Transforming the Library Profession

Recruiting librarianship's best and brightest

June 9, 2015

Transforming the library profession

Technological advancements are driving an increasingly interconnected global landscape, which contributes to rapid political, economic, social, and environmental change. Faster communication systems and enhanced access to information bind countries, economies, and businesses in far more complex ways than we have ever conceived. This interdependence on a global scale makes risks such as rising socioeconomic inequality particularly pernicious because of the inherent instability of weak economies and social fragility.

The good news for libraries is that investment in drivers of inclusive growth—public services such as schools, libraries, and telecommunications infrastructure—represents a critically important risk mitigation strategy. Education and knowledge are essential to successful communities, organizations, and economies, and they represent the future for the information profession if, of course, library professionals keep pace with the changing dynamics of the various communities they serve.

In order to be effective in this evolving global landscape, library organizations must be nimble, creative, and customer-focused, and—above all—must embrace learning. Gone are the days when libraries cornered the market on information, delivering value almost exclusively as content providers. Library work creates value today in ways that are far more personal and collaborative. Library professionals need to be viewed as trusted advisors, but trust grows only when we build relationships with our customers. For instance, the library as provider of access to technology is insufficient if, like approximately 70 million American adults, the library customer lacks the basic digital literacy skills needed for robust online use. (See John B. Horrigan’s June 2014 paper “Digital Readiness.”)

Economic inequality most certainly plays a role in digital literacy, serving both as a driver of the digital divide and a condition exacerbated by a global economy that requires digital participation. The library professional who builds relationships—one who can coach, teach, or direct the customer to resources that support digital readiness—is the one who provides value today.

Library professionals support the unique information needs of library customers by facilitating learning experiences.

Now is the time for those of us within the library profession to recast the image of the library professional. It’s not about replacing gray buns and glasses with pink hair and tattoos (although both images are tired tropes at this point); it’s about demonstrating that library professionals see the critical difference between tracking down an answer to a question for customers and helping customers craft the questions they need to ask.

Today’s library is less about what we have for people and more about what we do for (and with) people. This distinction is important because communicating the value of the library professional is the only way to ensure our future viability. We must tell the story in a way that resonates with the customer, attracts talent to the profession, and secures funding from key stakeholders.

Today’s library is less about what we have for people and more about what we do for (and with) people.

Engage customers

Today’s library professionals are the “genius bar” for everyday users. From school libraries to public libraries, academic library spaces, and more, customers expect library professionals to support their information needs regardless of the format of that information. At a time when content is not reserved to a particular conduit, library professionals must become format-agnostic information experts, providing equitable access to physical material, internet-connected devices, and online content all while helping customers develop the skills needed to take advantage of the educational, economic, and social opportunities associated with technology.

While the addition of technology into the content provider space is not a dramatic transformation of the library professional’s work, we can see the meaning of “access” evolving as we increasingly help customers—be they students, entrepreneurs, or curious creatives—develop their own content and make it available to others. For example, libraries of all kinds now offer makerspaces with equipment, software, and services to stimulate content creation.

As expectations and demand for experiential learning opportunities grow, library professionals are at the forefront of providing training in digital media, including animation, video recording and editing, and app development; helping indie authors self-publish content on library platforms; and supporting researchers using Big Data stores and stimulating innovation by managing Big Data repositories.

The movement from consuming content to creating content is opening opportunities for the new library professional. Professionals in the academic library, school library, and public library environment are not simply making other people’s great ideas and stories available to their customers; they are delivering learning experiences that inspire great ideas and stories from their customers.

To put it another way, library professionals are not just providing the menu; they are cooking the meal with customers.

Attract new professionals

As the library profession transforms to respond to an increasingly high-tech/high-touch environment, the talents and skills embodied by all library professionals are necessarily changing. We need to recruit a more diverse and creative workforce by starting to tell a different story about the library profession and creating a pipeline of talent to deliver in the new service models for all library types.

It was difficult even a decade ago to imagine having a world of information always available in your pocket, but now it is almost as difficult to imagine not being connected to people, places, and things 24/7. One implication of this rapid adoption of mobile technology is that it’s entirely possible that some individuals will never set foot into a library for the first two decades of their life.
Given this context, we need to develop a plan for bringing the best and brightest to the library workplace to be part of the transformation within our profession. How will we recruit talent when that talent’s experience with library organizations may be limited to simply downloading content from their school or public library or, worse, grounded in old stereotypes of libraries as passive vehicles for content consumption?

We need to clearly demonstrate how traditional library values can leverage dynamic disruptions in technology to deliver meaningful learning experiences for customers. For instance, library professionals are rallying around our professional value of open access to develop training programs that help customers access robust innovations in health care, education, and government service delivery through the growing “internet of things.”

Librarian helping studentRepositioning the library professional as an educational resource for a more interconnected global community more accurately describes contemporary library work. Appealing to the interests of those who enjoy working with people, solving problems, and designing innovative approaches to tackling challenging questions will be crucial to future talent attraction.

Advance information policy agenda and advocacy

It stands to reason that information professionals deliver significant value in a knowledge-based economy. However, library professionals have the opportunity to better engage national decision makers and influencers through strategic communication and outreach that illustrates the value of libraries in economic and social terms. Elevating awareness of the library professional’s critical role in the digital age—and the expanding opportunities that still remain within library organizations—will be most powerful when we align our outcomes with the agendas of key decision makers at the national level and with funding organizations and prospective collaborators such as foundations, government agencies, and businesses.

The Policy Revolution! initiative of ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy provides critical direction to maximize the efforts of a coordinated advocacy approach. While the priority in communicating the positive and robust contributions that libraries make in the way of economic and social growth is to secure and stabilize library funding, we also see advocacy around issues of national information policy energizing our profession. The profession’s core values of equitable access, privacy, and intellectual freedom have been activated in recent legislative and regulatory efforts related to broadband access (E-Rate), net neutrality, the USA Patriot Act, and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

Ultimately, we will be most successful as a profession when we advocate collectively and collaboratively, regardless of library type. Articulating the value of the library professional in ways that resonate with national decision makers and influencers will be most successful when we demonstrate how the library professional supports learning in the context of inclusive growth. This kind of credibility can be helpful in policy discussions that deal less with library funding and more with issues that advance the broader public interest.

Today our experienced professionals and new library workers must find their passion around people to build an educated and involved citizenry and ensure digital and economic opportunity for all. Library professionals are the essential element of strong schools, colleges, universities, and public communities.