Don’t go to Library School: you won’t learn anything useful

empty lecture theatre

photo by @lynrobinson cc-by


I keep hearing this, in a variety of guises. The dismissive certainty that library schools are out-dated in their understanding of how digital information has changed the modern world and its management of humanity’s record beyond recognition, and that LIS masters programmes produce graduates who are unemployable.

Having directed masters programmes in LIS for nearly a decade, I take a different view, and offer my firm belief that our library school, #citylis, delivers a sound contemporary understanding of today’s information landscape, and fosters a wide range of highly desirable professional and personal skills in our students. I doubt I am the only library school advocate, I know several colleagues from other schools who are equally passionate about their curriculum. At #citylis, we enjoy a constant dialogue with practitioner colleagues, our professional body (CILIP), employment agencies (Sue Hill, TFPL), alumni and current students, which allows us to elicit trends in technology, services, economics, user needs and other aspects of current practice. We are also avid horizon scanners, keeping an eye on the literature beyond the boundaries of our LIS discipline, to ensure we understand the wider context of what library and information science is trying to say. These combined activities result in a constant need to update our classes and materials, but we think our relevant, contemporary syllabus is worth it.

That is not to say that we offer everything to everybody. In the first instance, we work from a UK perspective, although within an international context, and secondly, our content is driven by the interests and backgrounds of our staff, and available resources, together with the primarily London-based collection institutions to which we defer for practitioner context. I don’t think any library school does, can, or even needs to offer an exhaustively comprehensive curriculum. Some variation between specializations of individual courses is perfectly acceptable, and even advantageous.

Our #citylis students are enthused, engaged and positive about their chosen discipline and profession, and the majority readily find employment, not only in the traditional areas of librarianship and information work, but across a wider range of information centred activities, such as publishing, information policy and governance, data management, information architecture, web-design, customer relations, training, user-support, and educational technology to mention just a few. All businesses rely on sound information management, so the future should be bright for well qualified graduates from LIS schools.

And yet, there are still doubters in the back channels. I recently read Deanna Marcum’s clearheaded report “Educating the Research Librarian: are we falling short?” Within the scope of research libraries, and with a US focus, this well written report of a conference aiming to use design techniques to map the future of library education, suggests that the problems stem from the broad scope of LIS itself:

“Perhaps the diverse backgrounds of the participants guaranteed the utter impossibility of developing a general curriculum that will meet all needs. For many of the younger representatives, technology was the main concern. How do we prepare new professionals to take full advantage of social media and emerging technologies to deliver information services to all who need them? Library buildings, legacy collections, and preservation— these were all topics that hardly registered on their list of interests. Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s Media Lab argued passionately that the purpose of a library and information school is to produce a cadre of individuals devoted to the universal right to access to information. Public librarians at the conference believe that new librarians must be trained as community activists focused on civic discourse. With no common vision for the library’s role, there could be no agreement on how library schools should prepare the next generation of students.”

I have also read posts from library school curriculum dissenters on Twitter, in blog posts, and have verbally heard discontent from potential employers working in the sector. In response, I have informally attempted a wider conversation to solicit the actual knowledge, skills, understanding or abilities that library schools fail to provide. Responses to my question “what knowledge and skills do LIS graduates need that they don’t get from library school?”, are often vague, but some are highly sensible and relevant, including: a clearer focus on the implications of the transformation of information communication pathways brought about by digital, the subsequent changing expectations of users of library services, designing systems and processes for information management, information architecture and research data management.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of these specific suggestions have a technological focus, and I am in complete agreement with the necessity for LIS courses to acknowledge the significant changes affected by digital advancement. Indeed, over the last two years, colleagues and I have already gone a long way to enhance our library technology focus, via curriculum design and out-of-hours workshops and seminars.

A significant number of dissenters cite a lack of emphasis on more generic skills such as how to use a spreadsheet, marketing and promotion, design of promotional material, and communication skills. Communication skills covers many areas; ability to write well, ability to make a convincing case/argument (advocacy), ability to lead, to work in a team, ability to analyse, interpret, present and communicate data, ability to teach, ability to attract funding, and all-round social know-how. Knowledge of the company and its ways of working, was a favourite request, but here there was agreement that this could only be attained once a graduate was employed by the specific company. The generic skills outlined above, are all valid and important. The question here is which of them should be included in the LIS curriculum. Most (UK) masters programmes are a year long, and the schedules are already tight. Inclusion of more generic skills invariably means something else must be excluded. And, of course, there are other aspects of LIS to be fitted in, in addition to the purely technical aspects, and the generic.

