New Skills for the Electronic Library

New technology, new librarians?

Linda Erlendsdóttir, University College of Education, Iceland

The paper that follows is really a combination of thoughts, views, questions and experiences from me and my colleagues in Iceland but there as everywhere else in the world we are experiencing more changes in our working environment than ever before. And if we read the library literature we as a profession must rethink our roles so we can be able to choose our future. Even though I personally think that our future has been chosen for us.


Some say that the electronic revolution has taken us back to the middle ages. The computer rules and the information explosion has affected our profession in a big way. I would like to quote an article that I just read:

Librarians must get away from thinking that libraries are about reference, cataloging, acquisitions, preservation, interlibrary loan, and circulating materials - or even about managing physical facilities and print collections. Simply translating current library activities and tasks into electronic or digitized information will not satisfy the needs of the library's customers, nor will it ensure its future.[1]

But then again can't the task of libraries can be simply stated. They are as true for a modern branch of public library as they are for cathedral libraries of the Middle Ages or the great research collections of universities. Libraries exist to acquire, give access to, and safeguard carriers of knowledge and information in all forms and to provide instruction and assistance in the use of the collections to which their users have access.[2]

So is it strange that we are confused?

We do not exist in a vacuum, and external and organisational changes do affect us. The environmental factors that have influenced colleges and universities worldwide in the last decade are mainly

We are no longer just the "guardians" of books. We are information providers in an environment that is constantly changing and where information need to be gathered quickly and effectively. Today our mission is to promote services for the ever increasing amount of information. And even if we don't like it, information technology has changed our jobs.

We are on the web! Creating web pages and using the search engines instead of encyclopedias and somehow that has lead to increasing interest in library and information studies in Iceland, all of a sudden it is hip to be a professional librarian. Our self image has changed for the better and that of course is good but I feel that somehow we are a little bit lost. I have created web pages and searched for links on the web and helped people with their research and all of a sudden people view us as the know all at the University. I have not a clue how a UNIX system works or how these 3D images are created but I understand the capabilities of web and how to use it even though not always successfully. But I knew how to gather information before we began to use the WWW but no one thought very much of that at that time. Because after all non-electronic work was less visible, less measurable and less glamorous. Going and looking up the Encyclopedia Britannica on-line is somehow cooler than just browsing through the pages.

Since I graduated as a professional librarian five years ago my training is outdated, even though my tasks are still the same, I am in charge of interlibrary loans (automated two years ago), the serials department (not yet automated) and teach new users how to use the library. The typewriter is gathering dust, our users can no longer borrow books by just signing their name on a lending card and all of a sudden we have masters students that are doing research on issues that have never been tackled in Iceland before and distance learning students all over the country. We have access to more information than we will ever possibly need, new Pentium computers and students all over the country that need our help. We can all agree that our services, systems and environment have changed and so have we.

We have had to readjust to new situation and develop our skills. Because after all it is us that manage and operate the machines and we make up the organization and make it function successfully. The human resource in any organization is the key to its success or failure.

So lets go to library management that should take care of the human factor.

Changes in library management

We have seen that external forces like technology, economy and financial condition have affected libraries. That means that library managers must use new structures in their management.

"To be successful..libraries must reshape the prevailing corporate culture...Libraries into their organisational structures and their approaches to work, the ability to identify, anticipate, and quickly respond to constantly changing customer needs. They must be capable of leaps forward and breakthrough performance...And they must be ready to abandon formerly successful approaches to work, strategies, processing systems, services..." [4]

Managing change requires good communication at all levels, staff participation and training.

Librarians in transition that want to consciously manage their change efforts need to help their staff understand the change process and how they can positively participate. Creating an overall framework that shows the considered changes are a natural evolution from current practices, assessing that the organization has the expertise and climate to implement proposed changes..." [5]

Library structures must change.
Instead of organizing personnel around how librarians do their work, librarians must organize around customers and how they do their work. They must reduce hierarchy, flatten the organization, and eliminate redundancy in order to be more responsive to changing needs and new opportunities and developments. The organizations must be more flexible, more creative, and more productive. Libraries must do more at higher quality with less. Librarians must give up their need for control and their desire to create stability.[6]

So it is not only library staff that must adjust to changes but also library managers. It can of course be difficult for them to "step down" and listen to the advice and ideas of their staff and it is important to establish trust between library managers and their staff. Another important issue is the reasons for change, staff will not participate in changes that are to take place without any reason or goals. Library automation has clearly the goal to make the library services more accessible and to speed up the routine processes of cataloguing or returning or issuing books but what about the new technology? Why should we follow every trend, design web pages and know how to get full text information from Australia or China via file transfer protocol(ftp)? Are we changing just for the sake of change?

Unfortunately we don't wake up one day with updated skills. We need training to add to our knowledge, understanding, skills and attitudes. To make any effective use of human resources the transformed library must emphasize continuous learning and make the necessary corresponding investment of resources. "Personnel must have abundant educational and development opportunities...As work changes in response to customer needs and continually improving processes, library personnel must be prepared to take on new tasks or new positions that do not exist. This preparation must anticipate changes, not come about after changes are made."[7]

We all need training when we begin work, but it has to be understood that training is something that should never end if we are not to stagnate in our job and feel secure in our positions.

What is Training ?

In libraries as in other organizations, training is divided into two main categories

  1. Maintenance training, that enables the library to maintain its existing procedures and includes induction training for new entrants to the library system or particular parts.
  2. Basic updating and improvement training in identified areas. When staff are being trained it has to be remembered that it involves adults and we have to feel motivated to learn.

Therefore training should be concerned with the whole person, concepts, skills and behavior patterns.

I am not going to comment more about training as such since that was tackled by others at the conference.


We live in a time of change. The information technology has changed our profession and our lives. Library managers today face problems that need to be solved and library staff feel insecure about themselves and the future. We have seen that too often in the past that libraries use reaction planning when changes occur instead of planning beforehand. Librarians have had to pick up new skills some without any training at all and adjust to changes without having any saying in the matter. The management of libraries must change if we are to be able to survive in the future. Participation is the key, staff need to feel motivated to adapt to these changes and to feel that they have a saying in that matter. Training is another important factor, good staff members need training when changes in their tasks occur so they do not feel left behind.


[1] Stoffle, Carla J. and others. Choosing our futures. p. 220

[2] Future librarie. p. 3

[3] Staff development in Academic libraries. p. iix-ix

[4] Marchant, Maurice P. Changing management techniques as libraries automate. p. 213

[5] Cargill, Jennifer.

Managing libraries in transition. p. 90

[6] Stoffle, Carla J. and others. Choosing our futures. p. 220

[7] Stoffle, Carla J. and others. Choosing our futures. p. 223


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