Surviving the Times: #HLTH, Data and Keeping Librarians Relevant

The library world has been disturbed to hear news of layoffs from Harvard’s Library. What can we do as librarians to help ourselves and our field?  (Image by Joseph Williams (originally posted to Flickr as Harvard) [CC-BY-2.0 (

An academic friend of mine sent me a Facebook message this evening.  He’d heard a rumor about something terrible going on at the Harvard Libraries – surely it couldn’t be true that Harvard had fired all of its librarians?

Well, no.  Not exactly.  The outlook is still grim as additional details roll in, but the truth is not quite as bad as initial reports would have it seem.  What I’m hearing, primarily from Chris Bourg’s very informative blog post, is that layoffs will affect technical services (like cataloging and metadata librarians), preservation, and access services, but not collection development, reference, or special collections, although I gather the situation isn’t necessarily looking super promising for these librarians, either.

Of course, there’s much wringing of hands over this news, as well there should be.  If something like this is happening at Harvard, with its deep pockets, what’s going to happen at struggling public institutions like the UCs, especially with a $100 million budget cut recently handed down from the state?  Librarians should be concerned, but I think hearing news like this serves as a great reminder that we need to be proactive in finding new roles for ourselves, as people seem to increasingly feel that they can “just Google it” and that they don’t need us.  What can we do to convince them otherwise?

My feeling is that we need to do more to demonstrate the library’s value as more than just a place where you go to check out books.  More importantly, we need to demonstrate the librarian’s value as more than just someone who you email when your electronic access to a journal isn’t working.  Most of us hold masters degrees, and those of us who don’t draw on valuable work expertise.  We know how to do a whole lot more than just tell people how to use the printer.  With our knowledge of information systems, metadata, needs assessments, technology, and tons of other stuff we know a lot about, we are invaluable campus resources.  It’s important that we make ourselves vocal and let people know about that.

I’ve been doing a lot of outreach to faculty that my library hasn’t been very connected with in the recent past, which involves me wrangling half an hour with a busy faculty member who is probably only seeing me to be polite.  When I got to go to a faculty meeting, I introduced myself and said how pleased I was to be there, and the chair looked at me and said, “this won’t take very long, right?”  I’ve gone into these meetings knowing that I had a very short window of opportunity to prove to these people that time spent talking to me and time given to me to stand in front of their classes was not going to be wasted time.  I did end up winning over that chair and her department – when I was walking out the door after my half hour was up, I heard one of them say, “I wish we could just talk about all of that for the rest of the meeting.”  So what did I say to win them over?

Rather than guess what I thought they might find most interesting and try to lead with that, I took the rather optimistic approach of basically listing off services we offered and other things that I’m able to talk on knowledgeably, and keeping an eye on them to see what they reacted to.  There were a couple of trends in all of the meetings I’ve had lately.  The one that surprised me a little: citation management software.  Everybody seems to know that citation management software is a great time saver, but no one seems to know how to use it.  When they heard that I did, they were thrilled.  The one that didn’t surprise me: data.

Scientists are inundated with data and are, on the whole, given no training in how to handle it.  Librarians, however, have a great deal of expertise in handling data.  No matter what your focus or specialty as a librarian, you probably have some sort of special knowledge that would make a scientist very happy to sit down with you and talk data.  Most significantly, those librarians in the groups affected at Harvard – cataloging and metadata, preservation, and access services – probably have the most valuable knowledge as it relates to data.  As someone who is increasingly working with scientists on data issues, I can say with absolute certainty that we will need these librarians and their knowledge and experience.  So it will be a real shame if they all get fired.

I feel terrible for all of the librarians at Harvard.  I can’t imagine how nerve-wracking it will be for these poor people to go back to work with this kind of thing hanging over their heads.  I’ll be keeping an eye on Twitter (#hlth) and I encourage my fellow librarians to do the same.  More importantly, though, I challenge my fellow librarians to do something tomorrow to fight against this tide: sign up for a continuing education class to learn a new skill, make an appointment with a faculty member you’ve never spoken to, schedule a workshop to teach something new to your patrons (I give you permission to steal from me and go with citation management software).  Whatever you do, make sure that your patrons (and more importantly, your chancellor or dean or whoever) knows that the library is about a lot more than just checking out books.

