My challenge to experienced librarians: lobby for a better degree

Graduation at Canterbury Cathedral (image c/o University of Kent on Flickr)

Note: Since writing this post, Ned has radically rewritten his post due to some people “misinterpreting” the original. Which is fair enough. It’s slightly annoying that now this post (and Rosie Hare’s excellent post – read it!) seems a bit odd (not least when I have quoted something that now no longer exists, which makes it look like I am fabricating elements of this post – I do have a copy of the original if anyone doubts me!), but I can’t control what other people do on their websites/blogs (nor would I want to!). It does raise some interesting ethical questions, but I can’t be bothered to pose them here to be quite frank. All I’ll add to the post below is that it emerged as a result of some discussion with a number of fellow professionals who raised more or less the same concerns. Indeed, I received a lot of supportive comments after publishing it. It’s not the kind of thing I normally like to get into on this blog as I’m not really interested in writing about issues that are somewhat inward looking professionally. But I thought there were some points that had a broader impact that was worth exploring. Anyway, I shall leave the post here as it is, regardless of the fact it now lacks context. I may, however, close the comments as it seems pointless to leave a thread open to a post that now appears devoid of context. That said, the crux of this post still holds true. I do think it would be a very worthwhile thing for new professionals, uni departments and professional bodies to have some discussion about the courses and whether there are opportunities to develop the programmes. So I guess on that level this post still has some relevance.


I read with interest Ned Potter’s post calling for new professionals to “create your own degree”. It’s fair to say, I think, that I agree with the question Ned poses, but I fundamentally disagree with the answer on a number of levels. Rather than write a comment on Ned’s post, and run the risk of being seen as just a contrary negative type, I thought I’d be better to outline my position in my own blog post (no-one wants blog post length comments on their site!). But first I’ll start with where I agree.

With the caveat that I have only experienced one course and have only heard the odd comment about other courses (so I’m not prepared to make any sweeping generalisations) it seems to me that possibly there is a need to rethink how the courses are structured in terms of content. In my experience, there wasn’t enough focus on social, political or ethical issues (aside from the Information Society module). But I also think there was too much focus on the ‘library’ aspect of the course rather than the ‘information’ part (it is called an MSc in Information and Library Studies after all – more on this later). Of course different people on different courses have different experiences, but if I could wave a magic wand, those are the elements I would boost up (as well as some of the new tech stuff of course). So yes, I agree that the question needs to be posed.

However, I think the framing of the ‘answer’ is particularly troubling in this current climate. In effect, it reinforces the idea that you don’t need a qualification to provide a library service, anyone can do it so long as they attend a few conferences and read a few books or articles. Place this in the context of public libraries, and you have quite possibly made Ed Vaizey’s argument for him. We don’t need professionally delivered library services because there is nothing a librarian can offer that Mr and Mrs Smith down the road can’t do. There are MOOCs they can do, articles they can read, they can pay to attend conferences. So seriously, what’s the point in qualified librarians having anything to do with the service? As someone who follows the issue of public libraries pretty closely, the logical conclusion of the “create your own degree” argument is troubling (it also smacks of a somewhat Conservative individual responsibility position).

I also have problems (and have had with some time) with the librarian/information professional thing. All librarians are information professionals, but not all information professionals are librarians. There are many many other jobs you can do with the qualification aside from ‘librarian’ (I had a list on this site which sadly bit the dust when I had the database fail). Ned says in his post:

They are, in any case, joining a profession which IS dying. It is shrinking and will continue to do so. When people ask me if they should become a librarian, I say no. I personally love it, but how can anyone, in all good conscience, recommend this profession in the current climate? It would be irresponsible to do so.

I don’t think the profession is dying. I think in many respects it’s expanding (there were no Freedom of Information officers before 2001 and Data Protection is becoming increasingly important). There may be fewer opportunities for ‘librarians’ but I would argue this is possibly not true for the information profession in general. So if someone asked me if they should become a librarian, I would not say no. I would say “think about what you can do with a LIS qualification other than a librarian, yet still utilising roughly the same skill set”. That, for me, would be the responsible position. Which brings me back to the design of the courses, it should be about taking a broader look at the profession, upping the ‘information’ aspect. That would then, I think, prepare people far better for a career in the information profession.

Finally, I have general social concerns regarding the belief that someone could spare the time (and expense) to construct their own course. I personally think this would lend itself particularly well to the middle classes, but less so to people of a working class background. You can, after all, get financial support for formal education whereas such support would not be available to attend expensive conferences. Indeed, who would have the funds to pay to attend a course, take a day off work, book accommodation etc etc? Not someone with limited funds. And certainly not if you were working in the private sector (I can well imagine what my boss back in my retail days would have said if I specified I needed a certain batch of days off to attend a conference – even if I could afford it). Cash poor are not necessarily time rich (in fact, I’d argue that they are not time rich at all).

