Emphasizing Technology Over Teaching

I recently heard from a student who was enrolled in my academic librarianship course in 2006. Having graduated the student is now in the market for an academic library position. He is focusing on reference and instruction positions geared to entry-level librarians. With a few interviews under his belt he is questioning the priorities of the academic libraries where interviews have occured, and I have to wonder myself just exactly what it is that employers are expecting of recent MLS program graduates as they enter the job market.

While not consistent in each interview experienced, thus far this job seeker was asked about his degree of expertise with cold fusion, linux, camtasia, and other web programming tools. Since when did reference and instruction librarians take over the systems office? I’ll be the first to acknowledge that reference and instruction librarians need to be tech savvy, especially with educational technology. So the ability to create screencasts is reasonable, but I question the expectation that a relatively new library graduate should have expertise with a product like Camtasia or Captivate. That’s something most librarians learn on the job while developing screencasts for web-based tutorials. Don’t even get me started on cold fusion or linux.

More surprising, on some interviews for reference and instruction positions, the candidate has received few or no questions about teaching philosophy or techniques are used to create an active learning environment. Some potential employers have not even included a demonstration of teaching skills in the interview process. It strikes me as odd that someone interviewing for an instruction position would not be asked to demonstrate their skill as an instructor. Is this individual just experiencing some odd hiring situations, or is there a developing trend for prioritizing technology over teaching and learning when recruiting new academic librarians?

So why is this happening? My own interpretation of this job-seeker’s experience is that the legacy librarians have woken up to the reality that integrating new technology into the library, or at least leveraging new technology to develop important new services, is critical to the library’s survival. But are they willing to learn how to use these technologies themselves? No. In these libraries the obvious solution is to hire new librarians to traditional positions, but give them vastly different responsibilities from those of the legacy librarians who have held these positions for years . This strikes me, and probably you as well, as a generally bad idea. For a new academic librarian just entering our workplace, and who seeks a reference or instruction – not a systems – position, expecting these higher level computing skills seems like a recipe for a staffing disaster. If your library needs systems and web programmers, and no one on staff is willing to learn these skills, then it may be time to create unique staff positions for non-librarian professionals that can bring these skills to the organization.

7 thoughts on “Emphasizing Technology Over Teaching

  1. I can understand requiring cold fusion of someone who is applying as a college that provides a lot of distance education, but I agree that it is odd they would not require a demonstration of teaching skills.

    I’m sort of a linux geek, so I’m not even going to comment on that, except to say that it’s very easy to pick up a cheap book that comes with a live boot CD so you can familiarize yourself with the system. (http://www.ubuntu.com/products/merchandise)

    I wonder if some of these positions are mis-advertised- are they really looking for a systems person? Are they expecting new librarians to do two jobs for the price of one? Are they just trying to weed out the librarians that are scared of technology by throwing big terms at them and seeing if they run away screaming?

  2. One phrase comes to mind when reading this post: “Other Duties As Assigned” (which has been going on since time immemorial!)

    Is the candidate able to articulate what he *does* know in the technology areas, and how to talk about that in relation to reference and instruction? Does he understand that in some shops, if he wants something technologically advanced to happen, he may have to figure out how to make an intelligent case for it so that the systems folks will understand him and work with him to make those things happen? Does he come across as someone who would be willing to learn how to do new things? I think that some of the questions your former student has been asked may come from a desire to understand how he can deal in those sorts of situations. There are very few positions any more where one can do *solely* reference and instruction.

    I know – as someone who just went through a hiring process for entry-level reference/instruction positions – that I want someone on staff who can communicate and collaborate with the folks in our shop who can do this kind of technologically-inclined work. Part of that is being fluent in the language (not necessarily the inner workings) of the technologies that are being used in libraries today.

    A simple response to the question about Camtasia is this: “I haven’t had the chance to use it yet, but am excited to learn how to use it in support of the reference and instruction activities here.”

    At the same time, I agree that it’s very strange that this individual hasn’t had to demonstrate any sort of teaching/instruction in his interviews.

  3. I agree with your interpretation, Steven.

    Libraries are overstocked with traditional reference and technical services librarian positions and are unwilling to let go of the paradigm and redefine / reallocate the positions to support the growing technology needs.

    What I see all too often is that IT skills land up in position descriptions in what I call ‘job description mashups.’ How many Heads of IT do you know that are also the Head of Technical Services?

    Recent posting I have seen:

    “… seeking a Systems Librarian who will also be enthusiastically available for reference shifts, collection development, and other duties as assigned. ”

    “Designs, implements, and manages media distribution, video conferencing, control, and streaming systems… two years experience in project management and oversight of technical services and/or operations.”

    “supports the library operations by maintaining the library systems, incorporating new technologies and implementing innovative solutions that enhance learning and research… manages bibliographic record loads, coordinates database maintenance routines, catalogs print and multimedia materials.”

  4. In my 13+ years as a librarian, I have always found that the core functions of a reference and instruction librarian – service and teaching – are assumed adequate or exemplary in performance evaluations. A librarian is most often judged on what else they contribute – project work, technical skills, new initiatives, leadership roles, etc. This mentality seems to have seeped into the interview process – I am not that surprised.

    Legacy librarians that will not or cannot learn new skills points to a larger issue of strategy. With all do respect to the faculty model of which I am a part, tenure is not the best motivator for professional growth and contribution to a learning and growing library organization. Organizations must continue to learn and grow in order to stay effective. The Balanced Scorecard management approach has this as a key component.

  5. That’s sort of like saying “we assume you’re a good Biology teacher, so we won’t even check; show us how you write grants and put together a lab and figure out new lab techniques.” Those may be important, but at a college like mine teaching comes first, and it isn’t assumed. It’s the number one criterion for hiring and tenure.

    Scholarship and service have to be excellent to move on to full professor. But teaching is at our core (which for librarians includes reference and various other non-classroom things we do to promote learning). All the technical skills in the world won’t matter if you don’t know what it is students need to learn and how to help them learn it.

    I think Steven has a point – some librarians are hoping the newbies will make up for their lack of technical skills. But that should be a shared task, not something only new hires are expected to master. Some of the truly technical skills can be done by non-MLS folks – but the curriculum design itself is really more important than the flashy means of delivering it.

    We’re not about technology, any more than we’re about collections. We’re about what those technologies and collections provide: learning.

  6. I recently graduated from library school and was actually surprised at how gruelling (and depressing) my job search was. Perhaps this was just naiveté on my part, but part of it also was that when I started school, everyone (including my professors) assured us that we would have no problem finding a job, and that there were a lot more library jobs than there were librarians to fill them. This didn’t seem to be at all the case for myself and my fellow students, at least within academic librarianship. I have friends now (who were good students, and graduates of a good program that emphasized technology) who have been on the market for a year now. In fact, I feel fortunate to have gotten an academic job after just 8 months of being on the market. This has made me wonder if the market for academic jobs is not very good right now, which allows libraries to be rather selective in their hiring. That is, are academic libraries currently able to demand a great skill set for entry level positions because there is such a large pool of applicants to choose from? I would be interested to hear other’s thoughts on this.

    That being said, however, while everyone who interviewed me was interested in my technical skills, I also had to do a teaching presentation for all of my interviews.

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