My new role as an informationist, an upcoming panel talk I’m giving on emerging roles for librarians, some things that I heard while listening online to Purdue University’s Data Curation Profiles Symposium yesterday, and any number of articles, discussions and/or listserv postings I encounter regularly in my profession leave me thinking a great deal about what it takes (or is going to take) to be successful (read, “relevant”) as a librarian in the future. Remember back when you were in elementary school and you took those aptitude tests that were supposed to help you figure out what might be a good profession for you? I can’t remember what mine told me. I do remember that my brother’s results told him that he’d be a good forest ranger. He was really happy with it, too, but his guidance counselor advised that he was too smart for that. Know what he does today with his two degrees from the University of Virginia? He lives out in the boondocks on a farm. Gentleman farmer or well-educated forest ranger, take your pick.
My point in this is that we all have certain traits and certain characteristics. We also have certain areas of interest and certain aptitudes for certain things. For a long time, perhaps since the beginning of the librarian profession, a certain type of person has been drawn to the field. This is not stereotyping, this is fact. Librarians, in general, are not the most extroverted and outgoing people. Sure, some of us are, but in truth, if you survey all of the librarians in the world, you’re gonna find that the overwhelming majority are fairly reserved. We’re also fairly organized. We like rules and order. We like helping people, supporting the work of others, and laying a foundation, often unseen and/or seamless, that allows people of all walks of life to find the information that they need to do whatever it is that they need or want to do in life. It is a most honorable profession and I count myself truly fortunate to call it my own.
More and more, though, librarians face the uncertainty of a future that may or may not need them anymore. You can argue this statement, and truth be told I’d be arguing from my heart that it’s absurd – that in an information age, what the world needs more than anything are librarians (and libraries). But if I pause and argue with my head instead, I can see how and why many claim that we are indeed a dying profession; that it’s only a matter of time before we’re extinct.
What I hear a lot, read a lot, and think a lot about is why this might be. More, I think about what changes do we need to undergo, as a profession, to remake ourselves into one that is without question, relevant today. Is it simply changing our name? If I am an informationist, if I practice knowledge management, if I do the work of a librarian, yet in a different context, am I keeping librarianship – the profession – alive? If a librarian falls in the research lab, does anybody hear?
More related to my current role (and way less of a philosophical quandary… maybe) is the question of what it’s going to take for me to be successful as an informationist. What skills do I need? What traits do I have that work well here? This was the discussion toward the end of yesterday’s symposium and the one I found of most interest. People were asking, “What kind of students do library schools need to be recruiting now?” They were saying things like, “Librarians are not risk-takers. They do not have entrepreneurial spirits. They aren’t natural salespeople.”
And they’re right. By and large, we are not.
While President Obama (or your parents) might tell you that you can grow up to be anything, the truth of the matter is that really … REALLY … only one in a gazillion men (it’s like one in a quadracentenialgazillion women) will ever grow up to be the President. Heck, being President isn’t even a profession. It’s a title. Like informationist.
So where am I going with all of this? As I listen and read and think about the qualities and skills of an informationist, I believe I have them. I believe it’s a pretty good fit. I have a background in research and health sciences (skills). I have experience in organizing information, i.e. being a librarian (skills). But I think it may well be the qualities that I possess, innately and/or environmentally-formed, that are going to bear out as the most significant in my goal to be a good informationist. I am creative, pretty self-confident, and a fairly good communicator. I’m good at being a team player. I’m comfortable speaking my mind in teams, sharing what I know and what I think.
I hope readers don’t take this assessment as bragging, because honestly, I laugh at myself way too much and take myself seriously way too little to really be a braggart. These are just characteristics of me AND of others that I see moving into these less traditional librarian roles. For some of us, the traditional librarian role was maybe one that never fit all that well, but these new opportunities are perfect.
Lots of people go into politics. Not all of them are made to be President. I’m hardly comparing being an informationist or an embedded librarian or a data curation specialist or any other of these emerging roles in our profession, to being President (although I COULD tell you how I’d run the world if I were in charge). I only use it as an example to demonstrate that in every profession there are positions that require a little something different in order to be successful.
As I said earlier, being President is not a profession. The President is just a particular kind of politician with a particular set of skills and qualities. I think that this is what I’m learning so far about being an informationist. I also think it’s a really important thing to pay attention to in terms of helping the profession of librarianship move into the future. We need to pay attention to these other skills and qualities and we need to be actively recruiting people who possess them into our profession. We don’t do this at the expense of others who are made to be wonderful librarians in any of the other, perhaps more traditional, roles. But we need to realize that we need some different people, too.
And finally (seeds for future posts), we need to believe that some qualities CAN actually be taught – in library school, continuing education courses, and professional development opportunities. Creativity is not an inherent trait. We aren’t all going to be able to play the mandolin like Chris Thile, regardless of the number of CE credits we earn in mando lessons. But that’s not to say that there do not exist lessons and exercises that we can practice, just like with the mandolin, that will make us more creative. We can become better communicators. We can practice public speaking. We can learn about sales. Some may take to these better than others and for them we have new roles. (Others, i.e. all of us and our profession as a whole, will benefit from a little more of them, overall.)
Personally, I don’t want to enter the profession of informationist-ism. I like being a librarian. That’s the profession I’m a part of. It’s also the one that I hope to help preserve and enhance, by opening its doors to new roles and the people who will best fit them. I think I’m on my way.