Archive for the ‘Library Careers’ Category

Is the Library degree the best use of your resources? Imagine what else you could do with that time and money

12 Feb

Edit:  Despite my clarifications, people are still misinterpreting my original post as a proposed ‘solution’ to the problem of the Library degree, so I’ve rewritten this to stop that happening.


To embark upon a Library Masters in 2014 is a huge undertaking. Assuming you do it part-time, whilst working to support yourself, you’ll spend between ten and eighteen thousand pounds over two years, along with, at a conservative estimate, 1500 hours of your time.[1]

The question is, does the Library degree really represent the best use of this investment?

What if you were to spend the same amount of time and money on a self-structured curriculum of study, events, conferences, training, and building an online portfolio, whilst continuing to work in an information role. Would you not emerge as a more rounded, knowledgeable, and relevant information professional?

I think you would. If someone were to try it, the results would certainly be interesting. This is not, however, a solution to the problem.

The problem with the Library degree

I have many issues with the MA/Msc in Library & Information Management (or similar) as it currently stands, in the UK. For the record, I completed mine, via distance learning, in 2009. It was fine, I didn’t hate it, it wasn’t a bad degree in any way. My views on the degree are based on my own experience, and based on talking to others – I realise they may not be universal complaints. But here are the main ones anyway:

1)    Much of the content of the courses does not seem relevant to actually being an information professional

2)    There is one degree that is supposed to cover, in one year of full-time study, all aspects and types of librarianship, including public, academic and special librarianship (not to mention the myriad other potential careers under the information umbrella). As far as I can tell these disciplines are very different from each other

3)    Many of the courses contain modules they contained 10 years ago, despite the information world having undergone seismic shift in that time. Anything you learn on a library degree is likely to be out of date in two to five years anyway

4)    Having completed a Masters in another discipline prior to getting my Library one, I did not find the latter to be postgraduate in nature. It was just like a very short undergraduate course

5)    The piece of paper at the end – the degree certificate which allows you to apply for higher graded jobs for which a qualification is an ‘essential’ on the person spec – seems far more important than what you learn on the course itself

6)    The difference between a ‘qualified’ librarian and an ‘unqualified’ one is very rarely the qualification. It’s more often that the unqualified librarian’s circumstances are such that they have been unable to do the degree, rather than that they are in any way a lesser librarian

7)    The process by which CILIP accredits degrees and the institutions which offer them does not seem to be in any way rigorous, based on the experiences of colleagues who have attended certain institutions…

8)    To add insult to the injury of the points above, there are many more qualified librarians than there are posts for qualified librarians – meaning that in my own institution alone there are several very talented new professionals who have gone to the time and expense of getting the degree, but who are nevertheless in the same roles they were in whilst they studied

Most importantly, the degree is so expensive that it is actively excluding people from good jobs – we are putting a financial price on progress in our profession, and for what? A degree that isn’t particularly relevant or, in some cases, even particularly enjoyable to complete. I don’t think it’s acceptable that we’re all of us complicit in such a flawed system. Employers, students, CILIP, people like me who recognised the issues but did the Masters anyway just to get the piece of paper – we’re all part of the problem with the Library degree.

If you are going to create a professional environment in which a ten thousand pound degree is necessary to earn more than £25,000 a year, then the degree itself needs to be a LOT more meaningful than it is at present.

What do we do about it?

If it were up to me, I’d do two things:

A) re-design the Masters to be a Problem Based Learning (PBL) degree, which would allow a much closer connection between study and the reality of library work, and

B) issue some kind of nation-wide edict forcing all hiring library managers to give proper value to the second half of the sentence ‘Library qualification or equivalent experience’ which appears on so many job specs.

There are actually a pleasingly high number of hiring managers who do ‘B’ already, although it’s not that wide-spread. But ‘A’ is a lot trickier.

I am writing (or was writing – we’ll get there eventually!) an article with Alan Carbery about rethinking the degree as PBL. I find PBL incredibly difficult to explain succinctly – basically it’s student centered learning, that is used in a lot of Medical Schools around the UK (including the one in my own institution). It’s really very different from the traditional HE pedagogy. Here’s an excerpt from what the BMJ has to say about it (read the whole page here)

In problem based learning (PBL) students use “triggers” from the problem case or scenario to define their own learning objectives. Subsequently they do independent, self directed study before returning to the group to discuss and refine their acquired knowledge. Thus, PBL is not about problem solving per se, but rather it uses appropriate problems to increase knowledge and understanding. The process is clearly defined, and the several variations that exist all follow a similar series of steps.

