What the future holds – the student view
Biddy Casselden shares the key findings from a small survey that she conducted of current postgraduate library students in the UK.
Last term during my sabbatical, I undertook a small-scale survey of postgraduate students in the UK. The survey asked how postgraduate LIS students felt about the state of the
library profession and what they hoped a postgraduate qualification would do for their careers.
The findings show that the latest cohort of LIS students are concerned about the challenges the sector faces and whether CILIP is managing to meet them.
Optimism and pessimism were finely balanced in response to some issues, with just over 70 per cent of respondents agreeing with the statement “I am concerned for the future of the library profession across the sectors” while just over 60 per cent agreed with the statement “The library profession has a positive future.”
However there was a strong consensus on the topic of change, with more than 90 per cent agreeing that “The role of libraries has changed, and needs to change further to survive the modern world.” Almost all respondents agreed with statements on change giving a very clear indication that in order to survive the profession needs to adapt to the conditions it finds itself in.
Technological developments were seen as the main driver of change, in addition to politics. According to one respondent: “The role of the library professional has definitely changed over the last 10 years with the evolution of technology. For example, who would have thought that public librarians would be running workshops on coding, stop motion, and 3D printing 10 years ago? Now it’s fairly common to walk into a public library and sign up to any of those workshops and more”.
Another said: “It’s clear that the sector has changed in light of evolving technologies, sources of information delivery etc, but there has also been a further shift in politics, where public services are being held as unimportant and funding is being slashed. It makes me fearful for the future of libraries”.
Students also acknowledged the challenge of deprofessionalisation within the library sector, with only 20 per cent disagreeing with the statement: “There has been a gradual deprofessionalisation of library work over the past 5-10 years.”
Their comments suggested that competition was increasing for both professional and non-professional library roles and that a qualification helped: “I struggled to get my first Library Assistant role (115 applications!), so I’m mostly doing the MA in order to not go through that again. I’m not actually bothered about whether the jobs I do are professional or non-professional”.
Despite these concerns, respondents were more positive when it came to the existence of a positive future for the library profession: “Overall I do believe the future is bright, there is more to the LIS profession than libraries; careers like research data management, publishing or policy are becoming more relevant. Making our expertise known to the wider community is crucial.”
Where will you be in a few
Students were generally positive about their future careers, and the majority (93 per cent) agreed their current study would greatly enhance their chances of obtaining a professional library post. However, it was clear that uncertainty also existed, evidenced by use of words such as “hopefully” and “possibly” in qualitative responses given. There were concerns related to the competitive nature of the market, in addition to the challenge of entering a profession viewed by some as insular.
Comments from respondents on this issue included: “It’s highly competitive, and I feel, a little bit nepotistic, as in a lot of internal job placements as opposed to seeking new professionals”, and “You cannot move up without a Masters and I do not want to stay at a pre-professional level with pre-professional wages”.
Several students felt that their qualification would help them to enter librarianship from other careers.
“I wanted to change career from broadcasting to libraries” one said, “but was unable to secure a position. I felt the qualification would provide the evidence to prospective employers that I was committed to this path and had some understanding of the sector”.
What is the most valuable knowledge and skills students get from their library qualification?
The fact that the library sector has rapidly changed was one of the reasons why students value study in this area.
“Digitisation and online library services are becoming more prolific in the modern world, more so than the traditional books. It is important to be able to move with the times and engage with people at all levels”.
Overall, students were happy with their library courses, however a key theme related to lacking digital aspects of library subjects, particularly for students from arts-based backgrounds, and those wishing to understand more about social media, and databases.
Cataloguing and classification also featured as something students wanted to see more of, in addition to teaching skills, and the opportunity to undertake practical experience, particularly for those respondents not already working in the library sector.
Students felt that public misunderstanding of the library sector was a challenge, with such ignorance affecting the future function and survival of professionally- staffed libraries.
According to one respondent: “There is a common perception that libraries and the library sector is dead. Why do we need libraries when we have Google and Amazon? This needs to be addressed effectively to a broad range of people, not just an educated elite”.
