Revisiting the Changing Role of Academic Librarians

I wrote the following article for ONLINE in 2006, which was not that long ago. It was a year when deep experimentation with digital media yielded lots of new thinking about how to gather, represent and preserve information. It also marked the beginning of my interest in the concept that “libraries” can also be “publishers” and that this role was a very promising one. Does it pass the test of time? That would be up to you, the reader, to decide!  TH

From Librarian to Digital Communicator:  Following the Media to New Organizational Roles

ONLINE 35 (no. 5), September/October 2006

(copyright 2006 by Terence K. Huwe.  All Rights Reserved.)

Even though I run a library and I’m called a librarian, nowadays my portfolio of responsibilities goes far beyond my library role. Much of what I do is all about communication–digital communication: Web sites, digital repositories, publications, exhibits, and graphic design. Where I work, at the Institute of Industrial Relations, University of California, Berkeley, everything is connected. Over time, it’s been a big career change, yet without a job change.

How did it all end up on my plate? Well, for one, no other individual where I work is “diagnosing” the organization in quite the same way I do. I am monitoring information dynamics and taking appropriate actions. I’m also interested in the strategic role of information, both its form and content. Over time, my skills with digital information management have been “discovered”–and put to use in unexpected ways.

Many information professionals utilize similar analytical strategies. Those who do may have found, as I have, that we now can step into expanded roles in organizations. However, to do so, we need to recognize that we have become digital communicators: following digital media as it transforms organizations, and applying library skill throughout the process.

CHARACTERISTICS OF DIGITAL COMMUNICATORS

Library skill is a strategic resource that can transfer to a much broader playing field within organizations, but some basics apply. Primarily, digital communicators recognize the strategic value of reference and research skills–and aren’t afraid to talk about this value point to anyone. Second, digital communicators understand that in the present era, strategic information, no matter what the setting, has become a mutable commodity. We can repurpose it for a wide array of uses, benefiting many groups and extending the information life cycle. Third, digital communicators “diagnose” the organizations they work in, looking for both robust features and shortcomings. This diagnosis is ongoing and drives strategic actions that might seem unorthodox, or even tangential, to a “conventional” library mission.

Many information professionals are already taking these steps, to be sure. But I am suggesting that our fundamental “library” work now routinely drives us in new–and sometimes unforeseen–directions and can bring us new distinction in the workplace. To illustrate just how diverse those directions might be, here’s a closer look at the organization where I work and what I do there.

FINDING THE DIGITAL “GLUE”

The Institute of Industrial Relations (IIR), at the University of California, Berkeley, is an “organized research unit” that supports faculty research and doctoral-level study. It’s a community of more than 250 people, with 65 affiliated faculty hailing from more than 12 departments and schools, about 40 staff, and lots of graduate students. IIR has an attractive (if ramshackle) building that is located off campus in the Telegraph Avenue retail area of Berkeley. Here’s the key characteristic of the setting: It’s physically isolated from the hurlyburly of the campus. Faculty and staff work at a distance from their departments and schools. E-mail is the glue that defines the community.

Dispersed “communities of practice” like this one abound in the U.S., both at universities and in industry. In such settings, the key tasks and activities that transform “workplaces” into vibrant communities are often left to chance. Notably, information professionals are in a unique position to discern what others often miss: that the digital life of organizations is growing, often trumping the “official” organizational structure. The Internet expands the zone where a meaningful community can grow–but community members often miss the growth opportunities. At the same time, the Internet enables organizations to merge the “content” of research or business activity with the “forms” of output, communication, and feedback. While this not really “news” anymore, proven and comprehensive approaches to the new communications frontier remain in short supply.

At IIR, our library diagnosis of the missed opportunities led us in the direction of digital communications management. Since no other group was watching the impact of the Internet on their own jobs so closely, the opportunity fell to us by default.

DIGITAL CONVERSATIONS VIA E-MAIL

Our first diagnosis and “treatment” was pretty basic–build community with e-mail. We had noticed that no one was nurturing lively e-mail conversations; the library staff were the only group who saw e-mail as a community builder instead of a daily hassle. Therefore, in 1994, we proposed to manage all of the community e-mail lists, as many as six or more at times.

