Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current #citylis students.
Right before reading week, #citylis was lucky to have a visit from Nick Poole, CEO of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) in our Libraries and Publishing course. His presentation, “Designing a C21st Professional Association for the Library & Information Professions,” provided a great framework for everyone in the #CityLis program to think about our professional selves as we reach the midway point of our course. More importantly, it introduced several vital points that we as a professional body must address if we’re to thrive in the coming years.
It’s no secret that the library and information field has been under attack, and I won’t go into detail here. The ‘death of the library’ is a story I’m rather sick of hearing, but to sum it up broadly: Library budgets have been slashed. Amateurs are taking over from professionals. The (public idea of a) library is about to go the way of the dodo.
Of course, this is not true. In fact, LIS professionals have continued to create value for those communities and businesses that have them. Here’s a little proof: have a look at this 2011 study showing the value of libraries for research & researchers. Or, if public libraries are more your interest, check out this library in Columbus, Ohio, and their innovations that include adult literacy programs, financial literacy, and prep for young children to help them get ready for kindergarten.
Simultaneously, the meaning of a ‘library’ and an ‘information professional’ is changing rapidly. As Nick Poole said, “In the future, librarianship, information and knowledge management are less and less likely to happen in a place called a ‘library’…This is a strength, not a weakness.” We should keep this in mind when facing new questions arising from our current Information Age. For instance, can the internet be archived?
And as you all know, some of our roles are steady as well as silent. Nick Poole wrote this article for CILIP on the role of libraries in times of crisis. I have some personal experience with this, having worked at a public library through several hurricanes and blizzards back in New Jersey that left most of my town without power (including the infamous Hurricane Sandy). The library’s role as community center—a place to be warm, to see neighbors and get news and charge your phones and, oh yes, this is where those old books come in handy when your kindle has died—is a vital one that persists despite (or perhaps because of) changes in technology.
We know all this—perhaps, we’ll get to the dissenters shortly—but the public seems to think we’re a bunch of glasses-wearing, book-hugging wastes of space. Our profession has a major PR problem, which is bolstered by a lack of direction in our professional community. In his talk, Nick Poole pointed out just how varied our profession is. CILIP, for instance, has 20 different sectors, ranging from Government and Armed Forces to Law to Industry (CILIP.org.uk).
To deal with these problems, Nick Poole explained, CILIP recently launched Shape the Future, an “…open, collaborative project to develop CILIP’s strategy to 2020” (CILIP.org.uk). After their initial consultation phase, they determined 4 priorities that they will focus on for the coming years. These are:
- Advocating for library & information skills & professional ethics
- Developing the library and information workforce for the future
- Delivering excellent member services
- Investing in innovation, standards and improvement
These are common sense, clear guidelines that can help shape our profession’s track in the years to come. There’s an emphasis on new and adaptive technologies, as well as improving our standards. Nick Poole delved into them during his talk, expanding on what they meant as well as pointing out some of the more specific issues facing our profession.
One striking note from Poole’s talk, growing out of point one, was the discord that comes from within our own ranks and is hurting us professionally. He highlighted a growing voice in LIS- one that is dissatisfied with rapid-fire changes in technology, angry at the way that libraries and their role in society are evolving, and infuriated at the loss of status that we seem to have in the eyes of the public and those who make decisions about our budgets.
He pointed out that these angry voices are doing more harm than good by fueling the public’s negative perceptions of us, and refusing to embrace new technologies. In other words, LIS “…has a great capacity for self-harm” (@ernestopriego). We cannot regain our status in the public’s (and thus politician’s) eyes if we ourselves are perpetuating an outdated or negative narrative.
Poole’s conclusion? That we must come together as a cohesive professional body, and develop a positive internal voice that can then be projected outwards.
Which brings us to another of Poole’s points: our need to celebrate ourselves. In general, we are a modest profession disinclined to bragging about our merits and our achievements. This is worsened by the fact that so much of the good we do is not quantifiable.
As Poole said during the presentation, “Our role is to help people help themselves.” The boy who steps into a library at the age of 14 and becomes an entrepreneur at 24 cannot measure how much of his success that first library visit represented. Likewise, the lawyers who win cases are lauded; but how do we measure how much of that win is due to the legal librarian who helped them to do their research? Or designed a digital catalogue that improved search and discovery? We need to learn to measure ourselves, to brag about what we do.
Our narrative must become, “We have value, and here’s why it’s necessary to fund us,” rather than, “We have value, obviously, now stop slashing our budgets.”
I was particularly struck when Poole suggested that people might feel ashamed of talking about their success because their colleagues are not doing well. In a profession where so many are losing their jobs, how can you brag about how well you’re doing? And yet that is precisely what we must do if we are to survive.
Poole also brought up the question of diversity in LIS. Mainly, why do our employment statistics differ so much from our population statistics?
To illustrate this point, he highlighted that 97% of our workforce are white, as compared to 88% of the overall UK workforce.
Additionally, he pointed out that the general library and information workforce is 79% female and 21% male.
Yet 47% of our top earners are male.
Poole explained that this is another focus for CILIP in the coming years. Why do we have these gaps in diversity? Why is the general field dominated by women, and yet 50% of those positions with high salaries go to men? Are these statistics due to false or over/underreporting, or do they reflect a real and worrying gap?
CILIP will be addressing these concerns, undertaking research to discover the why of them, and then hopefully find a strategy to make our professional body better reflect reality.
Overall, if there was one major takeaway from Nick Poole’s talk, I would say it is this: we librarians and information professionals, custodians of books and digital knowledge, have somehow lost control of our own story. It is time to re-write that story, and to tell it to the world. This will be difficult. We will need to adjust to the constant state of technical flux that is now the norm in modern society. We must do this without losing our core values, our commitment to excellent service, and our need to preserve the past. Luckily, CILIP seems ready and able to lead us into this exciting future, and in doing so fulfill its goal for 2020:
“to put library and information skills at the heart of a democratic, equal and prosperous information society” (CILIP)
CILIP. “Strategic plan 2016-2020”. Last updated January 27, 2016. http://www.cilip.org.uk/about/projects-reviews/strategic-plan-2016-2020
Priego, Ernesto (@ernestopriego). “.@nickpoole1: The LIS sector ‘has a great capacity for self-harm’ #INM380 #citylis.” 26 Feb 2016. 6:49 AM. Tweet.
Hannah Kollef is on Twitter @BraveWorldGirl.