Professional Development, Expert Networking, Evolving Professional Identity, and the Future Roles of ACRL
By Steven Bell
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 On Monday, an instruction librarian returned to work after attending a specialized conference, along with about 1,000 colleagues, dedicated to the practice of and research on teaching and learning information skills. While there he attended a pre-conference on how to integrate threshold concepts in one-shot instruction sessions. He also served on a panel presentation about collaborating with writing faculty to design flipped classroom learning content. On Monday afternoon, he followed up by uploading a slide deck to the conference website while downloading a few presentations he missed. On Tuesday, our librarian participated in a virtual meeting of his professional association’s committee that was tasked with developing new standards for learning assessment. After the meeting he spent 30 minutes reviewing Twitter comments from fellow instruction librarians commenting on their aspirations for the committee’s final standards, and then exchanged some ideas with other instruction librarians on their e-discussion list. That night he reviewed new video posted for the MOOC he was taking on instructional design. On Wednesday, morning he participated in a webcast led by a faculty member sharing new theories about brain science and how students learn. On Thursday, afternoon he led an in-house brown bag discussion with other librarian educators on an article that challenged librarians to spend more time helping students understand how the scholarly communication process works. On Friday, he attended a one-hour learning circle discussion at the campus Teaching and Learning Center where he worked with other faculty on developing skills for to help students discuss controversial subjects.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 2 Given the explosion of options and technologies that support professional development for academic librarians, more of us are having weeks that strongly resemble the one experienced by our instruction librarian. For those who desire it, the learning never stops; professional development is deeply embedded into our practice. We can blend traditional conferences with virtual ones, and in between we can attend webinars, join informal online conversations with like-minded colleagues, teach to and learn from our academic colleagues and participate in formal course-based learning at our own institution or one sponsored by an institution a thousand miles away.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 We can explore and dwell on the multitude of possibilities for new roles on the road that lies ahead of us, but we have only limited vision for where exactly that road will lead. One thing we know with some certainty is that navigating it smartly will require professional development. To neglect personal professional development is a failure to uphold our values of professionalism and commitment to excellent service. Professional development enables academic librarians to enhance existing and gain vital new skills needed to best serve community members.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 If the richness of our current professional development environment is an indicator of things to come, the variety, diversity, accessibility and quality of the content and instruction will only get better. Academic librarians can take the lead in creating opportunities for themselves and their colleagues to explore and acquire the skills needed to morph into these new roles. It is reflected in the increasing interest in staff reskilling that will allow academic librarians to master emerging services such as digital scholarship, user experience design or library publishing. Library and academic administrators must lend their support to help staff develop the new skills that will set their libraries on a course to excel throughout the 21st century.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 To get there academic librarians are taking advantage of an expanding realm of professional development options, everything from in-house programs to professional society continuing education. Technology’s impact is significant. Obtaining professional development no longer requires access to specialized resources and trainers. It only requires an Internet connection. But with more options comes more confusion. We are inundated with e-mail announcing new professional development programs. Adopting a strategic approach to professional development will lead to a more optimal set of programs to aid staff in developing new skills, but it should be flexible enough to allow staff to take advantage of emerging opportunities. Despite whatever efforts administrators may make to facilitate and support professional development, it is ultimately up to each academic librarian to make a personal commitment to their own lifelong learning and professional development.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 F2F or Virtual. In the near-term future professional development for academic libraries continues to look much like what it does today, falling into three major categories: conferences; courses; collegial. Though traditional physical conferences will struggle to maintain or grow their attendance levels as travel budgets are constrained, academic librarians remain committed to the inherent value of face-to-face (F2F) professional development. ACRL’s biennial conferences continue to offer strong appeal. Consider that for the 2015 conference, submissions for paper and panel submissions increased by 27 percent over the 2013 conference. In addition to their own professional conferences, academic librarians will continue to attend disciplinary and specialized conferences peripheral to their core responsibilities. The latter could include conferences on open educational resources, teaching and learning conferences or those dedicated to programming languages.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Though somewhat less popular with academic librarians, virtual conferences may offer a glimpse of the future conference experience. ACRL began offering a virtual conference that runs simultaneously with its biennial conference in 2005. That first conference attracted twelve paying registrants. As a reflection of the growing acceptance of virtual conferencing, the attendance now averages several hundred per event. (Bell, 2011b) What they lack in F2F connection, virtual conferences make up for it in convenience and cost savings. In addition, archives of sessions are available for review and can be shared with library colleagues. More academic librarians are attending virtual conferences owing to vast improvements in the hosting platforms, but it has yet to gain the popularity of the physical conference.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 With capacity for text and oral chat, desktop sharing, real-time video and features that mimic traditional conferences, such as a vendor exhibits or participant networking, the virtual conference is the next best thing to being there. Major library conferences have yet to offer live, real-time streaming of programs. As the technology becomes more ubiquitous expect library organizations such as ALA and SLA to offer live conference presentations over the Internet, keynote speakers or essential meetings in real-time, not unlike viewing a major live sports event. Currently, many academic librarians avoid webcasts and virtual conferences claiming they lack the spontaneity of being at a live presentation. Live streaming conference programming could overcome that barrier.