Confession: I want to be great at my job, but the professionalism of it feels like a barrier to me.

Sometimes I feel like I don’t fit in to workplaces even when I know I have the skills and the talents that they want. As a result I have moved jobs a lot, seeking a good fit. The NHS is the one place where I feel valued and part of a massive team. Libraries have always felt like a safe space. Perfect combination right? Even so NHS libraries can feel professionalised. I was following #HLG2018 on twitter and reading a lot of opinions on professional qualifications during the keynote address.

Having already done a ‘professional’ MA that did not lead to work in the sector (museums), I am reticent about doing the LIS MA and suspicious of the opportunities it claims to unlock. I am currently doing the CILIP Chartership (and trying to blog about it too, with varying degrees of success) and so far have realised that Chartership as a professional qualification has not taught me anything I didn’t already know, but I do know now how to talk about what I already knew. So is a professional qualification really going to add value to my CV?

What does a professional qualification really represent?

It can be something that is listed as essential or desirable on an application but honestly if they like you the most out of all the candidates regardless, they will recruit you, I know this for a fact. In which case, it becomes a barrier to people who want to apply but don’t have the qualification or the gumption to apply anyway. It also becomes a barrier when a candidate doesn’t have it, at what cost do they have to do one if offered the role? How will their workplace support them in this pursuit?

Professionalisation though, what is that? Sometimes I think sectors like to seem important and take back control because their skillset is becoming outdated, jobs less prevalent, underfunded or less understood, so they professionalise. It’s a lot of chatting to other people in the goldfish bowl of the same profession about how important what they do is, and how deep and meaningful their development is as professionals – at least  this is very much my experience of doing Chartership so far. Sometimes a professional qualification is a really useful way of bench-marking skillsets. But honestly when you work in a sector long enough and are committed to keeping up to date with developments, brushing up your skills and qualifications and getting to know your library users and what they really want, what exactly can a LIS MA give you. Especially in the UK we need to remind ourselves that education, particularly Postgraduate Education, is a business.

I came from a background where going to university was not expected, and being at university was a massive social challenge. At one point I dropped out and went back to repeat the year, because I found studying at university level incredibly inaccessible and there really was a lack of support, or at least a lack of communication about the support available. I think this experience was a massive impetus in me wanting to work in a role where I facilitate learning and make it more accessible and enjoyable to everyone. Thing is though, I am being faced with the dilemma of, do I need to a LIS qualification to be deemed ‘professional’ in my area. I mean I find that term problematic in this use anyway, because it indicates a person being a certain –level-/ having elevated status somehow. But surely all people who work in libraries are LIS professionals. The job title Librarian and the actual job description/person spec is not a set in stone template either so just because you are a ‘professional’ doesn’t mean you are a ‘librarian’ within these unspoken remits, and vice versa.

So what does professionalism do? I personally see it as a massive barrier, I have education, an MA even, I have worked hard, I care passionately about what I do, yet am I not seen as a professional because I don’t have a LIS MA? Even though that seems very wrong to me, I see it happening. I like to think of myself as being too dynamic and pragmatic to blindly do a qualification because a professional body recommends it. I am obviously not saying that LIS qualifications have no value. I have heard amazing things from people whose work I fully respect, about how their MA has given them so much insight. I have an offer of a PG Dip this September and do plan on trying to do it, but at the end of the day, I am human and I cannot afford to do it without some funding. I am not eligible for the postgrad student loans as I already have an MA, which I got into bank debt to do, and took 5 years to pay off. Should I have to put myself through that all over again for a job? Or should I keep trying without the qualification and see where that gets me. Will I be passed over because I don’t have the qualification even when I have everything else? If I don’t get the MA, does that make me not a professional? Also I don’t love how if you are not a professional you can be a para-professional, which feels quite derogatory, or maybe I am just unprofessional.

I have a lot of love for librarians and what they do, but professional qualifications feel like gatekeeping just like when we have to pay ridiculous fees to publishers to access journals. Do I not get to identify as a professional without paying £££ and giving up my evenings and weekends for two years (if I do it part time, which I have to!). Why is that? Is that because other librarians who have done professional qualifications feel that because they did it, everyone else must do it too? Rights of passage are outdated, my friends. Just because something has always been a certain way… wait aren’t librarians always trying to be innovative and dynamic in their work? Then why not in the entryways to becoming a librarian?

A lot of people who disagree with me seem to be people who have already done it. It’s like, they can’t see past their qualification and critique the system perhaps? Was your LIS MA worth it? Are you now a better person? Did it really make a difference or did you do it to tick a box? Do people who have LIS MA’s get to feel superior, what does the ‘Professional’ version of me look like? I know I did my Museum Studies MA because it felt like the last possible thing I hadn’t tried in my quest to work in museums, and because everywhere kept telling me, I had everything they wanted but the qualification. But what happens if getting the qualification crushes your spirit and passion for the area and ruins it for you? I certainly feel that my MA was transformative but I know if I could turn back time I would not repeat the experience. Masters courses can feel like a dangling golden carrot we offer people who want in to something.

I feel like I have often had to ‘come out’ at networking things as having not done the LIS MA and risk feeling like people may not take me seriously. How much emotional labour and work outside of work do I have to do to feel legit? If I don’t do one, will my peers judge me on the basis of not having one unfairly. Not having one can be for a lot of different reasons, many of which might come under the two ticks, many of which are just the sign of a person who isn’t privileged enough to access professional qualifications, for financial reasons, or lack of time, support, other life things. Do I undertake professional qualifications and become part of the system? Will doing one completely change my opinion of them and experience of the sector? I guess I will find out when I finish Chartership and if I do end up doing a PG Dip.



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