The hybrid librarian
By Margaret Adolphus
An increasing number of librarians work at the boundaries of their own profession, overlapping into other professional territory. For example:
- academic librarians may teach information literacy alongside faculty colleagues;
- law librarians work closely with lawyers;
- community development librarians adopt roles similar to those of community workers;
- digital librarians work on information architecture.
All these roles are known as hybrid roles, and can offer the librarian not only satisfying "one-off" jobs, but genuine career progression.
We are used to hearing about how the Internet threatens the role of the librarian, not intrinsically, but because there is a perception that information is easy to obtain. However, the Internet has also exponentially increased the amount of information available, giving rise to the term "knowledge economy" leading to a renewed emphasis on the management of knowledge and a recognition of its relationship with business productivity and organizational efficiency.
In 2002, the UK's professional librarianship body, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), noted that the knowledge economy created opportunities not only for librarians, but also for others who wanted to enter the same professional area. It urged librarians to end the "silo approach to information" (which was based on a concept that "information" only extended to published sources), and instead look at information in the wider context (CILIP Executive Advisory Group, 2002).
The hybrid librarian, then, operates at the borders of his or her profession, breaks down conventional silos, and tries to reach non-conventional library users.
Models of hybrid librarianship
The definition of a hybrid librarian is someone who sits on a boundary between (usually two) established professions, drawing on, and requiring a high level of, expertise from each (Corrall, 2008b). Bell and Shank (2004: p. 374, quoted in Corrall, 2008b) also use the term "blended librarian" to describe a person who can combine traditional library skills with information technology (IT) and educational skills.
The notion of the hybrid professional came to the fore in the 1980s and 1990s, as the economy required people with technical and business skills (Corrall, 2008a) in order to exploit the strategy potential of technology.
Sheila Corrall, professor of librarianship and information management at the department of information studies, Sheffield University, is an expert on hybrid library roles. She has come up with a model (2008a; 2008b) which describes how librarians interact in three distinct domains:
- conduit (information technology and media)
- content (library and information science)
- discipline (context).
Figure 1. Hybrid professionals
As can be seen from Figure 1 above, hybrid roles occur at the points where the circles intersect. The following are some examples (Corrall, 2008b):
- E-content and digital library specialists: digital library project managers, electronic resources coordinators, heads of e-strategy, intranet web managers, repository librarians.
- Discipline-based information and knowledge specialists: data scientists, health library managers, information literacy coordinators, law librarians.
- Context-specific technology and media specialists: instructional/learning technologists.
Hybrid roles are not the sole preserve of librarians: they can also be entered from the other side of the boundary. For example, learning technologists may also have a background in IT or new media; doctors and other health professionals work in health informatics. There is a blurring of boundaries, characteristic of an era of rapid change.
Corrall (2008b) points out that whereas some of these specialisms are fairly new, others have been around for some time, and that there are various indications of maturity:
- Genuine career progression possibilities with jobs at all levels. Thus someone employed as an electronic resources adviser could progress to become a digital projects librarian or head of e-strategy and development.
- The existence of communities of practice, opportunities for networking, and professional associations. For example in the UK, the CILIP Community Services Group Information Literacy Group, or the Association of Learning Technologists.
- Specialist educational programmes at postgraduate level. For example Sheffield University's department of information studies runs programmes in information literacy, electronic and digital library management, legal information management, and health informatics (see http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/is/prospectivepg).
The roles described above are reflective of a world dominated by Web 2.0 and characterized by blurring of boundaries as to what constitutes published information, network integration which can link a user from keyword to the resource, and the extension of the electronic into established print territory, as witnessed by the growth of e-books.
However, the term "hybrid librarian" was originally used (before a time when it could be taken for granted) to refer to someone who is equally at home with print and electronic resources, who has both library and information and communications technology (ICT) skills (Garrod, 1999).
This was the time when many academic libraries had recently been merged with IT to form information services divisions. Biddiscombe (2002) refers to an estimate that approximately 60 UK libraries had merged with IT departments, which in turn meant that some librarians had to advise on information technology as well as information per se.
Thus it was – with libraries having hybrid roles as well as increasingly offering electronic in addition to print media – that the concept of the "hybrid library" was born. Here are some definitions:
"The hybrid library was designed to bring a range of technologies from different sources together in the context of a working library, and also to begin to explore integrated systems and services in both the electronic and print environments. The hybrid library should integrate access to all ... kinds of resources ... using different technologies from the digital library world, and across different media" (Rusbridge, 1998, quoted by Brophy, 2000, p. 8).
"The hybrid library is a concept rather than an actual physical entity, although a physical library may be a constituent part of the hybrid library. The hybrid library is a cross-breed which aims to meet the needs of the new learning environment. It occupies both virtual space and physical space, and offers access to a range of print and electronic resources" (Garrod, 1999, p. 5).
