This is a summary of an interview with Cathy Walsh, Director of Library Services and University Librarian at the University of Essex.
Claudio Svaluto: The general theme of this interview is “the changing role of librarians in today’s industry.”
How do you deal with resistance to change at an organizational level?
Cathy Walsh: I think there is usually a reason why people are resistant to change. It is usually because they are worried about where they are going to be in that change or whether they can cope with it. So I think the main thing is to give people as much information as you can. Usually you have to back that up with a bit of evidence about how things will change, and I think you have to be clear with people if there are things that are unknown to all of us, so they can be aware of that. And I think it’s also about listening to their views and where people have sensible suggestions about how the change can be made, to take those on board as much as possible. Because then they become part of the change, rather than having the change done to themselves
CS: What about when resistance to change comes, as it were, from the building you are working in? This university library was built a few decades ago, when studying was a much different activity. What can we do to use older libraries that are still a resource but are not really fit to the task of providing a welcoming environment for students?
CW: I think in the last few years people have started to say that yes, students do want collaborative spaces, it brings them in, but they also want somewhere quiet to study. And there isn’t really anywhere more appropriate than the library for that.
It’s important that we look at different ways to manage the space. And actually it isn’t that difficult to change the feel of the space, if you reduce the amount of stock. You can get different kinds of screens, different furniture. But I think the interesting thing is that some university libraries – like Reading – have kept their sort of ‘heritage’ furniture in one part of the library and created very traditional reading rooms, while at the same time modernising other parts of the library. So students who really like that kind of space, or maybe like it at certain times of the year but not every day, they’ve got the choice. It’s all about offering choice and working with the building you have.
CS: Since we are well into the subject, if you had a single piece of advice for an academic librarian, what would you say is the most important bit of user experience?
CW: I think the most important thing is the staff, and the staff’s attitude to students.
When I started working in academic libraries we didn’t have many mature students and students didn’t pay fees. It was much more as if they had a privilege, rather than a right. And I think we have a long way to go to recognize that our students are first of all adults that have paid money to come here. Getting into higher education is a difficult choice because it takes money and time out of your life, and it generates high expectations of getting a good job at the end of it.
So I think the most important thing is having staff who understand that students come from different backgrounds, but also from different financial and family situations. And it’s also important to recognize that they actually do have power, that they are consumers.
Finally, this is about developing the needed soft skills: we need our partnership with students to be shaped by a real desire to satisfy their needs. If you have people willing to do that you can do anything, because you’re listening and you’re paying attention.
CS: What are the main instruments for librarians to improve research dissemination and facilitate collaborations between academics?
CW: There are big opportunities for libraries, which I don’t think all of us have understood yet. The development of institutional repositories tended to be a library thing mostly because it was about managing a collection. However, institutional repositories are also a chance for librarians to be creators of the means by which collections can be developed and managed.
Additionally, the whole open access issue has also brought forth the librarians’ expertise in terms of alternative publishing. Some librarians for example are getting involved in setting up university presses and open access journals. It used to be a specialist area that a lot of us didn’t know much about. This is why I think that librarians need to quickly develop new skills, and also to be bolder and more confident, to actually take ownership of these things. Because these things didn’t really belong anywhere, except perhaps in the library.
So in terms of research there have been lots of opportunities to showcase our skills. The downside of that is that librarians are not very good at showcasing, generally. But I do think that we have to let the academics know what we can do, take on advocacy within our own institutions. I think we have to let academics know that we can do just more than provide books and pay subscriptions for online resources.
CS: My favourite author Cory Doctorow thinks that librarians are in an ideal position to be champions of literacy. What do you think is the role of academic librarians in this respect?
CW: The role of academic libraries in literacy is not so obvious, but I think our students now particularly benefit from that since the advent of databases and electronic resources. There is no shortage of information, but actually finding your way through that has become more complex. And I think we have a big role in equipping with the right skills both our students and our researchers.
Academic libraries have more to do with information literacy than literacy per se, but there is something about encouraging in students a love of reading for the sake of it, to enable them to just discover things that are not necessarily on the reading list, because that’s how they will grow and develop ideas beyond their curriculum.
And there is also an element of relaxation about reading, it is a matter of wellbeing. If we think of the student experience in a wider way, we have to contribute to that, not just to the curriculum. We are a place where students spend quite a lot of time in, we definitely should be champions of that.
CS: Let’s move to the library profession itself now. There are many professionals with library and information studies degrees, which didn’t use to be the case. How do you think this is going to shape the profession? Are we going towards a massively specialized profession?
CW: I don’t know how much of an effect it will have to be honest. I am not completely sure, but I think in academic libraries it’s actually good to have a degree in a non-LIS subject because that is partly about the content, your clientele, and the customers. Having studied a particular subject is often helpful in unexpected ways. You can talk to an academic about their subject and show some knowledge. But you see also I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I finished my degree. I didn’t apply for a degree in librarianship. I thought I was going to be a teacher!
CS: Do you think we have a duty to form the next generation of librarians?
CW: Yes. I think that whatever your profession is, part of your job is to develop the next generation. And I think that is actually not about developing someone in your own image, because by the time they’re going to be in your position the world will be different. It’s about developing people’s curiosity; the professional values are still going to be the same whatever the technology you are using, so it’s about helping develop those, but it’s also about giving the opportunity to find their own level, their own interest because ours is a very diverse profession.
I think this is critical, because if you talk to someone outside the profession, there isn’t really an understanding of what it is about. There isn’t an understanding of how our skills are still relevant, even if we are not doing the same things every day.
I think if you are a good manager, which I presume has to happen as you get higher up, then that is just what you would have to do anyway: support your staff, encourage them, and help them develop.