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The librarian as knowledge manager

by Margaret Adolphus

Karolien Selhorst is a prime example of the new breed of what we are now urged to call "knowledge and information management professionals". First, there is her job title – digital library/knowledge manager, at the public library of Vlissingen in Holland – and then there is the fact of her portfolio career.

She is also an independent consultant, advising and training in the areas of knowledge management, change management and Web 2.0 tools. Finally she is also a freelance journalist, working as editor for her own magazine, Digitale Bibliothek (the first edition of which will be published in March 2009), and she blogs – see The Flemish Librarian.

In the Internet age, the librarian's role has morphed from custodian of knowledge to cyberguide, and her job at Vlissingen Library involves encouraging library workers to share their knowledge with one another and work with Web 2.0 tools. She has set up a knowledge sharing wiki which is revolutionizing the way that librarians see themselves.

Photo: Karolien Selhorst.

Karolien Selhorst

Do librarians have a role as knowledge managers?

Karolien believes that, just as librarians have always been experts in making information accessible to people, so they should do the same with knowledge. But what is the distinction between information and knowledge?

Karolien sees knowledge as "what is hidden in the heads of people", whereas "information is that knowledge once it becomes documented". Although not all knowledge can be documented – skills, behaviour and attitudes, for example.

Whatever knowledge is, the key is its subjective nature, and the fact that it resides with people. The important questions for knowledge management are, what drives people to share their knowledge, and how can this process be stimulated? So it's important that librarians have the people skills to encourage this sharing process.

Karolien recently did a knowledge scan in Vlissingen Library, and one of the questions was, "What drives you to share your knowledge?". She says,

"I found out that it was the respect that people received, and knowing this helps one understand what motivates people and set up the right atmosphere of mutual understanding and trust."

The interesting thing about this particular knowledge scan was the vast range of knowledge that came out of the experience of library staff. People had knowledge about cooking, animals – almost any topic.

"But, of course, as a public library, we get all sorts of customer questions. So, the knowledge our staff members have is important. Because, for example, we have lots of customers who come and ask us for information on horses. One of our librarians is an expert on horses, so any horse related questions get directed to her, which is really valuable."

A revolution in mindset

Karolien is arguing for no less than a revolution in the mindset of the reference desk. Traditionally, those answering queries will point seekers in the direction of books.

"We want to change that behaviour and make use of the information that's inside the heads of our library staff members."

Using a wiki as a knowledge sharing tool

Having realized the extent of knowledge in the "heads of our library staff members", the next step was to select a vehicle for sharing it. The staff intranet was little used for this purpose, being insufficiently interactive, out of date, and lacking clear navigation or search facilities.

It was therefore decided to replace the intranet with a wiki. Wikis encourage participation because they are seen as easy to use – anyone can upload information (there is no webmaster acting as a perceived barrier) – and also to update. They are good at encouraging collaborative work and "communities of practice".

One of the things that the knowledge audit revealed was that library workers had a strong preference for sharing knowledge informally. The wiki is ideal for that.

But how to encourage that informality and freedom of participation while at the same time maintaining a sense of discipline and the good organization that marks out a successful reference work? Is there a conflict between informality and structure, especially given that librarians are used to working in a structured way?

Karolien definitely agrees with the importance of structure and organization, and took a very planned approach to the management of the wiki. She adopted the Klobas life cycle of planning, designing, testing, launching, maintaining and evaluating, with the user at the centre.

As with all software projects, the initial planning stages are very important, and involve establishing the purpose of the wiki, determining the budget, identifying resources, and choosing the wiki software. The wiki comparison site,, is useful here.

The next stage for Vlissingen was to establish the design and the initial structure, which was based on that of the intranet updated to current needs:

  • mission statement and general information about the wiki,
  • library news,
  • library procedures,
  • staff knowledge profiles,
  • logistical information,
  • spaces for teams,
  • wiki documentation (including sandbox, tutorials and links to special pages).

Karolien believes that having this initial structure creates a basic navigation and helps people see where their contribution belongs. Some of the structure is locked so that people cannot change it:

"If we allow people to do that, then we will end up with a situation like we had before, which only adds to the confusion."

Some initial content, taken from the intranet, was provided so there would be no reluctance to add content to an empty site. Then permissions were granted –- member (user), member, owner, contributor, editor, reader and reviewer – and user documentation and "wikiquette" added.

The testing phase involved the usual proofreading, link and function checking, but also much emphasis on usability. A group of future users was selected to run a pilot, who, it was hoped, would turn into "early adopters", encouraging others through their enthusiasm. The unstructured nature of the wiki challenges the more structured ways in which librarians are accustomed to working.

The launch was planned to coincide with a training programme on Web 2.0 tools, after which people would have some familiarity with wikis. Special training was also given on the wiki.

To ensure ongoing coherence, a "wiki gardener" was appointed to work half-time on this project; her role is to ensure that the navigation remains logical. To avoid ambiguity, and a situation where "people are afraid of putting things on the wiki because they fear the wiki gardener", a description of her role is placed on the wiki.

One of the lessons learnt by Vlissingen was the importance of not underestimating the technical difficulties involved. Free open source software often requires more advanced technical skills, and plans to host the wiki on their own server had to be abandoned once it was realized that they did not have these in house. They eventually decided to go with an external hosting firm, which used the open source content management system, Plone.