Inhabiting the electronic part of the hybrid library, with their roles bordering on those of IT and media specialists, are the digital librarians. According to Sheffield University's website, future career options for those who take its MSc in electronic and digital library management include roles such as:
- head of e-strategy and development,
- electronic resources adviser,
- electronic services officer,
- e-content coordinator,
- web librarian,
- repository librarian,
- digitization and copyright officer,
- digital projects librarian, and
- digitization project manager.
The Open University Library also employs digital librarians whose role is to do some networking and blue-sky thinking about the next important technologies.
Digital librarians carry out a wide range of tasks relating to the electronic management of the library's resources and services, for example:
- managing databases,
- creating and maintaining websites,
- working with digital repositories and developing an information infrastructure that will allow storage, search and retrieval of digitized assets and born digital material,
- carrying out sophisticated searches and so helping in the research process,
- making sure that electronic resources are well described and easy to locate,
- developing online systems and their components,
- liaising with those responsible for other systems within the institution.
Whatever their precise role, digital librarians will need high level technical and project management skills along with the ability to create user-friendly information architecture. Many digital librarians are involved in various aspects of teaching, so they will also need pedagogical skills.
Hybrid librarian skills
All librarians need business and management skills, such as:
- project management
as well as the interpersonal skills of:
- persuasion and influencing
- account/relationship management.
However, librarians in a hybrid role will also require an in-depth knowledge of the domain area in which they are working. Sheila Corrall, interviewed elsewhere on this site (see an interview with Sheila Corrall), has this to say about legal information professionals:
"... they need legal knowledge, not as in a law graduate, but rather the special types of legal materials, the particular citation practices and the specialist terminology. In addition, much of their work is actually business information research. So they also need a good knowledge of business information sources and business research skills as well as an understanding of the law firm as the business environment in which they're working. On top of which are their professional information skills, which, increasingly, need to be of a higher order for knowledge management activities if they are to extract and analyse the information and place it in the relevant organizational context."
Thus, hybrid librarians often need highly developed professional skills as well as knowledge of a particular area. They also need to be proactive as opposed to reactive. Gone are the days when the librarian could sit behind a desk, issue books and answer queries. Many library posts in a range of sectors involve a substantial amount of outreach, going out and promoting the service to the user group, feeding the user group's needs back to the library, and sometimes working in a dispersed context, with a particular team or department rather than in the library itself.
Hybrid librarians in the academic sector
Despite the fact that Corrall (2008b) reports on the loss of subject librarian posts, there is plenty of evidence that subject librarians are not only thriving, but are the preferred model in the sector, and much has been written about the role (in fact, probably more than for any other category).
Subject librarians are also called liaison librarians, information officers or learning advisers, and tend to be involved in such tasks as client liaison, collection development, and information literacy teaching, while cataloguing tends to be delegated to paraprofessionals (Corrall 2008b).
Their principal tasks, however, tend to be
- the teaching of information literacy
- liaising with the department to which they are assigned
- ensuring that they have the resources needed for teaching and research.
Information literacy (written about elsewhere on this site [see the info. literacy article]) has become a major concern in higher education, and its importance is growing: Corrall (2008b) reported an increase of 10 to 20 per cent of time spent between two studies (2005 and 2007), while Younger (2005) found that in an analysis of job advertisements, a quarter of those in the higher education sector specified teaching skills.
This means that subject librarians need to develop serious pedagogical skills in addition to their librarian ones. They need an understanding of different learning approaches, including ones involving technology, and many librarians have become proficient at using learning software to develop interactive exercises.
Teaching information literacy involves education, in the sense of opening people's minds and developing a dialogue, rather than just training in the use of (say) a catalogue (Hegarty et al., 2005), particularly as information literacy is seen as best embedded in the curriculum and taught in the context of a particular course or module. The use of technology and blended learning is increasingly common, with librarians often working together with their academic and IT colleagues on creating and maintaining the virtual learning environment (Biddsicombe, 2002).
All subject librarians need to work in a dynamic and proactive manner with the department to which they are allocated (Rodwell and Fairburn, 2008). Sometimes the outreach is taken a stage further with the librarian being physically located in the department, and so having a field role.
A number of universities in the US have pioneered the "field librarian" approach. The University of Michigan introduced field librarians into the school of art and design, the women's studies programme, and the department of classical studies. These people combined subject expertise and technical skills with on-site consultation and support. They were located not in the library, but physically in the department, and were therefore able to immerse themselves in its culture and understand its current and future needs.
With job descriptions that included collection development, participation in library committees, and instruction, they became seen as collaborators in the business of scholarship rather than just information providers. One librarian even found herself accompanying a professor to an international comic book festival in France, spending the night in a villa, and purchasing hard-to-find comics at the first annual convention for small press and minicomics (Johnson and Alexander, 2007).
Purdue University hired its first instructional outreach librarian in 2006, with the objective of promoting the library to previously unrepresented groups, in this case honours students who were (mistakenly) considered to have better research skills than their mainstream colleagues. She used an approach based on six steps:
- Find out what programmes there are.
- Carry out detailed research.
- Target particular programmes and request a meeting to discuss students' needs.
- Follow up after meeting and decide on appropriate action.
- Put together a plan or programme.