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 2 Seeking Formal Education. With their positions subject to rapid change, or simply to satisfy curiosity or the desire to connect with other like learners, more academic librarians will seek formal educational offerings. Many colleges and universities offer a tuition benefit of some kind for formal education, and untold numbers of academic librarians added courses, certificates and degrees to their vitaes simply by enrolling at their own institutions. That will no doubt continue as a popular option, but the opportunities for more formal education grow by leaps and bounds. If their own institutions lack a desired course or degree, online learning through another institution is a possibility. This is especially true for those who may want to take additional library and information science (LIS) courses, but no longer live in proximity to a program – although the reality is that LIS programs are now largely online in order to deliver courses at the convenience of the students. Though many originally sought out MOOC courses to satisfy curiosity or to better understand how to deliver library services to enrollees, MOOCs are now a serious professional development option for academic librarians. Looking ahead, free or low-cost web-based learning options, will emerge as a leading platform for professional development.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 1 Declining travel budgets and lack of time have taken a toll on attendance at many formal professional development programs. One response by professional associations is to take the continuing education out to the audience rather than waiting for the audience to come to the program. It is reminiscent of the Chautauqua method of education that was popular in the early 20th century. It featured organized exposure to educators who traveled around the country sharing knowledge about culture, reading and fine arts.That’s why the “roadshow” approach to professional development has become more popular with academic librarians. It effectively combines the desire for face-to-face learning with the convenience of local attendance. Many academic librarians have experienced ACRL’s Scholarly Communication Roadshow, which continues to be popular and is often requested to visit different regions of the country. Given the appeal of face-to-face interaction and the preference many librarians have for gathering with colleagues to engage in learning, as new areas for professional development arise, data research management and services for example, look for roadshows to help librarians evolve into new roles.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 Webinars. For those less enamored with formal education a growing array of options allows for participation in one-shot or short duration web-based learning. ACRL, for example, has for many years offered a robust selection of e-learning webinars. Several other divisions of ALA offer them as well. ALCTS offered a four series webinar event on libraries and MOOCs. One reason why webinars are growing in popularity is that they make great staff development events where employees gather to participate in the webinar with their colleagues and then engage in conversation about the content. Many academic institutions are acquiring online learning tools for their employees so they can add new skills on an as needed basis. Online education providers such as Lynda.com, Atomic Learning and Treehouse offer video tutorials on everything from web programming to design methods to employee coaching. Designed to deliver learning in discrete chunks, more employers are offering on-demand professional development for staff who need to learn new skills to evolve in the workplace.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Free webinars delivered by academic librarians are quite possibly the fastest growing area for professional development. As their institutions acquire web technologies for the instruction of remote students, such as WebEx or GoToMeeting, academic librarians are using these systems to manage and deliver their own specialized webinars. College & Research Libraries now hosts webinars featuring selected articles as discussed by their authors. ACRL Sections, such as University Libraries, are organizing and delivering their own free webcasts where members lead discussions on the topics of the day. And some academic librarians are leveraging non-library webinars or Ted Talks as content for staff development programs. As the power to deliver informal learning grows, in virtual spaces and with little or no funding, our future consumption of professional development may be based more on how and when we want it than where it is being offered and at what cost.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Grow Your Own. Realizing that they need not always depend on formal organizations to deliver professional development, on the road ahead more academic librarians will make greater use of the collegial category of professional development. It is collegial because it is made possible by academic library colleagues joining together to organize a professional development opportunity that satisfies an unmet need or provides an alternative to what is perceived as formal learning that is too costly or restrictive. These collegial offerings can happen within an organized conference if a critical mass of participants is on hand to give it life. Otherwise a face-to-face activity could be arranged for any convenient location in any city if there are enough interested academic librarians or it might be developed as a virtual activity along the lines of a Google Hangout. For example, a group of librarians who served as panelists for an organized session at the 2014 ALA conference, began their conversations about the topic, digital badging, using a Google Hangout (I was a participant). Think of it as an e-mail discussion list on steroids. The format is real time and it’s much more interactive than the alternatives. What remains the same is the learning that takes place when librarians engage in professional development.