The Challenges facing Professional Education and Practice of Academic Librarianship in the HE Sector in the UK

Emilce Sandra Rees

Emilce Sandra Rees, Institute of Education, University of London,


This article examines the challenges facing professional education and practice of academic librarianship in a changing Higher Education world. Librarians in the UK, like all the professionals in the academic sector, are faced with changes in organisational mission within the university, and the changing role of information within society. Inter alia, they have to be accountable inside and outside the university and are in competition for resource allocation and funding. Against this socio-political background, the following eight challenges have been isolated:

1. recognition of librarianship as a profession (and the accreditation of library and information studies);
2. ethical professional responsibilities in a changing organisational world, and how they can be weaved into the librarian’s professional education;
3. the librarian in a changing (HE) world;
4. the “assault” on professionalism;
5. the user’s centrality: fact or fiction?;
6. the librarian in an era of global challenge: is resistance futile?;
7. Potemkin villages: fabrication and performance in the academy, and
8. feminisation of the HE professions and patterns of employment.
9. Lastly, I’ll examine future scenarios for librarians and the implications of present practices, which affect all sectors.

Recognition of librarianship as a profession

In order to gain professional recognition by practitioners at large and by CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals), an academic librarian is subject to the following career passages: firstly, a ‘placement’ on a graduate trainee scheme after a first degree but before library school, which might not be the ‘reflective practicum’. Guile (2005) envisages for “the development of professional artistry” but, more often than not, this is an opportunity for academic libraries to acquire highly qualified trainees to perform routine tasks for a very low salary. After this year, the average library trainee takes either a postgraduate Diploma or Master Degree at library school, usually accredited by CILIP. It is then expected that after two years in a professional post the librarian should want to apply for Chartership status which, in theory, guarantees professional recognition and has been described by CILIP as a “seal of approval”, a landmark which determines the transfer from the theoretical to the practical. This ‘micro-management’ of the profession, and the need for independent years of ‘training’ is, however, counterproductive to its ambition to be of equal standing to the major liberal professions.

Traditionally, nobody enters librarianship to maximise personal prestige and income, but out of a sense of vocation. CILIP, the representative body for librarians, is not made up of what Freidson describes as “an elite of unusually successful and distinguished practitioners” but of lesser mortals (Freidson, 2001, p. 142). However, ‘a restriction of trade’ via selection might be professionally welcome if the result is recognition and a rise in official status. For example, in most European countries, librarians have to pass selective national exams prior to library school, which guarantees the trainees a civil servant post for life.

Where is the librarian professionally located? Freidson includes the librarian in his classification of the professions needing a professional degree (Freidson, 1986, p.53). In Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus, librarians are mentioned only once in his taxonomy of French intellectuals, under “Book Trade”, in the company of publishers and booksellers (Bourdieu, 1984, p. 265). In its most elementary sense, ‘professionalism’ should be judged by the degree in which the members of an occupation can make a living while controlling their own work, with a degree of autonomy and of self-regulation (Freidson, 2001, p. 17).

A profession is not “mature” until it questions its role: recognition of professionalism should be achieved via true reflective practice, which should not be allowed to become a panacea or another professional buzzword. The concept of reflective practice was popularised by Donald Schon, whose work focused on the theory/practice problem of professional education in American Universities (Schon, 1987, Guile, 2005). Contra Schon, Barnett argues that Schon's conception of the professional is too individualistic, as professional life is necessarily social and intersubjective (Barnett, 1997). Guile is also critical of ‘reflective practice’, as it perpetuates the theory/practice divide (Guile, 2005). However, ‘reflective practice’ is repeated like a mantra by library managers (usually at training events) when at root level a culture of conformity is demanded and adhered to by employees, since, as Chomsky states, “if you show too much independence and question the code of your profession too often, you are likely to be weeded out of the system of privilege” (Chomsky, 2000, p. 24). The notion of ‘reflective practice’ might also subvert “dominant orders of discourse” (Morley, 2003, p. 115) while the quality 'experts' demand conformity.

