In defense of Shambrarians

A week ago, the ALIA National Advisory Conference came to Perth. The topic was ‘Future of the Profession’. You can get some idea of what was said from the Storify, but the guest speaker was my good friend and mentor Kathryn.

Kathryn made a number of excellent points and at one stage she asked the room to embrace shambrarians. Now this is an easy thing for me for reasons I’ll get to, but apparently not everyone in the room was so supportive. Indeed, in the last week, Hoi and Peter have both written excellent blog posts on the matter, which I’d encourage you to read.

So just what is a shambrarian? I would count them at minimum as qualified professionals who work in a library doing librarian-y tasks but have non-librarian qualifications. I’m talking teachers, historians, people with degrees in communication, IT, etc.

In my job I’m fortunate enough to work closely with a number of shambrarians. My opinion on this topic was formed early in my time as a librarian when I was accepted into the graduate program at the State Library of WA. The year I started, the program included me and one other graduate, Theresa. She and I quickly became close friends and I gained a great deal of respect for her intelligence and capabilities. She had a degree in teaching and had just finished Honours in history. This meant that from the outset she was far more knowledgeable about the State Library collections than I was, as she had used them in her research.

Theresa (R) and I (L) at NLS5
cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by Matthias Liffers: http://flickr.com/photos/mpfl/6191934024/

Unfortunately it didn’t stop some people from treating her differently because she didn’t have a library degree. This irked me because it was apparent that she was a fast learner and was no less capable than I. Indeed, I could see that her skills and knowledge were really useful because they were different to those of the other staff (in the same way, skills I’d gained before becoming a librarian were also particularly useful).

It seems that some people believe that their library degree automatically makes them better at everything to do with libraries than people without one. This sentiment was somewhat apparent at the NAC when mention was made of non-librarians getting jobs in libraries (with the implied subtext of ‘stealing our jobs’). I believe that no degree is a meal ticket. If you want to get a job, you need to ensure that you’re the best candidate. If you’re not, then it’s wise to look in the mirror before casting elsewhere for blame. I know that it’s a tough time to get a library job, but I have a lot more sympathy for the librarians in this discussion who are looking for ways to improve their technical skills rather than those who would shut the door to a more diverse range of skills.

Now I work in a team with, among others, Theresa and Carina (another ex-grad shambrarian) as well as Jocelyne who has a teaching background. My manager is also an ex-teacher and my director is a historian. Shambrarians to the max and I love it! I also really enjoy working with library officers who often show as much or more initiative and willingness to learn than some librarians.

I believe that a certain amount of diversity is going to be vital for libraries if we are to survive and prosper. Hiring people from different work and study backgrounds really helps to avoid myopia and brings a broader wealth of experience and ideas to the table. I can see many ways that this is of benefit to my workplace and to the profession. I don’t feel threatened by shambrarians and I love working with them. I’d love to see them become more welcome in and involved with our professional organisations and conversations.

Do you agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear from people who have alternative viewpoints and can give me (preferably objective ) reasons that they are not in favour of shambrarians.

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Moodle Milestone

Last week at work we hit a milestone with our Moodle project. First, a bit of background. This is a project I’ve been managing and working on for more than six months now. A large part of my role as eLearning Librarian is to work on how my library can provide services online and setting up an online learning platform is part of this.

Moodle is an open source learning management system that was started in WA by the fabulous Martin Dougiamas. It’s now being used all over the world including as the main learning management system for UWA and Murdoch University. Many TAFEs, Government departments and other organisations are setting up Moodle sites to provide online training to their staff and clients.

I love that Moodle is open source. I think it makes so much sense for libraries to support open source initiatives as much as possible. There’s a clear philosophical overlap here. I also appreciate the Moodle community. I was fortunate enough to go to a Moodlemoot last year and meet a bunch of Moodlers, they are an incredibly friendly and helpful group. The way that open source projects like Moodle have a tendency to build helpful communities is something I think libraries can learn from and tap into.

moodlestar

So the first stage of this project has been to set up the system and make courses available to public library staff in WA. The milestone we reached was the soft launch of these courses. It’s been quite a process writing them, testing them and creating documentation and I feel proud of what we have achieved.

I’m also excited about what comes after, the prospect of making courses available to our clients. I see this as a really compelling way forward for libraries. It fits well with the idea of libraries being a community space (both physically and online) for the sharing of knowledge. At the outset we will be looking to create courses that reflect our key collection areas.

I’m hoping that we will move towards co-created courses that take advantage of community knowledge. This way we can act as the conduit between people with knowledge and those who wish to learn. It’s a bit arrogant to presume that we have all of the information that people want. Getting the community involved in course creation is a cool prospect and one that I also hope to test with the help of public libraries.

Is this a tall order? Absolutely! There are a lot of issues that will need to be overcome with regards to collaborative course creation. It’s going to be hard for libraries to let go of some control and learn to trust our communities a bit more. I think it’s a very worthwhile effort to make however and I hope we have uptake from people who are interested in sharing their knowledge and learning new things.

