Tag Archives: universities

The problem with LIS education

Library and Information Studies (LIS) is a paradox: a vocational academic subject. People who study it plan to work as practitioners, but those who teach it need to be academics.

Studying librarianship as an academic discipline provides aspirant professionals with a reflective overview of the topic and a good understanding of principles that can be applied across varied situations. It should give graduates the ability to apply critical and analytical thinking to their daily work and make considered decisions as they increasingly take on responsibility. Highly practical skills tend to date quickly and are far better taught on the job than in an academic environment, so it is important that LIS courses provide a reflective and intellectual overview of issues in the profession. Moreover, academic research is a vital contributor to the health of the profession, telling us what is not immediately apparent about our information sources, workplaces and users and what we might expect from them in the future.

And yet it is also immensely important that LIS academics have a sound, practical understanding of the information workplace. How can someone teach the next generation of practitioners, when they have not themselves worked in a practitioner role for five years or more? How can they provide students with the preparation they need for their careers if it is not a career they themselves have undertaken?

This post is not intended to criticise LIS academics. I am a practitioner who worked for her PhD part-time while working full-time and who also teaches as a sessional lecturer on an accredited LIS course. I have nothing but respect for those many full-time academics that combine academic teaching and research with deep involvement in the working community, who find the time to speak at conferences and write articles and books which will have little or no impact on their record as an academic. My criticism is for a system which does not support the development in both directions.

I recently made an unsuccessful application for a full-time lecturer position. I met all the essential criteria, but not all that were desirable. Of course there might be many reasons for my not being shortlisted, not least the impressive pool of early career LIS academics whom I have met in my travels. The criteria I did not meet were around things like applying for grant funding and involvement with wider faculty activities, which is very difficult experience to acquire as a full-time practitioner. I can attest that academic achievement while working full time is extremely difficult. While I have been prepared to put time into writing and submitting articles for peer-review, I have not – as a full-time researcher might have – co-written articles with senior academics for high-impact journals. This is not to suggest that, as an academic, carrying out difficult research whilst in the middle of one’s PhD in order to be third-listed in the article credits is an easy option. But it is an almost essential step to academic achievement for an early careers researcher.

I do not blame selection committees for the decisions they make. LIS Department Heads rightly want to be recognised for their academic prestige in the Faculties of Arts, Social Sciences, Technology or Management in which they reside. The Deans of these Faculties need to demonstrate a high level of achievement at the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in research outputs and impacts. Of course they will assess candidates who demonstrate best how they will meet the not inconsiderable challenges facing UK Universities. And practitioner experience does not do this. Anecdotally, I have heard of department heads who have argued for the selection of practitioners with excellent professional records, and who had published in the information trade press, but have been unsuccessful because the candidates had not published sufficiently in high-impact academic journals.

Increasingly stringent demands are made on academics, not just to teach well and carry out research, but to raise funds, recruit students and undertake administrative work. Some have spoken out against what they see as a change in culture and, in particular, an attack on the humanities and social sciences (for example, Marina Warner in the LRB). This affects Library and Information Studies departments and there is evidence that information schools and courses are suffering under these changes. But I think they face further problems. There is no part of the measurement and reward system that compensates harried LIS academics for time and effort spent engaging with the profession. Combining an academic and a practitioner career is not just difficult, but is often perceived negatively by both employers and universities. And making the kind of mid-career move from practice to academia which characterised many of the great Information Studies teachers and researchers of the last fifty years is far, far harder than it once was.

The people who lose out in this situation are, I believe, the students. LIS students are unusual in that their career choice almost guarantees that they will never be high earners and yet they must get into considerable debt in order to acquire their qualification. It is a tribute to their commitment that so many of them are still prepared to undertake post-graduate study under the circumstances. Understandably, many complain about the quality of teaching and support and LIS academics themselves have demonstrated their concern that students are properly equipped for the workplace. My feeling is that if we ask students to acquire £9000 of debt to obtain a LIS MA or MSc, we should guarantee that they will be taught by those with a good understanding of the contemporary workplace. Although academics need to have excellent academic brains and to continue the valuable research the profession needs, a vocational degree requires up-to-date knowledge of the workplace. At present, students only receive this because of the unstinting commitment of certain academics to straddle the worlds of the academic and the practitioner. I don’t know how sustainable this is in the changing world of UK Universities. And that can only be bad for the standards of LIS courses and the students who take them.

Katharine Schopflin

Librarianship courses in 2013: falling student numbers and fewer courses available

Graduation ceremony at Aberystwyth. Will there be fewer librarians graduating in the coming years?
(Image c/o ijclark on Flickr.)

