Libraries and information

Reflections on the LIS professional qualification

Introduction

For some time I’ve been trying to reach conclusions about the purpose and value of our professional masters qualification in library and information science (LIS) and this post is a reflective piece about this.

To set out my stall I am a higher education worker and I believe education has an intrinsic value, that is it has value for the sake of itself. I believe in education as a transformative process as well as an engine of social mobility, and I see professional qualifications such as the LIS masters as providing both aspects of this.

Anyone in higher education will also understand ‘social mobility’ as a polite way of noting the wage premium holders of degrees and especially postgraduate qualifications attract – a readable, recent summary of trends and issues in this area is available in Lindley and Machin (2013).

Episteme and gnosis

'fried egg on toast' by Flickr user Anastasia Liem, License CC-BY-NC.

‘fried egg on toast’ by Flickr user Anastasia Liem, License CC-BY-NC.

Personally I do not think the LIS masters should be vocational training to provide specific practical knowledge to do library work.

Rather I see the value in masters-level education of providing enough theory and knowledge of general principles that a library worker can bridge the gap between theoretical understanding and practical understanding developed in our professional practise.

To expand on this, I’ll borrow the fried egg model from Playdon and Josephy (2011) where it is presented in the context of postgraduate medical education. In this model:

  • Episteme is knowledge of fixed systems: our knowledge of what is true in library and information science
  • Gnosis is knowledge arising from relationships: our insight developed from our work
  • Importantly, gnosis contains episteme and so it is the egg white in our model; episteme is the yolk

In Playdon and Josephy it’s argued these two kinds of knowledge are not either-or, rather the masters is one way of allowing us to bridge the gap between episteme and gnosis. One aspect of being an effective and rounded professional is being able to give meaning to theoretical ‘fact’ in practice.

I believe this is one reason why we see a difference between an experienced practitioner and a newcomer in the ability to reach insight seemingly effortlessly. My argument is knowledge of LIS theory is essential to what we do but is not everything we need to know for professional practice. This comes in time by learning and developing our ability and skill in the workplace.

I absolutely have the feeling of having levelled up by completing a LIS masters, and I apply the theoretical and practical content of the course in my work every day. One highlight, a very useful module for me was research methods. This has enduring value for application in evidence-based librarianship, and rounded out my understanding of qualitative methods alongside the very quantitative focus of my first degree in biology.

Problems in hiring and the LIS professional qualification

The Library Loon as a LIS educator has written insightfully on the ‘didn’t learn that in library school’ trope as the manifestation of feelings, especially of new professionals, of wanting to avoid uncertainty or unpleasant surprises and wanting to feel expert. I certainly don’t think a LIS masters will give everything you need to feel and moreover be expert, and it can’t be considered a replacement for getting in years of focused practice – many thousands of hours – to achieve mastery.

I think problematizing the LIS masters is an unhelpful mistake. I am particularly concerned by qualified librarians, speaking from a position of privilege, talking down the professional qualification as ‘just a piece of paper’ or ‘a hoop to jump through’. Balance is vital here. We must acknowledge the value of focused practice in a workplace context and commitment to continuing professional development (CPD) alongside any formal professional qualification a person holds.

This is one reason when shortlisting, interviewing, or writing or giving input into a person specification I always take ’or equivalent experience’ as seriously as the ‘Postgraduate qualification in LIS’ that precedes it. Another major reason for me, and for any HR department, is this is of course an equality and diversity issue.

There are definitely aspects of my masters course I would have altered given the chance. Specifically, I think closing the loop between theory and practice is important, but equally so is feeding practitioners’ recent knowledge back into LIS education as this is one contact point between gnosis and episteme in our profession. This is something campus-based LIS courses tend to do very well, and I think with current technology it should be possible to provide a similar learning experience for the likes of me, the part-time distance learner.

I would connect this to the argument in Ian Clark’s recent blog post, that we as LIS professionals have a responsibility to be active in this area and should lobby for better degrees where think current provision is lacking.

Acknowledgement

My thanks to Dr Muna Al-Jawad for helpful discussion on the subject of postgraduate education as professional qualification. Muna blogs at Old Person Whisperer.

