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.


5 thoughts on “Why this book?

  1. I think I know what you’re getting at, here, but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the structures “remove incentive.” There are lots of incentives. They differ from librarian type to librarian type, but they’re there. Just sometimes they aren’t as blatant or drastic as they might be in some other professions, or even some other versions of librarianship. In academic librarianship many institutions have pretty formalized advancement structures. In other academic institutions (such as mine) there isn’t much formal structure, but my job depends on building good relationships, and it’s hard to build good relationships without staying on top of best practices, expanding my skill set, and honing the skills I already have. There’s nothing about my institution’s structure that removes incentive, but the incentives aren’t formalized and staged in the form of, say, advancement or pay increases.

Comments are closed.