The (un)certainty of professional persistence

There has been a lot of good discussion on my post about the future of books, libraries, librarians, and schools (thank you, everyone). In addition to the comments on the post itself, there are some excellent thoughts elsewhere as well:

I was struck, however, by something that Erin Downey said in her own post:

What has, does, and will distinguish us from [coffee shops, community centers, and Internet cafes] are LIBRARIANS. Your barista doesn’t know how to help you find a price guide for 19th century china dolls, or figure out what the primary motivations were of the Romantic poets, or locate the best resource for building an addition to your house (as well as getting the right permits for local construction!). We do all that and more on a daily basis without breaking a sweat – we’re trained information professionals.

As I read Erin’s post, she seems awfully certain that librarians will be around and will be essential to the new order. I confess that I’m not that certain.

officematedisappearsPerhaps I’m reading her wrong, but her paragraph strikes me as one of absolute certainty in librarians’ worth: Of course we’ll be around in the new paradigm! We’re LIBRARIANS, dammit! We’re TRAINED INFORMATION PROFESSIONALS who are VALUABLE in and of ourselves and also PROVIDE VALUE TO OTHERS. As I read her paragraph, I started substituting other professions in place of librarians: Of course we’ll be around in the new paradigm! We’re JOURNALISTS / TELEGRAPH OPERATORS / BUGGY WHIP MAKERS / TRAVEL AGENTS, dammit! We’re TRAINED PROFESSIONALS who are VALUABLE in and of ourselves and also PROVIDE VALUE TO OTHERS.

I think that the shifts we are now beginning to experience are going to be much more disruptive than we expect. I don’t think that we can take for granted that any current information-oriented profession is going to be around in the new paradigm. I think it’s a safer bet to assume that most of us in information-oriented jobs either are going to be replaced by something new or will see our professions so radically transformed that we may need to give them new labels.

Whether we’re librarians, teachers, administrators, or professors – or newspaper journalists, television producers, radio broadcasters, or magazine publishers – or travel agents, stockbrokers, medical professionals, or postal service workers, I think we need to be more uneasy. We need to be less complacent, less certain. We need to be more proactive and forward-thinking rather than self-congratulatory and self-satisfied.

The professionals in information-oriented fields who will be best able to navigate the seismic transitions that are yet to occur will be those that DON’T take their individual jobs – or even their entire professions – for granted. We all need to be more on edge than we currently are.

Photo credit: Officemate disappears

25 Responses to “The (un)certainty of professional persistence”

  1. I’ve written a number of posts on this topic in the last few months, but the one that’s garnered the most attention so far is this one: http://andrewbwatt.wordpress.com/2009/11/03/twitters-edchat/

    I think that we face a future in which schools (and by extension, the profession of teaching) is going to go through a fair amount of disaggregation — that is to say, break up and restructuring.

    I think Erin’s point is that there will be information professionals, and I’d have to say that there will also be teachers… but I don’t think they’re going to be working in ‘schools’ or ‘libraries’ as we currently understand them. I think it’s also wrong to assume that the training you had as a teacher or librarian in a collegiate program even three years ago is going to be much value even ten years further into the future from now.

    The introduction of computers (and with it the Internet) into my class on a daily basis has been the single greatest disruptor of my classroom routines in 10 years… and it’s spreading to other classes in this school rapidly, even to classes that don’t use computers. The mere knowledge that it’s happening is changing how teachers see the work they do, and what students expect in class.

  2. Wow!
    Both your post and Andrew’s comment articulate the core of the issue, and probably scare many people to death!

    Another layer I’d like to introduce is the power of nostalgia, by which I mean assigning moral value to something based on comfort and familiarity.

    Staying in the library, I know how bereft I felt when the massive card catalogs were taken out and replaced by computer terminals. I had a strong feeling that this was wrong and something was being lost. Looking from today I recognize that something was lost, but there was no “wrong” to it.

    I don’t know that the librarian position (or the teacher position as suggested by Andrew) will not reinvent itself into a new form. But our familiarity and comfort with this paradigm does not make it right or wrong.

    I wrote about this in my own blog http://www.platformsandparadigms.com/articles/33

    Thanks for your post and for this excellent discussion!

  3. It seems to me that we have to guard against that feeling of self importance – feeling that were are just important and needed and valuable because we’re, well, librarians after all! Probably, that’s not what Erin was trying to say. The point is that there will always be somebody that helps (elementary) students learn how to see the need for, locate, and use information. Maybe we won’t be called librarians, but there will be somebody.
    BF

  4. Hmmm…this discussion reminds me of the arguement, spouted over and over with wholehearted buy-in in the 1990s, that the growth in use of personal computers would make paper obsolete within a few years…

    If these types of arguements help you feel more secure in your worldview, so be it. Just be aware that futurology is a fickle art to pursue.