These political challenges translate into financial pressure meaning that austerity and marketisation are prevalent in all library sectors, not just public libraries.
“The library seems to be the first place that suffers from spending cuts” one commented, “We’ve just lost a professional post and our budget has been slashed. People don’t seem to understand what we can do for people and institutions”.
Advocacy was deemed essential in order to tackle these challenges, in addition to a more outward facing approach from some sections of the profession.
“Leaders currently can’t agree and seem a little behind developments, there is a distinct lack of talent and good staff joining the library sector, most people don’t know how awesome libraries are”.
Another said: “My place of work is very tech-focused but we still find other services in our wider area who spend more time cataloguing textbooks and charging fines than performing searches for doctors and nurses to help people and it is a frustrating divide”.
The role of CILIP
In their responses, students argued that the role of CILIP was paramount for providing an authoritative voice to help tackle general ignorance about the profession, and influence those in positions of power. They said CILIP had the necessary access to a wide evidence base of statistics and research, and had the power to challenge thinking through campaigns, publicity and advocacy on behalf of the profession.
One commented: “Only the union of the librarians’ voice and a strong representation... can face the public lack of information and the general ‘noise’ about the role of library in the society”.
Students also felt that CILIP should play a more active role in fighting cuts and misconceptions, in order to achieve a real change.
“CILIP represents our community (LIS community) so they should be the frontline of the campaign to make a better and more secure future for library and information science”.
Students viewed CILIP as providing an information and support role for members, enabling updating of skills and knowledge, and enhancing quality despite rapid change.
Many also felt that CILIP acted as a forum enabling the development of a community of practice, where information and research is exchanged, skills are shared, and networking is facilitated resulting in a better-connected profession. Generally, people were positive about CILIP’s efforts to connect members, although individual respondents did query aspects to do with regionalism and diversity: “They are still doing nothing to promote diversity in the profession, which is mainly white and female…. People push chartership and I’m not really sure what that is or what it does. From a working-class background, I don’t feel CILIP understand me or my issues or represent or help me in any way”. [CILIP published a diversity plan last year setting out practical steps to champion equalities, diversity and inclusion in all its work and to address inequalities in the library and information profession.]
Challenges for CILIP
However a third of students made negative observations about CILIP’s role, relevance and importance for particular students. Some questioned its performance as a defender of the profession. These comments were mainly to do with lack of visibility and impact, and being disconnected from student members. A few students didn’t know the role of CILIP, whilst others suggested it focused mainly on accreditation and chartership.
One student said: “I think there is a big disconnect between CILIP and current new professionals…. since the job market is in such a poor state CILIP is really going to have to justify its usefulness if it expects people like me to pay, especially when student membership was free before”.
The comments suggest the payment of a membership fee by students may prohibit the engagement of this group of new professionals, and may affect CILIP’s ability to recruit the next generation of members.
The echo chamber
Students discussed the echo chamber effect of some of CILIP’s promotional activities saying it failed to communicate more widely about the value of library professionals. They argued that promotion was not always visible, and efforts regarding opposition to public library cuts had come too late.
One said: “Unless you are in the profession, CILIP is relatively unknown”.
Another said: “As library professionals, we understand how important they (libraries) are. Unfortunately, that is not always the case for the rest of society”.
Students suggested the image of CILIP as a campaigning body and professional association also required improvement to help gain buy-in from those within the library profession too, particularly as it was perceived as the only advocate for all things library, as one student noted, “if they don’t, who will?”
Amplifying the voices of
Despite such concerns, there existed a clear role for CILIP in terms of amplifying the professional voices, and acting as a vehicle for tackling future challenges. Students were generally positive about their studies and about finding a library job. They were practical, realistic and clearly passionate about what they had chosen to do.
Their comments on the role of CILIP in their careers included: “CILIP has a very significant role in ensuring the future of the library profession, not only as a platform to emphasise the work of libraries, to help educate other librarians and members of the public but also help librarians communicate with each other to provide a better professional service overall” and “CILIP needs to be part of a fight-back”.