At #citylis, we are keen to get this right, and would be willing to host a forum/meet-up where employers, professional bodies, students and programme directors can meet to discuss the role of LIS courses in preparing new professionals for work in our sector. Students, I am sure, would welcome this dialogue. Such a discussion is likely to stir up the longstanding tension between the demands of an academic masters course to cover theory and concepts, research methods and ideas found at the edge of our literature, versus the demands of employers for graduates who are ready to go from day one. But, a debate could surely only aid the smoothing of joins between the two halves of the whole. If anything it would allow us to re-examine ‘essential’ knowledge and skills, which need to be explored in the masters programme, alongside areas which could be covered by continual professional development, or in-house training.

To conclude, here are a few of the areas we feel are presing at #citylis. Some of them are newish, some of them of longstanding centrality to our work:

  • communication – traditiona/social media
  • research skills
  • information literacy
  • digital culture
  • scholarly communication
  • data analysis and presentation
  • digital curation and research data management
  • information resources – documentation
  • information organisaton – metadata
  • human information behaviour
  • information law, policy and management
  • information and communication technologies
  • role of library and information services in the 21st century

#citylis logo

Thanks to Dave Thompson (@d_n_t) for ideas.

Old and New, Happy and Sad: Vilnius University Library

Vilnius New University Library 2013

Vilnius University Library, photo by @lynrobinson cc-by

I was both happy and sad last week to attend the opening of the new University Library in Vilnius.

Known as the National Open Access Scholarly Communication and Information Centre, (Library to its friends), the building was formally opened on February 6th in a packed celebration which featured congratulations from the Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaitė, as well as contributions from Director General, Irena Krivienė and the architect Rolandas Palekas. A choir sang and ballerinas flitted about the foyer, echoing the falling snow outside. The reception, originally planned for the evening, was held after the ceremony in the late morning in order to accommodate the President’s schedule. It would have been rude to refuse, so a joyous time was had by all, even if some of the attendees did have to go back to work afterwards. Wandering around the light, airy spaces, catching up with friends and colleagues whom I don’t see very often, I felt happy and privileged to be invited to join in.

Sad however, that my very wonderful friend and colleague, Audronė Glosienė did not live to see this beautiful library; something which she believed in so passionately, and for which she fought so determinedly.

In spite of economic difficulties, new libraries still catch the imagination to the extent that they attract financial backing. This new library was funded partly by the Republic of Lithuania, and party by the European Regional Development Fund. I have also just heard about the new undergraduate library given the go ahead for Leeds University.

Whilst this is excellent news, it is often easier to write about why not to build a library. Why not close them down and use the building for designer flats? The impertinent question dampening all our enthusiasm is “why do we still need physical library spaces in the (digital) 21st century?”

The reasons for this question will seem trite and obvious to anyone remotely interested in library and information science. The world is digital and wireless. We can access pretty much anything we need from wherever we happen to be. On our smartphones, tablets or laptops. Information comes out of the ether and computing is pervasive. Why would we want to go to a specific place to get something we can accessfrom wherever we happen to be?

Furthermore, there are the costs of maintaining a physical collection to consider. Although somewhat offset by the need to preserve digital files, physical documents require care and conservation. And a physical building needs maintenance, cleaning, heating and light.

So why build a physical library space?

This has been answered before in the concept of the library as a 3rd space. Somewhere that is not your home and family, and not your place of work, but rather a place you choose to inhabit – a 3rd choice of space.

A contemporary update on this is easy to get – just ask for a show of hands in answer to the question “would you go to a library?” The resounding response is “yes”. But why? Because the library is a place where it is possible to interact with other people. In our increasingly isolated, digital worlds, that small chance of a conversation is too good to miss. Like real-time, face-to-face lectures, the library offers a chance for social interaction. As a student, if your dormitory is grim, the library is probably also the place you go to soak in a clean, warm bright space too. With added network access and friends. Let us not forget that library and information science is about managing recorded information for human communication. It underpins our civilized society. The death of the library, it seems, has been greatly exaggerated.

