New Skills for a New Era?

The SCONUL Winter Conference (7 December 2012 – London) was provocatively entitled ‘New Teams for a New Era’. That’s a very relevant headline for the LMS Change project, which is concerned about the skills implicated in new generations of library management systems, in pressures for enterprise scale integration and in interaction with the wider information landscape and its service platforms. So here is a relevant snapshot of the debate at the conference …

This post was jointly authored by Oliver Pritchard (Asst Director for Student & Learning Support at the University of Sunderland) and by David Kay (LMS Change project). Whilst touching on themes explored more widely in the conference, it draws principally on the discussion that took place in the ‘Boundaries of the Library’ workshop.

Core Questions?

The workshop identified some headline discussion points which given time constraints and the wide ranging nature of the discussion, were not all addressed in detail. However there was considerable value in charting them to aid future thinking and discussion.

  • Identifying trends affecting skills, currently and prospectively on the horizon
  • Mapping the landscape of our services (supply and demand, within the institution and beyond)
  • Understanding who has a stake in ownership / operation of our services, and in particular whether these services are local to the library / elsewhere in the institution / outsourced / shared
  • Ascertaining whether it makes sense anymore to talk about ‘library’ skills – and, if so, defining the distinguishing characteristics and articulating the reinforcing advocacy
  • Consequently defining where / what are the skills gaps – recognising that whilst these may be technical (driven by the pervasiveness and cadence of technology change), there may be other ways of addressing this problem space, even when focused on library systems

A free flowing discussion challenged the framework for the workshop and moved to identify and address broader, but valuable themes.

Trends – What are the key trends that might determine or influence our landscape?

A wide-ranging discussion centred on two key examples:

  • Outsourcing: by example – distributed and hosted services, services direct to the user, beyond our management or control (e.g. Google search; MOOCs), services with user input and choice including “crowdsourcing” (e.g. Patron Driven Acquisition; recommenders and networks such as Mendeley). This trend may broadly be described as “disintermediation” to capture that varied and distributed model of service type and delivery. The group concluded that there were in fact, probably, degrees of disintermediation at play, though not yet complete or wholesale and rarely beyond the reference frame of the library in terms of mission and skills.
  • Student Experience: the learning journey was identified as a key driver and one in which libraries played a central part and could be/are key influencers and stakeholders. There was some debate regarding validity of adopting a customer/consumer/retail model, based on differing views on the nature of the student/learning transaction and whether this was truly a consumer model. However, there was some agreement that more thought should perhaps be given to the needs of our service users, and the means of listening to their voice and understanding their preferences and behaviours.

Skills – What are the skills that our services need to manage a changing landscape?

There was broad agreement that, in terms of critical success factors, these crystallised around a set of attitudinal and behavioural attributes, typically borne of a core responsibly for the mediation of information working with a considerable range of users in a variety of settings and involving the creation of critical links with a wide variety of internal and external stakeholders. A set of key attributes emerged from the tenor of this discussion:

  • Brokerage
  • Facilitation
  • Mediation
  • Agency
  • Collaboration
  • Bringing order to innovation and opportunism

These were identified as key ways of working which place the library team in an important position in the institution vis a vis both ‘customer’ service and corporate enablement. These were therefore expressed as differentiating characteristics for the library service that needed to be imbued in our leadership and in the approaches adopted by our teams.

This offered an important perspective on technical skills (perhaps a wrongly assumed focus of this debate). Whilst such skills were seen as significant to service success and corporate agility, it was suggested that technical skills will always change (sometimes rapidly – consider such as web frameworks, metadata transport formats) and might be bought in rather than as a default developed “in-house”.

In conclusion – A 2020 vision?

Let us assume, perhaps within the decade, that the primacy of buildings is ultimately challenged by the potential to distribute and personalise learning at scale and that print collections become largely specialist legacy concerns. In such a landscape characterised by the greater distribution of learning and support services, what knowledge and skills will remain as relevant, as core and potentially as premium for our library-like services?

It was argued that the skills characterised in our discussion – a set of complex attributes, higher level skills intertwined with core professional values – can help optimise our opportunity to survive in and crucially to shape an increasingly uncertain and fast changing world of teaching, learning and research. In the context of these fundamental observations about the ‘library team’ in a new era, the enabling technology skills required to manage and evolve library services were understood to be crucially important, almost a given, to be identified and developed as a part of core business.

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