Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant
Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
The Most Important Management Decision: Hiring Staff for the New Millennium
The field of digital libraries is in a constant state of change. What we do today may not be what we will do tomorrow. In such a state of flux, what tends to remain the same? The staff you hire. Technologies may change, some people may come and go, but when you make a hiring decision, its consequences likely will last for decades. This column aims to help you make these consequences good ones.
What should one seek for in a digital librarian? What skills, experience, and qualifications will best help you build a library for the new millennium? There are two main ways to approach this issue, depending upon your perspective.
Skills or traits?
Some managers may prefer to identify the specific skills they require and hire staff with those skills. For example, if Java programming experience were deemed to be important, only candidates who know Java would be considered. However, if you use this strategy you must not only determine which skills are important today, you also must predict those that will remain important in the future.
Instead, it may be more productive to choose staff who can evolve as the needs of the organization change. Change, after all, is the only constant. That Java programmer you just hired may soon be programming in a new language--or an old one. The funny thing about change is that the outcome is rarely obvious before it becomes a reality.
So what personality traits should you seek in staff? Below is my laundry list, but of course no single individual will -- or should -- have all of these qualities. Rather, any candidate for a digital library position should clearly have several of these qualities.
- The capacity to learn constantly and quickly. I cannot make this point strongly enough. It does not matter what they know now. Can they assess a new technology and what it may do (or not do)for your library? Can they stay up-to-date? Can they learn a new technology without formal training? If they can't, they will find it difficult to do the job.
- Flexibility. The staff of your digital library most likely won't be doing the same thing for long. As technologies, protocols, and standards evolve and change, what they do must change with them. Look for someone who thrives on change.
- An innate skepticism. Many technologies are hyped way beyond their capacity. A healthy skepticism about such statements provides a safety net of common sense.
- A propensity to take risks. If you want to invent the future, you must also be aware that sometimes you will fail, and that no failure is complete if you learn from the experience.
- An abiding public service perspective. Any digital library will benefit from having staffers who understand the needs of its users, and who will strive to meet those needs. Many of those currently building digital libraries do not have a public service background, and it often shows in complicated and obtuse interfaces.
- An appreciation of what others bring to the effort and an ability to work with them effectively. Building digital libraries is a team effort. Your staff will need to work well together, often across lines of seniority, rank, and office structure. You need people who can call upon the skills of others wherever they may be, and who will support their colleagues. Anything less is useless hubris.
- Skill at enabling and fostering change. Since change is constant, organizations need staff who can guide it, using judgment and communicating well. They must be able to distinguish between whining and constructive criticism. They should sense when to advocate and when to compromise.
- The capacity and desire to work independently. Most effective professionals will both want and be able to work with little or no supervision. Given a certain set of responsibilities and goals, they can work with creativity, skill, and energy to achieve them. They will chafe under close scrutiny, and be insulted by too much questioning. They will expect their managers to help garner needed resources and stay out of the way. They will want managers to provide advice and guidance, but not motivation.
No specifics needed
By now you may have noticed that this column doesn't mention experience with a particular technology. Believe me, that is the least of your worries. Anyone who exhibits the traits outlined above will be able to pick up whatever skill or experience is deemed necessary.
Also, they will be able to work cooperatively with others under little supervision. They will learn constantly and well. They will hold every technology up to the harsh light of public service and throw out those that don't measure up. People like that will do well by you no matter what the new millennium holds for libraries -- digital or otherwise.