New competencies in libraries

Indeed, we need new competencies in libraries. Some of the new needs are the same as the new citizenship skills: information literacy, guts to live with continuing changes, meeting people from other cultures etc. Often we meet also library versions of these challenges.

Our basic professional skills cover knowing and organising documented information and cultural content, and disseminating it to users. This will be the core know-how in future as well, but it will occur partly in new forms and must be completed with some other abilities.

Internet brings new ways to carry on these skills in practice.We are used to answer questions face to face, we also know how to communicate directly in a physical space. Virtual answering and virtual communication is/are different. Writing correctly is more demanding than speaking. In many cases written answers also remain available on the net, and can be seen afterwards – this means more pressure towards formulating the text. Paradoxally, the questions are often more informal than happens at the information desks. On the other hand, answering over the net apparently gives new possibilities to more introvert colleagues, who can better use their knowledge via this channel.

Internet also offers a lot of information and culture, but this virtual mass is behaving in a new way. It is living and changing actively, moving to new addresses, disappearing and having other characteristics making it difficult to trace and organise. Huge global, regional, national and local professional efforts are needed to get even some grip on this material.

Who is the specialist here?

Doctors complain today that they meet too many patients carrying piles of Internet printouts with them to tell the specialist, what is their disease and which medicine they need. Doctors are not used to share their special knowledge with ordinary people like this. In Nordic libraries we have a similar situation. Our customers are well educated, and often know quite a lot about their topic. This means, that librarians are losing their monopoly to ‘know best’ – quite a controversial matter!

We have had the monopoly of knowledge for centuries, and it is not easy to give it up. Some colleagues react with jealousy, which is not very far-sighted. It might be better to find ways to combine the knowledge of the user and the librarian – one could imagine that this would lead to the best result.We have to re-define our relation both to knowledge and to users, put it into a new frame.

The sensitivity of customer situations seems to grow. To encourage people to ask we should move more around in the library. In Finland we have a question, till now unanswered:What kind of service concept can we create in between the pharmacists and our own shelving library assistants? This appa- rently needs an explanation: In Finnish pharmacies, you cannot stay on for a second without getting contacted by a sales person; at least in our country this is too pushing, we don’t like it. On the other hand, it is internationally recognized in libraries that people are too shy to ask educated librarians behind the desks. Instead, they ask the book replacers who are the least educated persons working in the library. Thus we ask – how to find a working compromise between these service settings?


One cannot live outside networks in this decade. One is forced to take into account many demands coming from outside, often from many directions at the same time.We live in a multidimensional web all the time.

This means that we are forced to be social and communicative, often even speak in several languages.

But we must also have a very clear professional identity and strategy for our own work.We must be able to figure out our own skills in relation to other professional’s skills and learn to create win-win-situations. Otherwise we get lost and used in varying and numerous cooperation projects.

As a part of upgrading networking to a higher level, I can see a need to conceptualize working models and duplicate them to be better used in other libraries. Till now we have mainly learned from each other in meetings and workshops, and by reading articles. However, more developed and systematized methods exist to share best practices.

Editing the collection

In the Tampere City Library we speak about ‘editing the collection’. This means a new approach to the collection work: Our target is an interesting and inspiring stock of materials. Out with dust and zero-clubbers (items never lent)! In the year 2007, we checked out 28% more material than in 2006 to reach this target, and clearly more than we bought in. In spite of this, we did not lose any irrecoverable items of special cultural value.We just took a more critical look at the shelves.

Behind the new approach is the growth of the amount of published literature in Finland. It has duplicated since the 80’s, but our shelves don’t. Also, more ‘read and throw away’ books are published than before. There is no point in keeping them on shelves after the ‘best until’ period. I believe these trends can be recognized in many other countries, too. Even on smaller language areas, we are forced to develop stricter criteria than before to keep the collection fresh and alive. At this point, many librarian hearts are bleeding, but what would be the alternative?

Multicultural library work

A remarkable new challenge is to live and work with people coming from different cultures. Suddenly the beautiful words ‘tolerance’, ‘multi-ethnicity’ and ‘solidarity’ must be put into practice in sharing working shifts with and offering service to immigrants. They have different educational background and culture, their self-awareness is different. To form a new and well-working combination of these elements in local daily working life demands new skills. In most Nordic countries this process has already reached far. There are colleagues with varying ethnical backgrounds working in libraries. Programmes for different user groups have been developed. In Finland we are only apprentices in this field. Fortunately, we can see progress here, too. E.g. the Helsinki region has a well-developed policy on multicultural library work.

Sharing our professional knowledge, learning from others

There are other professions working with aspects of information and content, e.g. teachers, ICT people and journalists. The old story about our profession growing towards professions like teachers and journalists is nowadays a fact, which can be recognized by anybody. But we seem to have more matters to share with journalists and ICT people.

Most ordinary, middleclass people must nowadays know the basics of the professional skills of journalists and ICT people. I’m sure that all readers of this article must now and then write a press release. Also in maintaining the web pages of the library, we use the skills of a journalist or press officer. Further, if one has a computer at home – as most have – one has to run it on a daily basis and be able to clear up ICT messes from time to time.

I would say that our basic skills are the next in queue. Just think about the amount of digital photos on peoples’ PC and phone memories: They need to learn to organise information.

Will our profession survive?

I’m convinced that specialists in finding and organizing information will always be needed. Also the ability to recognize quality content will be more and more appreciated when the amount of material is growing. Google and other search machines have robbed parts of our information searching monopoly, but in my view there is no time when they would pick up for me a good and rejected selection of sources direct to the point.

I would compare the situation to my criteria on the humanity of robots: I admit that robots are equal to people in terms of intelligence as soon as a robot laughs at a joke based on verbal acrobatics.

Tuula Haavisto
Director of Libraries, Tampere, Finland

tuula.haavisto AT

Translated by Turun Täyskäännös

Director of Libraries, Tampere, Finland