Having the courage to say “no, I don’t want your Postgraduate library qualification.”

By @bookjenga, originally published on her medium site. With thanks to her for letting us publish this here.

A lot has been said over the past few years about the value of studying for a postgraduate qualification in library/information science, and a lot of it has been said by me. I didn’t intend to wade into this once again but at a recent Oxford RLC meeting I was enthusiastically encouraged to write a post about why I started studying one and gave up.

On entering the library profession a number of years ago I was repeatedly told there was only one way to progress, to get a postgraduate library degree. I never quite believed it when people said this, and spent a lot of time encouraging people not to rush into an expensive qualification they may not need.

Having said that, only four months into a year-long library trainee position I commenced a distance learning masters with a university that shall remain nameless. I thought it was best to get on with it and get started. I thought it was my only option.

First, let’s summarise my gripes with this particular course:

– The course material was often outdated (by several years, in one case not having been updated in five years)
– The feedback from lecturers was sparse, including one lecturer who wouldn’t respond to our queries in the run up to an assignment deadline because she was going on holiday (during term time)
– The final marks were often not consistent with the comments given, leading me to believe the grades were inflated
– Many people on the course had no library experience, some had no undergraduate degree, which proved difficult when working on group tasks and stunted course discussion online
– The online interactive nature of the course which was the reason I signed up, turned out to be PDFs of lecture notes that we could download, and the occasional chat room (sometimes visual, most often not)

There are some factors which would probably have bothered me no matter where I studied:
– The cost of the distance learning course was greater than the full time course, despite receiving less contact with lecturers and the course material not being regularly updated
– I had to pay £40 in order to be allowed to graduate, even though I wasn’t going to go to the ceremony — why the additional cost to an already expensive course?

Despite these concerns that the particular course I had chosen didn’t have any value and was a waste of my time and money, I continued to the end of the first year when I was awarded a postgraduate certificate.

After my first year of study I put the course on hold due to the financial difficulties I had with continuing at that particular time. Then a strange thing happened. I applied for a job which had “postgraduate degree” as an essential requirement, was interviewed and, though I didn’t get the job, was told that not having the degree had nothing to do with it (the reason was my lack of teaching experience).

Since then I have spoken to friends who are in the following situations:

– Have the full masters but in a professional post that didn’t have the masters as a requirement
– Have not studied the masters and are in a professional post that had a masters as a requirement and they still got the job

So there are clearly exceptions to the rules we’re being told.

I always keep one eye on the job market even when I’m not looking for a new position, because I think it’s important to know how the profession is progressing. Recently all the professional positions I’ve looked at have required “a postgraduate qualification or CILIP Chartership” at least one this week I saw stated “or equivalent experience”.

Looking at the careers of people I know well, the majority of them were successful due to the experience they had. So does having the masters make any difference?

There are obviously still jobs out there that require the full masters but it’s hard to say how many of these would relax this requirement for an outstanding candidate who had everything but.

For me, the issue boils down to having courage. I call it courage, you may call it stupidity.

It took courage for me to say “no, I’m not going to spend another £10,000 studying an irrelevant and outdated course”. It took courage to say, “I’m going to risk losing jobs because I don’t have this qualification”.

I could no longer justify paying for the course I was on and once I’d quit I struggled to justify the need to return. The jobs I’m seeing advertised are weighted heavily towards not needing the qualification so I’m taking the risk.

Someone said to me recently, “things might change, the qualification could become more popular and then where would you be”. I really hope this doesn’t happen because for a profession to discount people just because they can’t afford to study for a postgraduate degree is appalling. I’m not saying that librarians don’t need to be qualified professionals, far from it, I’m just saying that there should be more than one way to do this.

If there isn’t more than one way, we need the better universities who offer these courses (some LIS courses are far from the diabolical picture I’ve painted above) to offer more funding because otherwise we’re going to lose valuable people who just can’t take the financial risk in assuming that this course is vital for their career when it quite possibly isn’t.

Note from Sarah: This does not necessarily represent the views of the Radical Librarians Collective. This was just a product of an ongoing discussion about the postgraduate qualification which is, for many, a very stressful and difficult decision to make. There doesn’t seem to be enough out there about people who are working without the qualification, so we felt it would be useful to open up this side of the dialogue for further discussion in the hope that it may help prospective LIS students make an informed choice about such a significant investment.

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Sunday Social

The term ‘radical’ has been quite divisive among folk, and has definitely been putting people off coming along to the more formal seeming meetings we’ve been holding, so to break the ice we decided to have a more relaxed ‘social’ gathering and actually this worked really quite well. We had a few faces from previous meetings show up as well as some new ones, and although there weren’t a huge number of people there overall it was still very pleasant being able to chat with other people in the field. We didn’t limit the conversation strictly to ‘radical’ library chat, but instead treated it as a chance to get to know each other better. However, some discussion of the what exactly  a radical librarian is. As such you can now consult our FAQ’s page if you feel unsure about exactly what we stand for or are trying to achieve with this group. Whilst we understand the importance of adhering to a safe space policy, we think having a social style meeting was successful and will likely hold more in future, alongside our more formal ‘meetings’.

What do we even mean by ‘radical’?

An issue which keeps arising is the term ‘radical’ and how off putting it can be for many people. The issue appears to be that people struggle to disassociate the term ‘radical’ from ideas of aggressive militancy. Really, what we mean by ‘radical’ is challenging the status quo. The way we see it, we aren’t looking for a revolution, we’re just looking for consciousness – being aware of the state of things and being able to look at them critically and then utilising this to inform best practice in our own careers.

One of our next steps is to work on a statement of purpose to try and diffuse the apprehension people are feeling, but for now our basic purpose is to try and bring librarianship back to its ethical roots – helping others and making information accessible, and free, to the wider community. When you explain it like that, it really doesn’t seem so radical after all.