“The never ending story” – librarians in new roles

…very few librarians will be able to get by with just a good borrower-librarian dialogue…
In many libraries, the ‘new’ role of the librarian is not so very new anymore. More and more pages of the script are being studied and rehearsed, but just as the role is about to be mastered, a new act is added in the story of the future role of the librarian, so perhaps the play might well be called “The never ending story?”

The libraries in the municipality of Fredericia primarily serve the municipality’s about 50,000 inhabitants. By far the greatest number are served by Fredericia Public Library which is also the main library for five small branches. The staff consists of 42 FTE and the total opening hours per week are 79 distributed on every day of the week during the winter half year, but we are closed on Sundays during the summer half year.

In our library, like in any other library, we feel that both our tasks and the demands levelled at us are undergoing fundamental change. The attitude of times gone by that “knowledge equals power” has been replaced by an understanding that the more knowledge is shared, the more it grows. This means that libraries – and consequently librarians – are sharing out their knowledge. Not just the knowledge available in the library, but also the librarian’s personal knowledge. ‘Tips and tricks’ are in the offing, and it is possible to be instructed in traditional librarian capabilities: Searching and estimating information.

The librarians’ competencies are more or less the same as before, but the tools employed to solve the tasks have changed from printed to digital media and the frames within which the core competencies are used have been completely obliterated – it does not matter whether the librarian in physically present when the users put their reference questions to the net librarian – the quality of the answer is expected to be invariably high.

At Fredericia Library we have several years experience of tuition, both of the ordinary borrower, of the municipality’s school librarians and other public servants. Over the past few years we have also been working consciously with the development of services that have to be paid for, particularly when it comes to business and industry where we have built up quite a store of experiences. These are to a great extent associated with the development of a consultancy department “I-logistics” – now an independent unit within the library. I-logistics is developed by library staff in co-operation with a project group who represents the ‘customers’, i.e. business and industry, educational institutions and Fredericia municipality. I-logistics concentrates particularly on knowledge management and information surveillance, but in connection with implementation of knowledge management systems also carries out teaching and instruction of the firms’ employees.

Our latest development project concerns the development of methods for uncovering and describing the IT competencies of specific groups of people in Fredericia municipality. The purpose of this it to compare these competency levels with what by Fredericia municipality is defined as essential IT competencies for the citizens to be able to benefit from and service themselves satisfactorily in the digital society.

The library’s role in this project is primarily project management and model or method development in co-operation with a number of other interested parties: Revealing levels of competency, working out definitions of necessary competencies, participation in the preparations of materials and models for filling in the various competency gaps and finally to be part of the training programme which is going to be run at different levels and result in the issuing of a ‘Net license’ – a ‘driving license’ for the Internet.

I-logistics and the new project (Project Net License) are examples of projects which generate the development of entirely new enterprises for the public libraries as well as extension or alteration of already existing tasks. This development places a succession of demands on the librarians other than the more traditional tasks. Many of the demands are so fundamentally different that it makes sense to speak in terms of a completely new role for the librarian and consequently a new librarian identity as well.

The ‘new’ role does not only call for new professional capabilities – the ‘new’ librarian has to go out herself and ‘sell’ both these capabilities and their products to the users, in many cases users whom she does not as yet know. Often the expression ‘sell’ has to be taken quite literally, as a number of services will carry a fee which means that the librarian must learn to ‘price herself ’ in a very different and much more matter-of-fact way. No longer will it be enough to be able to handle immense loads of information, to be able to structure, sort out and mediate in relation to the individual user/borrower. Most librarians find themselves in a completely new situation having to argue the case of their qualifications when trying to persuade a business manager that the optimal collaborator in for example a knowledge-sharing project would be the library.We are used to the users coming to us – not having to seek them out in tough competition with other service providers. For many people it is a very serious and real barrier having to abandon their inborn modesty and throw themselves into sales promotion. But sales promotion is essential in many areas when the markets are full of people ready and willing – and able – to offer information surveillance, knowledge management, etc.We library people are probably going to maintain for quite some time to come that we are the experts for these jobs – we must therefore also learn to say it out loud for all to hear – and for them to be willing to pay for our services.

