Mea Culpa

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I successfully managed to step in a quagmire today with my Sunday Speculation post regarding a hypothetical case for librarian retirement. My post was the equivalent of fishing with dynamite: it was bound to catch a lot more than what I was looking for and managed to get me all wet in the process. I know all too well about ageism and the discrimination that can be accompanied by it; I’ve had a family member be the target of such actions, long before the laws and lawsuits that would come into play to reverse such practices. So, for the people who took offense at that particular aspect of my post, I offer my apologies.

Out of the ashes of that inflamed discussion, I would like to pull out the notion of competency in the profession. As it has been astutely pointed out, whether a person can fulfill the new demands of the profession is not limited by age but by ability. This poses a series of questions: what would be the criteria to measure a librarian as competent? What can be done to bring people up to those measurements? And, however unpleasant as it might be, what would be done about those who fail to measure up? (As to this last question, I do not believe in passing the buck.)

This reminds me of the current political debate going on in my state of New Jersey regarding the evaluation and tenure of teachers. Everyone agrees that good teachers should stay and be rewarded and that bad teachers should be given a chance to improve or be removed from teaching. But how that is accomplished is where the friction begins. But it doesn’t mean that the debate shouldn’t take place; it means that well intentioned people are going to disagree.

In going back to the questions posed, the basic competency criteria that I would propose revolves around good customer service practices, basic technology knowledge, automation program proficiency (in all aspects, including cataloging), and current library issue awareness (both local and national). This is not an exhaustive list, but one to give you an idea of my line of thought. Those who need help should be able to get it either from their place of work or their state library association. Support networks can be formed for this very purpose. As to those who don’t measure up, they should be let go. It’s sad, but there is just so much riding on the line these days that I’m not comfortable with simply letting people slide through.

What is professional competency to you? What are the skills and knowledge that should be emphasized? And how would you approach the question?

18 thoughts on “Mea Culpa

  1. Pingback: Sunday Speculation: The Case for Retirement « Agnostic, Maybe

    • This is one area where the promotion & tenure process for many academic librarians (as daunting as it sounds to me now) actually serves an important process. It guarantees a certain level of competency, if not across the nation at least throughout that institution. The work and service provided by the librarian is measured against certain standards, and if they don’t fit the requirements they continue their probationary status, or ultimately let go. Of course this works well in the academic world where the structures for tenure evaluation are firmly established. This would be a much harder thing to determine in public libraries, as there is a significant variance of community sizes and demands on the library and its staff.

  2. Yet slide through they do, I’m afraid. In the event certain editors decline to print it, I’ll be blogging a piece that touches this very issue, asking where does the issue take root and what can be done. Often enough, if you want to find how the unmotivated and unprepared slip through the cracks, you need look no further than the library’s own partnerships and contracts and, in fact, its union. No one wants to bite the hand that feeds them, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are questions to be asked and solutions to be sought. Keep fighting the good fight, Andy.

    • An interesting point with vendors. There is a lot of whining invested over pricing, but I rarely hear people doing something about it. The desire to provide as much as possible paralyzes the brain from acting on the thought that something is not a good deal. It doesn’t make sense and I think patrons would be more pissed if they knew the library was getting fleeced over prices than if they were missing a database or subscription or materials.

  3. My intern from University of Alabama, which is ALA-accredited, tells me that she will take NO cataloging courses. So what does this mean? Even our national organization doesn’t see the value in that skill.

  4. Cathy – I’ve heard that cataloging is not required to obtain your MLS/MLIS currently. As much as I’m not a fan of cataloging, I think it’s a shame that this is the case.

    Andy – customer service is a biggie. It is something that was put off for too long in the profession, in my opinion. I also think there should be a happy medium between now and 5 years ago in terms of how many “jobs” people did with their position. Right now, with budget cuts, position cuts etc, people have to wear too many hats. Before, people were relegated to too few. Somewhere in between would be perfect.

    As for accountability, I think it should start in school. There was a discussion somewhere recently on how the MLIS/MLS programs are simple compared to other programs. There isn’t enough demand for good, quality work. On the job, there needs to be more stringent evaluations and enforcement. Plus, I think every working librarian should ask himself/herself “just what the he’ll do I want to accomplish professionally? Why am I a librarian?”. And be honest w/ yourself! *more of a self-assessment, but it’s a start*

  5. I just redacted my entire comment to the last thread, because it essentially urged to to go in this direction 🙂 Performance management and development is sadly, sadly an underrepresented part of many management positions when it should be the primary piece. And library managers are DYING for advice on how to get their folks to improve, from the reactions Mary Chimato has gotten on some of her presentations on performance management, and on questions I got last year at some conferences.

    On the other hand, they’ve also been beaten into submission by past management practices, human resource horror stories, and threats of “cut the person, lose the salary line” to the point that people are terrified of actually engaging in performance management. And sadly, sometimes that management includes disciplinary action.

    Accountability should, as mentioned above, start in school (ahem, “graduate level work”? Let’s make that happen. Then maybe a second master’s wouldnt be required to demonstrate that folks can actually hack it in academic). But accountability needs to be happening all through the organization. Right now, in my experience across a number of academic libraries, that is rarely the case. And it’s an issue from the lowest levels up tot he very top of administration.

    I usually hate to advocate a business approach, but come, now, in this age of assessment and budget anemia it can hardly be anything but useful. What is the expected output/value-add of a person in a particular position? Are they meeting it? What have you offered to them in order to get them up to snuff? Did they improve? Why or why not? Are they still employed with you? Why or why not? It sounds harsh, but the profession is not a charity – you dont get a perpetual paycheck just because you got the MLS – Lord knows it’s not worth that much in terms of the effort put in. We are not social workers, much as it feels like it sometimes. You need to demonstrate your worth and value-add to our services, or go elsewhere. You know. Like a job.

    • Sorry for not commenting earlier, but thanks for your contribution to the discussion. I agree, there is an uneven application of the ‘carrot or the whip’ when it comes to library management. To me, from my own observations and what I have heard, the desire to be nice and liked with our patrons spills over to the management field. People are at a loss as to what to do especially when it comes to tough choices.

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  8. Leadership….whether in a corporate setting or non profit is KEY to funding. But I have met so many MEEK, mild and frankly socially inept librarians this past month (three on Saturday alone!!). Americans are being sold so much crap at every moment of the day and they are overloaded with information too…..the simple message of the value of libraries is not being communicated clearly, and succinctly by librarians with good social skills and good leadership skills. The days of hiding in the stacks is over.

    While competency is essential….I also see many new kinds of librarians out there with leadership skills who are not getting jobs and will go out and as you suggest, be entrepreneurial. So they will market and sell their own business and not the overall value of libraries to democracy. Is this where the new energy and ideas should go?

    Finally, it is not a black or white situation because experience counts for a lot in most fields and especially librarianship. The whole competency debate with teachers in my opinion is simply to break the unions, especially in New Jersey. As a mother of young children, I can tell you the best teachers they have had so far are those with EXPERIENCE. I will also tell you the best teachers they have had so far are those who had another career and decided later to become teachers and then earned experience in the field. So this idea that young and fresh….does not mean better. But new ideas to a field is always invigorating!

  9. Pingback: Can we stop arguing about age? at Attempting Elegance

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