I asked a number of librarians, and those from related fields, what they saw as the main SWOT(s) facing libraries and librarians. Here are their replies below. I asked for one each, but librarians being the helping profession we are some provided more than one. I decided to use all that people supplied.
Consequently it is a rather long piece.
To make it a more manageable read I have therefore grouped the individual replies into separate fields - so all Strengths are together and so on for Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. If you have any comments please leave them in the comments section below. It would be good to get a library wide discussion on what faces our profession and our thoughts on how equipped we are to cope with what faces us as we move forward in a time of great and fast moving change.
Our strength is our curiosity and need to learn. Any new technology, trend or cultural shift, we are on it, finding out how it works, what it is, what the advantages are, and sharing what we've learned.
Librarians' openness to all new developments and opportunities.
"hideous creatures of unimaginable power" (dedicated, committed and knowledgeable)
Excellent service ethos
Respected and valued by our users
The statistics completely juxtapose the narrative around libraries; usage may be reducing but it is nevertheless HUGE. People need and use libraries *all the frigging time*.
Passion - committed staff who believe in what we do
Highly educated, motivated and impassioned professionals
Strong emerging leaders and advocates
Strong values of equality in information and access
Capable of harnessing new technology and trends
Skilled at managing complex information in any subject
Strong on community development
The resilience and adaptability that libraries and librarians have demonstrated over the last 10 years is a real strength and something that we should reflect on, appreciate and continue to draw on. Of course “doing more with less” runs the risk of losing steam, but it is nonetheless an asset. If managed wisely this will continue to be a strength, although it is not an excuse to stop fighting for more.
Strength of Library is resilience; capability and leadership that is increasingly evident on a global and national platform e.g. taking lead on excellent provision of space, Open Access and scholarly communications agenda.
Inherent interdisciplinary. Libraries sit at the crossroads of every discipline, library and information science is concerned with the skills and capabilities that cut across fields of study
Library space – potential and willingness to adapt space to accommodate user demand for multi-function space, even though this is happening very slowly it is moving in the right direction.
Unfortunately for the librarians and info pros, a strength is actually being at a lower billing rate than an attorney or other practitioner and the argument can be made that quality research can be billed to a client to recoup overhead costs. It's the ultimate making lemonade out of lemons, if you can't change the pay scale at least you can emphasise job security to an organisation.
Adaptable in a range of environments / subjects
Aware of Research and Research Processes
Brilliant Support and professional network
The main strength that I see with Public Libraries is their place within the community and their ability to adapt to that community. And I think that that versatility is mainly down to the staff at the public counters. Their knowledge from the floor, in their dealings with library users is invaluable. When things work well, the crucial information that they collate in terms of what works, what doesn't and what might work, in all kinds of different areas of the service, feeds up to those setting strategies and can really influence the direction that the library service takes.
One of the most promising strengths is the ever growing skill set of librarians, especially in the area of services for researchers in academic institutions - bibliometrics, etc.
Drive to understand the perspective of the user.
More librarians getting out there and being published and presenting. We can do more and have real research impact, aim for the ISI journals.
The health (profile and get it done attitude) of our libraries after the recession, we hunkered down and while we had reduced budgets we latched on to the free (Social Media and online promotion of collections) and the big issues (Publishing, Scholarly Comms) with aplomb.
Our buildings are huge opportunities to do more work with our communities – they are only busy really during semester time and that means 3- 4 months a year when they are quiet. They can offer us great potential.
Openness to change, a neutral and inclusive service, passionate professionals who care about their work, a profession that is not afraid to try new things and take risks
Social media acumen on the part of librarians is a key strength at the moment in the library profession. Social media commentary from a variety of sources is challenging the hierarchical staffing structures of the library profession. Twitter for example has given a strong voice to library personnel at all levels. Social media is also an invaluable CPD tool and has also been harnessed to defend the library profession in the wake of closures etc. (UK public library sector etc.)
