Pushing back and branching out


I’ve just finished reading an editorial by Wendi Arant-Kasper and Wyoma vanDuinkerken from Texas A&M University from the Journal of Academic Librarianship called “Other duties as assigned: internal consultants in academic libraries”. (DOI: 10.1016/j.acalib.2013.10.015) and it got me thinking about something that has been bugging me on and off for the past few months. Librarians can be seen as a very traditional role type with a very specific set of skills. This perception is often not helped by some of the current professional qualification course material that is out there on offer.

I wrote a piece over at the new #UKAnthroLib blog (that I co-edit/admin) about an enthography seminar that I attended in London. Some of the speakers were trained anthropologists and not librarians at all. There were a few comments that alluded to the fact that this was a good thing and allowed some element of separation and special skill sets to be applied to the library environment. This triggered a few memories that I have had with various external consultants over the past year or so that have either been working for my institution (University of Cambridge) or in other capacities, where the idea of someone NOT being a librarian and being trained in other fields was a good thing.

While I am not criticising these people for having these perfectly valid viewpoints, I can’t help but feel that we’re missing something crucial here. I am a UX Librarian. I have zero training in anything UX-related but I am currently working towards carrying out some ethnographic-based research as part of my role. While I do not have an anthropological background, I have carried out research as part of my professional librarianship MSc and have other experience that is directly transferable. Plus, with a bit of CPD training, such as a recent focus group training session that I went to led by the excellent Jo Alcock, I don’t see any reason why librarians can’t get proactive with branching out into different areas and really pushing against the limitations set by the more traditional aspects of their roles.

There is always a place for external consultants but we librarians have so much to offer as well, we just need to both push for it and be supported by our institutions to fully develop skills that many of us already have, we just haven’t had a chance to see how they can be adapted to research. A lot of the topic of doing research as librarians has already been covered on this blog when I wrote a post about a session run by Emma Coonan and Jane Secker some time ago, but doing ethnographic work (as one example) goes beyond this. Yes it would be great for people to write up their research for the purposes of knowledge sharing, but that’s not necessarily what I’m getting at.

The journal article I mentioned at the start of this post quotes another paper:

“A profession that inherently believes that it is a “public good” does not feel the need to demonstrate outcomes and articulate impact. There is a deeply held and tacit assumption that the “good” is widely recognized and the value of library service is universally appreciated. In the current environment of competition and of questioning every assumption, this deeply held value results in resistance to change and resistance to continuous assessment.” (Lakos & Phipps, 2004, 350)

This continuous assessment should be taken on by the profession itself and we should empower ourselves as professionals to push back against the potential restrictions posed by competition and budget constraints by using non-librarian-y tools to gather observational data and then present that data in a cohesive format to our various managerial entities in a way that demonstrates what we’ve known all along: we have value. Our services are valued and we have a lot more to offer past traditional collections and loans.

These points are echoed by Arant-Kasper and vanDuinkerken with the explanation that librarians can act as “internal consultants”, with patrons acting as the client. They also list the various roles that librarians often play but can often be overlooked: Advocate, Marketing Expert, Instructor, Storyteller, Information Specialist, Technical Expert, Project Manager, Collection Developer, Budget Analyst, Collection Manager, Administrator…and so on. It is noted that many of these extra roles can fall under the very ambigious “other duties as assigned”, a fact that many of us know all too well.

Moving on with this theme, how many of the following characterstics do you recognise as being a part of how you carry out your day-to-day work?:

  • Most of their work is project-based;
  • The situations and projects with which they are involved are critical and often unpleasant;
  • They are responsible for filling in when someone leaves or cleaning up a problem;
  • They are responsible for kicking off a new initiative;
  • Once the situation or problem is resolved or the new service or system implemented, it is handed off to someone else to maintain;
  • They act as a facilitator, providing the balance between management and the front lines or between other groups;
  • They are agents of change rather than reacting to change: this may mean being instrumental in the strategic planning process or pushing the envelope with new trends and technologies.

I see a lot of these things as a very real part of my day-to-day work and responsibilities. I’m only not sure about the “unpleasant” aspect…I would describe it as more “challenging” or “difficult” at times.

Of course, many of these responsibilities are all too often a real part of librarians’ work and this all feeds back into my original purpose of this post. We are undertaking so many of these extra projects and having to be hugely flexible in our work, do we always necessarily need to outsource to external consultants when a lot of what we need to happen can be handled by existing staff? Sure we’re always pushed for time or uncertain about taking on extra work, but is that ever going to change? We work in a time precious, under-funded and sometimes poorly respected profession so let’s kick back with doing new and unusual work that people won’t expect and that will serve our overall needs and purposes in the long run.

External consultants are valuable and are sometimes greatly needed to bring much needed perspective when we can’t see the wood for the trees but we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves. We can do stuff too and we should seek out alternative training opportunities that will bolster us as we push ahead with new and exciting initiatives that will not only revolutionise our own workplaces but potentially the librarian profession as a whole. Some of you are already doing this and this is a good start.

Image credit: Jenny Downing via Flickr CC
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