We say we are cutting edge…but are we?


Recently, I spoke at the NJLA annual conference on 21st century library titles. It was a panel discussion and the premise was  to introduce and discuss “cutting edge” librarian titles of the future!!

I was asked to presented my library’s two newest titles “Circulation Reengineering Project Leader” and “Innovation Catalyst Librarian”. The other panelist actually held the positions they were presenting. But as our people were just getting started in their new roles, I presented them.
I was very excited to discuss these new positions and get input! Our Circulation Reengineering Project Leader is a 12 month contract position created to infuse our Circulation Department with a more “Retail-like” customer service tone and revamp our training based on best-practices from a retail environment! The goal: to up-level our front line customer service and training program.  Our Innovation Catalyst Librarian position is even MORE exciting!! Here is a blurb from the position ad:
“The Trenton Free Public Library is in search of a passionate, creative, type-A professional who will be instrumental in helping lead our organization into significant and meaningful Change!!  Our Library is poised to leap into the future and we are looking for someone to assist.  We are not interested in snail paced incremental change- but rather overhauling everything from policy to staff training, from technology to programming and more immediately.
This position is a rare opportunity to shape a dream job!   We are NOT looking for someone to run our Facebook page and Tweet; but rather an individual who is focused on the future.  We want to create an environment where you won’t just advise us on the next ‘big thing’— with only your own vision as the limit-  we want you to CREATE the next big thing!
The successful candidate will, with a great deal of autonomy, work directly for the Library Director. They will engage in all aspect of professional Librarianship.  They will work in all areas of the Library so as to be versed in where and what improvements and change are needed with an eye always on innovation.  They will assist other Librarians in pulling together divergent areas of the Library’s services to create cohesion and thus improve our performance.  They will take the lead on grant applications to assist in the funding of  innovative services and opportunities.
The Librarian must have strong leadership skills, passion, and a clear vision of 21st Century Librarianship and Library Services in all aspects of Library Service. “
I arrived at conference! I was ready to be energized and inspired!!
Going first, I gave a brief intro of our titles and sat back to be awed as everyone else did the same.
Next up: “Digital Librarian”
Then:  “Emerging Technologies Librarian”
And rounding out the line-up:  “Acquisitions and Emerging Technology Librarian”
Um..ok. Hmmm…
I thought to myself “Maybe there is more. Just wait”. So we trudged through the descriptions of their positions.
“Manage our digital services”
and “Training the staff in new technology”
finally “Recommending new technology “
Um…ok. Hmmm…
So there I sat. I was so disappointed!! I was ready to be WOWed!!  The panel had been billed as the latest and greatest new types of librarian jobs.  Attendees were prepped to come and discover what skills were necessary to successfully apply to these “positions of the future!!”
Emerging technologies?  Digital librarian?

Now maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m being too harsh. But these are not new titles.

And as I sat there heartily crushed and disappointed. Was this the best we had..? Was this our profession at its most cutting edge??  I realize that my true disappointment was not in the panel- the speakers were all wonderful and engaged and passionate!  The source of my disappointment is that it appears that once again, as a profession we are lulling. Remember the paradigm shift? Libraries without walls!! No Ssssh-ing!!!  New ways of serving our public!! That was amazing! And that went on for what….20 years?  Why? Was it that our patrons were so to acclimate?  Was it that Library Boards were slow to embrace the new trends? Or was it that the Librarians were slow to implement?
Or- what I fear the most- That we embraced the shift and then said “TA-DA!!!” and sat for years feeling satisfied with our progress and “cutting-edge-bad-self”!!!! Rather than driving forward into the next big- thing…the next paradigm shift…we rested…regrouped…basked in the glow of our successful shift.
And the world moved on. Bigger, faster, more, digital, content, apps, smart-things, iThings…
And we watched.
And, when once again the shift was logical and apparent and….safe…we shifted!  Emerging technologies, digital content, bigger, faster, more… YIPEE!!! We are once again enjoying our “cutting-edge-bad-self” image.
And we are watching…
If libraries were businesses we would be out of business. We move so slow!!  We wait and watch. When something is tried and true by the typical handful of Library risk takers (we all know them- like LAPL and their Career Online High School program. GO LAPL!!! The David Lee King’s, etc) THEN we all jump safely on.
Simple fact: If it’s safe it isn’t cutting edge!!! We must be risk takers. It is how we will stay vital and important to people’s everyday lives!
We can do it!!

