Past Forward: Skills Challenge

[This is the fourth in a series on the OCLC Research Library Partnership meeting, Past Forward. I’ll wrap up with one final post at the end of this week.]

Erin O’Meara dropped the bomb during her presentation on the challenges of dealing with “born digital” materials. There are an increasing number of job postings for digital archivists (or pick your emerging asepct of librarianship). While it’s great that institutions recognize that they need to invest in a new area, all too frequently, this investment is limited; it’s not, O’Meara said, just one person’s job to do “all the born-digital things.” Real change comes when the library leadership invests in new areas by not only hiring one person, but also signals to the organization, “This is a direction we are ALL headed.” One person can’t build out a new area and be a single handed a change agent. This is an especially problematic position for someone who is relatively junior, who does not know how to navigate within an organization. Without buttressing and support, they are likely to have diminished success and risk burn out.

Issues around staffing returned not only in the discussion session following O’Meara’s talk, but also following the “repositioning” panel. In thinking about how to reposition special collections and indeed reinvent the library, the list of skills we’re missing is long. Some institutions are hiring outside the field, others find it difficult to craft job descriptions that attract the appropriate people. And how to encourage and engage those who are new to our organizations, especially junior staff members? How do we help them see the larger picture and how they fit into solutions? None of these are easy questions, but I’m glad we had an opportunity for a frank and honest discussion (and you can watch the videos, not only of Erin’s talk, but also for the two discussion sessions.)

Of course, discussions about the role of skills in research libraries is nothing new. My boss Jim Michalko, along with Constance Malpas and Arnold Arcolio, took a look at various “risk” factors in their 2010 report, Research Libraries, Risk and Systemic Change [pdf]. In their analysis, staff skills are one of the largest risks to research libraries.

Sensitivity Analysis for risk groups: from Research Libraries, Risk, and Systematic Change]
Sensitivity Analysis for risk groups: from Research Libraries, Risk, and Systematic Change

Our surveys of special collections and archives, both in the US and Canada and in the UK and Ireland, also reveal a need for training and upgrading skills. In the UK and Ireland, areas of need articulated were outreach and born digital; in the US and Canada, needs were around born-digital materials, information technology, intellectual property, and cataloging/metadata.

So, we’re drowning in both anecdotes and evidence. While I’m happy that OCLC Research has a robust Demystifying Born Digital program, I do worry about other aspects of this issue. How much of this can be addressed at a profession-wide level, and how much needs to be dealt with at an institution level? What are you doing about reskilling at your institution? Leave some comments to lift my spirits!

I’ll close out this series later this week with a posting on what I found so inspirational about this meeting. See you back here soon!