Don’t go to Library School: you won’t learn anything useful

empty lecture theatre

photo by @lynrobinson cc-by


I keep hearing this, in a variety of guises. The dismissive certainty that library schools are out-dated in their understanding of how digital information has changed the modern world and its management of humanity’s record beyond recognition, and that LIS masters programmes produce graduates who are unemployable.

Having directed masters programmes in LIS for nearly a decade, I take a different view, and offer my firm belief that our library school, #citylis, delivers a sound contemporary understanding of today’s information landscape, and fosters a wide range of highly desirable professional and personal skills in our students. I doubt I am the only library school advocate, I know several colleagues from other schools who are equally passionate about their curriculum. At #citylis, we enjoy a constant dialogue with practitioner colleagues, our professional body (CILIP), employment agencies (Sue Hill, TFPL), alumni and current students, which allows us to elicit trends in technology, services, economics, user needs and other aspects of current practice. We are also avid horizon scanners, keeping an eye on the literature beyond the boundaries of our LIS discipline, to ensure we understand the wider context of what library and information science is trying to say. These combined activities result in a constant need to update our classes and materials, but we think our relevant, contemporary syllabus is worth it.

That is not to say that we offer everything to everybody. In the first instance, we work from a UK perspective, although within an international context, and secondly, our content is driven by the interests and backgrounds of our staff, and available resources, together with the primarily London-based collection institutions to which we defer for practitioner context. I don’t think any library school does, can, or even needs to offer an exhaustively comprehensive curriculum. Some variation between specializations of individual courses is perfectly acceptable, and even advantageous.

Our #citylis students are enthused, engaged and positive about their chosen discipline and profession, and the majority readily find employment, not only in the traditional areas of librarianship and information work, but across a wider range of information centred activities, such as publishing, information policy and governance, data management, information architecture, web-design, customer relations, training, user-support, and educational technology to mention just a few. All businesses rely on sound information management, so the future should be bright for well qualified graduates from LIS schools.

And yet, there are still doubters in the back channels. I recently read Deanna Marcum’s clearheaded report “Educating the Research Librarian: are we falling short?” Within the scope of research libraries, and with a US focus, this well written report of a conference aiming to use design techniques to map the future of library education, suggests that the problems stem from the broad scope of LIS itself:

“Perhaps the diverse backgrounds of the participants guaranteed the utter impossibility of developing a general curriculum that will meet all needs. For many of the younger representatives, technology was the main concern. How do we prepare new professionals to take full advantage of social media and emerging technologies to deliver information services to all who need them? Library buildings, legacy collections, and preservation— these were all topics that hardly registered on their list of interests. Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s Media Lab argued passionately that the purpose of a library and information school is to produce a cadre of individuals devoted to the universal right to access to information. Public librarians at the conference believe that new librarians must be trained as community activists focused on civic discourse. With no common vision for the library’s role, there could be no agreement on how library schools should prepare the next generation of students.”

I have also read posts from library school curriculum dissenters on Twitter, in blog posts, and have verbally heard discontent from potential employers working in the sector. In response, I have informally attempted a wider conversation to solicit the actual knowledge, skills, understanding or abilities that library schools fail to provide. Responses to my question “what knowledge and skills do LIS graduates need that they don’t get from library school?”, are often vague, but some are highly sensible and relevant, including: a clearer focus on the implications of the transformation of information communication pathways brought about by digital, the subsequent changing expectations of users of library services, designing systems and processes for information management, information architecture and research data management.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of these specific suggestions have a technological focus, and I am in complete agreement with the necessity for LIS courses to acknowledge the significant changes affected by digital advancement. Indeed, over the last two years, colleagues and I have already gone a long way to enhance our library technology focus, via curriculum design and out-of-hours workshops and seminars.