Librarians must position their role within the academic community (the librarian as a scholar has still professional validity in Europe). If their role is interpreted as peripheral, this might lead to extinction: eight subject librarians were to be made redundant in a Welsh University. Information World Review (2005, March, p. 9) declared in their defence, that “the librarian is not a support role”. As Morley wonders whether academics are being de-professionalised from scholars to knowledge workers (Morley, 2003, p. 91), we should in turn question whether knowledge workers have also sunk a notch down, to be considered mere office workers or highly trained clerical staff. In the post-modern economy, all jobs seem to have been reduced to a set of skills [1] - while at the same time segregation is encouraged. Neo-taylorian practices such as the “three e’s” (economy, efficiency and effectiveness) have been adopted from the private sector by the present HE audit culture and new managerialism (audit itself being “a dividing practice” according to Shore and Wright, 2000, p. 61). Stephen Rowland remarks that the “separation between teachers and learners; the separation between academic staff and those who manage them; the split between teaching and research” is a deliberate action to threaten coherence (Rowland, 2002, p. 52). Fragmentation of knowledge workers from the rest of the HE professionals comes as a result of the ambivalent recognition of librarianship as a true profession by the rest of the academy.

Ethical professional responsibilities in a changing organisational world

In the public perception of what constitutes ‘professionalism’, ethical codes and trust are closely intertwined, as well as the assumption that the professional’s self-interest comes second. Codes of ethics should be used to “create and sustain trust” and should serve to condemn “all those actions and circumstances in which the privileged position of practitioners is employed to generate profit beyond the value of the work that is performed” (Freidson, 2001, p. 215).

There is a range of factors that are seen as moral and ethical in each profession, which are consistent with philosophical definitions. CILIP has a responsibility to ‘the public good’ beyond the immediate limits of its membership. In the university, on the whole in the ‘public sphere’ (as conceptualised by Habermas, 1989), we find a commitment to rational debate and freedom of enquiry, an ethos which should also rule the professionalism of librarians. The CILIP code of professional practice lists the responsibilities that librarians have chiefly as employees[2], which are expected to be coterminous with those of the employers’. However, trust, rather than accountability, is argued to be the mainstay of professional practice (O'Neill, 2002), as current methods of performance accountability correlate with low trust (Avis, 2003), encouraging arbitrary and unprofessional choices.

The challenge to HE professionals (librarians included) hinges on not becoming accomplices in the administration of injustice, as professionals became in the Third Reich - where Berufsethos [professional ethos] was lost (Freidson, 2001, p. 131) and an unquestioning acceptance of the Nazi regime was shown by the universities (Barnett, 2000, p. 25). However, formal codes of ethics should not be mere manuals of administrative procedure, but should provide guidance for professional ethical issues - their disregard being, according to Freidson, another manifestation of an assault to professionalism (Freidson, 2001, p.216/17).

The librarian in a changing (he) world

A cursory glance at specialised HE library management literature shows that libraries are unwilling to innovate in any way that differs from the manner their academic peers are developing. “University A and University B [3] have taken different paths but arrived at the same destination” Moore states (Moore, 2003, p.151). Norry presents a case study, based on a University in the north of England, which identifies the following changes in staff roles, representative of the current trends affecting all universities - particularly those in the post-1992 sector:

· A tendency to conflate several roles in the role of ‘librarian’ (from different professions: ICT, information/library and technical media roles).
· Convergence of Library and IT departments.
· A desire for a strengthened partnership and liaison with academic staff - in terms of their pedagogic agenda, teaching delivery and learning models (Norry, 2003).

Interestingly, American HE libraries are preoccupied by the same set of issues that affect UK HE libraries: recruitment, education, and retention of librarians; the library as a place of intellectual stimulation and not a marginal service; impact of information technology on library services; preservation of digital resources; a change in the traditional library/publisher relationships; support of new users and reductions in HE funding, which impacts on library programmes, salaries, and resources, as well as the challenge of competition from other organisational units within the university (Hisle, 2002, p. 1-3). Some librarians, such as Brindley, Director of the British Library, while aware of these external and internal motives of change, are critical of the librarian’s role as it has been constructed, and calls for diversity and dynamism in order to face these new challenges:

“Increasingly librarians will be judged as part of multi-skilled teams, as effective collaborators outside the comfortable box [...]. People, including librarians, are needed with higher level of skills and specialisms, and who are individuals willing to take risks, work in teams, be entrepreneurial, outgoing, manage projects, work quickly and approximately, and live in the messy world of the digital, where structured processes and procedures are often irrelevant. Not enough young people creating digital libraries see library school on their career path at present, or indeed libraries as somewhere exciting to work. Librarians have already missed many opportunities for engagement” (Brindley, 2001, p. 6).