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 2 What happens when formal opportunities for professional development are unable to respond to the demand for learning or might otherwise be too costly or present travel barriers? Academic librarians will forge ahead and figure it out on their own. Other examples of academic librarians joining together to create and offer their own profession are found in activities such as camps, hackathons and shadow conferences. These professional development gatherings are happening with greater frequency in response to an unmet need and a desire for individuals with shared interests to join together to explore mutual interests and learn from each other. For example, a group of academic librarians interested in open educational resources (OER) could, in the absence of formal professional development outlets, use web technologies to begin sharing their experiences and best practices with each other in any number of virtual meeting spaces. Though not yet that popular, shadow conferences, such as the one that occurred at the 2014 MLA conference, may be more common in the future. They happen when a group of professionals meet in the same city as the official association conference, but they hold a low or no-fee gathering in a location nearby the official conference site. This creates a viable professional development option for those who can travel to the conference city but are unable to afford the conference registration and other expenses. The shadow conference attendees communicate in advance to organize a parallel program that is open to everyone. It adds additional layers of organization beyond the unconference approach, and demonstrates the ongoing appeal of face-to-face meetings.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The real danger to our professional future is simply ignoring the importance of professional development. To stay a step ahead of user community members, academic librarians need to adhere to a regimen of professional development routines that will keep them at the forefront of their campuses. The responsibility to make sure this happens is both individual and collective. Each academic librarian has a professional responsibility to keep their skill set relevant to the needs of the community, and to sharpen and add to that skill set as needed. Academic librarians at all levels of experience can use professional development opportunities to give back to the profession by sharing their accumulated knowledge or introducing colleagues to the newest ideas, knowledge and technology. Library administrators must help to identify the next generation of leaders and make it possible for them to take advantage of our profession’s multitude of leadership development programs. Front-line workers need to let administrators know the types of skills training and career education they need to deliver the best possible service to community members and establish paths for career advancement.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Professional development is a process to which we can all contribute, and it may simply start with building a set of habits to which we can commit. A daily “keeping up” regimen can include everything from a daily review of the news from librarianship and higher education to attendance at a mix of face-to-face and virtual conferences and workshops – and there are many options in between. Library employers share this responsibility. They must support it and create expectations and rewards that will motivate staff members to seek out professional development. If we do this right, as a profession and as library organizations, we should be well positioned to remain relevant and ready to contribute to the success of our institutions.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Networking and Establishing a Professional Identity. Whenever it conducts a membership survey, ACRL asks members (and occasionally non-members) what they value most about professional associations. Professional development is always among the top responses. The other frequently cited rationale for association membership is networking. In addition to the learning we share with each other, academic librarians find great value in building their professional networks. In ways similar to the evolution of professional conferences, networking activity that was once limited to formal structures is now happening with and without them. Academic librarians’ professional networking has traditionally occurred through committees and other working groups they joined as part of their involvement in professional associations. For many of them, association work continues to be a primary vehicle for networking, but it is now either supplemented or replaced by other outlets. New technologies enable academic librarians to network in ways that bring them together from around the globe, and the result is a much larger community of networked academic librarians, a boon to the sharing of information and ideas.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Networking and professional development really go hand in hand to allow academic librarians to mature as professionals, to build new skills and to develop relationships that lead to new accomplishments and professional satisfaction. It’s the networking that allows them to establish connections with colleagues with whom they can mutually advance careers and contribute something beneficial to the greater good of the profession. When we need to find out how to enter new territory we venture into our networks for answers. Knowing there are colleagues in our networks coping with the same challenges we are makes it much easier to manage any new, uncertain situation. Through our networks we gain professional opportunities. With the advent of social networking media, we can instantly share thoughts with colleagues, quickly receive their feedback, stay on top of developing situations and find others with similar interests with whom to explore new professional opportunities.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Prior to tools such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, if an academic librarian wanted to expand his or her network, they usually started at the regional level, perhaps with local association chapters. The advent of e-mail discussion lists allowed academic librarians to participate in or merely lurk among a network of colleagues with similar interests, be it instruction, access services or integrated systems. Web-based communities, such at the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community, furthered the possibilities for virtual networking by offering a community for librarians with special interests. In the library 2.0 days a few librarians created their own social networks using freeware platforms and invited others to join. These networks were fine for information sharing and occasional virtual meetings, but without a true guiding force they could rarely achieve much more than connecting colleagues.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 The demise of many of these homegrown networks was hastened by the growth of Facebook and Twitter, and to a lesser extent, platforms such as Friendfeed. Consider that the Library 2.0 network (created by Bill Drew, a librarian who at the time worked at Tomkins Cortland Community College, at the height of the Library 2.0 craze in 2007) once received as many as 50 posts a day. But Library 2.0, which used the Ning platform, was getting fewer than 5 posts a month by 2010 and was eventually terminated. A contemporary version of Library 2.0 remains, but it is primarily a community for the offering of free webinars and virtual conferences. While formal professional associations will continue to co-exist with social media, for many academic librarians the desire to network can be satisfied without the need for a formal professional structure. Given our profession’s propensity to discuss, debate, share, prod and even annoy each other, adequate room exists for both formal and informal networks. It is not uncommon to observe academic librarians operating across multiple networks in the same hour, working on ALA Connect and then posting status updates and tweets on social media. Where informal networks are particularly useful is in promoting relationships across the sectors of librarianship. Wherever the new road takes us, academic librarians will be better served to travel it with colleagues from public, school and corporate libraries. Formal networks defined by professional boundaries are less conducive to discovering non-academic colleagues. In non-formal networks it is common to find librarians from different spheres of the profession connecting with each other.