Core Competency B: Institutions
“Describe and compare the organizational settings in which library and information professionals practice.”
Library & Information Science is interdisciplinary, and LIS professionals apply themselves to so many different organizational settings that the field can only be defined in the broadest terms: connecting users with information. This may seem like a weakness, since the field has little cohesion and professionals are more likely to associate with their individual disciplines (e.g. library, corporate DAM, academic) than the overarching LIS field. However, a background in LIS provides professionals with a common canon of theory and skills that can be used to converse across discipline boundaries. This ability to bridge industries and further the LIS knowledge base through interdisciplinary experience is what I believe to be the field’s most powerful strength.
Although organizational settings vary widely, all LIS professions share a common goal of connection users to information. Here we will explore this goal in the contexts of three professional setting options: public library, herbarium, and open data initiative.
Public libraries are the organizational setting most people think of when they hear “Library & Information Science.” Although they may be one of the most common settings, public libraries are also one of the most challenging for LIS professionals, because they have a mission to serve such an amorphous user. Public library users range from the mother bringing her child in for story hour, to the new immigrant looking for foreign language texts, to the homeless veteran trying to gain job skills. Endeavoring to serve each and every one of the library’s users is a huge charge, which is why many public librarians choose to study LIS at a graduate education level.
The management structures of public libraries are typically hierarchical. According to a report by the California State Library (2013), “Each of our diverse local libraries shares a common reliance on a limited number of state laws and constitutional provisions that outline their governance, funding, services, and service area. A library’s legal authority, combined with its historical and political circumstances, shapes who controls the library and makes decisions about its activities, which revenues will support library services and facilities and how library funds will be spent, as well as how, when and where each library will provide services.” For example, county libraries generally have much larger geographic service areas, with a focus on providing general, but essential services. Branch libraries within a city, on the other hand, serve a geographically concentrated population and can target their services accordingly.
Public library funding is, to some extent, similarly hierarchical. County library funding can come from the county’s general fund, voter-approved taxes, county property taxes, or library-specific funding initiatives. City libraries are funded by the city’s council, which allocates money from the city general fund (California State Library, 2013). Although these top-down funding sources can be ample, they require advocates in local government. City libraries typically also have alternative fundraising led by “Friends of the Library” groups, which can make successful local appeals. Whereas government-channelled funds are often general, local appeals have the ability to support specific programs or services that the community finds most beneficial.
An herbarium, or a collection of dried plant specimens, is used to catalog the botanical diversity of different regions, as well as provide a physical record of plant characteristics and DNA. Although herbaria do not collect manuscripts, they operate much like traditional archives or libraries. Contrary to public libraries, however, herbaria usually have just a few specific users: the academic researcher, the land use planner, and the student botanist. Academic researchers may be interested in comparing different specimens of the same species; land use planners may be interested in records of rare plant occurrences; and student botanists often use herbarium specimens to learn plant identification.
Management of an herbarium depends entirely on individual circumstances. Many herbaria are associated with universities, but even these vary widely in management structure–some employ staff for the herbarium, while others depend on professors or graduate students to volunteer time. This can make accountability and long-term management goals nearly impossible. Whereas public libraries strive to hire LIS professionals, herbaria are only recently recognizing the value of employees with this sort of background. Traditionally, herbaria employees have a strong botanical experience, but may be unaware of even basic collection management principles. Hiring professionals with backgrounds in LIS can be extremely beneficial to herbaria, as many of them are struggling to digitize their collections and improve online access and sharing. Lacking a clear management structure, however, many herbaria struggle to attract LIS professionals.
Funding is another problem of herbaria, because the services they provide are free, like those of a public library. While some smaller herbaria rely entirely on volunteer time and grant money, independent herbaria, such as those at museums, tend to be well funded because they are generally established with clear goals and within an organizational hierarchy. For example, the San Diego Natural History Museum has an excellent herbarium with the goal of documenting plant life–both historical and present–in Southern California and Northern Baja, Mexico. Their active collecting keeps the herbarium relevant by constantly adding to the knowledge of the region’s flora, which in turn justifies the funding provided by the museum. Herbaria associated with universities may also be well funded, as they can rely on institutional support in addition to outside fundraising, but funding usually seems directly related to the level of activity in the collections. Of course, this is a catch-22, as a lack of activity may be due to poor funding.