It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does. Students absolutely love it. At my University it is also used, with great success, by the Law School, and it is their approach specifically that I’d like to see emulated with libraries. Here’s what the Law School has to say about it:

You and your colleagues decide how your firm operates and determine how to divide up the work.  Through the process you will build working relationships with each other and learn how to deliver on your responsibilities.

For each case you will identify the legal principles involved in the problem and unravel the legal and contextual issues that lie at the heart of it, which will typically involve more than one area of law. All of the problems will be simulated real-life examples brought to you by virtual clients.

In many situations you will have to interact with other student firms, sometimes working alongside them, sometimes in opposition.

For me this notion of operating in firms with real-life examples is key. Based on UCAS applications etc the Law School tailors each firm to suit the personalities and talents of the people involved.

Imagine arriving at Library School and being divided up into Libraries, and then given real-life, pertinent, and up to date examples of problems Libraries face. You’d work cooperatively with your peers (and in the era of constant-contact media, Google hangouts etc, distance-learning shouldn’t prohibit this) and deal with things which you really will have to deal with when working in a qualified library post. Issues around web-design and social media, around marketing and communications, around copyright, data protection and FOI, around managing budgets in difficult economic circumstances, around whatever is relevant and important, year on year. It’s not just that it allows Library Schools to cover contemporary issues, it’s the manner in which it is taught, which seems to relate more directly to the real world. Here’s another quote, from the Law School’s guide to students on their use of PBL:

The key role of the problem is to trigger your awareness that these issues exist, and create an interest in them by highlighting their real-world ramifications. Once this has happened, the problem then gives you a context which you can use to identify exactly what you need to learn in order to understand the problem and address the issues which it raises.

This, to me, sounds like the kind of approach which has the potential to produce Library Masters graduates who are significantly more qualified, aware, relevant and prepared, for the real-life world of libraries. In fact it’s a bit like what we all do with our CPD anyhow.

Clearly this would be a massive shift in how things are done. Any library school attempting to implement this would have to completely scrap the existing degree and build a new one from the ground up. But I’d argue that needs to happen anyway; perhaps a new teaching method would add much needed impetus and inspiration.

I’d be interested if anyone reading this who is familiar with PBL, or with teaching on current Masters courses, has a view on this! Is it the kind of thing we could realistically do?

[1] You are notionally expected to spend 100 hours of study per 10 credits on the Masters – assuming you do the dissertation as well, there are 180 credits in the degree, so the total figure is 1,800 hours. I don’t believe anyone has ever spent 225 full 8-hour days studying for a Library Masters, so I reduced it to 1,500 hours, although that still seems fairly fanciful.



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Work-life balance – it’s a fluid concept

17 Jan


Flickr Creative Commons image from stuant63


Recently I’ve read a good few posts about work / life balance. I also get asked about it sometimes.

This post has turned out quite long, so here’s a one sentence version for those whose work / life balance doesn’t give them enough time to read the whole thing… The balance changes over time, which is fine, and so is having bursts of intense work activity balanced out by longer periods of ‘life’, but you need to keep a hold of what you’re doing this for and where it’s taking you.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s what I think:

1) Whatever the balance is like now, it needs to be FOR something. If you feel that you’re working too hard, it had better be because this is helping you achieve something – in other words, it has to be a means to an end not an end in itself. Personally I like to be either happy with the balance (with ‘life’ very much in the ascendancy) or comfortable in the knowledge that if the balance is wrong, it’s getting me somewhere I specifically want to go, after which I can relax again.

2) Work / life balance isn’t static over time. I wonder if people look at everyone else and just assume their balance is a permanent one? As in, person X is at SO many events, they must be ‘always on’, or person Y really seems to spend a lot of time with their family, how do they do it? But presumably we’re just seeing a snapshot of a particular time. Good work / life balance is fluid.

In my view, it should be as in favour of ‘work’ as it will ever be, at the start of your career. The period on which an info pro is defined as a ‘new professional’ is often said to be the first 5 years, and that’s a nice marker. You do a LOT of work in those five years, in order to expand your horizons, add to your CV, find out what you really like, and get noticed, get into the kind of job you want. Then after that, the balance can shift much more towards ‘life’ because you’ve put in the hard work to build some kind of platform, and then you’re on the platform.

