The Merits and Mandate of Professional Development — or, What happens When a Theology Librarian Reads The Economist

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Submitted by James Estes, PhD, Library Director & Associate Professor of Theological Bibliography, Wesley Theological Seminary

In January 2017, The Economist published a special report on lifelong learning (vol. 422, no. 9023). “Lifelong learning” is an idea most librarians are no strangers to; the Association for College and Research Libraries considers information literacy a core element of lifelong learning, and many religious educators argue that lifelong learning is integral to theological education. As educators and as theology librarians, we do not merely support students in pursuit of a degree or formal credential: we are engaged in the instruction and shaping of people whose formation we often metaphorically call a journey. Lifelong learning is a key dimension of this work. The Economist’s focus was qualified, of course, by the publication’s focus on trade and global industry. This was clear in the issue’s subheading, “How to survive in the age of automation,” and reinforced through its attention to the transformation of truckers into programmers and their growth as high-skilled workers.

The reading was informative. My thoughts turned to different aspects of lifelong learning in our industry, yet these thoughts were directed less toward the students we serve, and more toward my colleagues and our profession itself. At the heart of The Economist’s special report lies the very real awareness that without continuous career-oriented learning, jobs will outpace people, and industry suffers. I believe that this has numerous implications for ATLA members.

Professional Obligation, or Survival Strategy?

Is professional development an obligation we have as professionals? We have the graduate credential, but what use do we have for continued learning in our jobs? The Economist discusses the growing demand, even mandate, for companies to hire better learners, or as Google calls them, “learning animals” (Special Report, p. 8). Those individuals who continue to learn on the job are the reality of the workforce: “training someone early to do one thing all their lives is not the answer to lifelong learning” (Special Report, p. 4). Certainly, many of my colleagues in ATLA continue to grow and develop new skills and competencies throughout their careers, acquiring and then replacing knowledge I have not yet even considered. Further, as a specialized librarianship, our career carries the burden of knowledge of both librarianship and theology or religious studies. We continue to learn in one or both fields, sometimes one to the detriment of the other. This continuous learning should be the norm, not merely the lauded behavior of a virtuous few. The Economist addresses the reality that lifelong learning is not simply a matter of professional virtue: it is fundamental to our career success, and even survival, in a dynamic industry.

Our Institutions’ Obligations

However, this is more than just a matter of what we as librarians should do. It raises concern for how our institutions support us. Within trade and industry, The Economist notes that “training budgets are particularly vulnerable to cuts when the pressure is on” (Special Report, p. 6). One might think that institutions of higher education would be protective of professional development budgets, but we all know that this is not the case. Professional development budgets are often anemic to start, demonstrate glacial rates of increase, and are the first items to be trimmed in times of scarcity. Where does this leave us? Staff librarians may have limited voice with which to parlay for robust professional development opportunities in the face of institutional duress. Library directors theoretically have more leverage to advocate for professional development budgets, although whether there is an administrative ear to hear these voices is another matter entirely. At the very least, library directors who are responsible for establishing staff professional development budgets can strive to protect and grow these budgets. Those librarians and directors who do have a voice at their institutions may do well to offer the counsel that skilled trade has learned: “to remain competitive, and to give low- and high-skilled workers alike the best chance of success, economies need to offer training and career-focused education throughout people’s working lives” (Special Report, p. 6). If professional development is a survival strategy for librarians, it is just as necessary for the institutions we serve.

ATLA’s Role in Professional Development

With this, I turn to our Association itself. What is ATLA’s role in providing professional development opportunities for its members? I do not ask this merely to plug the Professional Development Committee (PDC), although I will not hide the fact that I have served on this committee since 2015, and I believe we have done good work. (I realize that there is more yet to do.) Annual meetings, regional conferences, webinars, special initiatives — these all provide opportunities for us to grow as library professionals. And yet (to return to my first observation), I am aware that too often professional development is done at the initiative of the librarian, and it is too easy for us to become complacent in our skills and knowledge. Is this in part because there is little formal structure which rewards professional development, beyond how various schools might articulate promotion opportunities? The Economist notes that individuals “are much more likely to invest in training if it confers a qualification that others will recognize” (Special Report, p. 12). Beyond the graduate library degree, what are the library professional qualifications that would be of value to us? ATLA does not require continuing education, although some parallel associations have more formal structures that mandate or recognize professional development. I am not recommending such a move here, but I am nonetheless forced to wonder whether a similar movement of requirement or reward would be of value for our profession’s health and vitality.

My questions and reflections about the needs for professional development within ATLA should not be considered prescriptive; while I would not want to dismiss them as idle musings either, I do offer them as conversation points for us to discuss the future of our profession. I am not new to librarianship, but I am among the newer generation of library directors within our association, and I will be the first to acknowledge that there is still much for me to learn about our industry. We, too, are lifelong learners, and we are subject to the same economic and social forces that shape industries everywhere. How will we respond to these challenges? While I talk of survival strategies and mandates, I also believe that we are a professional body whose shared commitment to our mission can respond productively to these challenges as we grow “from strength to strength” (Ps. 84.7).

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