In his Career Profile, Stephen Abram discussed his career path, including his highly-visible work with information vendors, his publishing and presentation work, and his involvement with many national and international professional associations.
Here, Stephen talks about working with a vendor as a career path, and the opportunities he sees emerging for LIS professionals in the coming years.
KD: What would you advise someone considering working for a vendor as a possible career direction?
SA: Being on the vendor side of the information world isn’t too much different from the non-vendor side. I’d put these questions out there:
• If you’re uncomfortable with vendors and somehow see earning a profit as unethical, then it’s not for you. However, I’d argue that if you think that people employed in the private sector have different basic value systems than those in libraries, you’re wrong. People want to work in communities and work well with others. The best relationships in vendor/library land are based on the same things – mutual trust, respect and friendship. There are bad eggs on both sides but, generally, it’s a great place. Profit is just a different way of measuring your success in implementing good products and services.
• How open-minded are you? Library environments are famously liberal. You may need to be open to other points of view and occasionally listen to and appreciate very different points of view that challenge your own (internally and with clients). I am very left-wing politically and I find that my POV is respected and heard as long as I respect others’ views and listen. In the vendor environments I’ve worked in, we don’t have to agree or conform any more than anywhere else.
• How do you feel about reporting and numbers? The vendor side of the sector is very numbers driven. This is less about staying within budget but often covers forecasting skills, business cases, return on investment (ROI) justifications, and using numbers and visuals to support your plans. It’s a good skill to have in management for both libraries and vendors but it’s my experience that it is critical in private sector performance evaluations.
• You’ll also need great presentation skills. Written reports, e-mails and memos are not enough to influence agendas.
• How are you at managing short- and long-term goals? Again, this is a critical success factor in doing well in business. The time frames are in weeks and months (and occasionally quarters) in vendor land. Committees still exist but personal accountability for goals and performance is more tightly managed in vendors than I have seen in most libraries.
• Can you describe your strengths well? Marcus Buckingham’s books are a great place to start (Now Discover Your Strengths and Go Put Your Strengths to Work). Are your strengths aligned with what will work well for your target vendor employers? I have found dozens of successful librarians in positions for sales, training, customer support, webinars, management, writing, marketing, public relations, HR, systems development and executive roles. The possibilities are limitless and using your library professional skills is both welcome and desired.
• How do you feel about stability? The private sector is far more susceptible to the vagaries of the economy and mergers and acquisitions than most traditional public sector libraries and organizations. I don’t find that a deal killer, but it can be a stressor.
KD: What professional skills/attitudes do you feel will be most valuable for LIS professionals in the next 5-10 years?
SA: I think there are a number of skills that information professionals and LIS students need to be focusing on in order to add value in the coming years. These are:
1. Leadership skills: The next few decades offer an amazing opportunity for information professionals with library training to influence the path of society in a positive way. We need to develop a cadre of professionals who have – and use – their leadership skills to make a difference. We must move beyond supervision and management alone to grasp this ring.
2. Advocacy skills: Concomitantly, we have to find our voices. Advocacy can be taught and the confidence to achieve our role in society must be instilled and encouraged. We must project confidence with content.
3. Interpretation skills: One of the key challenges of the coming decades is the contextualization of technology and its place in human endeavor. The librarian’s and information professional’s perspective on the intersection of people, service and technology in everything from user behaviours to search-assisted decision-making is critical to enterprise success. We must improve the communication and influencing skills of our profession on every level.
4. Empathy skills: We used to identify this more narrowly as reference interviewing, but it is really about understanding the client and his or her context. Across all sectors of librarianship we see an increasing need for this most human of skills. It’s all about relationships and we can no longer afford to shy away from deeper relationships with our communities of users and management and providing intelligent advice to really delight our clients.
5. Imagination, creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial skills: This is about invention and change. The world is changing – irrevocably. And it’s neither fated to change for the better or the worse. It is up to us to create the changes and future we want to see. That requires us to learn the skills of innovation and change management. These can be learned and we can do this. The alternative is having a future happen to us that we neither want nor took a part in creating. And I am not a fatalist.
6. Lastly, we’ll need flexibility, a sense of humour, and the ability to deal with ambiguous signals and situations. I just don’t know if that can be taught. However, I do know it can be recruited by any employer and that’s often what they’re looking for in interviews beyond your C.V.
KD: Where do you think the expanding opportunities for LIS professionals will be in the next 5-10 years?
SA: It has already started. Doubtless there are those who look at shrinking opportunities in traditional libraries or engage in the self destructive debate about whether or not there will be a generational shift due to retirement, but there will be new position openings.
