The other day, I was looking through some old articles I had saved when I came across an article from last July 2016 in The Atlantic, “A Snapshot of a 21st-Century Librarian.” The piece profiles a current librarian at Indiana University and her take on the changing role of librarianship in the 21st Century. It speaks to many of the changes I have seen institutions grappling with in my own, early career as an information professional. It also reflects many of the misunderstandings of what it means to be a librarian in modern contexts. When I began my MLIS program through the LEEP program at UIUC I was working as a library assistant at an academic research library in Chicago, the Newberry Library. The link between my education and the courses I was taking in my masters was clear; and those in my workplace shared a similar background and education. The library I worked at was experiencing some growing pains to accommodate for the type of scholarship addressed by the article, with new hires focusing on digital initiatives and research or expanding our own digital collections for our patrons.
I also found myself troubled by the narrow view it asserts of what it means to be a librarian today. Certainly, shouldn’t a snapshot of a “21st-Century Librarian” recognize the true scope of the information profession, and what many of us who are trained as librarians do in our professional careers? As highlighted in the “Alternative Careers for LIS Grads” published in 2014 on Hack Library School, there are a multitude of career paths that LIS students can follow after gaining their degree. While new technologies certainly have changed the roles of librarians in libraries, the information landscape has grown far beyond that arena. As a librarian in an alternative setting—a corporate one—my job increasingly focused on not just providing information services, but also convincing those around me of the value of the information itself.
In the middle of my first year I took a risk and accepted an opportunity to be an Information Specialist at a small business in Chicago. Not only did this position come with a complete change in industry, job function, and environment (the company was in the health and fitness industry, a far leap from the quiet halls of an academic library), but I was also to be the first Information Specialist the company had ever hired. As the company continued to expand they realized that my background was something that could be beneficial, but there was no concrete plan for what I would be working on. I went from a place where the value of information was assumed and everyone understood what it meant to be a librarian, to a world where most people had no idea what it really meant to be a librarian, let alone why there was a need for one in a corporate setting.
While I made large strides for the company in terms of data analytics, setting up internal information systems, and providing new research services, a majority of my position truly centered on helping others understand why this information could be important or useful to them, and how information services could be utilized in a sales or operational setting. Both my work as a library assistant and then as an information specialist drew on the skills and abilities I honed through my MLIS degree and speak to what it means for me to be an information professional.
I would encourage students currently in MLIS programs consider some of these alternative courses and experiences to see how their expertise can be applied to many different professional settings. Courses like Information Services & Marketing, Project Management for LIS, and Information Consulting that were offered in my program were great opportunities to explore these alternative applications and professions for librarians. LIS students can additionally look for alternative professional experiences by broadening their job search. Instead of only looking for “librarian” positions, consider searching for positions with titles like “information specialist,” “research assistant,” or “records manager” as these keywords are often used in corporate contexts to describe information oriented jobs.
For me, the diversity of these positions existing within the same profession is what makes this such a dynamic, diverse, and important field to be a part of. As we, and others, continue to ask what it means to be a librarian today, I hope that we continue to see a more representative look at the types of people and professions that exist for us.
What does your snapshot of a 21st-century librarian look like?