[The following essay is reprinted from the CARL Newsletter, 18:3 (September 1995): 1-2. It appeared as the "From the President" column and was written partially as a "thought piece" to get people thinking about the "staffing" or professional education theme in the Conference.]

From the President:


Last issue, I talked about the future of libraries and the critical issue of intellectual property rights. This time, I'll turn to our future, as librarians.

Do we have a future? In a nutshell, "no". Of course, it depends on who "we" are, and how far ahead the future is. But based on everything I am able to see and read, I have to conclude that, while information professionals have a future, that of academic librarians is problematic at best. Most of us are academic librarians. We may be librarians struggling to transform ourselves into information professionals. But it isn't easy, and for many of us, it may not be possible.

Transformation in values

The transformation is about far more than just learning to use and manage electronic tools. It is about redefining ourselves, our core values and attitudes as professionals, as academics, and as employees in service institutions. Similar changes are occurring throughout society, in response to economic, political and social trends as well as to the unparalleled rate of technological change.

One can argue about the terminology, but to me, "academic librarianship" as we have known it connotes both a body of knowledge and a professional and institutional culture, and the changes which are occurring will alter our worklives so dramatically that very little of what we have known as academic librarianship is likely to survive.

Loss in value of accumulated expertise

First, there is the rapidly changing technological environment. Most of what we know--which gave us authority in the past--is no longer valid, relevant, or if it is, it has become of far less importance. Most of what we need to know is what we have learned--or should have learned--in the last two or three years. How can we keep up and presume to have the level of currently-useful expertise our positions imply we have?

Furthermore, the academic environment is one which has valued the accumulation of specialized knowledge--reflected in the successive academic degrees which led to initial credentialing and entry salary levels, and in the advancement/salary structures of institutions such as UC the CSU, which provided increasingly higher rewards over time, as one's expertise was developed through experience. Provisions such as tenure, academic status and peer review were based on the assumption that, once certified as worthy, the academic professional should be trusted to use his or her own judgment in deciding how to carry out his or her responsibilities, and would naturally keep up-to-date through the normal course of research and professional involvement. Lengthy association with one's employing institution was the norm.

The "commercial" ethos

On every side, we now seem to be confronted with a new ethos, a "commercial" ethos, geared to rapid change and to accountability in terms of short-term, tangible outputs (or in the case of higher education, "outcomes"). Since we work in relatively conservative and non-commercial institutions, many of us have not yet been affected much. But the tide seems inexorable. The new ethos respects only the ability to do the job at hand. The commercial spirit wants to pay people what they are worth, in terms of current output, rather than what they deserve, based on past accomplishment. Credentials and degrees--even employment status or "job classification"--seem less important than what people can do to solve the latest problems in an imaginative way. Flexibility, imagination and the ability to learn quickly become pre-eminent values. Tenure, degrees, credentials and job "classifications" can all seem like archaic impediments to creating adaptive and efficient organizations.

New conflict between work for hire and work for social good

The new values are entrepreneurial, competitive. The information professional must hustle. Success usually involves movement--from one employer to another, from one job to another--and requires that one always maintain a level of knowledge and skills that keep one "marketable" in a fast-changing job market. Many of us have spent our entire careers ensconced in a type of "socialist" system, in which we have only to do our jobs well and the institution will care of us. We have been able to work as unfettered altruists, serving the needs of others, without any need to worry about our own self-interest. Even if we can transform ourselves into independent entrepreneurs, the very thought of weighing our own career and financial interests in every decision we make in the course of serving others is abhorrent.

Librarians no longer the principal custodians of knowledge resources

Finally, the old system has conferred power on librarians through our custody and control of the "store" of society's history and culture. The new global information environment will gradually make all information available through many channels. Libraries will be much less dominant as providers of information. Our principal role may be as intermediaries between people and information providers, negotiating access arrangements and assisting people with information retrieval.

Libraries only one employer of the information professional

I expect we will see an increasing divergence between the world of information professionals and the world of libraries. Ironically, librarianship as a profession grew out of libraries. It was a means of securing for library workers increased status, authority and better pay and perquisites. For academic librarians, the fight for faculty status was a natural extension of the century-long struggle for professional status. We have been the profession for library workers.

Libraries can afford fewer information professionals

Some information professionals may still turn their attention to the management of libraries. Most people working in libraries, however, are no longer likely to be "information professionals" in any meaningful sense of the term. They will still need the skills to do the jobs which need doing, and will have to be flexible and competitive, but the fact that they no longer have credentials, degrees and other artifacts of accumulated specialized expertise will undermine their status, autonomy, pay and perquisites. It seems increasingly difficult to justify either the M.L.S. or academic status for all those involved in original cataloging, reference, administration or even collection development.

Thirty years ago, Berkeley's University Librarian, Donald Coney, told the eager partisans of faculty status for librarians that it was very well if librarians wished to redefine themselves and focus on academic endeavors such as research, publication, teaching and service to professional organizations. But he warned that the powers-that-be, who control the purse-strings, have no real interest in a cadre of library employees involved in such activities. Faculty just want the books on the shelves, and when push comes to shove, that's all they'll be willing to pay for.

We see ample evidence of this today at UC Berkeley, as one library function after another is relegated to staff who are not librarians, and the number of librarians is reduced by one-third compared to just five years ago. Although the campus committed itself to gradually replacing many of the teaching faculty who were lost to early retirement, campus administration specifically rejected the idea of replacing librarians. The Library was recently reorganized a second time, partly in order to address these changing conditions, and a new division was created--Academic Services--which brings together most librarians engaged in collection development, instruction and reference services and will seek to clarify the academic role of librarians in order to focus the limited professional staffing on those roles which most require academic expertise. The new School of Information Management & Systems, now planning its programs and curriculum, will seek to embody the historic shift in the nature of the field, focusing on the new order of things, and the challenges that face information professionals.

What is to be done?

What are we to do? Come to CARL's 3d Annual Conference in San Francisco and talk about it! The speakers and panels will all address aspects of these issues, and there will be ample opportunity for one-on-one and group discussion.

Bill Whitson
President, California Academic & Research Libraries
(the California Chapter of ACRL)
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