By Meredith Farkas | July 21, 2005
I have gotten several emails from library students who feel that their programs are not teaching them enough about technology. The student I heard from a few days ago expressed concerns that she would be at a distinct disadvantage when she got out of school and wondered if I learned what I know about technology in library school. First of all, I don’t think I know that much about technology compared to many other librarian friends of mine, but I can tell you that I certainly did not learn what I do know in school. I was in a program where there was a “library science” component and an “information technology” component, and the two were very separate and led to different vocations. The technology classes usually had nothing to do with libraries and the library classes had nothing to do with technology. What I learned about technology was not related in any way to libraries, so I really had to make the connections myself. Even my Information Retrieval class, which fascinated and challenged me, had no mention of libraries or OPACs or anything (probably because it was taught by someone without a library background)! I only started to realize the value of what I’d learned in Information Retrieval when reading things by Roy Tennant and other critics of OPACs. (Don’t you just love those “lightbulb” moments?)
So I, too, was put at a “distinct disadvantage” by my library school, especially since my interests leaned toward the more blended librarian-type positions. My fantasy was to become a Distance Learning Librarian (funny how things work out!), which I figured required a lot more tech-savvy than I had coming into my final semester of my graduate degree. I realized I would have to take my education into my own hands if I wanted to be at all marketable in the academic library world. And I have a feeling this is how many of our colleagues learned to be the fabulous tech-savvy librarians they are.
The first thing I would recommend for anyone in the field is to learn to design a website. Whether you are a youth services librarian or a web services librarian, it is tremendously helpful to know some basic HTML. Knowing some CSS also can make your life a whole lot easier when you have to make changes to a site’s design. I can’t tell you how many job ads I saw for “traditional librarian” positions (youth services, reference, etc.) that wanted people with web design skills. When you have the sort of libraries that hire new employees once every 10 years or more, they are going to want to hire someone with some tech-savvy, since it’s likely that no one else on staff has those skills. What I learned in my web design classes I improved upon by simply creating more websites and by critiquing library websites. You can learn HTML in a book, but you won’t be able to design a decent website if you don’t practice, practice, practice. If you want to purchase a WYSIWYG website development program, I’d suggest Macromedia Dreamweaver, because it lets you see the code as you are designing the site. Most of the time I just hand code pages, since I don’t want to forget my HTML. It’s just like any language. Use it or lose it.
Another great thing to do is to play with new technologies. I never created any podcasts of my own (I hate my voice), but I downloaded plenty and even played around with Audacity a bit. I was interested in wikis so I created one (though one could more easily edit the wikipedia or something). I didn’t have any practical use for Jybe at the time I tested it, but I played around with it and became a fan. And in the future, it may be something I recommend to my supervisor. A big part of the reason I got my job was my experience with screencasting and knowledge of screencasting software. I learned about screencasting by reading about it in blogs, downloading trial versions of Captivate and Camtasia, and playing with them. I created a screencast for one of my interviews and everyone was really impressed with it. I just thought it would be a good thing to have some experience with. And it was. Depending on what sort of library work you’re interested in, play around with software that may be relevant to that job. It’s not only a good thing to put on your resume, but the software is often a lot of fun to play with (or maybe I’m just a geek).
The place in which I learned the most about library technologies was not in a classroom or in a book. It was in the blogosphere. I think I had first started reading Jessamyn’s and Jenny’s blogs last summer and realized that I didn’t know about half of what they were talking about. So I found other technology-related blogs while trying to figure out what in the world they were talking about. I found Steven’s blog. And Michael’s blog. And Andrea’s blog. And Sarah’s blog. Luckily there was a huge buzz about RSS at the time, so I learned about Bloglines, got myself account and kept adding to my collection of blogs. An RSS aggregator is one of the best keeping up accessories. When I was reading 5 blogs it wasn’t such a big deal to go to each site and see if anything new had been written. However, when the count gets up to 20, 50, 100 or more, the task becomes a bit unwieldy. An RSS aggregator simply collects new content from all of the RSS feeds you’re subscribed to and allows you to look at them all on the same page. So shortly after Jessamyn writes something new, I get to see it in my aggregator along with the new content from every other blog or journal I’m subscribed to. (I know to most of my readers this is redundant, but not everyone who reads blogs knows about RSS and aggregators. And they should because it will make their lives so much easier.)
Whatever one thinks about blogs, it is hard to deny that they are a great way to share information. The medium offers an immediacy that journals lack and gives people a space to talk about things in libraries that maybe wouldn’t fit into a journal. Thanks to the blogs I read, I have so many great ideas for my new job that I’m just about ready to burst!
I also think it’s important to read journals. At the moment I don’t read as many as I should — just the ones I can read for free online like Ariadne, D-Lib, Library Journal, CLIR Reports, and the Information Today journals, and the ones I get in the mail through my ALA, RUSA, and ACRL memberships. Once I start work and have access to plenty of library science journals, I’m sure my reading list will change, though I will continue to only read the articles that interest me.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of listservs or email lists. With blogging, you have one person or a small group of people who own the medium, so I think there is more of a commitment to creating something of quality. With a listserv, no one feels like they have to post because the medium belongs to everyone. I’ve never felt guilty about not posting to a listserv, but I do feel guilty when I don’t post to my blog. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that I learn much more about what people are doing at their institutions from blogs than from listservs and discussion groups. Also, I just hate getting the stuff in my Inbox. For a while, I resubscribed to some listservs in Bloglines (here’s how to do it), but I found it frustrating to wade through the 100 messages that were useless to me to find the two that were interesting. I think listservs can be a great place to get involved in an online community and make contacts. I guess I just haven’t found one that’s a good fit for me. In terms of online communities, I like models like WebJunction and wikis much better.
The main thing to remember is that you don’t have to read everything. Read what you’re interested in and not what you think you should be reading. Learn to scan articles and blogs for the interesting parts. You’re not being disloyal if you skip a blog post that holds no interest for you (as I’m sure many experienced “kept-up” librarians will do with this post). I used to drive myself crazy trying to read everything in my aggregator, but sometimes you just need to click on something, not read it, and move on. You’re not going to miss something huge. If it’s that important, it will be covered in other blogs. Get a del.icio.us or Furl account and save really meaty articles and posts for later. The point of this is to be aware of what’s going on in the library world, not to know everything.
The final piece of the puzzle is networking. Meet other people in the field. Meet people whom you admire. Comment on their blog, email them about an article they wrote, or IM them if they publish their handle (though I think email is better for a first introduction). I remember when I wrote to a blogger I admired (someone I am friends with now) I felt so embarassed. I figured that all sorts of people emailed them all the time and they wouldn’t want to get another dumb “fan” email. But the majority of the bloggers I’ve dealt with have been amazingly gracious and helpful people. They are happy to offer advice and encouragement. They like to communicate with people who are interested in the same things they are. Also be sure to go to conferences. This past ALA Conference was the first time I got to meet most of my fellow bloggers in the flesh. I was totally intimidated at first (to me, people like Michael Stephens, Walt Crawford, and Roy Tennant are rock stars!). But again, I found that everyone was just as down-to-earth and passionate about libraries and technology as I am. So don’t let yourself be intimidated by the people in the library world you admire. After all… we’re all just a bunch of librarians!
So to A.M.F. and all of the other folks who are trying to figure out how to be tech-savvy “kept-up” librarians, there is hope, even if your library school is not teaching you what you want to know.