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Shape up your Skills and Shake Up Your Library

Computers in Libraries [January / February 2014]

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Copyright (c) 2013 Information Today

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Abstract: Libraries benefit from having specialists within their organization tasked to manage all the various aspects of technology with the ability to shape it to their specialized requirements. A skilled individual or team tasked and enabled to design and implement the library's technological infrastructure can mean the difference between efficiency and frustration. To handle this role effectively, those responsible need to have an in-depth knowledge of technology a keen understanding of the strategic and operational needs of the library, and the insight to ensure that technology operates in ways that respect its key principles and values. While libraries resemble service-oriented businesses in some ways and seem to be increasingly managed according to business principles, their value and efficiency cannot be measured economically, but according to how well they create meaningful collections for their clients or stakeholders, distribute or provide access to information resources, and provide effective services.


More than ever, libraries depend on a varied assortment of technologies to carry out almost every aspect of their work. We make use of general purpose personal and productivity tools (such as word processors, email, calendaring, and spreadsheets) that would be found in almost any kind of business or nonprofit organization. Many libraries depend on enterprise-level business applications such as enterprise resource planning or accounting platforms to manage business and personnel functions or on platforms tailored to the educational domain, such as learning management systems or student information systems. On top of all those commodity or standard business applications, libraries make extensive use of specialized applications designed specifically to help them manage their collections, automate their operations, and convey their services to their users. This blend of generalized and specialized components forms a rather complicated technology infrastructure that increases in complexity especially in larger-scale organizations. Put together in the right way, technology can streamline the work of the library and strengthen its ability to carry out its mission. When implemented in a less optimal way, technology can seem frustrating and inefficient.

Libraries benefit from having specialists within their organization tasked to manage all the various aspects of technology with the ability to shape it to their specialized requirements. A skilled individual or team tasked and enabled to design and implement the library's technological infrastructure can mean the difference between efficiency and frustration. To handle this role effectively, those responsible need to have an in-depth knowledge of technology, a keen understanding of the strategic and operational needs of the library, and the insight to ensure that technology operates in ways that respect its key principles and values.

From Expert to Architect

In its traditional form, the systems librarian functions as an intermediary between technology and its implementation in the library. In earlier times, the title was the designation for the person responsible for the integrated library system, but today, it encompasses a much wider range of technologies. The role of the systems librarian continues today, often with expanded responsibilities and under different functional or organizational titles.

The title or classification of this role varies among libraries depending on the organizational structure and may be distributed among multiple individuals, especially in larger organizations. Typical titles that I've come across for this role in the library include not only systems librarian, but digital services librarian, director or coordinator of library information technology, CTO, CIO, and assistant university librarian for technology. The level of administrative authority and portfolio of responsibilities associated with the position varies, but the individuals charged with this task must take a broad view of technology and how it can benefit the library and shape that environment to most optimally meet strategic priorities and operational requirements. While the title "systems librarian" may not be used quite as much as in the earlier days of library automation, libraries must continue to see the need for an intermediary or architect able to optimally shape the library's technical infrastructure.

In the history of the profession, a systems librarian would typically have a professional degree, such as an M.L.S., with a background in technical services, given the emphasis of the ILS on this aspect of library operations. I see a much more diverse set of career paths in those that carry out this role today. The career development path for this kind of position might take the form of a professional librarian specializing in technology or it may be a technologist specializing in the library realm. Either way, it's a role that spans two vast and complex areas of specialization.

Learning to be a Lib Techie

Today, a professional librarian faces the need to gain an incredible amount of knowledge and perspective on technology to take on this challenging role. The realm of technology is quite vast, making it important to strike a balance between absorbing theoretical information and gaining practical experience. Understanding some of the principles of computing and networking provides a basic framework to help build an understanding for how all the various components fit within the broader infrastructure. It's important to know the basics of current architectures and the different layers of technology such as physical components, communications protocols, operating systems, software applications, the layering of database engines, messaging protocols, business logic, APIs, and presentation interfaces that comprise software applications.

Experience in the very practice of technology is what brings it all together. Learning styles naturally vary, but I personally have always been able to make sense of an area through handson work. The work that I did earlier in my career in building and maintaining physical networks and writing software without formal training in computing gave me the opportunity to learn many details up and down the technology stack that also helped in forming an understanding of the bigger picture of how computer systems work.

For the librarian who wants to specialize in technology, the first question asked is, "What are the specific skills required?" Does this person need to have skills in computer programming, in the administration of operating systems and databases, or software architecture? Each of these areas constitutes its own profession, so it's not realistic to expect full mastery of the entire field. But I do think that it is important to have at least some exposure to as many areas of technology as possible, and if at all possible, have one area of specialization with a more in-depth knowledge and experience in that area. A thorough understanding of an area of technology helps one make sense of the others, resulting in a deepening level of general expertise.

That deep expertise and a wellinformed perspective help the person vested in this role strengthen the position of the library, since he will interact with other individuals involved in some aspect of technology. These interactions might involve supervising programmers or systems administrators within the library's own technology team, as well as liaisons with technologists in the campus or municipal organization or with external contractors. It's essential that a person in this role has enough knowledge to assess and analyze any statement or proposal exchanged in the various scenarios that arise when dealing with other technologists. When a programmer, whether within the team or an external contractor, states that a given task cannot be done or must be done in an convoluted way, having the background to constructively question the assertion and explore alternatives can result in a more effective solution than having to accept the initial proposal at face value. When making hiring decisions, it's essential to be able to ask the kinds of questions that will validate the skills of an applicant.

