I got into a thought-provoking conversation on the Digital Humanities Question and Answer site the other day. Columbia University is planning a two-year staff-reskilling program, so that its librarians can “be the consulting arm of [the university’s] re-envisioned Digital Humanities Center.” Columbia’s is hardly the only library—hardly the only academic library, even—needing to reskill some of its existing employee complement in various ways, digital humanities only one possibility of many. Granting the necessity, how do we as a profession do this, and how should we?
Traditionally, libraries and archives have left professionals on their own to decide when, how, and in what to update their skills. Even in organizations that set aside money for staff professional development—far from universal, sadly—staff (perhaps with their supervisors’ involvement) have generally decided independently how to spend that money. Few libraries take a holistic, planned approach to workforce skill development; perhaps Columbia is signaling a shift toward such.
Owning my own interest in the professional-development landscape: I occasionally earn money teaching workshops and bootcamps for professionals, and come this summer, one-quarter of my work time will formally be allocated to UW-Madison SLIS’s continuing-education program. I urgently need to understand what information professionals want to learn, what their employers want them to learn, how they want to learn it, and what evidence they subsequently need to present that they have learned it.
So what’s out there?
Say “professional development” to many information professionals, and the first word that springs to mind will be “conference.” For sheer breadth of offerings, conferences are hard to beat! Those who need to learn a little about a lot, or who are looking for new directions, should find that a conference meets their needs handily. For very narrow sorts of reskilling, too—on the level of “tips and tricks” or “learn the basics of a new software package”—pre-conferences and post-conferences are valuable opportunities, though most don’t offer clear credentialing.
Unconferences, too, have joined the professional-education scene, from CurateCamp to the Library Camp of the West. Smaller and more spontaneous by design than regular conferences, good unconferences facilitate experience-pooling, peer learning, and Socratic solution-seeking better than sage-on-the-stage presentations and panels can. They can also be au courant in a way that events scheduled a year or more in advance often find difficult. Those who need clear credentialing, however, won’t receive it from unconferences.
The sticking point about (un)conferences, of course, is the expense in money and time associated with physical presence. If I attended every conference relevant just to the focused areas I teach (leaving “library technology” and “organization of information” aside as ridiculously broad), I would never be home to see my students face-to-face, and I’d spend my salary and mor in travel expenses! I’m one of the very lucky ones, too—I can still travel once a year or so on my employer’s dime, once in a while I can deliver a talk to pay my way, and the world certainly doesn’t end back at the ranch if I’m away for a few days. So few information professionals have all those luxuries that physical (un)conferences just can’t be expected to shoulder the entire reskilling burden.
Quite a few LIS schools and departments repackage some of their existing coursework as post-graduate certificates, a sort of “did you miss something? come back and get it!” experience. From the learner’s perspective, the emphasis here is clearly on credentialing. It must be, because these programs offer very little else that strikes me as attractive to a working professional: they involve rigid curricula, tough grading standards, major time commitments (though mostly or entirely asynchronous ones, at least), and stunning expense—expense often comparable to that of the professional master’s degree!
I don’t think certificates solve the reskilling problem from an employing organization’s perspective, either. The expense of sending multiple librarians through certificate programs is flatly prohibitive, and how many libraries can patiently wait more than a year, granting work-release time into the bargain, for a librarian to finish a certificate and start deploying the skills gained? Nor can organizations leverage any prestige from an earned certificate; that benefit accrues strictly to the learner.
I find myself wondering about pedagogical style, too. Of necessity, the graduate courses I teach include a lot of professional-practice scaffolding, from presentation skills to job-ad composition to writing book reviews and whitepapers. For the most part, this is a waste of time and effort for working professionals who don’t need scaffolding. Is stuffing these professionals in with new, often much younger and less-experienced learners really the most efficient and effective way to train?
