Adapting to advance

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Information professionals can benefit from a dynamic employment market, so long as they're prepared to change with the environment. Vanessa Spedding surveys the situation

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the phrase 'job prospects for librarians'? The chances are there's no single thing, for the concept is riddled with contradictions. Funding for libraries is being squeezed, yet there is huge investment in the information society; prospects for librarians aren't so hot, yet knowledge managers are richly rewarded; and so on.

The ambiguities arise because the rapid technological change that's transforming the process of information elicitation and dissemination is changing the employment landscape just as dramatically. The result, as we know, is that the library is no longer just a library, a librarian is no longer quite a librarian and terms like information officer are so liberally applied that they have already become almost meaningless. It's not just recent graduates who should be forgiven for their confusion over the plethora of career choices and courses: experienced information professionals themselves are admitting that they can barely keep up with the rate of change of their job titles, let alone the changing nature of their duties.

So what are the prospects really like for job-seekers or career-changers in this field? That depends on where you're looking and what you've got to offer - obviously enough - but the features that distinguish the more successful contenders may be subtler than expected.

An optimistic outlook
The outlook appears optimistic overall, with some caveats. Luke Tredinnick, senior lecturer in information management at London's Metropolitan University thinks employment prospects are generally 'very good' for graduates in information science, information management or library studies. 'The information profession has diversified, and there are new avenues for people to pursue in their careers,' he explained. 'The web in particular has brought about an explosion in the demand for information, and the skills involved with managing that information are starting to be recognised by employers as key, and distinct from IT skills.'

Library automation technology, Tredinnick believes, has had a positive impact on the profession, in that it has lessened the burden of low-level tasks and widened the variety in the types of work available. But the process has brought challenges as well: 'That diversification in opportunity has meant that many information professionals now find themselves working outside traditional settings and frameworks, and are required to be more flexible, both in their approach to what they take on, and in their definition of their own role.'

That there is investment in the sector is clear. Information is a valuable commodity, and those who can exploit new tools to extract and manage it will inevitably be in demand. But there is also some justification for the impression that the traditional library is being squeezed: 'There is a perception, I think it is fair to say, of a contraction in the traditional library sector,' added Tredinnick. But he describes this as a 're-settling' of the profession, with information professionals taking on higher-level roles and 'paraprofessionals' taking over much of the more routine work.

Combined, these factors appear to net out to something that might be described as opportunities for the adaptable. Where traditional library utilities might be on the wane, other functions wax in compensation, such as sophisticated web-based resources or digital cataloguing technologies, and people that can take charge of these functions will always be sought-after. This view is certainly confirmed from the factory floor. Rafael Ball, head librarian of the Central Library of the Research Center Jülich, Germany, told Research Information: 'The information society needs information specialists. We do not need traditional librarians and we do not need 'simple' IT specialists. But for an information specialist with a good basic education and flexible 'add-ons' - soft skills like communication, understanding complex environments, team-working, and a customer focus - and who has ideas and vision, there are many employment possibilities.'

He sees a fundamental shift in the uses to which technical skills are being put by his staff: 'We need new skills in IT and computer science. Key librarians always used to operate with and understand the latest developments in library IT. But now IT is used not just for the internal processes but to fulfil customer requirements ... understanding customer needs in this era of the electronic information resource ... is one of the crucial aspects of good library service. And, for this, we need education far beyond the traditional skills in librarianship.'

Hence, specialised information management skills are crucial. So, it appears, are interpersonal skills. Sue Hill, founder and director of the information sector recruitment firm of the same name, based in the UK, confirmed this statement. She has seen an upturn in the number of qualified post-graduates registering for employment this year, and cites IT skills, experience and interpersonal skills as the primary characteristics that give candidates an advantage.

Michael Martin, the adviser for the qualifications and professional development section of the UK's Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), also named IT and communication as must-have skills. And Susan Baillie, head of CILIP's recruitment agency INFOmatch, provided yet further reiteration of the claim: 'Communication and people skills without a doubt; demand for web and intranet skills is also increasing.'

