I recently received an email from a long-time info pro who was concerned about the viability of her corporate job and asked me for my thoughts on how librarians will use their skills in the future. What I found most interesting was her description of the jobs she thought she was qualified for: taxonomist, records manager, researcher, or librarian. She saw taxonomists getting replaced by Google Search Appliance, records managers suffering the same fate, and researcher and librarian positions going to low-wage countries that offer salaries unacceptable to her.
This got me thinking about the future roles of librarians and information professionals. Just because some organizations do not appreciate libraries or research analysts does not mean that these are not good career paths; it just means that individual librarians need to reposition themselves and emphasize the value they offer to an organization. How can we align ourselves with the revenue-generating roles within the organization? How can we create a niche or a role that our organization may not even realize it needs?
Since our roles are changing, it is critical that we think about what it is that we do that no one else does (or at least no one else does well), and to focus on that. It is far more important for us to create our own jobs rather than relying on finding an existing slot with a familiar job title.
Out of curiosity, I went over to the course catalogs of several of the more forward-thinking graduate programs for information studies to see what kinds of skills they are teaching the next generation of information professionals. I wanted to find out how they describe the information skills they are teaching in order to expand my vision of where information professionals belong. I wanted to try thinking outside the box in terms of what skills we already have, and to imagine how we can repackage those skills to create jobs that address the information needs of organizations.
And what did I find from the school course catalogs? Records managers are responsible for document engineering, information architecture, and organizational information assurance. Information managers are responsible for interface aesthetics. Web managers handle ontology design and interoperability. Reference librarians are involved in assessing information needs, repackaging information, and information transfer.
Instead of identifying ourselves as librarians or information analysts, we can describe ourselves in terms of what we can do that most people can’t. That might be designing information organization systems; finding, analyzing, and synthesizing mission-critical information; or training employees on how to do their own research. There are fewer available positions in traditional librarianship, for sure, but that does not mean that there are fewer positions that use our expertise, skills, and experience.
I recently attended the annual conference of the Special Libraries Association (www.sla.org) and got thinking about how the redefinition of our skill set is going to challenge traditional library associations. Leaving aside the discussion of whether the library associations need to remove the L word from their names, it is going to be difficult to attract new members who are working outside traditional information centers or libraries. If my job title was “Information System Use Director,” would I be drawn to a library association? If not, then this means that we will need to greatly expand our understanding of what an information professional is. Should library organizations recruit within the web designer community? Among IT departments? Within econtent providers and managers? And what will that do to the culture of a library association? If what we have in common is not a library-specific specialization (transportation research, or solo librarianship), what is our common base?
The answer to that lays somewhere in the area of what FreePint.com calls FUMSI (finding, using, managing, and sharing information), and goes beyond what we normally think of as “our” purview. We are responsible for information, in many of its forms and applications. So, when we think of what our next job will look like, we need to imagine all the ways that an organization finds, uses, manages, and shares information. Whew—that could be anything from research analysis to digital rights management, software architecture, database analysis, usability engineering, or intranet management.
I am not betting the farm on the long-term viability of library organizations, but thank goodness there will always be jobs for information professionals, as long as we define ourselves by the value we offer, not the places we have worked in the past.