  5. Oh, to be compared with buggy whip makers… (there’s truth there, some librarians may not make the transition… like these: http://bookends.booklistonline.com/2009/11/06/time-to-rant-librarianship-by-listserv/)

    I agree that we’ll be called something else, and we will likely become hybrid teacher/librarian/infobards/whathaveyou as more and more students transition to virtual education options outside traditional school buildings/days.

    What needs to change are the silos of the library and the classroom and the computer lab. We *need* better integration of tools, spaces, and learners. We need more librarians (seriously, I’m going to start calling us InfoBards) crossing borders, becoming hybrid specialists in tech training, info literacy, and content areas so that we are able to break down all artificial categories and encourage organic, authentic learning experiences.

    But because I’m a librarian, and before that a liberal arts major, I may be more comfortable than the average bear when it comes to inhabiting liminal spaces. I’m also a public librarian whose main focus is serving school populations, so my whole job is straddling fences. Uncomfortable as that sounds, it feels like the future from where I’m sitting.

  6. @edh: Yeah, I threw in buggy whip makers for fun. =)

    I really like the term ‘infobards.’ That implies for me a lack of ties to a physical place, however, much like the bards of old…

  7. Interesting co-incidence – I read Dangerously Irrelevant for the first time in ages and then watched the latest video from my favourite Youtube comedian – the most popular youtuber in Australia. You might be interested in the first two minutes where she explains how to use Google instead of a doctor. I see the librarian equivalent whenever my students research on the web. Not pretty. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtdMToO0dzw
    You Tube – Community Channel – Dr Google

  8. I think the point Scott is making that no matter what current position/title/job you have it will be something very different in the future, not after you retire, but within 5-10 years. Technology has sped up the process of change. Our schools are designed around a dying model in factories, and all aspects of that model will die with it. We can either help define what the new model will be or we can die along with the old system. I prefer to help develop the changes that need to take places in schools. It may mean that my current position as principal is eliminated, but at least I will have an opportunity to help create a new position because I am actively involved in this change process. http://derondurflinger.blogspot.com/

  9. I find the comment that the only person who could help me find 19th Century China Dolls is a librarian?? I don’t have time to go to the media center/library to find that help, but instead I will ask it through a tweet and watch the resources come flying. I just witnessed a tweet regarding school calendars produce results in 24 hours with very valuable information. Librarians not take personal offense to the notion that their existence is in the midst of a paradigm shift. I don’t hear my local accountant arguing me using an online service to do my taxes for a 1/3 of the price. It is what it is.

  10. I think it is important to realize that (at least in schools) there ARE no librarians anymore. There are media specialists, instead. The media specialist does much more than help students find books or find information. The media specialists teaches students how to find information for themselves (remember the old adage “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime”?). They hold a job that can’t be replaced by someone in India or even by media itself. I think that as long as teachers, media specialists, and others in the fields of education can evolve from being “the sage on the stage” to professionals who teach students how to fish using 21st century tools, we will still have our jobs.

  11. As a high school English teacher who is working toward a Library Media Education degree, this is a very disconcerting topic. I agree with Scott’s assertion that we need to be proactive and forward-thinking about defining our future role in education. I know that I depend on my media center specialist (K-12 for 1200 students) to filter through new technologies, ideas, theories, etc and give me what I need to be able to do my job. With the amount of and type of information available online increasing by the second, I feel this role of filtering the information out to the appropriate audience–whether it is to student or staff member will keep this a vital role in school systems. But, once again, only if we can anticipate where we are needed and be there to help before people realize they need us.

  12. Every job changes, and as teachers and librairians, we have to go with the flow. Bookstores have become my favorite places lately. I can grab a cup of coffee, a few books, and just enjoy myself. Years ago, I was charged huge fines for returning several books late to my local library. I explained to the lady that my kids had been sick, but she demanded the money ($7.00) anyway. If librairies want to stay up with the times, they must be flexible and meet the needs of the community.

  13. In an information economy, it seems to me that a person trained to find answers would have a leg up on the competition.

    If your Masters of Library Science degree doesn’t give you the ability to find answers something is wrong!

    Libraries may change and librarians may have new job titles, but I believe that skill set is enduring.

  14. @Roger Whaley: I agree with you that the skill set will be enduring (as noted in my other post). But a lot of the responses above seem to assume that there will be some physical place that people go to interact with “librarians” (or whatever we will call them) and I’m much less convinced of that…

  15. The style of getting education and teaching is changing fast because of the incorporation of the technologies, softwares and increased access of the internet. Today, getting into a digital library is more easy and preferable. But I doubt that all of the information available in book form in the libraries can be digitized.

  16. Interesting perspectives about the future of the profession.
    Juxtapose it with the fact, I keep saying I’d like to work myself OUT of a job. I WANT my profession to become obsolete. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon. I’m an assistive technology specialist and too many kids need assistive technology because the curriculum is the disability.

    (I know, slightly off-topic).

