Do LIS Programs Prepare Future Librarians for Real-World Challenges?

With the onslaught of pressures facing librarians today, how are library and information science programs preparing the next generation of graduates?

With the onslaught of pressures facing librarians today, how are library and information science programs preparing the next generation of graduates?

As the number of library and information science (LIS) degrees awarded rises—up nearly 10 percent from 2020 to 2021, according to—librarians are seeing a sharp increase in conflict around the work they have been trained to do. In March, the American Library Association (ALA) announced that book challenges have nearly doubled since 2021. Apart from expressions of concern from individuals, attacks on intellectual freedom directed toward public and school libraries are becoming more frequent and more harmful. Censorship initiatives against titles with BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ authors, characters, and perspectives have moved beyond bans into targeted legislation, library board takeovers, and defunding.

LIS curricula still cover information organization, search skills, and technology. But the needs of librarians enter-ing the field are changing. LJ spoke with LIS instructors across the country to find out how they are preparing gradu-ates for a workplace requiring skills that range from conflict resolution to policy enforcement, while keeping issues of equity and access at the fore.



A useful look at how well librarians feel their education has served them comes from an unexpected corner: the Ad-dressing Challenges Committee of ALA’s Graphic Novels & Comics Roundtable, which has been actively training li-brary workers to prepare for comic-book challenges and bans. Amie Wright, committee chair and PhD candidate in history studying comic-book censorship, worked on a recent committee survey of frontline library workers about the training they were seeking. The survey, launched in April 2022, attempted to get a snapshot of how prepared library staff felt they were to deal with censorship attempts, as well as what tools they were looking for, what resources have helped them, and what additional support they’d like.

The survey results from 145 libraries revealed that although 50 percent of the librarians who responded reported having gotten training in library school and 70 percent received some training on the job, most of that consisted of one-off sessions. Further, most training centered around professional ideals of librarianship and the concept of intel-lectual freedom rather than applicable strategies.

Few reported having pragmatic training in preparing collection-development and book-challenge policies. “What we found is that people might have some theoretical ideas of what they think intellectual freedom and censorship are, but they don’t have enough practical knowledge,” Wright explains. “A lot of people are making it up as they go along, and they’re not getting that step-by-step process, either from administrators or fellow library workers.”

Responding to those needs, the committee created a toolkit to help library workers proactively fight bans and challenges. The toolkit’s resources, which focus on comics and graphic novels, outline, step by step, how staff might proactively deal with these issues.

VOICE OF EXPERIENCE Wyoming Library Association president Conrrado Saldivar speaks to UW Teaching Professor Helene Williams’s LIS students on building advocacy groups and testifying before the Wyoming state legislature against book banning efforts.



Although Emily Drabinski, 2023–24 ALA president and critical pedagogy librarian at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, is not currently teaching LIS courses, she points out that ALA is completing a revision of the accreditation standards that will include a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and accessibility issues. She adds, “I don’t know that the curriculum can be as attentive to the sort of current events that we might want it to be…that’s a long-standing concern about LIS education.” Political fights will always happen at a local level, Drabinski says, and wonders how LIS professors can prepare every librarian for the varied landscapes they will encounter as they move to different parts of the country.

One universal demand that can be made of LIS programs, according to Drabinski, is to provide students with an ana-lytic framework in critical librarianship, an understanding of the structures that produce the conditions under which librarians work. Graduate instruction can help students understand that these fights will inevitably come, and that, as the position involves working for one of the nation’s last publicly funded institutions, librarians will inevitably be on the front lines.

“If we could equip everybody coming out of library school with an understanding of how mass movements happen and an understanding of organizing as a tool for social and political change [and] a way of thinking about building con-sensus around decision-making, both inside the library and then outside,” Drabinski proposes, librarians might be bet-ter prepared to answer such questions as how to organize collectively to take action in their city or town to get the funding and support that their library needs.



Can a two-year early-career graduate program fully prepare every librarian for every possible on-the-ground fight? Can programs equip students with an analysis of power and pragmatic ways to engage their local communities?

R. David Lankes, Virginia & Charles Bowden Professor of Librarianship at the University of Texas–Austin, also notes the difficulty of asking LIS programs to create universal curriculums to address such complex issues. “Talking about LIS students is like talking about libraries as if there was one coherent cohort,” he says. “Just about every library student over the past 50 years has had some lesson on dispute policies and collection development. The question is how much of their curriculum is focused on the community and how much is focused on the operation of an institution. How much are students being prepared to influence the power of a community, and how many are being told to stay out of it?”

LIS programs were intended to partner with professionals currently working in the field, Lankes explains. “This is where most LIS programs can do better, so when materials challenges blow up, when librarians are being targeted for violence, when legislatures seek to ban books and allow citizens to sue individual librarians for distributing [what they consider] obscene materials, we don’t scramble to make a ‘the world has lost its damn mind’ three-credit course,” he says. “Instead, we send our students to sit in on association legislative update sessions. We invite in front-line staff to talk about the real fear of a ‘First Amendment audit.’ ”

That puts the onus on library instructors to actively engage in the field as well. Faculty need to speak out against censorship and advocate for freedom of information, Lankes says. Go to local board meetings to defend librarians, testify in court, and create participatory action research programs.

Lankes suggests that the field embrace a lifetime approach to continuing education. He has started teaching his students in the Austin Public Library and inviting public librarians to join his class on campus—an initiative he says was built on the efforts of recently retired LIS professor and former ALA president Loriene Roy.