9 Comments

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9 responses to “We say we are cutting edge…but are we?

  1. Libraries will never be cutting edge when you have Librarians that don’t want to learn technology yet they have a Master’s Degree, or if you have a technology degree and a Bachelor’s in Library Science but can’t be a Librarian because you don’t have a Masters. Yet that’s the amazing thing about the profession you can have a degree but you can’t be what you want to be all because you need a piece of paper that says you now are Librarian material whether you are tech savvy or not. Libraries will never be cutting edge technology stuff with that thinking. Snobbery doesn’t work in every profession.

    • Kimberly Matthews

      This blog has looked deeply at the issues around the MLS and what it looks like from the certification to implementation within our profession. And I personally believe the MLS Librarian will always play a critical role in the provision of quality Library service. I also believe that education and experience play different yet equally important roles in our organizations. We need both.
      That said, I also believe that the 21st Century library must bring many different skills, educations, specialties and experiences to the table. This variety allows for new perspectives and creates the chemistry for greater innovation. I myself am committed to the infusion of “appropriate” business principles into our library world. (more on this later in other posts) To this end, I acquired an MBA to compliment my MLS.
      However, I do believe, at the end of the day…it should be an MLS at the helm.

      • If anyone applied an MBA or a MPA to the position of Library Director they would see the need for Bachelor’s at the entry level or as a Digital Librarian. When you have Librarians training patrons to use the same OPAC the Librarian uses, the relevance of the Masters is diminished. Any student with a Bachelor degree in Library Science would have had to find their own sources for their coursework. So they already know how to do that, they have more experience with recent digital technology as much as four years of it. Finally what every graduate student has told me is that getting an MLS is just taking the same courses over while adding the tech courses, so there paying twice to prove they already know the theory.
        Besides the ALA headquarters doesn’t even require a Masters for all their position in their offices in Chicago, they want to go cheap and save money. The publishers will soon pull the plug on printing books to get rid of union printers and those facilities, they will stop outsourcing the printing to foreign countries where they will use cheap labor. They will then grant everyone a license to print their own books on their printers with their ink if someone has to have a hard copy to hold in their hands. The hard copy will have watermarks so you can’t reproduce it. They have it all thought out. So the circulation systems everyone is buying will be obsolete and the new digital librarian will reign, you might as well start hiring them now. Libraries won’t have a say in it, publishers will. It’s just like the closing of a movie theater because they now can’t make the mandated change to digital equipment which is costly. The same will happen to libraries. Archivists will be safe though, books will be rare collections gathering dust. Have you bought a CD, DVD lately or do you downloaded it. Google the phrase “The Internet of Things” and you suddenly get the big picture which will change everything. Call the people at Cisco Systems and they will tell you, what libraries!

        • Anonymous

          So, are you saying there’s no need for even BLS librarians because there won’t be any libraries as we knew them yesterday? Not even places like a free digital resource center?

          • There will be a need for Digital Librarians period, regardless of the piece of paper you are carrying, your skill will show. I see many Master Degree Librarians with no technical knowledge just hanging on waiting to retire. The problem is that I see very little entrepreneurial spirit in the libraries I visit, largely because they are secure in the fact that their paycheck comes from a steady flow of tax dollars. If an MBA or MPA was required for a Library Director they would say how can we be self sufficient without leaning on the taxpayers. It’s time to make it on our own with revenue generating ideas and get off the non for profit meal ticket. That new approach will save libraries as the MBA led libraries will find a way to keep libraries from being extinct.

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  3. Complacency is a problem. We have an unofficial mantra, “the status quo is there is no status quo” as a reminder that we cannot afford to become self-satisfied or falsely secure in our status as a “community asset.” Despite lip service to the contrary, there is a stigma attached to making mistakes that inhibits us from experimenting with some dynamic changes. Sometimes we confuse change with impulsive behavior devoid of analysis and preparation. There are all sorts of inhibitors to confront as libraries as they try to define their roles and contemplate the future. It requires a profound shift in thinking and a firm conviction that the status quo is temporary.

    • As usual, I agree with you Bob. When people are uncertain about the future, it’s easy to stick with what you know rather than venture out into that uncertainty and make a mistake. That’s why “risk taking” is such a valuable characteristic in a library director, and an understanding board is a huge asset.

    • I would say you are on the right track, fix that first, then think about a new catalyst for the future. An MBA led Library system that has a hybrid for profit and non for profit structure. The current structure is too limiting as far as looking for opportunities to survive.

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