Hegemony’s Handmaid? The Library and Information Studies Curriculum from a Class Perspective

by Elizabeth Lieutenant

Pawley, C. (1998). Hegemony’s handmaid? The library and information studies curriculum from a class perspective. The Library Quarterly, 68(2), 123–144.

This article presents an analysis of LIS education and its curricula through a class-based lens. Following a discussion of class and its context within the capitalist society, the author critiques the LIS’s reliance on pluralism, the conditioning of individuals into capitalist systems, and managerialism, the scientific, technical approach to measuring individual productivity and efficiency to benefit organizational systematization. Four key elements are identified as contributing to LIS education’s disregard of class-based analysis: reliance on corporate funding, credentialing of professional status and alliance with other, more powerful professions, emulation of scientific and technical disciplines through the adoption of positivism and co-opting of information science, and reproduction of literacy and educational hierarchies. Pawley concludes with a call for social theory and class to be integrated into LIS curricula, advocating for LIS students and faculty to engage in continued critiques of socioeconomic power.


Any critiques of class will, ultimately, incorporate into their discussion a critique of the education system’s support of social stratification, and Pawley is no exception (pp. 134-138). Her presentation of the history of the LIS profession’s adoption of the graduate-level credential and critique of the social stratification within LIS, which dictates who is or is not a member of our profession based on said credentials, is still a common topic of discussion. These circular argument of who is or is not considered a member of our profession, with all its dividing lines between paraprofessionals, students, and professionals, will likely be active until the credential itself is either considered a verifiable indicator of professional competence or is reassigned from the graduate-level.

Of course, the term paraprofessional itself deserves critique, as if those lacking credentials are incapable of behaving in a professional manner or completing professional-quality work. It’s almost futile to argue with the word, as the LIS profession thus far has not easily defined the markings of an LIS professional beyond the credential (Pawley, p. 135). A desire for societal status has certainly contributed to our profession’s “professionalization” predicament. However, I wouldn’t primarily place the blame on LIS graduate-level educators who seek to retain power over the credentialing of LIS professionals, as Pawley seems to do (p. 138). There is, as Pawley notes, an amount of insecurity within this group, as evidenced by some of the comments from ALISE attendees fearing “judgment” from the profession through the accreditation process, but the profession itself seems to be the key player in reinforce LIS credentialism. It’s a natural desire for one to attempt to retain symbols of power and status; anyone would much prefer the game whose rules privilege their social status than a game whose rules are rewritten to create a more equitable playing field. While the profession will eventually, and ideally, strengthen its graduate-level credentials or reassign them to the Bachelor or certification-level, it would require a great deal of self-sacrifice to actualize

Pawley’s critique of LIS curricula couples quite nicely with one of the Library Loon’s posts¹ that I recently reread for my practicum. The Loon discusses both the benefits and disadvantages (elaborated on in a later recount of her experiences in an unhealthy academic environment) of library school, including a delineation of the benefits student receive from being socialized into the LIS field. However, a critical examination of the socialization process may expose certain environments that attempt to exert influence through the inculcation of new professionals into the white, cisgendered, middle-class tropes² that mark our profession and require that students adapt to the hidden curriculum (or perhaps more appropriately, classification) of the LIS profession. While this socialization process can have its advantages (I personally have gained more privilege and professional advantages than I know what to do with), it can also thrust students into dysfunctional and detached environments that prevent them from being fully prepared, let alone eager, to work in the field. These attempts at cultural reproduction, masquerading as “socialization,” can ultimately neutralize the power and potential of new professionals and increase the power of well-established professionals and institutions. With great power comes great responsibility, the seasoned/senior/mentor/supervisor/educator/what-have-you role being no exception. Whether those within the profession are fulfilling this responsibility is best contemplated by adapting Winter’s (as cited in Pawley) critique of LIS:

Librarian’s are mainly liberals, in the classic sense of the term, and generally support open access and services to disadvantaged groups. But when we look more closely at this viewpoint, is it really an attempt to empower the excluded, or is it simply a desire to allow them equal access to the mainstream?


Question for future exploration:

  • If LIS truly values free and equitable access and participation in society, how can it justify stratifying the profession based on educational credentials?
  • How do the barriers delineating professionals for paraprofessionals weaken LIS’s attempts at collective action?



1a. Loon, Library. (2011). The eternal “theory vs. praxis” debate. [Web log post].

1b. Loon, Library. (2014). Resolved: No to Ph.D culture. [Web log post].

2. Galvan, A. (2014). Job interview performance art. [Web log post].