Monday, April 11, 2005

Initial ACRL conference comments

Barbara, Michelle, and I all attended the twelfth annual conference of the ACRL. (This acronym stands for Association of College and Research Libraries. If you choose to enter this profession, you'll find out that there are hundreds of acronyms to learn.) I had hoped to see and catch up with Michelle, but throngs of librarians surrounded Barbara and Michelle during their poster presentation. (Note to next year's conference planners: please provide adequate space for posters!)

As a current library science student, this was not my first library conference. Last year, I attended the conference of the American Theological Library Association (ATLA), in Kansas City. I'll also be attending the same conference this summer. The Association has generously made travel grants available for student members, allowing me to go to last year's and this year's conferences. Thank you, ATLA!

The focuses of this year's ACRL conference were instruction, marketing, and "millennials." There were several workshops, paper and poster presentations, and panel discussions about these topics. The Minneapolis-St. Paul StarTribune published an article about one of the conference presentations on the millennials. It shouldn't be a surprise that college and university librarians are trying to better understand the students they serve, although I am concerned when we generalize about students.

Although I am applying for reference/instruction positions and did go to a couple paper presentations about instruction, I went to a number of presentations and panel discussions covering a breadth of librarianship, including ones on management, government information, and cataloging.

Why did I attend sessions on these topics? In my limited experience and in literature reviews I have done in various classes, I'm more convinced that in a time of stagnant or slashed budgets and rapid technological change, that librarianship is moving away from technical aspects to managerial aspects. And to be an effective manager/administrator, one must be aware of all pertinent issues that may affect library services.

Also, probably due to my liberal arts background, I'm inclined to look at the bigger picture and try to find connections. And in librarianship, connections there are. For example, a reference librarian must be familiar with general cataloging rules to effectively search, make sense of, and explain the online catalog (what we librarians call the OPAC). So, we reference librarians need to be generally aware of the world of cataloging, and, that world will indeed be changing soon, as I learned: there is a major new revision of the cataloging rules in the works--tentatively called AACR3. (Definition of AACR.) This new revision will incorporate FRBR terminology and concepts. (See "What Is FRBR?" from the Library of Congress.) There are also major changes coming in the ways that the government will be distributing and preserving its information in the future, as I learned at a paper presentation by Judith Russell, the Superintendent of Documents of the United States. As we (or you will) learn in library school, the U.S. government is the world's largest publisher of information. And, as citizens, we need to be concerned because access to government information is necessary for a functioning democracy.

As you can see, connections in the library world are important. Unfortunately, our libraries are almost always structured administratively by function, which discourages connection. For example, many libraries have two major divisions: technical services and public services. Technical services might include such functions as acqusitions, cataloging, preservation, and serial control, whereas public services may include collection development, reference, and instruction.

Because of the importance of connection and the shift to managerial tasks, there are voices in the library literature that have called for "integration." Christian M. Boissonnas especially laments these divisions and calls for a form of “integrated” librarianship. He explains that the complexity of today’s world and the drive for efficiency after World War II are the leading causes for the division of labor by function in libraries: “We still define ourselves professionally by the kind of job we do (acquisitions, cataloging, reference, etc.) and our professional association exacerbates this division by creating ever more narrowly focused groups and subgroups that mirror the increasing specialization of librarians in their work environment." But there are dangers to such a division: “Functionally oriented departments set their own goals, and these do not necessarily relate to user needs. …the split leads to the underutilization of professional expertise.” Also, over-specialization, while possibly increasing efficiency, hurts service: “…over-specialized librarians can be outstanding technicians in their specialties but lousy librarians because they lack a sufficiently wide comprehension of their professional environment."

