Why is CILIP?

I’ve always been intrigued as to why CILIP, the result of an act of union between the Library Association and the Institute of Information Scientists, is needed. I have never been a member and have no intention of becoming one. I have certainly looked at the benefits of it, necessarily objectively as it involves weighing up the the benefits against paying the subscription fee. Unless these two are balanced, there is surely no point joining. I was going to do this in one post, but got carried away on the first point, which is perhaps the most fundamental and hinges on the ability of CILIP to maintain “professional competency”.

One of the most vaunted benefits of membership is the following:

We offer the only third party guarantee of professional competency in this field in the UK – and it’s internationally recognised. We are the only body to accredit university courses in library and information studies – so you can be sure they’ll meet your needs.

I don’t believe CILIP to be a guarantee of professional competency on two grounds. First, I don’t believe myself to be incompent because I am not a member. I can prove my competency based on my CV, referees, and, if necessarily and not uncommonly for a cataloguer, by being tested (as I was for my current post). Although librarians like to think of librarianship as a Profession- in the same way that medicine, law, or teaching are- this is surely not the case. These require qualification and respect because of the vast potential cost of incompetence and the great need for trust towards the professions’ members. Librarianship does not deal with matters of life and death, justice, freedom, property, and the instruction of young minds in quite the same way; if it does, it generally does so in a support role. Even electricians, not traditionally a profession, require qualification for a good reason. Librarians are far less dangerous.

Second, CILIP has allowed a system of qualification to develop which does not guarantee professional competency. Librarianship as a profession usually requires a person to have an MA, MSc, or diploma to be considered qualified; the next step is a demonstration of these skills in employment for a person to be considered chartered. The MA is both extremely general and not academically rigorous. As far as I can tell, there are no core skills which must be taught (I am willing to be corrected on this). For instance, if I tell an employer that I have an MA in librarianship, they have no way of knowing if I’ve even been taught cataloguing, let alone am any good at it; most employers would ask for several years’ experience anyway, and one of the best cataloguers in my department isn’t even qualified at all. A computer scientist might say the same thing about what programming languages he was taught on the course not being apparent from his MSc, but I would suggest that most computer scientists don’t (need to) take master’s degree despite doing a more complex technical job, and are given the theoretical skills and principles in the degree that can be applied to learning a new language. By contrast, librarianship is such a diverse job that it doesn’t fit well with a single qualification: my job is so different from that of a subject specialist librarian, issue desk librarian, or children’s librarian. Almost none of my two year part time degree was directly useful to my current job except for two courses: Cataloguing & Classification and Advanced Cataloguing (and I can’t see how anyone could be set loose on a real catalogue unless they had done the second course too). I could quite easily have gone on a couple of short courses and not been much worse off. I’m sure many other aspects of the profession would be the same. The course did include management, which is unavoidable in this day and age, but management is hardly peculiar to librarianship. If you look at the courses offered by CILIP itself you will see that they too put little emphasis on those skills which make librarianship distinctive from any other kind of management or clerical work.

I also said that the qualification is not rigorous. I said this because I know the standard of some of the work I handed in for my MA. If my case study was of master’s level, then the pope should well start doubting his faith. I also had the pleasure of working with another qualified librarian whose general competency to turn up to work was far from guaranteed, let alone his mastery of the specialised skills of the information professional. Some of the content of the MA course I did was also extremely dubious: knowledge of Word and Excel are not specialities of the information professional but something I would expect people to know about before they even set foot in a university, or that should be offered as part of a separate ECDL or other introductory computer training; instead I would expect to learn how computers affect libraries in particular. I have to be careful of merely criticising the course I did (something that the majority of my fellow part-timers did in a letter to the incoming Head of Department) rather than the system as a whole.

This leaves Chartership, which is essentially continuous professional development that you must pay for yourself and which is assessed by CILIP. In fact, Chartership really means Chartered membership of CILIP. You have to pay a fee and you lose your status if you don’t keep up membership. No thank you. I can go on training courses and hone my skills without having to pay someone else to shepherd me through it. Instead of writing a lengthy submission on my professional skills and paying for it to be submitted, I can write my own CV for free and present it to a potential employer with the skills they ask for. In the academic sector, or at least where I work, Chartership will have no impact on pay, so in monetary terms (which is why I go to work rather than sit on the beach all day) I would lose out; this is not the case in lots of public libraries where is not uncommon to receive an automatic pay rise on completion of Chartership.

I think the problem is in what I see being the difference between training and professional development. I would define training as being given the skills necessary to do a job: perhaps because my father was a soldier, I see training in terms of definite things: can you fire a gun?, can you march on parade?, maintain hygiene? If you can’t do them, then you are not up to the job and shouldn’t be doing it. The same must apply in medicine and law: there must be things you have to know before being set loose on patients or clients. This applies far less in librarianship, but where it does apply, such as in cataloguing, it is not guaranteed. CILIP seems more concerned with what I would call professional development, which in essence is career development: acquiring knowledge, or even simply awareness of issues and skills that will help you in the future, for your next job application, or will help you understand others, much like an infantryman having a quick look round the tanks. It seems more important to strive for qualifications and letters after one’s name than for the skills to do the job. This is why I would argue for the dismantling of the library school system with the replacement by much more specialised short courses based on real need. Precision and relevance would thereby guarantee professional competency more effectively.

Gosh, that is long.