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Is There a Future for Librarians? And Am I In It?

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Last Thursday I was invited to participate in a discussion organized by the Federal Library and Information Network (FEDLINK) on the future of the Federal government 1410 series. What, pray tell, is the 1410 series and why should we care about it?

Turns out that the Office of Personnel Management maintains a master list of classification and job descriptions, including the “Position Classification Standards for White Collar Work” (“white collar” now apparently an official government term of art), otherwise known as the General Schedule (“GS”) classification.

These descriptions provide information used in determining the occupational series and title for positions in the Federal Government. While the government is oft ridiculed for its tendency to dive deep into the rabbit hole of self-documentation, it makes sense for the government to define what it means when it uses terms like “chaplain,” “park ranger” or “explosives safety specialist” (PDF).

Or, of special concern to us, “librarian.”

The “Position Classification Standard for Librarian Series GS-1410” (PDF), describes what it means to be a librarian in the Federal Service. (Note: There are 3 different descriptions that cover librarians and “library-ish” positions, as well as 2 for archivists. You can see them all here.)

20th annual convention of the Special Libraries Ass'n, May 21-23rd, Wash., D.C., 1928
Special Libraries Association Convention, 1928. Librarians look different these days! Photo credit: Library of Congress

Of course, the description for librarians hasn’t been updated since 1994, and it’s hard to imagine a profession that’s changed more in that time than “librarian” (besides “journalist,” “travel agent” or “record producer”). It’s long past time to reconsider the position description in light of the changing nature of our profession. This movement to reevaluate the qualifications of information professionals is shared by, among others, the Archivist of the United States.

The Fedlink Human Resources Working Group has been charged with analyzing the future of the 1410 series and developing processes to modernize it.

Thursday’s forum, “The Future of the 1410 Librarian Series: A ‘Multi-Generational Discussion,” was the first of a series that will take place throughout 2012, eventually leading to discussions with OPM on ways to update the classification.

The forum featured a roundtable discussion by a selection of current Federal librarians, half of whom were deemed “experienced” and half “new.” I was grouped into the “experienced” category, though my fellow LC employees would laugh at my meager 7.5 years of service on Capitol Hill.

2011_eh_erika_cohn_scanner_1 from Flickr user WashULibraries
2011_eh_erika_cohn_scanner_1 from Flickr user WashULibraries

The grouping worked, however, as it was a much conceptual as seniority-based. All of the “experienced” professionals (indeed, everyone on the panel but myself…more on that later) were officially classified as “librarians,” but all had duties far beyond the skills described in the 1410 classification.

For example, James King is a 1410 but holds the title of “Information Architect” at the National Institutes of Health, where he experiments with Web 2.0 technologies to surface NIH resources to better serve the public.

Martin Kalfatovic, the Assistant Director for the Digital Services Division at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, oversees all digital services for the Libraries including its web activities, digitization and image licensing and product development. You won’t find most of those terms in the current 1410 description (and the word “digital” only appears once).

And Lillian Gassie, a past recipient of the “Federal Librarian of the Year” award, is the Assistant Director of the Knowledge Services Group in the Congressional Research Service, partnering with analysts and attorneys in providing authoritative and reliable information research and policy analysis to Congress.

None of the experienced librarians felt especially constrained by the words in the 1410: after all, we’ve managed to carve out interesting jobs that fall far outside the language of the 1410 without being too heavily burdened by the classification constraints.

Librarian X by Flickr user jazzmodeus
Librarian X by Flickr user jazzmodeus

However, our success has been “in spite of,” rather than “thanks to” the 1410 description and the “new” librarians definitely felt the constraint more strongly. This speaks to the great need to update the 1410 classification.

The experienced libraries followed paths counter to the constraints imposed by 1410, but we all benefited from supportive situations that recognized the need to modify position titles, duties and descriptions beyond the impositions created by 1410.

Not all the “new” librarians are in situations where they get that support, and unless 1410 is updated to truly reflect their reality, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be recognized for their achievements in the future.

I was an outlier even amongst this varied group of Federal librarians in that my position description falls under the 2210 category, “Information Technology Management” (PDF), a series that covers positions for which the paramount requirement is knowledge of IT principles, concepts, and methods (data storage, software applications, networking, etc.).

I call on the principles of librarianship and archival practice every day in my work, and I self-identify with the library and archives community, but by any standard my digital preservation work is inherently information technology.

I’m even more schizophrenic than that, however, in that I hold a Master of Science in Library Science, my official job title is “IT Project Manager,” but it says “Digital Archivist” on my business card.

I don’t speak for the others on the panel, but my gut feeling is that we all, both experienced and new, embody a new kind of Federal worker: “information professionals,” whose duties transcend individual categories and encompass information science, traditional librarianship, information technology, social media, business process management, communications and so much more.

How that shakes out in the nomenclature is TBD, but a reconsideration of what it means to be a librarian at the Federal level is an excellent first step and will certainly benefit the entire library profession.

What are your thoughts on the future of librarianship?

Comments (5)

  1. very helpful – there is so much content in the Information Technology job descriptions that is not what we MSLS digital librarians do. Will buck up and try to look more carefully in IT. As you pointed out, the ‘self identify’ terms vs the IT categories seem schizophrenic are a hurdle.

  2. As a “digital librarian,” I look forward to seeing the adjective “digital” disappear from department, division, and job titles. I think the verbs open, exchange, aggregate, distribute, describe, engage (ourselves and users), and preserve — among many others — well describe our core functions and the key values held by theorists and practitioners in a wide number of disciplines. It’s a good time to work in cultural heritage institutions.

  3. Well said, Butch. Hopefully if it starts at the federal level, then library schools can also begin to understand the importance of addressing these new skill sets.

  4. Thanks for the great comments! I also look forward to the day when “digital” disappears from job titles, but for now (for better or worse…have to think about it some more) it does help to differentiate the dramatically different tasks that “digital whatevers” undertake.

    At some point these will be the jobs that most “librarians” and “archivists” do!

  5. Excellent post. There are so many things I do as a librarian that I don’t think the general public would expect. Librarians are the information managers of the current age. From the reference desk to managing databases. In the fast moving world of IT often jobs descriptions lag behind.

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