So much for the new then – what about the old? I was treated to a tour of the fabulous Vilnius Old University Library, which was established as part of Vilnius University in the late 16th century. I first visited this library about a decade ago, and it was a pleasure to see how the recent government-sponsored renovations had turned an undoubtedly gorgeous, historic city focal point into somewhere pleasant and appealing to 21st century students – without losing any of its ancient ambiance.

Vilnius Old University Library

Vilnius Old University Library

Vilnius Old University Library - Renovations

Vilnius Old University Library – Renovations

Finally to mention the current exhibition in the main library hall, “Vetera Reducta” – the past regained. I often mention to my students that the one sure way to obliterate a nation’s identity is to destroy its cultural heritage – starting with the library. Vilnius is no stranger to this process. Yet the extraordinary efforts of Levas Vladimirovas, Director General of Vilnius University Library during the 1950’s, resulted in the recovery of over 18,000 books of Vilnius Public Library, and the old University Library. Amongst these treasures was the first Lithuanian printed book from 1547 “Martynas Mažvydas’ “Catechism”. Still celebrated in today’s digital age, books then, do not entirely die, and the physical object still holds its meaning to us.

Vetera Reducta

Libraries in a Digital Age

Royal Astronomical Society, London

The title of this one-day event caught my eye  because of its relevance to the content of our library science masters’ course, and the sessions,  arranged by the Association of Independent Libraries, did not disappoint. An added bonus was that the lectures were delivered at the very lovely Royal Astronomical Society in Mayfair – a significantly motivating factor in persuading me to attend.

The day focused on web 2.0 applications, the fate of public libraries in the face of funding cuts etc., the (apparently) idealistic aspirations of Google Books, changes in the publishing industry and the restrictions on knowledge access resulting from copyright. All topical aspects that any LIS professional, as well as masters student, should find compelling.

Gwyneth Price, Institute of Education, took us through her thoughts on web 2.0 applications and their use in the library and for information literacy. I have been long been an advocate of social media, and was interested to hear Gwyneth’s experience of  introducing blogs, wikis, media-sharing, social-networking and current awareness tools to facilitate new ways for the library to engage with its users. LIS workers have been associated with the promotions of information literacy for many years, now, although I think it is something they have always done. There is a much greater recognition of the role of library professionals as teachers, these days, and Gwyneth highlighted the work of the 9 month LASSIE project (undertaken with Jane Secker, LSE, completed Jan 2008), funded by the Centre for Distance Education at the University of London. This project explored how social software  (used as a synonym for web 2.0 applications) might enhance distance learners’ use of libraries. The resulting case study reports, available from the LASSIE website, suggested ways in which web 2.0 tools could be used in the broader capacity of library engagement and outreach. If you are not familiar with this project, I think it is worth taking a look at as part of any effort to both get to grips with what is meant by web 2.0 tools and to understand library related approaches to their implementation.

Outlining her experience with specific tools, Gwyneth referred to  the overheads in time and effort needed to set up and maintain a library blog – her response to encourage a regular supply of postings was to create a staff blogging rota  – once engaged with the blog, staff enthusiasm rose considerably. With respect to social networking software, Gwyneth felt that this was an area best covered by the VLE – as students tended to use Facebook for social contacts, and the VLE for academic ‘networking’. Mention was made of LinkedIn, for professional use. Wikis were used as a repository for library FAQs – i.e. as a way of capturing the effort made to answer queries to avoid duplication, and media sharing tools were helpful for distributing resources, especially YouTube for training videos, and Delicious for web links. Finally, Gwyneth suggested a viewpoint which I share, in observing a move away from RSS feeds to Twitter . RSS feeds and readers, although entirely workable and useful, somehow always cause the greatest number of puzzled looks in my CPD web 2.0  classes – and I concede that, I too, glean most of my current awareness from Twitter – although in their defense, feed readers are still the best solution if you follow selected blogs or websites for updates. Gwyneth did not mention Netvibes – which is good for pulling all your information sources into one – so I will do so  for completeness. Finally, came a mention for TAGXEDO, a tag cloud generator, and its ability to produce tag clouds in a variety of shapes – find one to suit your mood.

