Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Retrofit 2: Building on Competencies

This is the second installment in the development of my thinking on the RBMS seminar “Retrofitting Expectations or Redefining Reality: What Does the Future of the Special Collections Professional Look Like?”

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In the first installment I argued that the popular image of a special collections librarian was a red herring; that it should be discarded in favor of an examination of professional competencies; and that this was the proper base for comparing if “the reality of the work we do” resembles “our visions of the profession when we started.” However, even here I find myself crashing against the rocks. The comparison does not work, at least in my own mind, because I cannot remember what my vision was (or might have been) of the special collections profession before I started work in the field. I’m not sure I had a vision of the special collections profession twenty-eight years ago—when I stepped into my first archival job following a mixed six year career as an instructional services/reference librarian, library director, and medical librarian—except some ill-conceived and romantic notions, received in graduate school, that the reading rooms of special collections or rare books libraries were the closest I would ever come to a “holy of holies.”

What I do remember quite clearly was:
a) the institution that hired me wanted to step up their game; they previously employed retired faculty as archivists; they wanted a professional presence and I was their identified candidate;
b) the archivist from a local research university who served as a consultant to the search committee objected to my hiring because I came from the library world, with limited training or experience in archival practice;
c) my graduate training in archival management and practice came from two people: a former President/Fellow of the Society of American Archivists, and a long-time, active member of the SAA; and,
d) I spent the first year—of what ended up a twelve year stint—convincing the archivist/consultant that I was up to snuff for the position. This was my initial vision of the archival/special collections slice of the profession: proving my worth.

A professional environment laced with “proving one’s worth” is not a place I want to inhabit if we’re going to talk about redefining our reality. Neither is a romanticized impression of a rare book reading room as “sacred space” useful to me in examining the question of a future identity. I still believe that an examination of competencies is worthwhile; it helps inform both expectations and realities. But here, too, I’m feeling blocked. This sense of obstruction comes from the competencies themselves (approved by the ACRL Board in 2008). They are a set of guidelines developed by RBMS, i.e. they are in some ways “home-grown,” sprouting up from our own constructs and understandings of what it means to be a special collections professional.*

At the same time, the guidelines provide another clue, another approach for viewing expectations or realities: an examination of external motives or stimuli coming from beyond the institutional confines of special collections. Here is where the administrative voice sounds on stage, where administrators enter the conversation, and where questions are posed. My immediate concern is with the impetus for the guidelines on competencies, especially in the role played by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), a body constituted almost entirely of administrators (although the Task Force on Special Collections included some practitioners).

ARL participation is unequivocal. The background section of the introduction on competencies notes:

Over the past decade, a number of factors have focused attention on special collections and the professional skills, academic credentials, and personal qualities needed for a successful career in special collections librarianship. In 2001 the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) established a Task Force on Special Collections to further an agenda to maximize the full potential of special collections. Its charge included, “Define core competencies among special collection librarians and create training opportunities.” In 2003 the ARL Board of Directors endorsed the statement “Research Libraries and the Commitment to Special Collections,” which described special collections as “one of the critical identifiers of a research library” and affirmed the “critical role” played by special collections in fulfilling the mission of research libraries.

At that time, ARL directors also perceived a significant shortage of candidates ready to take on the responsibilities of administrative positions to be filled in the coming decade. The ARL Task Force consequently identified recruitment, training, and continuing education as high priorities on its agenda. A white paper prepared by the Task Force, entitled “Education and Training for Careers in Special Collections,” surveyed recent changes in professional education for special collections professionals and identified a number of new programs and initiatives emerging to meet recruitment and training needs. The white paper reiterated the importance of articulating competencies required by special collections librarians and acknowledged that education and training opportunities are needed at all career levels.

This background narrative also provides broader observations relevant to our RBMS seminar.

These developments reflect profound changes in the roles, responsibilities, and expectations of special collections librarians. The changes parallel those in research librarianship generally and are chiefly the result of evolving information technologies. But they affect special collections most especially because special collections professionals work in increasingly diverse environments and carry an unusual variety of responsibilities. Individual career paths differ greatly. There is an expanding range of formats in collections, including three-dimensional artifacts and audio, visual, and digital materials. The audiences for our collections and services have grown to include students at all levels and members of the general public of all ages and backgrounds, both onsite and online. Although special collections have always encompassed both technical and public services work and professional assignments are often of broad scope, the digital environment integrates these areas more fully: instruction and outreach efforts require technical skills, and metadata librarians must have a keen understanding of users’ needs and preferences. Special collections librarians cannot succeed without effective collaboration with faculty and library colleagues. At the same time, expertise is now required in areas such as rights management and fundraising.

Beyond ARL’s role in stimulating creation of the RBMS guidelines, I’m interested in looking at other external forces, from organizations outside our individual libraries/institutions that mold or influence our expectations and realities. In my case, one organization I will attend to is the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (aka The Big Ten).

The basic point I am trying to make is this: our professional future (corporately and individually) is partially shaped by organizations external to our host institutions. Other forces or movements—societal, economic, political, technological, etc.—also shape our future. There is nothing new here. And this may not be a bad thing. What may be new, or at least provokes a question, is this: where is the balance? Who calls the shots? How many of our expectations and realities do we get to create (or at least have a say in their creation) and how many are imposed from above or beyond, wherever (and whatever) “above” or “beyond” might be? How often do our individual professional development goals come in conflict, competition or tension with institutional, consortial, or extra-academic goals? Are we able to perform the core functions of our position or is something administratively new and urgent continually crowding in, begging for attention (and completion)? Is the curator-scholar a creature of the past, left aside in favor of a rush to The Next Big Thing?

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I find myself reading old issues of RBML, looking and listening for a past voice—a usable past—that will inform our present and future discussions. Perhaps I’m also looking for an earlier vision of the profession, wondering if any part of that vision is still relevant. I live in hope.

*Members of the Task Force on Core Competencies for Special Collections Professionals included: Kathryn Beam, chair (University of Michigan), Mark Dimunation (Library of Congress), Jackie Dooley (UC Irvine), Hjordis Halvorson (Newberry Library), Kris Kiesling (University of Minnesota), Beverly Lynch (UCLA), Margaret Nichols (Cornell), Alice Schreyer (University of Chicago), and Dan Slive (William Reese Company).

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