Why this book?

If you think that a book about lifelong learning shouldn’t be necessary for information professionals, I don’t blame you; I thought the same for some time myself. Librarianship and its allied professions have some structural quirks, however, that deprive them of clear, thoughtful, and above all universal professional incentives for lifelong learning.

No requirements

Most medical professionals are required to refresh their knowledge; if they do not, they can lose their license to do their work. Incompetent or stale lawyers can be disbarred, if they err badly enough.

For the most part (New Zealand is a partial exception), the information professions have no skill-enhancement or skill-updating requirements, nor can a poorly-performing or stale practitioner be barred from the profession after attaining an ALA-accredited degree. The notion that two years of full-time-equivalent education is all a working professional will ever need to know throughout an entire career is ridiculous on its face; nonetheless, the gatekeepers for our professions neither require nor even reward new or updated knowledge and skills.

No standards

Library schools are accredited by the American Library Association. iSchools currently have no accreditation specific to them, but many go through the ALA accreditation process, and the Association for Information Science and Technology is considering an iSchool accreditation program. Accreditation processes evaluate what schools are teaching and whether their teaching and assessment practices meet an acceptable standard.

Neither ALA, ASIST, nor any other professional body sets standards or directions for providers of continuing education for information professionals. Not only is it unclear what and how much professionals should learn, it’s unclear what providers should teach! Nor is it clear how professionals should demonstrate, and providers attest to, continued learning.

Unequal opportunity

While it’s possible to learn a great deal from open educational resources online, many educational opportunities do cost money, and all cost time. Professional-development money is extraordinarily unequally available across the information professions. Academic librarians and LIS faculty tend to have the most; many rural public or school librarians have none whatever. As for time, librarians and other information professionals who are the only employee of their kind in their workplace have much less freedom in their schedules to spend time on learning.

This book cannot mend these inequalities. It can and will suggest practical means for those on the wrong end of inequality to learn what they need to learn, and to make the most of whatever time and money they can squeeze.

Academic tenure

Many academic librarians go through tenure or tenure-like processes. While tenure typically cannot be successfully navigated without at least some exposure to additional learning, it is fundamentally predicated on advancing the state of the art, rather than individual (much less organizational) skill and knowledge acquisition. That emphasis forces tenure-track librarians to focus on publishing and presenting about areas where they are already expert. Laudable though this is, the sheer time poverty involved in chasing tenure may well mean these librarians miss chances to broaden (rather than deepen) their expertise.

A commonly-heard critique of tenure (in all of academe, not just academic librarianship) is that once achieved, it lets its holders rust away altogether without consequence. Like most generalizations, this is certainly not true of every tenure-holder, but I do believe there to be a kernel of a rather disturbing and unfortunate truth in it, a truth that goes well beyond actual tenure environments.

Learning-impoverished professional development

It’s quite possible to do many activities commonly labeled “professional development” and learn nothing whatever. This is not intrinsically problematic, just an acknowledgment that conferences (to choose the obvious example) are about many more tasks and activities than learning: teaching and training, presenting, scoping out purchases on the exhibit floor, networking, committee work and other service, and so forth.

The structure of many professional-development events can also militate against learning, deep learning specifically. An hourlong sage-on-the-stage conference presentation or webinar can only convey so much information to begin with, and worse, it does so largely passively (though social-media backchannels do provide at least some opportunity for more active engagement). Complex skill development is utterly impossible in a typical conference environment.

Worse yet, too much classroom learning and conference attendance strongly implies that learning is passive, not active: planting one’s posterior in a seat, at a conference or in front of a computer, magically remakes the brain to instill necessary knowledge and skill. This is nonsensical, but I see too many professionals whose behavior betrays that they have never questioned it.

A common result of relying exclusively on conferences for professional development is the “feeling left behind” hamster wheel. What conference attendees see presented at conferences seems so far ahead of what they know themselves capable of that they despair of catching up; yet because of their advancing-the-state-of-the-art emphasis, conferences rarely hint at early-stage novelties anyone can get in on. Conference attendees therefore miss hints to prepare themselves with learning, and perennially feel out of date, chasing after innovation on an unmoving hamster wheel. The hamster wheel isn’t necessary, and this book will help readers stay off it.

