Jan 9, 2013

Librarians and their skill set

CLIR blog has recently posted a piece on re-skilling for librarians by Christa Williford, focusing on digital humanities librarianship. What kind of skills do librarians need in order to be relevant in contemporary research environments? The list can be pretty long, moreover, there might be multiple lists.

Another list was proposed in a report that Christa mentioned, “Re-skilling for research” by Research Libraries UK (RLUK). The report contains results of a series of studies that aimed to map the needs of researchers onto tasks to be undertaken by subject librarians.

The report is long, but the message is the same over and over: librarians’ roles and skills are quite limited and traditional; they do not match the needs. Subject librarians are not involved at the early stages of research that involve conceptualization and planning. Most of the services are still offered in the areas of literature search and information management (how to store and organize everything). Services that are related to data collection, management, analysis and preservation are in their infancy at best.

The list of 32 skills in this report includes:

  • deep knowledge of the discipline/subject
  • understanding of research experiences and workflows
  • knowledge of funding sources and mandates of funding agencies
  • knowledge of storage and information management techniques
  • knowledge of data sources and data manipulation techniques and good familiarity with metadata and emerging technologies
In addition to all those skills, the report suggests that subject librarians need to move from the liaison model to the engagement model. In other words, librarians need to become proactive and seek opportunities to contribute to research teams at every stage of research.

While all those skill suggestions sound reasonable, I’m not sure that it’s realistic for librarians to sustain such a huge change. The skill sets described above require completely different training. Once a person goes through such training, librarianship might not be the most fulfilling career path for them. Perhaps, re-skilling in librarianship should happen not in the areas of actual skills and knowledge sets, but in the orientation of library services - from offering advise and consultation to enabling various forms of scholarly activities. As enablers, librarians are providers of spaces, infrastructure, resources, tools, etc. that facilitate preservation and dissemination of knowledge. In this case it's not about their skills per se, it's about finding the right partners and promoting the right cause.