When you ask a group of library leaders ‘what is the biggest challenge now faced in your library’, you don’t necessarily expect the answer to be ‘we are’. But this is in effect what happened at the recent meeting of our Asia Pacific Customer Advisory Board in Singapore.
It was a fascinating meeting, rich in discussion and drawing on the experience of a dozen librarians from across the region; from Australia to Hong Kong, India to Japan. What is common among all the libraries – large or small, teaching or research-based, public or private – is that there is a re-conceptualizing of the role of the library and of librarians within it underway. How do you transform the service from the traditional to the new? This is not a new issue, of course, as libraries throughout the world are at different points along the transformation (and indeed it has come up before at our Europe and North American CAB meetings). But what was interesting was the extent to which the actual skills and attitudes of librarians themselves are being questioned throughout the region. It was clear from the Singapore discussion that there is much to be gained from librarians sharing their thoughts and experience and best practice across the group.
As Anne Bell from the University of Sydney Library put it, “We need to re-conceptualize the role of a librarian and the library in the larger ecosystem. This means we need to question the ‘sacred cows’ of the service; create new areas, shrink others, and change our skillsets”. Anil Kumar from the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad said, “My university is changing and librarians need to be equipped with the right skillset.” Ng Chay Tuan from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore added, “We need to make sure staff are ready for the changes in both their skillset and their mindset”. So, it’s not just about the services that are offered, or the skills that librarians have, but also about the mindset which empowers them to deliver that new service. It’s about having confidence and reaching out beyond the traditional boundaries of the library. As Lee Cheng Ean of National University of Singapore said, “We want to build the expertise and competency of our staff. Young librarians have to stretch themselves beyond the day-to-day role, be empowered, and be given the space to grow.” Or, as Anne Bell said, “we want young staff to have good careers”. By ‘good’ I also infer that this means ‘long’.
So what does this reskilling involve? To quote Ng Chay Tuan, “We don't just want to provide content, we want help to create and manage content”. In other words, the library is moving from being the deliverer of information, to being embedded in the teaching and research activities of the university; supporting the creation of new information, evaluating impact, managing data, data analytics, workflow tools, bibliometrics, teaching writing for the web, SEO, relationship management, research policy and planning, marketing, etc. This assumes reskilling or upskilling for a huge array of new areas. There are also many new technological demands on librarians which require them to keep up with and teach new tools and solutions, such as Mendeley, Altmetrics, etc. This poses a challenge, as Mohd Nasir from University of Science Malaysia explains, “Now users ask us about publishing, and understanding that has become the librarian’s job. We need to relook at ourselves, we need to start learning because everyone thought that librarians know it all and we don’t.” As Joyce Chen from National Taiwan Normal University says, “Staff needs new skillsets to stay competent and to offer new services.”
This transformation of the profession can be seen in the change in job postings, with new roles appearing in open access, research assessment, data management etc. A role like Digital Humanities Librarian requires subject expertise plus technical skills and someone skilled at organizing information. Not everyone can adjust to this and, indeed, not everyone needs to be able to do everything. There is a place for a range of specialist skills. However, all librarians need to be prepared for change, and hanging on to the old role is ultimately not sustainable. As Li Hai Peng from Hong Kong Baptist University says, “Librarians need to reprioritize and think about the new projects they want to do. That means they need to drop certain things.” Marilyn Fordyce at the University of Otago in New Zealand, described how they replaced a reference desk librarian who left there with a business analyst – a very concrete example of stopping something in order to start something.
So what is driving this deep re-evaluation of librarians’ roles? The print to digital migration of content, new access models, new tools and technologies, the economic downturn, in fact, all the same issues which are driving a similar reevaluation of our role and our skillsets within publishing companies like Wiley. We are grappling with many of the same issues, while transforming ourselves from traditional publishers to providers of knowledge-enabled services and solutions, just as our customers are also transforming from traditional librarians to providers of knowledge-enabled services and solutions. It will be interesting to see how this reskilling and convergence plays out.