The end of media and the continuance of skills

Although I have never had very much to do with newspaper libraries, and other media information services, I still felt a little sad at the news of the demise of the Association of UK Media Librarians. For over 20 years this was the professional body for information specialists in this sector. Now, alas, the double whammy of declining sales of traditional printed news sources together with ubiquitous access to electronic sources by journalists and other media folk have resulted in the closure of so many of the sector’s libraries and information centres that the group is no longer viable. We can complain all we like about the decline of detailed accurate information in the media, the decline of fact-checking, and the growth of ‘churnalism’, as a story is uncritically repackaged and reiterated. It seems that the job role newspaper librarian, in particular, is going the same way as the letterpress printing trades; entirely displaced by new technologies, and surviving only as ‘heritage’ interest. Will there, I wonder, be forms in the future for the reminiscences of those who recall how libraries in this sector used to be, similar to the forums like Metal Type for printers and typesetters. The only, and rather cynical, comfort I draw from AUKML’s end relates to the library/information courses we run at City University London. For many years we had an elective in ‘media information’, which was quite popular in its day. We ceased running this a while ago, and still get some criticism from applicants and students for doing so. We can now, at least, point to the crisis in this sector’s viability as a justification for out decision.

Annabel Colley

Not all is doom and gloom however. In a perceptive article in CILIP’s Library and Information Update, Annabel Colley points out that, while physical news and media libraries may have largely disappeared, the skills of the people involved are being used in different ways within the same organisations. Information specialists do not have to work in a department with ‘library’ or ‘information’ on the door; understanding of, and skills in, information management and organisation, and the good use of information technologies, have many outlets in news and media organisations. The same point has been made in an article in Searcher magazine for May 2010 by James Matrazzo and Toby Pearlstein, mainly from the USA. Their article, much more upbeat than the title suggests, gives many examples of the new ways in which library / information specialists are contributing. Colley then widens her argument, to point out that this situation can be seen in many other sectors, where physical libraries may be outmoded, but information skills are certainly not. She urges CILIP (the main UK library / information professional body) to put emphasis on knowledge and skills rather than job titles, and to see ‘non-traditional’ information roles as central, rather than peripheral. All of which is music to my ears, as this is exactly the perspective we take for our library / information courses at City University London. Trying to provide detailed practical training for specific professional roles, in a time of such change and uncertainty, is futile, and arguably positively harmful to our students. The best thing we can do is to provide the framework of understanding, knowledge and basic skills to enable our graduates to adapt to whatever environment they find themselves in. How nice when other people say it for us. Further reading A Colley, Taking a skills-based approach to the future, Library and Information Update, June 2010, page 23 J Matarazzo and T Pearlsetein, Survival lessons for libraries: Staying afloat in turbulent waters – news / media libraries hit hard, Searcher, 2010, 18(4), available from http://www.infotoday.com/searcher/may10/Matarazzo_Pearlstein.shtml

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