Neither individual nor collective learning planning

Professional development in librarianship is framed as a purely individual responsibility. Even in workplaces that still offer financial or time-release support for individual learning—which not all do, of course—it is not customary for supervisors, library administrators, or direction-setting library committees to direct (or even be more than marginally aware of) the individual’s choices about what to learn and how to learn it. Overall staff development is too rarely grist for the strategic-planning mill, leaving entire organizations to flail without clear direction or motivation. Even should an individual want to learn something that will benefit the organization, the organization often won’t know what that should be. Perhaps worse, an organization that does know what it would like the base skill and knowledge level of its staff to be, or which areas it would like staff to develop new or additional skill and knowledge in, may not have a good way to achieve those goals because of the highly individualistic construction of professional development.

There are exceptions, to be sure, a few of which I’ll discuss in the book because they are savvy examples for us all. As I listen to information professionals talking about their work and workplaces, though, the sense I get is that a lot of information organizations desperately want more overall staff knowledge, but feel desperately helpless to make that happen. I don’t believe this is beyond change.

Left entirely to their own devices, individuals rarely plan coherently for their own continuous learning or advancement, nor keep an eye on their environment to be ready for what’s coming. Without planning and current awareness, anyone can fall for silly hype, punditry, or scaremongering. Worse, I have seen people in my continuing-education courses who have no idea why they’re there; they only seem to have a dim awareness that some three-letter acronym is the coming thing and they had better know about it. That is no way to learn wisely. This book will therefore address both current-awareness tactics and learning planning.

Individualistic concepts of professional development leave educators in the lurch as well. Without structured, frequent communication from workplaces, we educators are left guessing what topics and skills are most important to offer. Guessing wrong wastes planning energy that would be better spent on offering something more useful. Ideally, we would hear what professionals need and make shift to provide it; instead, we are stuck in an inappropriately paternalistic mode of telling professionals what we offer, implying that it must be what they need—even when we know we’re just guessing.

Moreover, individualism builds cost and time inefficiency into continuing education. An organization seeking whole-staff development has few options to bring in an educator, which would be vastly more cost-effective than leaving individual staff members to make individual accommodations. From the educator side, we find ourselves forced to market to individuals, when our balance sheets and mission-driven assessments would look much better if we could contract with organizations.

Overreliance on new hiring

Stymied in their staff-development efforts, too many libraries assume that new hires will plug skill gaps and advance the entire organization’s knowledge base. Not only is this tremendously insulting and dispiriting to capable existing staff members assumed not to be educable, it doesn’t even work. One employee at the bottom of the workplace hierarchy simply cannot drag the entire workplace after themself. Even an expert brought in at supervisory or administrative levels cannot instantaneously teach the organization what they know, especially if they are not a born teacher, or if the organization (as often happens) resists learning.

Another major drawback to relying on new hires to refresh the organization is the state of hiring budgets, and the unpredictability of hiring opportunities. Libraries cannot and should not have to wait for a line to open up just to pilot a new service or change existing workflows to increase their efficiency! A versatile, learning-capable staff means a much more predictable and governable flow of change.

I hear a lot of fearmongering talk about “libraries hiring the wrong people,” or not even wanting new librarians any more. Sometimes this is reasonable—I can’t train up a systems administrator in two years of library school!—but I also believe it a function of libraries wanting to hire unicorns instead of people: magical creatures who will wave a wand or a horn and fix everything. Unicorns don’t exist. Librarians and library staff capable of learning, changing, and growing absolutely do exist. I believe strongly that the only “wrong people” in a library environment are people who can’t or won’t learn.

Workplace barriers

Peer pressure. “This is the way we’ve always done it.” An unvarying drumbeat of “no.” Refusal to allow learning lest regular work tasks suffer. Overlooking existing (or even cultivated) staff expertise while panting after a new hire. “That’s only a fad.” Scoffing at anything new, as well as the people who dare to learn about it. The litany of workplace-culture dysfunctions common to information workplaces explains much more than it should about why workplace learning is so rare, and why instilling it takes so much effort and political capital.

Administrators, this is especially to your address. You know whether you’ve said no to learning among your staff (and if you have, what in the world are you thinking? stop it at once). You know which of the above-described phenomena hold sway among the people you supervise. What are you doing about it? Your goal is to make learning less risky and frightening than not learning. Go to it!

A word about tone

We can be our own worst enemies. I’ve abundantly proven that of myself! Confronting our own mental blocks and unproductive attitudes is hard, dispiriting, neverending work.

