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 They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.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 Digital Librarian Shortage
Recently, both First Lady Laura Bush and the Institute of Museum and Library Services pledged support for librarian recruitment in response to a shortage of library professionals. Nowhere is that shortage more acute than in positions that require a high degree of technical knowledge and experience. Very few librarians, for example, can explain the similarities and differences between ASP and PHP (both methods of creating dynamic web pages) and why you may want to use one or the other. Anyone who has recently tried to recruit knowledgeable staff knows what I mean. It's difficult to find librarians who are conversant with technology and who also are willing to work at the salaries we offer. In order to fill the jobs we have, some organizations have resorted to hiring tech-savvy librarians into a nonlibrarian classification--simply to offer better pay. Libraries are also driven in the other direction--to hire nonlibrarians into positions that may have been originated for librarians. However, tech-savvy persons hired from the corporate sector may find it difficult to adjust to the mission and organizational style of a nonprofit service organization. Also, they lack the professional training and instilled values that come from librarianship training. In the end, neither of these solutions are healthy for our profession. Reversing the trend What we can do is take our professional responsibilities seriously. Would you want to visit a doctor who did not constantly read the medical literature to keep up-to-date? We have no valid excuse for not knowing enough about information technology to do our jobs well. No, all librarians need not know how to code software. But they should know what software is capable of doing, when a program could be easily written to accomplish a task, and what skills someone needs to write one. This kind of knowledge is crucial to good public service. You cannot imagine practical solutions to problems if you are not aware of the universe of possibilities. You won't be able to take user needs and translate them into functional specifications for technical staff unless you understand the underlying technical infrastructure and what it can do. New jobs, new organizations We must recast some of our professional positions to highlight the many technical competencies that we increasingly require and see that they are reclassified to an appropriate salary scale. Then, we should aggressively recruit technologists into the field of librarianship as well as advance those within our ranks who have those skills. Some library schools have begun to meet the challenge of training technically adept professionals. For example, the University of Michigan School of Information offers such courses as "Introduction to XML" and "Usability Methods in Web Site Design." The school also offers a practicum in "digital librarianship." We must create organizations that welcome and foster those who are technologically savvy. But, as Colin Steel and Mechthild Guha point out in "Staffing the Digital Library in the 21st Century," "many of the middle to senior staff in our libraries were brought up in the more constrained environments of the role of the librarian." They may not naturally value the contributions of tech-savvy staff as much as they value book selection and traditional reference service. This may be because we are an old profession. In "The Age Demographics of Academic Librarians," Stanley Wilder found that "librarians, particularly academic librarians, are older than professionals in all but a handful of comparable occupations." Retooling yourself How do you become a digital librarian? For starters, crack a book or two on technical topics. But rather than reading these books from cover to cover, skim them and only read sections that give you a sense of what the technology can do and what associated technology it requires. Look for books that explain concepts rather than nitty-gritty details. Again, you want enough knowledge not to implement a solution yourself but to give guidance to someone who will. Go to workshops and training sessions that provide a high-level view of what a particular technology has to offer, what hardware and software it requires, and sample applications. Find a colleague who knows what you want to know, and ask for some mentoring. Get on an electronic discussion list and ask a question or two. Whatever you can do to expand your technical skills will make you more valuable in your present position and more employable for future ones. __________________________________________________________________ Link List The Age Demographics of Academic Librarians www.arl.org/newsltr/185/agedemo.html IMLS Responds to Librarian Shortage www.imls.gov/whatsnew/prscarch/prsc0801.htm#4 Laura Bush Addresses Nation's Critical Shortage of Librarians www.imls.gov/whatsnew/current/011002-1.htm Library Staffing Considerations in the Age of Technology www.library.ucsb.edu/istl/99-fall/article5.html Staffing the Digital Library in the 21st Century anulib.anu.edu.au/about/steele/digital_library.html University of Michigan Database intel.si.umich.edu/cfdocs/si/courses/course/catNum.cfm