By Meredith Farkas | July 20, 2006
I’m on vacation in Florida this week and have happily been away for the computer for long periods of time, so I was very surprised to find all of the comments on what I had written a few days ago on skills for the 21st century librarian. I guess it really touched a chord (it’s funny as a blogger… you’re never quite sure what sort of a reaction you’ll get when you write a post). It’s a shame that I’m not the only person who found their library school education to be woefully inadequate in preparing librarians for the technological demands involved in working in libraries today. And in my case, I took every class on technology that was available through the distance learning program (from database design to web administration to usability to network administration. I didn’t do it because anyone bothered to tell me and my classmates that we should be knowledgeable about technology for the sort of public service positions many of us hoped to get. The content of our more “traditional” library school classes certainly didn’t clue us in either, since there was such a rigid separation between the tech classes and the traditional classes. Traditional classes rarely discussed tech topics and technology classes rarely discussed libraries. I’m sure this is not the case in all schools… I’m just speaking from my own experience. And while it was valuable for me to have learned HTML and database design and all that good stuff, some of those “big picture” topics would have really been useful. Especially marketing. And comparing technologies. And just learning how to plan, execute and evaluate projects.
My last post generated some really thought-provoking comments, some of which I wanted to highlight and speak to in this post.
Other Important Skills
Clearly, the “competencies” I discussed in my last post aren’t all one needs to become a successful 21st century librarian. Librarians these days need to be Web developers, accountants, salesmen, super-searchers, community advocates and a whole host of other things every day. Just because you know about wikis, blogs, screencasting, etc. doesn’t mean that you can successfully implement it — that involves many additional considerations.
Ryan Deschamps of the Other Librarian wrote “one of the big indicators on library education was that I felt I had to take an MPA to get the required skills to do work in a public library.” I actually have given some thought to getting an MBA, because I really want to learn more about the management side of things. My management course in library school was fascinating to me, but reading some theorists and creating a strategic plan just didn’t feel like enough. Ryan suggests other important skills for librarians including communication skills (seems like a no-brainer, but it can be difficult to really reach different audiences), problem formulation/policy analysis, and accounting/budgeting. All very good and very necessary skills for any librarian, especially those who want to one day be in a management position.
Jennifer of Life as I know It asked “How about training in customer service?” I guess I take it for granted that people working in libraries have a customer service orientation, but I really should know better. Many of us do come from other helping professions (social work, education, etc.) and many people enter this field because they want to help people. But I have known people in this field with the “it’s not my job” attitude about anything that lay a bit outside of their regular job duties, even when it would help a patron. And I have known librarians who see the library as something to protect from patrons and create policies towards that end. In many classes, library schools could and should emphasize the fact that libraries and librarians only exist to serve our patrons.
An excellent point was made by Sarah at the Scattered Librarian, in response to the very cynical comments of The Lost Gen Librarian. “The profession as a whole is not doing a good job of articulating the added value the human touch brings to the ‘information economy’, and more importantly why the world at large needs MLS librarians as a free (aside from taxes) civic resource. I think the more serious threat to our profession is the poor job we’ve been doing in the last decade or so about getting our message out. And I suspect this lack of performance is due to this unacknowledged, free-floating anxiety about our future that seems to have infected much of the profession.” She couldn’t be more right. What do we offer that is unique, useful, special, irreplacable? And how can we explain it to others? Much of the rest of the world doesn’t have a clue that libraries still have relevance. My husband was talking to a friend of the family recently and said that his wife (me) is a librarian. The friend said “we still need librarians?” How do we provide value in the age of the Internet? And how do we let people know about it? Library schools need to wake up, smell the coffee and realize that they need to be training librarians to be valuable in this new information landscape and to show our communities what that value is. Ryan goes on to articulate some very valuable roles libraries play in their communities. Libraries can and should advocate for their communities and are in a prime position to provide so much more than books and DVDs.
Can Library Schools Teach All This?
Heck no! After now having gone through two professional graduate programs, I am pretty sure that no program can possibly prepare students for every aspect of their job. So much is learned in internships, from mentors, and on the job. As Fiona rightly stated, “if we really did learn a little of everything that we want to know in library school the course would be a decade long!” However, I guess I question what is being taught. Personally, I think it’s easier to learn how to do collection development, weeding, readers’ advisory and reference work on the job than it is to learn marketing, project management and HTML. So much of how the former group of tasks is done is dependent on where you work, what the policies are and what materials are available, so you learn from your colleagues and from studying the collection. I took an Information Needs of Children course and while I really enjoyed reading children’s books, I can’t recall getting much practical info out of the class and would imagine that I’d learn more from a month working in the Youth Services department at any public library. I guess you could argue for and against a lot of things that some people feel would be important to offer in library school. To me though, teaching skills that are transferrable to so many areas of work in libraries and information organizations are most valuable. And IMHO, project management, marketing, and choosing/comparing/evaluating technologies are so valuable to the majority of LIS students. But, hey, maybe that opinion’s just based on the sort of work I do.
And like Simon Chamberlain wrote, many of the things I mentioned in my last post cannot easily be taught. It’s really hard to teach being open to change and being a critical thinker, though those qualities can certainly be played up and exhibited by LIS faculty. Along the same lines, either you are committed to lifelong learning or you’re not. But library schools can make it clear to students that the learning can’t stop once they get that piece of paper, and can certainly teach students about useful resources for future professional development. Obviously library schools can’t teach everything, but many of the important competencies can be integrated into and played up in many already existing courses. Some, like marketing and project management, really deserve their own course. I wish we’d had courses like that at FSU.
The Job Situation
Do you think that any new library jobs are being created these days? Of course not, I’ve tried to find those jobs. They are harder and harder to find. With the stupid technophilia that librarians have embraced, you all have managed to deskill our profession. Who needs a librarian when people don’t read books and get their information from the Internet? Who needs librarians when books can be procured by “customers” who don’t even have to interact with library staff?
-Anon (Lost Gen Librarian)
I’ve never been shy about my belief that there is a serious shortage of library jobs out there. I can’t disagree that it is ridiculously hard to get a job, especially in certain geographical areas and for certain positions. I experienced it. But new jobs are being created in some areas. I’ve seen a whole lot of jobs lately that are asking for people with serious tech skills. Digital Services Librarians, Digital Repository Librarians, Electronic Resource Librarians, Web Librarians, e-Branch Librarians, Distance Learning Librarians, etc. We are even talking about the possibility of hiring a Digital Resources Librarian at the tiny library where I work! And there also jobs like this in the business sector for those who don’t want to work in libraries. I’m not quite sure how “technophilia” deskills our profession, because I’m seeing all of these jobs that used to be for non-professional techies becomming professional positions in many libraries as librarians become able to do these tech jobs. Maybe she or he meant that librarians embracing technology caused our patrons to use the Internet and thus to find libraries obsolete? Umm… ok… Anyways, as Dorothea said, “I just think that ‘What doors are opening?’ is a more productive question, and my choice of specialty reflects my sense of one answer (not THE answer, but one answer) to that question.” (Dorothea is a rockin’ repository librarian, BTW). Heck, my position (I’m the first one to hold it) was created in response to the changes in the roles librarians at my institution needed to fill. Library schools should be preparing students for the jobs that are out there, not the ones that people can’t get at the entry level anymore.
Check out InfoAddict’s advice on the subject of developing marketable skills and moving seamlessly between libraries and information organizations in your career. The highlights? Do what you love and be flexible! Sound advice.
Some other good followups: Joshua Neff’s discussion of what he learned and did not learn in library school at The Goblin in the Library and Karen Schneider’s list of basic skills librarians should have at Free Range Librarian.