Thursday, July 20, 2006

Shamelessly glomming onto meredith's awesome post

First, read this great post from one of my favorite LIS bloggers about the neccessary skills for 21st century librarians. I thought I'd post a slight revision of my initial response over here, given how many people have put replies on that thread, and I also wanted to add a few more thoughts I've had after hearing the conversation and mulling over her thoughts last night.

LIS 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.

While I was also unimpressed by the level of IT skills taught in most of my classes, That didn’t bug me as much. I’m a Librarian for pete’s sake–if I need to upgrade my skills, I can find a tutorial, sign up for a class, or *gasp* read a book.

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. Well, to solve the problem, we have to A: admit we’re scared instead of indulging in bravado and denial in the manner of a certain immediate past ALA president, B: figure out what we’re scared of, and C: take steps to solve the problem.

So, why are we scared? Is it perhaps because deep down librarians aren’t quite sure themselves what value they add? or are shy about self-promotion? or because they think if they curl up in a ball and hide in the stacks nobody will notice that their foot traffic and hard copy circulation is drying up? The paradigm is shifting, but it does NOT have to shift away from us. We can become the common surfer’s conduit to the invisible web, and to pay information resources. We can shift away from merely providing access to adding value to the information we provide. We can take up the desperate need to educate users in ways to navigate this ocean of information and disinformation we’re all drowning in.

Libraries and librarians are changing. this is the way of the world. because of a combination of cultural stereotypes surrounding our profession, the personality of the typical librarian, the library’s role as preserver of tradition, history, and culture, and the obvious value of the services we provide, we’ve been insulated from many of the evolutions and revolutions that disturb most professions every few years. But guess what? that’s over. It’s time to play with the big boys. We’ve been given an important job, the duty to ensure the continuing existence of our clumsy, anachronistic, slightly silly and desperately important profession in an information economy where things are thrown into flux every five minutes. It’s a tall order. And if you don’t have the courage, creativity, and flexibility that it will take to fulfill our duty…then get out of our way.

After thinking about these issues overnight, I'm not quite as dismissive about the need for better IT training in MLIS programs. Aside from some database searching tactics, I didn't learn much about technology in my program that I didn't know already. Most of my IT knowledge I either arrived with from my tech stint, or I picked up OTJ. For all intents I'm a self-taught cataloger, and frankly would barely know what MARC was had I not gone out and studied on my own. And as far as learning web design or how an ILS system "thinks"? not a word, except in a very top-level knowledge management elective that didn't teach much more than what was needed to put together an RFP (an important skill, but not quite what's needed here.) What i was trying to say in my initial post, and what I still think, is that we don't need to turn the MLS into a software development or database administration program. That said, why can't we make sure that every MLIS graduate understands how the basics of how a typical ILS works, how to design a solid website with HTML, CSS, and (maybe?) java, and how to manipulate metadata, whether or not they ever plan to be in technical services.

I also think I exaggerated, or at least overgeneralized, the stagnation in circulation and foot traffic. What is true at a medium-ish academic library here in the heartland can't really be extrapolated to a public library in a big city. public libraries are seeing an increase in traffic and circulation, though I would be interested to know whether or not circ is growing as fast as foot traffic.

However, with those caveats, i stand by my initial post. We can have all the tech savvy in the world, but if we are not adding value by what we do and how we do it, and (at least) as importantly, putting forth a compelling message about the value we add to the communities we serve, it's time to fold our tents and go home, because we don't deserve to win the battle for eyeballs against wikigoogazon, et al.

This is not a profession for naysayers, pessimists,luddites, bureaucrats, or wallflowers. We as 21st century librarians have been handed a big job. If you don't have the tools you need, don't just petition the schools to start teaching them, go get off your butt and take a class yourself. (or if you already have the skill, offer your services to your alma mater as an adjunct!) If you're nervous about speaking, join toastmasters. If you don't write well, do what is neccessary to improve. Go to the local community picnics or meetings and peet people, even if you're not manning the library's booth. These are all basic steps ambitious future leaders take in the non-library world. If we are to get the respect we deserve, self-improvement and service are the ways we get there.

Next post: something Wiki this way comes: web 2.0 in the library