In terms of defending our intellectual role, librarians as a group might not possess genuine monopoly over a body of specialized knowledge that could produce a ‘knowledge gap’, but individual librarians do, which they can use with considerable leverage over the user (Reeves, 1980, p. 137). If no professional librarians are used as information workers (in Freidson’s terms, “if credentialism is not mandatory”) library users must be trusted to make the right choices by themselves, a position that overestimates their discerning capabilities as consumers, especially in countries such as the US and the UK, where there is a high functional illiteracy rate (Freidson, 2001, p. 205).

The “assault” on professionalism

The professional issues addressed in this essay are not new. In the 3rd Annual Report of the CUKT dating from 31st January 1917 (alas, not a trendy French fashion label but the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, which underwrote the activities of the Library Association) the following statement is found, and from which one can gauge how little the profession has changed its ways:

“The term ‘librarian’ is lightly used, and often applied to an official who is placed in charge of a collection of books, with very meagre knowledge of their contents and still less knowledge of the profession to which he purports to belong. This attitude on the part of some authorities results in a salary being paid which is totally inadequate for the responsibilities of the post. The inevitable result is that the profession as it stands today offers little or no attraction to a person with ambition, and who has a future to provide for.” [quoted in Munford, 1976, p. 98].

In a new university in the north of England, most library staff roles were redesigned as part of the restructuring process in a review of academic services undertaken in 1996: “The most significant role change was that of Assistant Librarian to Information Adviser, demonstrating the deliberate move towards learner-centred support and hybridization” (Norry, 2003, p. 61). It is interesting how this author talks about the ‘subject librarian’ as an extinct species, and feels there is a need to explain what they were! (they are still ‘alive and kicking’ in Oxbridge, Russell Group universities, and in most so-called ‘red brick’ universities - as per D. Cook’s classification of universities): “These were staff on academic grades who delivered teaching in information skills, were responsible for the acquisition and exploitation of resources in a subject area, and liaised with a specific school of study on information services and curriculum design and delivery” (Cook, 2005; Norry, 2003, p. 63). Retitling Librarians as Information Specialists, claims the author, sends a message of their information emphasis. In fact, what it sends a message of, is that their specialism is not respected anymore. The demotion of subject librarian to ‘information specialist’ is eclipsed by the importance given to the ‘library managers’, which are now in the limelight in HE in general: “Managers' roles were seen as vital to successful implementation of the change process and to making the new services work in practice” (Norry, 2003, p. 64).

Some regard specialisation in the library environment as counter-productive and undesirable. Smith refers to specialism[4] as a ‘bad habit’ picked up at library school and also as an internal unhealthy habit: “When professionals specialize to such a degree that they cannot understand each others roles, duties, or even terminologies, the effectiveness of the whole is diminished. [...] Academic librarians are typically more susceptible to the impairments of specialization than are public, school, or special librarians. [...]. Perhaps worse, library programs may recommend or even require that their students specialize in areas of librarianship. By actively limiting students in this way, programs inadvertently downgrade skills, undermining professional range and initial marketability. [...]A library staff composed of longtime, entrenched specialists also risks the development of territorialism [...]. Academic library patrons being at risk of poor service from a specialized environment.” (Smith, 2003, p. 168-70).

Multi-tasking is favoured, as both the librarian and the manager of IT services are advised to form staff teams “to encourage multi-tasking and improve resilience to staff loss” (Buttle, 2004, p. 16). The argument is that qualified librarians can be ‘saved’ for more managerial positions (to the detriment of the reader’s needs, as he/she no longer has access to qualified staff). The implication of this desirable ‘multi-tasking’ is that management do not want specialist librarians to mark their professional territory. Perhaps Freidson provides the ideology behind this anti-specialism position: “Since tasks and positions in firms are subject to change as productive ends and means change, commitment by workers to any particular job and body of knowledge and skill is obstructive and therefore undesirable” (Freidson, 2001, p. 109). If the professoriat is being proletarianized as a body by casualisation, part-time contracts, lack of tenure and other contemporary shifts (Readings, 1996, p. 1), this process is even more pronounced in the academic-related sector.

