Core business and core competences in libraries

Today the libraries are facing at least two major challenges. The larger of the two has to do with a gigantic process of change, where Danish libraries have to adapt to functioning as both a physical and a virtual library. The process of change means a completely different organisation and new services which perhaps are unknown to us at the moment. The second challenge is demographic. Within just a few years about 30 percent of the librarians will be leaving the labour market. It is first and foremost in the public libraries and research libraries that members of staff are generally older than in the rest of the labour market. In a very short time the library system will be 1,500 librarians short. The library educations produce – in a good year – about 150 qualified librarians, so we are talking about a massive ‘bloodletting’. It must be said, though, that a recent positive turn in the admittance number of the Danish library educations, partly at The Royal School of Library and Information Science, partly at the recently established library education at the University of Southern Denmark augurs well for an increase in this number in a few years.

This leaves us with the question:What will the future library organisation look like? Do we need academic/librarianship competence in the library of the future?

Growing need for academic labour force

Around the year 1900 Max Weber described the profes- sions and their function in a society, which at that time was undergoing a profound change from agricultural society to industrial and urban society. He emphasized the fact that the professions should endeavour to keep a society together where traditions had become redundant. Today we observe similarly big changes in society where the need for specialist knowledge by no means diminishes.

There has been quite a lot of debate in Denmark about whether the increasing number of academics or ‘acade- mizing’ is a sign of increasing bureaucratisation. Personally, I don’t believe that. The public sector is challenged by the demands for more services from a more and more well-educated population. This requires employees who know how to apply the new technology in order to create better and cheaper access to public services. At the same time employees must deal with evermore complex questions and communicate on the basis of the customer’s or citizen’s needs. Since 2000 about 5,000 new academic jobs have been created annually in both the private and public sector, many of which are related to the development of information technology and not least to the use of IT in new contexts.

The number of academics in the libraries has likewise increased – more and more, particularly MAs in library science and MAs in culture and mediation, have found their way to the libraries.

The new professionals and the academization

We have moved from a collective society to a society where the individual has got far greater economic and personal freedom than ever before. This means that we now have the opportunity to make demands on our own behalf, and that our own life project has moved into the centre to a much larger degree. Where previously the professionals in the public sector pontificated values and attitudes this has now been replaced by debate and dialogue. Today it is a question of making resources available or acting as service provider. You can for example read this in 9 principles for good public service, where it is being emphasized that service must be delivered on the citizen’s premisses. The principles were formulated in 2008 in a collaboration between Danish Regions, the National Association of Local Authorities in Denmark and the State.

This does not mean that the professionals should forget their professional competence – on the contrary. The doctor, who asks his patient what he believes is the matter with him, disregards his own professionalism. The librarian likewise disregards his professional competence, if he asks about the user’s knowledge of library systems. The librarian must activate his knowledge and competence in order to obtain the best possible result.

We need all the innovative power that can be generated in order to successfully deal with the changes which are happening due to new technology, new forms of communi- cation, new forms of dialogue, new organisations, etc. A strong core professionalism must create the vision of the future library service. Targeted and applied research, knowledge and method are essential elements when running and developing libraries, solutions centres, community centres, faculty support centres or whatever designations we choose to apply to the future physical or virtual space, but which must represent the core business in a future library organisation.

Core business and core competences in the library

The most important factor in this development of new library services is that one knows one’s core business and one’s core competences. Core competences are necessary when attempting to develop value-creating and useful services for the citizens. Over the past few years this has typically been accomplished via specific development departments or indeed as part of an innovative culture.

New generations seek answers from the professionals, but also challenge their knowledge and expect a dialogue about the solution of a given problem. At the same time the professionals’ knowledge is seen as a commodity to be sold on the market just like other goods and services. The direct product is today – as opposed to previously – characterized by the user/customer being coproducer. The librarian’s competences should therefore be combined with general, mediatory competences. But that also means that core professionalism must be even sharper.

A library does not compromise professional competence by involving the users as co-producers, whether this happens by e.g. asking the patrons to add subject words to articles or write a review. Many libraries increasingly involve the customer as co-producer and many exciting experiments are going on.

But libraries and librarians are undergoing a development, which cannot be said to be unique, being general for most professions. The meeting with the citizen, the student, the client, the user or the customer is gaining in importance. This is due to the fact that the citizen has become more competent and very often has a ready answer, but at the same time wants to discuss his point of view with a professional. The professional has suddenly become a ‘second opinion’, which can be something of a challenge for the professional’s own self-image.

The subject-specific professional academic must be able to speak to the user and the customer and mediate his core competence in a language they understand. This does not mean that communication and mediation are core compe- tences, but rather that these are necessary in the develop- ment of a modern library. But the raw material stems from the information-scientific competence inherent in the librarians, which will ensure that the library also has a future tomorrow!

Public service production and the new academic professionalism

The libraries are facing major strategic deliberations as to a future library organisation that must be based on other premisses than the ones we observe today. That is why development of an academic tradition and professionalism in the libraries is vital, where new discourses can be nurtured.

It is necessary to introduce the academic professionalism when one has to work systematically with new forms of learning and the public’s interest in reading, citizens’ use of public portals, development of the cultural urban space, digital management and business service to small and medium-sized businesses. Or to move into the more hyper- professional element with citation analyses, benchmarking, digitals rights, research data, management reporting, researcher reporting, data collection. Just to illustrate the diversity present in development and production of library service.

To put it briefly – we need to sustain and develop the core competences in the library – the academic competences or the ones that characterize a librarian – if you like. Both for the sake of the library and the profession, but first and foremost for the sake of the patrons who need to be able to navigate in a new world of knowledge and technology.

Johnny Roj-Larsen, MA
Director The Danish Union of Librarians


Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

MA Director The Danish Union of Librarians