By Meredith Farkas | July 17, 2006
A few weeks ago, I finished a chapter I was writing (not for my book — another one) on the topic of technology in LIS Education. I think Rachel asked me to write it because I had complained about my own library school education in the past and the fact that many schools create this false dichotomy between “library work” and “information science work”. I see so many schools that seem to promote the view that learning about technology is not necessary in library schools if you plan to go into “traditional” librarian roles such as reference, instruction and other public service areas. At my school, you could easily go through the whole program without ever having taken a technology class and our traditional classes certainly didn’t have tech subjects integrated into them at all. What I realized once I started looking for jobs was that a large number of public service jobs these days require tech skills. Whether the ads ask for HTML skills, knowledge of scripting languages, the ability to deal with the back-end of the OPAC, the ability to translate library services into the online medium, the ability to troubleshoot basic computer and printer problems, or just a good healthy knowledge of emerging technologies, it has become increasingly important that librarians keep up with technology and have certain basic skills. If you’re reading my blog, chances are good that you already agree with this supposition.
Before writing the chapter, I started to think about what library schools should be preparing new librarians for. Sure, most of the topics covered at my library school were inportant, but so many, such as collection development, are perhaps better learned on the job. Even with reference work, I found I learned much more in my first month at Norwich than I did in an entire semester-long class on reference work. Probably the only thing I learned of value in the class was related to the reference interview itself, though as a former therapist, I’m accustomed to that kind of inquiry. I just found that the skills that are most important to my job (and probably to the jobs of most public service librarians — as well as librarians in other areas) were not taught in library school. The two most valuable classes I took were Introduction to Network Multimedia, where I learned HTML and CSS, and my Management class, where I learned about management theories and how to do a stragegic plan. Otherwise, while some of my courses may have given me a firm grounding in the theories that undergird the profession, I don’t find them relevant to what I do on a day-to-day basis.
So what skills should new librarians have in this first part of the 21st century? At first, I was thinking about specific tech skills like HTML, network administration, PHP and MySQL, etc. While those are certainly important, what I really think library schools aren’t teaching students is the “big picture” topics; how to really be able to keep up with technology, make good decisions about its implementation, use it and sell it to others. Here are a few of the things I came up with:
Basic Tech Competencies
- Ability to embrace change: Our patron populations are rapidly changing as are the technologies for serving them. We need to be able to look at how we are serving our patrons and to change our strategies if what we are doing is not working (or is not the best we could be doing). Change should be looked upon as an exciting thing — as a positive thing. We should fear not providing the best services to our patrons much more than we should fear change.
- Comfort in the online medium: Librarians need to do so much online these days, way beyond basic catalog and database searching (which sure isn’t easy either). Librarians have to be able to use search engines and use them well. They need to be able to find quality online resources. They need to help patrons set up e-mail and teach basic Internet skills. They need to be able to troubleshoot problems users are having accessing online library resources, at least to the extent where they can figure out if the problem is on the library’s side or the user’s side. Reference librarians are often providing reference services online via e-mail and synchronous chat. More important than knowing specific tools is a general comfort in the online medium. You just can’t provide reference services without basic Internet and search skills.
- Ability to troubleshoot new technologies: I know many of us may wonder from time to time, did I get an MLS to fix paper jams? But that is just a part of the good customer service we provide in libraries. When I’m working an evening reference shift and am the only librarian in the building, I need to help students and faculty use the scanner, fix the printer, and troubleshoot any other technology problems they may be having. As we get new computers, printers, scanners, etc. I will need to learn how to troubleshoot those. The key is just being able to have a decision-tree in your head of what to ask or try when there is a problem. I know many librarians cannot troubleshoot this stuff. I know where I used to work, if there was a technology problem, people would just throw up an “out of order” sign because they just didn’t have enough computer knowledge to figure out what the problem was. It was really bad customer service. Librarians should be able to play with the technologies in the library, to learn what problems commonly come up, and to fix them if necessary, because it is often our responsibility to fix them.
- Ability to easily learn new technologies: One of my colleagues often comments that there are so many new technological things at the library that she can’t keep up. She was really intimidated by the new scanner we got this past year and asked IT to send an expert to the library to teach her how to use it. In my opinion, the best way for her to learn the scanner is to play with it. It’s hard to learn the scanner for the first time when a student is asking you how to use it. It’s easy to learn the scanner at a time when no one is using the scanner and you’re just casually playing with it. When I want to learn a new technology, I put it through the paces. I try to do all of the things it’s supposed to do. Sometimes I read the documentation if there are things that I find confusing. Learning about technology is definitely a skill. People need to learn how to learn about new technologies without having to ask other people for help all the time.
