Archives, libraries and other collecting organizations are in the midst of a staff revolution. The digital age is driving a demand for employees who are comfortable and creative with technology. As someone who hires and supervises staff in a digitally-oriented environment I know this first hand.
I often hear from students and others with questions about the skills they need to compete in the job market. What programming languages should I learn? How much do I need to know about specific digital formats? Which standards should I study in detail?
“No, no–those are the wrong questions!”
That’s what I want to shout when I hear this line of inquiry. But I don’t yell because it’s rude and because I know the impulse flows from my own bias toward broader, more adaptive skills. My second and prevailing sense is compassion: so many people are trying so hard to figure out how to cope with a job market that is changing right in front of our eyes.
Let me say that expertise with programming, formats and standards is, of course, very important. It’s just that I happen to think several other talents have a greater bearing on success in today’s workplace. Such as an ability to understand and adapt to new ways of using technology, for example. It’s music to my ears when job-seeker shows awareness of how quickly the way we work can change. Archives and libraries depend ever more on technology-driven systems to accomplish their mission, and those systems are ever evolving. Staff with an eagerness to help refine how things are done are especially prized. Deep technical expertise is optional here. The most important thing is a basic understanding of how the different system parts—both automated and manual—contribute to doing the job at hand.
Related to this is an ability to bridge two distinct social camps: the highly technical and the highly not-technical. There are now many kinds of digital tools and services available to archives and libraries. These range from free to download software to big commercial vendors. A good staff person needs to know how choose among these options to meet the needs of users, many of whom could care less about how the information they want is delivered.
Archivists and librarians need to clearly explain what they do and why they do it. They need to do this internally as part of refining systems, and they really need to do it externally to connect with users and would-be users. The explosion of social media is driving a new approach to how cultural heritage organizations serve the public: instead of relying exclusively on patrons to come to them, institutions are marketing themselves using the same tools as commercial brands.
Today, saying something good in a 140 word Twitter message is as important for a library as for a celebrity or car company.
This calls for writing skills that may be different from those taught in school. Staff need to be comfortable writing in the first person and they need to be concise. What may have worked in school term papers—long, long sentences and laborious detail—doesn’t make for good social media content. Helpful as well is an ability to integrate photographs, graphics and video with text to make for rich, forceful online content that gets the right message out to as many people as possible.
There is lots more to talk about on this subject, but I’ll stop here. What skills do you think today’s librarians and archivists need?