Recent headlines across the US attribute high unemployment rates to "structural changes" in our economy. What are these structural changes and how will they impact librarianship over the years to come? Structural change results from a mismatch between what people can do, given their experience and education, and what hiring organizations actually need. This explains why we can simultaneously have high unemployment and firms that have great difficulty filling positions with qualified workers. Consider, for example, the many US factory workers who can't find jobs while thousands of positions in healthcare and other professions remain open.
In other words, librarians may have to overcome a "branding" problem to flourish in this emerging marketplace of information jobs.
So where does librarianship fit within this structural puzzle? The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that between now and 2018 the demand for librarians will be "average," at best. The number of publicly funded library positions will continue to shrink, due to increased Internet services and declining government budgets, although this trend may be offset by more private-sector employment of librarians.
This gloomy picture underestimates the capabilities of librarians to respond creatively and proactively to structural change. As businesses, universities, schools and healthcare providers come to depend more heavily on the free and ready flow of information, many skills that librarians possess will be in high demand. Conducting reliable research, pinpointing the best search terms, effectively organizing information, integrating disparate sources of information, judging the credibility of various data sources, and dozens of related skills will be highly valued by hiring organizations.
There is one small catch. People from other professions who have also developed a few of these skills will be competing for the hearts and minds of hiring managers. These managers may have traditional, stereotyped views of librarians that inhibit our competitiveness. In other words, librarians may have to overcome a "branding" problem to flourish in this emerging marketplace of information jobs. This is why, in the book Information Nation, my coauthors and I advocate for the term "information professional."
Information professionals may or may not work in a traditional library — but they possess values that librarians hold dear: the importance of information access, respect for intellectual property rights, a user-centric orientation, and intellectual freedom. The information professional is a problem-solver who thrives in a large range of settings, who embraces the effective use of information technology, and who collaborates with others to create value from information.
Our students learn that creating value through the organization and management of information is not simply a noble profession — it is a job that is both demanding and in demand.
This idea of creating value from information aptly encapsulates the structural change that future librarians must undertake. From the time of the Library of Alexandria, astute people have recognized the library as a significant public good. It still is. Yet in the increasingly complex and contentious world we inhabit, this alone is not sufficient justification for the existence of librarians. In addition, the world needs contemporary information professionals who will create value in many spheres of human endeavor. Creating value in healthcare through the organization and dissemination of evidence-based practices, creating value in business through the management and maintenance of decision making data, and creating value in education through the establishment of flexible learning repositories — these are just the tip of the iceberg of areas where information professionals can prosper.
At Syracuse University's School of Information Studies (and comparable schools across the US and internationally), we train new librarians and retrain experienced librarians. While remaining attentive to the values and traditions of the profession, we also emphasize in our coursework, certificate programs, and experiential learning the critical importance of solving meaningful problems. Students may begin our program imagining themselves working in a library, without fully understanding what that work entails. Within the first few days of learning, they realize that becoming an information professional means collaboratively tackling problems that will help people. Our students learn that creating value through the organization and management of information is not simply a noble profession — it is a job that is both demanding and in demand.