Monday, January 23, 2006

Predictions 2006: Future Prospects for Librarians and Archivists

This is the third post in my “Predictions 2006” series. The aim is to make some predictions, based on trends, about the future of libraries, archives, Web technologies, electronic records management, digital preservation, etc. I make these predictions with a mix of reflection and spontaneity.

In this installment I will explore the future career prospects for librarians and archivists. I must admit, I had not planned on writing on this topic. But after reading 2 particular news items in the past couple of weeks, and in reading a few blogs that covered the same topic, I felt it important to discuss this matter.

This prediction is not pretty, I should caution. It will force many librarians and archivists, particularly new professionals in the field (like me), to wake up to some hard realities and develop a career strategy to confront and conquer the difficult issues happening now and in the future. However, it is not all doom and gloom, for I also predict that the future is bright (a kind of sunshine bright that shares the sky with scattered storm clouds) as long as librarians and archivists are passionate about a given area in the field and embrace a multidisplinary approach to their profession and are willing to take risks and flex their creative muscles.

A little background...

The first article I read that prompted this post originated from the US News & World Report's website. The article, "Career Center: Excellent careers for 2006," listed the top 10 careers for 2006. Among the top ten was--suprise, surprise--the field of librarianship. Granted, the article did not explicitely mention archivist. However, there are enough similarities to both professions (we both select, organize, retrieve, transmit important information and often, at least in an academic setting, are coupled with libraries) that, for the sake of argument, I will say that archivists and librarians are connected.

Here's an excerpt from the US News & World Report article:

Librarian: This is an underrated career. Most librarians enjoy helping patrons dig up information. They learn in the process and keep up to date on the latest books and online resources. The need for librarians, unfortunately, may decline because search engines make it easy for patrons to find information without a librarian's help. The job growth for librarians will be in nontraditional settings: corporations, nonprofit organizations, and consulting firms.

For me, 2 things popped out at me after reading this:
  1. The need for librarians will decline because search engines make it easier for patrons to find information;
  2. Job growth will occur in nontraditional settings: corporations, non-profit organizations, consulting firms
The second news article I read came from The Times (Online edition), a United Kingdom newspaper and online publication. The article, "Stress? Shhhhh," examines a study done by a consulting and recruitment firm and quotes the lead investigator, Saqib Saddiq.

Among other things, the study revealed:

Librarians complained that there was not enough variety in their work, that they did not have enough control over their careers, and they were not allowed to put their skills to full use. The lack of job satisfaction meant they were more likely than other professions to be absent from work, or to vent their frustration on their families when they got home.

Mr. Saddiq concludes, explaining that
"they [librarians] are sick of being stuck between the same shelves of books all day. They also found their work repetitive and unchallenging, and overall had very little job satisfaction..."

Like the first article, something popped out at me after reading this article:
  1. Despite the lack of detailed information on those surveyed, the article boils down the situation of librarians to this: it is unglamorous, unappreciated, and therefore stressful
Both articles, for better or for worse, make sense. And, at the same time, make no sense. But the meat of this post is not about analysis, but rather about the future propects for librarians and archivists...while using these articles, along with a blog (The Krafty Librarian) or two (Phil Bradley's weblog), as a launch pad.

In reading these articles and other people's opinions, and in reflecting on my own personal work experiences, I believe and I predict that the future prospects for librarians and archivists will be, well, it depends. Let me explain.

I went on a conference hosted by the International Council on Archives Section on University and Research Institution Archives (ICA/SUV) last year in September 2005. It was a good friendly crowd of archivists from around the world with different backgrounds and interests ...and with one thing in common: they were underfunded, understaffed, and overworked. This was repeated over and over again to the point where I became frustrated. Ah, frustrated. Frustration over the fact that, though there was much work to be done and many exciting projects to start (e.g. digitization, digital preservation), there was little funding to pursue these projects.

Why so little funding?

The fact is, in our current world, where appearances mean everything, the libraries and archives are perceived as being part of the past, a derelict storage room of aging material and books. It is seen as neutral--what does it contribute?--and as a result not very high on priority lists or budgets.

If this is indeed the wide-spread case, then how does one change the status quo, and what does this mean in terms of future career prospects for librarians and archivists?

To make any change, one must start with the self. To be a librarian or an archivist nowadays, I believe one must have passion. There are many difficult obstacles and plenty of frustrations on the road ahead, so passion--real dedication, not lukewarm woo-hoo--will keep fueling your committment.

It is also important to become an expert or, in other words, find an area in the field in which to dedicate yourself. If you're not feeling this passion, this dedication, then I would suggest you pause and review your options and motives, because this is absoluetely critcal to your future career prospects.

A lot of problems that libraries and particularly archives face revolve around being misunderstood or, worse, institutionally "invisible." What should librarians do in the age of Google? What should archivists do beside carefully shelve boxes of records and priceless artifacts? The days of remaining "mysterious" or hidden are over. It's time to broadcast the real story.

Whatever course of action professionals take to get the message out, there must be a good dose of a multidisciplinary approach included. Multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, call it what you like, but in universities and for acadmics this is the future. Why not say the same for librarians and archivists? Just like no man is an island, no librarian or archivist is one either. Cooperation, collaboration, and relationships are essential. Making a library or archives part of a larger body of study, research, or community involvment is paramount.

A question to consider: Should Google replace librarians? Of course not, no! Sounds like a simple question whose answer is a given. But truth is, the answer is not on the tip of everyone's tongue. Another question: Should an archivist be content with having his or her collections sit on a shelf? No! Collections are meant to be shown, and today's technology makes it possible (and relatively inexpensive) to do so.

It's all about not assuming anything, and being proactive in everything.

In short, I predict the future career prospects of librarians and archivists in 2006 will be (using this addictive weather analogy of mine) sunny with cloudy periods.

To burn away those excess clouds, I suggest that the new librarian or archivist entering the profession should be:
  • Passionate
  • Dedicated to an area, be it public libraries, digital libraries, digital archives, etc
  • Confident and capable in dealing with workplace frustrations, particularly funding frustration
  • Multidisciplinary, that is, forming relationships and integrating into other fields
  • Creative
  • Risk-Taking
Finally, The Krafty Librarian put it nicely in her post:

The key to making this job still one of the "most excellent" careers is embracing your opportunities and minimizing the drawbacks. If you need a change in libraries scenes to increase your opportunities then so be it. Change is scary but it is also a good thing. Any job could be classified as boring. Any job is what you make of it.

Well said! Embracing your opportunities and minimizing the drawbacks or taking a risk and changing directions if opportunities present themselves elsewhere. Now that is the future of the library and archives profession. Good luck!

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about the author

I am an information professional, researcher, and writer with over eight years experience in the information services field with experience in information and communication technology.

I have a B.A. in History and a Master's in Library and Information Studies and working on a Web and Multimedia Design certificate.

I believe that empowering people with information can enrich lives and transform the world.