Library & Information Management

The LIS Masters is a qualification of convenience

A few times recently I've read blog posts about the LIS (or Library & Information Management, or whatever version you want to call it) degree. Mostly this focuses on the Masters, because very few people I know actually have the full under-grad degree (although there are some). A recent post on the excellent Agnostic, Maybe blog has clarified my thinking.

Disclaimer: this is just my view, based on my own experiences of the degree I completed. As always this blog represents my views alone and, god knows, not those of my employer - in fact for this post, just to be on the safe side, this blog doesn't even represent my own views. :)

I think the reasons the LIS qualification is most often a Masters are just reasons of convenience. Reason 1: The vast majority of library staff do NOT know they want to join the Information sector at the age of 17, when people are deciding which degree to do. So, if we want people to have degrees, we need them to be able to complete them as something of an after thought, most usually whilst working. Which is to say - it can't take a full three years, who can wait that long? So it needs to be a Masters, that can be done via Distance Learning if necessary. Reason 2: is there three years of stuff you can teach about library work, really? Really, though? Perhaps if you cover all types of librarianship yes - school, health, academic, business, public, special. But when people realise they need the qualification, they are probably past the primer course stage. The reason which is conspicuous by its absence is: the subject matter and level of learning is at a very advanced level that couldn't realistically be achieved by an undergraduate.

I think my Masters course was, to all intents and purposes, a 1 year under-grad course. There was not much about it that you could conclusively say: this is POST-GRAD level stuff. It was just latter stages of BA type stuff, with the possible exception of the dissertation - but you don't NEED to do a super advanced dissertation to get a pass in the Masters. I've done another Masters, an MA, so I do know what post-grad study is like - that felt like another level on from my undergraduate learning; my BSc did not. I'm sure this isn't the case across the board: I've heard great things about the course at Sheffield, and obviously the UCL one is supposed to be fantastic as well - but these are both residential and, increasingly, the majority of LIS Masters are coming via Distance Learning courses, so I think my experience may be the norm rather than the exception. Perhaps I'm wrong.

I thought I was just doing the course to get the piece of paper to get a better job - and I was, but actually I learned some really interesting stuff too. But when it comes to an employer assessing me for a role, are they going to know, look into, or even care what I learned on the course? Almost certainly not (I'm in the academic sector; it may be different elsewhere) - for a start the library Masters very quickly becomes out-dated because this field moves so quickly. What the employer needs to know is that I'm the type of person who did the Masters course - which is to say committed to the profession, willing to learn, committed to professional development, ambitious and here for the long haul - not that I learned about Research Methods and wrote a God-awful essay about it.

As part of the big CILIP conversational survey, there was a question about the value of CILIP ratified qualifications. It hadn't really occurred to me that there could be any kind of library Masters that wasn't, but I do know that CILIP continued to allow Leeds MET to be a certified course long past the time when any students on it believed it should have been; I don't think CILIP can have assessed them very thoroughly if they continued to allow the course to run, by all accounts. So I'm not sure there's value in the Masters being given the CILIP seal of approval either.

The Masters is also extremely expensive - my Distance Learning MSc was twice as expensive as my part-time MA. And as Andy Woodworth (again) just pointed out on Twitter, the course is a one-size-fits-all librarians course which doesn't specialise in academic or public or any other type of librarianship. One year to study ALL types, even when some of them have almost nothing in common with each other?

So basically we have a system where we ALL, all of us who are working in libraries as a vocation rather than just as a job, have to fork out a fortune for a not-really-that-advanced degree which everyone else has anyway, that has to be a jack of so many sectors it can't really afford to be a master of any of them, a degree that means you can tick the boxes on the application form but doesn't actually help you in the interview, and which those outside the library profession are astonished to hear exists at all!

I'm not trying to undermine anyone who has the Masters, I'm not trying to besmirch the good people to teach the courses - I'm not even trying to devalue it, as I'd be very surprised if I apply for any job in the next 50 years which doesn't list it as a requirement on the person spec. I suppose what I'm trying to say with this post is, why are we all of us complicit in a system that is so obviously unsatisfactory? Employers, employees, CILIP, and library schools.

Is this really a good state of affairs to be happy with? Can we change it? If so, what do we do, what are the alternatives?