References

Clark, I.J. (2014) ‘My challenge to experienced librarians: lobby for a better degree’, Infoism, 13 February. Available at: http://infoism.co.uk/2014/02/my-challenge-to-experienced-librarians-lobby-for-a-better-degree/
Library Loon (2013) ‘Uncertainty will never be zero’, Gavialib, 18 September. Available at: http://gavialib.com/2013/09/uncertainty-will-never-be-zero/
Lindley, J. and Machim, S. (2013) The postgraduate premium. [Online]. Available at: http://www.suttontrust.com/public/documents/postgraduate-premium-report-1-.pdf
Playdon Z, and Josephy, A (2011) Journeys in postgraduate medical education. London: Third Space.

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Libraries and information

Management and leadership, a radical approach? At Radical Library Camp

Introduction

I recently attended, and made a very small contribution to help organize, a library unconference in Bradford. This was the first Radical Library Camp or #radlibcamp on Twitter.

There was some discussion pre-conference about the nature of a self-identified ‘radical’ unconference. I think the nature of unconferencing is already radical compared to formal conferences but what I thought made Radical Library Camp different was open space technology applied in a context of different issues and with knowledge of various issues and concepts already present with the attendees (or campers). In practical terms this meant sessions could hit the ground running with relatively little need to explain what we are about, and meant we could immediately dig into the issues at hand.

To me Radical Library Camp definitely still felt like a Library Camp event and ran along similar lines. It all went off very well. The venue, Bradford Resource Centre, was particularly welcoming and hosted us perfectly so many thanks to them.

For the event I had decided to try to talk less and spend more time listening and thinking about others’ contributions. However I couldn’t resist pitching something as I had recently been thinking about management and leadership and whether there could ever be a workable ‘radical’ approach, so…

Management and leadership session

'Leadership and radicalism...' session, modified from a photopgraph by Ian Clark. License CC-BY-NC.

‘Leadership and radicalism…’ session, modified from a photograph by Ian Clark. License CC-BY-NC.

I had done some reading about this, mainly at the excellent Institute of Education library, but really I wanted to open the question to the group and see where discussion took us. To this end I posed some questions after a brief opener:

  1. Is there an approach to managing people in libraries that remains honest? And if you manage people how do you do it?
  2. Making the leap: if you move from a ‘clerical / technical’ role to a ‘management / professional’ role, what changes? Is this just about others’ perceptions?
  3. Is it possible to be ‘management’ without selling out? How do you handle this yourself?

I explained I had been thinking primarily about leadership, but that we could easily look at ‘radical’ in different contexts such as supervision, management, or leadership. I suggested looking more broadly to be inclusive, as often staff on lower grades have supervisory or management responsibility without perceiving themselves as ‘management’ but will face some of the same issues as senior managers.

Some brief definitions of the difference between these roles:

  • The supervisor’s job is directing and instructing
  • The manager’s job is to planning, organizing, and coordinating
  • The leader’s job is inspiring and and motivating

It seems much easier to pitch a radical approach to leadership than to management. It’s much easier to bring to mind approaches exemplified by leaders, for example in trade unions or politics, who take a bona fide ‘radical’ approach. The managing and supervising context is more difficult and on reflection I do not think we were able to develop answers much beyond a leadership context.

It can seem obvious or self-evident that libraries like other organizations need management to ensure they are efficiently organized and productive. Daniel Wren for example presents management as a quite natural thing that follows the evolution of human society:

As people’s conceptual ability has been refined through evolution, they have also refined their understanding of the art of arranging physical and human resource for guidance towards purposeful ends. We call this art management… (Wren, 1987 p. 11, italics in original)

From a very different angle Marx (1976 pp. 448-451) identifies managers and supervisors as ‘a special kind of wage labourer’ with a function made necessary by the need to maximize generation of surplus value and hence profit. Marx of course relates this function to class struggle and casts management as a function necessary to make wage labourers cooperate with each other under capital.

I also gave some context about new public management (NPM) from the contemporary public sector. NPM as a concept denotes broad government policies since the 1980s that aimed to make the public sector more efficient and effective, the idea being a market-oriented management style could be used to drive cost-efficiency for government. For the organization and workers this meant a shift from a bureaucratic approach based on state administration to a managerialist approach based on performance: from ‘state-regulated’ to ‘market-regulated’ (Ward, 2012 pp. 47-52).

Discussion

Personally I took two major themes or points from the session: if there is a radical approach to management and leadership it is based on both fairness as a manager and authenticity as a leader.

Several in the group raised the idea of changing things from the inside as a manager - the idea is similar to entryism in politics and was called such by one of the campers. This deserves credit as leaders are likely best placed with opportunity, power, and freedom to act to make improvements, and certainly to lead by example. One possible trap here would be overemphasising the role of the individual and thinking it’s down to the ‘heroic leader’ doing everything themselves that drives improvements.

A general point made was that we should seek good practice in management and leadership even if this isn’t ‘radical’, indeed much of it won’t be so. Examples given were communicating well, listening even if you cannot act on everything you hear, and involving staff to get input on decision-making. One point raised in the session and beforehand by Sarah on Twitter was that good management practice isn’t linked to left or right-wing political opinions.

Authenticity and fairness

Liz raised authenticity in leadership as a vital characteristic. This is about being authentic yourself as a leader, and also how you implement an authentic approach in your context as a manager. Goffee and Jones describe how leaders translate this into behaviour to demonstrate authenticity:

  • A consistency between words and deeds – the leader practises what she preaches
  • Presentation of a consistent ‘real self’, despite the need to play different roles to different audiences
  • A sense of the leader being comfortable with her origins

These bullets are a paraphrased summary from Goffee and Jones (2006 pp. 16-17).

It doesn’t follow that the authentic leader is one everyone always agrees with or who is universally liked by staff, and the point was reinforced in discussion that it’s not possible to please everyone all the time.

Liz also raised the issue of being fair and being seen to be fair as a manager in treatment of staff as important. This means for example dealing with issues in a way that gives fair treatment to all and not playing favourites. To make one distinction here I would emphasize a difference between fairness and justice. The outcome of a situation may not be considered subjectively fair by everyone concerned, but from a management point of view it had better be just.

For me there was an outstanding question about personal responsibility and ensuring our personal values and professional ethics are congruent with our work and the values of the organizations we work for. One tweet commenting on the session discussion in this spirit from Dave:

One point raised from the audience here was this is a very difficult proposition for those in a situation of precarious labour. An example given was you may find you have no real choice but to work in an organization that doesn’t match your own ideals or professional ethics because there are no other jobs to move to. Points of principle rub up against real-world responsibilities like paying the rent or mortgage.

Stepping back from this very immediate example, more broadly from the point of view of managers and staff there is an issue here about the limits on what we can do personally to affect change. For example perhaps we dislike hierarchy, but we work in organizations that represent classic Weberian bureaucracies which rely on hierarchy to get things done. There is a balance here between going too far and selling out and being ineffective due to failing to engage with the cultural norms of the organization.

Reflecting on this further I think the key issue in authentic leadership is knowing where and how much to compromise to create progress without undermining our personal morals and professional ethics.

References

Goffee, R. and Jones, G. (2006) Why should anyone be led by you? Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.
Marx, K. (1976) Capital: a critique of political economy. Volume 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Ward, S.C. (2012) Neoliberalism and the global restructuring of knowledge and education. London: Routledge.
Weber, M. (1947) The theory of social and economic organization. New York, NY: Free Press.
Wren, D.A. (1987) The evolution of management thought. 3rd edn. New York, NY: John Wiley.

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Libraries and information

Dealing with change in LIS – a personal perspective for #uklibchat

This blog post also appears on the uklibchat site for the chat of 6 August 2013, ‘The changing world of libraries and information‘. This post contains an additional reference to a blog post by the Library Loon on ‘steady-state librarianship’ which was omitted from the version published by uklibchat – my error.

I have to change to stay the same
- Willem de Kooning

In this guest blog post for uklibchat I’ll talk about how I deal with change in my role at Senate House Libraries, University of London.

For my library masters I studied various models for describing change and how to manage change. I won’t dwell on these in detail but to give one example to think about, Lewin’s model1 DOI 10.1177/001872674700100103 (Accessed: 27 July 2013)] describes change as a three step process:

  1. Unfreezing: preparing the organization for change, building a case, dismantling the existing “mindset”.
  2. Change: an uncomfortable period of uncertainty with the organization beginning to make and embrace changes.
  3. Freezing: finalizing the organization in a new, stable state and returning to former levels of comfort.

