Mutatis mutandis

October 9th, 2007 by Ross Scaife

Laura Cohen’s post at Library 2.0: an academic’s perspective sets out some reasons for a “training wheels culture” in librarianship. I think folks in the humanities will recognize the syndrome as well:

Experience. If you’ve had little experience learning technology on your own, it can be hard to get started. It takes a certain kind of strength to wrap your mind around a new technology skill, especially one that is somewhat beyond your present skill level. There’s a problem-solving, experimental, hard-driving, trial-and-error mindset that you need to embrace. Self-training in technology is in itself a skill that you need to cultivate by actually doing it, repeatedly.

Habit. If you’ve expected, and received, training for almost everything you’ve learned, you’ve developed a dependent mindset. The environment has fit itself around you, rather than the other way around. You’ve been enabled. Your habitually tell yourself that there is someone around to help you and that’s the way it should be. All you need to do is ask.

Roles. If certain staff become too highly associated with technology training, other staff may become passive. This makes for a difficult paradox: having technology trainers on staff is a sign of administration’s support for this staffing role, yet relying too much on these trainers can breed passivity.

Attitude. Learning new skills is fun. It really is! If you dread it, or consider it a chore, or get easily frustrated, or fear failure, then you’ll have problems.

Learned helplessness. This is always a problem when it appears, and I don’t know how, exactly, to deal with it. I’ve heard this kind of thing often enough: “I’m just not good at this.” “This is always hard for me.” “I know this isn’t my strength.” “I’m a traditional librarian.” And so on. When an individual says these things often enough, and over a period of years, this person comes to believe it. Repetition creates immutable facts on the ground.

Ability. On the other hand, let’s face it: some people are just not technically inclined. You may say they have no place in librarianship, and you may be right. But let’s think about this further. I’m terrible with numbers, strong with words. With a more open mind toward numbers, and some vigorous effort, I could probably increase my skills. But I’ll never be as good as those for whom numeric reasoning comes easy. I think it’s unrealistic to expect that every librarian will have very strong technical skills. On the other hand, the profile of our skill levels will certainly shift upward in the coming years. In the meantime, we need to face facts. Some of our colleagues are technically weaker than others and they’ll stay that way. These people have other strengths, and we should cultivate and make good use of these strengths. But we also shouldn’t entirely give up on training them in new skills.

Intrinsic difficulty of the skill. Some skills are harder to learn than others. I’m unhappy when I encounter librarians who struggle to maintain Web pages made up of a bunch of links organized into unordered lists. I’m much more understanding of librarians who need help with higher-level skills…say, for importing RSS feeds into a Web page.

Time. Some people learn nearly everything on their own. More power to them! This involves a level of commitment that not everyone can match. One part of this commitment is time, including significant time off hours. We can’t expect this of everyone. This isn’t reasonable, or even desirable. In addition, many of us are overwhelmed with job responsibilities. This is why we have trainers on staff.

Strategic direction. If your library is moving in a strategic direction that expects certain new skills, then it makes sense to provide training for them. Unfunded mandates are not good policy. In my case, I’ve been making a focused pitch for importing RSS feeds into our public Web pages. I can’t do this while at the same time saying, “Learn it on your own!” If I provide a tutorial and offer support, the chances are much greater that staff will learn the skill that I want them to learn so much. And maybe they’ll listen to other suggestions from me, if I have a history of backing up my lobbying with support.

Library culture. I left this one for last. I do think our library culture is a factor. Our profession is on the cusp. What I mean is this: we’re on the cusp of a new generation of librarians (of any age) who are expected to be – and will be – technically adept. Expected to be is an element that is absolutely crucial, and we’re not there yet. Right now, we’ve got a mixed bag of skill levels on staff because of a technology generation gap, unfortunate hiring practices, low expectations, lack of vision, and so on. There is also failed leadership. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that our adminstrators need to set good examples. I can’t stand it when administrators require skills that they themselves have no intention of learning, or even comprehending. Even more problematic are administrators who have relatively few skills and also can’t envision, advocate for, put much importance on, or make time for developing the skills of the staff they supervise. They don’t support what they need to support in order to make crucial learning happen. Neither scenario is sustainable.

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