Thursday, 2 August 2007

Existential issues for librarians

In the run up to the Library Workforce Summit on 28 March 2008, we are going to have to focus in a disciplined way on library workforce issues, so I am very pleased that my posting on the Millennials workforce brought a considered comment from Rebecca. It was also interesting to read the washup from the Generation Y thing at the State Library of Victoria last week. And this leads to a few thoughts about the New York Times article on hip librarians, and in particular some comments in the OCLC blog - "We get furious when they write about as young hipsters. When will we not be furious? And why do we waste so much time being furious?"Much more will be required, however.

I guess you are wondering: what are the issues for a library workforce summit? And, what library workforce summit? The library workforce summit will be after Easter, 2008. Here are the main issues which we have identified
  • The skills and attributes required by employers
  • Recruitment - getting and keeping the best people
  • Defining the scope of the "library and information" sphere
  • The qualifications we should require of new librarians
  • The role of ALIA in relation to the library workforce
Each of these issues is difficult in its own way, but lurking behind them, and even more complex, are issues of image and behind them, are issues of identity. The image that people have of librarians and libraries drives all of the above to some degree, but particularly the issues of recruitment and scope.

There may be some agreement that many of the questions about the future library workforce are in fact existential questions, rather than simple issues like what training is required, which credentials, what attributes and skills do employers seek, and the like. In other words, who are we, as much as questions like - what should we be able to do? Not that the other issues are irrelevant, just that there is a dependency.

There is also a long-held belief that most library skills are learned on the job, and that it is the role of professional education to establish an identity and an orientation, as well as introducing the person to the existence and outline of a variety of relevant disciplines. But most librarians learn most of their skills by doing them. I did, anyway.

Let me know what you think.


Dana said...

Most professionals in any occupation learn their skills by doing them. My formal education in my field was a total of one course at the end of my computing degree; that one course, as much as giving me a philosphical grounding in the user-centred approach, revealed to me what it was I wanted to do with my education. The rest of it I learned by diong studies, by analysing software, by reading the literature -- in short doing what a user experience/usability/user-centred design person does. So even if it is a bad thing (and I don't think it is) librarianship is not alone in requiring higher education of its workforce, but training them on the job to actually be a workforce.

This workplace training, in any case gets librarianship out of having to provide hurried answers to the existential questions, at least: Provided librarians are doing what they need to do while they are on the job, new recruits will learn it (with their philosophical background on issues like censorship, access, and classification provided in library school).

Librarian Idol said...

One question that I'm always keen to ask other librarians, and often helps explain their varying attitudes to the industry, is Why did you become a librarian?

For some, it is a love of books, for others it is an almost compulsive desire to classify and put resources in order. It could be a passion to bring social equality by assisting underprivileged communities in literacy and information skills. It might be because it looked like an easy job. You might just like working in a customer service position, and that's where you ended up. You could be passionate about fighting for the freedom of information in society. You could love technology, and want to share that with everybody. You might be extremely introverted but analytical, and this job suited your personality best. Or it could just be where you happened to end up in your career path.

I think librarians are often at least one of these things, if not a combination, or perhaps something completely different. As a result, there is always going to be a conflict in interest when it comes to talking about staff development, team management, and visions for the future of the industry.

I also think, however, the industry is as widely varied as the people who work in it - perhaps it's not enough just to simply say "I am a librarian". I think it's more important to say "This is *why* I'm a librarian" and use that to find the organisation within the industry that suits you best. Because there are some that will, and some that really won't.

Bec said...

Hmm ... difficult to follow such insightful responses, but I'll try to do them justice.

Firstly, Dana, I agree with you wholeheartedly that the way to build skills in any profession is to layer on-the-job training over a thorough critical and theoretical education. I have heard the argument Derek mentions before, that librarians learn all their skills on the job, particularly from older librarians with more traditional schooling (dare I use that troubled term 'vintage librarians'?!)

At a practical level, there is much to be learned in the workplace, but it is naive to think that is the only way to learn. When I was on my 3 week fieldwork placement, I felt as though I learned more than I had in the preceding 12 months of my Masters, but in hindsight I could never have gained so much from the experience without the theoretical grounding library school taught me. (It was more that many of the topics I learned in my Masters didn't strike me as important until I saw them at work in the library).

In a rapidly changing field like librarianship, where the future is extremely uncertain, the one thing a librarian can truly rely on is good librarianship skills, and these are best learned from a sound university course (of which there are a decreasing number).

Andrew, when I'm out and about in the non-library community, I'm often asked why I chose to become a librarian. I'm not really sure; there are so many reasons. When I was asked as a 5 year old what I wanted to be when I 'grew up', I said I wanted to be a librarian. Then, in later years, I said a teacher, then a writer/editor. I was put off by the years of tertiary study required to become a librarian. Two ironies here: one, I still became a librarian and it took me 6 years of study to get there; two, I still haven't 'grown up' and I don't think I'm really expected to in this profession.

On the image question (regular readers of this blog know this is my favourite topic), I think the Dynamic Librarian has something valuable to add: 'we can spend lots of time trying to convince others (and ourselves) that we are ‘information technologists’ or ‘information brokers’ or ‘information gurus,’ but we know that at the base of it all we are librarians. We are blended librarians, embedded librarians, but above all, in order to survive, we must be proactive librarians.' (From this post).

Just a thought though, Andrew, when someone tells you they're a lawyer, do you ever ask them what made them choose that profession? Or is it just we librarians who need to justify ourselves and our reason for existence?


Bec said...

Dynamic Librarian: