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Wednesday, May 09, 2012

How Can We Ensure the Future of Libraries?

I haven't been blogging much lately (sorry!), but I have been writing a lot on LinkedIn. I got caught up in a powerful discussion in the group for CILIP, the U.K's Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. Here's the question that started the online discussion:  

What are the top 5 things we can all do to ensure the integrity and future of the profession?

This seemed awfully important, so I thought about it for a bit, then chimed in. Here's what I wrote:
 I'm going to be bold here... 
Things that I think apply to any type of library, in no particular order:

* We need to start putting the right people in front of the public. Employees who appear un-approachable, stodgy, un-techy, poorly dressed, etc. simply cannot be the ones we put at the busiest spots. We're not helping ourselves here. Stereotypical, old-fashioned-looking, ladies, I-hate-this-job part-timers, and ill-trained student workers should not be "the face of the library" to everyone who enters. Frontline staff need to be our BEST staff. No wonder the public doesn't see us as savvy information experts. 

* As [a previous commenter] said, Promote, promote, promote! Have marketing plans & strategic communication plans, train all staff on them, and stick to them. We need to get our vital messages out effectively in order to be taken seriously. 

* Update the curriculum at library schools. Students need to learn about true marketing, customer service, grant-writing, business management, and technology. I hear too often the new grads get their first jobs and find that their theoretical courses have in no way prepared them to do what's necessary in real libraries. 

* Ask people what they need / what problems they have to solve, then develop / give them the tools they need. We absolutely cannot continue to push out what we think people need / want; we have to be serving their actual needs. The only way to know what those are is to engage the community, become trusted, find out what they need, and deliver it. 

* Stop being reactive and start being proactive. Look toward the future, get good data, plan for it, get ahead of the curve. How many things have librarians looked at after the fact (Google's simple search, book covers on, atypical lending schemes) and said, "Drat, why didn't WE think of that?"

I'll admit, I was a little worried when I posted that, wondering how many people would rise up against my statements. As it turned  out, nobody did. In fact, my post got 15 Likes (by far the most of any of the 30 posts in the thread)!

Many of the other comments mentioned marketing or promotion in some form. If you want to read the thread, you'll need to request to join the CILIP group. (Instructions from the group managers: If you have other people in your network who might like to join the CILIP group, this is the link that can be clicked to request membership: 

So, now, I put the question out to all of you: What do YOU think are the 5 most important things we can do to ensure the future of librarianship?? The answers are vital to our survival.


Anonymous said...

Hello I just wanted to say a few things after reading this via UKPling's news roundup.

I think it's unfair to use 'Stereotypical, old-fashioned-looking, ladies' as an example of the type of people you don't want on the front-line. When I read it, it feels like you're using 'old-fashioned' as a euphemism for old ladies. And just because someone is dressed old-fashioned (and what do you mean by old-fashioned, since old-fashioned can be hipster in fashion nowadays). Are you saying that if they had the right skill-set, they shouldn't be in front facing job if their dress sense isn't up to scratch?

I also want to comment on being smartly dressed well when you're front line staff and doing a lot of shelving, reaching up and reaching down, then wearing comfy clothes makes the job a lot easier. Front line staff can be doing quite physical work, and I would say for me, a smart shirt can be quite constricting.

Those things aside, I would say I generally agree with your points.

When it comes to getting good people in the front line, I think it's about having people who have people skills, and making sure that you have an up to date job description when hiring people.

Libraries should also spend money on training, to update staff skills, if the job role has changed from when a person was hired.

I also believe that those at the top of the organisations should probably also 'get with it' when it comes to new media and new tech.


Importantly, managers need to stop thinking short term, don't just concentrate on cutting numbers of staff and saving money, and start being visionaries.

FIGHT TO SAVE LIBRARIES, not quietly dismantle it piece by piece. I keep hearing the phrase libraries are being 'hollowed out' and I feel that is true in my own personal experience.

Valuing your staff members is essential.

I can see what poor communication can do, and know how staff member react and behave when they feel as if they're not appreciated, or if those in charge aren't really listening.

Libraries are as good as the the people who work there, and if staff aren't happy, it is bound to affect their relationship with the organisation, and maybe also with the customers.


That's my pennies worth. Reading this has helped me to clarify what I think, and hopefully I can take some of that forward when I go for the ACE workshop.


~Kathy Dempsey said...

Ka-Ming, you are a very astute reader. I did, in fact, struggle with my description of "stereotypical, old-fashioned-looking ladies" when I wrote it. In a way, I did mean "old ladies," yet not all older women look old-fashioned or fit the librarian stereotype (stern face, blouse buttoned up to the neck, glasses, hair bun). I did not, however, mean "old / hipster" or "retro" in terms of clothing. I was trying to describe people who fit the public's outdated notions of "what a librarian looks like."
(BTW, I love this stereotype-fighting site:

And yes, I do believe that a person's skill set is not all that matters. Appearance matters too, when you look at it from the customers' point of view. You could be the smartest, most high-tech person on staff, but if you are wearing something that makes you look old, unprofessional, and out-dated, when a patron needs help, will he or she view you as an expert? Will they approach you with questions, or keep struggling on their own, or look for someone who appears more savvy? (I realize that "appears more savvy" will differ for each individual and is impossible to pin down. I'm just trying to show the importance of users' perceptions.)

I realize, and agree, that not all "smart clothing" is suitable for physical work. When I was working desk shifts + shelving, I'd manage to find clothes that stretched, but were still nice-looking. Some libraries let workers wear jeans or twill pants along with library t-shirts. There are ways to look good and be comfortable and mobile.

What was in the back of my mind as I wrote that was what we in the US joke about as being the stereotypical "uniform" of older public librarians: "denim skirts and cat shirts." For us it conjures up images of old ladies who live in old houses with 50 cats. And while those ladies could well be intelligent and delightful, the connotation this image has built over the years is a negative one.

So what that post boiled down to is this: Don't dress like a stereotypical, hermit-cat-lady while working the front desk / main customer service area and expect visitors to look upon you as a very approachable, incredibly smart, super-professional expert with multiple degrees. Consider how a stranger might assess your skills according to your appearance. It's not right for them to judge, but they do; it's human nature.

Finally, I agree with your other points: We need to hire good people, then invest in keeping their skills up to date, including tech skills of directors and other admins as they age. Library degrees from 20 years ago (even 10!) don't cut it in today's info centers. Any library is only as good as its staff, so we need to keep them happy, trained, and enthused.

Gord Ripley said...


Actually, I don't think there is anything we can do that will 'save' libraries, at least as we know them. They will probably be changing beyond recognition in the relatively near future, and it is possible that librarians will not be needed on the voyage.

I'm a Systems Librarian with thirty years experience. My reading and thinking to date have left me feeling very pessimistic about our chances for survival as a profession. Most librarians simply do not have the skills to do the kind of work required in the digital age, in libraries where 'books' are of secondary importance. Directors, by and large, are similarly ill-equipped ... and library schools staffed by librarians are in no position to help.

What I see in my own library is a kind of creeping paralysis, which I expect is typical: professionals coasting, librarians putting in time, English majors playing at being webmasters, ex-teachers grousing at students, inertia endemic. And meanwhile, the real work of the library is being carried on by Google.

We cannot prolong the library of the present by procastinating or evolving or by protecting the 'profession'. Rather we should be helping a new one to be born, but I don't see that happening.