The pre eminent strength of libraries is, more often than not the staff and this tends to be a consistent feature irrespective of type of library. I often think that people don’t realise how much work goes into ensuring that a group of library staff remains engaged, proactive and energised – and this effort is undertaken by all sides of this equation; staff, management and so on. But everyone says ‘staff’ (don’t they?) -so, I am going to riff on that slightly and say that a really interesting and useful strength is actually ‘openness’ –both philosophically (libraries as open, neutral, non-proscriptive spaces) but also by staff in terms of trying new things, accommodating change and facing a consistently changing future.
A highly educated workforce, with a ‘learn-all’ rather than a ‘know-all’ attitude, willing to keep up-skilling throughout their working lives.
Curiosity and imagination. I think without these anyone in the profession is probably in the wrong profession but anyone who has them will always be wondering what's coming next and have the imagination to tether those possibilities to existing conundrums.
Willingness to reinvent ourselves
We as librarians see every threat as an opportunity and every weakness as a chance to rebuild. That our ability to not lose face in the ever changing environment around us, be it in employment, budget cuts, or the ascent of digital culture. We as librarians have and always will find a solution or a new way to address the problem and continue to grow, adapt and change.
A strength that public libraries in particular have is their community and how that particular community can come together in solidarity and continue to show the value of their library is amazing.
Weaknesses are our modesty, we are so happy to provide the best service imaginable, but rarely expect credit or recognition.
Training which does not encourage adventurousness & risk-taking.
Ineffectual and inward looking professional body (In Ireland anyway)
No representation of many library professionals
Tendency to work in silos
A snobbish and exclusionary tendency among
Poor at advocating
Poor at marketing
Cliched perception (by everyone) of what we actually do
Cliched perception (by decision makers) that we can be replaced by Google/Amazon
Not self-funded: (where does *your* library budget come from)
The way we communicate our value is often only marginally more effective than shouting into the void.
A perceived lag or tension between the rate of innovation and the capacity of the Library to deliver the type of integrated services staff, researchers, students want, where and when they want it.
Low on managers and leaders at senior organisational and political decision making levels
(mis)perception of the library profession
Lack of media / communication skills in profession
Perception of library / information services as extra, not necessary
Over reliance on process
Hierarchy (in public organisations)
Persistent positioning as an Academic Service rather than an Academic Unit in its own right. Losing out on the opportunity to approach other academics as colleagues, because of the structural disparity in the ways that libraries and librarians are treated in the academic landscape.
The lack of a shared mission and vision for librarianship in Ireland, and in particular for advocacy, is certainly a weakness facing libraries. By shared, I mean a mission in which a diverse range of those in the profession have participated in forming it and are therefore invested in it. Although great at collaboration, more cooperation between libraries would be a benefit, and solidarity across sectors could be improved on. This is greatly hindered by not having an open and transparent forum in which all in the profession can participate. Communication through official channels is cumbersome and slow, and this is a source of frustration for many.
These continue to include parallel thinking and a lack of cooperation between libraries of academic institutions. Issues such as collaborative storage come to mind here.
Book ordering-the length of time it takes from when a book is ordered to when it arrives on the shelves is far too long.
Decision making by senior management- Senior management either makes poor decisions or delays making decisions for so long that it has negative a negative impact on the services provided by the library and on staff morale.
The support that the library service receives from the community. Clearly people still value their library, and feel that it's important that it keeps running
The association with books. Libraries have never been about books, but information. However, if you say library=books when books become less important, by implication, so do libraries. We need to break that old assumption of what a library is.
Prioritisation: so much to be done libraries often find making choice or dropping things difficult but time and resources limited
The weakness that I see as being most worrying at present is the way in which public library service indicators are collected. This is hastening our demise, and not just in Ireland but also in the UK. So much of what we do is just not counted. And so much of what we do is very difficult to quantify. Return on Investment studies try to quantify the value of the services that Public Libraries make available to communities using cost-benefit analysis and these should be used widely because what is being used at present is not accurate.