6 thoughts on “Surviving the Times: #HLTH, Data and Keeping Librarians Relevant

  1. I agree librarians (I am one) need to be proactive about demonstrating their value to their users. The problem is, technical services librarians like catalogers and acquisitions (the ones most directly affected at Harvard) are deeply involved in maintaining the information infrastructure that all of those neat, 21st-century services rely on. It's not glamorous work, and it's extremely difficult to express its value in qualitative or quantitative terms. But without people maintaining that infrastructure (the catalog, the link-resolvers, e-resource databases, etc.) it's hard to see how the other services will be particularly effective.

    I'm going to guess Harvard is hoping to save money by outsourcing as much of that work as possible. I think it's a big mistake–they are going to lose local expertise that they will never be able to get back.

    • I totally agree that the sort of “behind the scenes” work that technical services librarians do is absolutely crucial to keeping the library functioning, but I still think that they can also explore other avenues for their expertise. I’m working on a pilot project for data services, and the metadata and cataloging librarians who are working with me are a key part of the project. This is, of course, in addition to, not instead of, the work they’d usually do, in the same way that this project means branching out a bit for me (a reference/instruction librarian).

    • You've got a great point that librarians need to be proactive about demonstrating their value. I'd add that librarians need to weave the collection of value-proving-data into their schedule. Yes, we all probably have a part in year-end stats, but maybe we stop thinking about those numbers for another 12 months. Then we freak out when our bosses ask for quantifiable goals and evidence of having met or not met those goals when the next annual review comes around…. (Ok, maybe my administration is unusual…) It's easier to figure out "what have a contributed this semester?" than "what have I done in the last couple of years?" If it's a scary week, "what have I accomplished this week?" We need to be *ready* for moments like these.

      I don't think it's difficult to express the value of technical services work in qualitative or quantitative terms, however. I find it much more difficult to express my public services accomplishments in quantitative terms! The trick for expressing TS value is really translating the vast range of quantitative statistics produced by TS work and making them *real* for the administration. Yeah, you cataloged 10,000 images. That took an awfully long time. Who did that help? You had 1,000 access interruptions reported in 2011? Is that a good number because it's down from 2010 or is it a demonstration of why you need another paraprofessional in the department?

      Hats off to the administrators and advocates who are good at translating numbers into stories! It's something I'd like to do well myself.

      • So well put, Sarah. I think part of the problem for technical services people, particularly cataloging librarians, is that it's harder to demonstrate why a credentialed librarian needs to be in those positions. Numbers alone don't demonstrate the expertise that goes into that work. Pretty much all I know about cataloging is what I learned in one course in library school, but that was enough to show me that it is HARD – yet I have heard about libraries getting rid of their expert catalogers and replacing them with undergrads because it's cheaper. Like you say, we need people who can translate those numbers into stories that demonstrate the value in having experts on your team.

  2. I'm not going to lie, I had no idea librarians did so much beyond checking books in and out. From this article, it seems like a librarian would be an incredibly valuable addition to a wide variety of companies. Data management, after all, is something that many companies struggle with. Great article, and I like that you made it personal. I'm not just reading a journalist's point of view on the matter at hand, I'm getting a real glimpse into the field through the eyes of one of the people in it!

    Keep these articles coming!

    • Honestly, when I got into library school, I had no idea about this stuff either. I was thinking, oh god, am I going to have to learn the Dewey Decimal system or something? (FWIW, no – academic libraries, and more specifically medical libraries, don't use Dewey for several reasons.) It's such an interesting field to be in, far more challenging and rewarding than being a professor ever was, but I think most people don't realize all the great stuff we librarians know!

      Glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂 I appreciate your comments!

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