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.