Information Services Today: What We Call Ourselves

We don’t have to go very far into Sandra Hirsh’s newly-released anthology Information Services Today: An Introduction to reach the first of the challenges many of us face in the contemporary workplace, where job descriptions and workplace responsibilities evolve and increase at a dizzying, overwhelming pace : our language has not been keeping up with the changes taking place within our professions.

Information_Services_Today--CoverIt’s not as if the words “librarian” or “library” are in any danger of disappearing anytime soon; they do, at significant levels, remain evocative, familiar, and comforting even though they inadequately describe the people and the organizations under discussion. On the other hand, we see throughout Information Services Today the use of “information professionals” and “information organizations” (defined at the beginning of the book’s preface as “all places that manage, create, store, or provide information”) as terms more suggestive and reflective of what those organizations and those people who staff them offer to members of the onsite and extensive online communities they serve.

Proposing and supporting changes in our workplace nomenclature is far more than an intellectual exercise; it’s an essential element of the process of acknowledging change by seeking and adopting terminology that reflects what we do and—equally importantly—helps others understand what we offer in our continually-evolving workplaces. It’s the same issue described by Theodore Levitt in his widely-read Harvard Business Review essay about how railroads made a mistake by describing themselves as being in the railroad rather than transportation business. It’s visible in the discussion about using “information professional” and “information organization” as alternatives to “librarians” and “libraries”; it’s visible in the continuing discussion of using “library member” or “library user” in place of “library patron,” which I first documented in an article for Infoblog in 2008; and it’s visible in the field we most commonly refer to as “staff training” but more accurately could be described in numerous other ways, including “learning facilitation.”

signorelli200x300[1]This challenge of deciding what to call ourselves clearly isn’t new for any of us involved in training-teaching-learning—an endeavor that is a core part of what many library staff members/information professionals do every day. Four years ago, Lori Reed and I (in our book Workplace Learning & Leadership) were already documenting some of many terms being applied to those of us involved in training-teaching-learning just in libraries and nonprofit settings: “…director, volunteer services and staff training; training coordinator; training and development manager; training manager; training officer; chief learning officer; learning and development coordinator; staff development and training coordinator; staff development librarian; staff development manager; continuing education coordinator; learning manager; and organizational development manager.” The situation has only become more challenging as our ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) colleagues began the process (in 2014) of changing the organization’s name to ATD (the Association for Talent Development) and replacing “workplace learning and performance” with “talent development” to reflect the idea that “talent development” is the overall, far-more-nuanced description of what our efforts are designed to offer and foster.

NMC Summer Conference - PortlandThe importance of what we are facing and attempting to address became even clearer to me during a dinner conversation with colleagues at the 2014 New Media Consortium Summer Conference (held in Portland, Oregon). My personal moment of revelation struck as I listened to a colleague describing how a “school library” had been replaced by an “innovation center” and how school administrators, teachers, and students were struggling to come to terms with what that change meant in terms of what was available to them within that redesigned and renamed space. As I noted at the time, “the challenges we all face as our learning environments quickly change to reflect the rapid rate of technological change…reflect the rapid rate of technological change that is all around us: we literally don’t have the words to describe what we are doing in a world where our old labels (e.g., teacher, trainer, learning facilitator) are simply not broad and rich enough to capture the nuances of all we are doing. It’s as if we’re facing a vocabulary deficiency…”

As we read through the 39 chapters provided written by a large group of information professionals for inclusion in Information Services Today, we gain an understanding of the magnificent range of services and resources information professionals provide through information organizations. And, in the process of absorbing that content, we gain a better understanding of why it’s worth looking for alternatives to “library,” “librarian,” “library patron,” and “trainer” within the dynamic and enticing worlds we are lucky enough to inhabit, foster, and support.

N.B.: This is the first in a series of reflections inspired by Information Services Today: An Introduction, which includes Paul’s chapter on “Infinite [Lifelong] Learning.”

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