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Sensemaking in An Era of Crisis and Change:  Global Trends in Library and Information Services

by | Jun 30, 2023 | 0 comments

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By Steven Witt, PhD.  (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:  Editor, IFLA Journal)

Against the Grain V35#3

Introduction

During February 2023 SLA members gathered at the 8th International Conference of Asian Special Libraries (ICoASL 2023) in Cibu City, Philippines to discuss the ways in which the library profession is striving to meet the post-pandemic technological demands and needs that are being called the 5th Industrial Revolution (IR5).  Like many in the field, the notion of the 4th Industrial Revolution is still something new to grapple with, so the transition into what’s being referred to as the 5th can bring on a keen sense of vertigo.  Indeed, it is this sense of accelerating change on the ecological, social, and technological levels that drives IR5 rhetoric towards harnessing big data and algorithmically driven technologies of the IR4 as human collaborators that can help address the collective problems humanity faces (Gauri and Van Eerden 2019).  The idea of the IR5 is thus one of sensemaking and attempting to project a positive future in the aftermath of a global pandemic and multiple crises that grip the world.  As a profession that has always been called upon to both reflect society and support the resolution of social problems, librarians are not immune from participating in making sense of the world and also helping to address the challenges people face at local, regional, and global levels — increasingly in simultaneous and synchronous manners.  In fact, the profession has been working to address these problems for many years. 

Looking at trends in the field through publications with a broad scope and global perspective, such as IFLA Journal, provides a vantage point from which to see how the library field is responding to these challenges.  The trends mainly fall under four broad categories — none of which are mutually exclusive as they all interact with one another and interrelate to form a pattern that should be familiar to the profession as a whole.  This pattern of course is one reflective of professional values expressed by Ranganathan nearly 100 years ago:  focus on the needs of the user, the constant evolution of the library as an organization, and challenges being addressed by our societies (Ranganathan 1931).  In contemporary terms, these laws are now associated with the profession’s attempts to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development goals: building practices that strive towards social justice and are inclusive of indigenous communities and knowledge systems, addressing the growing problems of disinformation, and preparing both new and seasoned professionals for future waves of technological change. 

Libraries and the UN Sustainable Development Goals

One of the broader and overarching activities of libraries globally is support for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the UNSDGs.  On an international level, IFLA worked within the UN system to advocate successfully for the inclusion of libraries and issues of information access such as literacy in the discussions of the UNSDGs that concluded in 2015 with the establishment of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  As detailed by Fiona Bradley in 2016, these labors insured that libraries globally would have a voice in advocating for access to information as these efforts were undertaken at local and regional levels (Bradley 2016).  Efforts to support the realization of UNSDG goals have since been a major emphasis of many academic, public, and special libraries.  

This year, a research team from OCLC produced a major study that surveyed over 1,700 library staff globally to measure the ways in which libraries contribute to the UNSDG goals.  The survey demonstrates a broad awareness amongst librarians of the sustainable development goals and describes that manner by which libraries can leverage expertise and resources in support of goals such as Quality Education (SDG 4), Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8), and Reduced Inequalities (SDG 10) (Connaway et al. 2023).  These trends are further reflected in other national and institutional level studies of libraries and sustainable development.  

The role of libraries in supporting SDGs that contribute to both education and quality of life within society is examined and promoted in the public library sector through the work of Marc Kosceijew, who provides a substantial framework through which libraries can partner with communities towards achieving the SDGs (Kosciejew 2020).  These strategies are further demonstrated in Hamad and Al-Fadel’s study of advocacy for sustainable development goals within academic libraries in Jordan.  Similar to the OCLC study, this work suggests ways in which the combination of access to information and training in areas such as information literacy work together to contribute to society on multiple levels (Hamad and Al-Fadel 2022).  

Beyond education and social change, libraries are also making contributions in the area of environmental sustainability.  Several recent articles make clear that libraries are increasingly engaged in both promoting knowledge of sustainability and adopting green practices to contribute directly to environmental efforts.  Beutelspacher and Meschede’s 2020 study documents the ways in which public libraries in Germany use collections and programming towards educating communities around themes such as urban planning, consumption, energy use, and climate.  Additionally, the library provides services such as loaning energy meters and thermal imaging cameras to help individuals address concerns about energy efficiency (Beutelspacher and Meschede 2020).  Similarly, libraries in Kenya are increasingly adopting “green practices” to improve sustainability efforts through both services such as those described above and taking advantage of eco-friendly building practices as a “strategy for supporting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals” (Mwanzu et al., 2023: 13).  These activities, and other research that investigates predictors for sharing knowledge on the sustainability goals, demonstrate the extent to which libraries can use their skills and resources to support communities as they address this important issue (Igbinovia and Osuchukwu 2018). 

The role of libraries to support the educational, social, and environmental aspects of the SDGs is also reflective of related global trends in the field.  These are clearly manifested in promoting social justice, countering disinformation, and the constant struggle to maintain skills and services amidst advances in technology.