A significant number of dissenters cite a lack of emphasis on more generic skills such as how to use a spreadsheet, marketing and promotion, design of promotional material, and communication skills. Communication skills covers many areas; ability to write well, ability to make a convincing case/argument (advocacy), ability to lead, to work in a team, ability to analyse, interpret, present and communicate data, ability to teach, ability to attract funding, and all-round social know-how. Knowledge of the company and its ways of working, was a favourite request, but here there was agreement that this could only be attained once a graduate was employed by the specific company. The generic skills outlined above, are all valid and important. The question here is which of them should be included in the LIS curriculum. Most (UK) masters programmes are a year long, and the schedules are already tight. Inclusion of more generic skills invariably means something else must be excluded. And, of course, there are other aspects of LIS to be fitted in, in addition to the purely technical aspects, and the generic.

At #citylis, we are keen to get this right, and would be willing to host a forum/meet-up where employers, professional bodies, students and programme directors can meet to discuss the role of LIS courses in preparing new professionals for work in our sector. Students, I am sure, would welcome this dialogue. Such a discussion is likely to stir up the longstanding tension between the demands of an academic masters course to cover theory and concepts, research methods and ideas found at the edge of our literature, versus the demands of employers for graduates who are ready to go from day one. But, a debate could surely only aid the smoothing of joins between the two halves of the whole. If anything it would allow us to re-examine ‘essential’ knowledge and skills, which need to be explored in the masters programme, alongside areas which could be covered by continual professional development, or in-house training.

To conclude, here are a few of the areas we feel are presing at #citylis. Some of them are newish, some of them of longstanding centrality to our work:

  • communication – traditiona/social media
  • research skills
  • information literacy
  • digital culture
  • scholarly communication
  • data analysis and presentation
  • digital curation and research data management
  • information resources – documentation
  • information organisaton – metadata
  • human information behaviour
  • information law, policy and management
  • information and communication technologies
  • role of library and information services in the 21st century

#citylis logo

Thanks to Dave Thompson (@d_n_t) for ideas.

The Bad Note

diana rigg A lifetime ago, I wanted to be Emma Peel. Oh how I longed for her looks, her London lifestyle, stylish wardrobe, surreal adventures, and cool cat-suit; I envied the way the roads she drove around were always empty, and resented that my idol also had a PhD in physics (and, yeah, her relationship with Steed).

In this, a completely different life, I long to be quite a lot like Dame Diana Rigg. In London, I caught her solo presentation of material from her book “No Turn Unstoned” – an unoriginal title, although new and amusing to me. In ‘real life’, so many years after I first crushed over her high-kicking persona on the telly, I was delighted to be reminded of the pleasure of good performance in presentation. Dame Diana’s book has been described as scholarly, and indeed we were treated to some of the, now hilarious, bad performance reviews from classical Greece, and a subsequent exposition of the bad review in the theatre world throughout the centuries. But her storytelling technique is also enviable, pulling us into her world to the extent to which I currently refer to as ‘immersive’ – where unreality seems real. She did this with just her own voice and impersonations – reading from extracts and occasionally diverting, and enriching our attention with seemingly unscripted anecdotes. She is funny, as well as intelligent. Immersive storytelling, with a dash of humour, is a plausible format for the contemporary lecture. I learnt and retained, much of the narrative, in addition to running through ways in my head, in which I could incorporate aspects of her style into my own teaching repertoire.

The bad note, is a criticism given to an actor by the director – the more famous actors never being given their ‘bad notes’ in public. A common cause of the ‘bad note’ is the desire of the actor to improve their part, and the director’s desire to remove the, often contentious, consequences from the characterisations.

In my own rather modest time as an academic, I have noticed the advantages of performance skills creeping into my job. Lecturing (good lecturing) used to be about communicating concepts effectively; now it is about performing them. Today’s student cohort is drenched in high definition video and computer generated worlds, to say nothing of exposure to the torrent of celebrity lecturers with acting credentials, as well as a PhD in physics. A few bullet points thrown onto a white PowerPoint slide somehow doesn’t cut it anymore. This all leaves those of us with limited thespian backgrounds a bit adrift. We are judged continually on student satisfaction; via class feedback, module feedback, student-staff liaison committees, appraisal and peer-review. But the goalposts of satisfaction shift constantly, and in order to pass muster we need the resilience skills of performance, in addition to taking on-board new learning technologies, and methods of teaching and evaluation, alongside keeping up within our own areas of expertise.

