Tuesday, 14 August 2007

What do you call your staff?

Titles are very important, especially in universities, where they are often used instead of money as a means of rewarding people. They can often make people feel good about themselves. Although this leads to a steady title creep or title inflation, little harm may be done. The staff receive something which they value, and the university is able to stretch its budget a little further. The language is subtly and gradually changed, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Thank you to those who have comments on the term title creep. Kim suggested that we should have simple and generic titles, and Andrew pointed out the interesting Information Consultant, Information Awareness and Literacy Services at the University of Melbourne. But he asked "Why not call a spade a spade?"

My point in this post is that we can use titles to achieve benefits for our workforce, rather than aiming to use simple words to represent straightforward concepts - always a difficult process. The reason we do not always call a spade a spade is because we don't have to - language is rich and varied, always changing, and always accessible for a wide variety of purposes. We want our staff to feel good about their jobs. For our immediate environments (in my case, a university) titles carry meaning in ways other than the literal. I suspect that our customers rarely notice or care, but we do, and our peers in our working environment do.

So, we need nice titles. In the library world, including the university library world, we have experienced less title creep, and less exuberant proliferation of titles than in other areas. There is certainly title creep in the academic sphere - as Cullen Murphy suggests, most commonly as "the extension of restricted honorifics to an ever widening circle of claimants." Murphy suggests that the new discipline of managing the development of titles might be called exaltametrics.

In our own world we have benefited little from title creep. While in the field of information technology there is a wide range of new and more elevated titles, this is not the case in libraries. IT directors become Chief Technology Officers, the title creeping across new territory, too. Multiple titles proliferate. New terms define whole new sub-professions (business analysts) or new metaphors are taken from other professions (architects, for example).

Perhaps libraries have tried to be too narrowly descriptive in the way they invent titles. Perhaps they have been too tied to the term "librarian". Perhaps they have been too afraid to cannibalise terms used by other sectors, such as "dean", although this has begun to happen in the United States.

The new positions now being created throughout Australia as a result of the RQF (the Research Quality Framework) are a case in point. The generic term for the library end of this potential cornucopia of Australian library titles has now become pretty universally "repository manager". Not a great invention; the term "repository" is pretty much incomprehensible outside libraries, and the term manager is generic in the extreme. At Swinburne we use the term "Content Management Librarian". And what about Content Architect?

What kinds of terms might we use in this new sphere? I am thinking my way through this one, with my colleagues, and here are some thoughts about titles for repository staff.

Online content is the sphere of activity, so Online Content Officer or Online Content Librarian is good, and makes a wider claim. Or perhaps Online Content Supervisor, good because it is not clear that it is the content that is supervised, and leaves open the thought that there may be a small army of online content workers beavering away. Online content can also be used with the nouns delegate and broker, both synonyms for agent.

Looking at specialised roles, online content quality controller and similar terms could be used. I really like the word marshal, but in English-language usage it is mainly (but not always) a grand person, since the military took it over from people who organised things. In Italy, a model for the use of titles, Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia of the Florence Carabinieri in Magdalen Nabb's wonderful detective novels is a simple if informal policeman. Someone should have a go at Online Content Marshal to see how it plays out.

In special libraries, there is also development in the area of titles. The Wall Street Journal suggests that titles like information specialist, knowledge manager and taxonomist are becoming more common.

I am looking for imagination in contributions on this one. Don't let anyone say that librarians lacked the soaring imagination to invent the most wonderful titles in academia and beyond.


Alan said...


In order to effectively leapfrog all of this title "inflation" perhaps we need to introduce a new titular denomination. A sort of Ubertitle. If we want staff to feel important and good about themselves, what could be more grand than a Latin title? Repositorium Principalus Magnus has a nice ring to it and adds that important touch of gravitas to the business card. Has to be worth at least $10k a year, surely.

Well, you did say that you wanted imagination...

Kathryn Greenhill said...

Dorothea Salo of Caveat Lector uses "repository rat" to describe what she does.

Would "Repositarian" roll off the tongue?