15 September 2010

Professional development and progression opportunities in FE libraries

My CoFHE Conference 2010 paper.

A year ago, when I was acting College Librarian, I had to look at the recruitment practice in my College and I was somewhat puzzled: only "good GCSEs/O-Levels" were expected from candidates for posts as Learning Resources Assistant (LRA). A minimal library-related qualification was expected from Senior LRAs.

I was puzzled because the vast number of learners coming to the library with enquiries were on programmes exceeding GCSE level. An apparent discrepancy in qualifications and skills of library support staff on the one hand, and learners’ needs – as I understood them – has bothered me. Our employers would not dream of allowing the same to happen in classrooms.

Another issue I got concerned with was the virtual impossibility for support staff to move up the ladder to professional posts in a library.

This paper is an attempt to look critically at the current situation with recruitment practice and professional progression and development opportunities in FE libraries.

For the purpose of the paper three in-depth interviews with librarians in Midlands – from Worcester College (Wendy Parry), Northampton College (Grazyna Kuczera) and South Leicestershire College (Lesley John) were conducted. These are very different colleges and each librarian commands a very strong personality and well defined professional views. Those interviews helped me to formulate nine questions for a survey I posted online. I used CoFHE and CoLRiC email lists to publicise it. I received 67 replies. Though I cannot claim they provide statistically accurate data, I believe the results of the survey are indicative of what's going on in the sector.

Further I will look at those responses and attempt to propose certain conclusions based on the data received.

The first question, about the structure of a learning resources service (LRS) and any changes which have happened recently, gave me a rich picture of how diverse the arrangements of those services in FE are. Some call them libraries, others - Learning Resource Centres; there are librarians, managers, co-ordinators, assistants and senior assistants, learning facilitators, officers, administrators, directors, team leaders, IT learning advisors, library supervisors and resource developers.

Is this a sign of diversity or inconsistency? I think, both. The FE sector includes a great variety of institutions operating many different models, with different specialisations. Consequently, diversity of modes LRSs operate. Some of them include elements of IT support, reprographics, others are parts of e-learning or Learner Support departments. Quite a number of LRSs are parts of regrettably unexpected structures, like Estates - together with nurseries and refectories. This makes any generalisation only indicative.

Two tendencies in staffing appear in the responses. First, FE providers are cutting the staff, both at support staff level and at the librarians' level. Out of 66 responses 1 said that LRS is gaining extra hours; another has managed to upgrade three posts to reflect the change in workload and nature of work; and one library is increasing the number of professionals' hours while cutting the clerical post hours to compensate that. 24 said that they've lost posts or hours recently; in some cases library staff were required to switch to term-only contracts.

The second tendency - to extend and diversify otherwise a flat structure by introducing new posts, most notably ones with educational aspects. Among the job titles which do not contain words "library" and "learning resources", there is a large group of learning facilitators and learning advisors. It seems that those posts are slightly higher on pay scale than library assistants' ones. Such change shifts the emphases from manual, clerical jobs to those which are focused on user engagement, education and literacy. Libraries re-invent ourselves into more defined learning spaces and library staff - as educators.

2.On the second question, about qualifications expected from the applicants for professional posts in LRS in FE, 63 meaningful replies were received. An absolute majority of employers are looking for people graduated with library and information management qualifications or with corresponding postgraduate qualifications. However, 10% of those who replied said that no library qualification is required at all; another 10% said that a degree and willingness to work towards a library qualification is sufficient; in one case a foundation degree was enough.

Interestingly, a number of FE providers are looking for people with basic IT qualifications and experience of library work, as well as in management and teaching. This probably indicates that there is potential for professional progression without achieving a library degree in advance. To test this assumption, let’s look at where library staff may start from.

A majority of FE providers (40 out of 67 replies) will be satisfied with "good general education" of candidates for LRA posts. What "good general education" means, varies between two and five good GCSEs, almost always English and Maths are mentioned specifically. As desirable competences, IT skills and qualifications are commonly mentioned, as well as experience of library work and customer care skills.

Interestingly, every fourth replied that they'd expect their LRA candidates to have A-Levels (starting from two good A-Levels) and/or level three qualifications, e.g. NVQ; and would even aim to get LRAs with a degree. Personally, I have come across very few such candidates; it makes me think that there must be some factors, e.g. geographical, which contribute to what qualifications FE providers may command from prospective LRAs.

One reply is a little bit off-topic, but it has drawn my attention as possibly an example of good practice. Someone wrote: "We have introduced practical tests at interview [for prospective LRAs] which is the best move we've ever made. Claiming knowledge is not the same as demonstrating it."

As a rule, Senior LRAs in FE are expected to have a Level 3 qualification, often – a library specific one.

What does differentiate qualified librarians in FE? What jobs are reserved for librarians?
Judging from answers, cataloguing and classifying are the most common tasks and skills librarians practice. User education/information literacy, stock selection and collection management follow them; then curriculum liaison, systems management, copyright and license management and advice on those issues. E-resources management is mentioned specifically on a number of occasions; also managing VLE, website authoring and other forms of web publishing. Only one person mentioned web 2.0 by name which probably reflects the absence of such terms in our job descriptions rather that the state of our professional engagements.

Librarians in FE are engaged in staff and budget management, as well as strategic and quality development; most of professional librarians are managers or at least supervisors.
Surprisingly few respondents said that librarian's roles include staff development. If we take into account that the majority of our team members have no access to librarians' professional networks and organisations, and training offered by JISC RSCs, CILIP and its branches and groups is routinely focussed on professionals, not support staff, it is imperative that librarians should cascade their skills and knowledge downwards.

Quite a number of respondents said that cataloguing and classifying was not always done by qualified librarians in their institutions. Still, it remains FE librarians' most common skill. Personally, I think well educated paraprofessionals are quite capable of doing those jobs well. They require certain "general knowledge" and interest in the current curriculum on top of following a number of rules and conventions. However, I would argue that without professional input into development and controlling of those rules, conventions and controlled vocabulary, the result of paraprofessionals' involvement is likely to be unsatisfactory.

User education is also not the domain of librarians only. A large number of respondents said that librarians work with learners on higher courses, especially with HE students.

E-resources, perhaps, is quite a different story. Their management by librarians was mentioned several times; they provide a good example of what's unique about librarians. E-resources in their various incarnations are not something as straightforward and familiar to most of us as printed media. They cost a lot and - regrettably - have distinctly different interfaces; they often require users to be introduced to them first. Everything about e-resources is more complex than books; purchasing wrong e-resources cost dear and may bind the institution into a long-term contract. It's not the same as books where mistakes can be corrected almost painlessly. What good librarians offer in terms of e-resources is ability to research what's on offer, their quality and value, their appropriateness. In other words, librarians offer a value judgement based on appropriate knowledge and experience. This also gives us a clue where librarians come in cataloguing and classification: while almost everybody can follow clearly defined rules and conventions, professionals can actually define those rules and conventions, and link them to other aspects of LRS provision. Also proper management of library management systems involves professional knowledge of how those systems utilise cataloguing and classifying conventions; how the settings are linked to budget management, acquisition practice; how they reflect the type of users, curriculum and even broader - trends in the world of information and information management, education, human information seeking behaviour etc.

While many of the above mentioned skills and competences on their own can be acquired and successfully practiced by non-librarians, their mix define who a successful librarian/information professional in FE is.

As a rule, qualified librarians in FE command three sets of competences: information management skills, staff and business management skills; and teaching skills.

This leads us to the following question: how likely it is that our colleagues in support roles and paraprofessionals can achieve further posts, namely those normally reserved for qualified librarians?

Almost half of those who responded to this survey had come across people who had managed to progress from clerical and paraprofessional roles to that of librarian.

A few went through ACLIP (CILIP Certification); it's clearly not the most common route. A few more did NVQs and Foundation Degrees. Some did degrees, but the majority went for a postgraduate qualification: either part time or as a distance course. In some cases employers contributed to the fees or - more often - gave some time off for attending the programmes. Did those who have completed professional qualifications stayed at the same institution as before? Some did, some did not - the responses were mixed.

One of the barriers to achieving professional qualifications, as the survey indicated, was that business management experience and qualifications are perceived as more important by employers. Information management and teaching skills are often overlooked by our managers.
It appears that LRAs with degrees are more likely to achieve further qualifications and move up the job ladder in our profession. And the opposite: people with just "good general education" are unlikely to progress at all.

A person with "good general education" would require seven or even more years to achieve a degree and then MA studying part time. ACLIP may be a quicker and cheaper route to progress to professionally recognised qualifications. However, less than 10% mentioned ACLIP/MCLIP route in their responses.

If we want to bring more dynamism and mobility into LRS structures in FE, I would suggest shifting the focus of paraprofessional posts from merely supervisory roles to being a preparatory stage for further development.

The last question was about the difference in professional development opportunities for librarians and support staff. A large number of the respondents said that there were no difference at all. My personal experience suggests the opposite: only once I have seen library assistants at JISC RSC events.

One of the respondents mentioned the local CoFHE circle's annual assistants training day. One in Leicester earlier this year was fully booked some time in advance even though it was not free. Although there is demand, there is not much on offer! Several respondents put their fingers on the issue, in my opinion: "Management gets all the best training and opportunities"; "Support staff tend to get more in-house training and more general such as IT, college policies and procedures etc.; do a bit on Heritage, but I'd like to do more."

Perhaps there are valid reasons for that. Still, some important things can be done to encourage and empower our colleagues; and with empowerment greater job satisfaction, creativity and ambitions come.

  • LRSs in FE should re-evaluate their recruitment practice. Just "good general education" for LRAs is not sufficient any more. Low job entry requirements are a missed opportunity.
  • Some libraries have gone the route of introducing learning facilitators and advisors to emphasise the interactive and educational nature of library work; and to remove purely clerical posts.
  • Diversifying the structure of LRSs and openness to internal promotions, to up-skilling our own staff will encourage professional development and ambition in our colleagues.
  • While many skills and competences on their own can be acquired and successfully practiced by non-librarians, their mix defines who a successful professional librarian is. As a rule, qualified librarians in FE command three sets of competences: information management, staff and business management, and teaching skills. Such professionals are capable of bringing a value judgement into their practice.
  • FE librarians should take seriously the responsibility for designing, and leading a programme of staff development for the team.

1 comment:

  1. It might be worth adding that here, certainly, the Study Centre Assistants who want to progress their career are all interested in teaching rather than library. I suggested to one person that they did a pg library course and she laughed. Conversely we have just put 4 staff through the cert ed teaching course……. And have had 2 do it before.

    Personally, I think this reflects the college’s attitude toward teaching vs business support more than anything else. When I worked at the University everyone wanted to do the library course because the professionals got to do the interesting stuff and the assistants did all the boring stuff. In FE the assistants also get to do the interesting stuff so why bother getting qualified. One person said to me that cataloguing was not rocket science. Then went on to mis classify a whole bunch of books that had to be re done!