The user’s centrality: fact or fiction?

The centrality of the library for students (as book prices soar) is rightly gauged by Barnett, despite his finding that the ritual [of visiting the library] is a strange affair, akin to a religious rite. “The significance that students attach to the library frequently emerges in student surveys: the opening hours and the availability of titles in both range and number (that is, duplicate copies) figure repeatedly as matters of concern to the students themselves. This pressure from the students is entirely proper.” (Barnett, 1992, p. 39). In turn, students as customers of an institution should enjoy the same centrality. They have quite rightly become more demanding, seeking a return on their own financial investment in their education, with high expectations of the services and facilities provided. Reduced funding per student has put pressure on both schools of study and library services to reduce costs and increase efficiency. Against this background, some academic library managers question whether libraries are really user-directed. It is ironic that Sykes, as Head of Library Services at the London School of Economics, which has an outstanding Social Sciences library, should posit this tentative worry. “Where collection development and the custodial role of libraries still tended to hold sway right into the nineteen-eighties, now the users stand much more at centre stage” (Sykes, 2002, p. 2). The implication of the centrality of the user is a change in the role of librarians, who now identify themselves with a new species of ‘hybrid learner-support professional’, rather than a librarian or IT professional. Tellingly, this hybrid librarian “sees more relevance in achieving membership of the ILT than chartership of CILIP” (Moore, 2003, p. 132) which is a questionable result, as it erases professional identity. The desirable solution resides in the retention of our professional identity as librarians, without having to mutate into technicians or teachers. It should be remembered that an approach such as Total Quality Management (in which all employees at all levels concentrate on satisfying the customer) was tried and abandoned by corporations (Shore & Wright, 2000, p. 69), and rated in the USA as too expensive, bureaucratic and unreliable (Morley, 2004, p. 10). Hence the centrality of the user must be tempered by the demands of operational practice.

The librarian in an era of global challenge: is resistance futile?

How information and knowledge are accessed in a global era makes the idea of the library as solely serving a local academic community parochial, as Universities see themselves these days as ‘world players’. For Deem the globalised world impacts on the local scene, as HE must search for new sources of finance (e.g. commercial research) and accept intervention in the form of audits, through government agencies such as the QAA or the Quality Assurance Agency (Deem, 2001).

If the university is in ruins[5], so is the library as a scholarly model. The seminar library idea (each collection mirroring the faculty structure, and serving as a teaching unit) is becoming obsolete, but it’s preferable to a non-discrete sequence of books as it is mostly the case in the libraries of the new universities. The library is not immune to international influences: the Humboldtian ideal of the seminar library was imported from Germany in the early 1800s, when Prussia was a Mecca for students, as America is today. However, the university as a repository of national culture no longer exists, and has been replaced by the ‘University of Excellence’ - an adjective that has no intrinsic meaning. With globalisation (or Americanisation?) comes the decline of the nation-state, where the university becomes “a transnational bureaucratic corporation” (Readings, 1996, p. 3). Some call for the resistance of the “McDonaldization of the world” (Barnett, 2000, p. 103), and not just of the university or the library.

Historically, there has always been ‘global challenges’ that have affected the university as an institution and have had a knock-on effect on the library. Political changes in Germany in the early 1990’s after the fall of the Berlin wall required a ‘purge’ of university staff who were seen as part of the regime in the former East Germany. The university personnel appointed to replace them (who might have been of equal competence) were “less easily identifiable as ideological agents of their state” (Readings, 1996, p. 41). The same ‘unification’ was carried out in 1992 between the libraries of the (East Berlin) State Library and its counterpart in West Berlin (built anew in the post-war period). A senior British Library Briton was appointed in 2002 (after 10 years of an uneasy partnership between the libraries) to introduce the brave new world of library reorganisation and ‘new management’. He only lasted in his post one year, leaving “over difficulties of bringing together staff divided between two workplaces” and “over problems with organisational regulations that effectively prevented dismissals and reassignment of posts” (Burchard, 2003). It seems that in this case, the moves from an outsider (who, among other things, was thought not to understand the relationships between East and West, and wanted to turn the East German library into a museum) were resisted successfully, thus it may be a case that Resistance (in tandem with efficient labour law) is not futile.

