Continuing Education for Information Professionals

min read

Key Takeaways

  • What information professionals need from continuing education programs in order to prepare for the next stage of their careers is changing rapidly as organizations and their parent institutions find themselves in the midst of transformation.
  • Librarians and IT staff must quickly find minimally viable solutions and improve on them after users provide feedback, which is  a far cry from the traditional best-professional-judgement approach to problem solving.
  • By taking part in larger collaborative and networked initiatives, information professionals can do their jobs better, but they need new skills in how to operate effectively in the new environment.

We information professionals are lifelong learners, and until recently, we have had association and institutional opportunities to hone our craft by taking courses, enrolling in workshops to learn specific skills, or taking advantage of leadership training programs that enabled us to assume additional responsibilities. What we need from continuing education programs currently, though, is changing rapidly. The organizations that support the academic enterprise, just like their parent institutions, find themselves in the midst of transformation. What should information professionals who still have a number of years to contribute focus on as they prepare for the next stage of their careers?

The organizations that my peers and I have known will no longer provide the same kinds of opportunities afforded us earlier in our careers. When I began my career as a librarian, the organizational structure dictated that we come into the library at an entry level, work in a functional department, and learn the skills we needed to succeed from librarians who had been in place for quite a long time. With ambition and luck, we new librarians had opportunities to gain experience in several departments over a few years, learning each group's responsibilities and applying for well-established jobs as openings became available. IT professionals on campus followed a similar pattern when mainframe computers dominated. The explosive growth of the Internet disrupted the IT sector, in much the same way I believe libraries are only now being disrupted.

The functional skills my generation needed to improve — providing more expert forms of bibliographic control, conducting more effective reference interviews, incorporating information literacy skills into curricula — now resemble IT's need a generation ago to learn skills required for entirely new technologies.1 The laptop and the smartphone have freed all of us from a specific building and a specific desk. We can carry out tasks from anywhere that has a Wi-Fi connection, but as supporters of the academic enterprise, we must find ways to connect with the people we serve. To date we have done that primarily in face-to-face discussions. In the new environment, we need to learn more about how to develop effective virtual methods of providing information resources and technology assistance — local resources as well as web-based resources — to our user community, no matter where they are physically located.

In the new academic landscape, effective librarians and IT staff will work collaboratively on a regional, national, and even international basis. Libraries are choosing to rely on partners in building shared print collections rather than every institution keeping copies of every book in their stacks. They license access to electronic journals and e-books, relying on vendors to supply these materials to their users. IT staff support collaborative projects from every quarter of their campuses — faculty sharing online courses with partner institutions, research teams working in multiple locations, or administrative structures providing learning analytics across schools and departments. Information professionals need continuing education opportunities that allow them to contribute productively to collaborative activities and to participate effectively in collaborative governance structures.

Equally important are negotiation skills. IT professionals need to know how to negotiate hardware and software contracts; librarians need to know how to negotiate with vendors that supply information resources to their users. We no longer work in cottage industries where everything is hand-crafted and highly customized. We must find ways to purchase efficiently while also meeting the needs of our diverse users.

Both IT units and libraries have moved from a professional focus on doing what we know best to a customer focus in which we work hard to look at every issue through the lens of the user. What do our students and faculty want from us? is the question, not What do we have to offer them? This requires a willingness to put aside our internal priorities to address issues that we might not believe are crucially important. It also requires us to quickly find minimally viable solutions and improve on them after our users provide feedback. This is a far cry from our best-professional-judgement approach to problem solving, and this is where continuing education in agile design would prove especially helpful to all of us.

We are also moving away from local collections and services to shared regional and national services. How do information professionals:

  • Play effective roles in these new structures?
  • Determine how to best meet our users' needs?
  • Collaborate with other organizations to ensure that their needs are met?
  • Represent our needs effectively to the external organizations that provide services?

By now you get my point — we do not operate only within our local institutions. By taking part in larger collaborative and networked initiatives, we can do our jobs better, but we need to have new skills in how to operate effectively in the new environment. These skills are not prominent in information studies and computer science programs. These are real-world business skills, and perhaps we should be looking to the outreach programs in business schools to help find the tools we need. Librarians and IT professionals will continue to be lifelong learners, but we need new venues and partners to find the skills necessary to thrive in the changing world of higher education.


  1. For my recent writings on the education of librarians, see "Educating the Research Librarian: Are We Falling Short?" (May 7, 2015) and "Talent Management for Academic Libraries" (September 1, 2015), Ithaka S+R.

Deanna Marcum is managing director of Ithaka S+R.

© 2016 Deanna Marcum. This EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.