For a real stab at the top jobs though, those key IT and interpersonal skills must be complemented by experience and qualifications. More often than not, a specialist information qualification is expected. Those who think their subject-specific degree will be sufficient would be well-advised to think again. While the in-depth knowledge they have accrued may be useful in certain contexts, they should really be looking into the possibility of additional, vocational post-graduate study, as Rafael Ball, of Research Center Jülich, confirmed: 'A higher degree is nice to have, but not enough. A degree in information science, on the other hand, demonstrates a general understanding of the complexity of the information world.'

Donna Walton, manager of the recruitment wing of the UK's Association for Information Management, ASLIB Professional Recruitment, says she is asked for candidates with a library or information qualification by approximately 90 per cent of her clients.

Choosing a qualification
So, what sort of qualification is best? Should it be in library science, information science, information management, or something else? The answer will depend on the preferred career, and it's worth reading the small print: not all courses are the same, even if most cover the same core principles. One useful piece of advice from CILIP's Michael Martin is to select a course that has been approved by an appropriate professional organisation in the country of employment, such as CILIP in the UK: 'CILIP qualifications are accredited by a panel of employers, practitioners and academics to ensure that they meet the needs of the industry.'

Of course, those industry needs are changing as fast as the technology. How can a student be sure that their chosen qualification won't go out of date before the course is finished? David Bawden, senior lecturer in the Department of Information Science at London's City University, revealed that course organisers are also required to keep up with the pace: 'The courses constantly change, in terms of technologies, systems, resources and so on.' But, he says: 'The core knowledge of principles and concepts, and the attitudes and perspectives gained, should not date. Rather, it should form the basis for self-managed development throughout a career.'

Formerly an information professional within the pharmaceutical industry, Bawden confirms from direct experience the general transition to a situation where there is 'less stability,' diminishing numbers of 'jobs for life in one function with one company,' and instead greater emphasis on flexibility, retraining and the ability to take on new roles. There's no doubt, however, that information professionals are rising to the challenge. While jobs and the variety of jobs are on the increase, any temptations to view the market as a free-for-all should be resisted: most professionals are welcoming the transition as an opportunity for variety and self-development. As fast as new skills are demanded, capable candidates are getting appropriately trained and snapping up the opportunities.

'There appears to be quite a lot of competition in the employment field at the moment,' pointed out Donna Walton, of ASLIB Professional Recruitment. 'Candidates need good interviewing skills, and good practical experience within the library and information fields.'

So, employers want people who have been vocationally trained or retrained, who are familiar with the new tools and technologies as well as with the traditional library methods. They also favour those who are already graduates, preferably with relevant experience, but who, on top of all that, are prepared to undertake further and ongoing re-skilling. It sounds like a tall order and even having all that still won't guarantee beating the competition.

The deciding factor
To get that final edge, the nebulous term 'interpersonal skills' becomes important. Exactly why these might have become such a deciding factor in recent years may be revealed in the conclusions of an 'employers' forum', held earlier this year by the Information Management School of London's Metropolitan University, which brought together information professionals and academics from around the UK.

The outcomes of the exchange include the discovery that information professionals are now routinely expected not only to manage digital resources, but also to train others in their use. 'An increasing reliance on digital information has created a vacuum in training provision that librarians are increasingly filling, particularly within academic, commercial and governmental libraries,' according to the university's Luke Tredinnick in a report about the meeting for CILIP's Update magazine.

In addition, many participants said information professionals are increasingly required to act as intermediaries between users and IT practitioners: 'It was felt that information professionals and librarians needed to be able to understand the jargon of IT departments, and communicate in the language of IT practitioners, in order to adequately represent the needs of users.' Furthermore, wrote Tredinnick, information specialists are frequently expected to develop digital information services as discrete projects, a trend that has necessitated the acquisition of project management skills.

Effective communication is a skill that is central to all these activities: perhaps this is why everyone is looking for it. Specific training in these aspects could well be the icing on the cake - and the key to success for both employers and employees.

Further information
Sue Hill Recruitment
InfoMATCH, a department of CILIP
Aslib Professional Recruitment
Central Library of the Research Center Jülich
Metropolitan University, London
School of Informatics, London's City University
A list of Departments and Schools of Information Studies, Information Management & Information Systems throughout Europe assembled by information veteran Professor Tom Wilson