Extensive expertise, curiosity and capacity to collaborate

In the future, what are the most critical questions of a library’s HR manager? I met Saara Ihamäki, deputy library director of the Helsinki City Library, and we discussed future library work and expertise for a little while.

Ihamäki is director of the library and patron services department in an organization where there are 37 libraries, two bookmobiles, 10 outreach libraries and about 500 employees. Ihamäki managed a committee that reformed the Helsinki City Library HR scheme which was introduced this year and will be followed until 2019.

Libraries are amidst change. What factors influence the staff’s needs for expertise, duties and professional roles the most?

Saara Ihämaki: Photo: Susanne Ahlroth“Our HR scheme recognizes different trends in the operational environment that affect those issues. These trends include, for example, changes in the concept of general education, emphasis on wellbeing, increase in inequality and the integration of technology in everyday life. Factors of change also include urban growth and fluctuations in demographic structure and the library network. In my opinion, a major factor is the way people acquire information, culture and entertainment – it has a radical impact on the way people use the library. For instance, the number of loans for music material has crashed, and the number of loans for movies is headed in the same direction. Loans for literature have yet to follow this trend, but will they in the future? The share of online access through mobile devices is also clearly increasing.”

Which duties will remain, which will be eliminated and which will be introduced?

“Nowadays, highly educated staff does too much routine work. The work has also centered too much on collections and logistics. A decrease in logistics work will affect processes and especially the duties of the librarian. Less time will be needed to work at the service counter, process reservations for material, prepare material for use, place material on shelves and select material. The unleashed time is increasingly needed for creating content for mobile and online services, teaching and consultation, working with partners, generating ideas for events and organizing them as well as working with children and youth. Patrons have great expectations – they expect expertise in literature and book recommendations. We have expertise; it’s just a question of how to divulge it for better use by the patrons, for their pleasure and benefit.”

What type of expertise is needed in the future?

“The Scandinavian democratic society is crumbling and segregation is increasing. Libraries should wake up to this change and make sure they remain libraries for everyone, as a place and service that everyone can use, a place where different people meet. Libraries should also set themselves along people’s everyday routes. It determines the direction in which libraries are developed and this calls for knowledge; assumptions are not enough. We have data, but we must know how to analyze it and utilize it better to create goals for services and activities based on it. The duty of the library is to maintain literacy. We need staff that possesses higher education and a broad civil foundation as well as solid expertise in literature and culture. This benefits society at a time when sustaining literacy is a vanishing endeavour. Staff in libraries should also know how to guide people on how to cope in a digitized, self-service society. In a way, the library is like a lighthouse where patrons have the opportunity to participate in society’s other services.”

How should expertise be accumulated?

“The Helsinki City Library has introduced job rotation. The entire staff gradually goes to work in another library for three months. The staff ’s experiences have been extremely positive. The work and being able to perceive things through one’s own thinking processes is the best way to learn. Going to another library and seeing how others do things arouses insight. At the same time, the distance makes it possible to break away from your own job which allows you to reflect more easily on it. What elements does my job comprise?”

When recruiting staff, what types of expertise and characteristics do you observe?

“Above all, I usually expect a view of the mission of the library and the applicant’s own contribution to it. I also pay attention to whether the applicant’s way of thinking is patron-oriented, whether s(he) is prepared to encounter people, which is a necessity for us. However knowledgeable the applicant is, it’s not enough if s(he) cannot communicate with different types of people. This is a critical question. Often job announcements have unrealistic lists of the characteristics applicants should have. However, expertise on the level of the individual is only part of the job, because it must be seen on the level of the team, work community and organization. There’s one more characteristic I wish everyone would have and that’s curiosity towards the world, people and colleagues. Substantive expertise is complemented by constant curiosity.”

In three words, how do you describe a library professional?

“Curious, educated, collaborator.”

Senior Adviser Regional State Administrative Agencies in Finland