Staffing the Digital Library in the 21st Century

Colin Steele
University Librarian
Australian National University.

Mechthild Guha
Manager, Asia Pacific Cluster
Australian National University.



As the Millennium approaches changes in the ways in which individuals and institutions access information will be profound. Electronic access will increasingly provide a large proportion of current information instead of print and will allow access through a variety of platforms on a twenty-four hour basis.

One should note here, however, that there will be large amounts of material, for example, in Asian languages which will only be available in print and print repositories will continue for a significant period of the future. Knowledge management in an Asian context will be need to be assessed in the context of the "Western" electronic revolution, of which America is the dominant force.

In the information society of the future the ability to manage knowledge in different ways will be essential. The traditional skills of librarianship will either be transformed and/or supplemented. Employees will be involved in a life-long learning process; be flexible to work in a variety of different projects and areas; be able to process and apply information to the satisfaction of their client communities, be able to market information and have a high level of expertise as appropriate in information technologies. A shift in paradigm of working styles, meshing traditional librarianship and IT approaches to information provision, will occur.

In this context challenges for managers will be to retrain existing staff and to face the emotional and industrial issues of restructuring and re-engineering of libraries. With the increasing delivery of information directly to the desktop.


Since the early 1990s the need for change in skills requirements for librarians has become evident as a number of factors have impinged on the operation of libraries, not least budget cuts and the rise of the Internet. The Internet and direct access to information by individuals has brought into question the nature and role of libraries and information professionals as we reach the end of the twentieth century. The physical place of the library will become supplemented (some would argue superceded) by direct access from a desktop.

Management, communication and I.T. skills are now just as essential for all levels of the library and information seekers as the "traditional" core units which were taught in most library and information school up to the late 1980's. An interesting approach to this problem of roles in the provision of information is reflected by Matson and Bonski's (1997) overview of the role of libraries in the digital era. Historically it is clear the two professions of IT specialists and librarians, have a very different working style. While the traditional librarian allegedly seeks stability/perfect standards with scant regard for time, the IT specialist's approach emphasises speed and efficiency, and "brute force rather than elegance to achieve results." We need to marry efficiency and flexibility with risk taking and vision.

Their dialogue concludes that the two professions need to work together until a new profession, a fusion of the two, has been arrived at. A symptom of the lack of clarity as to what a librarian will turn into is the variety of alternative terms used to describe the 'new' librarian who will service the information society via the new gateways to knowledge. Others would argue that the library profession will have more to do with the software knowledge designer then the hard line technocrats of network infrastructure.

Traditional and New Skills Base

Where are we now in the role to find this "new librarian"? Out of thirty job library advertisements (all but four published via the Internet) for positions in the university sector from the U.K., USA and Australia between July 1997 and January 1998 only four expressed a clear need for IT skills and associated skills. The selection criteria both in terms of knowledge and abilities remained "traditional". Although everybody seems to agree that a change is required this random selection of job advertisements did not reflect this in reality.

Most of the selection criteria do mention the requirement of Internet searching skills but this is hardly a shift. In the 1980s the same words were used for searching skills for Medline, Dialog, etc. The emphasis, though valid, was and is on searching and not the need to adopt both to internal structural change and external societal change. In other words, it seems librarians continue with their 'custodial' role. But where is information literacy and information gatekeeping which will assist the client's need in an electronic era? It is the service we provide which is important not our status as a profession nor our qualifications (often historical).

Associated with the need to change are institutional structures which in the past were rigid. In times of budget restrictions most organisations only have limited opportunity to recruit new staff. Libraries are downsizing not recruiting. The lack of recruitment openings has led in many libraries to a 'greying' population of mostly female librarians. Recruiting "new blood" younger staff with different skills and attitudes will be essential if libraries are to survive not simply as physical entities but as facilitators of the changes in scholarly communication as the end user becomes the judge and jury of access to information.

The necessary alternative to recruitment is intensive internal staff training which can be expensive both in terms of cash and time. What does this training consist of at present? The list of training needs is equal to the characteristics listed later in this paper. On the whole it is assumed that basic IT skills are acquirable and many libraries have successfully transformed the knowledge base of their staff. However, the type of IT skills acquired made most staff operational but very few can be more innovative.

Colin Steele has argued in 'Managing Change in Digital Structures' (Raitt, 1997) that human resource organisation needs have to be seen in the context of decentralised team operations which have a direct user focus. Overlaying this team structure must be general policy guidelines which are sufficiently flexible to meet evolving needs. Libraries are extremely poor in evaluating service output except in a generic sense and staff both individually and collectively will need to provide evaluative frameworks in the electronic environment.

The crucial issue as we move from library focus to direct electronic user focus in the next decade is the definition of the role of the librarian and information professional. Are we leaders, supporters, participants, supplicants or mere spectators in the inexorable process of globalisation, uncertainty and information potential? Are librarians to be archival museum keepers, Internet subject content facilitators, webmasters, metadata creators, virtual university content providers, electronic publishers or entrepreneurs?