Some authors glimpse other possibilities: Barnett sees the new post-modern university as an identity where multiple standards, multiple purposes, multiple knowledges and multiple consumers intersect: “a distributed university, taking up the agendas and discourses of its many clients, regionally and nationally and probably internationally” (Barnett, 2000, p. 21). This is a scenario, which can only but benefit the heterogeneous composition of the academic library, in terms of services offered and users’ composition.

Potemkin villages: fabrication and performance in the academy

Higher Education is not immune to fabrications or a display of “performativity” which is in evidence particularly during the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). Putting on an act when subjected to the gaze of authorities is not a new stratagem. Grigori Potemkin (1739-91) erected fake villages along Catherine of Russia’s Crimean inspection tour, while local peasants were given new clothes and ordered to look cheerful. These “Potemkin tours” of factories were also popular during the Soviet era to impress visitors and government inspectors. Individuals are complicit in the construction and maintenance of fabrications, as they succumb to what Lyotard calls the “terrors of performativity” (Lyotard, 1984). One of Louise Morley’s academic interviewees (a senior lecturer) declares (Morley, 2003, p. 165): “We've got better at playing games in the research assessment exercise [...]. And in the subject review, people have got much better at hiding things”. Performativity seems therefore to produce opacity rather than transparency and accountability (Ball, 2003, p. 215). ‘To keep systems volatile, slippery and opaque’ is also singled out as an undeclared policy of UK Higher Education systems of accountability”(Shore & Wright, 1999, p. 569).

There is even a new language to describe roles and relationships. In Morley’s study, one interviewee, a head of an education department who became an assessor for subject review, describes his experience (Morley, 2003, p. 115) as:

“Well, basically you had to learn to write what was called QUAAHILI - QAA prose ... it was basically inducting people into a set of behaviours which were acceptable within the sort of defined norms of QAA”

This linguistic behaviour is described as a form of ventriloquism, as the compliance culture of present HE produces “ventriloquizing apparatchiks” (Morley, 2003, p. 162).

Self-monitoring (via self appraisal systems, target-setting, output comparisons) is also set into motion, without a concomitant right to reply. This lack of accountability on the part of reviewers reminds some researchers of the one-way gaze of pornographic objectification (Morley, 2003, p. 157). Explicit coercion is not needed, as this “audit society” has internalised hopelessness, or a TINA effect - there is no alternative (Morley, 2003, p.165). Some authors claim that there is a psychic operation at work, which “requires the activation and exploitation of a range of feelings such as guilt, loyalty, desire, greed, shame, anxiety and responsibilisation, in the service of effectiveness and point-scoring” (Morley, 2004, p. 4). Foucault describes the process of normalization brought in by “disciplinary power” as the introduction of “the constraint of a conformity that must be achieved”(Foucault, 1979, p.182/3).

The implication for professional practice is that professionals are all players, to a great extent, in this panoptical game, concerned with watching and being watched, from the “innocent” open plan office layouts to sophisticated “dataveillance” of military systems (Levin et al, 2002). The library is not immune to being an auditable unit like the rest of the university. The language of “best practice” and of “forever improving” is not alien in this environment, however empty these concepts might be once analysed in our daily professional practice.

Feminisation of the he professions and patterns of employment

It has been accurately remarked that credentials and academic capital, once attained by women, mysteriously lose their value. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency ( HESA) show that the average female in academia will earn four to five years' less salary than an average male colleague for the same number of years worked. “Quite often my perception was that permanent jobs were going to men, and usually public school educated men who were similar to people making the decisions. There was no pressure to show criteria, or to explain the decision, or any of these things” (Female academic interviewed in Morley, 2003, p. 153).

Some view the RAE as beneficial for women, as the new mechanism offers more opportunities for advancement, away from the “old boy” network: “Because [...] the more prestigious institutions are the ones with the most hidden snobbery, but they need to achieve good results in terms of the RAE like everybody else. If you've got a lot of research these days they tend to pick you even if you're not their type.” (Morley, 2003, p. 153).

