The question of content for a Masters course in Library or Information Science is often considered from an academic perspective. In the UK, academic courses are regulated by the QAA, with the exact syllabus usually based on the recommendation of the Programme or Course Director, backed up by a teaching team and course advisory committee, the latter comprising students, new professionals, employers and other members of the profession. Significant changes to the syllabus may take over a year to plan, according to local quality assurance procedures.
Courses approved by the professional bodies in the UK (CILIP), US (ALA) and Australia (ALIA) all address the core content of library and information science, whilst each exhibits their unique strengths according to the interests and expertise of their academic staff and research students. In the UK, CILIP approved courses are informed by the Professional Knowledge and Skills Base, PKSB, which provides a connection between the world of work, and that of academia.
In order to further connect our academic understanding of LIS knowledge and skills with that of employers, and also with providers of vocational learning and continual professional development, CityLIS hosted a half-day Employers’ Forum in conjunction with CILIP, on November 2nd 2016.
The Programme and panel members can be seen on our (historic) Eventbrite site.
The Forum provided space for a discussion on how to provide coherent, whole career support for library and information science professionals, in order to create the workforce needed for the future.
The event brought together leaders, employers and heads of service from across all sectors, for what proved to be a lively and constructive conversation between all parties: employers, learning providers and CILIP. This was arguably the first opportunity a comprehensive mix of stakeholders in LIS education had been brought together, and the positive atmosphere has encouraged us to think of ways to continue the conversation, to promote library and information science as a meaningful and exciting career choice.
The free, informal event featured a mix of panel discussion, presentations, workshop activities and group feedback. Conversations focused on what skills were either missing or in need of further development within the LIS workforce, and the role of academic, professional, vocational qualifications, and continuing professional development (CPD), in shaping the future workforce.
Nick Poole, CEO CILIP commented on findings from recent workforce studies:
- Need to have due regard for the heritage of the profession and its accumulated knowledge-base
- LIS profession must lead positive change; it is too often seen as resistant to change
- Need to respect each individual’s motivation for joining the profession
- Few information professionals aspire to lead their organisation
- Importance of information literacy and critical thinking
- Importance of personal and professional ethics
- Bridge between theory and practice in professional education
- ‘skills’ is too narrow, think about competencies and attitudes
More general observations from the Forum, were that major implications for the workforce came from converging technologies demanding cross-disciplinary skills, and disruptive internet developments. David Stewart (Director, Health Libraries North) emphasised that librarians must become business-critical instruments of informed decision making.
A minority of the group, around 7 out of 70, felt that formal education was not effective in preparing students for the demands of the workplace. The same number however, conceded that they did not know what contemporary Library and Information courses offered, as they had not been in contact with academic education providers in recent times.
The topics identified by employers as important included: data literacy, information risk, evidence-based practice, teaching skills, workplace experience during education, budgeting and finance, metadata, RDA (although some responders suggested cataloguing should be removed from courses), creativity and innovation, and critical thinking.
Mindful of my well known advocay for the value of library and information science as an academic discipline, both for personal education and development as well as for providing a foundation for workplace skills, I contributed that whilst the demands of employers were broad, the amount of material and experience which could be fitted into the one year masters in either library or information science was limited. Most of the topics collectively suggested above are already covered by Library Schools, although the amount of time spent on each aspect might differ. One of the challenges faced by LIS course providers is how to render the broad spectrum of LIS subjects into a series of lectures, demonstrations and practical sessions that can be delivered and assessed within an academic framework, and which offers the student the best preparation for the workplace, and life(!).
The core LIS curriculum is shrink-resistant, and the information communication chain offers us little that is ‘optional’ to the information professional. Cataloguing is perhaps the only significant topic for which continued relevance has been debated in the literature, but it is also a practical skill that attracts fierce advocates. Digital culture and digital society have extended the knowledge and skills to be negotiated by information professionals to include a realm of digital literacies from data to ethics. At the same time, our analogue world still holds attention and demands we respect legacy systems and schemas. All this leaves little room for emphasising subjects peripheral to LIS such as marketing, finance, teaching, leadership, management and business. That is not to say these are not important, but that they may be better taught outside the main academic LIS curriculum. Indeed, these latter subjects are all domains in their own right, and would arguably be better served by specialist coverage, either on a further academic course, or via CPD.
Employers demand workforce ready employees, but it is unrealistic to expect that those who have just completed a formal qualification will also have had time to acquire organisation specific know-how, and to be adept at the interpretation of theory for specific practice. Even those with work experience may find new situations challenging at first, and then there is the continual change to working practices wrought by technology.
It has become fashionable to criticise academic, thinking skills and to emphasise the value of low-level practical ability over a headful of knowledge and facts that may never be used. This argument rests on the short-term economic gain that comes from employing non-professional staff. This is commonplace within the library sector, especially with the emphasis on encouraging volunteers to run public library services. Whilst this promotes the idea that information work is a low-level skill, the skills gap in information handling and technologies is often reported.
Those with an aptitude for lifelong-learning, and critical thinking are better placed to adapt, analyse, innovate and lead. These skills and abilities are those nurtured by a masters course, perhaps uniquely. Leadership, business acumen, teaching, marketing and other broad talents requested by employers, all stem from the attitudes, values and knowledge base instilled by the masters in LIS.
The economics however, are sometimes insurmountable, and the rising cost of a masters course means that many who want to study, and who would benefit from so doing, are unable to.
There is quite obviously scope for both academic nurturing and workplace experience however, and part-time study offers one way to address this. Shadowing, mentoring and secondments are also ways in which formal study can be integrated with work experience.
Academic study of any kind should not be seen as one-off achievement. There is always more to learn. It would seem sensible that formal academic study, workplace experience and CPD should be considered symbiotically, rather than a choice of one or the other.
Having said all this, there is also a case for vocational training and development for those for whom academic study may simply not appeal, or may not be feasible.
A collective effort to provide a comprehensive, connected approach to LIS education would benefit all of us within the domain, and help to attract, retain and develop a vibrant and successful workforce.
There is more information available now than at any other time in history, and it should be our priority as a sector to emphasise and facilitate the exciting possibilities and careers within this field, for those with either business or more altruistic ambitions.
CILIP will use the outcomes from the event to inform current work on the Public Library Skills Strategy, and their wider work on a UK-wide Information Skills Strategy.
CityLIS is collaborating with colleagues from the health sector to encourage a connected approach to LIS education at all levels, and a further meeting with other LIS education providers, to address the development needs of healthcare knowledge workers, is planned.
This event was sponsored by Demco Interiors.