LIS professionals are not tied to maintaining physical collections, like those of libraries or herbaria. A training in Library & Information Sciences can provide a strong foundation in data management and manipulation, as well as web programming languages. For the more technologically-inclined LIS student, an open data initiative could be an attractive organizational setting to work in.
Open data initiatives are policies that promote sharing, aggregation, and reuse of data, often via web-based portals. These initiatives may be sponsored by local, state, and federal governments, nonprofits, international organizations, interest groups, businesses, etc., and they range in scale dramatically. In California, the state maintains an open data repository of all state files (www.data.ca.gov). The U.S. federal government has a couple online data repositories: DataONE (www.dataone.org) for environmental information shared by a variety of public and private sources, and Data.gov (www.data.gov) for federally-collected data. Private companies such as ESRI, the maker of geographic information system mapping software, also host open data initiatives.
LIS professionals play a vital role in designing systems for storage, sharing, and retrieval of open data in online environments. Again, the management and funding structures of these initiatives is determined on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes the LIS professional may be working in a typical company structure, under a department head and an executive head. Other times the LIS professional may be a contractor or consultant, hired for the initial design phase only. Public initiatives usually receive funding from government departments, e.g. DataONE is funded by the National Science Foundation, whereas private initiatives may be sponsored by a single company or industry consortium.
Much of my understanding of different organizational settings for LIS professionals has come from personal experience. Whenever I tell people that I am getting a masters degree in Library & Information Sciences, their response is “Ohh, you want to be a librarian!” In fact, I don’t. While I love libraries and appreciate the professional opportunities they provide, I chose to study LIS because of the wide range of non-library opportunities it affords me. For the past four years I have worked in herbaria, and although LIS is not a standard background for any herbarium collections manager, I have found it very useful. Aside from the skills and theories I have learned in my SLIS courses, several assignments have helped me think critically about the different organizational settings available to me professionally.
EVIDENCE 1. I visited and compared two libraries for a report in LIBR 200 - Information & Society. The assignment prompted me to visit these places and interview the staff in person. My write up, “Similarities Across Different Purposes,” summarizes and analyzes my visits to the University of Nevada, Reno Herbarium and the Truckee Public Branch Library. Through this experience, I realized that curators of small collections love visitors, and are usually more than happy to talk to prospective professionals like myself. Since visiting the UNR Herbarium, I’ve made a point of arranging visits to herbaria whenever I travel, including: the University of Washington’s Burke Herbarium, University of California Santa Cruz, U.C. Davis, the San Diego Natural History Museum Herbarium, the San Diego State University Herbarium, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at U.C. Berkeley, and Florida State University’s Godfrey Herbarium. These visits have allowed me to observe and compare different organizations, as well as make professional connections.
EVIDENCE 2. My second evidence is an assignment from LIBR 204 - Information Organizations & Management, for which we had to find a job posting, then write interview questions and tailor a resume. I searched SpartaJobs and found a posting for an archivist at the Fresno Pacific University’s Heibert Library. I was intrigued by this job because, although I had never considered being an archivist before, the responsibilities and qualifications reminded me of what I do as an herbarium curator, and I wanted to explore this connection further. Writing out interview questions was invaluable because it helped me think like an employer and recognize skills of my own that I need to either highlight or improve.
Library & Information Science professionals may find work in a diverse spectrum of disciplines, thanks to the interdisciplinary nature of a LIS degree. While I see myself headed in the direction of herbaria work, I am thankful that the flexibility of my LIS skillset prepares me for work in so many other organizational settings. As long as there are users who need information, and information that needs organizing, I will have a place to practice my profession.
California State Library. (Jun 2013). California Public Library Organization 2013 [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.library.ca.gov/lds/docs/CAPubLibOrg_2013.pdf