Given all we read and hear every day, we could easily (and mistakenly) assume that being overwhelmed by information and a rapid technology-driven rate of change is a new phenomenon—but it’s also relatively easy to discover what a consistently-important challenge the flow of information and the pace of change has been, if we delve into Sandra Hirsh’s newly-released anthology Information Services Today: An Introduction.
While the entire book is—among other things—a richly rewarding exploration of the changing nature of librarianship/the work of information professionals, one important moment of change- and information-management revelation comes in Christine Pawley’s contribution (Chapter 2, “Libraries and Information Organizations: Two Centuries of Experience”) as she writes about how “new technologies lead to information overload”: “…William S. Learned noted a ‘phenomenal improvement in speed and accuracy of communication’ and complained that even the trained student finds the time required thoroughly to examine a topic in an unfamiliar field almost prohibitive”—not today, but in 1924 (Information Services Today, pp. 13-14). If we pursue this theme by revisiting Sarah Houghton’s “Being Wired or Being Tired: Ten Ways to Cope With Information Overload” (originally published online July 30, 2008 in Ariadne), we find the reminder that “As far back as the sixteenth century people were complaining about the wide range of information they had to consume in order to contribute to society.”
Any of us involved in training-teaching-learning within libraries and other learning organizations viscerally know and understand the feeling of being overwhelmed by information and change. We recognize that an important component of our learning-facilitation efforts is to help learners come to terms with the changes they face within any learning opportunity. We also are struggling to find words evocative enough to describe what we do so we recognize the ever-expanding breadth and scope of our work and offer terminology that helps others understand how much what we offer has changed. And we do understand that the goal of “keeping up” with educational technology and even with the basics of how to learn in a world where the way we learn is continuing to evolve (e.g., through the flipped classroom model, through massive open online courses—MOOCs—and through innovative blended-learning opportunities) is about as easy to reach as the pot of gold at the base of a rainbow.
At a certain level, it’s somewhat comforting to read those words that Learned wrote in 1924 and that Houghton wrote in 2008: we realize that others have faced and survived the challenges we continue to face. It’s also comforting and inspiring to read those words within the context of Information Services Today’s book-length exploration of our changing learning and information landscape: we see that the nature of library collections is changing—but that has always been true. We see that the nature of libraries is changing—but that, too, has been true for many decades. We see that library users’ expectations are changing—another consistent element within the library and information services world. We see that the tech tools that information professionals use continue to evolve and that the need to continually upgrade our skills is essential—but the best of our current and former colleagues have always recognized that their work required and continues to require a commitment to lifelong learning. And I suspect many of my best training-teaching-learning colleagues in a variety of learning environments would have little argument that continual learning and a responsiveness to change are among the requirements and the pleasures of the work we do.
The theme of change is particularly apparent in Lisa Gregory and Amy Rudersdorf Information Services Today chapter on “Digital Resources.” As they discuss a digital librarian’s roles (cataloger, collector, educator, legal expert, manager, negotiator, researcher, and technologist), we see some terms that would be familiar to most librarians/information professionals as well as to many trainer-teacher-learners, and we see some terms that reflect how quickly our professions are evolving. Nowhere is the need for adaptability among all of us more apparent than in the section about technologists: “The technology skill sets needed by digital librarians are as varied as the technologies that surround us. However, most digital librarians should—at the minimum—have a basic understanding of content management systems, databases, some metadata standards, and web technologies (p. 102)”—advice that can easily guide our training-teaching-learning colleagues to greater opportunities for success.
All of this would seem to be the fodder for nightmares among those who despair of ever keeping up with the flow of information and the rate of change within our lives. But some of what we gain through contemporary learning experiences themselves is an understanding that keeping up has long required an ability to sift through what comes our way. Filtering out what is less important. Applying what we can apply. Relying on our colleagues and other members of our personal learning networks to help us fill the gaps we face. And developing what might be coined as yet another form of literacy: “information-overload literacy”—the skill and the ability to know when it’s time to step away from the flood of information and rapid pace of change long enough to relish what we have absorbed.
N.B.: This is the second in a series of reflections inspired by Information Services Today: An Introduction, which includes Paul’s chapter on “Infinite [Lifelong] Learning.”
Perhaps one of the reasons that the “flow of information and pace of change” is so hard to get our heads around is because it is found in an immense spectrum of practice across all of the library world.
I completely identified with the summary of the minimum skill set needed today by digital librarians. However, I practice school librarian, not digital librarianship. The point, of course, is that the minimum skill set for digital librarians is permeating through to all fields of librarianship as more resources become digital and managed (subscribed to, catalogued, accessed) using technology. So, the cutting edge of the digital world has unquestionably filtered down to me in my own little outpost of practice.
More interesting and perhaps more of a challenge to the profession, though, is the cross section of practice you could capture by sampling working worlds of current librarians. A team of visiting graduate student librarians came to our school last year and brought us light years forward in a matter of weeks with their concentrated analyses, recommendations, and new infrastructure (logo, web site, student research modules.) Their effort was a direct result of our desire to bring library services up to modern standards and practice. We asked for help, invited a team, worked feverishly, and hauled ourselves up by our bootstraps in record time! It will take longer, of course, to implement the needed changes, but we have a vision and we are on our way!
However, as I prepare to move to a new school this year, I am headed to an environment where there is not even a job description specific to librarians. In the new school, the librarians work from the same job description as a classroom teacher. It is hard to disparage this practice when it was the case in my own school just a year ago! The difference in practice across school librarianship, admittedly a small segment of the much larger world of librarianship, is staggering.
In her landmark article, “Manifesto for 21st Century Teacher Librarians,” Valenza summed up the problem succinctly. She wrote, “Well into the 21st century, it is clear that the concept of modern teacher librarian practice is not clear. There is no textbook for what effective practice looks like in continually morphing information and communication landscapes.” That’s the essence of it, and why we all keep trying to define ourselves and our roles within the profession. Although she was addressing a teacher librarian audience, my instincts tell me that you could remove the word “teacher” and insert words describing other areas of librarianship, ie. research, public, digital, etc, and the statement would still ring true.
Because successful librarianship is built around individual communities, constituencies, students, all “learners” or “patrons,” successful librarianship has to be tailor made. There is not, nor do I really think that there every will be a “one-size-fits-all” solution. The best we can hope for is to master an essential skill set or tool-kit, then to the best of our professional abilities and personal passions, bring those to bear in our libraries. Doing that in the context of a “continually morphing landscape” is the reason I wake up energized and excited every day. It’s our biggest challenge and one we embrace for the sake of our learners and learning community.
No nightmares and despair, just the immense pleasure of knowing that the effort we expend to ride the wave of change will result in improved services for our learning communities. Most people who come to libraries need help getting started. Often they are or quickly become experts in their own areas of expertise or interest. To collect and organize the resources (digital, print, or other) and then share them with the community has always been the librarians’ domain. The tools we use to do these things have changed and will of course continue to change. But, the fundamental task remains unchanged. I try to focus on this, the essence of my library practice, as the tools and technologies continually shift around me.
Thanks for your summary, Paul. I likely will not be able to read Hirsh’s anthology but had a wonderful time thinking through the issues your raised in your post.