Library apprenticeships and why they are bad
This post has been coming for a while now. Every time I see an advert for a library apprentice position I get really mad and think to myself “now is the time to write about how rubbish library apprenticeships are”. I usually get to about this stage in the writing process and then give up because writing is hard and no-one will read this anyway. Not this time.
Anyone who has the misfortune of following me on Twitter will have noticed my periodic chuntering at the concept of library apprenticeships. It is my pet peeve and one of my favourite LIS related things to complain about.
I think it’s important to state here though, that I am not, in theory, against all apprenticeships. I imagine they’re actually very useful for some people who want to gain practical skills in a whole range of trades, vocations and professions. I don’t, however, think that librarianship is one of those.
The national minimum wage for an apprentice is £2.73 “for apprentices aged 16 to 18 and those aged 19 or over who are in their first year” — as most library apprenticeships are a year long, this means most library apprenticeships are covered here. Some employers are a little more generous than this, but many stick quite rigidly to the minimum. My concern is that organisations use library apprenticeships as a cheap way of hiring library assistants and this has worrying implications for the profession as a whole.
The argument for library apprenticeships is that they provide practical experience of working in a library environment, loads of training opportunities and a formal qualification at the end of it. But shouldn’t library assistants get these training opportunities anyway? Isn’t that just good staff development?
Looking at job descriptions for these positions, apprentices are expected to do all of the tasks that library assistants do but for less money. And when they’ve finished their apprenticeship, what kind of post can they apply for? You guessed it, library assistant. So we’re now saying that, to get an entry level job in libraries, you need a qualification?
I’m not entirely convinced that this qualification would do you much good when writing a job application anyway. With a growing number of library school graduates being forced to apply for the few available non-professional posts (hiya!), what chance have library apprentices got? And why even bother recruiting for non-professional posts when you can replace them with apprentices?
I would suggest that, by encouraging people to do these apprenticeships, employers are being a bit deceitful. They’re saying “work in our library for £2.73 per hour for 12 months and at the end of that you will be able to get a library assistant job” when that is probably not going to be the case. This seems like exploitation to me.
Aside from the low-paying, exploitative nature of library apprenticeships, there are other implications for the profession. The website for the library, archives, records and information services apprenticeship makes a telling admission about career prospects for apprentices, stating:
This Apprenticeship is a good base for moving on to further education, as career progression in this field often requires a degree.
I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of the “The Qualification” here (this post is going to be long enough already), but the above quote is correct. To progress in this field, you do usually need a degree. And most MA courses require some kind of previous library experience. Usually people on these courses have worked in libraries, either as library assistants or on graduate traineeships. An apprenticeship would probably give you the experience you need to get on to the MA, so it serves its purpose there.
The cost of “The Qualification” (both economic and time) already goes some way to excluding people from low income backgrounds, who are already massively under-represented in what is a pretty white, middle class profession. The library apprenticeship is another route into the profession that favours those who can afford to work for £2.73 per hour and essentially adds another hurdle for people from low income backgrounds to jump over. As a working class person, it would have been impossible for me to support myself through a library apprenticeship and then pay £8,000+ for the MA.
The danger is that the apprenticeship becomes a form of internship, providing an exploitative way of giving those who can afford to sustain themselves a leg up over those who cannot afford it. The profession, therefore, becomes even more of a monoculture than it is already, which is ironic as librarianship should really be all about equality and diversity.
Librarianship is in danger of replicating the museums sector, where a small number of professional posts co-ordinate the activities of a whole host of interns, volunteers and low-paid staff. Is this something we want to see?
Apprenticeships aren’t completely to blame for getting Librarianship into this position, but they are symptomatic of the direction the profession seems to be heading in. I asked CILIP a while ago what their position on library apprenticeships is, and received this reply from Simon Edwards:
CILIP doesn’t actually have an official policy statement on Apprenticeships, but we do welcome them as a way of encouraging a wide range of people into the profession. Apprenticeships are a useful way to bring people in at entry level that will either remain working as Library Assistants or progress in their career. I know many that entered the profession this way.
While CILIP suggest that apprenticeships widen participation within the profession, I would argue that they do the opposite (as I’ve stated above). If CILIP wants to widen access, it should encourage employers to hire library assistants from diverse backgrounds rather than take a passive stance on libraries paying a pittance for apprentices. This seems to be an issue that the profession isn’t talking about very much at the moment. Why is that? And in any case, what can we do about it?
Perhaps I’m missing something — maybe there are loads of current and former library apprentices out there who really enjoyed their time and are glad to have been given the opportunity. I’d be interested to hear from them if this is the case. And maybe there’s a compelling argument for library apprenticeships that just hasn’t occurred to me. I’d be happy to be proven wrong!
EDIT: I forgot to add that a lot of my thoughts on this subject have been shaped by some very useful Twitter conversations. For example, I stole the word ‘monoculture’ off @wigglymittens I think. Thanks everyone!
If you want to get in touch with me or respond to this post, you can tweet me at @starshello or comment by clicking on the little + signs next to each paragraph.
Also, I am bad at writing so many apologies if this post didn’t make any sense.