Tim Coates presented his plans to secure the future of our public library service, in which he announced the formation of Library Alliance, a new, not-for-profit, non-governmental body, being launched to help improve the  public library service, funded by charitable donation. (Tim’s speech). Tim is often described as ‘controversial’, and whilst it may be that his views do not always suit everyone, his consistent support for public libraries is undeniable. Tim asks the question “can libraries survive in times of austerity?” and suggests that we should consider the reasons why people use libraries. This is one of the places where differences of opinion can creep in, as the exact reasons why people do or do not use public libraries are not agreed upon anywhere (though doubtless studies aiming to elucidate these reasons exist). Tim’s suggestions as to why people use libraries include reading the books (!) and an appreciation of an inspiring space. It is not just for the technology. Tim emphasizes the need to improve stock,  access and opening hours, and that it is important for public libraries to do what the public wants – but this is another area where controversial opinions enter the arena; not everyone is agreed on what the public wants.  Tim emphasizes the trend to link public library services with the agendas or ambitions of local councils, and ultimately government – he counters this with the 1964 public libraries act, which says that ‘public libraries are for the benefit of those people who wish to use them’. This arguably, does not necessarily link with the ambitions of government targets. Should not public libraries address the needs of the individuals who use them, rather than the state? And whilst co-location of social (and other) services within libraries may be convenient for them, it does not improve the library service per se. Tim is a very well known speaker, and I will not attempt to digest his speech further; please see the link above to his actual words. To end with however, Tim feels that the financial management of public libraries is rather poor, and that with some improvement, libraries can indeed survive.

Michael Popham, Oxford Digital Library, talked about Oxford’s collaboration with Google Books, and the lessons learned from their combined efforts to digitize the Bodleian’s estimated 1 million holdings of out-of copyright, and mostly out-of-print 19th century material (this arrangement was different from Google’s projects with Harvard and Michigan). The project stemmed from the desire to widen access; currently 60% of those who use and work in the Bodliean Libraries have no direct connection with the university.  The card catalogue offers only limited information to readers, and  access would be greatly enhanced by digitizing and indexing entire books.

Michael reminded us that Oxford’s “digital library” began in the 1960s, when machine readable text was made available for scholarly research purposes. The Oxford Text Archive was founded in the 1970s.

The project built on work  with Proquest  to convert Early English Books Online, from microfilm images, into fully-searchable texts. This effort proved  slow and  expensive, so the offer from Google to assist with digitization was viewed as a chance to cut the waiting time and costs for improved access. Once digitized by Google, one copy of the item files go into Google Books, and a second into the Oxford Digital Asset Management System. There is a link from the Oxford Libraries Information Service (OLIS)  catalogue to the copy in the management system.

The details of the project revealed that digitization relies on good planning and a lot of work, requiring effort from all the staff concerned. Google provides the metadata checks, the digitization, quality assurance, OCR and indexing, reprocessing, mounting of  files in Google Books and preservation of the master files. Bodleian staff carriy out the item selection (33% of the items are too fragile to scan and a further 33% are the wrong size.), handling and re-shelving. Google retains the master files as the images are large, and storage requirements are onerous. Google committed to the project (commencing in 2005) for 20 years, and for now the content is free – what happens after 20 years is as yet undecided; so far 388,000 of the 1 million items have been digitized.

The process of digitization is a craft – with highly specialized equipment being used by skilled operators to obtain accurate images, whilst not damaging the original works in any way. Devices that hold pages in place using gentle air pressure for example – but still not every item is suitable for digitization.

There are some issues, one of which is that Oxford has no control over how Google uses the images; Google aims to promote the material to end-users, not just scholars. The digitization process itself can have hiccups, resulting in images of the operators hands and blank pages in odd places. There  are things that cannot be digitized, including fold-out pages and missing pages. Copyright is another minefield, as laws between countries differ. Whilst the UK has the 70 year rule (i.e. copyright ends 70 years after author’s death), other parts of the world (e.g. the US) do not. For the moment Google attempts to determine where in the world a reader is situated, and to apply copyright restrictions accordingly – not always with the greatest accuracy as sometimes the date of the author’s death is not known. However, despite the drawbacks, there is now the potential to analyse texts linguistically, and to find things beyond the possibilities offered by print on paper. Michael gave the example of attempting to locate an early use of the phrase “.. beginning of the end and the end of the beginning ..”. Google’s skill at marketing also helps to draw attention to special items in the collection including first editions (Emma, Origin of the Species) which can be seen be anyone all over the world.

