The following is an excerpt from Tomorrow’s Jobs Today, Wisdom & Career Advice from Thought Leaders in AI, Big Data, Blockchain, the Internet of Things, Privacy, and More, available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and wherever fine books are sold.
Library science is an interdisciplinary field incorporating the humanities, law, and applied science that studies topics related to libraries, the collection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information resources, and the political economy of information.
What’s it like to work in this field?
Although most careers related to the library science field may fall under the job description of a librarian, the extended value that libraries today provide modern communities has to be supported by the hard work of many other professionals who maintain and support them in the Information Age. For this chapter, we spoke to a former librarian who has since pivoted to a political career and helps libraries thrive in modern times.
Patrick Sweeney is the Political Director for EveryLibrary, the United States’ first and only political action committee for libraries. He is co-author of Winning Elections and Influencing Politicians for Library Funding and Before the Ballot: Building Support for Library Funding. In 2019 he was named one of the “40 under 40” by the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC). Patrick received his master’s in library and information science from San Jose State University, where he now teaches courses on politics and libraries. His advocacy work helps libraries secure funding, expand influence within communities, and stay relevant in the digital age.
NOT SIMPLY ABOUT BOOKS
With information at everybody’s fingertips, the typical librarian’s challenges have evolved, and that’s why supporting them is so vital to the health of our citizenry.
“When you think that libraries are about information and not simply about books, you begin to see where the value is,” Patrick tells us. “What that means is that people are visiting libraries, seeking much more complex information, and looking for guidance in navigating all of it. These are the same tasks that libraries performed when information was only found in books.”
Librarians are helping people find the right websites to answer their questions, and there are also community support services offered now that were never there before
Librarians work closely with the public through informative and collaborative programming. For example, you can now go to the library for practical resources to learn about starting your small business. That resource isn’t just facilitated by checking out a book. You can attend one of their training programs or visit one of their business centers. Citizens can also find a lot of information on navigating the process legally. So, the fundamental role of the library hasn’t changed within society, but how we access information within the library has.
A QUESTION OF CONNECTIVITY
They say information is at everyone’s fingertips because of computers and the internet.
However, Patrick points out that it’s only really at your fingertips if you can afford the cost of internet access at home or the cost of having a smartphone or a computer. There are also issues around connectivity related to the major Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, which have monopolies in various cities. Patrick says those monopolies can lead to major connectivity issues in some geographical regions where the library is legitimately the only access to broadband internet for the entire community.
In Alaska, where connectivity issues are exceptionally challenging because of the terrain, libraries are often adversely affected. It’s not cost-effective for companies like Comcast or AT&T to run fiber networks out to these tiny towns, so the library is often the only place that provides that essential service.
BIG DATA AND PRIVACY IN THE LIBRARY
It isn’t easy running a library these days, competing for people’s attention with free social media and other guilty pleasures. And libraries and educational institutions are somewhat disadvantaged because, unlike private organizations, they can’t leverage the full range of technologies like big data analytics to stay relevant in local, state, and federal political spheres.
Patrick thinks if libraries could find a way to use big data analytics meaningfully, they’d better understand who supports their institution and why. That insight could help them communicate more effectively with various demographics. Libraries already have a lot of data about their customers, but it has never been effectively utilized.
Additionally, there are a handful of issues that limit the collection of data. “The biggest one I can think of is the privacy discussion around using people’s data,” Patrick says. “Libraries are radically supportive of privacy rights. You know, if you check out a book at a library, there’s almost no way for anybody to find out what you checked out.” And using any data related to a library patron gets tricky because, as Patrick goes on to explain, “A librarian may have enough data about an individual to have a meaningful conversation with them about libraries, but depending on how they came across that data, they could violate any number of nuanced privacy rules and standards.”
He gave us one example of how the privacy domain intersects with libraries. It involved a training platform called Lynda.com, which sold its platform to libraries. You’d have to get a LinkedIn account and use your library card to use the service. LinkedIn tracked which Lynda courses library patrons accessed, which concerned librarians upset that tracking was occurring.
