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The librarian as knowledge manager

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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."