So, I think I should throw down my own challenge. If you believe that someone who works full-time and has limited funds has the time to construct their own degree, I would argue that equally someone in a well-paid, professional post has the time to lobby for better degrees. If you, as an experienced qualified professional, believe the course is not up to scratch, I’d suggest the following:

  1. Pull together what you think the existing courses lack.
  2. Build a network of other like-minded folk.
  3. Lobby university departments and professional bodies to consider the changes to the programme you believe are necessary.
  4. Refine your technique until you are successful.

Because if you think that someone has the time and money to construct their own degree, there is almost certainly no excuse for you not to do the four steps above. We either preach from a position of privilege or we act to bring about the changes that benefit us all. I know which I prefer.

  • Ned Potter

    Sigh, I wish I hadn’t bothered with this now. I find this response disingenuous – I think you know this isn’t my ‘answer’ to the problem of the library degree. I think it’s something someone about to embark upon the library masters might try instead, not something we should all do instead of fixing a broken system.

    However, just in case your final two sentences are spot-on rather than merely incredibly patronising, I unequivocally withdraw every sentiment from my original post. I won’t delete it as that seems unlibrarianly, but I apologise for any distress my privilidged preaching may have caused.

    I’m sorry.

    (I hate when people avoid apologising by talking about how they are, so I wanted to avoid hypocrisy and get the words ‘I’m sorry’ into the conversation.)

    • Ian

      “I find this response disingenuous – I think you know this isn’t my ‘answer’ to the problem of the library degree.”

      My understanding of the question (which I thought we actually agree on) was that the degree as it stands is not fit for purpose and doesn’t meet the needs of those thinking of getting the qualification. I (wrongly by the looks?) interpreted your suggestion as a proposed alternative to doing the course. Which is where I differed. As it is, I still don’t think that course of action is something that should be recommended or considered by someone thinking about doing a Masters. So, I agree, but disagree.

      Regarding the other stuff, I think debate and exchange of views and differences of opinion are important. I think they help drive things forward. I hope people don’t think I simply take contrary positions to be an annoying arse, in this particular case it’s just that I have a different perspective that I felt I wanted to express (I don’t always take contrary positions to yourself, you notice I rarely comment on your posts). I think your points (if this doesn’t sound too patronising) touch on some important areas that we, as a profession, need to confront. Urgently. This was merely my perspective on a much-needed debate.

      • Ned Potter

        Right. Now that you mention it I do notice you don’t often comment on my posts; I hadn’t appreciated what admirable restraint that showed on your part previously.

        I’ve written, and deleted, a defence of myself, and the idea that I, or anyone else in real life, would actually think difference of opinon or exchanges of views are a problem. But I fear that taking you up on your points will just prolong something which has become very tedious very quickly.

        As for the much needed debate, it won’t happen in any meaningful way – the need to pretend the degree is a good thing for the sake of the larger debate around the deprofessionalisation of librarians, will trump the need to become better librarians.

        • Ian

          Genuinely wasn’t meant to come across as anything different. I can only apologise if it appeared that way (that sounds like a shit apology, but hopefully you know what I mean – it wasn’t my intention to suggest otherwise and I should have made that clearer in my post).

          Happy to chalk it up as “one of those things soon forgotten”. 🙂

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  • Guest

    I have no doubt that you two will be up there with the greatest of library geniuses when we look back in 50 years when we’re all old, so I think for purposes such as this we are stronger together than bickering amongst ourselves. I know this is sometimes easier said than done because we’re all so opinionated and intelligent (I include myself in this, teehee) but I do think, fundamentally, a lot of us want to fight for the same changes in the profession and I don’t see why we couldn’t make them happen.

    • Ian

      Well, I beg to differ with “greatest of library geniuses”, but I can’t argue with the rest of your comment. 🙂

  • Rosie Hare

    The comment below is from me, I have no idea why it says ‘guest’. Confused!

  • Katharine

    I’d just like to say that I appreciate the implication here that professional education is not easy. Most of the people who teach on LIS courses are dedicated to passing on skills, knowledge and understanding to the next generation of information professionals, but they do so under difficult circumstances – not least, the fact that, as somebody once said, it’s the one qualification guaranteed to make sure you will never make lots of money. Some people want marketable skills, some people (like Ian) want to engage with the big thinking issues, some people want pure ‘technical’ skills (the principles of how knowledge is organised and retrieved). It’s hard to meet all these needs and students are understandably demanding, given how much they are paying.
    I’m not an educator myself, but as somebody who’s recently completed a research degree in the field, I recognise the dedication and hard work of those who are. And, if it helps at all, I’m hugely impressed by the enthusiasm and commitment of those who are taking the courses.
    So I agree, the courses need to get better, and I fully support the idea that constructive suggestions will help.

    • Ian

      Hi Katharine. Yeah, I have the utmost respect for the people teaching the courses. I certainly have a lot of respect for those that taught me and really value and appreciate what I learnt from them. And it certainly can’t be easy…it’s such a vast field it is difficult to cover everything to the extent that all of us would want.

      I personally think some kind of big coming together of departments, professional bodies and recent graduates (as well as experienced professionals) all working together to see if courses could perhaps be tweaked and improved wouldn’t be a bad next step. I think it needs something major rather than tinkering around the edges, but it’s a difficult area. Who knows what the way forward should be?

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