British Columbia Library Association

More than just the credential: Job-readiness and library education in British Columbia

By Christina Neigel

There are a number of different ways to think about 21st-century library work, particularly because it is caught up in the complex tapestry of social problems, politics, environment, and technology. While the field has generally put a great deal of emphasis on library schools and technician programs for preparing future library workers, these programs are not only responding to needs within the field, they are also engaged in their own unique struggles. While some of these struggles have little to do with the practice of library work, many of them are informed by the same societal shifts that have “rocked” the library world. For example, decreasing public dollars and increasing quality assurance practices require that both libraries and higher education programs spend more time justifying their existence with fewer resources and greater accountability. Despite these pressures, library workers and the education programs that serve them continue to evolve – seeking new ways to serve their respective communities while creatively working within broader, and increasingly complex, cultural contexts.


Within education, there is a powerful tension in balancing competencies with a need to nurture the less easily measured diversity in students’ intellectual experiences. Competency-based education/training essentially means that students are assessed using predetermined outcomes. This approach is used by many accredited professional programs including nursing and education. The struggle is to balance our existing understanding of what is needed with unplanned and, even, accidental learning that emerges when students discover things based on what they need or want. Further, a reliance on competencies that are determined by what we already know and experience does not, necessarily, prepare us for the unknown – our future. Working solely from a competency paradigm, students are measured by behaviours and outputs that may fail to encourage reflection and imagination. This tension is one that library educators must negotiate carefully so that learning does not become compartmentalized. The process requires educators to balance practical skills, employer interests and expectations with broader educational goals that assist students in thinking deeply, creatively and critically. These endeavors also require educators to create spaces for the unintended learning that must develop within the structured aspects of programs and their predefined outcomes.

Reflexive Responses

In British Columbia, library education programs face these challenges in ways that reflect their unique character, institutional history, and relationship with the library community. For example, Luanne Freund, Acting Director for the University of British Columbia’s iSchool reports:

We are aiming to increase the size and impact of the iSchool by developing new programs and building more partnerships on campus. Targeted areas of growth are digital media and cultural informatics, in recognition of the importance of information work in the heritage and cultural realms. We will also be strengthening the focus on technology-related competencies by establishing a technology sandbox and self-directed learning portal for students, and building in more opportunities to work with current technology platforms in the classroom.  Another important goal is to increase community engagement, and as part of that initiative, to establish an iSchool Advisory Board.  Learning outcomes assessment is an ongoing commitment, and we will continue to develop our assessment program going forward.

[For more new from UBC iSchool,see UBC iSchool takes new approach towards technology .]

Diane Thompson, Chair for Langara College’s Library and Information Technology Department, describes some of her department’s educational efforts:

The Library & Information Technology Program continues to update its curriculum in order to reflect current practices in libraries today.  The program is very focused on experiential learning and works with employers to place students in practicums and longer term paid internships.  The College has recently created the Co-op and Career Centre and the library program hopes to work closely with the co-op to reinforce the experiential learning piece that is so important to our students in providing them with job opportunities and work experience.

Our team of instructors are also currently mapping out library competencies from various sources in order to ensure that our program on the whole provides our students with relevant and timely skills that match employer needs. Recently we have welcomed Tess Prendergast as our children’s/youth services instructor and Dean Giustini who teaches a variety of courses including medical, reference and online search.

Having just emerged from an intensive program review, the University of the Fraser Valley’s Library and Information Technology programs also continue to evolve as programs shift towards contributions to the knowledge economy. Students are provided with a range of opportunities to explore both the technical and social challenges of information work through various projects and service opportunities. Students have the opportunity to delve more deeply into advanced topics with the addition of a new 300 level, project-based advanced topics course. Other program courses now frequently incorporate discussions and activities relating to critical practice and self-reflection to support students as they learn to apply newly acquired professional competencies. Further, the online Post-Diploma Library Technician Certificate program will be undergoing revisions this year to enable both existing and prospective students access to expanded content and academic recognition.

It is evident, then, that library education programs are keen to support experiential learning and community relations to ensure that students have the greatest opportunities when embarking on their careers. While competencies are identified as the key mechanism for assessing “work readiness”, the education of library workers requires openness to the unexpected. As libraries wrestle with the future, they will increasingly rely on a workforce that is able to learn in the moment, according to changing needs. This kind of adaptability emerges from programs that can balance competencies with self-introspection and empowerment. Like the students they educate, applied program educators are also engaged in a kind of reflexive practice to ensure that they can continue to balance broader educational aims with the more immediate needs of the communities they support.


Christina Neigel is Associate Professor in Library and Information Technology at the University of the Fraser Valley.

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