The future of libraries is a popular and contentious topic of speculation. It is impossible to say what they will look like, what they will be called, or if there will even be books on the shelves. But one thing is certain: the individuals who lead them and staff them will know how to organize, advocate, and innovate for their institutions. Because that is what they are currently doing for themselves.
This past August, I attended the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) 2012 World Congress in Helsinki, Finland, as CLIR’s Rovelstad scholar. At this exhilarating confluence of people, cultures, and ideas, I was drawn to sessions and activities organized by the IFLA New Professionals Special Interest Group (NPSIG) because I wanted to connect with fellow graduate students and learn from young professionals about their experiences in the field. What I found was an active, dynamic group of young and aspiring information professionals who are planning innovative programs, rethinking traditional processes, and bringing fun and enthusiasm to international librarianship.
NPSIG’s IFLA satellite unconference, called IFLAcamp, and their sessions at the IFLA conference were characterized by freewheeling discussions that had conference attendees participating in a conversation rather than listening to a lecture. Their social activities involved cycling tours and Finnish saunas, letting participants bond over shared experiences that inevitably spawned impromptu and impassioned dialogues about current topics in international librarianship. The relationships and ideas born in Helsinki have continued and grown through webinars and periodic business meetings conducted through Adobe Connect, the NPSIG blog, Facebook, and Twitter.
This combination of youthful enthusiasm, fresh ideas, and strategic use of technology is not unique to NPSIG. As professional organizations look to boost membership and aspiring professionals seek to stand out in a competitive job market, robust student and new professional groups have swiftly sprung up in professional organizations across the information field. The next generation of information professionals has learned that, even as individual members compete with each other for jobs, they must organize and stand together for their voices to be heard.
Take, for example, the Students and New Archives Professionals (SNAP) Roundtable of the Society of American Archivists (SAA). Founded about a year ago, SNAP now boasts over 900 members, publishes a quarterly newsletter, maintains a blog, and is playing an increasingly influential role within SAA. The NPSIG blog provides a preliminary list of new professional initiatives around the world, which currently stands at 22 groups in 12 countries.
Creative, ambitious individuals power the growing prevalence and activity of these student and new professional associations. In an atmosphere of fiercely competitive job hunts, personal websites, lively Twitter handles, and impressive LinkedIn profiles have become de rigueur. This level of sophisticated personal branding and carefully curated online personas is representative of a rising generation of information professionals who know how to advocate for themselves. Through sheer necessity, aspiring librarians are learning what it takes to stand out, to make people pay attention to them, and to convince people that it is worth paying for what they have to offer. The survival of libraries in the future will depend on this type of advocacy.
Future information professionals have also shown themselves to be creative and unafraid to take the risks required to beget innovation. Library conferences are often accompanied by the observation that the casual conversations sparked between conference sessions are frequently more fruitful than the three-hour long sessions themselves. In response to this reality, NPSIG was one of the only IFLA sections to rethink the traditional conference format during its sessions. Attendees sat at round tables, were encouraged to discuss topics with each other, and contributed their ideas to the presenters. This unconference model is gaining traction at reasonably priced conferences geared toward students and new professionals, who often cannot afford to attend unproductive conferences that they are paying for out-of-pocket. This kind of innovative, solution-oriented thinking will be crucial to the future of libraries as they try to navigate their place in a digital world.
Organization, advocacy, and innovation are far from the exclusive property of students and new professionals. Librarians and information professionals have long been organizing within their profession, advocating for their profession, and innovating library processes and services. But it is worth considering whether the harsh realities of the library job market are a blessing in disguise, training future professionals to deal with the issues that they will inevitably encounter in years to come.
Molly Schwartz is a library science student at the University of Maryland in College Park and 2012 recipient of the Rovelstad Scholarship in International Librarianship. You can follow her on Twitter @mollyfication.