We are in a transformational time and to expect new ‘slots’ to open is to misunderstand the nature of transformation. Jobs are not transitioning from one generation to another. Society is changing and our sector is reinventing itself and new positions will be redesigned and re-conceptualized for the 21st century. LIS skills are good currency in this world – but only for those with the flexibility and insight to exploit the opportunities.
I think that there will be fewer traditional job but those will not go away entirely. There will be more jobs that use your LIS skills in non-traditional ways. Even in the traditional environments, the people who will succeed will be those who seek to lead and transform libraries to adapt. I often quote David Penniman, who said, “In order for libraries to remain what they are, they must change; if they don’t change they can’t remain what they are.”
So, in the next 5-10 years we will see growth in positions related to information literacy training, copyright compliance and management, licensing, technology development, content development, library programs (physical and virtual), management, e-collection development, e-learning development and support, social media, communications, knowledge management, intranet development, custom taxonomies and ontology development, and much more. As they say, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.
KD: What do you read/monitor/listen to stay current – or ahead of the curve?
SA: Lordy, I read a lot. I don’t do so much paper-based reading but I do subscribe to all of the major library magazines (Information Outlook, Library Journal, American Libraries, Public Libraries, LAMA, LITA, Computers in Libraries, Information Today, Multimedia and Internet@Schools, Searcher, eContent, etc.) and enjoy reading them on the subway and during quiet times. But the majority of my reading is electronic. I access this content using three laptops (two personal – Sony VAIO and an ACER Netbook and the corporate Lenovo) as well as an iPad and two smartphones (an iPhone and a Blackberry). I also have two e-readers, a Sony Reader and a Kobo. Yep, I am geeky.
So this is what I read, broadly:
• I have various apps on my iPad – news sources mostly since I travel a lot and this keeps me connected to home. Also have the Kindle, Kobo and Nook e-reader apps on it. I have the Kindle app on my iPhone too.
• I have over 800 RSS feeds from blogs and I guess RSS is my main reading source for professional news.
• I subscribe to quite a few electronic newsletters that mostly arrive via e-mail.
• I used to listen to more podcasts but I now only listen to a few in my iTunes account.
• I have a huge network that sends me stuff to read all the time (I have five different e-mail accounts to manage these feeds).
• I follow a few thousand people on Twitter and find things to read there, too. It’s a growing source.
• I get to read many commissioned research studies that are internal to Cengage Learning (Gale) as well as market research reports that we acquire.
• I also go to dozens of conferences and get to see the latest speakers, panels and keynotes. Sometimes I am lucky enough to get a speaker I want to hear placed on conference programs that I am attending. I am blessed that many of these speakers are personal friends. I am in awe of the depth of talent in our field and I learn from my colleagues everywhere – including the lobby bar and coffee shop.
I enjoy reading about our profession and I am a speedy reader and scanner. I also find that blogging what I find interesting is a useful way to increase retention of the information.
KD: What else do you feel is important to consider regarding LIS careers?
SA: I think that a key consideration for everyone should be balance and quality of life. There are a few things that I wouldn’t have considered when I started out, including:
• When I was recovering from cancer treatment (I’m fine now, cured and cancer-free for 14 years), my library network of friends and colleagues around the world were unbelievably supportive. It’s not every profession that looks after its own like our profession does. I deeply appreciate that and will remember it forever.
• Travel. Lots of it if you choose it. At least that has been my experience. I have managed through library work to visit every Canadian province, every US state but one (WV, Call me!), and many countries around the world including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, France, UK, Sweden, Denmark, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Norway, Germany, Italy, Argentina, Jamaica, and more. I love to travel and having the opportunity to travel for work has been a delight. I often get to add a few days for personal trips in addition to meeting librarians around the world. I have chosen to speak out for libraries and that has resulted in invitations to speak at conferences where my employers and/or the conferences have paid for some or all of the expenses.
• My wife and family have benefited from my career choice. Sometimes they can travel with me but I also have found that my time is more flexible in my career than it would have been in others. I have been able to plan to be around the kids’ significant events (dance competitions, gymnastics, music performance, plays, choirs, recitals, and team sports, etc.) that might not have been possible with a more strict routine and shift work. I think they’ve enjoyed meeting many of my colleagues and friends.
• I’m happy. I enjoy waking up and going to work every day. I respect myself and the work that we do. We make a difference in the world. At the end of the day, if you can say that, you’re ahead of the game.
If anyone has any questions I’ll try to continue this conversation through e-mail. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.