Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The future of librarianship

The deprofessionalization of librarianship - part 2

Ever since library catalogs were automated, librarians have speculated about the demise of librarianship as we know it. We're still here, but it's becoming clear that our roles are changing and continuing to become less professional as the public is able to meet more of its information needs without our help. Library 2.0 is all about the democratization of information, and the effect on libraries and librarians is telling. The fact is that a lot of what we do on the job no longer uses a high level of skill. Most cataloging is now done centrally by a library network rather than at each individual library. Many reference questions are being answer by Google, or through home access to library databases. Of course someone still needs to plan programs, hold story times for children, and show people how to sign up for computers, print, and find and request books, but you don't need an MLS for those jobs.

There was an article on Slashdot recently about IT people who feel like their job security is threatened by Web 2.0. Emily over at Library Revolution says that she sees this differently; her take is that Web 2.0 is empowering people to get many jobs done themselves without having to depend help from IT. This is how I feel about Library 2.0: people now have so much easy access to information that they don’t need a gatekeeper (i.e. librarian) to help them. How fantastic!

A second benefit to recent trends is that it will be cheaper for public libraries to operate without having to pay so many MLS salaries. No doubt libraries will continue to exist as long as people still want free books, magazines, dvds, and cds, but surely an advanced degree is not needed for these jobs. This is good news for libraries with funding issues, and surely better than closing down.

Like IT people, librarians can’t help but worry about job security. But in addition to wasteful spending that many municipalities can’t afford, it’s ridiculous to waste our skills by keeping positions professional when they shouldn’t be. Those of us with MLS degrees are bored in jobs where we aren’t working to our full potential. Furthermore, pretending that these positions still use high level skills is really doing us all a disservice. I wrote a little about that here – it doesn’t reflect well on the profession when we try to justify MLS salaries and all we can show them is that we are holding game nights. How does it help our reputation as a profession when we are being asked to justify our existence and that is all we can come up with? Pretending that these jobs require advanced degrees is just self-preservation, but we are supposed to exist for the good of our communities not for own personal gain.

Don’t just think you can switch to another type of library though, because these changes are happening everywhere. Corporate libraries are beginning to close or decentralize, and the librarian role is more aligned within departmental units if it continues to exist at all. Many companies such as the accounting firm where I used to work, are making research information available through robust intranets and training employees how to use them. Like with public libraries, this is good news for those who need information, but bad news for librarians.

So what does this mean for librarians? This free and easy access to information is what we have been advocating for, and ironically it will be our downfall. We need to define new roles for ourselves. If you enjoy traditional librarianship, this may not be pleasant to think about, but we need to face reality: the jobs we are used to will no longer exist. Sure, there are librarians who will be retiring, but their positions won’t be there waiting for us to seamlessly slip into, and the ALA needs to stop pretending otherwise.

The October 15th issue of Library Journal touched on these issues in its cover story "What's an MLIS Worth?" Here are some trends noted:

-a substantial leap in graduates reporting jobs outside of the library and information science (LIS) professions (up 43.7%)
-those reporting placements outside of library agencies increased by 37.4%
-more grads in nonprofessional jobs, rising temp positions, more graduates taking multiple part-time positions, and a longer average job search
-nonprofessional positions increased by almost 37.5% between 2005 and 2006
-2003-2006 28.5% growth in placement with vendors

It's becoming harder to find employment in the library field and many librarians are taking positions in non-library environments doing what most of us would think of as non-librarian work. This is where the profession is heading, and we better be ready. How do we prepare for the inevitable shifts in our careers? Funny that you ask - I just read a helpful book that addresses that very question. Next week I’ll post my review on Rethinking Information Work: A Career Guide for Librarians and Other Information Professionals by G. Kim Dority.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. I still remember fondly using a card catalog as a child.

Anonymous said...

I whole heartedly agree. I don't understand why library schools are still open. They are still offering the old curriculum. People are not doing their research and they don't know what to ask.

Christina Neigel said...

Maybe the situation is grossly different in the U.S. but I heartily disagree with your position that there is a deprofessionalization in the field. In Canada, we have strong library tech schools and we see a blurring of roles in many situations but all of library staff require sophisticated problem solving and critical thinking skills. Being able to "catalogue" and lamenting over lost (or more realistically, irrelevant skills) merely feeds the notion of impotence. we do a poor job of marketing our skills to those outside of the field and it is NOT A BAD THING if librarians work in less traditional environments. If we can't convince our communities of our relevance, then we don't deserve to be librarians. Yes, we have competition and it is how we meet the challenges of change that will define our future success.

It is sad that someone should question why library schools are open... Really? In this era is it so hard to see the value of education and teaching people how to build their understanding of the world?

For inspiration, I suggest you look at David Lankes at Syracuse. He has some inspiring ideas that are worth listening to http://quartz.syr.edu/rdlankes/


3goodrats said...

Thank you for your thoughts, Christina. I stand by my position that deprofessionalization is happening - the fact is that (in the US, at least) MLS positions are being replaced by (usually part-time) non-MLS workers. If that isn't deprofessionalization, I don't know what is. I am speaking more from a public librarianship view though, and it may be very different in academia.

You are absolutely right that we do a poor job of marketing our skills (and I would add, our services!) to those outside the field. I also think that public librarians do a poor job of updating our skills - I think we should be required to do so as our field is one of rapid change. Most librarians I have worked with in public libraries rarely take a class or attend a conference. This needs to change.

Thanks for the David Lankes link - I look forward to reading his thoughts as well.