A lot of you probably saw this article from today’s Inside Higher Education about “the layoffs of eight library staff members” to make “way for the creation of new positions that ensure the library will stay on top of current, digital trends” at the University of San Diego, and the response from some faculty critics who argue the layoffs are an “affront to the Roman Catholic teachings of the university,” which they very well might be. For those who think that Catholic social thought is all about abortion and stem cells, all I can say is that you’re woefully underinformed. (This websiteis a good starting place to find out more.) Several themes within the tradition of Catholic social teaching could be used to criticize laying off competent employees rather than trying to retrain them or find other work they could do. The dignity of the human person, the necessity of economic justice, the responsibilities humans have to each other: combined these would form the foundation of such criticism. But that’s not really the point of this post.
I wasn’t going to write about this until I read this interesting post by the Library Loon. It argues that situations like the one at the University of San Diego could become more common, especially given the library profession’s “lackadaisical approach to lifelong learning and re-credentialing,” because “in a zero-sum hiring environment, the only way to open hiring lines and budget for needed technology-intensive expertise is to cut someone else’s job.” It concludes that “If libraries are to continue to be humane employers…they must insist upon and intervene in professional development before matters with any individual employee reach such a perilous pass. Not to do so is not kind or humane, nor is it healthy for librarians or library workforces.” Points well taken, and I agree. In general, academic libraries are humane employers, especially compared to employers outside academia, and the professional development and well being of their staffs is a professional obligation. I might cavil that it’s not clear that any of the employees laid off at San Diego were actually professional librarians, though it’s clear at least three of them were not, but I believe that libraries also have an obligation to “cultivate their bottom,” and not just because it’s a nice thing to do.
And of course many libraries do provide support for professional development. Many if not most academic librarians seem to have at least some money and time they could devote to professional development, though not all libraries do, a point made clear by Dances With Books‘ comment on the Library Loon’s post. While I completely agree that libraries should provide time and resources to allow for the professional development of their staffs, I’m not sure I completely agree on the aggressive approach that would “insist upon and intervene in professional matters.” Let’s just say I’m undecided, but that waiting for such insistence and intervention is professional suicide. In the immortal words of Prince, “in this life, things are much harder than in the afterworld. In this life, you’re on your own.” And if you’re not really, just to be safe, you should assume you are.
As painful as it may sound to some, ultimately librarians have to be responsible for their own professional development. Eventually, if they don’t keep learning and adapting, if they keep their jobs “for years or decades without going to a single conference, attending a single continuing-education class, or demonstrating new learning of any sort on the job,” and especially if they do so while being given opportunities that they choose not to take advantage of, then they really don’t deserve professional jobs because they’re not behaving like professionals. For motivated learners, there’s plenty they can do as long as they have a computer, an Internet connection, and some time. A library can help, too The learning material is out there, as attested in this blog post from Hack Library School about a book on DIY credentialing.
Just about any skill or knowledge you need to learn to adapt to a changing work environment you can learn for free. Conferences, classes, and workshops certainly help, but if there’s no support for them it’s still possible to keep learning. That learning might be harder and slower for a lot of people, but it’s definitely possible. Usually it’s just a question of motivation and knowing where to look. As an example, consider that “23 things” project going on a few years ago, where librarians would have workshops on using various social media and then go experiment with them. I’m sure the “23 things” workshops were useful for a lot of people, but every one of those 23 things could have been learned without talking to anyone or participating in any workshops. You want to learn how to write computer code, how to design websites, or how to get the most out of a piece of useful software, the resources are out there. They’re also out there if you want to learn a foreign language, or more about assessment or statistics. Books, websites, blogs, wikis, knowledgeable friends and colleagues–they’re out there. Even formal courses are sometimes free or very cheap.
All it takes is motivation and time, and if you’re motivated you find the time. I would be willing to make a small wager (small because I am after all a librarian) that most of the librarians presenting workshops and such at conferences learned most of what they present on their own. It’s not enough to wait for someone to tell you what you need to be learning. If you don’t want to grow stale, you have to go find out what you should be learning, and then you have to learn it. It’s also not enough to sit through a workshop or presentation and think that means you now know how to do something new. You know how to do something new when you can actually do it, and that means practice and effort. When Ptolemy asked Euripides for an easy way to learn mathematics, Euripidies replied that there was no royal road to geometry. There’s also no royal road to professional development. While libraries should support that professional development to the fullest extent possible, librarians have to take the ultimate responsibility and do the work themselves. It could be that no one will tell them what to do until it’s too late.