Policy, funding and technology issues all present threats but also opportunities for future generations of LIS professionals, CILIP’s accredited LIS courses tell Rob Mackinlay.
Library and information professionals of the future may look back at the start of the 21st century and see it as a pivotal era in their profession. In a -recent article in Forbes magazine Ryan Holmes, founder and CEO of the social media management platform Hootsuite, said: “In some ways, it’s hard to imagine a more important calling right now.”
With so many information-driven opportunities and threats on the horizon – combined with the ongoing aftermath of a financial crisis – those responsible for teaching future generations of information professionals face an array of challenges.
This article is based on the responses of 10 UK learning providers running CILIP accredited Library and Information Science (LIS) courses. As well as the issues tackled in this article, they also answered questions on the weaponisation of information, Research Data Management, UX and diversity.
While communities across the world face the threats and opportunities posed by information technology, future information professionals face the universal financial pressures of all students.
This will have an effect. Dr Charles Inskip, Senior Lecturer and Programme Director at UCL’s Department of Information Studies said: “We have to recognise that student fees are currently high, and do feel that this creates a distortion in who is able to apply for the courses.” He said that this was having an impact on diversity: “It is increasingly unusual to hear of applicants being financially supported by their employers and this is definitely placing pressure on student numbers, leaving only those with savings, family money, or a lot of stamina to invest in their contribution to the future of the profession.”
Stephen Pinfield, Professor of Information Services Management, Information School, The University of Sheffield, agrees: “There is considerable uncertainty at present in the higher education sector as a whole with regard to its funding in general and student fees in particular. All institutions are keeping these issues under review and contributing to national discussion.”
Where it can, Sheffield is taking measures to alleviate this. “Funding student fees, particularly for postgraduate courses, is challenging for many students, and we are keenly aware of that. We have student scholarships in place, and we also have an agreement with our University Library to employ several students from the School each year as a way of helping them fund their way through their studies. We have also diversified our course offerings, partly with funding challenges in mind.”
But costs are not consistent across the UK. Dr Jessica Bates, Course Director, Library and Information Management School of Education, Ulster University, said that postgraduate student fees in Northern Ireland had remained fairly consistent, so tend to be lower than elsewhere in the UK. She said: “We are finding that since moving the course fully online we are attracting more students from outside of Northern Ireland, and undoubtedly the cost of the course is attractive when compared to other UK professionally-accredited library and information courses.”
Art or science?
In February the Education Secretary Damian Hinds suggested courses with lower earning capacity could be made cheaper to help alleviate student debt. Such a move could make arts courses cheaper than science. Library and information sciences departments often combine the two.
Paul Matthews, Senior Lecturer, Department of Computer Science and Creative Technologies at UWE Bristol said: “We recognise that LIS really contains both elements. I’m not aware of separation happening but if so it will be a great pity, especially when we see that humanities skills are some of the most in demand within the big tech employers!”
Lizzy Tait, Senior Lecturer in Information Management at Robert Gordon University said: “The significant advances in research are being made through interdisciplinary collaboration between arts and sciences.”
Some providers are focused more at one end of the spectrum or the other. Andrew Eynon, Grŵp Library & ILT Manager at Grŵp Llandrillo Menai, for example, said: “We have kept our qualification arts-based – given most of our students come from a traditional library background we didn’t feel the need to make the course a hybrid library/information management programme. Which is not to say that we don’t include scientific or information management content, we do in terms of research methodologies, managing online content and user experience techniques.”
Geoff Walton, Senior Lecturer, Information and Communications at Manchester Metropolitan University said that student feedback suggested costs were less of an issue than doubts about the future of the profession: “One thing I have noticed when talking to prospective students is that their perceptions are coloured more by reports regarding public library closures than student debt. They tend to seek reassurance that there are posts out there in other sectors. Also, their feedback on course content does now contain more reference to value for money than in the past.”
Too many postgrads?
Geoff’s point leads into another question: whether the profession and its learning providers are too focused on a postgraduate- heavy profession?
In 2014, CILIP and ARA workforce mapping showed 61 percent have postgrad qualifications . There were mixed views on the merits of encouraging a deeper recruitment pool. Andrew (Llandrillo) said his foundation course was set up “in response to the fact that there are far fewer opportunities today for students interested in the profession who wish to study at a level below postgraduate. This may be a reflection that people change careers more than in the past and often don’t start out wishing to pursue a career in libraries.”