Too isolated- not integrated with other professions or depts.
Lack of leadership- LAI Representative Body but focused on CPD and Networking made up of volunteers
Too focused on helping without getting credit- altruistic but also makes us invisible
Perceptions of redundancy. Users within an organisation may not realize all what the library does and that puts the library in a vulnerable position. It's the never ending saga of proving value and demonstrating the LIS skill set. Companies may make decisions to cut library and research functions if they can't see them and/or experience them. Practice those elevator pitches and get in people's faces (in a good way!) to let them know the expertise and services available. It needs to be a message on repeat, the more they hear it - the greater chance of it sinking in.
Change is glacial.
Library staffing structures remain excessively hierarchical and require review. As a profession we should rigorously explore organisations where HR satisfaction scores are high and we should emulate their flatter, team based approaches which are underpinned by a culture of experimentation, blue sky thinking and innovation. 2. We do not have a future libraries project nationally in one of our academic institutions. See Futurelib project at Cambridge University (https://futurelib.wordpress.com/). Such an initiative provides head space to contemplate and map out the future direction of libraries which is key re securing the future of the library profession itself.
Lack of visibility/voice outside our own profession,
The first instinct again is to say ‘funding’ or ‘money’, and these are huge. You can however sometimes find a creative solution and we have a tradition of surmounting financial limitations. So I am going to go philosophical again and say ‘closed minds’. In almost any library that you look at and admire for their creativity, and their innovation there is probably twice as much that didn’t happen due to a closed mind or a constrained vision. Understanding why this occurs is critical if we are to move on both individually and collectively
Inward focus: Librarians seem to keep talking among themselves, rather than reaching out to other professional bodies, to government and to society at large. For this reason, the contribution of libraries to social inclusion, education, health, cultural heritage and many other issues continues to go unnoticed outside the profession.
The flip-side to this curiosity and imagination is that we can become invested in too many things and spread ourselves too far too thinly. How much do we have to be Star Trek (to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before)?
Lack of funding
Librarians are fighting for libraries today more than ever. And I think one of the weakness may lie in us not showing off more. Be it a qualified or unqualified librarian we all need to show off our skills to the people, to show them we are more than what we are perceived as be it a paper back book or a desk clerk. It is a profession a huge global group of really highly skilled people. We need to teach others what we are capable of.
Opportunities in libraries are the growth in need for library professionals in so many different sectors.
Where everything is in constant flux, anything is possible and we can fill so many vacuums.
Chance to reinvigorate professional body
Chance to be advocates for digital privacy
Chance to champion digital literacy
More inter-sectoral collaboration
Chance to be more entrepreneurial and self-reliant
Librarians as educators
3D printers for all! Just kidding. Opportunities are context-specific, they’re community specific. I can’t think of one opportunity that would apply across all library contexts. It’s about understanding the lifestyle of your community, discovering what they need (which they can’t always tell you themselves) but which they don’t have, and plugging that gap. For some, that might even be the kind of experimental technology space typified by 3D printers; for others that would have no impact at all.
CONUL’s growing profile and ability to influence national policy.
Within a relatively small research and academic community in Ireland we are in an excellent position to devise and implement robust strategies for how our research outputs are made available. Real progress is being made across Europe in terms of how institutions approach Open Access, but we are also at a point where we can learn from some of their stumbling blocks too. The recent news that the Irish Universities have collectively become members of the Open Library of Humanities is heartening. We need to maintain a momentum towards pursuing truly Open channels of research dissemination, and work together with researchers to achieve an environment where this is not just a priority, but the norm.
Tremendous opportunities to improve the ability of scholars and the public alike to interact with each other and with information through new models of publishing; new mechanisms of collecting, storing, cataloguing, and disseminating information; and new modes of discovery and use.
