Responsibility and Professional Development

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.

6 thoughts on “Responsibility and Professional Development

  1. I don’t really know enough about the particulars of what happened in California; so, I’ll refrain from commenting on that.
    I do however want to comment on this post. I completely agree that all it takes is motivation and time. I have read so many posts and articles about how libraries need to be flexible and open in order to survive. I think that goes for staff too.
    You are doing yourself a disservice if you learn the ins and outs of your job whether professional or paraprofessional and expect that to be enough.
    You could say that in THIS job climate it’s important to gain new skills and keep yourself marketable. I would say that this is always true. If you are not interested in learning any more, perhaps you are in the wrong field. I don’t say that to be snotty. I really mean it. If you don’t have the desire to continue to learn and seek new skills in the field you have chosen, you might consider changing your field to one that truly INTERESTS you.
    My father owned a small two bay auto repair shop that went out of business when he lost his lease about 15 years ago. A neighbor got him an interview at a computer company and my dad went because it was the only interview he had gotten in a long time. He was afraid to learn a new trade. He knew cars, not computers. He felt too old, especially after he was offered the job and realized he had close to 20 years on the next oldest person in the company. But, my Dad is a survivor and he’s a curious person and he did well. He now manages a department in that same company and they look to my Dad for his reliability and his technical skills. He’s 68 years old and he is still learning, taking classes in C++ or whatever else they want him to learn.
    It is our responsibility, even when our institutions can’t afford to send us to conferences or trainings, to continue to pursue new avenues of learning and growth, no matter how close to retirement we are. I think it helps keep us not only happy in our jobs, but, also relevant.

  2. My comment speaks entirely to the professional obligation to stay relevant and informed; I earned my MLS in 1985, and had 7+ years pre-professional experience, and I agree with Ann’s comments. I am fortunate to be supported to attend ALA Midwinter and Annual due to service on an ACRL committee, and during my three or four days at conference I attend a minimum of six hours of sessions relevant to my responsibilities (Collection Development & Electronic Resources), each day, and spend a good deal of time initiating and nurturing vendor relationships in the exhibit hall. I did complete the 23 Things workshop a few years ago. I monitor a set of about 30 Blogs and routinely forward relevant posts to colleagues. I participate in the Lyrasis Collection Development & Management and Academic eContent Advisory Groups, the NISO E-Book SIG, Ebsco/NetLibrary Advisory Committee, and was selected in July for the very active Elsevier Innovation Explorers Community. I’ve participated in more than 10 Webinars since July 1. My application was accepted to participate this academic year in a Faculty Professional Learning Community on my own time. I was pleased to see a recent Member of the Week on the ACRL Insider Blog note that “it is a very exciting time to be involved in this profession,” as I’ve been saying the same for years. It helps that I work in an organization that encourages innovation and taking risks, and I have some very creative and motivated colleagues to work with.

  3. Thanks for the comments. The story of Ann’s father certainly shows that my take on this is relevant to any work, not just librarianship. I was also writing about the obligation to take responsibility for your own professional development, which I’m not even sure is relevant to the situation in California. Like the “Loon,” I’ve seen numerous librarians who act as if their professional learning stopped when they finished library school, and I think if newer librarians act that way their knowledge and skills will be obsolete even more quickly than those of librarians trained in the pre-Internet days.
    With secure job environments, which still exist in a lot of academic libraries, it’s easy to grow complacent, and then suddenly ten years have passed and you haven’t learned to do anything but the daily routines of your particular job. Maybe I’m too risk averse for that. I’ve been at Princeton for almost ten years and don’t have plans to leave anytime soon, but I still try to approach my work as if I were about to go on the market tomorrow. I read blogs and library publications trying to find out what’s new and useful. I subscribe to a couple of library job rss feeds, and scan job ads every week to see what sort of things libraries are expecting from candidates these days. I don’t like webinars or workshops very much, but I do like playing around with new tools and techniques on my own and incorporating what I can into my work.
    I had no idea when I started library school that things would be this way, and how much graduation from library school marked the beginning of my library education rather than the end.

  4. Wayne. I had to laugh when you said that you have no plans to leave Princeton; but, have job rss feeds. I do the same thing. I think it’s really, really important to know what libraries are looking for, what types of new jobs are popping up and how libraries are restructuring. Even when you aren’t looking for a new job it can help you see things differently where you are. At my last position after seeing a few “digital branch manager” jobs pop up on the job feed, I suggested to our director that we consider going that route too.

  5. Librarians just like any other professions do need to update their skills to keep up with the digital age. What they learned and do 10 years ago may not be practical and if they do not upgrade themselves to match the current envirionment, employers may phase them out. This is the reality.

  6. i would say that it doesnt matter if the libraries are at a college or elementary school or high-school, but rather libraries are competing with the fact that the internet is taking over their market share so we do not necessarily need physical books, as we can read books in a digital fashion, so down sizing staff in these libraries has to come …it’s the nature of the beast we call technology.

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