA, so, too, holders of the MLS often find that credential quite limiting when they present themselves as candidates for jobs in organizations other than libraries.

The same forces that are rapidly obliterating traditional distinctions between different jobs in professional practice are perhaps the strongest drivers towards the unification of educational programs - the convergence of formerly separate information technologies and the continuing migration of data and information to exclusively electronic formats. The impact on the information professions is perhaps best illustrated by the migration of public records from print to electronic formats that is increasingly obscuring the traditional boundary between the domain of the records manager and the domain of the archivist.(9)

Consider, as well, the impact of the evolution from mainframe to distributed, networked computing on the content of the computing services professional's work day. Within the working lifetime of many of today's computing professionals, the central focus of their jobs has shifted from feeding, watering, monitoring and protecting large machines to instructing end users in techniques that, 20 years ago, were the exclusive province of the credentialed computer scientist.

Surely, universities cannot, or at least should not, continue to educate any group of information professionals in intellectual isolation from others whose work is becoming increasingly contiguous and interrelated. Given the change in the basic content of the computing professional's day, it may, for example, make better sense to educate computing center user services staff in the same classes in which reference librarians are prepared, rather than in courses in compiler design or advanced data structures.

Convergence or divergence? Consolidation or fragmentation of academic programs? Proliferation or rationalization of academic credentials? How much specialized education and training, and at what point? Striking the right balance between principle and application, not merely for this particular moment in the development of information organizations, but for a lifetime professional career. Keeping the educational establishment in tune with a dynamic and fluid environment of professional practice. These are the issues that divide us, and they are the issues that we, as responsible information professionals, have no choice but to engage.

Thomas J. Galvin is professor of information science and policy at the University at Albany-SUNY.
  1. Society of American Archivists, Committee on Automated Records and Techniques Curriculum Development Project, "Final Report," American Archivist 56 (Summer 1993), 468-505, and Society of American Archivists, Committee on Education and Professional Development, Revised Draft Guidelines for the Development of a Curriculum for a Master of Archival Studies Degree, Chicago: SAA, 1994.
  2. Information supplied by Susan Webreck Alman, School of Library & Information Science, University of Pittsburgh, May 16, 1995. It's interesting to note that while overall enrollment in the School was increasing from 541 to 736 students (+36%), enrollment in the MLS program was actually decreasing from 425 to 242 (- 43%). Thus the overall enrollment shift in 25 years is far greater than mere headcounts would indicate. Dr. Alman also points out that the data understate current faculty strength, because adjuncts and teaching assistants are not included.
  3. Six schools and departments of the University at Albany co-sponsor its Information Science doctoral program - the School of Business, the College of Arts and Science (Computer Science, Geography & Planning and Communication Departments), the School of Information Science and Policy and the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.
  4. Blaise Cronin, "Shibboleth and Substance in North American Library and Information Science Education," Libri, forthcoming; John N. Berry III, "Confronting Cronin's Complaint," Library Journal, March 15, 1995, p. 6; Herbert S. White, "Library Studies or Information Management - What's In a Name," Library Journal, April 15, 1995, pp. 51-2.
  5. The name change is reported in Prism, 3 (Winter, 1995), 2.
  6. Cronin, p. 3. What Cronin fails to recognize is that some of the schools that attempted to "decouple almost entirely from the LIS heartland" are also no longer in existence. The trick is to add new constituencies while preserving existing ones.
  7. I'm reminded of a remark by the late Paul Duncan at a meeting in the 1960s of what was then the Association of American Library Schools, when Duncan was professor of what was then called "cataloging" in what was then called "the library school" at Rutgers University. Toward the end of a long and rather dreary afternoon of shop talk among teachers of cataloging, liberally laced with the polysyllabic behavioral objectives then in vogue, it came finally Duncan's turn to talk about how he taught the beginning course in cataloging at Rutgers. "It's simple," he said. "I have every student catalog 150 books!" After a moment or two of stunned collective silence, I suggested that some students might finish their 150 books before the term was over. What, I asked, did Professor Duncan offer those superior students by way of intellectual stimulation and enrichment? "I give them," Duncan responded, "150 more!"
  8. On the tyranny of technology, see Margaret F. Stieg. "Technology and the Concept of Reference, or What Will Happen to the Milkman's Cow"? Library Journal, April 15, 1990, p. 47.
  9. Charles M. Dollar, "Archivists and Records Managers in the Information Age," Archivaria 36 (Autumn 1993), 37-51.


Convergence or Divergence in Education for the Information Professions

This short anonymous questionnaire is intended to gather opinions from ASIS members on several key questions about education that will be addressed at an October 9 SIG/ED sponsored panel session at the 1995 ASIS Annual Meeting. You are encouraged to complete the questionnaire and return it, before September 30, 1995, to Thomas J. Galvin, Draper 118, University at Albany, Albany, NY 12222. Please attend the panel session to hear a summary of the views expressed and to share additional insights with us in person.

Please circle the number that best reflects your beliefs according to the scale indicated here:

Strongly   Moderately   Mildly    Mildly  Moderately   Strongly
disagree   disagree     disagree  agree   agree        agree
	1          2        3        4       5             6	
1. The existence of multiple academic degree programs (e.g., Master of Library Science, Master of Science in Information Science, Master of Science in Telecommunications, Bachelor of Information Science, etc.) offered by different disciplines (e.g., schools or departments of Library Science, Information Science, Business, Computer Science, etc.) does a disservice to students by confusing employers and/or limiting students' career options.
1	2	3	4	5	6
2. There is an identifiable common core of knowledge that is shared by all (or most) of the different specialties within the information field and that should be included in all academic programs for preparing information professionals.
1	2	3	4	5	6
3. The four-year bachelor's degree in an information-related discipline, rather than the master's degree, should be the appropriate credential for those seeking entry level jobs in the information field.
1	2	3	4	5	6
4. The most important obligation of professional schools is to prepare new graduates to become fully functioning information professionals in the shortest possible time after they are hired.
1	2	3	4	5	6
5. Academic programs leading to a first degree in information science should put much less emphasis on theory and much more emphasis on practical applications.
1	2	3	4	5	6
6. Universities should be encouraged to develop specialized entry level curricula for such different jobs as telecommunications specialist, MIS director, archivist, records manager, librarian, etc.
1	2	3	4	5	6
7. Universities should be encouraged to offer distinctive and different academic degrees for such different jobs as telecommunications specialist (Bachelor or Master of Telecommunications), MIS director (Bachelor or Master of Information Management), archivist (Master of Archival Studies), librarian (Master of Library Science), etc.
1	2	3	4	5	6
8. In designing educational programs for entry level information professionals, schools should prepare those who want to focus primarily on information technology, such as software engineers or programmers, differently from those who want to focus primarily on the content of records or on end users, such as librarians or archivists.
1	2	3	4	5	6
Please provide the following information about yourself:

9. Would you describe yourself primarily (i.e., in terms of your principal source of income) as (CHECK ONE):

10. What is your highest earned academic degree? 11. In which of the following information-related disciplines do you hold an earned degree (CHECK ALL THAT APPLY): 12. Please add any other comments you may have on any of the educational issues identified in this questionnaire or in the accompanying opinion paper: