Postdoctoral Researcher Jonathan Hollister Discusses NSF ATE Preliminary Findings Overseas
While on a trip to South Korea, I took the opportunity to share and discuss the preliminary findings of our NSF ATE grant project, Assessing Information Technology Educational Pathways that Promote Deployment and Use of Rural Broadband, with several faculty members and librarians. The purpose of these meetings was to get feedback on the preliminary findings of our current NSF ATE grant project and discuss trends and issues in Library and Information Science (LIS) and Information Technology (IT) education across international contexts. The discussions occurred across two separate meetings, both of which were held at coffee shops in Seoul.
The first meeting (June 10) was with Dr. Sung Jae Park, an Assistant Professor at Hansung University and PhD alumnus from the FSU iSchool (http://www.hansung.ac.kr/web/kis/508593), and Dr. Ji Hei Kang, an Assistant Professor at Dongduk Women’s University and PhD alumna from the FSU iSchool (http://jhkang.dongduk.ac.kr/shop_contents/myboard_list.htm?myboard_code=sub1).
On June 14th, I met with Ja-ui Kim (MLIS), the Librarian at the Samsung Economic Research Institute; Dr. Soo-yeon Kim; a Postdoctoral Researcher at Yonsei University and Adjunct Professor at Duksung Women’s University; Dr. Kyung Eun Oh, an Assistant Professor at the School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College (https://www.simmons.edu/Faculty/Kyong-Eun-Oh); Hye-yeon Joo (MLIS student), a Librarian at Seoul National University Library; and Na-hyun Yoo (MLIS), a Librarian at Seoul Women’s University Library.
Dr. Jisue Lee (https://www.linkedin.com/in/noranjin), a former Research Associate at the Information Institute who worked on this NSF ATE project, organized, facilitated, translated, and participated in these conversations as well. She also provided much of the background information on LIS and IT education in South Korea. Without her knowledge of the project and fluency in both the Korean and English languages, these international conversations would not have been possible. The discussions at both meetings focused on similar themes and revealed challenges in South Korean LIS and IT education that persist in the US as well. While much of what follows is focused on LIS education, the connection with IT education will become apparent towards the end of this reflection.
LIS/IT Education in South Korea
Universities in South Korea that offer LIS degrees do so at both the undergraduate and graduate levels (Master’s and PhD). Additionally, several community colleges also offer a two-year degree in LIS. Students that complete two-year, four-year, or Master’s degrees are awarded one of three librarian certificates based on their level of education. While a bachelor’s degree in LIS (which awards a second level librarian certificate) is the considered to be a terminal degree, a graduate degree in LIS (Master’s and/or PhD) is required for management or leadership positions in libraries. These advanced graduate degrees also award the highest level librarian certificate. That said, “Librarian” is typically the highest title or position a graduate with an LIS degree can attain. Public officer librarian positions in South Korea are among the most sought after librarian positions in South Korea. These positions are highly attractive due to their security and stability despite economic fluctuations. However, librarians pursuing this route must also pass a public officer examination for librarians which is required for such positions.
Librarians face many challenges in South Korea. Dr. Park (Assistant Professor, Hansung University) remarked that, much like in the US, librarians are stereotyped as simply managers of collections of books and little else. Hye-yeon Joo and Na-Hyun Yoo (both academic librarians) added that many librarians are hired only part-time because technical services and other core functions, such as cataloging or managing electronic resources and databases, are outsourced to employees without LIS degrees in order to save money.
The work of librarians is often misunderstood by the public. Even though South Korea is well known for its high-coverage and exceptionally fast internet infrastructure as well as having the highest internet usage and smartphone ownership on the planet (Pew Research Center, 2016), LIS as a field and information professionals are seen as passive office workers rather than leaders in the information age. Dr. Park continued that many people are not aware of the abilities and skills librarians and information professionals possess as well as the wide variety of services they can offer. Given unprecedented levels of access to the internet, as mentioned above, libraries in South Korea are not seen as anchor institutions or information hubs, but as collections of books and public study spaces for national exams, TOELF and GRE exams, etc. In order to address these issues, Dr. Park’s research is focused on measuring and assessing the true value of public libraries by exploring the long-term outcomes and impacts of library use.
Exacerbating these issues, many LIS education programs in South Korea are focused on traditional librarianship and do not yet incorporate a broader information sciences perspective or technology focus. Dr. Kang stated that, in addition to the issues mentioned above, the national public officer exam for librarians is outdated and not representative of what librarians do and can do today. As such, students do not typically receive training on the information science and technology side of LIS simply because they are not a part of the national public officer exam for librarians. Furthermore, programming, coding, analytics, etc. are kept within the silos of Computer Science, Business Administration, Human-Computer Interaction majors because LIS is not seen as an interdisciplinary field by senior faculty and administrators at the more traditional library science schools. Similarly, many LIS schools do not have faculty members that can teach in these new areas. As it is in US universities, assessing and adjusting curricula in South Korea is also a long and difficult bureaucratic process that does not favor leading edge or interdisciplinary fields such as LIS.
Information Technology education and the IT professions in South Korea also face challenges. Information Technology-related degrees are typically offered as two-year degrees from community colleges. Alternatively, some IT professionals hold bachelor degree’s in Computer Science or related majors. Despite the strong IT/ICT infrastructure in South Korea, IT professionals are not as well regarded as their counterparts in the United States. While it is getting better, IT work in South Korea has not been professionalized like it has been in the United States. Those with degrees in Computer Science or Engineering are more respected and, thus, employable.
Despite these challenges, Dr. Kang (Assistant Professor, Dongduk Women’s University) mentions that some library science schools are slowly beginning to expand into more information science foci. Interdisciplinary scholars and younger faculty members, particularly those who earned their degrees in the US, are leading the push to refocus LIS education in South Korea. Leading universities, such as Yonsei University and Sungkyunkwan University, are expanding into informatics and data science. Dr. Kang, for example, now teaches a big data science course at Dongduk Women’s University.
Similarly, those working on the frontlines of libraries are seeing growing demand for technical skills, such as programming, user interface/experience design, research, and data analytics. Hye-yeon Joo (Librarian, Seoul National University Library) stressed the necessity for librarians to learn coding and programming in order to streamline traditional library work. She added that these technical skills supplement librarians’ existing expertise with reference services and soft skills, such as communication and instruction, which computer science and similar majors do not focus on. The other librarians echoed these reflections based on their experiences in academic libraries as well.
LIS scholars and practitioners will attempt to address these and other issues and challenges at the next annual conference of the Korean Library and Information Science Society, which will specifically focus on the future of LIS education as its theme for their 2017 meeting. This may be another potential dissemination opportunity for the results of this NSF ATE project.
While listening to these scholars and librarians, as translated through Dr. Jisue Lee, it became clear that many of the issues plaguing LIS education and libraries in general in South Korea are similar to the situation in the United States. Dr. Jisue Lee, who arranged these meetings and translated the conversations, was also an active participant in the conversations. As a former Research Associate of the Information Institute, Dr. Lee worked on the NSF ATE project and was able to share and discuss the project and its findings in detail with the South Korean scholars and librarians we met with. Through the candid responses, she was able to get from the other participants, I was able to understand the nuances of LIS and IT education in the South Korean context that may have otherwise been lost in translation.
Libraries and librarians face many of the same stereotypes. In fact, the American Library Association recently launched its own public awareness campaign (http://www.ala.org/transforminglibraries/) to address and hopefully change these antiquated perceptions. While I am not sure how successful a campaign such as this will be, it could be useful in the South Korean context as well.
Similarly, like in the US, LIS degree programs in South Korea are starting to evolve. These changes are inspired by both workplace demands as well as the changing perspectives of LIS scholars. In the US, library schools are dropping “library” from their names and/or degrees and/or becoming iSchools, and subsequently altering their offered curricula to include more technical skills or offering new degrees in information technology, data science, or informatics. Similarly, many LIS schools, whether they acknowledge this publicly or not, are reconsidering the usefulness of an American Library Association accreditation. In the United States, most MLS or MLIS degree programs are accredited by the American Library Association. In South Korea, however, LIS degrees are not accredited by a librarian association. However, as mentioned above, individual librarians do earn librarian certifications based on their education and/or experience in South Korea. Either way, the curricula offered by these programs are dictated by traditional definitions of library science.
Everyone I spoke with was interested in the results of the NSF ATE Project, not because they were developing or managing undergraduate IT curricula or programs, but because they were also seeing the need for both technical and soft skills in librarians. Dr. Kang articulated a specific need for LIS education to embrace an interdisciplinary nature and import skills from related disciplines, like Computer Science, Engineering, and Education, so that LIS professionals can respond to the ever-changing IT environment. She said that working toward this goal while also enhancing soft skills will help librarians and information professionals to bridge users with information and technology. They also saw experiential learning experiences as a good way to develop both sets of skills. Rather than see IT as a potential threat to LIS, they saw IT as an opportunity to supplement the existing strengths that those with LIS degrees possess.
Key Takeaways & Recommendations
Having reflected on the project and my discussions with our South Korean peers about its preliminary findings and their own situations and experiences, I think the following key takeaways and recommendations should be considered for LIS/IT education in the US.
- Master’s level LIS degrees need a greater emphasis on and proactive approach to Information Technology and related areas (informatics, data science, etc.). As we are increasingly reliant on technology and the internet, our profession(s) needs to take a proactive perspective and assume a leadership position rather than be reactive and slow to act. Nearly everyone I spoke with emphasized the need for expanded, more technical skills sets to supplement their more traditional library science expertise.
- Experiential learning should be a required part of both LIS and IT curricula. Employers, employees, and educators seem to agree that such opportunities, in addition to the other education and training they receive, provide students with skills (both technical and soft) they need to be competent and successful.
- Reevaluate accreditation/examination criteria and guidelines. The LIS curricula in both South Korea and the United States are challenged by limited or outdated definitions of librarianship used by governing bodies. Given the reluctance and/or difficulty of changing these scopes, LIS schools may wish to rethink what would be best for their students given 21st Century demands.
- LIS/IT education needs to be inter-/cross-disciplinary. As information and information technology are ubiquitous across contexts, LIS/IT education needs to be inter- and cross-disciplinary as well. We need to build partnerships across disciplines and departments in order to better prepare students for the real world work environment. While some LIS schools are strategically hiring from diverse backgrounds (computer science, HCI, communication, etc.), there remain barriers between disciplines and departments that hinder or prevent collaboration and cooperation that may benefit all involved, especially students.
- LIS/IT education programs need better marketing. Similar stereotypes and assumptions of what libraries and librarians can and cannot do persist in both the US and in South Korea. While enrollment in LIS programs and available funding for LIS research and libraries in general continues to decrease, we need to find new ways of demonstrating the importance of our work and the usefulness and flexibility of those with an LIS or IT degree. Librarians telling other librarians about how important they are is not helpful. Similarly, IT professionals also suffer stereotypes about not possessing needed soft skills. Pushing forward the idea of a well-rounded, tech-savvy librarian or information professional may help address negative or misinformed perceptions. With groundings in LIS, IT education and the IT profession may become more standardized and legitimized.
While I may be shooting for the moon with some of these recommendations, I think that schools with LIS and IT degrees and scholars in the broader information field(s) need to consider these points, if they have not already, in order to stay relevant in the 21st Century.
Pew Research Center (2016). Smartphone ownership and internet usage continues to climb in emerging economies. Retrieved from http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/02/22/smartphone-ownership-and-internet-usage-continues-to-climb-in-emerging-economies/
 Preliminary reports from our current NSF ATE grant project can be found here: http://ii.fsu.edu/Research/Projects/Assessing-Information-Technology-Educational-Pathways-that-Promote-Deployment-and-Use-of-Rural-Broadband-NSF
 It is also possible to attain upper-level librarian certifications through advanced training or sufficient work experience.