Increasing acceptance of need for lifelong learning / need for information literacy all stages is changing
Growth of importance of data and data analytics
Growing interest in digital preservation / digital humanities
Changing role of library spaces (maker spaces, coderdojo, learning labs, exhibitions)
Growth in Open Access and Open Data
Growing demand for strong evidence base for healthcare guidelines and policy
For LIS pros who aren't tech savvy, learn more about technology. Think of ways to connect with your users on the technology they use, or introduce them to new tech. For LIS pros already tech savvy, learn more about security and the threats to a library's system. People have perceptions of libraries being a relic. Show them how libraries are current. Many libraries have already done this, so follow their lead and examples.
The exploiting of unique and existing library collections to showcase the potential for future donations. Also the potential for more cooperation not only with library users and stakeholders but also with local communities
The current highly visible concern around the ethical necessity of open practice and publishing, and the financial crisis in scholarly communication makes the fact that libraries are ideally positioned, both in their history and in their orientation towards access and dissemination, to play a vital role in the new present and future of scholarly communication. The most innovative rooms discussing what scholarship looks like and where it can live, and how people can find and use it, those rooms contain librarians (among other people)
Research Data Management –the library seems to be establishing itself as prime stakeholders in this area and it is adding a new dimension to the service we provide. It also positions the library well at college level.
The increasing amount of information available. We can help our community by assisting them in understanding it, finding it, validating it and using it. Our role should be to improve our community, and this gives us a great 'in' to do just that.
The big opportunity for public libraries now is to really sell their product. Many public library services have already started to do this very well but not all. In most cases we are doing really well in terms of the services that we run but selling requires a different expertise than most library workers are used to. A shift in thinking is required and also focused, expert training for library workers.
Because of strengths we can move into new areas such as Research Data Management
We are involved in research and publishing- need to do this on a more collaborative basis and with non library people
Engaging with our users (whomever and wherever they are) is easier than ever
The recruitment embargo means we have an ageing team in many of our academic libraries.
In addition, career progression opportunities in academic libraries are so limited that we have a real stagnation in terms of outlook, skill set and perhaps even in our ‘routines/habits’.
Having the same leadership in place before and after the recession might be viewed as a good thing, steady hands that guided us through but organisations need to look at how they are structured in order to be ready for the threats ahead in higher ed.
Our customers are changing; more international students, more mature students, more 4th level research students. Are we ready for them? How can we get ready? What’s our mobility strategy?
increasingly complex information and learning environment makes our expertise ever more relevant and attractive
We occupy a key gap between people and communities, information and new technologies, and consequently as well-placed to take ownership of new and emerging services and developments in this area when nobody else often is, exploit and build links with libraries across different sectors to learn from each other and to strengthen and unify the library network and voice in Ireland
Open access journals published by Libraries. Librarians have the skillset academically and technically to produce high quality peer reviewed academic journals. This activity also enhances engagement between academics and library staff. We should incorporate into postgraduate library programmes modules such as Librarian as Publisher to prepare graduates for what will be a growth area in terms of employment for librarians in the future.
Librarians should consider applying to research funds such as Horizon 2020. Traditionally we support academics who apply to these research funds. Horizon 2020 requires a bid to have three partners from three different countries. Librarians actively network across geographic zones. Our work encompasses areas that are of interest re the Horizon fund such as social exclusion, education, technology etc. Librarians are ideally poised to win research income to fund continued innovation etc.
Green Libraries: Libraries are ideally positioned to reduce carbon emissions regarding photocopying, printing and re inculcating in library users an environmentally proactive mind set. Libraries could in fact spearhead environmental initiatives institution wide
This varies depending on the type of library, but the one common opportunity for us is that it is increasingly possible to show tangible benefit from what libraries do. Linking our work to impact will never show the breadth of relevance and benefit to our mission, but it does speak to funders in a language they understand. And (for better or worse!) it is possible to focus on the areas which resonate most with different funding groups
Libraries could become central to the Open Science agenda by putting the necessary infrastructure in place to support open access and open research data, up to and including open access publishing.