That touches this book insofar as over my time as librarian and educator I’ve noticed patterns of thought and behavior that block learning, or even seeking out learning. I don’t plan to be shy or indirect about calling those patterns out. I do pledge to keep my unfortunate tendencies toward sarcasm in check as best I can, and to heed my beta readers when they tell me I have crossed the line. I ask you, should you read something that hits too close to home, to take a break from the book—it will still be here later!—and examine the possibility that the anger is defensiveness masking a real problem.

If that’s the case, it’s all right. Acknowledging a problem is the first step toward fixing it—and that first step is the hardest, and sometimes the angriest. Be angry at the book if you need to; it won’t mind. But don’t let unproductive habits of thought hold you back.

Who is this book for?

Although not every chapter of this book will be useful to every potential reader, if you belong to one or more of the groups below, this book may help you:

Library paraprofessionals

Whether you’re considering library school or perfectly happy where you are, you need to keep up with changing times as badly as your librarian co-workers do. If you are actually considering library school, this book should help you get ahead of the game. It is my hope that this book will prove especially useful for paraprofessionals who for whatever reason feel daunted by the idea of pursuing a master’s degree.

Library-school and iSchool students

Ask any working professional to hear the refrain, “I didn’t learn that in library school!” It follows, then, that library schools and iSchools represent the beginning, not the end, of your learning. Keeping your skills sharp and up-to-date is a basic career need! Yet I have seen a fair few graduates flail badly (or worse, go stale) once away from the structured clarity of the classroom environment. This book should keep you from becoming one of the flailers or the stale.

Unemployed professionals

I’m sorry. It’s not fair. You got through school, but you haven’t found the job you sought. You are part of the reason this book is free to read—you can’t afford to pay for yet more instruction! Fortunately, you can learn an awful lot that’s useful and that makes you more employable for no more investment than your time. I hope this book helps you do that, and I wish you good luck.

Professionals seeking opportunities

Feeling stuck? Hoping to move up, or on? Need to move to a new place, and want to maximize your employment options there? Failing where you are, and hoping to find a place where you won’t fail? (Oh, can I relate personally to that one.) Wherever you are, this book aims to get you the skills to go where you want to be.

Professionals fearing job loss

It’s ugly out there, what with employer loyalty all but dead. You may have given years or decades of your working life to your employer… but their needs have changed, and you don’t fit the way you once did. If you fear you may lose your job because of changes in the information industries that you don’t understand or feel ready for, this book can help you realign yourself.

Professionals faced with significant job change

Reorganization fever has hit academic libraries and archives hard, and I doubt they’re the only workplaces affected. You may have been ordered outright to acquire new knowledge or skills. Even if you’re keeping your job title, that title may signify something rather different than you remember, or even than you signed up for. If you’re willing and able to learn, though, you have a better shot at controlling your destiny and making organizational change work for you. This book can help.

Administrators seeking to expand staff skillsets

If you’re on the other side of the reorganization—the supervisory side—you may be feeling rather daunted at all that is now expected of you and your possibly-shrinking staff. You may also be uneasily aware of change resistance and unwillingness to learn among your staff. Standard professional development doesn’t seem to be helping. What’s wrong, and how can you start to fix it? This book contains a chapter especially for you.

LIS instructors

The single hardest thing about transitioning from librarian work to LIS education for me? Making my peace with how hard it has become to keep up my knowledge through praxis. I don’t have time to do all the software bricolage and learning-by-walking-around that I once did.

Yet letting my knowledge decay isn’t an appetizing option either, much less becoming the obsolete, out-of-touch relic that LIS graduates complain most bitterly about.

Three years of teaching have reassured me somewhat. I can keep up. I can avoid growing stale. The tools and techniques I use for this are the same tools and techniques I used as a professional, and the same tools and techniques I write about in this book.

If you came to LIS instruction through your research rather than through praxis, as many LIS instructors with doctorates have, this book should help you work out how to supplement your existing knowledge with praxis-oriented skills and mindsets. Gathering knowledge like a practitioner will help you learn and then teach what practitioners most need to know.

Continuing-education providers

Continuing professional education is different from classroom teaching. Learner goals are different. Logistics are different. The educator-learner relationship is very different; you have significantly less authority than does a classroom teacher. The final chapter of this book explains the differences and suggests ways to deal with them.


About me

The flip side of failure is learning. I’ve failed a lot, so I’ve had to train and retrain myself over and over again. I became what I’m seeing called “post-academic” in 1998, when I left a detestable Ph.D program shortly before embarking upon preliminary exams. After a short spate of temping, I landed a job at a small publishing-services bureau, where they threw me into the deep end of the SGML/XML pond to sink or swim.

