Committing to Our Profession’s Uncertainty through Adaptation

Losing traditional roles doesn't mean we can't evolve into new ones.

Here’s how I often introduce myself: “Hi, my name is Claire DeMarco and I’m the assistant director of digital strategies.”

And here’s the question that introduction typically elicits: “Oh ok, so what does that mean exactly?”

And my response: “I’m a librarian.”

We have heard it, we have felt it, we have seen it firsthand—the roles in our profession are changing. Gone are the days when words like cataloger, acquisitions librarian, serials assistant, and other technical services positions filled the job posting boards. Even public services positions, reference, and collection development are not as they were once described. The loss of those traditional roles, however, does not and should not mean a mass exodus of library staff members or a loss of institutional knowledge. We can evolve as a profession to support the learning and growth of our library staff members, just as we do for our library users, but it takes a commitment to living in a less certain environment and the adoption of new mindsets that embrace innovation and iteration.

Skill Sets: New and Old

We can all speak to the skillsets of our colleagues who have filled traditional roles for decades. Many feel the vocation of library work in the deepest part of their identities—they are the stewards of information for our society. Their expertise is invaluable to the success of our institutions, but the changing nature of their work requires a change in focus, in terminology, in the way they place value on their work product. Instead of examining the number of volumes ordered, the completeness of the records created, the expediency of the processing, we should be examining the skillsets that make that work work.

The skills we need in this intelligence age are (among many others): creativity, collaboration, influence, negotiation, change management, leadership, problem solving, design, and strategic thinking, but these skills are not simply for managers, these are strengths many of our individual contributors have today and can cultivate in the short and long term. Library administrators must recognize this latent potential and give staff the opportunity to grow, to give up work that is no longer necessary, and to think innovatively about access to information, collections as data, user experience—the list goes on and on.

Our profession has begun to feel the impact of automation and what jobs are most likely to be replaced through machine learning and artificial intelligence. While the traditional technical work done in libraries is at a moderate to high risk of being automated, it is important to also note what skills experts have stated are least likely to be replaced: managing others, applying expertise, and stakeholder interactions. These are the opportunities for retraining—this is the place where we must give ourselves the space and the support to learn and adapt.

What Adaptation Looks Like

In my own work, I have been able to put this adaptive approach into practice by building cross-functional teams—bringing in staff from across the university to work together, but to work differently. These teams are committed to putting the user at the center of everything we do. We engage in journey-mapping exercises to create user stories and personas that challenge our staff-side assumptions about systems requirements, workflows, and outcomes. We employ agile methodologies that allow us to continually inspect and adapt our work. We engage with our users frequently, taking their direct feedback and incorporating it into our iterations.

While this approach originates from the software development environment, it is not always about writing code, or even about creating digital objects.

  • It can be seen through the eyes of a reference librarian turned user experience lead interviewing faculty to understand their pain points as they prepare to teach a course, publish an article, or build an annotated bibliography. Finding opportunities then to improve library offerings and support services without neces-sarily building an entire new collection or department—sometimes simply meeting the faculty where they are to fill a void in the scholarly process.
  • It can be seen through the work of a cataloger turned metadata specialist who is creating a set of data for testing purposes—committing to identifying the points where normalization is needed, but not solving for the imperfection of the whole. Presenting, for public consumption, that which is imperfect, but allowing for feedback, continuous improvement, and for enhancement by both staff and user communities.
  • It can be seen through the work of a serials assistant turned digital rights manager who is participating on an interdepartmental team to implement a new library management system, developing and testing work-flows that reflect the goal of making a library resource available and accessible to users instead of building a system based on the relationship between individual purchasers and publishers.

A colleague of mine frequently uses the adage “we’re building the plane while we’re flying it” to describe this kind of work. Another will often say that he knows his library is successful when it feels like controlled chaos. That approach likely feels antithetical to the structure, consistency, and permanence we have historically applied in librarianship. At the same time, we have been reminded (at a persistent cadence that feels almost crisis level) that libraries are under attack, that digitization and online access are putting us out of business. Although I would argue that perception is untrue, it is deeply uncomfortable to operate in a space where the results are uncertain while at the same time seeking to demonstrate enduring value.

I must admit that my initial reaction to these uncertain approaches was also one of fear—a bit of digging in my heels—but then my activator brain took hold. In the StrengthsFinder assessment, an “activator” is defined as someone who “can make things happen by turning thoughts into action.” I took one step, and then another, and then I earned opportunities, and training, and then I evolved my thinking about what a leader in a library looks like. I saw the potential for my skills as an activator to make space for others who are looking to learn and grow—to find similar opportunities for themselves.

In my role as assistant director of digital strategies, I have a platform to bring library staff into teams that take action, reflect on that action, and iterate. The digital space makes this more resonant when working with outside development vendors, but it is in no way exclusive to digital projects, and it is something achievable with the colleagues we have today. Perhaps most importantly, it is based on skills that can be cultivated and cannot be easily automated.

“Hi, my name is Claire DeMarco, and I am the assistant director of digital strategies. I am a librarian. I am the success story of committing to the uncertainty in our profession.”

Additional Reading

Chui, Michael, James Manyika, and Mehdi Miremadi. 2016. “Where Machines Could Replace Humans—and Where They Can’t (Yet).” McKinsey Quarterly, July 2016.

The Clifton Strengths Assessment (Formerly Clifton StrengthsFinder)

Gwyer, Roisin. 2015. “Identifying and Exploring Future Trends Impacting on Academic Libraries: A Mixed Methodology Using Journal Content Analysis, Focus Groups, and Trend Reports.” New Review of Academic Librarianship 21, no. 3: 269–85.

Schmidt, Aaron. 2015. “UX Means You | The User Experience.” Library Journal, October 7, 2015.