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Informal networking supported by social media is a generally good thing. It does require academic librarians to contemplate more deeply their professional identity and how their words shape it. One of the significant shifts in academic librarianship since the advent of blogging and tweeting is radical change to how a professional identity is developed. Pre-Web 2.0, before the masses became active producers of content rather than mere consumers, an academic librarian’s primary outlets for establishing their identity was limited to publication in professional journals and presentation opportunities. Those outlets offered little opportunity to express highly personal opinions, to freely critique programs or policies, to advocate for personal positions or to define one’s self as a technical expert. Excepting a few highly recognized authors, presenters and the occasional trade journal columnist, few academic librarians could establish a professional identity beyond their own workplace.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 The advent of blogs, then further advanced by Twitter, made it possible to gain professional exposure without needing to publish or present professionally. In fact, it made it far easier to establish an identity as a metadata expert, a student of leadership, a vocal defender of intellectual freedom, an explorer of new pedagogies or simply a conduit to news, information or gossip. In creating these niches within the profession, academic librarians attract others with similar points of view and thus create even tighter professional circles. Tom Peters (1997), in his seminal article on creating and managing a personal identity, “The Brand Called You” explains this phenomenon as defining yourself beyond one’s library and job title. Peters says that professionals need no longer be associated with a particular function, but can establish an identity based on unique qualities that differentiate them from everyone else. That may be the essence of our academic librarian professional identities. We may all be academic librarians, but each of us, through our preferred networking communication vehicles, can establish a unique persona to which others may wish to connect.
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Academic librarians may reject the notion that they are actively developing and promoting a brand in order to achieve some professional recognition. Even if their use of social media is directed to expanding their personal network and sharing ideas with like-minded colleagues, they need to be thoughtful about how they represent themselves in these public forums as it will shape their brand. Whether academic librarians choose to be intentional about developing their personal brand or ignore Peter’s advice to acknowledge the value of doing so, they should take some time to think about who they are and what they represent, what identity their social media contributions will communicate and the “why” that drives their personal messages. Answering these questions should provide some guidance in reflecting on what differentiates their writing or public talks from other academic librarians.
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Discovering the answers may lead to some internal struggle, but an academic librarian should not be overly concerned. Unlike light switches that can be turned on and off, getting to the root of one’s “why” may take years of reading, writing and exploring to realize and clearly articulate these beliefs. As they emerge and crystallize in our minds they help us to formulate an answer to the “why” behind our professional identity. (Bell, 2011a) Keep in mind that as we navigate the road of our professional career our interests, role and core purpose may adapt to new responsibilities and beliefs, causing a shift in our professional identity. None of us remains the same as when we graduated from an LIS program or at the beginning of our first professional position. It is all those things that happen to us as we move through our careers, our continuing education and professional development, our networking activity, our participation in professional associations, that shape our professional identity. It is a good thing, and a healthy aspect of our professional growth, to become professionally active in all of these ways as it contributes to who we become as academic librarians. Missing out on the opportunities afforded through professional engagement would indeed be unfortunate and would constitute a major barrier to traveling the road ahead.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Future Roles of ACRL. Making it 75 years is a good reason to celebrate. It is a great time to reflect on the past, honor the present and imagine the future. Just as each academic librarian needs to question and think about their individual place on the road ahead and think about how their role will evolve, we need to also think about how ACRL will evolve over the next 75 years and beyond. What role it can best play in creating value for its members and in supporting the advance of learning and the promotion of scholarship? When we say that our preferred future is the one we will shape, that is particularly true of ACRL. As a member organization, it will be up to the membership to shape ACRL’s future role so that the association remains focused on delivering services and resources of value to the membership. It will also help to secure ACRL’s position as the higher education association representing the interests and promoting the contributions of academic librarians.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 If academic librarians believe that ACRL is an association worthy of having a future, that its continued existence is essential to the future of our profession, then they must allow it to be their partner in traveling the road ahead. Imagine academic librarianship as a collective organism that is moving forward on this road to the future. ACRL is the vehicle that can help to get us there. The beauty of an association like ACRL is that it allows us to work collaboratively to accomplish things collectively that we could not possibly accomplish as individuals. Members working together are able to produce detailed standards and guidelines that illuminate our methods of practice. Together we are able to advocate for legislation, stand as one against censorship and the denial of intellectual freedom and organize events that promote learning and networking – not to mention providing engagement opportunities that enable academic librarians to advance their careers.
