Yet another thought-provoking post by Ned Potter (the wikiman) has got my juices flowing – this time on the topic of the value of the LIS MA which he provocatively suggests might just be a ‘qualification of convenience’. I left a brief – and probably too flip - comment on his blog offering my opinion but it doesn’t really do justice to this important issue. Like Ned, I too felt that my Masters was akin to an Undergraduate level course, was unhelpfully ‘one-size-fits-all’ and most importantly that when it comes to the Library MA the profession is complicit in an unsatisfactory system.
Although I think I attended one of the ‘better’ Library Schools and was at least rewarded with a thorough grounding in what was new technology back then, the course left me completely unprepared for the real world of work. There was a huge amount of theory on my course and very little evidence-based practice or examination of practical application. Worse still there was no managerial training. I could (very bascially) catalogue and classify books and I knew about information theory but it didn’t easily transfer into my first professional post in which I needed to manage staff, make practical decisions about collection development, push through change and promote our service.
Now this was all 15 long years ago and things may have changed at some Library Schools (I keep hearing about the wonders of Sheffield’s MA for instance) but my experience is that in general terms it has not. I’m a strong believer in the continuous professional development of my team members and for this reason, where possible, offer financial support for those staff members who want to take a distance learning MA, partly in the mistaken belief that it should be a good investment for my service as they apply what they go on to learn on the course to their day-to-day work. However, my experience has been that the courses in question haven’t been sufficiently practical to enable them to do this, being far too theory-based, old-fashioned and furnished with reading lists that Noah could have quite feasibly drawn up in his ark (had he been planning a Library Masters for the animals while they waited for the water to subside). And before you say it, this has been my experience of several completely different and able individuals. Individuals who I fully expected to be more enriched – and enriching - by taking the course.
Earlier this year I gave a talk at a nameless Library School on the subject of ‘the business of business librarianship’: a practical insight into what it takes to manage my service strategically, examining the managerial challenges involved as well as the information issues. Although the students seemed comatose to me during the lecture I later received feedback that it was one of the most engaging sessions they’d attended because it was a practical real-life nuts and bolts example of a Library Service in operation. The lecturer who had invited me to speak also thought the session had gone well, although she commented on its lack of theoretical grounding and how the course she teaches have to be conversely almost exclusively theory-based. At first I thought ‘fair enough’ and then I thought ‘hang on that’s ridiculous’ after all that’s exactly why I wasn’t prepared for my first professional post and why my staff members working on distance-learning MAs aren’t able to apply their courses back to their day jobs. Of course information theory needs to be a component part of any Library MA, but I would have thought that in this day and age, in which the profession is under serious threat, practical application is an infinitely more valuable and appropriate focus.
As an employer I have sat through far too many interviews with ill-prepared candidates, with Library MAs, who are completely unable to answer practical questions about managing teams, change, marketing, service delivery and prioritising workload. I don’t buy that this stuff can ONLY be learned on the job - is there any case-study teaching at Library School? – if there is, there isn’t enough of it. It also leads me on to another question, why is the theory on the MA almost exclusively information theory, what of management theory, change theory, marketing theory – all just as relevant, if not more so, to the new information professional.
The bottom line, and I’m in danger of repeating myself, is that in my view 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. Yes there may well be exceptions out there, but my guess is there’s not nearly enough of them.