April 20, 2018

Professional Development: What’s it to You? | Not Dead Yet

Cheryl LaGuardiaThe phrase “professional development” is used liberally by librarians. It’s used so liberally and in so many different contexts that I’m not really sure just what it is anymore. Is it getting yet another degree? Publishing in the literature? Participating in the life of your community? Given that most performance evaluations involve assessing an individual’s success in developing professionally, I think it’s a concept we all want, and need, to understand.

It’s very important for the individual librarian to “be on the same page” as their supervisor or evaluator in terms of just what constitutes such development, which makes me wonder: are we all on the same page about it? Is there even a single page that covers it, or is it possibly a multi-page, multi-volume issue?

These questions made me want to ask others what they are doing about advancing their own knowledge. Hmmm. It could also be interesting to ask managers what they do for professional development and what they want their reporting librarians to do. And it would be even more interesting to compare the two lists.

So that’s what I did. I asked a slew of library managers a) what they, themselves, do to develop professionally, and b) what they want their direct reports to do to about it. Then I asked a slew of front line librarians what they’re trying. I got a lot of very interesting answers, which I’d like to share with you.

Just a few details from me as background: first: I promised to anonymize all the responses. In some cases that means I’ve had to delete a word or phrase and sometimes replace it with a generic word to preserve the respondent’s identity.

About whom I asked: I mostly asked folks I know already. And not surprisingly, these are people (both-front line librarians and library managers) I like and respect, whose answers I knew I’d value. In some cases I asked those whose good work I’ve heard about but whom I’ve never met.

The respondents workplaces include public, public academic, private academic, school, and special libraries (medical, law, and others), and the departments span just about every imaginable area of library work.

Folks were extremely generous in their replies—so generous that I’m going to have to share my results with you over two columns to do the responses justice. I know, the web affords me much more space than print, but I can only hope to keep your attention for so long in a single column.

What the Library Managers Said

The Professional Development They Do Themselves

Listed in order of the frequency each activity was mentioned:

  1. Lead local, national, and international professional committees
  2. Publish in the literature
  3. Present at professional conferences
  4. Edit professional journals and other publications in the field
  5. Organize professional conferences
  6. Participate in leadership institutes and fellowships
  7. Write grants
  8. Consult for government agencies and international organizations
  9. Master new technologies
  10. Earn advanced degrees
  11. Learn new languages

Here are a few of the actual comments from managers:

“I attend lectures and presentations by campus and visiting scholars on a range of topics related to the subjects represented in my library collection to maintain up-to-date awareness of trends in scholarship, research and teaching.”

“I’m taking a Spanish class, learning JavaScript via Khan Academy, and continuing to avoid ALA.”

“My conference-going days are pretty much over as our support for travel and other expenses continues to shrink and as I get nearer retirement.”

What the Managers Would Like Their Reports to Be Doing

Listed in order of the frequency each activity was mentioned:

  1. Achieve greater technical competence. Some specifics mentioned include: process design and visualization of workflows for use in workflow re-envisioning; scripting and programming skills that allow manipulation of disparate data sources into metadata for use in discovery systems; XML, RDF and semantic web/linked data concepts; and how to work with big data
  2. Get formal management training
  3. Get project management skills
  4. Earn an advanced degree in an area meaningful to their work
  5. Learn a language that is meaningful to their work
  6. Participate actively in professional organizations (not just by being a member, but presenting at conferences and leading committees)
  7. Audit relevant courses
  8. Mentor new professionals
  9. Learn text mining and text analytics
  10. Make on-site visits to other libraries to learn new work flows
  11. Learn about library space planning

That’s the list, summarized from across the responses. But the more detailed comments describe larger issues of importance to the managers sampled. Here are just a few:

“I want staff to pursue professional development opportunities in the areas that are most interesting to them…for several reasons. First, if they are interested they are more likely to be engaged and thus we are more likely to see something in the way of outcomes. Second, even if some might consider it a bit of a stretch the person comes back seeing work through a new lens. Third, it demonstrates that we recognize a value in the development of the staff member as a person, not just a cog in our machine. There always has to be a work tie-in for spending professional development funds, but we should be liberal in drawing the boundaries whenever possible.”

“I have found that ‘real world’ professional development—partnering with another library or librarian on a project or joining a committee in the network, is more helpful than taking a workshop or attending a seminar.”

“Effective professional development is not about specific activities, it is about individuals seeking opportunities to develop professionally. That should be driven by curiosity, critical engagement with the “challenges of the day,” and ambition—not ambition to rise in income or in the ranks of bureaucracy, but ambition to be the best at the important work to be done.”