Non-certificate, non-conference continuing education is perhaps rarer than it should be. In some cases—for medical and legal librarians, notably—professional organizations offer and credential it. UW-Madison’s continuing-education unit grew out of a state requirement that rural public libraries unable to afford an MLS-degreed librarian be led by individuals with a certain level of training.
For me as teacher, continuing-education classes offer a great deal more flexibility and spontaneity than the regular graduate curriculum can. To get a new course on the MLS program’s books, I have to convince the powers-that-be to let me teach it as a “topics” course twice—meaning once per year for two years—whereupon I can make a case to the Curriculum Committee that it’s done well and deserves its own number. All I have to do to teach a continuing-education course is scare up enough willing learners to cover the course’s expenses, a much lower bar. I can also choose a course length, from a one-hour webinar to a twelve-week course (my current maximum, and after having done one of these, I now believe it’s too long for most working professionals).
For learners, programs on the UW-Madison model can offer only limited credentials. All our courses are pass-fail, and they convey only generic, not-terribly-meaningful “continuing education units.” Offsetting that disadvantage is their relatively low cost, asynchronicity, and bootstrappy just-the-facts-ma’am design.
For us to offer more prestigious credentials, librarianship would have to have a credentialing organization and associated standards, which it simply doesn’t beyond the initial MLS. If it did, we’d incur much of the same angst and overhead that ALA accreditation now causes, which would raise costs and decrease flexibility considerably… so on the whole, I think I’m content with the tradeoff. We’ll find out as our program expands whether learners will be as well.
I’ve had this conversation a few times in the last year, while discussing training with a potential client:
Me: So you’re interested in having me teach your staff about foo, and when I’m done you’d like them to know bar and be able to do baz, is that right?
Potential client: Yes, that’s right, and if you could include something about quux too, that would be fantastic!
Me, somewhat bemused: Jane Librarian still works with you, right? She’s one of my heroes, so very knowledgeable about baz and quux.
PC, equally bemused: Yes, she’s still around. So, when can you come teach?
When these chats end, I lean back on my painter’s stool (having recently switched to a standing desk) trying to explain to myself why on earth this library wants to pay me rather than leveraging their in-house expertise. Valid reasons exist, to be sure: perhaps Jane doesn’t like to teach, for example, whereas I certainly do. Too often, though, when I quietly contact Jane to ask what’s going on, Jane sighs and says something like, “The decision to call you happened well over my head. I’d be happy to train if they asked, but nobody asked.”
How awful. My conscience pricks me about teaching under such circumstances; I feel as though I’m undercutting Jane. I can at least make an effort to include Jane with an eye to building her up in the eyes of her colleagues, but that doesn’t seem like enough. Suffice to say, no few libraries have potential in-house training talent they’re not making the most of.
MOOCs and other online venues
All the venues I’ve already mentioned can be found in part or wholly online, although the cost and credentials equations don’t change much. As convenient as online reskilling is for many, librarianship must also keep in mind that an appreciable minority of its professionals work in areas where home broadband is a luxury or even unavailable, and even work connections may be slow. The digital divide doesn’t just apply to library patrons!
That said, massive open online courses (MOOCs) could change the reskilling cost equation considerably—if schools and instructors can be found to offer them. So far, the construction of MOOCs is being subsidized by their institutions, making them a dubious proposition for any organization wishing to make money or even cover its costs by teaching, as all of the organizations mentioned thus far do.
Still, MOOCs could be valuable as advertising, both for organizations and for the profession at large, and they could also be subsidized by forward-thinking libraries looking for organization-wide training, so I’m not prepared to say we’ll never see them in LIS. MOOCs could also efficiently reskill librarians in libraries that don’t have money to pay for other forms of reskilling, but for that to happen broadly and consistently, money would have to be found to pay up-front for their construction. Perhaps a grant agency might step in?
Lacking that, the current training patchwork with all its gaps will serve the well-heeled well, and everyone else hardly at all. I believe librarianship needs and deserves better… but I’m not sure how that happens. I’ll keep thinking, though, and I invite Library Journal readers to do the same.