Managing digital conversations is mundane, but not trivial. It is an incremental task that brings long-term rewards for info pros who practice “selective dissemination of information” (SDI). With that in mind, we started out with three objectives. First, we wanted to know definitively who “belonged” to our community, and list management was the key. Second, if we oversaw digital conversations, then love us or hate us, you’d know who the heck we were. Third, community members were starved for news, resources, and other personal touches that help create the kinesthetic experience of community–a sense of belonging.

We began crafting and timing the release of library e-mail news alerts, and over time the alerts have become very popular. Indeed, after a few years, the faculty started “talking back” to us–thanking us and asking for more. For example, when we covered a historical analysis of unskilled labor in the U.S., Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor (now a professor at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy), replied, saying, “Many thanks–this is very useful.” It’s not uncommon for faculty members to ask us to resend messages that included items of special interest whenever they accidentally delete mail. If the offerings are distinctive, e-mail outreach like this can jump-start more vibrant digital community interaction–and in our case, the library was the change agent.

FROM E-MAIL TAKEOVER TO WEB TAKEOVER

Also in 1994, IIR faced the World Wide Web explosion head on. Once again, the library volunteered to take on the work of Web administration. It was a risky move, because it was sure to create a mountain of new programming labor. However, it also enabled the library staff to integrate directly into the daily lives of the program staff and to offer a service no one else could perform. We became the “go to” folks for content management–not a bad place to be in a research environment.

The importance of our Web responsibilities cannot be overemphasized. We develop Web resources, perform HTML markup and site management for independent program units, present and analyze Web statistics and traffic, and consult about Web publishing and e-journal creation. Most important to us, these high-demand Web services extend our reference “reach.” By taking on a labor-intensive Web role, we have achieved a key goal: mainstreaming ourselves into the digital community.

FROM LIBRARY TO PUBLISHER

Our advance into the Web arena set the stage for moving into print production. In 2002, our faculty director asked us to create publications to highlight IIR’s research and programs. Surprise, surprise–the original paper “platform” for content is still widely appreciated as a copy of record.

Because we had good working relationships with everyone and content in hand from our Web duties, we had all we needed to publish high-quality newsletters. Web programming actually led us into editorial roles that continue to this day. As editors, we analyze the relevance and value of IIR’s faculty research and other content, applying a reference provider’s eye to accentuate distinctive material. We now produce publications that the administrative staff could never find the time to publish–filling another crucial communications role. Being IIR’s digital publisher has brought additional support to the library–and pushes its reputation further as we follow the media.

DIGITAL REPOSITORIES: WEB TRAFFIC EXPLODES

The California Digital Library centrally launched the repositories at the University of California [See ONLINE, September/October 2002, p. 38]. The eScholarship program has been very popular with the faculty at all 10 campuses, and this has held true locally in Berkeley. The library manages the digital repository. This custodial role has showcased our evolving role in digital information management. In 2005-2006, IIR’s many eScholarship series received over 51,000 downloads.

Managing digital repositories also helped us educate the faculty about the importance of online resources, as well as their scholarly validity. At first, many faculty members scoffed at Web download histories–they saw them as inconsequential usage indicators. Yet our Web traffic hit the million-download mark by 1997 and has gone up ever since. The main destination has consistently been the full text of faculty research. The implications weren’t immediately obvious to the faculty, though. “How do we know that downloads means someone actually read the paper?” one faculty friend asked me, in 2003.

But Web traffic eventually makes an impact. In recent years, the overall IIRWeb has consistently received millions of downloads–and analysis confirms that our policy briefs, reports, working papers, and other content are the top draws. (See Table 1 on this page.)

Single documents can receive phenomenal attention; in one case, a controversial report focusing on Wal-Mart generated over 78,000 downloads in a single week.

INNOVATING WITH WEB TOOLS

Digital communicators are innovators. Often this means they can’t wait for enterprises to establish organizationwide technical standards before trying new technologies. Blogs, wikis, and podcasts are great examples. With zero- or low-cost options available on the open Web, why wait for central planning units to make a decision? We use blogs to collect RSS feeds about labor issues, as well as events and new Web publications. These blogs, none of which reside on Berkeley campus servers, average more than 1,900 downloads per month and dovetail effectively with our e-mail news alerts.

