The future roles of information professionals are being questioned at a time when boundaries between users, librarians and different kinds of library staff are becoming more blurred than ever. The future may be one where academic libraries will be plagued by delayering, by restructuring and rationalisation; the growth of technology will ensure unpredictable outcomes; student control of their own learning will undermine the mediator function of librarians.
At the same time, the actual situation in most universities reveals a vast preponderance of conventional resource use ; a similar preference for the printed form over the electronic, given some differences between disciplines; a liking for conventional organisational forms; a not-unexpected reaction against change on the part of some staff.
The use of labels like "multi-skilled" and "multi-talented" is increasing, but we are beginning to realise that this involves more than the acquisition of technical skills by traditional librarians. This is healthy, given the possibility that future services may put a premium on staff who can occupy the middle ground by one stratagem or another.
Some of the changes identified are not new. Librarians have always espoused the "training of users in transferable information retrieval skills" and subscribed to the idea of making users as self-sufficient as possible in their use of information. Most librarians who have worked in small academic libraries, and some not so small, will also testify that the overlap between the professional and non-professional, and the emergence of the para-professional, were going on long before the first computer appeared.
There are signs that we are hung up on competencies. Creating and sustaining across - the - board competencies is being challenged. Elsewhere there is a growing acceptance that spectacular achievement can co-exist alongside monstrous incompetence in the same person. Training needs to focus on high achievement in areas of individual excellence, while relying on other things to overcome individual limitations. One of the devices that can be deployed to do this in organisations is a team.
A recent paper on the development of new roles took 32 pages to describe an awesome range of skills that should be taught to new professionals so that they could confidently take their places in the new world. It might be possible to pass this sort of thing off as a typical library school lecturer's exercise - it takes a former one to know one - but it is a good example of the thrust of the new roles and skills debate. It is unreal.
Of course information service staff need a basic understanding of IT, and need to be able to use the basic skills. But we do not know yet what organisational forms will emerge to support the electronic library, the digital library and the hybrid library. What we have now is inadequate and out of date even for conventional services. To handle the new roles issue properly we will do better to look at organisational structures, because we will never succeed in multi-skilling or re-skilling to the level we need to make things work. The best examples of converged information services now demonstrate the kind of multi-talents which are not technologically based, but are about changing attitudes and developing managerial abilities where they might not have existed so clearly before, among other things. They are to do with combining traditional skills with the ability to work alongside staff from what were separate services.
New roles is a team issue, and is part of structural change. So let us stick to specialisation but learn how to integrate in an organisational sense. For a long time we will need the traditional librarian alongside the IT specialist, but maybe not in the same person. New roles will only come out of organisational change, not from attempts to graft disparate skills onto the existing body of knowledge. It is to the dynamics of teams that we must look for this. Teams make real multi-skilling possible and it is this that should illuminate the direction we take, not the need to create information workers with a vast portfolio of skills.
Author details:Lyndon Pugh
Managing Editor, Ariadne