Social Justice and Inclusion

In 2021 and 2022, IFLA Journal published several issues that reflect ways in which libraries are focused on inclusive practices aimed at promoting social justice goals through the library’s role as a cultural and memory institution.  The special issue to mark the 25-year anniversary of the IFLA Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom exemplified the role of libraries in promoting intellectual freedom as a human right and central obligation of the library profession (Byrne 2022).  The 2021 special issue on Indigenous Librarianship further explored the growing consciousness of the profession’s responsibilities toward inclusiveness and reparative practice by focusing attention on the ways in which “libraries and librarianship [are] conceived different when seen through the lens of indigenous librarianship (Stratton & Callison, 2021: 291).  This special issue reveals the extent to which matters of reconciliation and justice are being addressed through libraries via programs such as James Cook University library’s participation in campus wide reconciliation activities (Mamtora, Ovaska, and Mathiesen 2021).  Other examples of the ways libraries leverage their role as memory institutions includes work toward transitional justice in the library at the University of the Philippines (Buenrostro and Cabbab 2019).  Overall, these cases point to the evolving role of libraries as vehicles for societies to promote restorative justice and social change — this area seems to have grown in priority during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Post-pandemic Disinformation

The pandemic also exposed the need for libraries to redouble efforts to address the critical problem of misinformation.  This is a key aspect of the type of literacy and access efforts promoted through the UN SDG process.  The need to critically assess information and distinguish truth from falsehood has grown with the widespread use of social media to disseminate unmediated information.  Research on the prevalence and extent of misinformation during the pandemic shows both the global scale and distribution of misinformation but also the critical importance of delivering accurate information during peak times of information need and social attention on a problem as demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic (Al-Zaman 2022; Khosrowjerdi, Fylking, and Zeraatkar 2023). 

The nature of disinformation and ways to combat it are thus another trend that libraries are addressing globally.  As Mercer et al. describe, “librarians are in the centre of this maelstrom of information and are obligated to help people learn to be critical of information” (Mercer et al., 2022: 399).  The spread of misinformation and tools for combating it are increasingly important topics of discussion in the LIS literature.  Taking a view from a Global South perspective, Das and Tripathi document efforts in India to combat fake news and misinformation at both national and state levels, demonstrating the role of local library associations in supporting these important efforts.  Other national studies show both the impacts of misinformation on society and ways in which it is being combated by libraries and governments (Basurto, Martínez-Camacho, and Calderón-Swain 2022;  Beebeejaun 2022;  Begum, Roknuzzaman, and Shobhanee 2022).  In a preponderance of these studies on library reactions to both disinformation and the COVID-19 pandemic, the role and speed with which new technologies and media platforms are being adopted by societies intersects with the central aims of libraries to provide access and impart critical skills towards the ethical use of information (Dobreva and Anghelescu 2022).

Adjusting to Technological Change

Undergirding much of the research and discussion in the field on topics like the SDGs and misinformation is the use of technology both within society and throughout LIS.  A perennial trend we see is the imperative to continually retrain library professionals to adapt to new information technologies and how to best prioritize this training in university programs teaching the next generation of librarians.  Throughout the field, there are anxieties about how to stay current on new technologies and also the ethical implications of new tools, such as artificial intelligence, as they are widely adopted across societies (Smith 2022). 

Continuing professional development as it pertains to rapidly advancing technologies is a constant struggle found across the LIS community.  Recent studies document the barriers to training that include not only access to technologies but also infrastructure and organizational capacity at local and regional levels (Jayasuriya and Majid 2022).  The fact that jobs in LIS are growing increasingly complex and changing rapidly during an individual’s career adds further layers of complexity to the imperative to stay current with the technologies being used in libraries but also within society (Oladokun and Mooko 2023).  As these noted studies in Botswana and Cambodia suggest, there are globalized problems regarding the impacts of constant technological changes, but the solutions are localized and context sensitive just as we see with both the SDGs and misinformation.

Regarding training new librarians, there are clear trends and points of local divergence in relation to how best to develop both shared professional values and the capacity to respond to the technological imperatives brought about by what is described as the 4th and 5th industrial revolutions.  For example, comparisons between professional training programs in the United States and Croatia demonstrate the differences in emphasis between technical skills and “soft” and managerial skills required of librarians (Davis et al. 2023).  Finding the correct balance between skills that might be considered traditional to the profession with the need to meet new technological trends is also apparent.  Kassim et al. assess the match between recent LIS graduate skills and contemporary demands of positions (Kassim, Katunzi-Mollel, and Mwantimwa 2022).  

Conclusion

The balance between training in data and digital technologies and collection building, cataloging, and asserting the values associated with information access and use is an important issue in light of the significant needs to bolster technological training.  Chaka’s broad review of skills and competencies associated with the IR4 bring to focus the need to approach technological training needs in a wholistic manner to ensure that all of the skills required for adapting to disruptive technologies are integrated into our training programs and ensure the field’s ability to contribute to key social needs ranging from those exemplified by the SDGs and problems such as disinformation.  Chaka’s work reminds us that skills for the 4th and 5th industrial revolutions include both soft skills associated with “communication (skills), innovation, creativity, problem solving, collaboration, critical thinking, and decision making” (Chaka, 2020: 391) in addition to skills we might associate more with technological change such as programming.  The literature expressed in IFLA Journal makes it clear that, on a global level, the conversations about 21st century skills for librarians are as much about our ability to address and solve each society’s problems as the need to reskill to adopt to globalized technologies.

Bibliography

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Basurto, Lourdes Feria, Humberto Martínez-Camacho, and Alejandra Calderón-Swain.  2022.  “Technological Scenarios for the New Normality in Latin American Academic Libraries.”  IFLA Journal 48, no. 4 (December): 538–47.  https://doi.org/10.1177/03400352211035412.

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