Home 9 Blog Posts 9 Above the Fold- Skilltype: Training and Recruiting for the Future of Libraries.

Above the Fold- Skilltype: Training and Recruiting for the Future of Libraries.

by | Apr 28, 2023 | 0 comments

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By Matthew Ismail, Editor in Chief, Charleston Briefings, and a Director for the Charleston Conference

Tony Zanders

“The library is a nonprofit software company.” (Tony Zanders)

Skilltype is a tech startup much in the news these days in the library world. Sage Technology announced on March 7th, 2023, that they were investing in Skilltype because they are “investing in new solutions and emerging tech that amplify the power of the academic library and support librarians through a transformative decade for the library.” (Sage, 2023) Skilltype also announced on March 7th that they had raised an additional $1.75 million in seed funding from various tech investors to help it grow and expand. (Skilltype, 2023)

The investments in Skilltype might cause one to ask: What does it mean to “amplify the power of the academic library” and to “support librarians through a transformative decade for the library”? The answer to these questions is perhaps related to Skilltype’s own question, which is (to paraphrase) “What skills will allow librarians to meet the needs of users in the current information environment, and how can libraries provide the training and recruiting  to meet these needs without presupposing that the answer can be found in librarians’ traditional roles and skills?”

Skilltype has emerged in the wake of a question that has been asked since the 1990s: What is a library and what do librarians do? The traditional answer was uncontroversial: A library is a building on a campus or in a community; it is a collection of books, journals, databases and other resources; it is a place for clients to gather to study or do research; it is the place of work for those whose job is to facilitate access to the curated collections and to provide guidance to their use.

But in an online and increasingly OA environment, the emphasis of the library building, itself, is being reimagined on campuses more as a study space (study hall?) that provides access to computers and printing–an emphasis that does not require traditional librarians so much as people to manage the facility and computers. When users gain access to OA resources through Google Scholar, the library is not even a necessary intermediary between users and publishers. In both of these cases, the user does not need a library or librarian, per se, so much as an internet service provider and a device on which to search.

So, what does a library do if the skills and interests of its employees are still mostly geared to the old world of print libraries? The almost universal answer of academic libraries has been to announce that, while libraries may no longer focus on building collections of resources, librarians themselves remain relevant as “educators” providing “information literacy” and “research assistance” to their users.

And yet…This notion of libraries as providers of information literacy seems to be more of a process of subtraction among librarians than anything else. “We used to provide curated access to collections and to help people to access them. If people are accessing OA resources through Google Scholar, then we aren’t about collections anymore; so we are about helping people be better users of information.” This answer allows librarians to preserve at least one of the pillars of the print library and to move that pillar front and center as their raison d’etre

But does this process of subtraction and preservation among the traditional skills of librarians really constitute a proper response to the pressing needs of the university community? Were colleges and universities really asked if they want librarians primarily to provide information literacy? What do colleges and universities really need from libraries, and what if the answer to that question does not align with the skills of the people currently employed by the library?

Skilltype’s approach to helping libraries with this quandary is based precisely on founder Tony Zander’s emphasis on “Pursuing the question rather than pursuing the answer.” (Zanders, 2022) If libraries have mostly proceeded with an answer in search of institutional acceptance–”Libraries provide information literacy”–Skilltype proceeds by asking the question (which can be paraphrased as), “How can libraries respond to their changing role in a dynamic and user-centered manner by providing the changing skills and resources required by their users?” As Tony says: “The library exists at the service of tuition payers in the academic library setting…” and must be responsive to the needs and interests of those clients.  (Zanders, 2023)

Skilltype’s question, you will notice, does not presuppose a particular answer proceeding from the needs of librarians. Rather, Skilltype asks librarians to be humble and responsive to the needs of today’s users; to allow themselves to ask potentially uncomfortable questions about whether their current skills are meeting those needs; and to be open to obtaining (and sharing) new skills if the situation requires it.

Tony Zanders’ approach with Skilltype certainly has its roots in his own experiences. As a philosophy and literature major in college, Tony was trained to ask difficult questions and to answer these questions in a rigorous, logical and fact-based manner. And through his early and formative post-graduation experiences in a Silicon Valley startup environment, Tony learned to launch an enterprise based on a rigorous evaluation of the needs of users, accompanied by an equally rigorous willingness to respond and innovate in the context of changing use and competition. (Zanders, 2022)

Tony emphasizes that there have been major shifts in libraries every decade since the 1980s: first, the shift from the card catalog to the ILS; the movement of library resources online in the 1990s; digital asset management and digitization in the early 2000s; the move to the cloud, unifying workflows in a single system, in the 2010s. 