I swam. I loved markup (and still do). I taught myself just enough Python programming to be dangerous, enough HTML and CSS to make the primitive websites of the day, enough about regular expressions to do major text-cleanup and conversion projects. My coworkers taught me the basics of typesetting and layout. During the dot-com boom, I slipped onto an ebook standards committee by dint of trying my hand at technical writing. I didn’t even know what technical writing was at the time!

Unfortunately, nobody likes a smartass, and I hadn’t learned not to be one. After run-ins with new management, I eventually found myself in a data-entry job, teaching myself relational databases and Visual Basic and casting about for the next thing to do, some other arena where digitization and markup were taken seriously.

Librarianship looked likely, particularly digital librarianship as practiced in academic libraries, so I betook myself to library school. A lot of my professional friends consider it déclassé to admit to having learned a lot in library school. Too bad. I learned a lot in library school, from reference-interview technique to systems analysis to labor theory to SQL. I enjoyed myself thoroughly, despite the occasional (probably inevitable) clunker class, and was eager to be a credit to my alma mater when I graduated.

That didn’t work out so well. I spent the next six years failing miserably at making institutional repositories go, with an added stint toward the end of failing to make a research-data service go.[1. For the curious, these failures have been distilled into three articles, “Innkeeper at the Roach Motel,” “Institutional Approaches to Providing Research Data Management Services” (though the more honest explication of that failure is this presentation deck), and the satire “How to Scuttle a Scholarly-Communication Initiative.”] I learned plenty along the way—DSpace, PostgreSQL management, enough Java to be absolutely sure I hated Java, a little more CSS, XSLT, meeting management, professional writing, professional presenting, and so on—but unlike some, I can’t celebrate or even advocate failure as a way of life. It’s bruising, and hard to come back from.

As it happens, I had also been learning to teach during that time—the hard way, by doing it. To my considerable surprise, I discovered that I enjoy teaching, and with a little help from colleagues and students I can manage not to fail at it. So it is that I now teach for my alma mater, as well as my alma mater’s continuing-education program. I also teach classes and workshops independently.

Am I still learning? Absolutely. From the mysteries of accreditation to the logical bizarrerie of linked-data modeling, there’s still plenty for me to learn. After all, I have to. I can’t possibly believe I’ve seen my last failure.


Preparing to learn

Whatever the instructional quality of your library-school experience—as a library-school instructor I am perennially besieged by librarians telling me all the myriad ways I’m doing it wrong—it provided you with several key learning aids: structure, scaffolding, and permission to learn.

Permission to learn? Who needs permission to learn? Don’t we all automatically have that? Well, no. If you can’t be seen on the job with your nose in a book or your attention on a webinar, your workplace has not given you permission to learn. If you fear harsh punishment from your supervisory chain for the least mistake, your workplace has not given you permission to learn. If you automatically freeze up in front of anything you’ve never done before, or if you cringe at doing something you’re not yet expert at, you haven’t given yourself permission to learn.

Scaffolding for learning includes the obvious: courseware (horrible though that is), library access to many more books and journals than anyone could possibly buy, and a readymade community of fellow learners. It includes instructors, of course, but just as important if not more so are advisors: people who have a broad sense of the field, know roughly where you are in it, and can nudge you toward the best opportunities accordingly. All this disappears when you graduate; you will have to rebuild what parts of the scaffold you need.

Library degree programs are rather less structured than they once were; I teach in a program with three required courses, though when I graduated from it, there were six. Even so, the shape of the curriculum, including prerequisites for advanced coursework as well as bare requirements, at least hints at what areas of study are available and how best to progress through them. Nothing like this exists in the continuing-education world; you have to map the landscape and build a path for yourself, and if you want advice, you’ll have to find someone you trust to offer it. Individual courses are structured as well, with readings and assignments laid out by the week, and due dates set from day one. If you need courselike structures to learn best, you can find them in the continuing-education universe, but many of the best learning opportunities do not come in neatly-packaged course form. You will have to structure your own learning… which is a skill in and of itself.

You still need many forms of structure, scaffolding, and permission. This chapter will help you figure out how to put them together.

Current awareness and environmental scanning

Let me be blunt about this: one conference per year falls well short of sufficient professional development for a professional-level understanding of what is happening in librarianship, not to mention changes in the world outside librarianship that matter to it. If one conference per year is all you do—worse, if it is all you have done for some years—you desperately need to expand and update your strategy.

