Thursday, December 2, 2010

Finding Solace in a Stagnant Economy

It is often only when we look back on events that we find clarity. As we wade through a sluggish and uncertain economy, we wonder what prospects our future holds.  Even if we are fortunate enough to have a "secure" job, we are aware of a constant pressure to tread cautiously.  Rocking the boat, might rock our budgets.  Whether it is shrinking resources or expanding ones, the process of working through change is probably more important than the ultimate outcome.

Recently, through casual conversations, students have voiced their concerns about their employment prospects.  Like other support services, information work rarely generates direct and measurable revenue, in the short term.  This has been the source of much angst in the profession as librarians and their staff struggle to quantify the positive impact of their work.  Prospective grads would just like to know if the future is viable.  Unfortunately, it depends on one`s outlook.  This is partly because there are so many interpretations of  "information" work and what it means to be a librarian.

To believe that libraries are quiet spaces, lined with books and reticent staff is to fall prey to fiction.  Those that already work in the field understand this.  What challenges us, as information professionals, is the shifting context that shapes our work environment.  We design, develop and deploy services in a world full of uncertainties and technological change.  When the GDP sinks and people stop making purchases, our confidence in the future ebbs.  Yet, the world does not come to a grinding halt and people continue to have needs, including a need for information that is meaningful and, therefore, useful.

It might be wise to stop wringing our hands fussing about our usefulness as a profession and simply assert ourselves as experts and developing ways of educating members of our communities of what we can do for them.  If we do so, we may have to forgo our titles.  We may actually have to stop arguing about what makes a "librarian" or an "information technician" and focus on the skills and attitudes that we hold as people who work with information on a constant basis. It is also not helpful to make a simple shopping list of what services we provide. Celebrating our accomplishments is a validating and necessary activity but we must be very careful not to think that this assures us of a stable or predictable future. Recently, the Kentucky Library Association published "The Role of Public Libraries and Their Future" by Uma Doraiswamy (2010).  Essentially, Doraiswamy remains optimistic about the role of the public library because of the variety of functions it currently performs.  Unfortunately, today's success is NOT a predictor of future success and, at any time, these services can be undermined by a variety of forces beyond our immediate control.  Our success is dependent on recognizing that change is constant.  The desire to stick to the status quo is one of enormous consequence.  Thus, there is a tension in the field where some folks want what they had and struggle with letting go of past practice while others embrace a future that looks at redefining our roles.
It is possible that library schools and tech programs do not spend enough time examining the actual goal of librarianship.  Is it to provide people with information? Look beyond this.  It is to provide people with the opportunity to learn and become knowledgeable.  In the 21st century, this practice is dependent on technology.  Yet, this technology is rapidly changing.  However, we can not allow ourselves to be distracted from our goal.  James Duderstadt, President Emeritus and University Professor of Science and Engineering  at the University of Michigan, astutely points out that, "It is certainly the case that futurists have a habit of overestimating the impact of new technologies in the near term and underestimating them over the longer term." (p. 223).  In fact, he describes the library as the "poster child of the IT revolution" and they may be an ideal place to observe how people really learn (p. 220).  There is recognition, in some corners of the profession , that despite the changes libraries and information centres must face, there is an interesting future before us.  How we respond to this reality will define our success.  Lamenting over days gone by will get us nowhere.

Although Deborah Jakubs speaks specifically to the situation of research libraries, she makes a valid, broader point when she writes, "Rather than being defensive about "threats" to the traditional position of libraries, we should tout the advantages of the contemporary research library. There may be more than one information "game" in town, but ours has plenty to offer" (p. 244).  In other words, we must accept the fact that the services we offer may not belong only to our profession but we do have an excellent foundation to build our future.  It may be that library schools and other, related programs will have to do more to adapt to the changing demands of our communities but this does not mean that there is not work to be done.

Indeed, from my experiences providing students with experiential learning through field placements, I have discovered that new sites delight in the skills they see from our students.  Many of these would not be described as "traditional" library environments.  Libraries are not the only places where information is amassed, stored, accessed and used.  Media sources, records management offices, health networks, non-profit support services, and corporate offices all struggle to manage the "data deluge".  Students of information studies are in a prime position to guide our communities through the confusing and technologically focused future we face.  The skills required for this may be shifting but this is another challenge many of us are prepared to take on.

So, if you are fearful of our future, don`t be.  Embrace the challenges and take ownership over your future and, most importatnly, get engaged.  Promote your skills, lead and inform those who do not understand the field. Be confident.  Be competitive.  When people aren't out spending their shrinking disposable incomes, they are seeking other ways to better their lot in life.  We help them do it.  We can be powerful. And, in fact, we are.

Cited Sources

Doraiswamy, U. (2010). The role of public libraries and their future. Kentucky Libraries, 74(2), 22-25. Retrieved from Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text database.

Duderstadt, J. (2009). Possible Futures for the Research Library in the 21st Century. Journal of Library Administration, 49(3), 217-225. doi:10.1080/01930820902784770

Jakubs, D. (2008). Out of the Gray Times: Leading Libraries into the Digital Future. Journal of Library Administration, 48(2), 235-248. Retrieved from Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text database.