My final session of the day was a panel discussion on “Professional Education in the 21st Century”. As a current LIS student, I was looking forward to hearing what the panellists thought we should be studying, and how this compared with my experience at City.
The four panellists were all LIS employers, from four different sectors: Veronica Kennard, from Rothschild; Ayub Khan, Head of Library Services for Warwickshire County Council; Linda Ferguson, from NW Health Care Libraries; and Sharon Palmer, from Leeds University.
The first question was on the importance of a library qualification. The consensus seemed to be that a qualification was seen as desirable, but not essential: Veronica pointed out that she didn’t like to exclude people without the LIS MSc/diploma because they may have other worthwhile skills; while Ayub suggested that it depended on the post he was hiring for. Linda stated that the emphasis on professionalism within the NHS meant that a qualified professional may have an advantage, as they would be able to be seen as on a par with other health care professionals; but that small NHS libraries probably didn’t need more than one qualified librarian, supported by paraprofessionals. Sharon also pointed out that it was difficult to attract people with qualifications in other fields to library jobs, as they don’t see it as something they would do.
The second question was on what the panellists thought people actually gained from a professional qualification. There was a fairly broad consensus on this too – concepts such as broadening horizons; knowledge of other sectors; grounding in how to learn, challenge and question; and learning the theory to put practice into context were all mentioned. Veronica also suggested that the core skills and competencies of librarianship are still important (although this seemed like a bit of an afterthought to me!).
Next, the panellists were asked if they thought the content of current LIS courses met employer’s needs, or if there were gaps to be addressed. Sharon began by pointing out that courses are very variable across the country so it is difficult to generalise [possibly this in itself is a problem that needs to be tackled?]. She said that it was good to see skills in digital technologies emerging, but that non-library-specific skills should also be taught, such as marketing and strategic planning. Linda followed this by suggesting that a return to teaching traditional skills such as cataloguing and classification should be taught, as graduates are losing the idea of technology as a tool: there is a perception among new graduates that technology should be able to fix anything, and an unwillingness to engage in any non-technical solutions. She also echoed Sharon’s call for general business and management skills to be taught – Linda suggested evaluating services and writing a business plan.
Ayun agreed with this, and added that there needed to be more of a focus on areas specific to public libraries, such as reader services and local studies. He also noted that the variation in the content of library courses can be confusing for employers – they don’t know what skills to expect graduates to already have. Veronica finished by suggesting that new graduates are lacking in customer service skills, and the drive to provide the best possible service for their users [I can see where she was coming from here but I don’t think that’s something that you can learn in a classroom – seems to me this is something that should be developed by employers, by instilling a “customer first” culture in the workplace].
The final question was “How should library education evolve in the future?”. Ayun suggested that library training should be competency-based, perhaps by making use of something like CILIP’s framework of qualifications. He also pointed out that that library schools need to address barriers to diversity, and introduce more flexible course delivery, such as distance learning. Veronica drew attention to the economic situation – there are fewer jobs to go around, we need to focus on what is needed for the jobs that remain. She emphasised the importance of CPD after finishing a library qualification. Sharon suggested that employers need to put more effort into engaging with library schools, and support graduate traineeships and student project work if they want to ensure that graduates come out with the skills they require. Linda picked up on the earlier mention of CPD, arguing that library schools are missing a trick there – is there any reason that CPD courses can’t be offered by library schools? This would make use of the expertise they have, and allow them to remain in contact with employers.
It was good to hear what employers thought of library schools and library qualifications, but I have to say that most of it confirmed what I already suspected – that library school does not prepare you to be a librarian.You can of course argue that this is not necessarily the point of doing a Masters – there are vocational courses you can do, or you can go down the ACLIP/MCLIP route, and there is intellectual value in a Masters degree which is above and beyond what job you can get at the end of it. I certainly don’t regret doing my Masters, and I do see the value in learning for learning’s sake – and I’ve certainly learned plenty about critical thinking and how to learn, as some of the panellists mentioned – but I also feel that I’ve learned much more about the actual job from working in libraries and from the conferences and events I’ve been to than I have from my course. I think the problem is that LIS Masters courses are trying to be both at once – an intellectual, critical exercise, and a vocational training course. I don’t really know what the solution is to that, just thinking aloud really. Anyone have any more coherent thoughts on this?