Boissonnas’ solution is “deep integration.” The first step, he believes, is for library personnel to stop “referring to themselves and what they do in relation to where they came from” and to “[rally] around the mission” of the institution. Instead of functional units, library budgets must be set according to programs or services. Not only does this redirect the library’s efforts to users, but it helps library staff work together. After all, we need each other even more these days: “Librarians in all positions want this integration to happen because the problems that we are trying to solve are complex enough to require the combined applications of the sum of our knowledge and staff. … We can succeed only if we successfully integrate…” Certainly there are objections to this approach. Stephanie Ognar notes that some librarians do not deal well with change. Mary Ellen Kenreich observes that integrated workspaces can decrease efficiency through extraneous visual and verbal stimulation (e.g., non-work-related conversations). Indeed, a balance and careful planning are needed to integrate functional units to focus on specific outcomes: if integration causes an extreme decrease in efficiency, affecting, for example, the rate that records are added to the catalog (and thus affecting access and service to users), integration is a failure. But, as difficult as it is to achieve, I believe, like Boissonnas, that an integrated approach is necessary.

One example why collaboration is necessary today is the complexity in delivering electronic resources to users. Consider all the parties and tasks involved in this description:
To provide access to electronic materials, acquisitions librarians must collaborate closely with subject specialists who wish to get access to the intellectual content of the information, with systems office staff who need to support the technicalities of the access, with campus legal counsel who often are the final authorizers of the license agreement, with purchasing departments who need to understand what is being purchased, and with reference staff who assist the users in accessing the information. The acquisitions librarian is often the pivot point in the process, working with all parties in a collaborative effort to bring the data to the user. (German and Schmidt)
As this illustrates, no one person could select, acquire, and provide access to electronic resources alone.

Because of this need for integration and the rate which technical skills become obsolete, library school students really should focus on course work that covers the major aspects of librarianship to get a thorough grounding in the profession's values. Indeed, if librarians focus on technology instead of their users, then they may soon find themselves irrelevant or unemployed. Jeff Rutenbeck, in his article on “The Five Great Challenges of the Digital Age,” writes under number three, exclusivity: “The pace of growth and change today shows no signs of slowing down. The skills and sensibilities that are cutting-edge today will be commonplace tomorrow, replaced at the forefront by yet another level of sophistication and complexity.” (As someone with an undergraduate computer science minor and four years of work experience in various IT positions, I feel that I can speak with some authority and attest to this rate of obsolescence.) Library school is too short, so if you were wanting to learn how to program, design Web pages, or set-up networks, find opportunities to learn these elsewhere, like a community college (those sorts of courses will be cheaper there anyway). Instead, focus your course work on what ALA President-Elect Michael Gorman suggests "form the basis of a core library education curriculum": collection development and acquisitions; cataloging, reference and library instruction; circulation, maintenance, preservation; systems; and management.

Over the course of the next several weeks (hey, I have a job interview coming up and lots of homework), I hope to summarize and reflect on some of the sessions that I attended at the ACRL conference. You'll also eventually see my more complete reflections on technology and the library profession.

[Full disclosure: Some of these comments have been adapated from a paper I recently wrote for the class "Technical Services Functions" at the University of Illinois. This paper is titled "The Value and Values of Technical Services in the 21st Century." The course is taught by professors emeriti Kathryn Luther Henderson and William T. Henderson, who always encourage their students to think about values and how they relate to the profession of librarianship.]


Boissonnas, Christian M. “Technical Services: The Other Reader Service.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 1, no. 1 (2001): 33-46.

German, Lisa, and Karen Schmidt. “Acquisitions.” Advances in Librarianship 24 (2000): 139-155.

Gorman, Michael. "What Ails Library Education?" The Journal of Academic Librarianship 30, no. 2 (March 2004): 99-101.

Kenreich, Mary Ellen. “Physical settings and organizational success.” Library Collections, Acquisitions, and Technical Services 25 (2001): 67-79.

Ognar, Stephanie. “Holistic Librarianship.” The Serials Librarian 43, no. 3 (2003): 37-50.

Rutenbeck, Jeff. “The 5 Great Challenges of the Digital Age.” Library Journal netConnect 125, no. 14 (Fall 2000): 30-32.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

Alec, amen to what you say about generalizing about students - as if everyone born in a certain decade shares the same characteristics. I got impatient listening to an ACRL paper when the presenter said students love computers so must love reading off the screen so will love e-books. There's no data to support that claim, and some that says exactly the opposite. Certainly I haven't heard students say "oh, goody! This one's a NetLibrary book!!" Usually I hear "Oh ****" instead. I wondered whether this presenter had ever actually ASKED students what they think, rather than jumping to conclusions.