The new librarian role is to a great extent the role of project manager/process consultant. A role that requires the librarian to enter into a number of cooperations and networks. Extroversion, ability to communicate and mediation skills are quite essential. In some cases the librarian will have to put on the ‘Yellow Jersey’ – at other times he has to accept a more humble position in the network and in yet another context he has to act as a catalyst.

Such a variety of roles demands a variety of competencies: – The specifically professional ones where once more we see a greater degree of specialisation (while at the same time many public libraries also demand a higher generalist level after the introduction of equality status of the media as set out in the library act of 2000). – The co-ordinating and communicating roles which must be brought into force when libraries interact with the surrounding world, when the library takes the initiative in inter-disciplinary co-operations and projects on for example cultural experiences, education and integration. In some cases the library will have pride of place – in others the role is more invisible, and yet extremely important, namely when the librarian applies his expertise in using his network, finding the right people, institutions or organisations when something has to get off the ground. The new librarian must be able to cooperate across subjects, both closely related and more ‘remote’, across sectorial borderlines, administrations, local authorities and frontiers – at all times with respect for other people’s professionalism, corporate cultures and ethnic cultures. This respect for others’ knowledge and for different ways of doing things is a pre-requisite for well-functioning inter-disciplinary co-operations.

The new librarian’s co-operation partners come from widely different areas:

In co-operation with the IT trade, software is developed and mediated for the handling of information and knowledge in both the public and the private sector. Many smaller IT companies want sparring partners when developing content for their software, as this of course only becomes attractive when it can be put to use. Particularly within areas such as knowledge-sharing, establishment of gateways etc. a collaborative effort can lead to exciting and useful solutions.

As far as the education sector is concerned, librarians are able to contribute by instructing instructors as well as students and school pupils. They instruct in searching, estimation, storage and retrieval of information, whatever the medium.We know that primary and secondary school teachers are often overtaken by their pupils when it comes to IT, so courses such as “Beat your pupils in searching on the Internet” are very popular.

In the business world, a sound and well-functioning co-operation with a professional librarian can mean that the individual firm is able to channel its staff resources into the actual production. The firm can let the librarian handle a qualified information surveillance and ensure optimal access to knowledge-sharing among all the staff or part of it, wherever these departments are placed geographically.Many firms have realised that when their staff are searching on the net, it is very timeconsuming – and authenticity and accuracy not impressive. This means unnecessary costs and far too great a risk of getting useless or worst of all – wrong – information.

The role as a more traditional mediator of culture in the public libraries is likewise undergoing rapid change. Library development is to an ever greater extent going to happen in network cooperations: Regional or nation-wide ‘culture caravans’, exhibitions, fairs, booktalks, study circles, storytelling etc. Here too, the librarian must be able to produce ‘products’ without knowing the prospective customer or buyer, will have to explore and develop new markets, new areas and forms of mediation. When lecture societies, clubs etc. are offered booktalks, the librarian may choose either to use off-the-shelf goods, like for example ‘This year’s novels’ or choose to create a new ‘product’, for example ‘Detectives in the Nordic countries – films and novels’ which will be tailor-made for a specific target group, but more and more it is going to be outside the library’s physical frames that the librarian meets the ‘borrower’ and more and more it will be in the role of mediator of content and not just of titles. This will require a clear distinction between ‘to make something available’ and to ‘mediate’, where mediation demands a ‘performance’, a personal commitment.

Whether the librarian in future is going to prioritise the mediation of knowledge and information or the mediation of culture, this mediation is going to require a more all-round professionalism: The ‘new’ librarians will have to bridge several gaps and many will have to involve themselves in personal de-velopment projects in order to be able to join in fully and reap the benefit of new co-operations, new networks and new tasks. Very few will be able to get by with just a good borrower-librarian dialogue – the target group for mediation is no longer one person – but often many and in diffuse contexts. Neither can a librarian expect to be sitting in splendid isolation, undisturbed behind the computer – what she finds, has to be mediated, discussed, evaluated and used together with other people. Important disciplines for ‘new’ librarians are communication, feedback, supervision, mentor schemes etc. – and yet more knowledge-sharing and learning in networks.

Times are indeed changing – and we must change with them.

Library director, Fredericia Public Library.