So, what will the major shift be in the 2020s? While major technological shifts can be taken for granted, “In my view,” says Tony, “it will be the shift where libraries start to conceptualize themselves, not just as organizations of information, of collections, but as organizations of people.”

Skilltype’s skills API accordingly allows each employee to start with a “clean slate description of who you are, what you’re capable of, and what you want to learn.” (Skilltype, 2021) This is not a CV listing qualifications, but a profile with 800 options to tell the organization what your current skills are and what skills you would like to obtain. Skilltype then uses this metadata to personalize your experience. Rather than searching the web or social media for the right resource or opportunity, spend your limited time growing instead of browsing.” 

This would be a significant change of course for libraries. Instead of embracing innovation and assuring that librarians have the skills that the current environment requires, “Leaders have been kicking the can down the road for the better part of a decade,” Tony says. Libraries have tried to recruit their way out of the current quandary by creating an occasional new position after a retirement or other vacancy, while accepting that the other librarians may well continue as they have been. But this is not enough.

Libraries have to be much more bold to remain relevant. They need to do an inventory of the skills they have today and the skills they need for the next decade. They need to ask how libraries can align their own organizational needs with employee professional development needs and aspirations. Librarians need to take willing ownership of their professional development to obtain the skills that address the pressing needs of the present. 

Skilltype software incorporates the core competency frameworks from ALA, SLA, Educause, NASIG, and many other organizations, as well as a catalog of the many fragmented online trainings available. Skilltype software will “provide a common descriptive framework for the skills we need as people, the skills we need as organizations, and the resources being created by training…to start to present the right expertise to the right person at the right time.” (Zanders, 2022)

 And not only do individual libraries need to focus on having the right skills to address the dynamic situation in which they exist, but Tony believes that the potential will arise for a sort of consortium of skills and talents across institutions, rather as we now do ILL and ILS sharing. Groups of libraries can then cooperate in a way that has been inconceivable until now.

This sort of transformation is impossible if libraries continue to look to the past for inspiration. Tony, in fact, prefers to draw his inspiration from those who have so successfully defined the trajectory of innovation in libraries: technology companies. “If people want to look ahead to understand what sorts of skills we should be recruiting for, you can follow the software industry.” (Zanders, 2023)

“The library,” says Tony, “is a nonprofit software company. That’s the mental model. So if you look at a software company, and all the different roles it has, there is a near-perfect analog to the modern library.” The majority of the traffic to a library, after all, is digital and librarians are “managing a very robust digital operation,” with a website, APIs, platform linking, and customer support for all of these technologies. 

Libraries either have software developers inhouse or they outsource that task to a vendor. “Software companies have product managers, libraries have project managers who manage roadmaps. Software companies have sales and marketing people, libraries have liaison librarians who have to sell the libraries’ products to the faculty and build relationships–these are people-facing librarians that have to understand the needs of their customer…and craft solutions for their customers…” Software companies have their own HR, and libraries are increasingly taking control with their own HR in amanner responsive to the particular needs of libraries.

Given that many institutions are cutting library budgets and freezing library hiring–partly because they view the current library as less critical than other cost centers–libraries are going to have to commit to a program of reskilling, such as that offered by Skilltype, to meet the needs of the institutions in which they are located. There can be no more living in the past.

References

Burnage, Chris. “Technology from Sage Invests in Skilltype to Build Librarian Skills for the Future — Sage.” Sage, March 21, 2023. https://www.group.sagepub.com/press-releases/technology-from-sage-invests-in-skilltype-to-build-librarian-skills-for-the-future.

“Skilltype Raises $1.75M to Future-Proof Libraries Globally,” n.d. https://www.skilltype.com/blog/fundaising1-75m.

“Introducing Skilltype,”January 7, 2021.  https://www.skilltype.com/blog/introducing-skilltype

Zanders, Tony, “A Conversation with Tony Zanders, Founder and CEO, Skilltype,” ATGthePodcast 155, Apr 19, 2022.

Zanders, Personal Communication, 2023.

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