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Don't use the L-word

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During its annual meeting in Chicago last month, Tom Wilkie spoke to the Special Libraries Association’s next president, Deb Hunt

Conversation with SLA president-elect Deb Hunt is an exhausting experience. She fizzes with energy and excitement. She bounces with optimism about the future of libraries and librarians, in both not-for-profit and corporate settings. Now principal of Information Edge, a specialist business information consultancy company, she has worked in both academe and commerce. Perhaps as a consequence of this breadth of experience, the roles that she envisages for future librarians are not always conventional ones.

There is a perception that librarians tend to be risk-averse, but specialist librarians are not like that -- they are the most forward-looking librarians, she said. In the face of budget cuts in the public sector, all libraries need to look beyond the more traditional library services, she observed: ‘We need to see what services we are providing that we need to shed – where users are doing that for themselves. But users do not do some things well – for example finding a citation – and that’s the message we need to get out, that not everything’s on the internet or you need help to get to it.’

The message applies whether the organisation is in the private or public sector: ‘I encourage my colleagues to be “intrapreneurs” within their organisations,’ she said. ‘Be part of the solution, or propose solutions. Align your department with the objectives and mission of the organisation. If your boss does not ask for number of books issued, don’t collect that information but find out what he is interested in. It’s really about letting go of what isn’t needed any more. If you are too busy, there are things that you can let go of.’

Librarians are perfectly placed, in her view, to play a leading role in tackling one of the important issues for the future -- capturing the internally-created knowledge within a company or organisation. Often this has not been filed, organised or archived, and the skills of the information professional will be required to retrieve and curate this valuable information. More and more people within the SLA are being asked to do archive management as well as traditional library stuff -- ‘I say: “don’t wait to be asked”.’

Records management, document management, and archive management are all facets of knowledge management and ‘that’s the big challenge. We’re up to that task. But not everyone knows that. That’s what we have to reach for. That’s where we are going – people are realising that they can’t sit and wait.’

She recognises that progressive librarians have to struggle against pervasive and adverse stereotypes. ‘Unfortunately, in the corporate environment they say librarians can’t do this work.’ But she observes how over the past five years, IT departments have recognised that they do not have the skills to deal with knowledge management and have reached out to the librarians to help coordinate both internally-created and external information. ‘Things cost money and we have to show that information costs money too. We need to report the ROI [return on investment] and librarians need to show how they are contributing to the bottom line. Librarians are cheap in the corporate environment.’

The librarian of the future therefore will be someone who engages at all levels with the organisation within which they work and who may not spend much, if any, time, in an environment that looks anything like a conventional library. Instead, in the digital age, they will work to organise and retrieve the organisation’s knowledge and make it accessible. It’s librarianship, but not as some of us have known it. Hence Deb Hunt’s advice to all librarians: ‘I encourage my colleagues to go for jobs that don’t have the L-word in it’. The L-word, of course, is ‘librarian’.