Monday, 6 September 2010

Some thoughts on the LIS MA

There's been a lot of discussion over the last few days about the merits or otherwise of required masters-level education in library studies for professional librarians. This discussion has inspired me to think in more detail about my impressions of my own LIS MA, and about LIS MAs in general.

I can't possibly cover all the various issues surrounding status, job roles, the level of academic study and attainment, and necessity that are being discussed, and I much that I have to say will fall into the realm of truism and platitude. First out of the box, there's the truism that LIS MAs, as with so much in life, are trying to be all things to all people. Curricula try to encompass a range of sectors, a range of skills, and a balance between practical and theoretical teaching that will never come close to matching any individual's career path. No-one's really arguing that an MA you should teach you everything you need to know for a given post, but rather, it seems to me, that it should equip you with the background knowledge and skill to be able to take on any given job as competently as possible. A more contentious issue is whether we need an MA (or other qualification) at all, or whether librarians' training should be achieved solely through on-the-job learning. On this point I'm going to side with those in favour of some sort of qualification: I think that it's important to have formal recognition that this is a professional job. Though I don't know what sort of qualification would truly best indicate this.

What's really caught my interest is the discussion of MA content, and how it does, or doesn't prepare students for real work. A couple of years after graduating, I've come to the following conclusiong about my own MA (I feel weirdly reticent about criticising it openly, so I'm not saying where it was, though it may well be obvious):

What I liked

  • In-depth tuition in cataloguing (AACR2) and classification (several main systems).
  • Writing a full Collection Development Policy for a particular collection as coursework.
  • A couple of the optional modules that fitted in with my particular, and somewhat academic, interests.

What I didn't like

  • The lack of detailed practical examples, particularly relating to e-resources management, staff management, legal issues, and LMS/cataloguing solutions.
  • The lack of meaningful discussions of modern profesisonal trends and arguments (I felt we were rather left to discover those for ourselves, which seemed a waste).

Andy Priestner has written an interesting and quite convincing post about the benefits of a really *practical* training at library school. Andy has a lot more experience than me, particularly in the business of recruiting staff (something I've never done), so I would probably do well not to ignore his conclusion that 'the Library MA just isn’t vocational enough and doesn’t sufficiently prepare those who complete it for the challenges of the posts they will take after it'. My experience of library school was that much of the coursework was intended to be 'practical', but that much of it didn't feel very useful. The CPD-writing example above was different because we did look in quite some depth at particular libraries' CPDs, and as many of them are available online, I spent a long time considering them before I wrote my own. This felt like useful work, because of the combination of background instruction and real-world application. Many of the other assignments felt far more detached from the real world, either because there was little impetus to connect them to current issues, or because very little theoretical (or, rather, technical) grounding was provided (my own 'education' in 'legal issues' springs vividly to mind here - I really felt that this was a topic where a couple of lectures from experts would have been really beneficial, rather than 45mins on general topics and a reading list).

My desire for theory and technical detail is quite possibly a feature of my rather cerebral learning style - until I understand the background to something you'll have a really hard time trying to get me to put it into practice. But equally, if we reduce librarianship to some stark terms - selection, description and organisation - and learn a little about them theory of how that's done , we'd be better able to embrace the 'modern world' in a timely and effective fashion. My library school education (and I only graduated in November 2008, so it wasn't long ago) gave me the feeling that the world of libraries was splitting in two - the good old sort, doing it how they always had; and the reckless new places using *gasp* widgets, and pictures in the catalogue, and tags, and who knows what. Now, this impression was likely at least 50% my own fear of the unknown, but I like to think that a really great course would have shaken that fear out of me my showing how nothing's fundamentally changed - we're just finding new ways to help people find out about stuff.

What I'm really arguing for here is the proper integration of theory and practice. I don't see any value in a qualification (be it BA, MA, postgraduate diploma or Girl in the Moon's advanced custard pie throwing certificate) that sets practical exercises that are mere hoop-jumping exercises that appear to meet the standards for a course because they are 'vocational'. This isn't what Andy, or anyone else, is looking for either, I'm sure.

What would I have liked from an MA?

A course that examined the fundamentals of library work, that examined how they apply in the modern world, that let us practise real-world skills, and that wasn't afraid to engage intelligently and rigorously with current debates.

I'm not quite that's what I got, but, I did learn a lot - some about libraries, some about me - and I gained the confidence (mis-placed or no) that I'm now 'qualified' and can set about building a bigger, brighter, library world (sorry - it's been a long day).

P.S. I wrote this quickly, and have barely scratched the surface. I'd love to hear other thoughts - so please harangue me!


  1. I find it fascinating how your likes and dislikes of content on your course correlate so closely with content of my own LIS MA 15 years ago. While I agree that some general principles apply across the board - your mention of selection, description and organisation for instance - I actually think that everything about librarianship has fundamentally changed since I qualified. Services can be delivered and promoted in new and innovative ways, while the challenges we now face are more serious and complex than ever. This is a state of affairs that LIS MAs need to reflect.

  2. I think the confidence which comes from being "qualified", and having a set of transferable skills is the most important thing LIS qualifications can provide. We're always going to choose courses based on what we think we want - like you I went for the more old-school options but now (2 years on) would be much more likely to opt for web/digital choices - though I agree that the more real-life-based the coursework the more valuable it becomes.

    I find that now most of my CPD activities are filling in the gaps of things which I wasn't offered/chose not to do at library school. I'm lucky in that my current employer is very supportive of this, and I'm actually glad that there are things I don't already know about librarianship, as I think that an amount of on-the-job learning is probably even more important than skills acquired in a classroom setting.

    I also think it needs to remain a post-graduate qualification. Speaking as someone with 2 MAs to their name, I found that postgrad work was quite different to undergrad and having that experience certainly helps me to understand the requirements of the researchers I now work with.

    Sorry if this is a bit rambly, hope it makes some sense....!
    Emma Davidson

  3. I don't think any course can be expected to prepare us to do a particular job - they should prepare us by giving us the questioning mindset and the tools to continue to develop professionally. The fact that librarianship has changed so much in such a short space of time is exactly why the qualification itself can't be enough in the long run, and even chartership means nothing unless the CPD continues after getting the letters after our names - but that's a whole other discussion!

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    @Andy - yes, services have completely (or nearly completely, or should have completely) changed over the last few years, and LIS MAs should reflect it. But I'm just wary, I guess, of throwing the baby out with the bath water - teaching the gadgets (which will soon date) without teaching the reason for them.

    @el399 Yes, it makes sense! I think we were on the same course, in fact. I don't know that I'd necessarily take different choices now (perhaps based on delivery, maybe, though I understand that's changed, but not on content grounds), because I think some things are more easily picked up later through CPD than others. I agree with you and Niamh that it's the continual development that's really important.

    I guess that an MA really ought to make sure that it's preparing people to keep on learning throughout their careers.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.