Lessons from Previous Paradigm Shifts

Stephanie Noell, Head Editor, INALJ Texas

Lessons from Previous Paradigm Shifts

stephanienoellInformation professionals tend to be very passionate individuals. We thrive on providing access to information and pointing users to the best possible resources. This enthusiasm can guide us through lengthy, enriching careers filled with paradigm shifts at every level. In an effort to grasp what changes are ahead, I interviewed a couple of my colleagues who have been in the profession through a few paradigm shifts (forgive me, non-librarians, but both of the colleagues I interviewed are librarians, so their experiences may skew towards that particular field): Karen, currently a Special Collections Librarian, who has been working in the information professions for 37 years and Bob, currently the Head of our Library Systems and Technology Department, who has been working in the information professions for 34 years.

I asked them both the same questions to gauge what themes are present throughout our profession. For instance, when I asked them, “Do you have a personal career philosophy?”, both of my colleagues emphasized the service aspect of the field. Bob explained that service was of the utmost importance in librarianship in particular. He admits that our services can be “limited by factors often beyond our control, e.g. availability of adequate skilled staff, availability of adequate funding, etc.  Nonetheless, libraries don’t exist for the benefit of librarians, but rather for the service we provide to the…community.”

Karen takes the golden rule approach to information service:
“I believe librarians, no matter their primary responsibilities, are in a ‘service profession,’ and I believe in giving the same service as I would expect to receive.  I believe that there is both a right to privacy and a right to information, and that a balance that respects the individual can be found.  I believe that librarians must continue to be flexible in the continuingly changing information world, and that our primary objective should always be to help the user find what they need.”

My second question was a two-parter: “What are some of the major industry changes you have witnessed in your career?” and “What are some lessons you learned from these changes?” Both of my colleagues emphasized the technological advancements within libraries in their answers and they both recognized our the print to a electronic transition as being particularly transformational. Specifically, Karen cited the implementation “of the ILS and the various functions we have come to expect”, our “use of barcodes and emergence of RFID for keeping track of materials, and use in inventories”, the transition from generations of typewriters to “the development of word processing” to “the growing capabilities of the personal computer” (that’s right, it ain’t over yet), “(t)he evolution of the ‘World Wide Web’ from NREN and Gophers to graphical display”, as well as the “unmediated keyword searching” these technologies provide reference interviews.

From all of these changes, Karen’s big takeaway was that:
“Change is inevitable and a part of living and working.  What I knew when I graduated as a new librarian was beginning to be out of date six months later when I was offered a position as a librarian.  Libraries, and people working in them, exist within a constantly changing world and must evolve to remain relevant in order to provide information and expected services.  Although it is trite, it is also true that in order to remain relevant we all must continue to learn.”

For Bob, the efficiencies brought on with these technological transitions were first most evident in the back-end of library services “in the traditional functions of acquisitions, cataloging, and fulfillment”. These technological transitions then began making their way to the end user; these “public facing technologies allowed users to search local collections more quickly and with a greater level of recall.” Also, as more content became available in digital formats, libraries required an “even greater application of technology…in order to provide access to new publishing formats.”

What the shifts in librarianship have proven to Bob is that librarians increasingly require:
“Different skill sets and different backgrounds…so many librarians started their educational careers studying the humanities and social sciences as opposed to the STEM disciplines.  The profession is awash with librarians who are ill prepared for a career so highly dependent on technology.  It is critical to the continuance of librarianship that our staff come into the profession with a greater understanding of technology so that services can be developed and supported that ensure the success of our user community.”

My final question to both of my colleagues was “What advice do you wish you had been given at the start of your career?”

Karen pointed out the often political nature of libraries and while: “(y)ou do not have to participate in the politics…you need to know they exist, and you need to know how the game is played.” Knowing when to pick your battles is a huge part of any career (especially one that is as collaborative as librarianship), so a politically savvy individual must be able to analyze a given political environment, whether it be within the library, on-campus, with donors, etc. Karen points out that political savvy “means understanding how decisions are made, and knowing how, or whether or not, you can have any influence.” Once you know where you stand in the equation, you will know what you ought to do next.

Bob recognizes that little of what he learned has come in handy in his career as a librarian, instead he relies on his “undergraduate engineering skills to be competent and successful” and he “would like to have been advised to stay ahead of the curve with regard to emerging technologies so that (he is) not always playing catch up with the evolution. Libraries have an opportunity to be leaders in the education process, but we have to integrate new tools and new technologies into our service profiles, rather than simply responding to technological developments in the aftermath.”

So, what can we all take away from Bob and Karen’s experiences? I think the most important thing to remember is that with all of the technological advancements available, there are an immense number of learning opportunities. Every day there are free webinars, MOOCs, and podcasts being posted for us to consume! If you know next to nothing about STEM fields, take some iTunes U courses! If you feel comfortable in your position, make sure you follow the twitter accounts related to your field, read your journal of choice, and subscribe to organizational listservs! I know this sounds like a lot of information, but even just skimming it comes in handy. You never know when it might come up in an interview, an elevator conversation, in a Q&A after a conference presentation, etc. Being able to anticipate trends makes you stand out in a very good way and if the trend is something you are excited about, then it might help you discover a new career passion!