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 These benefits that accrue to all of us can only continue if we support ACRL as it transitions for the future. Think of ACRL as an initiative-driven association. Its initiatives benefit members and non-members alike. Using member and staff resources to develop its initiatives, ACRL facilitates the ability of academic librarians to create their own local-level initiatives by providing resources, education and assistance. The effort required to develop these initiatives is often beyond the resources of individual members – as well as those working with a few colleagues in an informal network. But as a collective force, guided by ACRL, members accomplish something powerful that benefits all academic librarians. That’s the essence of a member association.
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 The initiative-driven approach is directly connected to the three strategic goal areas articulated in the association’s Plan for Excellence. In the student learning goal area, ACRL’s Immersion Institutes give graduates the power to be better educators as they use the tools and techniques learned at Immersion to implement local information literacy initiatives. ACRL’s website is also a rich source of information for those implementing their local initiatives. In the scholarly communications realm ACRL sponsors the Scholarly Communication Roadshow that enables academic librarians across the country to build the skills needed to engage their community members in reforming scholarly communications. There are other materials, such as an ACRL Scholarly Communication Toolkit, that enable librarians to develop a plan for their institutions. Perhaps the most ambitious initiative-driven project to date is the Value of Academic Libraries. It began with a resource, a “Valueography” that all librarians can use to locate literature that documents the true value of the academic library. This initiative was followed by a series of programs that lead to Assessment in Action, which takes an entirely new approach to empowering members to demonstrate the library’s value at the local level. What’s next? ACRL, in responding to change in higher education and scholarly communication, is exploring possibilities for a future initiative to support the delivery of data management and research services to the local academic community.
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Looking ahead to our future roles, we need to continue to work to make sure those roles are filled in a way that helps our profession build greater diversity. ACRL has established a good track record of supporting efforts to diversify academic librarianship, and moving forward it can build on its past work to improve the racial, ethnic, gender and age diversity of our community. For example, since 2003 ACRL has supported Spectrum Scholars by offering travel grants to participate in professional development activities at the ACRL Conference. The Dr. E.J. Josey Spectrum Scholar Mentor Program links participating library school students and newly graduated librarians, who are of American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino or Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander descent, with established academic librarians, who will provide mentoring and coaching support. ACRL receives far more applications for scholarships to attend its conference than it can possibly provide, but preference is given to applicants with diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. To attract more underrepresented groups to academic librarianship we need to demonstrate that our profession welcomes and embraces diversity. To that end, ACRL’s Member of the Week profiles seeks to represent its diverse membership by age, location, gender, race and ethnicity.
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Despite all the good work that ACRL does on behalf of academic librarianship and higher education, the one true threat to its future is academic librarians. As a member organization, ACRL’s future is dependent on keeping its membership strong, vibrant and engaged. Like ALA and other library associations, ACRL is challenged to retain and attract members. It’s no secret that membership in all types of formal associations, be they professional, civic or recreational, is on the decline. For reasons with which we are familiar (too many demands on our time, the cost of memberships and travel, lack of reward, reduced employer support, lack of feeling engaged with big organizations and internet access to resources that were once available only with a membership — access to professional literature; networking, professional education) it is more difficult to make the case for association membership. ACRL’s future is a strong one, but it will need to truly understand the needs of both members and potential members as they travel on the road ahead and find themselves evolving into new roles. As it has done in the past with information literacy and scholarly communications, ACRL will continue to serve the profession by offering the professional development, networking, engagement opportunities and expertise needed to help academic librarians adapt to their new roles. As ACRL supports our professional success, we need to remember to give back and enable ACRL to succeed. On the road that lies ahead, the relationship between academic librarians and ACRL is truly symbiotic.