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Volume 26, No. 1

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October  / November 1999



European Column

Competencies for Information Professionals

by Sheila Webber

T he theme of this European column is competencies for information professionals. I will be highlighting three recent discussions of competencies, two from Europe and one from the United States. These are

  • Skills for Knowledge Management, a briefing paper produced by consultants TFPL, on behalf of the UK's Library and Information Commission;
  • The Council of Europe's (CoE) draft New Professional Profiles and Competencies for Information Professionals and Knowledge Workers Operating in Cultural Industries and Institutions;  and
  • The Special Libraries Association's (SLA) Competencies for Special Librarians of the 21st Century. (It was their recent report of their survey of library and information programs that redirected my attention to the competencies list.)

These reports are all available on the Internet, and the URLs are given in the Resources box accompanying this article.

Emergence of different statements in this area would seem to me to reflect the changing environment in which information professionals operate, the growing recognition by "outsiders" that information skills are needed by the general population and an increased drive to map and measure anything and everything.

The Documents' Contexts

The specific impetus for each document is different. The CoE competencies document is part of their New Book Economy - Building Up the Information Society (NBE BIS) program. NBE BIS is described as project, concept and vision. The concept is that there is convergence of the audio-visual, telecommunication and publishing sectors. All those Europeans in the information chain, whether private or public sector, should be involved in creating new models for the information economy.

The vision includes the premise that "[i]t is culture that has to impact on new technologies, and not the opposite." Cultural industries are basically all industries concerned with publishing or broadcasting, in whatever medium. Cultural institutions are any bodies with missions reaching beyond the purely commercial, having some sort of access or distribution function. The Council of Europe is different from the European Union. It is larger (with 41 members) and has responsibilities focused on culture, democracy, social inclusion and human rights.

The TFPL study comes out of the UK Library and Information Commission's (LIC) role concerning competencies: "Equipping individuals and organizations to play their full role in a learning and information society" (as listed in LIC's "2020 Vision" statement). The LIC is a public-funded body that develops policy in the library and information field and funds research. The paper is the result of a study of people engaged in Knowledge Management in organizations in Europe and North America.

The SLA list seems to be aimed at helping educators, positioning the profession and guiding the development and aspirations of its members.

Information Professionals' Competencies

One can pose several introductory questions about these competency listings, notably: What do information and competency mean in these statements? All three documents are concerned with information content, not just information technology, although in the CoE document there is special stress on skills concerned with information and communication technologies (ICT). However, the CoE statement still gives rather more attention to content than has some of the material emanating from parts of the European Commission, presumably because once one starts mixing in the idea of cultural identity, content has to be considered.

Competency is defined in the CoE document as "the set of knowledge and skills that enable an employee to orient easily in a working field and to solve problems that are linked with their professional role." This definition fits pretty well with that provided by the SLA, although it is interesting that the SLA stresses behaviors as well as skills and knowledge.

When starting this article, I had some ambition to try and provide comparisons among the three documents. However, doing that properly would require more space than is appropriate for this column, and those who are interested are referred to the documents themselves. Essentially, there is considerable overlap among the three. The CoE recommendations are obviously broadest in scope and also most explicit in enumerating the competencies and roles (a necessity in a document that may be translated into numerous languages). As well as talking about technical, communication and analytical skills, the need for vision and creativity is emphasized. The TFPL document is interesting in setting out skills needed by all company employees and skills needed by different types of Knowledge Management practitioners.

It is encouraging to see the Council of Europe taking information, and information professionals, seriously. It is also heartening that there was a good response by information and library associations to the draft recommendations (see the Results of the Consultation Process document, listed in the Resources box), with positive suggestions for improvement and reminders that these areas had already been addressed by the associations themselves. It seems a pity that a number of competencies were listed as "highly relevant for knowledge workers and to a lesser extent to information professionals" (my italics: a knowledge worker is defined earlier as "a producer of high value based on information labour"). These competencies covering management, organizational, creative, informatics and legal skills and personal attitude are ones that forward-looking information professionals would see as core competencies, not marginal ones.

As an educator, I was encouraged by the statement that "qualification and training in the field of new media is the critical strategy for making Europe's cultural industries and institutions competitive in a global market," although like some other respondents, I'd like to argue for "education" and not just "training."

Implementation Issues

However, the SLA's survey of library and information programs highlights practical issues. The SLA competencies are more tightly focused than either the CoE or the TFPL ones. Even so, the SLA survey relied on respondents:

  • understanding what the competencies meant;
  • recognizing that they had relevance to what was taught and relating them accurately to curricula; and
  • being honest in their self assessments.

If the Council of Europe were to try to carry out a survey on whether their competency guidelines were having any impact on training programs, they would have the same problems that the SLA had with the "international" portion of their survey. These would include linguistic problems, problems of identifying up-to-date lists of target departments for all countries and problems of cultural identification. They would be compounded by the fact that a much broader range of professions is covered and that there would be a variety of different bodies carrying out the training.

The paper on Knowledge Management highlights an even more wide-ranging issue: that of improving the information literacy skills of people generally. I find the challenge of raising people's awareness to the value of information literacy skills both exciting and, at times, frustrating. The Knowledge Management paper makes some sensible recommendations to develop skills and demonstrate the value of involving information professionals in corporate programs. Implementing the recommendations, though, may not be so straightforward.


Council of Europe. Draft Recommendation No. R(98)... on cultural work within the information society: New professional profiles and competencies for information professionals and knowledge workers operating in cultural industries and institutions. Strasbourg, 1998.

Council of Europe. New professional profiles and competencies for information professionals and knowledge workers operating in cultural industries and institutions: Results of the consultation process. Strasbourg: CoE, 1999.

Special Libraries Association. Competencies for Special Librarians of the 21st Century: Library and Information Studies Programs Survey.  Washington: SLA, 1998.

TFPL. Skills for Knowledge Management: a Briefing Paper. July 1999.

Related reading

Institute of Information Scientists. Criteria for Information Science.

Library and Information Commission. 2020 Vision.

Seonghee Kim (Dongduk Women's University). The Roles of Knowledge Professionals for Knowledge Management. Paper presented at the 65th IFLA General Conference: August 20-August 28, 1999. The Hague: International Federation of Library Associations, 1999.

Sheila Webber is a lecturer in the Department of Information Science at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland. She edits the newsletter of the ASIS European Chapter and is a Fellow of the Institute of Information Scientists. She can be reached by e-mail at sheila@dis.strath.ac.uk or at www.dis.strath.ac.uk/people/sheila/.


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