Such elements are a far cry from the requirement of say only two decades ago. Yet many of the middle to senior staff in our libraries were brought up in the more constrained environments of the role of the librarian. Can gradual change be introduced or should libraries go for the big bang? Such moves have included the integration of Library, IT and multimedia staff while others have come about because outside management reviews, a particularly Australian phenomenon in recent years.

The staff of the digital library will have to be flexible, project based, aware and that the scholarly communication environment is intrinsically unstable, if dynamic and demanding. Organisation structures need to be reviewed to overturn innate print conservatism and to question historical assumption. (Tennant 1998) Contracts for staff may become more of a norm than "tenure". As funds decline in libraries these staff who can find and deliver the information, preferably with a value added component, will be rewarded.

Staff need to be well informed but the electronic era can provide a deluge of information (eg by institutional, national and global e-mail lists). Staff must provide their own filters and not become involved in "turf wars" which don't involve them. Staff can be useful catalysts by questioning activities and providing diverse views but may simply complain without offering rational or constructive alternatives. Weariness and overload exacerbate this process.

Some of the skills learning can be virtual, i.e. training courses available on the Net. Many of the library and information activities could be outsourced in the twenty first century as the diversity of skills is found wanting in one institution and labour costs are reduced by the use of global utilities. As important as a new skills base is the important need for existing staff to change working habits and attitudes rather than simply complain that the world isn't what it was when they entered the profession.

Information Professional Characteristics

A pre-conference seminar of the 1997 European Business Information Conference the characteristics of the information professional of the 21st century are spelled out very clearly and no practising librarian would disagree with the KSAs (Knowledge Skills Ability) listed (EBIC, 1997). These are, in summary form:





Information: collection, structuring, retrieval, filtering,

analysing design.

[pure] IT

Business focus



written, presentation


Team approach


Skills transfer:

training, coaching

General management

Value ethos


Value added

Information management

People [customer] focus

Skills transfer


Human relations


Risk taking


Strategic planning


Identification with the business [or institutional aims]


Operations planning

Understanding the potential of IT

Listening skills



Understanding the issues and ability to judge relevance, quality and reliability





Recognition of opportunity



(New skills are in bold. People from the non-business sector may wish to question the business terms used in this list).

There is already a shortage of supply, a lack of people with the right combination of skills. The new roles for information and knowledge workers require people with ambition and drive, with business understanding and insight, with in-depth knowledge of IT applications and developments, as well as the more traditional skills of information management.

Asian values

Most of what is being included in this short paper relates to "Western" library practice but the issues of staffing in an Asian library environment will be even more complex. Labour costs may be lower in many countries but the cost of infrastructure provision in an increasingly global electronic environment could be proportionately higher, particularly after the Asian currency crisis of 1998 and beyond. Material priced in US dollars or provided from overseas will clearly be affected by the currency fluctuations eg. the provision of Integrated Library Management Systems.

The need to develop and continually enhance the electronic access to vernacular language material is another dimension. Such regional diversity and cultures will have to mesh with the generic needs as identified by Karen Smith (1997), who has written that the "employees of the twenty first century must be skilled at working in teams, have learned to learn, be able to effectively solve problems and to process and apply information and have a level of expertise with a variety of technologies". What of the traditional hierarchies in Asian libraries?

The availability of Internet and Intranet access to information breaks down structures. The use of e-mail to and by staff within libraries has led, as mentioned earlier to greater communication but greater tensions. Staff expectations have become greater but often with commensurate declines in collective common sense!


In the electronic environment libraries need to recognise that increasingly they are not the only game in town. Twenty four hour online bookshops can provide reference services as well as information to the global information user. Superbookstores have in some ways replaced public libraries for the more affluent of our citizens. Academics can order books on line and can access information via subject gateways.

Meyer (1997) has argued that libraries must broaden their understanding of what it is they do and must align their personnel policy to take the technologically adapt. His vision is that librarians who were "once cataloguers, book buyers and reference searchers, will become network managers, database integrators, fuzzy logic applicators and artificial intelligence experts, and graphical interface designers".

This may be a brave new world and it will not come about overnight but libraries and librarians in a digital world will have to rethink their roles as traditional boundaries, both intellectually and geographically, become blurred if they are to survive in the twenty first century. To prepare for the future we need to be future prepared.


EBIC: For details see URL <>

Matson, L. Dallape and Bonski, D. J., 'Do digital libraries need librarians? An experiential dialog.' Online, Nov. 1997 (URL

Meyer, R.W. 'Surviving the Change'. The Economic Paradigm of Higher Education in Transformation.' Journal of Academic Librarianship July 1997, p300.

Smith, Karen L. (1997). 'Preparing Facility for Instructional Technology: From Education to Development to Creative Independence'. CAUSE/Effect. Fall 1997, pp36-44, 48

Steele, Colin (1997). 'Managing Change in Digital Structures' in Raitt, D. Libraries for the New Millennium (London, Library Association), pp148-168.

Tennant, R (1998). 'The Banal Barriers'. Library Journal. January 1998, p33.

See also Tennant, R (1998). 'Strategies for Building 21st Century Libraries and Librarians'. Proceedings of VALA Conference 1998, Melbourne, pp503-507.

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