The main outcome was a workshop for a particular group in the College of Liberal Arts, which was particularly successful (Fraser Riehle, 2008).
In the UK, the New Labour Government has been keen to modernize local government by sweeping away bureaucracy and developing services in partnership with communities. Public libraries are part of that local government structure, and have embraced the theme of community engagement.
Some services, notably ones based in Kent and Cumbria, have gone a step further, and appointed community development librarians. These have a role very similar to that of field or outreach librarians described in the previous section, working with communities, particularly those which are unlikely to come near a library. To an arguably even greater extent than academic field librarians, they are making attempts to reach out to non-users and turn them into users.
The job involves not only promoting the library and trying to understand the needs of particular groups, but also developing new projects with them. The community development librarian will need to attend a lot of meetings, develop a profile of the community, and then work with them on projects where the library can help: one Kent-based librarian was involved in developing an ABC for adults (having found that there were none suitable) which was available in libraries (Kearl, 2008).
In the English county of Buckinghamshire, the objective is to develop access points across the county, with libraries working in an integrated fashion with other services. This has resulted in the innovative Headspace, the teenage library at High Wycombe, developed in partnership with teenagers and The Reading Agency, a charity which tries to get young people to read more.
One librarian works specifically with vulnerable communities which are unlikely to come into a library as they would feel intimidated, assessing their needs and working on initiatives in adult and family learning.
The role of community development librarian calls for a considerable array of skills:
- marketing and promotion
- project management
- customer service
- the ability to talk to a wide range of people,
- the ability to work with other groups who are operating at different speeds and under different priorities.
Because this is such a new area, there is little specifically targeted training; Kent librarians attended an action learning set run by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, as well as courses run specifically for anyone doing community work.
There is a strong overlap between this role and that of a social worker. However, Goulding (2009), in an interview-based study of public library involvement in the community, quotes one librarian as saying:
"We are not community development officers. So we do work with partners, but there is a limit to what we can do."
And Darren Kearl of Kent Libraries describes how he always has to remember that everything he does has to come back to the Library and its priorities, so it's important to focus on activities that are going to get people to use its service, such as literacy.
Specialist librarians work in particular fields, such as health, law, business or government. Some specialisms have existed for a long time, and have their own associations and postgraduate programmes: for example medical librarians have had their own professional body in the US (the US Medical Library Association) since 1898 and in the UK (UK Health Libraries Group of CILIP) since 1949.
Health informatics – the use of ICT to support health – is now a very established discipline: in the UK alone in 2006, there were 20 graduate level programmes and a workforce of 29,000 (Murphy, 2006, quoted in Corrall, 2008b). This number, however, included clinicians as well as information specialists.
Specialist librarians obviously need considerable expert knowledge in their area. However, many of them are also working in the area of knowledge management: helping the organizations they work for find, and effectively use, information in order to enhance organizational performance. This information does not necessarily exist in published form, but rather lies embedded in the internal documentation of the organization, often in several different systems, some of which may be paper, rather than electronic.
The challenge for the librarian is to extend the traditional skills of cataloguing, taxonomies and creating usable systems from both published and unpublished information. The latter is probably stored in a more haphazard way, and in several (incompatible) databases. But it may be just as useful, if not more so, as published information, because it represents the company's know-how. The task is to bring it all together in a searchable interface: this involves considerable technical skill and deep understanding of user behaviour.
Kate Stanfield is head of knowledge management at CMS Cameron McKenna, and in 2007 won an award for excellence in the use of technology. She oversaw the development of a system which drew together all the various strands of knowledge and documentation which the company's lawyers used in their work with clients. This involved selecting an appropriate IT system and developing a global taxonomy, a notoriously difficult task, and meant using tag terms that worked for the user, as opposed to ones which were "academically correct".
It took 18 months to create the Spark (Sharing Practice and Relationship Knowledge) Knowledge Centre, which combined access to both the knowledge system and that for customer relationship management (Hyams, 2007).
The difficulty facing information professionals, however, is not merely to create a system out of existing knowledge, but to encourage users to share it on an ongoing basis.
Dennie Heye is an information scientist at Shell, a global company with 100,000 staff, which uses a wiki to get people to share their experience, with a librarian as wiki gardener. At the time of writing (April 2009) Dennie had recently started in the new role of global knowledge manager for corporate IT, which looks at ways of developing a knowledge-sharing culture. This involves setting up and maintaining the necessary processes whereby knowledge and information can be made readily available, leading on the implementation of enabling tools, such as document and content management, collaboration/virtual working and wikis, and ensuring capture of good practice.
In the British Civil Service, knowledge management is being placed at the heart of government, with the Government Knowledge and Information Network, as well as the appointment of knowledge and information managers at senior civil service level, thus ensuring its place on the agenda of senior policymakers.
This article has explored a number of hybrid roles, some of which are well established, such as instructional and digital librarianship, and others which are very new, such as those in community development. What is certain, however, is that in today's rapidly changing information culture, professional boundaries will remain very flexible, and librarians will continue to find themselves in new, unexpected, and exciting areas.
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