Library professionals amidst change

The notion of change has been a topic of conversation in the library field for some time now; change pertaining to content, collections, services and facilities. Naturally, all of this concerns the people who work in libraries. Library staff has listened to lectures about change, how they should react to it, how they experience change and how things change in the library. Indeed the profession is also changing, whether we want it or not.

In 2009, the average age of the staff in the Oulu Central Library was 48.5. In the next five years, 27 people will retire; that is 24.3 % of the entire staff. This is a rather normal situation for most of the libraries in Finland, as the Baby Boom generation will be retiring from the public sector around the same time. Although the economic downswing has resulted in many changes in the municipal labour market situation, job positions will need to be filled in the future as well, albeit the number of those positions will probably decrease.

What types of professionals will libraries need in the future? The image of a steadfast library professional still holds strong, although it too is in the process of change. An interest in literature and reading is one very favourable, and desirable characteristic for library professionals, but it is not enough. However, for many people, it still is one motive for entering into the library field, which often surfaces during the recruitment process.

Today’s library professionals are required to have not only an interest in literature, but they also need to be creative, possess professional flexibility, knowledge of literature, social skills, a broad range of general knowledge, skills in teamwork, computer skills (including social media), and the ability to adjust to change. They should also have some degree of extroversion and the desire and skills to act and perform or make presentations. Other important attributes nowadays also include knowledge of the financial sector and the ability to create various types of agreements, etc. using software.

Being able to teach people how to look for information in an interesting way is also an ability that requires more than just walking through the library and surfing through homepages from one link to the other. Studies pertaining to pedagogy and the guidance and empowerment of youth would also be useful for library professionals. Likewise, being able to introduce and market library materials using the latest equipment as well as the ability to write for various media about the material in question, knowledge of other cultures, and skills in communication and languages to use in a globalizing environment are also skills needed in today’s libraries.

I must admit, it all sounds rather demanding when considering the level of the wages in the field. This is an issue that is sometimes problematic. For example, there are about 100 job applicants for each professional position in the library in Oulu (excluding management positions). However, there are only a few among the 100 applicants who fulfil the qualifications, although they may be formally qualified otherwise. Municipalities that offer training in the library field have a better chance of finding the desired types of applicants than municipalities where such training is not available. However, despite the low rate of wages for municipal jobs, they are becoming more and more valued because, for example, the growing unemployment of young people in Finland is a serious threat. Municipalities are still good employers, and it can be said that, to a young person, obtaining a permanent job is like winning the lottery. Young people, and why not older ones, who are used to working in temporary positions, value permanent jobs despite the low wages.

In the future, the library will employ an increasing number of professionals whose skills are related to youth and social work or the production of other services in the city or municipality, for example. Nowadays, libraries often house facilities where young people can spend time, information service desks where people can obtain advice and guidance about the community, or facilities for community gatherings to meet other people, read the newspaper, have cup of coffee, etc. Offering these types of activities in the library engenders fluctuation in the boundaries between professions and library staff must learn or have the pleasure of learning new ways of working and even of learning the issues involved in a different profession. These types of multi-professional workplaces also provide an opportunity for representatives of other professions to learn the tasks carried out in libraries. Traditional job descriptions will change, and this is an area on which training must concentrate. Dialogue concerning the changes in library professions should take place between employers and educational institutions more often.

The principle substance of libraries will also change. Smaller libraries, which are profiled toward a certain type of patron group or area, will emerge. This type of development is already evident in some municipalities in Finland. Library 10 in conjunction with theHelsinki City Library and Entresse, which is a part of the library in Espoo, are good examples of well-profiled libraries. The boundaries between school libraries and public libraries will also fade; the Ritaharju combo-library in Oulu, which just opened its doors, is a good example. It also merged administratively. The information specialist there is employed by both the school and the library and in this way crosses professional boundaries. The library’s operations concept has been planned together with the school. These types of solutions once again pose challenges to library professions. In the future, there will no longer be just one job description for librarians or library clerks; rather, each job description will be tailored personally according to the duties in question and with consideration to the person’s skills and characteristics. Recruitment has become a challenging endeavour and will become increasingly challenging in the future as well.

The introduction of automation in libraries has also changed library professions. The borrowing, and nowadays returning of material, is self-service. Next, material reservations will be made self-service. Patrons already renew their loans and pay their fees online; where then is a library clerk needed, for example? The professions of library clerks and librarians are merging and no longer will as much staff be needed to do routine work. In the future, the increase of online material will reduce the amount of physical loans, something that is already evident. For example, loans of music material in libraries have steadily decreased. The organisational structures in libraries and municipalities and the different regulations and restrictions influencing permanent job posts and duties make it difficult to answer to the need to renew library staff. There should be courage enough to take the step to change job titles and reform the structure of the staff. For example, publicist, marketing manager, events services producer, systems specialist, development manager, project planner or manager or coordinator, electronic services specialist, and content specialist would be necessary duties in libraries. Of course, the titles as such have no meaning, but keeping the old librarian and library clerk titles may have a confining effect and prevent the expansion of job descriptions to meet today’s needs. Once again, it is a question of wages and training, the level and content of which should meet the needs of employers.

The concept of pro-action has reached the library as well. Hopefully the times when the staff sat behind their desk staring at the computer doing ‘their own work’ while patrons humbly apologized for disturbing them are behind us, and part of the history of the library. Library professionals need to come out from behind their desk, or at least the desks should be lowered and converted into electronic terminals to make it as easy as possible for patrons to approach members of staff to ask questions when needed. There are numerous on-going customer-service projects in Finland, which strive to encourage staff to come out from behind the barricade and advise patrons as they browse through the shelves and in other areas where communicating with others is easy. The material in the library needs to be marketed, and who would be better at it than a library professional.

Library management is also faced with challenges – a crystal ball and the gift of foreseeing the future would be a welcome perk in the director’s tool arsenal, but there is hardly training available for those types of things. The aging and retirement of the staff, together with a weakening municipal economy, fluctuating costs, municipal mergers, and a decrease in the amount of loans are just a few of the challenges directors must deal with. Good management is the sum total of many things, and not just anyone is suitable for the position. Different trends in management theory come and go, but with a compassio- nate, people-friendly yet assertive approach and a knack for cost calculation, identifying worldly phenomena and lobbying, one can get quite far.

Pirkko Lindberg
Library Director
Oulu City and Provincial Library

pirkko.lindberg AT

Translated by Turun Täyskäännös

Library Director Oulu City and Provincial Library