Library MAs: insufficient preparation for the real world of information work?

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.

16 thoughts on “Library MAs: insufficient preparation for the real world of information work?

  1. Tina Reynolds says:

    I completely agree. I believe that many moons ago it was a primarily vocational course. We should try to lead it back in that direction but it is difficult for it to be a postgraduate qualification and not entirely theoretical.


  2. Celine says:

    Very interesting. Will have to digest this before I can come up with a full response.

    However, I do think part of the problem is you can’t please everyone because they all want different things out of it and want to go on and work in different types of information work/libraries. So for example, you say you could (basically) catalogue and classify but did no management. We had lots of management theory and 2 compulsory management modules (Sheffield, a decade ago) but absolutely no practical cat & class (there were 3 optional lunch time sessions to cover the lot). Also I always felt the course I did was much more useful if you were interested in a career in public libraries…. Difficult to see how all courses can please all students.


    1. Libreaction says:

      Certainly sounds like the Sheffield course would have served me better then and now. Public libraries crept into my course far too much as well – I remember complaining that those particular modules should never have been core courses (I’d worked in public libraries and had no intention of going back to them). I think there’s more than enough to fill a year-long course that’s sufficiently generic and useful to aspiring entrants into the profession.


  3. Niamh says:

    Some of the modules did include case studies, but I’d have to go rummaging to give examples. Some courses also encouraged discussion of examples using the VLE, but actually I think it would have been more useful to have people share their own experiences there. That’s the beauty of distance learning after all, the mix of people in all sorts of settings with all sorts of levels of experience.


  4. Libby Tilley says:

    I like distance learning Masters. I think that the relative intensity of distance learning study schools combined with the fact that most people are actively engaged in relevant experience mean that people are constantly discussing their experiences whilst occupied studying for their Masters. THis is one reason why I am very pro distance learning (I went that route myself so that probably accounts for the other reason plus the fact that three current colleagues ‘beyond Cambridge’ did the same course). There is also the very fact that it is often a 3 or 4 year course if doing it distance learning so the process of absorbing information and translating into practice is somewhat easier over a longer time frame. However I agree with you, Andy, that often the degree itself is not very practical or applied and the problem with the theory that gets taught is that it CAN be relatively difficult to translate into reality.

    Personally I’m an advocate of the Chartership system mainly because it was this, rather than the degree itself, which changed the way I viewed CPD and how I engaged with it myself. NOT that Chartership will earn you much in terms of a better job, better salary itself, but if taken on board reasonably conscientiously and seriously can have a real impact. It allows you to be passionate about the aspects of librarianship that you want to be passionate about…and yet also forces you to wake up to what else is going on outside of your own networks.

    ‘Nuff said for the moment


  5. Girl in the Moon says:

    Andy – I enjoyed your post and am interested in your desire for more practical courses that will lead to more able job applicants, because on the course I took, much of the ‘practical’ work seemed to be thrown in for box-ticking purposes and left me cold. I’ve discussed this some more, and probably incoherently, on my own blog – – and would be interested to hear any and all comments!


  6. Sue says:

    I am shocked to read that you had very little preparation for the administrative or technological aspects of the job. I am completing my master’s this semester, and every single course I have taken has emphasized the need to evaluate the structure and processes within any information institution. The program I am completing is oriented towards the concept that the profession is evolving and librarians (with advanced degrees) should be prepared to function as flexible and proactive administrators, no matter what their role encompasses. Technology is also an integral aspect of each and every course I have taken, and the need for continual professional development in regards to technology has been emphasized. I am disheartened, however, to see that my education will not be highly regarded by the professionals who already hold positions within libraries and archives. How can I possibly expect to aquire a position when expectations are so low? If library directors have have such low expectations about MLIS programs and new graduates, how can newly educated professionals carve out a distinctive place in the heirarchy? Especially one that pays a living wage? If the daily work of a MLIS professional boils down to the basics of cataloging, or memorizing LC subject headings, then perhaps I have been misguided. I am happy to memorize subject headings or point people towards the toilets. But I was lead to expect more from the profession.


    1. libreaction says:

      I’m pleased that your experience has been different as all the elements you describe should indeed be part of a good LIS Masters. However, I disagree that the fact that the content of some courses is perhaps not as rigorous or practical as many of us in the profession would like (or expect) them to be will end up affecting your chances of securing a position. The quality of my Masters did not affect whether I was recruited or not. Indeed I had a full-time permanent job a month before my course ended. Furthermore I’d say it was down to any individual post-recruitment to “carve out a distinctive place in the hierarchy” through their approach to the position they hold, not by virtue of the quality of their Masters. The whole point of my post is precisely that “the daily work of a LIS professional” does not “boil down to the basics of cataloging, or memorizing LC subject headings” and my fear that certain courses out there have not moved on sufficiently to cover what does constitute the role of today’s information professional.


  7. Sarah Stamford says:

    Interested to read your post and the comments.

    It’s about ten years since I finished my PG qualification. I won’t bore everyone with what I thought was wrong with the course, there was quite a lot of it, and once we had received our certificates I and three other (older) students submitted an exit report in which we suggested ways in which the course could be improved, although I have no idea if it was followed up.

    A lot of the material did seem very theoretical and irrelevant (e.g. a dreadful lecture on Ranganathan’s classification system) and certainly the management module was somewhat perfunctory. But the course had to cover a lot of ground in limited time, catering for people going to work in a wide range of situations – public, private, academic, prison, school libraries, rare books departments etc. It could only be a foundation.

    What’s helped me most as a librarian is the experience I gained working elsewhere – in publishing, finance, retail and broadcasting – plus a couple of short management courses I did just after I qualified, at which point I could put into practice what I was learning.

    One other thing about interviews etc – I despair when I read some of the local job descriptions for all levels of library staff. The skills and experience asked for don’t seem to me to reflect developments in librarianship, and the need for good management skills. Where I work every job is re-evaluated when it becomes vacant so JDs are kept relevant, but it seems to me that some employers are happy to perpetuate old practices.


    1. libreaction says:

      Thanks Sarah. Your right it can only be a foundation but I do wish, however generic it has to be, that it could be a more relevant and practical one.


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