Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Librarians past and future

Meredith Farkas has posted an interesting and provocative piece on "Building 21st century librarians AND libraries", discussing about "the growing necessity to have tech-savvy people in public services positions." While her focus is on large academic libraries, many of her thoughts are useful here in a medium-sized public library.

Among her points:
  • difficult for public services staff to implement new technologies
  • people in public services don’t have skills to implement their ideas
  • organizational structures create barriers
Part of this is skill-related, and while one aspect of this relates to academic preparation, another is the challenge of developing and funding effective continuing education for current staff. Farkas has also posted a useful list of "Skills for the 21st Century Librarian". These include:
  • Basic Tech Competencies
    • Ability to embrace change
    • Comfort in the online medium
    • Ability to troubleshoot new technologies
    • Ability to easily learn new technologies
    • Ability to keep up with new ideas in technology and librarianship (enthusiasm for learning)
  • Higher Level Competencies
    • Project management skills:
    • Ability to question and evaluate library services
    • Ability to evaluate the needs of all stakeholders
    • Vision to translate traditional library services into the online medium
    • Critical of technologies and ability to compare technologies
    • Ability to sell ideas/library services
Encouraging participation in Project Play (Wisconsin's "23 things") is one way we're addressing these concerns, giving all staff members the opportunity to become exposed a variety of technologies, play with them, discuss and write critically about opportunities. A complementary effort is our staff technology task force, the plan they developed, and the work to support tech competencies for a large and diverse staff.

But organizational structure issues can be thornier and more political. It's essential for libraries to retain authority over their own technology decisions, but easy to lose this authority to external IT decision-makers. We sometimes pay in availability of resources for the privilege of retaining authority. The challenge extends to giving staff the ability to implement service ideas; management prerogatives shouldn't stand in the way of service, but budgets often do. Managers need to keep listening and finding ways to empower staff to grow, learn and implement their good ideas.

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