Three lessons learned from ten years in academic librarianship

Aaron Tay reflects on what has changed in academic librarianship, shares some important lessons and highlights the importance of future-proofing professional skills.

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I have just celebrated my 10th anniversary in academic librarianship.

When I began working as a librarian, the very first version of the iPhone had just launched in the US and Facebook had opened access to the public a year earlier.

ResearchGate,, Mendeley were still a year away. We were all talking about "next generation catalogues" (e.g. aquabrowser, Encore), and were excited about adding "social features" such as tagging, relevancy ranking and facets to our catalogues to make it "like Amazon". When it came to article searching, we were using federated search.  And Open Access was not even a blip in my radar.

As a newbie librarian, I remember joining Twitter, starting to blog and engaging in discussions on Library 2.0 (remember the craze over library toolbars, RSS, widgets?), worrying over social media etiquette when interacting with students and later presenting at and  attending  conferences around mobile services like M-Library. I even spent three months almost nightly in SecondLife where my institution had a virtual campus. 

But enough nostalgia!  What I would like to share here are three things I have learned about academic librarianship in the last ten years.

Lesson one - we are not the centre of our user's universe now (if we ever were)

In many library memes, we are told that libraries and by extension librarians are the centre of the University campus. We trumpet our strengths compared to Google, we are the "original search engine", we are a search engine with a heart etc.

Yet, while some of this might be true, it's also true that we are no longer the centre of our user's life (if we ever were) and it's very dangerous to act like this. As OCLC puts it, we should  be "thinking about the library in the life of the user instead of the traditional model of thinking of the user in the life of the library". It's easy to say this but it's ingrained in some of us to act as if we are the only game in town.

Take a recent story - institutional repositories

The story of institutional repositories is a complicated one, but one (perhaps over-simplified) way of seeing it is that librarians created expensive repository systems naively expecting researchers to self-deposit their articles into it. Not only did most of them resist this, we were shocked when some of them started self-depositing in commercial systems like ResearchGate, which had unclear business models and licensing when there were perfectly trustworthy alternatives in institutional repositories.

Related to this is many librarians have been guilty of not looking beyond the library at the wider environment we work in. By this, I don't just mean look at higher education trends but also learning about how businesses in the publishing and library tech industry work.

This reluctance to look beyond the library, assuming things will remain unchanged and learn how the business environment works perhaps explains the shock librarians express when Elsevier purchased SSRN and then again when they purchased Bepress.

Adding to the danger is the problem of library bypass. Librarians serve as intermediaries and like all intermediaries today, we are in danger of been cut out as the middleman. Publishers can market directly to our users using social media and email, when say JSTOR goes down, our users directly feedback to JSTOR on their Facebook pages.

One thing that academic libraries used to have on their side was a better understanding of local conditions, on the needs of our users. Today, many companies, like Elsevier, Digital Science are working their way into our user's workflow and with superior analytics they are starting to get better data on what our users want.

Changes in scholarly communication may also result in many publishers moving towards a services based company and some of the services such as benchmarking analytics reports, research Information Management systems would be marketed directly to non-library campus units like research office/provost office etc.

So what can we do? We need to understand our users and see how the library can fit into their lives rather than the reverse. The slow realisation of this issue probably explains the current interest in ethnography and UX in libraries.

At the macro level, Roger Schonfeld, and Lisa Hinchliffe have written on the need of librarians to have a better understanding of corporate environment and for the need of a coherent strategy to handle such shifts.

A personal confession – the librarian echo chamber

On a personal note, as a librarian I have been guilty of viewing everything through the lens of the library first and foremost. For example, this example starts with a description that is almost completely a library centric account.

My intense interest in many aspects of academic librarianship (I have rarely met a domain of librarianship I wasn't curious about), coupled with the ease of interacting and learning with librarians worldwide means that I can and do operate in an echo chamber of librarians. It's a much bigger echo chamber than past generations of librarians could easily maintain (thanks to the internet) but it's still an echo chamber nonetheless.

The library ecosystem is so huge these days, one can happily be sucked into it, playing with library tools, presenting at only librarian conferences & webinars, serving on library association committees and spending a lot of time interacting with peers locally or internationally.

And you know what, when you begin your career, you will mostly be rewarded if you do such things. Building a strong network of librarians, becoming known by other librarians, ensures you will always be up to date on the latest library trends and can get help if you need it. This is something I have benefited from giving me the confidence to take on novel and new areas in librarianship, as I always get help from "my tribe" if I need it.

But there's a trap here. The more you do this, the more you need to be careful not to fall into a library centric view. You might be able to muster up the best state of art librarian consensus on a new area of the time but I would argue this often can lead you up blind alleys since  librarians can lack the diversity of views to judge the right course of action in new areas.

I'm not sure what the solution is beyond asking librarians to interact more with people outside the conference, e.g. go to non-librarian conferences (this already happens to some extent with librarians working in scholarly communication), but I guess the incentive structure should also empathise and reward interaction outside the libraries. 

Essentially as a librarian you have a decision to make. How much of your time should be spent honing the craft of librarianship and how much should be spent looking outside librarianship.

The next ten years in academic libraries are likely to be even more disruptive and interacting outside of the library filter bubble will be even more important.

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