Lizzy (RGU) also said: “It is important to have qualifications for differing levels. For example, our Petroleum Data Management course was set at Graduate Certificate level rather than MSc as this was the level that was most appropriate for the needs of industry.” But she said the high level of postgraduate qualifications may be because LIS students are often changing academic discipline or career and a postgraduate qualification can be the best way to make this transition.
But David McMenemy, Lecturer in Information Science, and Deputy Director for Postgraduate Teaching at the University of Strathclyde, was opposed to diluting the profession’s postgraduate density: “A strong graduate profession is vital if a profession is to exist. The library profession fought for many years to achieve this status in the 1970s, and we would not like to see it diminished.”
On a practical level he said: “The CILIP/ARA data also showed a much wider role for library and information science qualifications in other sectors that were previously not seen to be major players, so we believe the skills developed by graduates in our subject area are of immense value in emerging areas.”
Lyn Robinson, Head of the Department of Library & Information Science at City University, supported both arguments: “While there is certainly scope for more learning opportunities to be provided at all levels for those entering the LIS sector, or developing their careers within it, we do not think there is too much focus on the postgraduate level.”
She said: “Changes in demographics and educational participation have meant that similar careers are also now heavily PG-based, and it seems unwise to do anything which implies LIS should be a “less qualified” profession… This is not to say that there should not be alternative routes and modes of learning, but it seems undesirable to us to devalue the postgraduate qualification as a mainstream route to an LIS career.”
Jessica (Ulster) said there was practical value in a foundation course: “At foundation level we developed an eight-week online course, Introduction to Information Management, which has no barriers to entry, and have found that students that take this course do return to undertake the Postgraduate Diploma.” But she added: “We see most demand for the professional postgraduate course (PG Dip/MSc) and therefore that is where our greatest focus is.”
Room for research
David (Strathclyde) also justified his argument for maintaining the postgraduate focus in the sector with research. “Practitioner research clearly also helps add to the knowledge base... This is why we believe a strong graduate focus on our profession is vital, so that universities can inculcate in new professionals both the skills and desire to do research as part of their duties and their professional vision.”
Research was an area of focus in this year’s questionnaire and most learning providers had concerns about how much was being done. Lyn (City) agreed with David: “Results from the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and other metrics show that UK research in LIS is highly rated for its quality, so we should be looking for opportunities to expand quantity. One of the ways of doing this is to get more impact from the often excellent and professionally-relevant dissertations carried out by Masters students, as we are doing in our CityLIS area on the Humanities Commons.”
Anoush Simon, Senior Lecturer in Information Studies at Aberystwyth, thinks there is a “fantastic range of high-quality research” in LIS but adds “I do tell students, in a positive way, that this is a relatively small discipline. Not every university will have an LIS department. This makes student research extra relevant and important – there is a real chance to contribute to our understandings of the discipline through the contributions of excellent student research projects.
Stephen (Sheffield) said it should be the UK’s “key priority to carry out world-leading research in library and information science”, adding “We have a strong track record in doing so, and the recent announcement that we had achieved the global number one position in the QS World University Rankings* for library and information management is a recognition of this.”
However Paul Matthews, Senior Lecturer in Information Science at UWE Bristol, said that research from other sectors must be acknowledged too: “LIS needs to be less territorial in its research consumption, as important and relevant work is going on in fields such as media/communications, network/data science and semantics.
“I feel that rather than specific topical research adding value to student’s study, what they often need to gain is the ability to find and interpret research and apply it in to their own context. Students need to boost their own research knowledge in order critically identify good quality data, find groups and individuals doing good and innovative work and so forth – this will have lasting career value.”
While it’s important to assess what to research, Lizzy (RGU) says work is needed on communicating results: “There is a challenge for LIS researchers to try to get their work heard outside of our discipline and, crucially, to have an impact on policy. We submit our work to the Research Excellence Framework and are also an iSchool and are therefore very active in research and ensuring that our teaching is research informed.”
Lyn (City) made a similar point: “It is clear that policy decisions, e.g. the closure of public libraries and the lack of support for school libraries, are being made in the absence of solid evidence.”
Anoush (Aberystwyth) added: “There is always room for more research into libraries in the 21st century – given the funding crises, government policy, changes in demographic and impact of technology – a deeper understanding of the role and impact of libraries should always be welcome and ideally can form a basis for debate and change.”
Jessica (Ulster) hopes research will inform and drive evidence-based practice and impact on government policy at regional and national levels. “For example, in Northern Ireland LIS research could inform decisions around the place of digital information literacy in the post-primary curriculum. It is also valuable to look for opportunities where LIS researchers can work in collaboration with others, for example, I am currently involved in a project that looks at citizenship education in NI, the political literacy of young people here and how they access and share news information.”