Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Advocacy, Competence, and Service Experiences in Librarianship

Last year I wrote an article that was included in 2010 Best Practice for Government Libraries document compiled by Marie Kaddell at Lexis-Nexis - blogger and writer/editor of the Gov-Info Pro site.

Here is the article that wrote and contributed last year - now I've been asked to write another article for this year. How exciting!

I have had the privilege of working in three federal libraries with similarities and differences. One of the greatest benefits of working in my current agency is that the library is part of a research division. The management outside the library understands the value of the library to the organization.

The benefit of this is that the management team knows our strengths and understands what we bring to the organization. The challenge is that they have expectations of service to satisfy the needs of the organization. That puts them in the position of being advocates for the library.


At the 2010 Computers in Libraries Conference, Ken Haycock, Director of the School of Library & Information Science at San Jose State University said that advocacy is not just self-promotion. It is closer to marketing in that we determine the needs of our users and advocate how we can help serve those needs.

Key to this is having a library director who is also an advocate who looks for ways the library can serve the organization in less traditional ways – building on the skills of librarians.

One current project has our librarians working with research staff to build the subject areas of the division’s Intranet site. We look for resources that support the research in various subject areas that our research staff is working. We get to work with our IT to populate the website with those resources and other news. This project will result in a portal for our division topic pages created by both librarians and the researchers who will be using the resources.

Another way we are reaching out is by serving as liaisons to different research divisions. This is not quite the embedded librarian model – but a way of getting us outside the physical library to remind people of the resources and services we provide. We put a human face on the library.

A third way we are reaching out is by giving guidance on the information database contracts that the agency has. A colleague has laid most of the groundwork, and we are working across divisions to aid the process, review the contracts, make sure the database will satisfy the information needs of the users and that the contract will allow our researchers to use the data to accomplish their research goals. This is a service that was done to good effect in another library where I worked. Here we have the added support of an attorney in our Legal Division to help us review and negotiate the contracts.


So we have the advocacy part, but that will only get you so far. Next you have to have competency to back up the demand your advocacy creates. Competency is not elusive, but it takes work. Years ago a mentor said to me that in his vocation one had to be a lifelong student. That applies to librarians as well.

Competency is a challenge for us to know our strengths and weaknesses and knowing the strengths and weaknesses of others. We don’t have to get all Myers-Briggs about this, but it is important to know how we can work with our colleagues to the best advantage for the library and the organization as a whole.

We need to read our professional journals and attend conferences and workshops. We need to see what our colleagues are doing in other libraries and we need to learn from the new generation of librarians and we need to be able to guide them. All of this means a commitment to learning and being open to new ideas and new perspectives.

We cannot always implement every new idea and we should be somewhat circumspect. If we change too much too fast – we risk losing some of our patrons. We also need to understand how much change our organization will support. Sometimes there are technical reasons we cannot implement something, and sometimes it would not fit our organization. My current organization is not ready for exclusively virtual meetings – but they are willing to adopt 21st Century technology. My last agency was apprehensive about blogs – but I was able to create one for the library that was well-received.

As for our professional reading and education – not everything will work. Some articles in Information Outlook or Library Journal will be helpful – but probably not all of them. Sometimes at a conference we’ll have to choose among three great sessions being offered at the same time and two hours later there are no sessions that appeal.

I learned from one colleague to be ruthless with my time at a conference. If a speaker or topic is not meeting the description of the session and there is a simultaneous session that you are interested in - get up and go! If a speaker is only going to read her/his Powerpoint slides – get a copy of the slides and find another session.

You or your agency is paying for you to be at this conference so don’t waste your time or your money. Often I do well to talk with friends in the Government Information Division and get some ideas about a talk that is worth attending – or we sort through some challenges we are facing in an impromptu roundtable. Learn from our colleagues!


Then there is service. We all think we have that covered because we are librarians. Years ago I worked as a hotel clerk. People would come in and ask a question. I had the choice of answering the question or responding to the information need, and that was before I ever heard of a reference interview.

Service requires listening to your client with your full attention. This is first of all a matter of respect for your client. Secondly it is the only way you’ll be able to get a handle on what the information need really is. It is very easy to hear the first couple of sentences or scan the email (I am guilty) and guess at what the request is. Next thing your mind is racing through your favorite resources to provide that answer. The problem is that we miss part or the crux of the question. Breathe. Focus. Listen.

I know of a librarian who was invited to a meeting with a senior client group who wanted her help on a project. She spent the meeting on her blackberry – reading and typing. She might have been telling herself that she was multi-task, but the message to the clients was that she was not listening and was not interested in their information need.

Another part of service is working with our colleagues. When we recognize a colleague as an expert in an area of research – we help ourselves by asking for his/her help to find an answer. If we are the expert then we need to be willing to help our colleagues when they come to us – but we need to make it a learning experience for the colleague. Yes, it is easier to answer the question myself, but that does not support our colleagues or the organization as a whole.

Our service doesn’t end there either. We follow-up, we remember that a client is interested in this topic and even a month later send along an interesting article on that topic. We need to share some of that information with our colleagues. Who is interested in this topic? Share that knowledge with your colleagues.

This is the time when we have to fight the self-preservation urge and think of the good of the Library. It isn’t good if only one person is doing everything. We need to share the knowledge – isn’t that part of Knowledge Management? I may finally have a winning Powerball ticket and assume a life of leisure. If my colleagues don’t know what I have been working on the organization will be at a loss.

So there you have it – some of the greatest tools of Library 2.0 are ones that are tried and tested: advocacy, competency and service. If you get those down you’ll be able to use blogs, desktop delivery, portals and wikis effectively to serve your clients’ needs.

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