I view libraries as being a slow-moving river (with mass but it takes time to change direction) but those in them I see as a giddy brook (jumping swiftly). I wish libraries could harness the energy of those in them to react faster to changes
Collaboration with other academic/student support champions
We have so many opportunities, the change in how people are using libraries today is slowly changing how librarians work. We are getting out from behind the desk, we are talking (loudly) to our patrons, we are evolving and so are our libraries.
Threats are very evident in sectors that are experiencing financial difficulty, mostly in the public sector, but some academic institutions also. Unfortunately libraries usually take the biggest hit, when economic cuts have to be made, and in particular it's the staff and services that suffer, rather than the infrastructure.
Public perception is still that we only stamp books and are obsolete as a result of Google. But as Neil Gaiman says, Google can find you 100,000 answers - a librarian gets you the correct one.
Valuable skills and innovation, particularly technical skills, are at risk of being lost to emigration or other sectors due to restrictions on hiring. As both public libraries and the entire higher education sector continue to experience squeezed budgets, staffing levels are reduced or stagnate, and innovation is at risk of being curtailed.
Declining literacy levels ("Read a book, nah, I'll watch 'The X-Factor' instead!")
The Dunning-Krueger effect affecting library usage levels ("it's all on the Internet now, innit")
The Tories are systematically destroying most good things, libraries included, and the ramifications of Brexit are going to make this much worse for everyone in not just in the UK but with a knock-on effect on Ireland too. When money is tight it always seems to be the vulnerable, or the mechanisms that support the vulnerable, that get hit first.
Bad attitudes. There are so many threats to chose from, but a bad LIS pro attitude will sink every strength and opportunity - and will just contribute to a weakness. Be proactive. Be positive. Engaging with users and other LIS people is a professional skill. You can work to improve your public speaking and other engagement skills. You can go at your own pace and make the adjustments you need to be successful at it, but being quiet is no longer a librarian virtue, but a detriment to our profession. Go out there and be positive and be loud.
Lack of strong professional body
Lack of positive representation in media and public perception
Competition from commercial information services
Lack of funding
Economic and political uncertainty
Isolationism (guilty of talking to ourselves)
Technological bandwagon jumping
Failure to obtain adequate library budget to meet user and institutional expectations due to inability or will to evolve services so leading to third parties entering library ‘space’.
The Library tendency to wait to be invited means that these important conversations have too many chances to bypass libraries and librarians. It's crucial that people working within and on behalf of libraries insert themselves in conversations, generate their own research and perspectives, and connect explicitly with the work of other scholars in other fields. Librarians talking amongst themselves will not change library practice, and not change for the better the practices of academia generally
Financial constraints- but I guess that’s the same for everyone.
The perception by students that everything is available on Google.
Outdated unchecked assumptions as to what libraries are and what librarians can do. It's up to us to change that, but I think a lot of librarians want to keep the status quo; not all, but a fair proportion.
Brexit – I see it as both an opportunity and a threat Martin as it will bring greater numbers of students to our shores but will we be able to meet all of their needs
Native ingenuity and ability to upskill and respond will be again our strength in moving in to the 2020s.
Leadership training is predominately offered to middle/senior library managers. Leadership should be a module in all postgraduate library programmes to ensure that graduates have the skills to strategically plan for but also defend the library professionally. We also need more emerging leadership programmes like the one offered by the American Library Association. http://www.ala.org/education careers/leadership/emerging leaders Until a culture of leadership pervades all levels of librarianship including library assistant, the profession is always vulnerable when closures and cuts loom. 2. Not promoting our worth and skillset to organisations outside of libraries is a threat re employment opportunities for librarians. Many organisations could benefit from employing a librarian and don’t realise it. Perhaps the Career Development Group of Ireland could engage with non-traditional library employers in this regard via a seminar or a social media campaign
Failure to continue to develop emerging skills eg data mgt - if we don't others will provide this support to our users
Threats to future funding, replacement of staff by automated services
The greatest threat facing Public Libraries in Ireland is undoubtedly the advent of Staffless / 'Open' / 'My Open' Libraries. This will change the very ethos of the public library and it will turn what is currently a democratic space into one which is completely undemocratic since it will exclude so many people. Yes, it is up and running in Denmark but contrary to what we have been told, it was introduced there as a result of public service reform - in 1996 there were 845 public library service points & 57 book mobiles in Denmark. By 2013, 17 years on, there were 450 libraries and of these 180 were staffless. More have since opened.