“Management workshops and strategies can be relevant regardless of the area of concentration within the library and we have supported participation by staff with supervisory responsibility. Mostly we have periods where we get motivated and determined to pinpoint valuable opportunities, only to get sucked back into our day to day crunch of work and deadlines.”

“It is important to be sensitive to the fact that what is a reward for one person may be a chore to another.”

“Library space and program planning are untapped areas and people skilled in those areas will be valuable to the libraries that have retooled for the maker space or digital/interactive library environment.”

“What we have found helpful are on-site visits where a group of us can observe a production operation, interact with front-line staff, and learn some new workflow approaches and strategies. Offsite conferences do not often convey what the real work is like within an institution. Another area that we have been pursuing is a kind-of internally driven development. We are having regular departmental meetings where we have a focus/presentation on a particular area within our department. For example, new equipment purchased—why and how does it make us more efficient?”

“Librarians need to learn new technologies and methods that are interchangeable from academic, public, and private environments as they are likely to be more mobile in future.”

“I believe and speak to the idea of librarians as renaissance individuals—there are many relevant professional fields which can inform our practice; we have much to gain beyond the fields of technology and library science. While this can present balancing logistics for an individual I think stepping outside the box or our own comfort zone is part of professional development.”

“Honestly, anything the kids are learning in library school per technologies is behind, they need to expand out to meetup groups or take supplemental online courses. There should be more focus in [library] schools on the lean startup approach and other agile methods. It would help students to learn how to manage conflict, team building, strategy and leadership (in essence relationships) as they are likely to face opposition and barriers when they first start out.”

“Skills to learn: the ability to emotionally disengage and not take work issues personally. Communication skills (it’s very easy to complain about how information is shared but try doing it yourself to a broad and disparate audience). A librarian may have a specialized, esoteric knowledge—but until s/he learns the best way to work with a group, that person will never be as influential as s/he may desire to be. Learn to question current practices, your own assumptions and those of the people around you. Learn and use basic critical thinking skills applied to your own practices. These skills will improve your day-to-day work experience and make you invaluable.”

Not surprisingly, these answers reveal a pretty broad spectrum of thoughts and approaches. In the next column, I’ll summarize the responses from front-line librarians on what they’re doing to develop professionally, and we can compare the lists to find out what’s important to whom.

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Cheryl LaGuardia About Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia always wanted to be a librarian, and has been one for more years than she's going to admit. She cracked open her first CPU to install a CD-ROM card in the mid-1980s, pioneered e-resource reviewing for Library Journal in the early '90s (picture calico bonnets and prairie schooners on the web...), won the Louis Shores / Oryx Press Award for Professional Reviewing, and has been working for truth, justice, and better electronic library resources ever since. Reach her at claguard@fas.harvard.edu, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.



  1. Nicola Palumbo says:

    One thing I didn’t see that I think is worthy of mention is the possibility of working on interdepartmental projects within your own institution. For example, the college where I work recently went through the self-study phase for reaccreditation, and several librarians participated in that effort. This type of participation both enables a librarian to learn about areas of the college they might otherwise have little interaction with, and make contacts in those areas, as well as raising the library’s visibility within the institution. You don’t always have to travel far or work with other institutions to develop collaboration skills or learn new processes. Granted, this strategy would not apply to someone in a small public library where all the employees work together regularly; those librarians will have to reach outside of their own organizations. But for those librarians who are embedded in larger institutions, it can be a very rewarding (and inexpensive) way to grow.

    • Thanks for this comment, Nicola! It’s a wonderful idea that does offer loads of opportunities for meaningful professional development. It may have been implicit in some of the responses about working on local committees, but I’m thankful you made the activity explicit, pointing out the collaboration skills and learning “outside the box” such work offers.
      Thanks again for writing.
      Best wishes,

  2. Helene Williams says:

    Thanks, Cheryl, for this column, and I look forward to the responses from the line librarians. The examples listed here are great for new librarians and for MLIS students to see; in the Professional Portfolio course that I teach, I urge students to add sections on professional development, and they often have trouble articulating specifics beyond joining/attending ALA. These columns are going into my required reading list for next quarter!

    • Thanks for your comment, Helene! Always interested in helping library school students get a better handle about what they might want to do to be professionally active. The responses received from front line librarians include activities that had never occurred to me, but they’re really good ways to get updated and keep current. So — more to come!
      Thanks again, and best wishes,

  3. I am very curious as to know how much of this is or would be supported in terms of both work time and expenses, and how much librarians are expected to (or expect themselves) complete on their own time and dime. And I wonder if there is any disagreeme nt between supervisor and report regarding this.

    • Thanks for asking these questions, Sarah. I suspect that the answers to those questions may influence just how much, and what kinds of, professional development librarians can take on. I think you’ve given me the makings of another column here….
      Thanks for writing,