If you’re a new professional reading this (see this, also; it might be useful) and you’re thinking ‘all the papers I’m writing and conferences I’m helping to organise, and presentations I’m giving – this isn’t sustainable’ then that’s probably fine – it doesn’t have to be sustainable. Just make sure at some point you do actually cut down or stop. Which leads me to…

3) Sometimes it’s okay temporarily putting the balance out if it’s going to be worth it in the long term. So sometimes, you can take on a really big project that you know will make things difficult, as long as you know when the end of the project is and that things will become a lot easier as a result. The key things here are taking things on which actually have an end! And not just chain-smoking right onto the next big thing when they do end. It’s fine to stop. I know people (you know who you are!) who simply don’t stop, even though they know they should… (This is, as you can imagine, a self-perpetuating cycle. Librarian Z takes on lots of things, so a: becomes expert in a lot of fields and b: gets a reputation as being helpful and receptive to being asked to do stuff, and so gets asked to do ever more stuff, etc etc, forever.)

4) Saying no is excellent. In my experience it feels good to say no when it’s the right thing to do. Obviously it’s better for the person asking if you can recommend someone alternative to do whatever it is instead. But the key thing is, once you’ve got yourself into a position where you’re asked to do things, saying no doesn’t mean you get asked any less in future. (Sometimes people feel like they ought to grab every opportunity, even not overly suitable ones, in case eschewing results in the opportunities drying up. But this isn’t the case in most people’s’ experience.)

5) There are two types of balance – short-term and long-term. The day-to-day stuff is the detail level – doing that talk or not doing it, getting a sponsored place at that event which involves writing a report afterwards, or not. That can be managed, and can be fluid.

But then there’s the long-term which is basically your job, which is a little harder to be in control of after a certain point. Some types of job really DEMAND an enormous amount of work hours. This post from the always honest and readable Jenica Rogers literally made me not want to be successful. So you have to think about where you’re going, about what all your hard work is ultimately for.

I used to do a LOT more stuff in my own time (see 1, 2 and 3 above) because it would help me get a job where the same stuff was relevant to my work, so I wouldn’t have to do it in my own time anymore. I’d use annual leave to speak at a conference. I wouldn’t do that now – I did it then because it was a short-term thing and it was worth it.

The job it all resulted in is not the kind of job where you have to work 50 hour weeks, and nor would I want one of those (even for twice the salary). Also, I have to work where I live, because my work / life balance approach is that you live where you want to and then find work there – as opposed to going where the work is. So if someone says ‘I’ll give you £150k a year to do your ideal job in London’ I say no without hesitation. That’s the long-term balance.

6) You don’t have to the best that you can be. I’ve said this before and I’ll keep saying it to anyone who’ll listen. If being 80% (or whatever) of who you could be makes you HAPPY,  that’s what you should be aiming for. Society is blindly accepting of the notion that doing one’s best is the be all and end all, but it’s only worth it if that’ll make you happy!

7) Focus on things you’re naturally good at so you can make more progress in a shorter time. You can make more time for life if the work comes easy to you, so as much as it’s nourishing to challenge yourself, don’t take that idea so far that you always have to work doubly hard on everything because everything you take on is out of your comfort zone.


Everyone is different, but the above is what works for me. I’m really happy with the balance I have, I’d recommend it – but to people who are a bit like me, not to everyone… A lot of people have a lot more drive than I do, and this approach probably wouldn’t suit them and their own quest for happiness and contentment.

When I wrote the book, the balance was wrong. I was working on weekends, I had a young child, and it felt awful. I felt like I’d done the wrong thing. In fact, I probably HAD done the wrong thing – I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. (Again, that’s just me – Beth did much the same thing at much the same time and coped a lot better than I did.) But I can’t regret it now because we got through it and I am where I want to be, doing freelance work for the BL among others, as well as the job I love. I do freelance training about areas I already know about and have a natural affinity for, so I don’t have to spend much of my free time preparing them. I obey number 7, above – if someone came to me and said ‘could you run a workshop  for us, on managing change’ I’d say no, call Lisa Jeskins. It would take me too long to put together the materials to keep my work / life balance as I’d want it be (but Lisa’s done such a course before, and in any case is a full-time trainer). I obey number 4 too – of all the interesting offers I had in 2012 to do stuff at conferences, I didn’t do 13 of them, even though I really wanted to. People often say ‘it’s the things you don’t do that you regret’ and I understand that, but actually I don’t regret saying no to anything, even if, at the time, it was really hard to do.

I am a very reflective person; I spend lots of time analysing stuff, processing stuff. So I am very aware of what works for me and what doesn’t, which is how I’ve arrived at the above, which is basically a description of my life as much as it is advice to anyone else. I think the key thing is to do your own analysis of where you are, what you’re doing, and where you’re going, as objectively as possible, without reference to your peers or accepted norms. It’s easy to be influenced by what librarian X is doing, or to feel we ‘should’ be more like Y. But actually that’s not relevant, it’s all about you and only you.

What is going to make you happy?