Becoming a Librarian, some more thoughts

My most recent post was some advice for people who are thinking about going into libraries as a career. I was really delighted by the comments that people left on that post and further discussion that it sparked on Twitter. There were some excellent points made that I’d like to explore a bit further.

Customer service was a point that came up a lot:

Secondly, it’s a customer service profession. Even the ‘back room’ roles like cataloguing are customer service roles. It’s about connecting people with information, people, ideas… And that underpins everything we do. – katiedavis

I have been very pleased to read in the comments an importance being placed on customer service, both as a library user and as (hopefully) a future librarian. I would like our cultural institutions, in general, to be seen as approachable by any member of the public, and I think that an emphasis on customer service is an ideal approach. – Kelly

I’m really happy to see comments like this. I worked in very customer service oriented industries before going into libraries (training for retail and call centre staff) and it’s something which makes all the difference to me. I have been nonplussed by some of the ‘service’ I have seen at various libraries where the staff treat clients like an inconvenience or talk down to them. Just because we’re generally not providing a paid service, doesn’t mean we should skimp on customer service.

All New Librarian Action Figure
cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by blg3

Another point raised was about community connections. This goes to the heart of the work that I’m doing and where I’d like to see libraries headed:

I love that the library is a community space, that we are the place people can go when no one else will help them – Julia de Ruiter

I love working libraries mainly for the interaction and knowing I can help the customers out with most of their enquiries or direct them to the right answer. – pyloncoltrait

I really believe that libraries can bring together people with different knowledge and interests and help them to share them effectively. In my job I’m looking at ways of facilitating community knowledge online and many libraries are taking it in lots of other cool directions. This can include makerspaces, workshops, craft groups or the many many other means that we are connecting people. It’s happening in academic and special libraries too where librarians are often the people who know where to go for infomation in people’s heads, not just in books and organise events that bring technical and academic communities together.

The last point I want to make is about continuous learning. Don’t be a librarian if you don’t like learning new things and upskilling on the go, it’s not a great profession for resting on your laurels.

I like finding out about new things no matter what they are. – Petra Dumbell

Adaptability and flexibility are key. – jamesmcgoran

Definitely agree that keeping up to date is an important part of our job. After all, we encourage our patrons to be lifelong learners, so why shouldn’t we practice what we preach? – Andrew Spencer

There have been some amazing librarians who have recently retired in WA; Kerry Smith and Carol Newton Smith. Both of them were learning and engaging with new things even as they were heading into retirement. That’s admirable and something I hope to emulate.

Our roles have changed greatly and the changes are happening more quickly now than ever. It’s often necessary for librarians to ‘unlearn’ what they know – yaketty

I think in many ways I was using tech learning in my last blog post as a metaphor for continuous learning. It can be a good way of quickly identifying people who do not wish to learn new skills, as tech knowledge is currently viewed by many as firmly in the too hard basket.

As I commented to @flexnib on Twitter, we have enough people in the profession who are fighting change. We don’t need more coming in!

So it looks like there is a fair bit of agreement that librarianship should be a learning profession where we need to keep updating our skills. My next question is how we can help our less enthusiastic colleagues to increase their skills? Do you have any tips to share on how to do this, or is it a lost cause?

So you want to be a Librarian?

I had a call yesterday from someone who was thinking about re-training as a librarian. She’s had a career as a teacher and wanted some advice from a recent graduate about the pros and cons of studying librarianship. She also wanted to hear about why I did the triple qualification Masters degree (libraries, records and archives) instead of the Graduate Diploma.

The first thing I told her was, don’t do it unless you are interested in learning about technology. You don’t need to know much about it at the outset but you are at a real disadvantage if you’re not willing to learn.

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by ebayink: http://flickr.com/photos/ebayink/6816581064/

She sounded taken aback by this. She asked if there were still traditional librarian roles available. Yes there are of course, but increasingly fewer and if you’re going for these and you’re up against someone with an interest in/experience with tech you are likely to be at a disadvantage.

I told her that it’s not enough to like books. Yes, I love books and it influenced my decision to take this career path, but I don’t work with books at all in my current role (and that’s ok with me). It’s not just about the books any more and I want to be clear about that to people thinking about joining the profession.

I mentioned different types of libraries (public, academic, special etc) with some of the differences and encouraged her to go into her local library and talk to the people who work there about what they do and how they find it. I also suggested that if she gets a chance, to ask the library manager what skills they would be looking for in a new librarian.

Some of the things I wish I’d been told when I was considering librarianship as a career is:

  • To follow librarians on Twitter and ask them questions
  • To read blogs written by librarians and pay attention to the comments
  • To learn about the direction(s) the profession is going in and think about whether these are a good fit for me
  • To investigate the options available for non library degree graduates (shambrarians) in libraries
  • To dig deeper into records and archives before studying them (a subject for a future blog post)

To be an effective Information Professional, you really need to keep learning throughout your career. Going in to it as an alternative to a job you don’t want to do any more may work for you, but it’s a good idea to dig deeper and learn more before committing to a change of career.

Do you agree? Disagree? What do you wish you’d been told before you went into librarianship?