Learning to Be Library Savvy

It's also becoming common for the person responsible for technology in a library to come into the job with a background in computing only and without the benefit of professional education in librarianship. His educational background may be in computer science or some other technical area, or she may come with experience managing technology in other aspects of the educational sector or in a commercial setting. Just as the librarian needs to gain some level of technical expertise, the technologists working in the library sphere must likewise master a new domain.

One cannot effectively manage technology for an organization without understanding its strategic purpose and its daily operational tasks. I would also add that it's especially important to understand and embrace the values that distinguish librarians from other professions and libraries from other organizations. While libraries resemble service-oriented businesses in some ways and seem to be increasingly managed according to business principles, their value and efficiency cannot be measured economically, but according to how well they create meaningful collections for their clients or stakeholders, distribute or provide access to information resources, and provide effective services. Given the leanness of budgets these days, efficiency in the delivery of these activities is important, but it's only one consideration among many. Technologists must understand fundamental library values such as democratic access to information and protecting the privacy of patrons.

The operating principles or values of an organization can be ingrained deeply in its technology infrastructure. The way that data regarding the use of content items are created, recorded, and preserved might be implemented differently for systems with purely commercial intent relative to those that exist to provide free access to information and that respect patron privacy. I've often been asked why libraries don't make use of commercial platforms such as Amazon's ecommerce system, responding that I see great difficulty in adapting it to operate with fundamentally different values and assumptions than those for which it was created. One challenge of the library technologists lies in creating infrastructure that embraces the values of the organization.

Another challenge technologists coming from outside the profession face when taking on a role in the library lies in the fact that they now need to work with librarians and work well. Regardless of whether the position held by the technologist is established as a peer, in a supervisory role, or in a reporting relationship, the technologist must be sensitive and aware of the nature of the profession and respect the education, experience, and perspective of these individuals in their chosen career. Time must be invested in getting to know the various areas of specialization among librarians, ranging from those who work with cataloging and other forms of metadata, those who work on the front lines providing reference or research services, and those who work with archival materials to those specializing in digital services. Each of these areas offers important skills and knowledge that make important contributions to all the various projects and activities in which the technologist will be involved in the library.

As one who followed the path of entering the library field without a professional degree in library science, I worked hard to win the respect of librarians in other ways, attempting to absorb as much of the knowledge taught in library school in the course of my own career, to gain familiarity with the literature and scholarship of the profession, and to understand and practice the values of the profession. I also strived to make my own contributions to the profession, through involvement in professional associations, writing, and participation in library conferences.

Hold on to Your Position

I think that it is crucial for libraries to have a person within their own ranks charged with the management of technology. With the trends toward increased reliance on SaaS and other externally hosted applications, there may be temptation to eliminate or redefine the role of the systems librarian or related position.

Some libraries, for example, might consider relying on their higher-level organization, such as a campus IT department, for their technology leadership. While that arrangement may be successful in some circumstances, I see it as important for most libraries to retain primary responsibility for technology within their own organizational structure. Individuals not fully versed in the milieu of the library in the ways I previously mentioned, may not have the perspective to function ideally as architects of its technology infrastructure.

The library benefits from maintaining one or more positions responsible for constructing and managing an effective technical environment even when some, or even most, of the components are provided externally. It's mostly a good thing when the library can be less involved in the hosting and maintenance of low-level infrastructure components, deploying its technical personnel to focus on higher-level functionality instead of back-office routine. I make this point frequently when I give presentations on trends in cloud computing and its impact on libraries. Much responsibility remains for the library to ensure that all the local and external technology components work together and as an organic whole to support the library mission regardless of whether the components are locally installed or remotely hosted.

Play a Leadership Role

A library's technical environment takes its shape over a long period of time and through a variety of processes. The productivity applications used in the library may be dictated by its higherlevel organization. The universities, local governments, and corporations in which many libraries exist operate enterprisewide networks that usually don't give individual units discretion regarding standard business applications. Major library applications such as ILSs or discovery services are usually selected through an evaluation and selection process in the library that includes a wide range of library personnel, often through complex committee deliberations. Building the technology environment is not accomplished unilaterally by a single individual. Rather, an effective systems librarian will play a strategic role to inform and influence these processes in ways that help to ensure reasonable outcomes.

The most challenging aspect of building the technology environment lies in the integration of many different components, some inherited from times past, some imposed externally, and some selected through a library-wide process, with only minor pieces at the discretion of the library's technology manager. Ideally, each of the different applications will work well together, exchanging data as needed in order to avoid replication of effort. Through the creation of scripts, taking advantage of APIs and other techniques, a complex matrix of systems can operate together effectively to support the work of library staff and can be integrated into a unified web presence for library users.

The specialty of the systems librarian, though morphing over time, continues to offer great opportunities for those interested in the intersection between technology and libraries. Given the constant turnover in preferred technology architectures and in related products and services, there's always new information to learn and skills to master. Those taking on this role have great opportunities to make positive contributions to their own organizations and to the profession.

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Publication Year:2013
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 34 Number 01
Issue:January / February 2014
Page(s):17-19
Publisher:Information Today
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
ISBN:1041-7915
Record Number:18945
Last Update:2014-08-04 18:47:28
Date Created:2014-02-17 10:30:13