Teaching now centres around a strong element of immersive engagement; I, like many students, can be readily drawn in to any topic presented with enthusiasm and conviction, and higher education needs to address the need for academics to possess performance skills.

With performance, however, comes the bad note. Where we were once judged on our academic ability, we are now also rated on our enthusiasm, and our ability to deliver satisfaction. We need to script not just slides and papers, but the whole show, from student lifestyle to learning outcomes. Whilst this may be no bad thing for learning and teaching in higher education, we have to learn to cope with the constant criticism; not all of us are famous enough to receive our bad notes in private, and often our attempts to improve our parts attract only derision.

Diana Rigg read out some of her bad notes, and suggested that a way to get over them was to share them publicly, and with colleagues, thus removing their sting – and also reminding the authors of bad reviews that their words may be the subject of their subject’s next lecture.

On pleats and puffs: the trials of academic costume

lynxigraduation14This piece by Louise Byrne in the Times Higher Education supplement, dares to suggest that academic gowns don’t work so well for everyone. Specifically those without the broad shoulders and strategic buttons necessary to secure the hood, and even more specifically shorter people, say, those under 5’ 2”.

I am pleased, because this means I am not the only dissenter, having recently faced a barrage of criticism from lovers of pomp and tradition, when I complained to colleagues that wearing academic dress made me feel trollopsy, and that I would prefer not to wear it to present my students at graduation.

I am not against tradition, nor against ‘dressing up’ for the occasion. I just hate feeling hot, anxious about needing to prevent a variety of wardrobe malfunctions and generally looking over pleated, as I stand in front of a huge audience of parents, being videoed as I attempt to focus on getting the names right and not fluffing the lines. A costume should enhance a performance, not hinder it.

Seriously who designs these things? Well, Viviene Westwood has designed a series of robes for King’s College, where at least the hood appears to be attached to the shoulders of the gown, rather than the traditional slip over horror, which demands complex wielding of safety pins, which in turn make holes in your clothes.

But still, all the pictures on the website show tall girls in significantly high heels, with gowns which don’t meet in the middle. I recall Vivienne’s iridescent violet wedding gown for Dita Von Teese (currently on display at the V&A’s Wedding Dresses exhibition), and I am perturbed. Vivienne, this gown is spectacular. Can you not then, design a graduation gown that flatters the majority of us, without the puffery and unworkable accessories, and which fastens at the front?

At least the new King’s College gowns come without hats. Even Henry VIII looked a bit of a chump in the pancake-like headwear which is supposed to be a reward for getting a PhD. Better to stick with the mortarboard rather than suffer the indignity of the floppy beret flattening your fringe. I don’t mind anyone else wearing a hat, but I am uneasy when in the 21st century some of us face regulations which state that we have to.

Of course many of my colleagues are beautiful people, who carry the pleated shroud off with aplomb. Still others don’t care as they get paid anyway. But in case anyone with sympathy and design talent is listening, here are some hints and tips:

  • Black is a good colour. Black is the new black. Not orange and certainly not pale grey (UCL what are you thinking ?)
  • Hoods can look imposing and foster scope for customisation of the gown. They should be firmly attached by skilled seamstresses, not safety pins, so that it is unnecessary to choke, hold the ribbon down with one hand to prevent choking, or look at photos of your special day showing the hood slipping down your shoulders.
  • Pleats are expensive. They make everyone look fat. Unless you have signed with Models One, you don’t need pleats on the shoulders, or across the back, or anything puffy at all.
  • A longer line at the back of the gown makes it flow elegantly, and the drop sleeves from the elbow make the arms look graceful.
  • Gowns should aim for mid calf, no longer. There are always steps and hitching the gown up to climb them should be reserved for Gone with the Wind cosplay events.
  • Some kind of fastening at the front is comforting. This doesn’t have to be the romper suit zipper going all the way up that I have notice on some US gowns – a single toggle or button with a rope loop is easy, classy and effective. Pulling your gown around you all the time makes you look anxious on stage and deranged on camera.
  • A small pocket for the cloakroom ticket would be great, and another way to reduce anxiety.
  • Hats; awkward and unnecessary.
  • Did I mention black?