Reasons for Optimism

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

These may be tough times, but libraries are more important than ever. We find reasons for optimism and also offer advice to new graduates.

Libraries are going through some difficult times right now. What gives you hope?

MS: Libraries are forging ahead with low-cost technologies and new initiatives. Many nimble librarians are adapting quickly to the current economic climate, offering access to government programs, résumé workshops, and projects centered around saving money. We can and do think on our feet.

MC: I’m encouraged by the number of libraries that offer training classes in various basic skills and services. Community outreach now means instruction in using Word and PowerPoint to put together job application packages, career nights with tutorials on online job search databases, and evening seminars in career-centered social networking.

As my library goes through a strategic planning process, this is an amazing time to be looking ahead. We’re being asked to do more and more with less. We’re using computers for longer cycles and refreshing those computers and making them function in new ways. And we’re creating teams for more innovative services, getting projects off the ground and managed without needing to hire or transfer many staff.

Does this add to the workload? Yes, but staff are stepping up and delivering. They realize that the top performers now are the ones who will be recognized when some of the difficulties pass.
This is not the time to retrench or retreat. Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff, reminds us, “Never allow a crisis to go to waste.” For libraries (and librarians, as we’ll discuss below), now is the time to look around and ask ourselves, What could we be doing that we’re not? What additional services could serve some of the increasing numbers in need of assistance?

What should MLS students be doing to make themselves more marketable in this tighter job pool?

MS: I just concluded a section of my favorite class to teach: LIS768 Library 2.0 and Social Networking Technologies. Centered around the concept of participatory service, the class encourages students to experiment, play, and think critically about improving services in a changing world. I close the session with some counsel to students as they head out into the job market.

• Make Issues Opportunities. Look at any of the issues impacting libraries right now, for example, the economy, new converged devices, and digital streaming and downloads. Then look at what innovative thinkers have done regarding such issues. Learn to be such change agents.
• Never Stop Learning. By graduation, our students should have learned, through successes and stumbles, how to address a problem and find solutions via evidence and their own thinking. When one student expressed her excitement at mastering Facebook, I commented, “Now you can take on anything.” The master’s degree is just that, not an end point for librarians’ learning.
• Be Curious. Marketing guru Seth Godin suggests, “To be curious means to explore first.” New grads should emphasize this trait and even add it to their résumés, saying something like, “I’m curious about how libraries and librarians can help change the world, one library user at a time.”
• Focus on the Heart. No matter where they find work, new grads should remember they’re human-focused. Consultant and blogger Karen Schneider reminds us that “the User is the Sun.” If we help people achieve the best they can-satisfying information needs, providing entertainment, enabling social connections-we’re reaching the heart.

MC: It’s difficult to get a foot in the door; I think library administrators are looking to hire people not only with a good philosophical understanding of the role and purpose of libraries but also with a solid working knowledge of customer service. With tight economic times and shrinking budgets, libraries need to know that they’re getting the absolute most for their money.

It’s not enough that you have an MLS and can quote Ranganathan’s five laws. You must understand customer service and be willing to do everything and anything thrown at you, whether it’s shelving, weeding, working the desk, or reading a story to kids. The new keys are versatility and flexibility.

Don’t give the impression that menial tasks are beneath you. It’s not an option to sit at the desk updating your Facebook status while waiting for “real” reference questions. Help where you can, and meet the users’ needs.

Veteran librarians and administrators should be honest and open with new librarians. Far too often, we make it look like everything we try and everything we do is a success. Sometimes, it’s not. We should learn from those efforts and do better. Librarians, especially new ones, need honest encouragement, not quixotic tales of generations past.

Michael Casey is Information Technology Division Director, Gwinnett County Public Library, Lawrenceville, CA, and co-author of Library 2.0.

May 15, 2009 Library Journal