Conversely, not having tracking data also means that LinkedIn can’t target people with marketing that could benefit libraries. It also means that librarians don’t have any data to target their users better, to talk to them about the things they want to learn or what they want to do in their library.
Consider the following scenario, asks Patrick. “I [your neighborhood library] don’t know that you like science fiction books because I don’t keep that kind of data and am likely prohibited from doing so. I want to tell you about new science fiction books that just came in, but I can’t.” Libraries lose out on that marketing advantage, which bookstores and websites almost freely enjoy. But on the other hand, privacy is such a core belief of librarianship that it becomes difficult to rationalize, even where the possibility of collecting and using limited personal data exists.
Data privacy laws like the GDPR in the EU have also made it cumbersome to connect with audiences, not just in libraries but in nonprofit spaces or for political advocacy. Patrick’s organization launched a national advocacy project in the UK with the Charter Institute of Librarian Professionals, the professional association for librarians. They had to comply with a complex set of rules to be successful in their campaign. Yet there was a silver lining, Patrick notes. “At first, I was concerned about the GDPR being implemented, but we see in the nonprofit space that these businesses and political organizations are now managing their data much more efficiently. They’re becoming effective at rallying support for their causes simply because the GDPR mandates the kind of data maintenance they should have been doing all along.”
For example, many organizations buy email lists. Patrick’s organization tested purchased lists but quickly found that the return on those investments is often so insignificant that it’s not even worth it. He explained that you get a much higher ROI when you spend your time and money cultivating opt-ins instead of purchasing random lists. “You have to do more strategy,” he says. “You can’t just click a button and have half a million people to send an email to. You have to think about how to engage these people. How do I get them to opt-in? How do I get them to want to find out about this library campaign?” By thinking through those problems, EveryLibrary became better at raising money!
With the advent of the internet and the rise of surveillance states, libraries are again faced with privacy challenges. Libraries have historically been committed to privacy to ensure none of their circulation records are accessible. If you check out a book, there is an electronic record while you have it, but once you return it, all that tracking activity is removed from the record in all ways, shapes, and forms.
Today, the issue is more complicated.
What does the librarian today do now if somebody gets on a library computer and looks up something malicious or pornographic? How do they even begin to protect against something like that? Where’s the line in the sand? And what about browser history?
Patrick says there’s a lot of discussion around adding filters to the computers and whether libraries should be involved because those filters also might block out some legitimate searches. Should they trust their fellow citizens enough to allow them to access the internet as they would at home, without tracking anything like they do when they check out a book? These questions highlight how digital ethics and privacy converge and why these professionals are also needed in this field.
MAKING A REAL IMPACT
Before Patrick transitioned into political consulting, he was an administrative librarian. His experiences as a public servant influenced his future endeavors. “I started as an elementary school librarian, hands down the best job in the world,” he says. “That’s what guided my work afterward and elsewhere. Because I had that direct connection with students, I saw the impact of reading on their lives from day to day. I saw them interact with challenging books far beyond their reading comprehension level.”
Patrick allowed second and third-graders to check out Harry Potter books even though they were above their reading level and told us that if a second-grader can get through the first book of Harry Potter, they’re just going to read everything after that. It gave them confidence as a reader. “Harry Potter was such a phenomenon that everybody was reading it, and you were only cool if you were reading it,” he says. Watching those personal transformations inspired Patrick to work in a capacity where he could help provide access to libraries and thus drastically improve the quality of children’s lives as they got older.
One of the programs where he worked early on was at a library in East Palo Alto that facilitated an after-school program called Quest. It was for kids struggling with literacy. For those unfamiliar with East Palo Alto, it’s the tough neighborhood that the film Dangerous Minds is about. When Patrick took his first job there, they were putting an application on his office window, and he asked them if it was to block the sun. They told him it was bulletproof, and he quickly realized what kind of environment he’d walked into.
To read the rest of this chapter or learn more about this topic and exciting careers in information technology, pick up a copy of Tomorrow’s Jobs Today!