Reflections on the 2011 DLF Forum: Who is the New Professional?

For a first-semester graduate student in library science like me, the 2011 DLF Forum opened a doorway into some of the most current conversations taking place in the wide world of digital libraries, from data management to the Digital Public Library of America to Linked Open Data for Libraries, Archives, and Museums.

Another conversation that took place at this year’s Forum (one to which my ears were unsurprisingly attuned) centered upon the emergence of a new kind of professional, someone who is able to build bridges across conversations and communities.

In his keynote speech, David Weinberger pointed out that one way of mitigating information overload, traditionally, is to allow individuals to develop expertise within circumscribed domains. These are our experts in, say, medicine or policy or ethics. However, the notion of expertise rests on an eroding assumption that knowledge is settled. Rather, Weinberger argued that knowledge is—and ought to be—profoundly unsettled. By extension, information professionals are not gatekeepers to knowledge but “guides to difference” among diverse assertions of knowledge.

It was not only during the keynote that this idea received mention. While speaking on the panel “Digital Curation, Data Management, Digital Preservation, Sustainability: Are We Clear Yet?” Helen Tibbo spoke to the evolving roles of information managers, pointing to projects such as ESOPI-21, which in the realm of government is “exploring creating a new person who has the skills to talk to creator, content user, and IT staff.”

Of course, many of the most memorable conversations for me took place over drinks or within post-conference email threads. At the first evening’s reception Nadia Seiler, Rare Materials Cataloger at the Folger Shakespeare Library and a first-time attendee, described herself as a “librarian with archivist tendencies” more than an “archivist with librarian tendencies.” From either point of view, however, her daily work constantly bridges those two domains at the intersection of archival and bibliographic description. Already being in position where she feels she is “constantly having to ‘translate’ for others” ideally situates Nadia to “find time to break into more innovative, technology-driven work” at the Folger by attending events such as the DLF Forum.

In many cases, the theme of the new professional overlapped with more explicit themes of the forum, such as digital humanities and data curation. Perry Collins, Program Officer for the Office of Digital Humanities at NEH and a fellow graduate student in library science, remarked that at the Forum she was “happy to see a number of presentations that highlighted potential ways that collaboration and outreach might lead to a better understanding on all sides of how digital projects can be developed with an eye toward long-term sustainability, including the dissemination and reuse of data across disciplines.”

As a Program Officer for ODH, Perry interacts with a broad range of grant applicants hoping to fund projects intended for diverse audiences. During graduate school, Perry joined a community of colleagues at NEH who have supported collaboration in the digital humanities since the 1980s. With others in this community, particularly since data management plans have become an explicit requirement for many grant applications, she is participating in conversations about the “resources or partnerships needed to maintain or curate data over time.”

When I asked Tali Beesley, a 2011 Forum Fellow and another fellow graduate student in library science, to reflect on the idea of the new professional, she observed that increasingly “technologists are being asked to be Renaissance men and women—capable of having deep subject expertise while still knowing copyright law, project management skills, etc.” Tali echoed David Weinberger in pointing out that being an expert in a single domain is often no longer enough in certain hiring environments.

The idea that seemed to be percolating at this year’s Forum is that rather than acquiring multiple kinds of deep expertise, more crucially, information professionals must acquire proficiency in communicating among domains whose boundaries and assertions of knowledge are constantly shifting. Tali went on to say, “Everyone I spoke to—from catalogers at the LC to digital forensics folks at Stanford—stressed the importance of being able to communicate across the boundaries of departments.”

So what did I take away? As Nadia, Perry, and Tali made clear, the value of communication across domains has already been embedded in some communities for some time. What’s perhaps changing is that this value is becoming more explicit in these communities and more apparent to others. In the midst of what may be a paradigm shift in how we view the distinctness of domains of knowledge and the information systems needed to support them, it’s up to new professionals entering the market to sell themselves and their agility in learning the languages of different domains to prospective employers.

As for actually acquiring that agility in learning languages? Well, there’s nothing like immersion!