  17. @ Scott McLeod: I think you are probably right. I think the “new librarians” will be working virtually as most of us will be.

    There is going to be a transition because schools (and corporations) still like to see who is working for them.

    I think I have seen the future library.

    My wife works for a major agricultural company and I have visited her office near the corporate library. That library was a rack of perhaps a dozen periodicals (none of which I had ever heard of) and a desk with a computer for the librarian on duty. Very minimalist. On the other hand, you could get an answer there very easily.

  18. My guess is that there will be a need for those info teachers who want to look ahead and prepare for the future. Unfortunately, like many of us in education, there are too many who are in denial. One of my favorite Covey quotes is appropriate for this topic.

    “Imagine that the half-life of your profession is two years. Now live your life accordingly.”

  19. Change will happen there is no doubt about that. In a smaller district though, things seem to move at a slower pace. Yes, students and others in the community are clipping right along, but schools are at the mercy of funding. Those media specialist who are knowledgeable enough to stay on top of the latest trends and become a valuable resource to their colleagues are the smart ones.
    I just asked an administrator what he thought the future role of the media specialist would be in say 3-5 years. He is around 40 and does not shy away from technology. So, I was curious what his views would be. He definitely thought the job would be more tech oriented. As far as books go, well, he couldn’t imagine who would want to read a book off of a computer screen or “one of those Kindles.” Then I told him I was thinking of getting “one of those Kindles” for the media center. His response was “oh.” I’m just trying to be the smart one here!

  20. Scott,
    I appreciate your forcing more librarians to think about these questions. It’s apparent that you have struck a nerve–evident from responses on your blog and those linked above, plus the conversations I’ve seen in more private fora (if Facebook & listservs can be considered very private).

    I became an elementary teacher-librarian a couple years ago (after teaching in traditional classrooms, working in online education, and having done tech work). I joined this profession because I believe it IS the future (though it’s sometimes feels difficult to convince even myself and my colleagues of that). School libraries today are already very different than when you or I went to school, and they will change much more in the next decade.

    I’ve just been reading Clay Christensen’s _Disrupting_Class_—-a book that I suspect is making some superintendents, principals, and classroom teachers squirm as much as your questions have made librarians do. While Christensen isn’t talking directly about libraries or librarians, the model schools he describes sound like places where librarians will be essential-—though we may go by other names in such a school. The very things that he says teachers must learn how to do (match students with the right resources, coach them to pursue their interests, find materials and activities to help them understand challenging ideas), librarians are already doing daily.

    Heck, when every student (and teacher) knows how to effectively find and use relevant & reliable ideas and information, I’ll be glad to say my job is obsolete. In the meantime, I’ll keep doing it.

    –Sean Fullerton
    Teacher-Librarian: reading cheerleader, information literacy instructor, and school CIO

  21. Hi,
    This is technological era and now traditional libraries are transformed into digital libraries. Trends are changing too fast, access to the internet is common, hundreds of software are available for diversified purposes in academic profession, which makes life of the students much easier.

    Although now books are published digitally but still not every book is digital, so the future of traditional libraries is still some what safe.

  22. I agree that there needs to be a shift in how we conceive ‘librarians’, but for many I think that shift is already happening. I am seeking a media specialist degree and have yet to learn the dewey decimal system! Instead, my coursework is focusing on technology. How to use it effectively with students. I think our students (as digital natives) have a firm grasp on how to use some technologies and are wired to figure out how to use others. Adults need to tap into this knowledge. However, not many of my students are going to seek out technologies that help them to learn Algebra, Ancient Greece or Adverbs. As adults we can facilitate and focus. Our job is to teach in their language . . . we need to tap into that language or we will be obsolete!

  23. I agree with what Beth says, and I certainly know from taking on-line courses that accessing information through a multitude of different tech formats is not the issue for most professionals involved in education. The issue, as Beth states and Bob Follmuth says above, is that there still needs to be someone, at least at younger age levels, who will guide students in judging information relevancy, teach them the importance of makng connections, and direct them in using the information responsibly. Who knows what those people will be called, but the job of teaching students to filter out what they need from the billions of bits of information available from unlimited sources seems to me to be one of the most important educational priorities of the future.

  24. Lindsay,
    I agree that we shouldn’t be afraid to learn from our “digital native” students. However, the native/immigrant thinking often leads to two fallacies that I’d encourage you to guard against:

    1- Today’s youth are wired to be tech-savvy: false. Most have been immersed in technology, but many students are not as comfortable as the majority, and they may be afraid to ask for help–yet librarians have a responsibility to teach them more of these skills.

    2- Digital natives know how to effectively search: false. They often trust their first Google hit or the ‘facts’ shared on the read/write web. You’re right that librarians have a huge role to play in facilitating and focusing students’ search processes.

  25. Hi,
    I personally like your post; you have shared good insights and experiences. Keep it up.

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