Penny Garrod reports on the changing skills profile in LIS. This article is an extended version of that which appears in the print edition of Ariadne.
The SKIP project (SKills for new Information Professionals)  is drawing to a close. Based within Academic Services at the University of Plymouth, SKIP received JISC funding for one year within the Training and Awareness strand of the eLib Programme. The project team comprises Ivan Sidgreaves, Dean of Academic Services, Project Director, and Penny Garrod, Researcher. A Project Advisory Group has been set up to evaluate and advise SKIP, and is currently looking at effective ways of disseminating the research findings.
The main aim of the project has been to evaluate the impact of IT on the skills of staff working in LIS within higher education. This sounds relatively straightforward but the size of the task has grown, and it is impossible to deal with skills in isolation as there are implications for training, professional education and ultimately the future of the profession.
Information professionals are not excluded from the general imperative to re-skill and update existing skills. In addition, staff are having to adjust to new ways of working in an era of change, and rapid technological innovation. The general trend is towards continuing professional development and lifelong learning, but this is less easy to put into practice in relation to IT skills, which can become redundant before they are even mastered. The hierarchical organisation, in which everyone had a place and a clearly defined role, is no longer viable in a world of constant change. New matrix structures are slowly being introduced, with staff working in teams, and taking on several roles concurrently.
We interviewed around 150 staff at 18 institutions. We talked to heads of service, senior managers, and staff at all levels, and tried to define the gap between current skills, and desired or required skills, bearing in mind that for many staff the electronic library has yet to become a reality. The 18 institutions involved in the project were quite diverse in terms of type, size, geographical distribution, and the level of technological development. At the time of the SKIP visits (October 1996 to March 1997) many information services were undergoing changes involving re-structuring or convergence. However, the main catalyst for change was the ‘electronic library’ itself, and several institutions had new purpose-built accommodation promising a brave new world of wall-to-wall workstations, and unlimited access to a range of networked resources. These buildings had opened recently, or in some cases were still being built, and there were often stark differences in the level of service on different sites within the same institution.
A number of trends were identified during the course of the interview programme. There was a focus on the role of the information or help desk to support users of workstations located in the library. There were two different approaches to staffing these information desks: either to use computer services and library staff to cover both IT-based and subject-based enquiries, or to employ ‘hybrid’ staff who have both IT and information-based skills. Managers were concerned that staff should have critical thinking ability and problem solving skills. They saw IT skills as something which could be learnt or taught. They were also concerned with the personality of staff and wanted flexibility, customer orientation, and an outgoing personality.
There was considerable evidence of staff taking on a teaching and training role. User education is no longer an annual trudge round the library, but is geared to student assignments, and focuses on their specific information needs.
The role of academic liaison, too, is increasingly being adopted by subject specialists. It requires staff to have an in-depth knowledge of the faculty and department and its teaching methods to enable them to act as link people.
More and more posts, especially in small institutions, are a composite of several roles and tasks. Another trend is for para-professional staff to be doing the work of professional staff. Tasks are being shunted ‘down the line’ as professional posts diminish, and remaining professional staff take on new roles and additional tasks. Para-professionals are often the first port of call for users, and they report feeling isolated, exploited and inadequately trained. Staff are also unhappy with the plethora of interfaces on CD-ROM, and the rate at which new CD-ROMs are being added to stock. By contrast they report few calls for assistance in the use of the Internet.
Web page authoring, and the selection and evaluation of Internet resources for inclusion on campus information networks is becoming widespread. Staff are attending HTML courses, such as those offered by Netskills, in order to acquire the basic skills. Yet they are confused as to where their responsibilities lie in relation to IT support.
The situation in many institutions is akin to looking through a kaleidoscope: the pattern is constantly changing as managers seek new ways to make diminishing resources go further. It must be emphasised that many of the institutions were in an interim phase, in which changes had either recently been implemented or were imminent. Staff were either settling into new roles, or anticipating changes to their roles and responsibilities.
Our conclusion is that there are many opportunities opening up for information professionals, provided that they do not cling to a professional identity which has its roots in the past. SKIP talked to staff who saw potential involvement in distance learning programmes and courseware development. The way forward is through collaboration with colleagues from teaching and computing services, with more team working on projects, such as Web site development and resource-based learning programmes.
In general staff were confident of a continued role for information professionals into the future, and they felt that traditional library skills were transferable to the networked and electronic environment. A belief in a continuing demand for the book is strong, and, ironically, staff commented that electronic information resources, whilst extremely popular with students, had led only to increased demand for printed resources.
 SKIP: SKills for new Information Professionals
Author DetailsPenny Garrod,
SKIP Project Research Officer,
Phone: 01752 232343
Fax: 01752 232293