Wikis also opened new territory. In 2006, reference librarians persuaded the university library to buy a site license for JotSpot [www.jot.com].We use it locally as a “virtual private network” for groups of faculty and doctoral students. One group, the Immigration Workshop, uses Jot to share resources and engage in collaborative writing. We set it up for them and then turned them loose to build it as they go with our assistance.

The good news: Wikis present an ideal forum for strategic reference services because you have a captive reference audience. Proactive reference in these venues pushes “the library” into the virtual communities where academics actually work. This isn’t theoretical; we’re doing it now, and so are other similar libraries, such as UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies Library [www.igs.berkeley.edu].

PUBLIC SERVICES, MEET PUBLIC RELATIONS

Digital communicators use public service strategies to create “push” and “pull” outreach opportunities. For us, this meant first capturing the development stream of Web content and then analyzing its strengths and potential markets. However, we work in a doctoral-level community that has specific goals and target audiences. Is the “follow the media” plan we’ve employed locally transferable to other environments with different challenges?

Most definitely–as long as you discern the key value points in what you’re trying to do. At UC Berkeley’s Teaching Library, Karen Munro, an e-learning librarian, is blogging her reference work [bibliophagus.blogspot.com]. While at her previous job at the University of Oregon, her reference blog made a positive impression on administrators, who used her stories in the university library’s annual report. “My reference blog helps me chart what users are looking for, and it opens eyes to the fascinating work that goes on at service desks,” Munro said. “All too often with reference, once you’ve finished the question, it’s gone forever. But blogging shines a light on that work.”

The strategy is clear: Extend the services, community, and values of the library to the users you are trying to reach–including your own leadership. With the vast multiplicity of technological platforms, you can keep trying new approaches until you find one that works.

It can also make sense to gamble on occasion. For example, identify an unmet need, and then fill it before it actually bubbles to the surface. Locally, we knew that IIR had not done enough outreach to top campus administrators. Anticipating a need, we turned our electronic newsletter into a two-times-per year print publication. We guessed right–our faculty director loved the publication, and now administrative support staff mail our finished product to UC administrators and deans, as well as to the Friends of IIR for fundraising.

Speaking of the Friends of IIR, the library team led in its initial formation. Friends of IIR is just a standard alumni fundraising program focusing on annual giving. There were plenty of successful models available on campus for emulation. We contacted the university relations office, identified alumni records and tagged them, and even managed the first two mailings. Once again, a past director asked us to do this, mainly because she had seen our abilities with the Web and print publications. Development work is a job unto itself, but our efforts kick-started IIR’s fundraising function. Now we’ve spun that work off to an administrative staff member who participated in the formative stages. We still consult informally on development work; it’s been a terrific education for us.

FROM PUBLISHER TO EXHIBIT CURATOR AND BEYOND

By 2005, our overall content creation and outreach strategies were going strong. In addition to our core reference and collection development services, we were now building blogs to share RSS and to announce programs, lectures, and events. We had implemented wilds as long-term resource and writing tools. We were overseeing vibrant e-mail discussions, producing Web and print newsletters, and working closely with the faculty to spread the word about their research. We were managing digital repositories that were receiving thousands of downloads per year and offering full-service Web administration to our “clients.” We had run a very successful photography exhibit series. It was a full plate. In addition to all of this, there was another unmet need in our organization–graphic arts.

At first, it seemed like a stretch. But our faculty director wished to showcase faculty publications and IIR’s history in the meeting rooms of our historic landmark building. We had already shown that what could go on the Web could also go into print–why not the wails? So in addition to our digital activities, we became exhibit graphic designers too. Our Web administrator, a gifted graphic designer as well as a great programmer, was able to take this on. We created historical timelines and posters that highlighted IIR’s history and achievements. We also developed attractive faculty publication posters, which have become very popular. It’s been great starting this project, but once again, it is very likely that we will eventually spin it off–either that, or lobby for additional staff support to keep it going.

“BUT IT’S NOT LIBRARY WORK”

Some might read this account with dismay, as many of these tasks qualify for the statement, “But that’s not ‘library’ work.” Indeed, we have heard this from our own colleagues at Berkeley, though not recently.