So the number of libraries in Denmark has almost halved. The staffless model was used there to keep libraries open.
This isn't about extending access for Irish people. This is about setting up a system that will allow the centralisation of library services to become formalized. Libraries in rural towns will suffer most. In urban areas people can choose to avoid the staffless regime due to greater staffed hours, and they have certainly been shown to do this in the pilot project as the embarrassing usage figures indicate. But in rural towns where libraries may only be staffed for a small number of hours per week, library users will be forced to use this system even if they don't want to. Librarians should be very wary of what they are being told about this because so much of what has been reported can be shown to be false.
These continue to include perennial funding issues, and the priorities of top brass which don't factor in the library. Silo thinking by library staff and departments is still prevalent within libraries as well.
Not enough confidence
We only talk to ourselves... need outside perspective
Other suppliers of information
Invisibility = Disposability
Libraries/librarians seen as becoming irrelevant in a rapidly changing HE landscape.
The fact that we increasingly live in a society where libraries are expected to justify not just their impact, but their very existence. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call this a real nadir in civilised history and in conjunction with the wilful dismissal of learning and expertise shown recently in some areas suggests that any group engaged in teaching, fostering open minded enquiry and (critically) actively encouraging an open society is going to struggle to continue to prosper.
By not communicating better what libraries contribute to society, and the skills and expertise that librarians have, we are in danger of seeming unnecessary or obsolete.
I think libraries are uncertain as to where to situate themselves and how to keep current. If we don’t know who our community is or what the needs of the community are, then how can we deliver to meet those needs? As time progresses any potential community is used to dismissing us because we lack relevancy.
Misperceptions of what a Library can offer (by students and staff internal and external to the Library)
Money! But at the same time that doesn't seem to be stopping libraries from rebuilding. Money is being found elsewhere, through funding, grant schemes etc. Librarians are seeing the threats at every corner, but they are also seeking the opportunities that lie elsewhere so our profession, and our buildings can survive and flourish. More importantly so our users do not lose the most important aspect society has.
And finally an answer to perhaps tie this all together:
Libraries have huge, largely untapped, potential to know more about their users and to be recognised experts on how they read, learn, collaborate and communicate.
Instead we largely focus on pushing services out to our users - resources, training, support - but we tend not to get enough feedback. Every intersection with our users must be a two way transaction. If we don't do this we will run out of fuel. This is impoverishing us and it's a dead end.
Libraries already are sitting on an abundance of data on their users which we to put to use: to share it, to interpret it, to connect it to other data sets. A lot of our quantitative data is rarely shared and our qualitative data, like the front desk staff’s years of experience about what our users love or hate about our services, is too often tacit knowledge never formally collected or shared.
Valuable intelligence can sit on a librarian’s PC and if disseminated at all, might just be a bullet point in an internal report.
We need to be systematic in collecting and interpreting information about how our users work. But we have a professional responsibility to do this ethically and transparently. This must be intrinsic to our work at all levels. Not a side project we dip into at off peak times.
Contributors to this piece in no particular order:
Jack Hyland, Jean Ricken, Niamh O'Donovan, Brid McGrath, David Hughes, Ned Potter, Phil Bradley, Matt Borg, Cathal McCauley,Tracy Z Maleeff, Josh Clark, Michelle Dalton, Colette McKenna Siobhan McGuinness, Donna Lanclos, Laura Rooney Ferris, Staff Our Library, Michelle Breen, Marie O'Neill, Jane Burns, Hugh Murphy, Ger Prendergast, Marta Bustillo, Elaine Harrington, Shona Thoma
Thank you all...