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Shifting Sands: Aspirations Should Match Abilities

The library world seems engaged in frequent reassessments of what we should be doing. That’s a good thing – the unexamined life is not worth living, said Socrates – but at some point there should probably also be a discussion about what we are capable of doing. Unlike personal reinvention, where there may not really be limits, at what point do librarians decide their future lies in new services, the underlying skills for which they are unprepared?

The book is dead.

The library is dead.

Everything is on the Internet.

Physical libraries are wasted space.

Physical collections are wasted money.

It is obvious to someone working in a library that those are frequently parroted nonsense rather than truth.  But taken from the perspective of the person funding the library, some of these take on more truth when they look at the very recent past and the very near future.  People working libraries often try to reinvent themselves and their organizations to combat some of these perceptions.  But where does this re-invention take us?

I don’t really believe there are any limits.  We are moving from being the person with the key to accessing information (or the place where information is) to someone who is standing, in many cases, next to the person accessing information.  We may be able to impact that access, or we may not.

Some library workers see training as the future, and information literacy as the major challenge we need to tackle.  Others think that the fundamentals are fine, but that we need to do a better job of marketing and talking about what we do.   A third camp see our lack of executive influence to be crucial, and detrimental, to library futures:  no place at the table, no problem being shown the door.  And that’s just getting us started.

All well and good.  But when I look at the organizations at which I have worked, I have met people who are doing those jobs.  People who were trained to be trainers.  Experts who have degrees in marketing.  Seasoned leaders who know how to work with executive management, whether they are explicitly a part of those groups or not.  The people that I have observed are not librarians.

This is not a jab at library schools.  I would take a jab first at the lack of practical training at law schools if I needed a soft target.

We want to be trainers.  We know we have to help researchers, and training seems an obvious need.  But I don’t recall any courses on training in library school or professional education by professional trainers for librarians doing training.  We tend to teach ourselves, and that may not be what trainers would do.  We need to be providing point-in-time support but without the opportunities to do in-person, one-on-one training.  How do we measure our success?  How do we match our training to our users learning styles?  We need to specialize.  And many of us are not going to be able to do that, in one-person libraries and those with no professional education dollars especially.

Ditto for marketing.  We rehash the library newsletter, the library blog (is it dead?), and other options.  Our library has been doing a print advertising campaign, and I have purchased radio spots at a previous library.  But again, marketing is not in my training, it is what I have observed and absorbed.  Some of these efforts may be successful, but where it is great to create a marketing effort, there has to be measurement, refinement, repetition.  And those are based on an understanding of marketing that is broader than that which most library staff have.

Having a place at the table is always interesting.  Depending on the organization and the value they place on the library and, perhaps more importantly, the political upheavals going on when the org chart was created, the library may or may not have a voice in senior management.  The library director does not need to have the voice herself, but someone at the table should understand the library perspective and value, and be able to discuss it.  Most library staff are not in a management role, and have little or no exposure to non-library senior management or decision makers.  It is not to say this experience can’t be had, but my experience is that library staff who suddenly have to deal with oversight boards, elected officials, and other external decision makers, are not prepared to do so.  It’s not a question of more workshops on government relations (training !).  Librarians are not a compelling constituency compared to fire departments, student scholarships, business development, you name the competing interest..

We know that what library staff are doing is changing.  The torment we are going through now is that our titles tend to anchor us to one perception of ourselves but our experience and services are taking us somewhere else that may require a different title, a different perception.

If the change is sufficient that it is taking us out of what we are trained to do and into areas that others are already trained to cover, should we be thinking about those changes more strategically?  Individual staff may have the background or the abilities to be successful but if training is really a future core purpose of libraries – and I am wrong about information literacy being a red herring – then we need to aim to compete with people who are providing these services now with specialized backgrounds.

We are already specialized in our skill sets to provide access to information, and within libraries, highly specialized.   The non-library people with whom we work are similarly specialized.  The constraints that that imposes will be a challenge – why is the library doing marketing when there is a corporate marketing team? – as we identify new opportunities.  I think it should give us pause as we consider new avenues because we may find they are dead ends.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.