P.S [added the next day]: I meant to say, all the extra stuff we take on should be so fun it doesn’t feel like work anyway. (This partly why it’s easy to get overwhelmed by it and out of balance, because it’s enjoyable.) If you’re taking things on which feel like work, or things which were previously fun start to feel like work, that’s a sign that it’s time to cut down – either getting rid of some long-standing responsibilities, or saying ‘no’ for a long period of time, or both.

The message is (and this post is aimed primarily at information professionals – this may not be true in other industries, I don’t know) – there should be enough relevant and interesting opportunities out there for you never to have to feel like all this stuff is a drag. Seek out the good stuff. :)


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New Professionals! Get hold of a Library organisational chart and start plotting your path…

15 Nov
Picture of a path  - CC pic by Brian Smithson

Nice excuse for a moodily-lit path picture (via Flickr CC, Brian Smithson)


I believe that as a new professional in the information industry, you’re better off with a plan of where you want to be, and specifically HOW you want to get there. Some people (who I respect very much)  have advocated a ‘relax and see what happens’ approach, pointing out the need to be able to try new things you’d never have thought of, and be taken off in new directions. I agree with this, but I still think this:

The profession is SO competitive now, if you can come up with a plan of how you’ll move through it then it’s worth doing so, even in the knowledge that it’s perfectly okay not to stick to it if something interesting comes up.

So how do you go about this? Well first of all you need to know where you’d actually like to end up. (And by ‘end up’ I don’t necessarily mean the job you’ll retire in – just the one you’re aiming for in the medium term.) There are various ways of getting a feel for this:

  • Talk to people in those roles (seriously do this – it’s MUCH more effective than anything else I can think of. If you’d like to chat about what being a Subject Librarian involves and the skills it requires I’m very happy to do so)
  • Try and get some work-shadowing in those roles, or an actual job in a more junior version of the same role
  • Read about how people got where they are today via the many excellent stories on the Library Routes Project
  • Keyword search the Library Day in the Life wiki for the kind of job titles you’re interested in, and see how people in these roles actually spend their days
  • (I’m probably missing something useful so please leave a comment with more suggestions if you have them…)

Once you’ve formulated an idea as to where you want to get to (and keep in mind this may evolve or change completely as you go along, which is fine), you can start to plan how to get there. Relating to this there are two important things which I’ve mentioned on here before, and in talks to New Professionals.

Firstly don’t think of Librarianship as having a career-ladder, think of it is as having a career-climbing wall. Ladders go straight up and have evenly spaced rungs; climbing walls require a certain amount of traversing or diagonal movement, and a certain amount of inching forward followed by ambitions stretches, to get to the top of them. The example I always give is if you want to be a Customer Services manager for your library – the natural place to start is in Customer Services itself as a lending assistant (or whatever – the terminology is interchangable here but hopefully you know what I mean) but there’s often a 3 pay-grade gap between asssistant and manager, with no obvious jobs in between. It’s very, very rare for anyone to jump three grades in one go – so you need to go diagonally upwards so you’re high enough up the grade structure to get a high-graded role, whilst trying to retain the relevant experience necessary to become the Customer Services manager. This improvisation and flexibility is not very ladder-like, and much more akin to a climbing wall.

The second thing I always advocate is to find the job you really want (Head of Special Collections, Subject Librarian, Children’s Librarian, Law Librarian or whatever) and when you see it advertised at the kind of place you want to work, download the job spec and save it in a folder even when you have absolutely zero chance of being able to apply any time soon. Look at the person specification and make sure you shape your professional experiences to hit every single one of the essential and desirable skills over the coming years (either through jobs or involvement with professional bodies or writing papers or giving presentations or all four of these) so that you’re in a position to nail the application in the future. Luck is when preparedness meets opportunity as they say – every time a great job comes up, you have a chance to try and manipulate your future luck in your favour…

 The Organisational Chart

So to the point of this post, the Organisatinal Chart (known also as Organisational Structure, Staffing Framework and, apparently, an ‘organogram’). The Organisational Chart shows how the hierachy of any given organisation works – who is at the head, who is responsible to and for whom, how the teams fit together, and who manages what. It’s quite hard to get hold of ones for organisations you don’t work for, so I’d recommend finding your own library’s (it’s probably in the intranet somewhere…) and saving a copy into the same folder as your ideal job spec. Obviously libraries in different sectors have very different charts, so if you’re aiming to work in the academic sector then a public sector chart may not be of much use to you.

I can’t find a single Creative Commons example online (for obvious reasons) so here’s a link to a publicly available chart for a big library. Obviously the point of this chart is to detail the positions and how it all fits together, but for the excited new professional it’s a chart to literally plan an upwards trajectory with a highlighter pen (if you print it out – I wouldn’t recommend using one on your monitor). Ask yourself, which of the higher jobs than mine can I get next? Does it lead to the job I really want (or the job before the job I really want)? Could I stand doing X for a year if it helped me get to Y the year after, or am I better off doing Z for two years and getting more relevant experience outside of the workplace at the same time?

I think it’s particularly important to look at where the tree structure stops or hits a dead-end. Look at the role you’re in now – is the only position directly above that your boss? Is your boss likely to leave any time soon? If not, you need to make proper plans for progression or you’ll be doing the same thing you’re doing now in 5 years time. Is there a path which opens up lots of possibilities for you, as opposed to the ‘dead-mans shoes’ syndrome of waiting for one or two people to retire or leave? Is the division you’re in one with many holds on the climbing wall or just one or two (both of which someone else already has a firm grip on)?

I’m not advocating naked ambition – ambition for ambition’s sake is something I’m not a fan of at all. But you DO want to be fulfilled, and ultimately you will want to earn a decent wage rather than get stuck on an okay one forever. If your current path hits the buffers in one job’s time, think about the fact that you’re going to be in this for 20, 30, 40 years so even if it’s worthy and fulfilling now, it may not be stimulating when you’re still doing it in 2020. Because as much as the rhetoric around library jobs is often about how ‘none of us are in this for the money’ and ‘I just want a job I’m happy doing’ the fact is there are lot of frustrated librarians who have just got mired in a certain part of their library and can’t see an obvious path forward. So I really think it’s worth being aware of what the future possibilites are, so you can start planning how you’ll meet the challenges and achieve whatever it is that will make you happy.

It is, in my view, much better to be happy than successful. Being the ‘best you can be’ is only worth it if it makes you happy – I see a lot of people putting pressure on themselves, hitting great heights, but not being overly content. But forward planning never hurts, so even if you’re not aiming for Head Librarian (I know I’m not – I’m going to completely ignore all my own advice and stagnate in my current job forever, although I did a lot of the above into practice to get to this position that I actually like in the first place) then knowing what you ARE aiming for will help you stay fulfilled.

If you’re interested, there’s a whole page of essential advice for new professionals elsewhere on this website, put together from the quotes of loads of librarians who have been there and done that…

Good luck!

- thewikiman


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A guide to networking for new librarians

12 Jun

I was really pleased to take part in the Annual programme for the ALA’s New Members Round Table, last week – it was a webinar and the whole thing was recorded. You can watch and listen to it online here (it opens in Adobe Connect) – I talk about the ‘What’ of networking (starting around the five-and-half-minute mark) and finish things off with the ‘Why’ (around 42 minutes) – in between the How, Who, Where and When are covered by Loida Garcia-Febo, Courtney Young, JP Pocaro and Pat Hawthorne respectively.

A screengrab from the webinar

Adrienne Cooper gets a mention - as did Jo Alcock, Jan Holmquist, Justin Hoenke, Andromeda Yelton, and Laura Woods

Huge thanks to Bohyun Kim for inviting me to present – it was nice to take advantage of the technology to do something with the ALA without having to be at the conference in the US, and I enjoyed the webinar a lot. Appropriately, I made a few connections at the event and found it to be good networking experience.

Being forced to define networking for the purposes of the talk, and take a step back and look at what it means and involves, was a revealing experience, in particular because it made me realise how much of what I think about having a brand can apply to networking. In particular:

  • Networking, like developing a brand, is a means to an end and that end is opportunities to do interesting or fun things – you meet and connect with people who expand your horizons, expose you to new ideas, and collaborate with you to do cool stuff. (Unlike brand networking is also an end in itself – it’s just fun to talk to nice people.)
  • If developing a brand is a natural byproduct of pursuing your professional interests in as networked a way as possible, then developing a network is a natural byproduct of the same thing, really.
  • Related to the above: in my experience it’s easiest to develop a network by positioning yourself as part of the dialogue in librarianship and contributing, than for example saying ‘I’m going to make X connections’ and actually setting out specifically to develop a network or market yourself

I find my network (essentially: you lot) to be THE single most useful thing in my professional life, and in the webinar I reflected on a clear delineation (marked by the 2009 New Professionals Conference) of pre-networked-Ned and networked-Ned – all the interesting things have happened in the latter period. I could neither have written my book nor got my current job without my network. So a: thank you! And b: if you’re wondering about taking the plunge and networking more, it’s worth it. Becoming part of something bigger is a great thing.

- thewikiman

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