Moving on to publishing, John B Thompson, Professor of Sociology at Cambridge University,  considered the changes in the industry between the 1960s and the present day. Publishing has an intrinsic link with libraries; how authors disseminate their work and how users find it. LIS is concerned with both scholarly publishing and with what John Thompson refers to as ‘general trade publishing’ – i.e. book publishing in general. The talk focused on changes brought about by the dual action of the economic downturn, and the digital revolution. Both these aspects are well known as drivers for change within the LIS field too, and the consequences for the publishing industry echo throughout the information industry as a whole. The talk centered around John’s research into the book trade, detailed in his new publication “Merchants of Culture“, which I have added to my reading list for our library science masters. Whilst John’s previous book, Books in the Digital Age, (also on our reading list), considered scholarly book publishing in today’s society, Merchants of Culture considers the wider world of “general trade publishing”,

“..that is the world of general interest books that are aimed at a wider public and sold through high street bookstores”

how it is organised and how it is changing. John introduced “the logic of the field” as his model for how US/UK publishing works –  emphasizing that publishing in other locations works to different rules. His fluid and engaging presentation summarized his book very well in a short space of time – starting with changes from the 1960s including A) the growth of retail chains, leading to a decrease in independent booksellers and the number of people in the trade choosing books, a shift in the way books are stocked and sold, and the hardback revolution as mass marketing increases sales, B) the rise of literary agents (not seen in Europe) and C) the emergence of publishing corporations. This has all lead to a polarization of the field, where there are no medium sized publishing houses, just very large enterprises and very small ‘indy’ presses. You either have a lot of money to fund winners, or a very small amount to fund esoteric chancers. Once a book is a success, major funding will be required to publish a second tome. We face a preoccupation with ‘big books’ – the hoped for best sellers.

“Hype is the talking up of books by those who have an interest in generating excitement about them…. buzz exists when the recipients of hype respond with affirmative talk backed up by money.”

It matters what people think. But we now have “extreme publishing” and “shrinking windows” where a book has six weeks to sell or face withdrawal. High returns though – 30% on average.

The day ended with Martyn Everett, former librarian and Chairman of Saffron Waldon Town Library Society, talking about how re-interpretation of copyright is restricting access to information.

“Knowledge is stifled by restriction and censorship”

Martyn drew a comparison between today’s knowledge commons and the historical commons where land was shared for the general good, highlighting the desire to share underlying the ethos behind many of today’s information workers. Businesses such as Amazon and Abe Books offer realistic alternatives to public libraries as books can be sourced cheaply and quickly. The “long tail” purpose of libraries is eroded by such services, as they are often quicker than ILL. Where does this leave libraries ? Furthermore, research collections are often denied to members of the public  – what is the role of open access here ? And what of copyright held by organizations rather than the individual authors ? Should not publicly funded research by readily and freely available to the public? Good question and one which is regularly in the discussion forums. And what of the content of public libraries ? Martyn noted the lack of books on anthropology available on shelves for public browsing – is this true ?

Library at the Royal Astronomical Society, London

I was fortunate to be able to have a look around the library before I left – amazing collection including star charts and paintings of comets, and very early photos of the solar eclipse.

As I was leaving, we returned to the comment that there are no anthropology books in the public libraries anymore – I suggested that dumbing down was reason – ‘no’ replied our speaker – it was a more complex issue than merely dumbing down – this issue deserves more exploration – however, I do wonder whether the public gets what the public asks for from its libraries, which is clearly not anthropology. There is a feeling that librarians should protect the public from their own failings, stocking the Times Literary Supplement recommendations just in case someone has an epiphany. (What does the public library act say?) Should they though? Do people want to chance upon something life-changing, improving, inspirational or even just useful from the library ? I hope so. I mean isn’t that why we do this?