I spent Monday at the New Professionals Conference, organised by the Career Development Group and Diversity Group of CILIP. It was a fantastic day – all the speakers had some really interesting things to say about the profession, and it was great to hear perspectives of others who are at the beginning of their careers.
First up was Katie Hill, with a talk on “The Consumer Generation and how it is changing the library and information profession”. Katie argued that we are all – information service users and providers alike – part of the “Consumer Generation”, and that this impacts on service expectations and the type of service we provide. Katie suggested that the impact of the consumer generation has been an increased focus on customer service: our users know what they want and have high expectations, but also have the choice to go elsewhere if their needs are not met. She used the example of introducing a group study area in the University of York library where loud conversation is allowed and students are even allowed to bring in food (in fact, the university has provided vending machines in this area). A few years ago this would have been unthinkable; but the library has solicited feedback from users and acted on their requirements, in order to create a service which is better tailored to their needs. Katie also pointed out the need for effective branding of the library service, so that users are aware of where the information is coming from. This is particularly important in the area of electronic resources – there is a tendency for students to assume that because something is online then it is free, and they are often unaware of the library’s role in making it available.
Next up was Ned Potter on “Why are we still defined by our building?”. Ned’s main argument was that the traditional
definition of a librarian was literally the “keeper of the books”, and that this affects how our users see us. Although the librarians role has outgrown simply managing book stock (although of course it was always more complicated than that, and of course I’m not disparaging books!), we are still tied to the traditional definition of a library, regardless of the fact that many of us don’t work in a library at all. He gave an entertaining breakdown of some librarian stereotypes (as defined in an article by Maura Seale): the Old Maid, the Policeman, the Parody, the Inept, and the Hero/ine. He discussed the results of a survey of University of Leeds library staff, showing that the majority felt that librarians were portrayed unfairly by the media, and that there was little respect for library work outside of the profession. Ned also discussed the fact that most people don’t really know what we do: they don’t know that librarianship is a skilled profession, don’t expect us to be IT literate and don’t expect us to be able to assist with research. Echoing Katie’s earlier remarks, he also added that the perception of a librarian is so linked with books that our users don’t realise that we have any role in providing access to electronic information.
When it came to solutions, Ned’s main suggestions were to attempt to communicate our skills and values outside of the library and information field: for example, submitting articles to publications that our customers read rather than just the LIS literature. He also suggested the need for a marketing component to library school courses, something I am very much in favour of!
The next speaker was Sarah Newbutt, who talked about “Attracting young people into the profession”. Sarah began by discussing the staffing crisis in libraries: I didn’t note down the figures she quoted but the main thrust was that not enough new professionals are entering the profession to replace those who are due to retire within the next few years. She talked about the barriers to young people choosing librarianship as a profession: invisibility of librarianship, negative stereotypes, qualifications required (time and money constraints), poor careers advice (in the Q+A following this session, Katie Hill mentioned that her careers adviser at school had told her “you don’t want to be a librarian, you only need 5 A-Cs for that, set your sights higher!”), lack of job vacancies, and low salaries. Sarah pointed out that the last two are not strictly true – the job situation may be difficult at the moment due to the economic crisis, but there is no reason to believe that LIS is any worse hit than any other sector; and she quoted the CILIP salary survey indicating some quite respectable salaries for new graduates.
Sarah made some suggestions for solutions to these barriers, mainly involving self promotion and raising awareness of the work we do. CILIP obviously has a role to play in this – for example, going to schools and careers fairs, and ensuring that careers services have information available to give out to those who may be interested in LIS careers. Individual librarians can also play a role, by promoting our skills outside of the library setting. School librarians particularly can have an impact here, as they are in a position to liaise directly with school career services (although it was noted that not all schools will have a librarian, or even a library, as this is not a statutory requirement). Sarah also suggested conducting a survey among young people to find out their perceptions of libraries and librarians, to see where there is work to be done.
The last session before lunch was Lydia Mayor, with a paper on “Gaining skills in the social aspects of libraries”. Lydia talked about opening up access to information (which is, of course, the primary purpose of a library) to those who are socially excluded. She pointed out that public libraries often create barriers to use without realising it, for example through their opening hours, fees/charges, accessibility, language barriers, and even simply staff attitudes. Some solutions were suggested: I was interested in the idea of a community-based model for library development, where the library team works in partnership with the community, so they are involved at every stage of the service development. Lydia also suggested involvement at student level: whether that be through people involved in current social inclusion projects coming to give talks at the library schools, or through the students themselves becoming involved in projects, perhaps as a course requirement.
After Lydia’s talk there was a panel discussion based on the themes of the first few talks. Some interesting ideas came out of this: one delegate from an NHS library mentioned, in response to comments on “rebranding” libraries and librarians, that within the health service it is stipulated that a library must be referred to as such because people don’t know what an “information centre” (or similar) actually is! One point which came up in the discussion which really resonated with me was the idea of focusing on the customer-facing aspect of the job. It was pointed out that a lot of the time, if people have a negative view of librarianship, it’s because they have had a negative experience with a librarian. Someone (I think it was Ned, but I’m not 100% on that) said that just as professional athletes say that they are only as good as their last game, so as librarians we should remind ourselves that we are only as good as our last customer interaction. I am completely in agreement with that: it’s so important, especially now that our users have many other options if they prefer not to go to a library, that we give them a reason to keep coming back. Librarianship is a customer-facing profession. We are the friendly face that a search engine doesn’t have. It can be frustrating if you’re on the enquiry desk all day, dealing with what can seem like really stupid questions (and yes, sometimes people are very rude), but I think it’s really important to keep the customer service ethos alive.