A return to the oral tradition

The idea behind the wiki was to provide library workers with a convenient and informal way of sharing knowledge. But the ultimate beneficiary of knowledge sharing has to be the customer. And the ultimate purpose of the wiki is to facilitate dealing with reference enquiries. Another piece of software, "Question Manager", has been developed for this purpose.

Question Manager is based on the principle of replacing the practice of answering queries from customers on an individual basis – which, as Karolien points out, leaves the questioner wholly dependent on the skill of one librarian – with one based on teamwork:

"We want people to collaborate on an answer of the customer, drawing on the people who have the expertise or knowledge on that subject."

At the moment, the tool is an internal one, designed to make the customer enquiry process visible by enabling librarians to see the answers being given. Once there are a sufficient number of questions – a critical mass – then the database will be accessible to the general public. As a second phase to the project, members of the general public will also be allowed to contribute their own answers.

Karolien is delighted that the Dutch Association of Public Libraries is interested in implementing the tool nationally, which will enable a whole pool of knowledge experts in Holland to collaborate on an answer in a particular library.

This has the capability potentially to revolutionize the role of libraries. Suppose, for example, someone who has a cat wants to get a dog, but is worried about how the cat will react. They can go to this knowledge resource point, and have access not just to various books and websites, but also to the experience of thousands of knowledge workers, as well as members of the general public.

Karolien comments,

"We don't want to base our reference service on books alone, because not everyone has the necessary skills to get their information out of a book; I see many people who have difficulty in reading a book. So that is why we want to refer to various resources, including oral information."

This seems like a return to the oral tradition, a time when few people could read or write, so stories were passed down by word of mouth. Education now is much more widespread, but the complexity of information is such that it's sometimes simpler for people to understand verbal information.

Going where the users are

The town of Vlissingen lies on a promontory in Zeeland, a small province in South West Holland, quite close to the Belgian border and on the North Sea. The library employs 45 people, and provides services to nearby villages, schools and the local hospital.

The library has always had a strong team spirit, and been very customer oriented. According to Karolien:

"We do not only want to provide what customers want, but we want to exceed their expectations, which involves offering quality service in the virtual as well as the physical environment, as that is where our users are. We need to give them the right information at the right point, wherever they are."

The digital library is very important to the library's mission, and contains audio reviews, and a facility for asking questions. Because the website is integrated with that of the council, those questions can also be on practical issues, such as housing.

The website's customer focus will be extended in 2009, with plans to include widgets that pick up on preferences so that each individual gets presented with things that are of interest to them.

Photo: Customer service at the library.

Customer service at the library

But being with people wherever they are also means having a physical presence at other non-library venues. The ambition is to have a library in every Vlissingen primary school – two have already been opened. And the hospital library provides information targeted at the medical staff, which in turn will enable them to cascade the information to patients.

The library itself offers access to other information providers, who can help with such tasks as filling in a tax form or finding out about benefits.

Thus the library at Vlissingen sees itself as a learning and information point, rather than just a place for books and media. Karolien agrees that it's important to promote reading, but it's equally important to look beyond reading and examine other ways of obtaining information.

Photo: The reference desk.

The reference desk

Is Vlissingen part of a wider trend, especially in the Low Countries? The Low Countries Library Link conference recently proposed that libraries should be "learning points", a bit like The Idea Store in East London.

Karolien agrees that there is a tendency to "become more information and customer centred", although a lot of traditional libraries tend to focus merely on the management of books. She is too modest to acknowledge her own library's role as a leader, saying instead, "we are doing our best to excel in that function".

A portfolio career

"Doing our best to excel" could equally be applied to Karolien herself, whose portfolio career keeps her busy at weekends as well as weekdays. However, she claims that her three roles of consultant, librarian and journalist feed one another.

"The work I do in the library is very practical and gives me inspiration when I advise other libraries on, for example, change management, or how to use web tools. So everything I do in practice, I then transform into theory and can then share my knowledge. So it all inter-relates. And it's all in the same domain, of course: information, knowledge management, the library, digital libraries."

She has also built up a huge network – her LinkedIn profile lists over 100 connections. Her network, and her journalism, ensure that her ideas are spread far beyond Vlissingen, and she is a frequent speaker at conferences.

She acknowledges that all the changes librarians face – in communication, in the tools they use, and in society itself – may be difficult for some, and has developed a manual or handbook for libraries implementing change, which divides the process into various steps, to make it more manageable. It also includes tips on such topics as:

  • "How do you inspire people?"
  • "How do you stimulate people to take part in the change process?"
  • "How do you deal with people who are against change?"

One recent and unwelcome change for public libraries comes in the form of spending cuts. Vlissingen Library is not immune from this trend, but it is able to make a strong case to the local community councillors, on the basis of its role as information, rather than just book or media, provider. There is political acknowledgement of the role of libraries in helping people navigate their way through the information maze.

Read a full description of how Vlissingen Library set up its wiki in Karolien's article, "Putting Library 2.0 into practice: the process of setting up a wiki as a tool for knowledge sharing in a public library' article", paper delivered at Online Information 2008, London, December 2008.