I use this model as a way of understanding a traditional view, sometimes presented as a “common sense” view, of change processes though I find the underlying assumptions in the model itself quite manipulative – for example the idea that to create change, the transient pain of change must be understood to be less for the organization than the pain of keeping things the same. Other models have more steps and so greater complexity. Kotter’s eight step change model2 is one example; at that level of complexity it reads more like “Kotter’s tips for implementing change” rather than a theoretical model.

The main things I take from these models and work experience are that:

  • The major challenges in implementing change come down to people rather than technology or machines.
  • The period of implementing change will be disruptive and uncomfortable, as a manager you cannot ignore but must engage with this.
  • Communication at all stages is key to a successful change process – including celebrating success afterwards.

At Senate House Libraries we’ve experienced a considerable period of disruptive change since the mid-2000s. One conclusion I’ve made from this is we are definitely no longer in the business of steady-state librarianship3. Our “business as usual” now includes an implicit assumption that we need to constantly review and adjust our processes and services to meet changing needs and demands, hence my inclusion of Willem de Kooning’s wonderfully mysterious quote above.

This does not mean slavishly following every new trend in technology or being led by the nose by technology, particularly technology as repackaged and sold by library software and hardware suppliers, but actively maintaining current awareness and honestly evaluating the status quo as thoroughly as we do new ideas.

I say this because in some libraries I notice a willingness to subject the new thing in a change process to exacting and rigorous examination but not examine the status quo in the same way. There is an assumption here about the ‘rightness’ of our current approaches, whatever they happen to be. What I find troubling about this is the idea our way of working will remain ‘right’ for any length of time in a changing landscape. It is absolutely right not to try to fix something that isn’t broken or enact change for the sake of change, but this is something only knowable following evaluation.

For me the operational aspect of library service must inform strategic thinking and planning, as it’s those staff that are in constant contact with library members and understand the fine detail of the service. For this reason I involve my whole team in developing operational plans and contributing to strategy by identifying priorities for future work. My view is change shouldn’t just be something that ‘just happens’ to staff but something for all to take an active role in.

Personally I am influenced by approaches from IT as I have a systems background, and more broadly am influenced by application of researched-based and evidence-based practise in librarianship. To be clear I include qualitative research in this as an essential parter to quantitative research, adding much-needed richness and depth to our understanding of user experience and behaviour.

One change process at my workplace where I’ve used this approach is implementing a new discovery layer, or library catalogue, as part of our implementation of a new library management system, Kuali Open Library Environment (OLE). OLE does not have a traditional catalogue so a catalogue or discovery layer such as VuFind or Blacklight is needed.

To do this, we have built and developed the case for changing by:

  • Presenting about the project formally at all-staff meetings and individual team meetings.
  • Informal conversation with staff to answer questions and build awareness ‘things are happening’ around discovery.
  • Involving staff in thinking creatively about discovery in a workshop environment (I blogged about this aspect a few months ago).
  • Giving discovery the respect it deserves by treating it as a Web project that puts user experience at the core – and being seen to do so. This includes hosting a student from UCL Department of Information Studies doing ethnographic research on catalogue user behaviour.
  • Answer technical questions quickly and with confidence, including in-depth questions about SolrMARC (really) and metadata issues.

The important point for me as the head of our systems team is so much of this is not about technology, it’s about surfacing opinion and including staff in conversation. For example we’ve set up a beta test VuFind 2.0 instance to provide food for thought, but it’s not core

By necessity this blog post is brief, but I hope this specific example and the more general things I’ve said above help seed discussion for uklibchat.

References

  1. Lewin, K. (1947) ‘Frontiers in group dynamics: concept, method and reality in social science; social equilibria and social change’, Human Relations, 1 (1), pp. 5-41, PsycINFO [Online
  2. Kotter, J.P. (1996) Leading change. Watertown, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
  3. Library Loon (2012) ‘Steady-state vs. expanding-universe librarianship’, Gavia Libraria, 22 July. Available at: http://gavialib.com/2012/07/steady-state-vs-expanding-universe-librarianship/ (Accessed: 7 August 2013).
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