- Ability to keep up with new ideas in technology and librarianship (enthusiasm for learning): Keeping up with new technology is often not an explicitly listed part of one’s basic weekly job duties, but its importance can’t be stressed enough. Five years ago, few people were talking about blogs and IM in libraries, but now so many libraries are using these tools to provide services to patrons. We need to be able to keep up with what’s new in technology and what libraries are (or could be) doing with it. And we need to be able to keep up in the shortest time possible because we are busy. Try and take some time out of your busy schedule to keep up, whether you are reading the professional literature, browsing blogs, or attending a Webcast.
What library schools can do: Library schools could help by teaching students how to develop a strategy for continuing their education once they are out of library school, how to develop skills for learning new technologies and how to develop a strategy for troublshooting technologies. No library school student should be allowed to graduate without basic Internet skills and search skills.
Higher Level Competencies
- Project management skills: This is a huge one. At my library, if I have an idea for something new to try, I’d better be prepared to organize and implement it, because I’ll certainly be the one doing it. When I wanted to implement IM reference at our library, I first created a proposal for my supervisor with examples of what other libraries were doing with IM and how I would implement the technology, determine which tool(s) to use, train staff, market the service, etc. I really did my homework, so when he agreed to let me do it, I had a roadmap for implementing it. It’s also important to be able to delegate tasks to colleagues and to get people to work as a team. Also we need to be able to talk to and work with people from different areas (IT, faculty, community members). People need to be able to take a project from an idea to the finishing touches (training, marketing, and ensuring sustainability).
- Ability to question and evaluate library services: As I said in my interview with Michael Stephens for ALA TechSource, “there are so many little things you can do to improve your services. I think step one is rethinking everything. Question why you are doing things the way you’re doing them. Question whether what you’re doing is really helping your patrons. Question EVERYTHING.” Oftentimes we have policies that really aren’t helping anyone. Maybe it’s a relic of a time when it was useful or maybe it’s a policy that only benefits the librarians. Either way, it’s important to keep asking why we’re doing the things we do and how these things affect our patrons.
- Ability to evaluate the needs of all stakeholders: Librarians need to understand how any changes in the way the library provides services will affect all stakeholders. Sometimes we focus on the needs of one group and ignore the fact that the changes that will benefit one group will not benefit another. With any change, librarians should create a list of all of the different stakeholders and actually discuss how it will affect each of them. When I say “stakeholders” I mean not only our patrons but staff, IT, and administrators. If you implement a project that library staff don’t support, the likelihood of success is poor.
- Vision to translate traditional library services into the online medium: With the growth of the distance learning and the fact that so many patrons access the library from the Internet, it’s important that librarians can translate traditional library services into the online medium. This includes readers’ advisory, reference, and instruction services. How can we provide equivalent services to people who only access the library from online? Librarians need to know how to capitalize on the technologies out there (HTML, blogs, wikis, screencasting, IM, etc.) to provide these services online to their patrons.
- Critical of technologies and ability to compare technologies: This can be a toughie. It’s often difficult to figure out what the right tool for the job is. We need to know what the requirements of a project are and what each available technology can do. We need to be able to compare different versions of the same type of software to figure out which will best meet our patrons’ needs. We also need a sense of pragmatism about technology. We need to avoid technolust. We shouldn’t just implement wikis because wikis are cool and we really want to use them. There is nothing magical about the technologies; it’s how we use them that matters. Technology should always fill a need and we should think realistically about what technologies are actually needed in our libraries and what are just things we personally think are cool.
- Ability to sell ideas/library services: No one told me that I’d need serious marketing skills and salesmanship to be a librarian. When I have an idea, it often has to be “sold” to administrators, IT, faculty, colleagues, and students. Once we implement a service for patrons, we need to market it to them so that people will actually use the service. Right now we’re planning differnet strategies to market the reference desk — and specifically IM reference — in the Fall. I’ve really struggled to sell “information literacy” to the faculty in the online graduate program, and I’m definitely learning what works and what doesn’t. But, as large a part of my job sales and marketing are, I never heard anything about it in library school.
What library schools can do: Library schools should definitely teach students how to sell library services and new ideas to different stakeholders. Practical evaluation skills can also be taught; it’s not always easy to figure out what is working and what isn’t. Some library schools actually offer classes on project management (even technology project management!). I’ve also seen classes offered on evaluating software, which is so important. Classes on traditional library services should address how these services can be provided online. HTML skills are also really important, but it’s the “big picture skills” that matter the most.
Technologies will come and go. Change is inevitable. But if librarians can adapt to and embrace change, can easily learn technologies, can keep up with changes in the profession, can plan for new services and evaluate old services, can develop services that meet the needs of all stakeholders, can evaluate technologies, and can sell their ideas and market services they will be better able to meet the challenges of changing user populations and changing technologies.