Libraries and universities are two services that have taken a battering during the Coalition years. Both have been haunted by the spectres of budget cuts, marketisation and outsourcing. While public libraries have often been unwilling victims in the Conservatives’ ravenous small-statist maw, the higher education sector has often been a ready and willing partner in the embrace of market structures in the provision of university education. Compare and contrast, for example, the fate of Lincolnshire Libraries and the recent repression of protest by the University of London.

In the library sector, public libraries aren’t the only game in town, with university libraries making up one of several different sectors employing information professionals. A necessary step for any budding librarian in the UK is to undertake a CILIP-accredited qualification, at undergraduate or postgraduate level, and/or CILIP Chartership. As a recent graduate of London Metropolitan University’s now-defunct MA Information Management, I was interested to see how many other UK universities have shut down their librarianship courses, and how that has intersected with policy introduced by the current government.

Aside from London Metropolitan University’s librarianship course, the University of Brighton has also frozen its information management courses, subject to a review of postgraduate teaching. These aren’t the only recent casualties though; a quick trawl of archived CILIP webpages in the Internet Archive revealed a drop from 17 to 13 in the number of UK Universities offering CILIP accredited courses (note: CILIP’s current qualifications page hasn’t been updated to include the withdrawal of the University of Brighton’s courses).

The other institutions to have withdrawn their librarianship courses since 2009 are the University of Central England, Edinburgh Napier University and Leeds Metropolitan University. In the meantime, two new UK course providers, Glyndŵr University and the University of Ulster, have been added to CILIP’s offer, along with one overseas provider, the Cologne University of Applied Sciences .

Even with the inclusion of Glyndŵr University and Ulster, the drop in CILIP accredited course providers in the UK still stands at 24% in just a little over three years. The start of the drop coincides almost exactly with the election of the coalition government in 2010.

The number of students undertaking information management courses is also on a downward course, with a 14% drop in numbers between 2007/2008 and 2011/2012 (source: HESA). There are no figures available for 2012/2013, but a drop from a high of 4560 students in the 2007/2008 academic year to 3920 in 2011/2012 represents a significant shrinkage of the student population studying on librarianship degree courses.



It seems that since then, librarianship courses have become less attractive to both students and to the university sector that provides them. From the available figures, applications for librarianship courses have recovered slightly from a 14% drop between 2009/2010 and 2010/2011, but on the whole student numbers for information management courses are decreasing at a greater rate than the current average for postgraduate (-3%) and undergraduate courses (+1%) in the UK.

The fall in student numbers can of course be partly attributed to a drop in the amount of equivalent course places, but it is unlikely that the withdrawal of three course providers would account for the 640 fewer students studying librarianship in 2011/2012 compared to four years previously.

Universities saw a £940 million pound cut to their government funding in 2011, compounding the impact of a £449 million pound cut under the previous Labour government. At the same time, post-Browne review undergraduate students began paying up to £9000 a year in tuition fees and postgraduates experienced an average 24% hike in prices.

In this context, it is easy to see how the pressure to concentrate on financially viable courses on the university’s side, and the pressure on students to apply for courses with a high level of post-degree employability and pay, has led to relatively niche courses like information management being dropped.

Put simply, universities are less keen to commit resources to running them, and students are apparently less likely to commit to an increasingly uncertain career in librarianship. Public libraries, a key sector of employment for new librarians, have been decimated by the coalition’s commitment to shrinking expenditure on local government, with another 70 public library closures and a 4.4% fall in library budgets recorded in 2013.

We’ve arrived, in the five post-recession years since 2008, at a situation where libraries across all sectors are threatened, where students are seemingly less keen on a career in librarianship, and where universities are less likely to facilitate that career through providing courses. By the next election in 2015, who knows which other aspects of the library sector will be plummeting off the graph?

Andrew Day

@doombrarian / http://doombrarian.wordpress.com/


PG  and UG students on information management courses 2007-2012 (source).

PG and UG applications for information management courses 2009-2012 (source).


Number of UK course providers with CILIP accredited courses 2005-2013 (source).

Web filtering and the dangerous impact on users

Web filters impose highly inconsistent blocks.
(Image c/o mayhem on Flickr.)

The following is a comment piece by a contributor who has asked to remain anonymous, on how suggested introduction of web filtering software can and will impact upon practice.

In July 2013, David Cameron announced that he wanted filters against online porn turned on by default on the internet connections of all UK households. The impact of this proposal has been analysed in depth by many experts, all with more expertise than me, so I’m not going to rehash their explanations. What I am going to do is look at how these controls might work in practice.

