By Meredith Farkas | December 15, 2008
I just love that feeling of serendipity when I find that people are thinking about the same things I am at the same time. Karin Dalziel made an impassioned case for every librarian to learn how to program. Dorothea Salo responded to it and described how she thinks technology should be taught in library school. At the exact same time, I was engaging in a debate with a library school student on a similar topic. He took issue with my highlighting Drupal in my column as an option for libraries without programmers on staff, stating that only a few small handfuls of librarians are capable of making it work. He feels that to use Drupal, libraries must understand its inner-workings and be able to debug things themselves. He and I agree that library schools should teach technologies as a critical part of the LIS curriculum, but he feels that all librarians should come out of library school with programming skills. He thinks that only people like John Blyberg, people with lots of tech training and experience, can use Drupal. Were that the case, I’d never have been able to use it for the three classes I taught. I don’t think any librarian could get Drupal up and running, but I think most people with a small amount of tech-savvy, A LOT of patience, the willingness to mess around with it and break it a few times, and the willingness to query the hive for help are capable of installing it and using it.
Does someone really need to understand the back-end of a system to capitalize on it? I don’t believe that’s true. Most people don’t know how to build a car; they don’t understand all of its internal mechanisms. Yet we still drive cars. We just know where to go when we need help. I have no clue how to debug things in Drupal. I’ve never made any attempt to understand the internal mechanisms of it. Does that mean I shouldn’t have used it the three times I have for classes? No way! I can install it and I can use it for the purposes I’ve had for it. I can’t do a lot of the fancy things a lot of people do with Drupal, but it worked fine for what I needed it to do. All my limited knowledge means is that when I have a problem, I need to look up the answer or rely on the community of Drupal users and developers for help. I did just that and thanks to the community, I was able to fix any problems I’ve had.
Should library schools require technology classes? Without a doubt! I don’t think anyone should come out of library school without basic web design skills, a basic understanding of library technologies and Internet technologies, the ability to assess technologies, the ability to be fearless with trying out new technologies, and probably a whole host of other things I’m not thinking of right now with pregnancy brain. But does everyone need to come out knowing how to code? No! While technology is a part of every job, not every librarian needs to know how the back-end of the catalog works or needs to know how to debug a Drupal module. Instruction is a critical part of most of our jobs as librarians too (be it formal instruction, reference assistance, or staff training), but not everyone is required to take classes on instruction. And probably most people don’t need to know as much about instruction as I (and other people in similar positions) do.
People can do so many different things with a degree in Library and Information Science. I think it’s important for everyone to have a certain baseline of technology skills, but beyond that, it’s really dependent on what sort of job you want. The technology skill-sets you need to be a head of instruction vs. a systems librarian vs. a web developer vs. a reference librarian vs. an archivist are very different. I think for any library school student, it’s a good idea to hedge your bets and not just train yourself for a single job. It’s important to take tech classes, but if you know you don’t want to have a job where you’ll need to program, you shouldn’t have to. Focusing only on technology and not at all on public service-type classes is an even bigger mistake, since anyone developing tech for libraries needs to understand user behavior and how to train librarians on how to use the technologies.
Dorothea already wrote a lot of really brilliant things about teaching tech in library school, so there’s really no point in my going into more depth when she already said it all. Like most things she writes, I agree with 99% of it.
But my mind is on all of those people who are already out of library school and didn’t have the opportunity to take tech classes (or perhaps just chose not to because they didn’t think it would be important). Those are the people I write my column for. And the reality is that there are many libraries where no one has good programming skills (mine included) or the money to hire/rent talent. There are also many libraries where no one has an MLS at all, so the issue of tech in LIS education is irrelevant to them. I started writing my column because I saw too many articles that only highlighted things that could be done for a lot of $$$ or with serious programming talent on staff. I wanted to highlight the things that people could accomplish at almost any library so long as they are willing to experiment, maybe break things once, twice (or twenty times), and rely on documentation and the robust user communities that are a part of most of the tools I highlight. I like to show the range of what can be done with any technology, from things that require significant programming to the very simple nearly-out-of-the-box job. That way, they know what’s possible with the software at both ends of the spectrum.
I want small libraries to realize that they can have a decent website without necessarily knowing HTML or having a web designer on staff. I’ve learned over time that most librarians have no idea what they’re capable of doing with tech. I certainly didn’t think I was capable of doing anything with Drupal until I tried it out and realized that it wasn’t as beastly as I’d imagined (though the whole taxonomy/node stuff really took me a while to understand properly). I want to encourage people to try things out and to realize that they’re capable of so much more than they think they are. So, while I’d love for every library to have someone on staff with mad tech skillz, it’s important for people to realize that they still can do a lot of great stuff with tech even if they don’t have tons of money or programming talent.