On librarians as knowledge managers

I had a fruitful discussion a short while ago about librarians and web 2.0, and research and knowledge management. In the same vein, a recent post from Dave Pollard with a link to his presentation on “librarians as knowledge managers” posits some interesting thoughts. Pollard presented at the recent Special Libraries Association conference in Denver, Colorade, USA. In the presentation slides, Pollard recognised the skill of the librarian to acquire, add value, store and disseminate information. He then asked whether librarians were any good at connecting, synthesising and applying their knowledge to the information they had researched.

I would say, “it depends”. In my experience, there are times when finding and disseminating information is enough. At other times, and in other contexts, there is a need to connect with a range of people in addition to acquring the information, and then some analysis and rearticulation before the information reaches the customer. Realistically, some librarians won’t have all the skills necessary to do all of these tasks but there are many who will. The challenge for information professionals is to develop the necessary skills and relationships to enhance their personal capabilities across a range of information service actvities if they want to move beyond the traditional librarian function of finding, organising, and delivering static information resources.

Pollard also raised the interesting dichotomy between what the executives of an organisation want and what the workers on the front line want and what the customers want.  Pollard recommended analysing the “cultural anthropology” of the three groups – in other words, understand the wants and needs of each group. A successful knowledge management approach seeks to establish a framework that can demonstrate value for all of these groups (and they need not be mutually exclusive).

In my early working life, the reference interview was seen as the critical dimension in dealing with a customer’s information wants and needs. It’s not so different today, although perhaps we have an increase in scale and organisational complexity to deal with now. As in most dealings with people, clear communication is the key to successful understanding.


6 responses to “On librarians as knowledge managers

  1. I’ve always had a problem with librarians as knowledge managers.

    Yes, they’re great when it comes to adding value, storing and disseminating information. But isn’t this the role of all knowledge workers and not specifically the knowledge managers?

    Knowledge managers encourage the social aspects that support knowledge sharing – whether this is by giving them (social computing) tools or helping to develop an organisational culture that values knowledge sharing. In our knowledge economy, I would consider this means they need skills in Pollard’s “cultural anthropology”, organisational psychology, social psychology, web 2.0, communications strategy, user-centred interaction and design, on top of the standard information management and km theory.

    I find most librarians don’t understand these issues enough to fulfil the role of Knowledge Manager satisfactorily.


  2. I realized that there is a big difference in the way librarians think, from other parts of a company. They tend to think in isolated mode, a sand bag a call it, where you bring all the documents and put it in the sandbag. The other way of thinking is web based, all things connected, so I think they have a little trouble digesting all the web technologies, and evolving their job from a static place, to a dynamic one. Yes, part of their role is being handed to all people in the company, it does not mean you do not need them, it is just that they have to evolve, and become more of a Information analyst, and part of the IT organization.

  3. I sense that both Matt and Leonardo would agree with me that the librarian/knowledge manager dichotomy can be explained simply in terms of the explicit/tacit knowledge dimensions, where the knowledge domain is the context in which each favour and excel. Is that right?

    Oh, BTW, I liked the sandbag metaphor very much!

  4. I think this is a bit generalised about librarians. Yes I agree there are quite a few who cannot get out the pure information provision mode – but there are also just as many who get the whole KM thing and know how to effectively put it into practice. Trust is the bandwidth of KM and I am yet to find someone who does not trust librarians. They are also ideally positioned within organisation to make the connections so critical to KM


  5. Nerida,

    I agree that librarians often become the hub in the wheel for directing information and people knowledge flow within organisations. I have pretty much played that role in all the corporate positions I have had. That connecting role has always been important to me in cutting across silos and making connections between other people in the same organisation who might not otherwise interact, legal issues permitting.

    Perhaps I have taken this hub and spoke role for granted.

  6. Librarianship goes way beyond KM, as KM goes way beyond librarianship. There is only one area where they intersect, and that it the custodianship of explicit knowledge. But a very small proportion of what a librarian handles is explicit knowledge. Much of it is information, some of it may be data, or records.

    Similarly only a small part of the KM system involves custodianship of explicit knowledge. Even in the explicit realm, there are the issues of capture, validation, refresh, presentation, access, combination and internalisation. Then there is the whole tacit dimension as well.

    The overlap is small.

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