By Meredith Farkas | March 9, 2008
There were three recent posts that got me thinking a lot about the growing necessity to have tech-savvy people in public services positions. The first was Dorothea Salo’s post about how many librarians outside of Systems see learning about (or doing anything with) technology as being something outside of their sphere of responsibility. The second was Jenica Rogers-Urbanek’s follow-up post about how dependent on Systems/IT we are to implement the things we dream up. The third was Michelle Boule’s discussion of her experience working at a large ARL library and how “academic libraries want to be innovative, they think they are, but processes keep them from ever doing anything remotely cutting edge.” All of that got me to thinking about how hard it can sometimes be to get anything techie done when you’re in a public services position. And while part of that is because lots of people in public services don’t have the skills to actually implement the things they dream up, it’s also related to the way our organizations are structured, which is a much deeper and more difficult problem to fix.
There are lots of library schools doing students a serious disservice by not making it clear that anyone coming out of library school these days needs to have some minimal level of technology skills. Where I went to school, Florida State, was definitely one of those (not sure if they still are). In 2004, you could get out of FSU’s program without having taken a single technology-related course. And I had friends who chose that route, graduating without the ability to even create a “hello world” HTML page. And it’s not just the sort of tech stuff that Dorothea does that they are lacking. There are basic tech competencies that people just aren’t coming out of library school with. Like the ability to scan the horizon to see what’s new in library technologies. Or the ability to logically troubleshoot technologies instead of throwing up your hands the minute something doesn’t work like it should. Or the ability to critique and compare technologies. I wrote a post a while back about Skills for the 21st Century Librarian where I argued that these “big picture” skills were ones that every librarian should have, regardless of position. I still feel that way and I am appalled by those library schools that are graduating public service librarians who are prepared for librarianship of the 1970s.
But what qualifications are really important for someone whose job isn’t specifically to develop applications? There used to be more of a clear line between people who did public services stuff and people who did systems stuff. That has really changed. We’re seeing all these hybrid jobs out there — these web/reference librarians, or distance learning librarians, or user experience librarians, or emerging technology librarians for public service, and more. There are all these public service jobs that require people to do all the traditional public service stuff (reference, instruction, liaison work, collection dev, etc.) as well as wearing the techie hat. And it’s a good thing, because you want people who are focused on user services to be aware of the technological landscape and what could be implemented to improve the user experience. But what skills are really important for these people to have? I think that largely depends on your relationship with your systems and/or IT folks. If the systems/IT folks can implement anything you dream up, then you just need to know how to dream. But the more likely scenario is that they’re stretched too thin maintaining the technologies the library already has. And while they’d love to spend time coding up cool applications for end users, it’s just not a top priority. So where does that leave public services? It leaves them needing someone in public services who can deliver on what they dream up.
I’ve seen an increasing number of job ads these days asking for people with knowledge of 2.0 stuff — blogs, wikis, Flickr, etc. I know this has been seen as something really cool, but it worries me in some ways. What does knowledge of 2.0 tools mean? You have a blog? You read blogs? You edited the Wikipedia? You have a Facebook profile? It’s important for librarians to keep up with the hot technologies, but does it make someone a techie? No. Can you install MediaWiki software on a server? Have you moved blog content from one software to another (say Moveable Type to WordPress)? What do you do when your blog or wiki’s database becomes corrupted? What mechanisms would you use to prevent spam on a blog or wiki? Can you customize our blog or wiki to look like the rest of our website? I wonder if we’re really asking the right questions. Frankly, if no one in public services has tech skills in the first place, would they even know what to ask? It’s also critical that these librarians have skills that transcend knowledge of the latest and greatest. These libraries need to ensure that they hire librarians who will still be useful to them after Facebook, blogs, wikis, and the like are “so five minutes ago” and we’re on to the next batch of stuff. You need people with skills that are bigger than specific tools.
But more than having people with skills, I worry about the way many libraries’ technological infrastructure is set up. Lots of libraries have no access to a server. They’re controlled by the school or municipal IT department. That’s how it was at Norwich when I got here. To make changes to the website, we had to contact the University Webmaster who had a LONG list of change requests from every department on campus. When I was hired, a big part of my job was supposed to be creating screencast tutorials for the distance learners, but IT wouldn’t give me server space to put them online. I feel very lucky that when I said I couldn’t do my job without access to a server, my Director let me get a VPS and run it myself (which was a little scary at first, but there haven’t been many issues I couldn’t handle). It’s given me the opportunity to try out all sorts of technologies and choose the best ones for our needs. I’m grateful that I was able to gain the trust of the Webmaster who gave me FTP access to the server the University website was on so I could be in charge of the library pages. When I look back on the past almost three years I’ve been here, I’m blown away by what I’ve been able to accomplish. I love this profession because I can do concrete things that improve services for our patrons. If I don’t feel like I’m moving forward, I’ll end up a dead shark.
When I see major academic libraries that are using PBWiki or WetPaint and blogs that are not locally hosted, I know that’s not a place I’d want to work at. If you have money, technologically savvy people and you’re using free, hosted stuff that you have little-to-no control over, something is seriously wrong with the way your organization is structured. I think some organizations haven’t figured out how to deal with these 2.0 tools. Who is supposed to support it? Who makes the decisions and has the control? There are so many potential turf issues when you have technologies that public services librarians want to implement for the end user. The systems librarians may not have time to maintain this stuff, but they may not feel they can’t trust the public services librarians to take the ball and run with it.
So, I think the problem is so much bigger than library schools still teaching students that this tech stuff is optional (which is not to say that isn’t a huge problem too). It’s also the way organizations are structured. So many libraries have a 1.0 org chart for a 2.0 world. They’re not structured to support public services technologies like blogs, wikis, etc. They’re not set up to allow for the sort of experimentation and agile decision-making that is required to meet the changing needs and wants of our users. So I don’t know that in an environment like that, hiring an emerging technologies librarian or a 2.0 librarian or whatever is the answer. You’re just putting a band-aid on a problem that goes to the heart of how your organization is structured and how decisions are made.
I’ll be curious to see if and how larger libraries address these issues over the next few years. I love that Berkeley’s New Directions Initiative has the goal of “support[ing] an open process that will allow the Library to understand and adapt to the evolving information needs of our faculty and students.” And I’m blown away by what Jeff Trzeciak has accomplished at McMaster in terms of creating a more agile organization that is ready to meet the challenges of the future. I think many libraries will have to go through similar processes over the next few years or we’re going to have a whole lot of dead sharks on our hands.