|The Millennium Issue||Volume 8, Number 1 • January 2000|
• LEADING LIBRARIES
Librarian 2000: A Personal Reflection on a Profession on the Verge
Ulla de Stricker — Ulla de Stricker and Associates
I am not alone in my sense of excitement over the possibilities. Deep in the summer of 1999, a few colleagues and I commented to each other that a new area of responsibility had crept into the vocabulary of job descriptions of library personnel: that of records management. You guessed it, not just paper records, but electronic ones had become of even greater concern. Aha! our thinking went ... let’s see if it’s just a blip in Toronto, or a trend. Quick with the phone as I have a reputation for being, I got in touch with a number of library professionals, explaining that an article was brewing and asking for a characterization of their evolving responsibilities. (Many, many thanks to those I approached — I promised anonymity but you know who you are.)
Our conversations and the e-mails I received were more than fascinating. They revealed a variety and extension in terms of professional functions that made us realize how much more we have become than what we started out to be. In fact, they encouraged us to step back and look at the evolution of our profession in the context of the trends we have focused on until now and in the context of that future which looms so large — thanks to a certain number with a bunch of zeroes in it.
Following Searcher’s fearless and future-oriented editorial policy, particularly for this issue, let me share some “millennial musings on the profession that chose me” with my colleagues’ enthusiastic permission.
Zoom back in time to a little girl in a small village near Copenhagen, walking to school and stopping cold in her tracks, caught in the challenge of applying newly acquired arithmetic skills to calculating how old she’d be when the century ended, and then wondering what she’d be doing through an expanse of more than 4 decades. Never mind about the romance and adventure of adulthood ... what was work going to be like?
freshman year in Jerusalem, further college years in Binghamton, New York
(romance will have its way), and graduate studies in Montreal ... years
when I didn’t have to decide, just yet. Although with every passing semester.
the awareness grew more painful that soon I would have to bid farewell
to the world of literature my professors made so engaging and choose a
profession, and that the choice would shape my life! By the time a master’s
in Jewish American Lit was in hand, a “got to do something!” application
had gone to McGill University’s Faculty of Information Science — and when
the acceptance and scholarship that made the choice for me arrived, I felt
relieved: “It’s all settled then: librarian. Quite respectable, really.”
Happily resigned and peaceful at heart, I sallied into library school. No problem, wrestle an MLS into the ground and we’re off to the ... er, within a week it was clear that there were quite a few “races” — public, academic, corporate, government, etc. Darn, more choices But again, fate conspired ... in the form of Professor David Batty who taught the mandatory computer course. My initial chagrin over having to take such a course in the first place was transformed in the first hour to intrigue ... and within a few more to an excitement I have felt ever since: Computers can turn librarians into magicians!
Armed with a simple yet powerful program to manage bibliographies (FAMULUS, for those of you who have had the pleasure), I ventured across campus to the computing centre. Memories of late nights spent among the cardpunch machines are a blur, but one memory of clutching a pristine printout stands out: Yessssss! The query worked! (So too does the memory of the times it didn’t — not because of the computer’s failure, but because of a teensy comma or slash I put in the wrong place.)
Professor Batty paved the way. Enter Dean Vivian Sessions, who resolutely introduced online searching and DIALOG into the curriculum. By now a keener eye for commas, and logic and truncation symbols too, led me to online searching like a duck to water. This was mega-cool, to use a forward-chronism. How lucky and grateful I am for the benefit of their influence.
More miracles awaited
me as I became responsible for DIALOG marketing, training, and client support
throughout Canada: I soon found that creativity, persistence, and willingness
to go the extra mile could turn a librarian-turned-vendor-employee into
a magician. And then quite a number of professional soul mates inhabited
my eventual home, Toronto. What a thrill to share ideas, consternation,
and what-if-we’s! And what a joy to do it still as we all close in on that
age that once looked so terribly advanced.
A Changing Profession
It was a privilege to fall into librarianship and the information industry just as the information age began and to mature as a professional along with it. And yet, “mature” may be the wrong word. Here we are in the middle of a technology revolution that won’t quit, and as a result, in the middle of a professional expansion that won’t quit, either.
From the neatly defined roles reflected in library school courses of the mid-’70 s to the thousands of job titles collected in the Special Libraries Association’s recent salary survey, we librarians or information professionals definitely aren’t what we once were. If we play our knowledge management or “knowledge engineering” cards right, there are very few areas in any organization in which we won’t have a significant contribution to make. Corporate portals, intranets, extranets, guardianship and mining of the corporate memory, design and creation of new information flows, negotiation for content licenses, e-commerce applications — the list of functions for which we didn’t even have terminology when we took our first professional jobs, but now stand qualified to perform, is long and growing.
Challenging, too. Our new professional domains call upon us to work miracles and magic tricks every day and to exercise talents we didn’t necessarily know we had when we entered library school. Meticulousness, attention to detail, organization skills, yes ... but how many of us saw ourselves as communicators, excitement-generators, group decision facilitators, and the like? (I confess that my friends in Montreal, on hearing about my choice of profession, expressed a perception that a bold and lively personality like mine might find librarianship a bit confining. Little did they know!)
