As an early-career librarian, I went to the CARL Conference hoping to get a glimpse of the latest trends in librarianship, and to come away with a sense of coming shifts in the profession I need to be aware of – a glimpse into my own future. What skills does the modern academic librarian need to have? What do they need to be ready to do? What are library patrons looking for now, and what will they be looking for in the years ahead? How can I shape my career in order to be on the forward edge of coming changes?
Changing the Metrics
The first plenary lecture, by Dr. Peter Hernon of Simmons College, covered a broad span of the issues he sees in the profession and some emerging trends. His shock statistic was that reference desk approaches are down 80% from where they used to be. This confirms what everyone has been saying since the advent of internet search: reference, as a department and core duty of librarianship, is in trouble.
I’ve written about reference before, and made it clear that I don’t believe reference is dead (see There He Sat With An Answer For All and my e-Portfolio Competency I). Still, even as an ardent backer of continued (though diversified) reference service, I have to agree that a MLIS graduate can no longer claim to be solely a reference specialist and expect to find work. These days, a librarian needs to have a wider set of skills; capable of providing reference, yes, but inevitably even a reference department librarian will have responsibilities in library instruction, collection development, electronic resources and so on.
The bigger issue is that many traditional statistics of library usage – reference inquiries, circulation, and so on – often indicate to university administrators that libraries are declining, ergo library budgets get cut. So libraries need to produce research – quantitative evidence – to show administrators all of the benefits of continued library support. It needs to become clear what value libraries are supplying students; what are students getting per tuition dollar provided to the library? New metrics can show just how vital libraries remain (some of the presentations I discussed in the Post-CARL Review, Pt. 1 had examples of just the sorts of quantitative research libraries can be doing).
Early Career Librarians
One of the final-day workshops I attended at the conference was a discussion of issues for early career librarians, hosted by Katherine O’Clair of Cal Poly, SLO. There was a lot of practical advice to be had, both in a general sense, and some for me and my situation specifically. Since it was an open discussion, a lot of the attendees had different points of view; some reiterated the commonly held belief that if you’re a paraprofessional (instead of a librarian) for more than a couple years, you’re stuck being a paraprofessional forever. Others disputed that assumption on the basis of the current economy; hiring managers will be more forgiving of non-professional level work on your résumé given of how few opportunities are out there right now.
The eventual consensus was that getting your first professional level job isn’t a function of how long you have or haven’t worked as a paraprofessional, but rather the relationship you’ve developed with your professional level colleagues, peers and professional organizations. It’s vital to develop connections, attend conferences, and write papers; these activities show a professional-level of interest and can make up for any deficiencies on your curriculum vitae.
Some very good personal advice I received from an established librarian attending the session was that my digitization experience at the California Academy of Sciences, while archival by nature and not at an academic library, still provided me a skill-set a lot of libraries don’t have on staff; he made the point that even if I’m applying for a reference or instructional-heavy academic position, I should promote my digitizing experience. That skill – even if a library hadn’t considered it a priority – could make me a more attractive candidate. I’m capable of stretching a job description (and an FTE) to include new responsibilities, increasing my value.
That concept really holds true to any skill you might have. Don’t discard arrows from your quiver just because they aren’t listed in a posted job description. Make sure a library that is hiring knows all the different things you can do (budgeting experience? supervisory experience? Mention it).
Overall, I feel I came away from the conference with a better idea of current trends in academic libraries and how to better market myself in what is a competitive market. And those are marks of a successful conference-going experience (another mark would be a good time socializing and networking; I did that too!).
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