Your strategy toolbox is divided into environmental scanning and current awareness, each of which in turn comprises any number of more-or-less useful techniques. You don’t have to use all possible techniques, but I do recommend experimenting with several to see which inform you best while still fitting into your time and resource constraints.

Environmental scanning

Environmental scanning is taking an immediate snapshot of what’s going on around one or more specific phenomena, and working out a plan for them. (Note well: no one can realistically scan the entire environment! You have to choose what to focus on, and you may need to do several rounds of scanning around different phenomena.) If you have been out of touch with change for a long time, environmental scanning is what you need to do to catch up. You may also need to scan the environment around phenomena:

  • that you aren’t directly involved with, but need to help others (staff or patrons) with
  • that you have to tell other people to do
  • that you have to hire other people to do
  • that you have to buy services to do
  • that you have to strategize about, plan for, and/or assess

If you are pondering a job change, scanning the environment around your specialty, or specialties you’re curious about moving into, may help you.

Staying current

If environmental scanning is like taking a snapshot, staying current is like turning a security camera on to monitor an area continuously. This constant low-intensity information flow is what one-conference-a-year professionals miss out on.

Like environmental scanning, staying current involves making choices about what to focus on, as well as maintaining awareness of phenomena both inside and outside your areas of particular expertise. It’s to be expected that your choice of focus will change over time; if you’re bored by what you’re watching, or it has become less salient or useful, feel free to drop it and choose something else.

Choosing areas to focus on

Of course you’ll be interested in what’s happening in your area of practice and your type of library. If you have a specific discipline or disciplines you are responsible for, as liaison librarians in academic libraries often do, keeping up with that obviously makes sense as well. An environmental scan may also inform you that the phenomenon you scanned is still evolving, such that you should include it in your current-awareness strategy.

That’s not enough, though, not least because we all get stale if we never poke our noses outside familiar environs. Let me suggest that minimally, you also scan or stay current on:

  • An area of librarianship, or a library type, wholly different from yours
  • One phenomenon your library is considering implementing (or just recently implemented) that you are not directly involved with
  • One phenomenon mostly or wholly divorced from libraries that nonetheless matters a great deal to them

Of course you won’t become expert in everything you try to stay current on. That’s an unrealistic expectation, and if you try to meet it, you’ll stop staying current because you feel too guilty and overwhelmed to continue. Your goal is not to know everything; give yourself permission not to. Your goal, instead, is to stay in touch enough to know which way major currents in the areas you choose are flowing, to pluck out what’s useful to you or your workplace, to be able to communicate effectively with experts in those areas, and to know when you need to spend focused learning time on something lest you fall seriously behind the times.

By way of example, I’ll tell you how I chose (and continue to choose) topics for environmental scanning and current awareness.

When I moved to teaching nearly full-time, I immediately found myself doing environmental scans in areas I was weak in, notably cataloguing, K-12 and youth librarianship, and archives. I couldn’t have responsibly taught the courses I was slated to teach without those scans!

All three topics now form part of my regular current-awareness work, though because I have no more hours in the day than anyone else, my coverage of each is sketchy and tilted specifically toward phenomena I discovered in my scans that are relevant to the areas I teach. For example, I mostly follow technology use in K-12 classrooms and by young people outside the classroom, since it’s important to the introductory library-technology course I teach. That’s obviously only a tiny sliver of what K-12 and youth-services librarians know and do, but it’s the sliver I most need to track. If you asked me about collection development for youth, I’d be at a complete loss; I don’t teach that so don’t keep tabs on it. (If I suddenly had to know, though, it would be environmental-scan time!)

As I write this, the relatively new phenomenon I’m watching is linked-data implementation in libraries and archives. I already understand basic linked-data principles well enough to teach them; my current-awareness strategy is aimed at finding real-world tools, techniques, and examples that will be useful to my students. Heavily geeky discussions of tiny details of linked-data standards? They’re everywhere, but I pass them by. They don’t help me teach, nor my students learn.

The phenomenon I’m watching wholly outside libraries is museums: specifically, museums’ digitization and web strategies (because they often outstrip those of libraries) and their efforts to retool themselves to serve underserved communities better. Quite a few suggestions from the museum world have already informed my syllabi and lectures, and I only expect that to continue.

Once you’ve chosen your areas of focus, how do you proceed? The next sections will help you.