By Meredith Farkas | November 29, 2004
I’m probably grossly oversimplifying this, but I think there are two types of librarians: those who embrace technology and those who are antagonistic towards it or ignore it. I have seen this in my work at a public library and, surprisingly to me, at library school. I have been amazed that many people in my classes don’t know much of anything about technology. They don’t understand how search engines work, they don’t know how to code in HTML or how to use WYSIWYG editors like Dreamweaver, and they don’t have a clue about what blogs, wikis, RSS, or RFIDs. These people are traditionalists. They only want to learn the skills that have been taught to librarians for decades, and don’t want to take classes on things they don’t think they’ll need to know as reference or catalog or youth librarians. For that attitude to be coming from new librarians, is what I find frightening. Catalogers are going to increasingly need to be familiar with markup languages, particularly those based on XML like EAD and RDF. Youth librarians are going to be asked tech related questions by an increasingly tech-savvy youth generation, and it will be difficult to engage these young people if you don’t speak their language. Reference work is going to be done more and more online as electronic collections grow and virtual reference becomes more common. It is telling that a class I’ve taken this semester, Theory of Information Retrieval, which had a cap of 30 students, has about 8 students in it. Yes, the material was difficult and I had to learn some Java, but I feel like I have a much better understanding about how IR systems work, which is amazingly valuable to a person who will be conducting dozens of searches daily. I don’t think every librarian needs to be an expert techie (I’m certainly not), but it will be more and more important to be conversant in the latest technology as the roles of librarians change in the digital age.
The library I worked in last year, as much as I loved it, was very “old school.” Most of the people who worked there were over 50 and were far from tech-savvy. The library’s website was a disorganized mess, which required users to go through three screens just to get to their antiquated catalog search engine which required left-anchored boolean searching (without articles of course). Not only did they not have wifi, but they didn’t allow non-patrons to use the “public access terminals” for Internet access. There was one “systems librarian” there, who wasn’t a librarian at all, and only was there to fix printers and computers when patrons or staff were having problems. And she wasn’t full-time, so people often had to put “out of order” signs on printers and computers because no one else could fix them. Many of the older staff (outside of Reference) did not know how to do web searches and were not familiar with how to use the electronic databases the library owned. When I asked my supervisor if I could put web shortcuts on the desktop to the other local libraries so that we could check their holdings if we didn’t have a book (for people who needed the book RIGHT NOW), and show my colleagues how to use it, I was shot down. She said it would be too time-consuming. There were no training courses for the paraprofessionals or librarians on web searching, or using the Internet, or new technologies, and many of them were genuinely interested in learning. But without that knowledge, if a patron had a computer problem, they would usually look for a young staff member to help. This is the sort of library that is going to be pushed into the 21st century by patron demand, but it is not going to go willingly. This library had one of the best collections I’d ever seen in a small public library, but it was so out of touch with the rest of the world in terms of technology. I hope the library administrators eventually realize the importance of having a tech-savvy staff, and at least invest in training them to answer basic questions and fix basic hardware and software problems.
My library school (or School of Information as it is actually called) offers library classes and tech classes, and the line between them is very clearly drawn. In spite of the fact that not everyone wants to work in a library, all of the core required classes are library-related and none of them really enhance computer-related competencies. A student can go through our school having taken no technology-related classes. My concentration is in knowledge management (librarianship), but I made a concerted effort to take as many information technology and info architecture courses as I could. I didn’t come into the program with a lot of tech knowledge, so I wanted to learn about databases, web design, network administration, and info architecture. What I found though, is that the tech classes were not geared towards being practical for librarians. I thought we’d learn about technology applications in libraries, but the classes could just as well have been taught by a different department for all I heard about libraries in those classes. One of my profs told us point blank that he really didn’t know much about libraries. WHAT?!?!? In their effort to be all things to all people, I think my school has created a program that doesn’t really prepare people for the real world of librarianship. They are churning out people who have no tech-savvy whatsoever but are great in traditional library work, or people who are great with technology but don’t have enough of a grounding in traditional librarianship. And then there are the generalists like me, who tried to learn all they could about everything in the limited time available. I feel like I know a little bit about a lot of things, but I’m a jack of all trades and master of none. I don’t know if that’s good or bad in the job market, where people seem to want librarians who are very good at specific things. I see job ads for people who are experienced and know a lot about reference sources, or cataloging standards, or web design and network admin. Is anyone looking for a generalist who is flexible and interested in learning about all aspects of information provision? I hope so, because a lot of them will be coming out of library schools in the future.
The nature of librarianship is changing. Before the Internet and Google, people would have to rely on reference librarians to answer most of their questions. Now, if you are wondering who sang Tangerine or how many home runs Barry Bonds hit in 1999, that information is is at everyone’s fingertips. Libraries still have the better content, but they are going to have to incorporate the ease of use one finds with a Google or a Yahoo in order to make searching at the library more seamless. Making access more seamless for users (with remote access to databases, federated searching, wifi, etc.) makes for more work behind the scenes for librarians, meaning that librarians will have to learn a whole new set of skills in order to remain relevant to their patrons. If libraries can’t keep up with what their patrons want, they will become irrelevant to a large part of the population who will miss out on what the library has to offer because it’s so much easier to just search Google at home.