The shift from masculinised management approaches to feminised ones is judged to be a favourable one (Deem, 2001, p. 11). However, we must consider the implications of a feminised workforce in libraries, which might have contributed to the negative image of the profession and its lack of influence in a male HE world. A graphic portrayal of women in HE describes them as “organizational Morlocks - the creatures who live underground and service the 'Upper World' people” (after H.G. Wells’s subterranean creatures in The Time Machine, quoted in Morley, 2003, p. 157). Traditionally, most head librarians are women, but they do not have the institutional power that male heads of departments have (in 15 years of personal professional involvement, I have not witnessed any of the head librarians in HE rise to pro-provost or vice-chancellors).

Casualisation is a pattern of employment, which affects academic-related staff and supports workers the most. Johnson-Eilola (1997, p. 79) muses ironically over the “flexibility” of casual employment: “a growing number of these workers are temporary, to be given an even greater degree of individual freedom at the end of the project: freedom from employment, from heath insurance, from paid vacation work or sick leave, or from any of the other benefits normally accruing to workers” (Johnson-Eilola, 1997, p. 79). What Eilola omits to state, is that this casualisation practice is feminised: women are 33 % more likely than men to be employed on fixed-term contracts (The Guardian, 1999, quoted in Morley 2003, p. 153). The implications of casualisation will be examined in the next section, as it has repercussions for our professional futures.

Conclusion: for librarians, what futures?

While attempting to frame alternative courses of action, we must bear in mind the conservative nature of librarianship and the refusal to change (after all, the internet was not invented by librarians) which ultimately might see their fragmentation or mutation if not their demise in the 21st century. In terms of staffing practices, it is very likely that we are already witnessing Freidson’s description of “a two-tier professional system composed of permanent, relatively small elite corps of professionals who do research and set standards of performance [...] and a floating population of qualified practitioners who may be employed on a temporary and sometimes part-time basis” (Freidson, 2001, p. 209). The librarians will have to get used to a “horizontal” as opposed to a “vertical” career (mobility from one organisation to another in the labour market, rather up the hierarchy). Supercomplexity as presented by Barnett may also constitute a viable form of survival for the library: the incorporation of multiple frameworks of understanding and of action, in an organisational world with “no unifying notions which served another age”(Barnett, 2000, p. 21).

Although the present situation of jobs’ reductions is lamentable, many subject specialists are not actively promoting the value of their work (e.g. their engagement with the curriculum via user services and maintenance of academic collections), which put their jobs and everyone else’s in jeopardy. Librarians must acquire the ability to bring what Barnett calls a “reflexive biography” to life, in order to face to the present challenges addressed here, and others to come (Barnett, 2000, p. 159). If we are to survive as a profession, librarians should shift from a responsive model to a pro-active model, by being at the vanguard of innovation, and not be seen as mere implementers or book selectors, as there is no time or place for conformity.


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Web sites referred to in the text

CILIP - Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals.

HESA - Higher Education Statistics Agency.



Blake, Smith and Standish (1998, p. 56-57) reflect on the dubious tendency to call all manner of abilities, competencies, capacities, qualities and virtues alike 'skills', which might be taught or improved through workforce training.


The CILIP Code of Professional Practice has four main strands:

A. Personal responsibilities, which go beyond those immediately implied by their contract with their employers or clients.
B. Responsibilities to information and its users.
C. Responsibilities to colleagues and the information community.
D. Responsibilities to society responsibilities as employees.

The identity of the universities has been omitted.


To clarify, specialism is not fragmentation: the practitioner must be given a view of the whole, to prevent the fragmentation of a trade to being reduced to unskilled labour: “limited tasks […] so narrow in scope and simple and repetitive in execution that outside the organization they are unrecognised as a trade or an occupation.” (Freidson, 2001, p. 20).


The ‘ruin’ and ‘crisis’ of the university have been heralded before. Moberly was writing in the post-war period that “the crisis in the university reflects the crisis in the world and its pervading sense of insecurity” (p. 15) and argued against complete autonomy of the University (p. 231), stating that universities without state intervention would become “sluggish corporations, complacent and selfish” (p. 228). The corporate life of the institution itself (pp 201-224) was questioned in his work, including the role of administrators, Halls of Residence and Students’ Unions (Moberly, 1949).

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