I work as an Information Officer in a public body. In this role, I may be asked to research any topic which is either of current interest to my employer, or which is likely to become so in future. My employer is also obliged due to its position to impose a rather more draconian control on online resources than I have been used to in previous employment in the private and higher education sectors. The filter being used in my workplace is also highly inconsistent in its blocking actions, as the proposed filters are predicted to be.

Here are some of the most regularly encountered examples of sites and materials which are blocked in my workplace:

  • Social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest (but Twitter can be accessed via TweetDeck)
  • Photo hosting sites linked to Twitter (Twitpic, Instagram etc)
  • Weblogs (but only those from certain providers: Blogger is blocked but WordPress is fine)
  • Videos (certain ones: Youtube is blocked, but not Vimeo)
  • Audio files such as podcasts (BBC etc)
  • Presentation sites (Slideshare is blocked, but not Prezi)
  • MOOCs such as Coursera
  • Link shorteners (is.gd, bit.ly etc)
  • Microsoft help pages (don’t ask me why – attempting to access these actually gives a message saying “Your internet access has been revoked”!)

Certain sites can be accessed (in a wonky/stripped format), but due to the filter blocking some images the actual login button doesn’t exist, or an essential action button, which effectively adds them to an unofficial block list. The filter often doesn’t say that a page is blocked, it just gives a “this web page is not available” message, and when the “More” button is clicked, the options given are “This web page might be temporarily down or it may have moved permanently to a new web address”. When first encountered this message leads to confusion, and leads users to spending time checking with other people both internally and external to the company to see if they can access the page, or if there are network problems preventing internet access.

In my daily work I create internal briefings of relevant professional news, which are required in order to keep users informed about important developments in their specific work areas. Due to the filter, these briefings can only refer to text materials: any information delivered by non-textual methods cannot be accessed, and Twitter accounts which may be providing relevant information are blocked. With the shift by many bodies and companies away from providing RSS feeds, and towards using Twitter as an official information source, large amounts of information are becoming inaccessible to the users of my service.

Nonetheless, I try and monitor sources providing information via Twitter, and I currently manage to avoid the Twitter block by accessing it via a Tweetdeck extension on the Chrome browser. Once on TweetDeck, I skim for relevant information. If my contacts provide information via a link, Twitter/TweetDeck automatically shortens it…but of course, link shorteners are blocked by the filter. To view a link provided via Twitter, I must:

  • Click on the link provided on Twitter
  • Get an Access Blocked page
  • Copy the link displayed on the block page
  • Open longurl.org
  • Paste the link in, and hit submit
  • Click on the lengthened link displayed, to visit the page

This is not an efficient or reasonable way of working to source information, but it’s currently the only option possible for me within this filtering environment.

The blocks imposed are also highly inconsistent, with page categorisations changing by the day. This means that I can never be sure that a resource I access one day will be accessible the next day, or vice versa.

So, that’s what it’s like trying to work and provide an effective information service within a heavily filtered environment. It’s a struggle, with lots of time wasted trying to circumvent blocks that are imposed without enough thought about how they will impact on users. My ability to help my users is hampered, in a myriad of small but nonetheless important and time-consuming ways. My users are being blocked from accessing information sources, whether they realise it or not, and they may not have either the time or the ability to circumvent these blocks. Each individual user is the best judge of what materials they may need to inform their work, not an automated filtering system, but if those individuals can’t see the full range of information available, how can they decide whether it’s useful or not?

Many schools and universities will already have similar filters put in place to “protect” their students. As you can see though, in reality the filters are not effectively protecting anyone. Instead, what they actually do is make reliable and regular access to information and information sources complicated, or even impossible. It means that those who have to work within the current filtering system actually need more support for their online needs than those working outside it, to assist them in finding ways of accessing the resources they need, in a way which the filtering software deems acceptable. A schoolchild trying to use the internet for homework research will be blocked from accessing or using relevant resources, and the development of their knowledge and understanding may suffer. Adults without advanced internet skills will be confronted with “alert” block screens for what they may have felt to be innocuous search terms: for those who have limited computer skills, this can be a serious blow to their confidence online, and discourage them from using online resources in future.

Sometimes however, there’s no method or tool to use to get around the filtering limits. Some sites are just…unavailable. Entirely. This is online censorship, and in this context, it is state-imposed censorship. I can think of a few countries in which state imposed censorship is the default position, and they are not countries where the population could be considered to be well informed, or fully engaged in the political process. In light of a developing belief that the right to access the internet without unreasonable restriction is now a core human right, any move to restrict that access in any way is a massive backwards step for any government.