There’s a short answer and a long answer to this claim, and here they are in order. Short answer: Does a library exist to serve its user community? If so, then any and all work that serves those users–and advances the library’s role–is “library work.” Are we just a tad busy? Yes. Is it worth it? You bet.

Long answer: Libraries now exist in a complex world where overlapping digital collections, Google, visual media, and even online teaching domains compete for end-user attention. It’s an exciting time to be a librarian, and the jig isn’t up. Both universities and business firms are looking for self-starters who have a vision. In our case, preserving our reference work, together with our collection management work, informs all our activities. Some tasks we oversee may not seem directly linked to our core services, but nonetheless the tasks are strategically useful because they keep opening doors to our end-users’ worlds. It’s a worthwhile stretch to think a few years ahead of the present moment to anticipate emerging needs and to speculate about where we might be going. It takes imagination, and so it’s all the more important to stay in touch with what our users really want–on their terms–from us.

An academic library that sees itself as a passive repository is a library at risk. In contrast, activist librarians think about many ways to apply information counseling and collection management skills. By enabling more digital communication, we can become pivotal players in the formation and evolution of our organizations. Regardless of whatever we may hope the future will bring, it’s very likely we will all be doing a lot more digital communicating amidst a sea of rapidly changing technologies.

Each environment carries its own special characteristics, and having a bold strategic plan that responds to those characteristics is crucial. Our bid to become the digital communicators of this research institute has morphed our jobs, to be sure, but it has also protected our information services role. The diversity of our portfolio has also created occasions for discussion about information literacy, digital persistence, and other vital topics that may not be foremost in the minds of the faculty.

THREE STRATEGIES FOR DIGITAL COMMUNICATORS

We can regard the profession as a field under siege by any number of factors, or we can regard it as a field of opportunity. You can make a strong case for either position. However, with public library card ownership at historically high levels, there’s certainly room for optimism. Here are three recommendations that may spark a creative look at local settings, no matter what special conditions apply.

Start with an information audit. The days are so busy that it can be easy to forget this step. However, effective strategy depends on solid survey and analysis. This can be as informal as setting some time aside to think about the environment and interview key staff. If funds are abundant, consider bringing in a consultant.

Understand the leadership. Befriend, meet with, and collaborate with the top managers in the organization. This requires time–even years–and it may involve building relationships with successive generations of deans or vice presidents. Knowing people well frees your intuition; it’s easier to take bold moves if you have some confidence about how your actions will be interpreted.

Make mistakes–but have a “damage control” strategy. Any step out of the ordinary involves risk. The greatest risk is earning the right to do more work than you can possibly do, but there are many others too–like being “disintermediated” out of existence. Digital communicators accept the risks and know that mistakes will be made. Therefore, it’s best to have a damage control strategy in place when undertaking a new initiative in order to influence the dialogue if things don’t work out.

CORE VALUES

The range of activities that information professionals can now get involved in has grown, as digital convergence lurches forward in the workplace and the global economy. In response, we have an opportunity to become digital communicators, expanding the library’s role, yet preserving its most important tenets.

We come to organizations with an interest in information counseling, content management, and preservation–and it turns out that these activities can be keys to innovation, both within and beyond the library walls.

The profession’s core values have been durable guides to help us ride the dragon of organizational change, which continues to reinvent both higher education, and the modern business firm. Following the digital media stream throughout changing organizations prepares us for fluid conditions, builds our strategic knowledge about the firm’s strengths and weaknesses, and helps us anticipate what information needs will emerge–before those needs become common knowledge. Digital communicators preserve tried-and-true services such as reference and collection management, but they also look for new ways to use digital media advantageously. This bias for innovation carries benefits not only for information professionals, but also for the entire organization.

Table 1: IIR Web Traffic

The IIR Web generates millions of downloads per year. The library handles Web adminstration for all IIR’s programs and enjoys strong support for doing so.

Legend for Chart:

A - ACADEMIC YEAR
B - TOTAL REQUESTS
C - DISTINCT HOSTS SERVED

   A                   B                    C

2001-01            2,211,150              87,569

2001-02            3,924,838             126,569

2002-03            7,644,390             190,448

2003-04            6,174,869             130,631

2004-05            2,796,641(*)          142,261

2005-06(**)        3,995,604              83,627