The University of Washington (UW) Information School uses student learning outcomes that center DEI issues and are practice-based. Talking about the political spaces that libraries now occupy is a central tenet of the degree pro-gram, as are professional partnerships in the field. The capstone requirement includes directed fieldwork, inde-pendent-study internships, and hands-on experience, says Cindy Aden, UW professor of practice and distinguished practitioner in residence. In her management class, she brings in three library directors each semester to speak to her students.

UW Teaching Professor Helene Williams recently shifted her curriculum to focus on applied assignments that ask students to practice and develop skills they will use as librarians. She also brings in current practitioners and assigns readings that highlight organizational responses to challenges. Modules in her core introductory course include a collection-development policy assignment that invites students to consider how such a policy is vital to dealing with challenges, bans, self-censorship, and pushbacks on books, as well as a budgeting project that considers how so-cial-justice issues intersect with a collection budget.

Lately, in addition to the nuts and bolts of librarianship, Williams finds herself talking more about self-care sup-port networks and the importance of having personal boundaries. Above all, she notes, librarians need to develop resiliency skills to potentially face targeted attacks and weather the trauma that comes with them.



At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), the LIS experience is largely focused on practicum and in-ternship placements in libraries. Students take only two required courses, which allows them flexibility in selecting electives related to their interests. This also enables professors to create new courses that are responsive to the cur-rent political climate and relevant to pressing social-justice issues. Dr. Maria Bonn, director of the UIUC’s MSLIS & Certificate of Advanced Study program, points to two courses that emerged during the pandemic, Global Health In-formatics and Social Crisis and Librarianship. The degree program recently partnered with the School of Social Work to develop course offerings on social work in libraries.

Many students in UIUC’s online program are already employed in libraries and are able to speak to the real-world challenges of public librarianship that they and their colleagues confront. “The more we can bring those insights from practice into professional education,” says Bonn, “the better prepared our students will be for the field.”

Dr. Emily Knox, an associate professor at UIUC, feels that students are being prepared but that more can be done to address advocacy and accountability. “We tend to teach about managing down, but not as much about managing up and out to the community,” she says. “My hope is that the current political landscape will lead to more courses that address these issues.”



Eamon Tewell, instructor at the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information, NJ, also sees room for improvement. He does not feel LIS students are being adequately prepared for the real-world challenges of public librarianship, and believes that the mandate is not something professors or programs can accomplish on their own.

The critical questioning and grassroots organizing that Drabinski champions are themes Tewell tries to bring to the forefront of his teaching. His information classes are anchored in real-world issues; he invites students—most of whom are already working in libraries—to share their experience and knowledge, while he contextualizes their work by providing relevant texts and discussing the theories that propel their thinking.

Like Williams, his coursework is actionable and, like his assignment to develop a teaching philosophy statement, can help with future job applications. Tewell mentions other possible curriculum ideas, including researching a li-brary board’s members, composition, and history; examining sample library budgets; and launching a letter-writing campaign to contend with a defunding or book-banning crusade.

Dr. James Lowry, chair and director of Queens College Information Studies program at CUNY, also tries to center the real-world experiences his students bring to the classroom. “Our students are usually coming to the program with expertise in social-justice issues gained from their lived experience, community life, prior education, and work,” he says. “Our curriculum is increasingly reflecting these issues and inviting students to critique, test, and develop LIS as a site or means for radical engagement. Our program also equips students with the technical know-how to do the work of librarianship and other kinds of information work, but there is a whole lot that is missing.”

Lowry highlights the need to include training in community care and self-defense, harm-reduction programs such as deescalation techniques and police-free solutions to violence, and grassroots organizing that would lead to soli-darity across local communities and state lines. To that end, Queens College is developing stand-alone classes such as Information Activism, as well as overhauling traditional coursework to make courses like Management more focused on labor organizing, board politics, and budget and personnel management.

Josselyn Atahualpa, a CUNY Queens College student, is a community organizer with 10 years of experience cur-rently working in a public library while pursuing a master’s degree part-time. “The students in my program are critically minded and the professors have been receptive,” she says. “Many of us students are working part-time or full-time, and thus the program is flexible and centers practice and applicability of knowledge.”

Atahualpa says she’s had conversations in classes about being prepared to deal with book challenges and bans, and now feels that she has a historical context to understand targeted attacks. She sees herself as an information professional, and her prior career as community organizer gives her confidence to challenge power structures. Most important, Atahualpa feels validated by her professors, who welcome her outside knowledge and experience—which may not be the case for every LIS student.

Lucy Mackintosh, in her second year at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s iSchool, feels adequately prepared because many of her assignments focus on censorship and response plans to book challenges. Her classes center local and state politics and she feels she has a strong grasp of Wisconsin legislation. Still, Mackintosh says, “I am also aware that the only thing that will allow me to fully be prepared for these situations is to experience them firsthand.”



Dr. Africa Hands, assistant professor in the Department of Information Science at the University of Buffalo, NY, does believe LIS students are being prepared for the current landscape. She stresses how many programs have courses on diversity, equity, and inclusion; work with multicultural populations; serve and do outreach into different communi-ties; and offer specialized courses about targeting materials to different populations.

One of the definitions of politics Hands teaches her students is “the total complex of relations between people liv-ing in society…that’s why you really need to be involved. You have to advocate. You have to lobby. You need to get the right people in the room to get on your side.”

The question of whether more LIS degree programs will continue to adopt this awareness of the bigger picture still remains to be answered.

Laura Winnick is an English teacher turned librarian turned technologist at an independent school in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Publishers Weekly, Women’s Review of Books, and Teachers & Writers Magazine.

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