As the calendar prepares to turn us over to the new millennium, it is tempting to say that our struggles with technology are over, that we can stop dealing with details and focus on what Stephen Abram so aptly calls our transformational activities. Come to think of it, it doesn’t matter if our struggles are over or not. We have no choice but to step boldly up to our “real” work of influencing the strategic directions of the organizations employing us. That calls for courage, enthusiasm, an ability to grab the attention of busy senior managers and junior IT specialists alike, an ability to forge business cases out of intangibles and unprovables — in short, for magicians and evangelists — on top of the solid understanding of today’s and tomorrow’s technical tools we need to gain and maintain credibility. Whew!
Some say “plus ça change” and suggest that our entire arsenal of librarianship skills remain relevant, no matter what technology they throw at us. I think of that when I see search engine comparison articles such as those featured in many a Searcher issue. Didn’t we do those kinds of comparisons between online vendors back in the ’70s? Hmm, go with the flow and keep pushing developers to consult with us before they design their engines. All right, already!
Others contend that the world of work is changing so profoundly that organizational life will be turned on its head — and warn that we’d better prepare for a chaotic (they may say nimble or agile, but the meaning is clear) future where the old rules don’t apply. There’s truth in that warning, judging by the changes we have already seen in “how the world works.” What that means is that we must develop the diagnostic skills to analyze the “personality” of our employing organizations and adjust our own service and communication strategies accordingly. Yet another ability we didn’t think about in library school. Of course, in the past we have performed studies of client requirements and based our understanding of an organization on the findings, but in the past we could count on a certain stability in organizational culture that allowed us to plan. Now we must continually gauge the formal structure, power structure, internal communications culture, strategic direction, and likely future (to name but a few aspects) of an organization and to have the information strategies that will extract success ready. That’s a mighty tall order, and we can’t pull it off unless we become knit into an organization’s social fabric at a much higher level than is often the case today.
Here is one of the questions I asked my colleagues as I pursued the question of what records management had to do with organizational placement: Where, exactly, does the information function report, and why? The answers pointed to experimentation, expediency, historical happenstance, and personality. A particular VP might be partial to the resource centre and ‘adopt’ it into his or her domain. The answers clearly illustrated that perception is indeed reality. Many of the accompanying comments illustrated that a significant spin is attached to the organizational placement and reporting level, and especially to the relationship, or lack thereof, with any knowledge management initiative that might exist.
And herein lies the answer to our original question as to whether adding records management to the responsibility area of librarians as part of a library, information resource centre, research support centre, knowledge centre, etc., represents a trend: For any responsibility area we might think of, there’s a trend if we make it so. But we face really tough roads ahead if we don’t succeed in landing our positions and our libraries in secure spots close to the organizations’ strategic leadership.
In the days I taught my fellow library school students how a system like DIALOG worked “under the hood” (remember learning about inverted indexes, set formation, and Venn diagrams?), I could not foresee that our collective professional focus would arrive at a challenge having to do, not with lexical minutiae, but with big-picture positioning strategy.
Hold on, you might say. Who is “we”? Are the challenges facing us in North America also facing colleagues in Berlin, Rome, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Sydney, and Tokyo? The Special Libraries Association’s efforts to forge a global strategy through (among other things) a special task force and a special conference (Global 2000 to be held in October in Brighton, U.K.) are about to give that impression to everyone. I have commented to the SLA community that in North America, a cultural cohesiveness allows a librarian from Vancouver to go to work in Atlanta without missing a beat, while a librarian from Oslo would face quite a learning curve going to work in Athens.
The considerable differences between “the way things are done” even in neighboring countries pose a significant opportunity for us all to learn from each other. I dream that someday we may see the formation of an international expertise database allowing, say, a librarian in Vancouver to identify a North American colleague familiar with Singapore’s information sources as well as Singaporean experts in a position to offer assistance to foreign colleagues. Conversely, the Singaporean librarian would use the database to identify contacts familiar with Italy, etc. After all, I’m not the only librarian who will roam the world before settling; it’s becoming very typical in the latter part of the second half of the 20th century. But I digress.
Some evidence exists that the overall societal perception of librarians is not uniform across the world, and that the prestige attached to the title is very much higher in some countries than in others. That circumstance was apparent earlier this year when I had the privilege of speaking to an audience of librarians from all over Scandinavia about the subject of professional positioning. It made me think about the implications for recruitment into our profession in different parts of the world. Something to be explored, for sure. Regardless, the level of prestige, respect, and influence our profession will have in the future anywhere in the world depends on what we do and how shrewdly we plan our careers. It also depends on the courage and outrageousness of the talent we can tempt into joining our ranks!
As I reach the end of the century, I will experience what was almost unimaginable to that little 6-year-old girl: writing “January 1, 2000” and entering a new millennium. But like that little girl, I still ask the same question I asked then: What am I going to do in the decades before me? What are we all going to do?
The future is less
unknowable, but more exciting, than it ever was. Thank goodness!
Ulla de Stricker
is an information industry consultant based in Gaithersburg, Maryland,
and Toronto, Canada. She specializes in strategic planning for information
products and services.