Bridging The Gap

November 15, 2006

I really enjoy discovering new blogs by students in MLS/MLIS programs. The students often offer great insights into their programs and into other issues that concern libraries. In a recent post by a student taking a library systems course, the student asks What makes a systems librarian? The author writes:

While systems librarians can have many roles, the one thing they appear to have in common is an ability to bridge the gap between the library and techie worlds. So the big questions becomes how do you learn both languages? And are library schools providing the courses to enable graduates to fulfill this role?

This is right on target. I have to say that in my role as a systems librarian, this is one of the most important things that I need to be able to do. Libraries have complex systems, and they rely a great deal on technology. If the library is part of a larger organization with an information technology department, someone has to be able to talk intelligently about the unique ways in which technology impacts library systems. I go to weekly IT meetings, volunteer to help with deployments and testing of new technologies (upgrades to operating systems, upgrades in email, new content management systems, hardware configurations, etc.), talk to IT staff before I do something that might be different from the accepted standard and try to sit in on as many demonstrations and training sessions as possible. I often joke that my aim is to really make the IT staff think of me as one of them.

To be able to talk the language of the techies, one has to really become one – or at least give the illusion of being a techie. I listen to their conversations, admit when I don’t understand some technical concept (usually about networks, packet transmission or code), read lots and lots of articles on technology and mess around with new technologies as much as possible. I have found that the IT guys are usually quite willing to discuss things – and to explain things when I ask. After a while, I was able to contribute (with intelligent conversation no less) and participate in the discussions about providing solutions to problems. I like to believe that I have been successful in developing a close working relationship with our IT department. I still have to remind them that technology changes may well impact the library (changing internet service providers or re-addressing IP ranges have huge implications for us, yet, I have to remind the IT staff of this over and over). However, they often ask for my opinion and include me in decision making.

One thing that I have found to be incredibly valuable is to remember that we must have a give and take relationship. I need their expertise for many things – especially those things that have implications for our physical network. I also need them for hardware replacement since all computer purchases come out of IT. To balance this, I help with things like re-imaging the computer labs in the library, troubleshooting issues with lab software for students working in the library and testing new software applications. Because I am the technical support for one physical building, it is often easier for me to upgrade all library staff to something like Outlook 2003 and see what type of problems occur than for the IT staff to find their own test group. I have offered up the library staff for this type of test environment several times. This means that the IT staff help me out – and I help the IT staff out. I highly recommend this type of approach.

As for systems librarian education in MLS/MLIS programs? I would be really interested to hear what type of class this particular student is taking. At SCSU, there is no class specifically targeted for systems librarians – at least none that I can see.  I haven’t seen any evidence of a class that encourages librarians-to-be to speak the language of techies as well as librarians. Maybe part of this has to do with the newness of the systems librarian position. Have we actually defined its parameters well? If we haven’t defined it well, how can we teach others what they need to know to become systems librarian? These librarian positions can vary widely from institution to institution. So much of systems is learned on the job – and I’m not sure that will change in the near future.

To succeed in this line of work, one needs to understand computer hardware, operating systems (including detailed information about services and processes that run on Windows machines), HTML,  imaging computers and networking concepts like bandwidth (calculating bandwith use), TCP/IP, IP addressing, NAT, VLANs, wireless, DNS, DHCP, switches, etc. There are of course other concepts that may be important. However, listening to techies is one of the best ways to figure out what concepts one needs to understand – and to help one gain confidence. Many people allow themselves to believe that they just don’t know enough to talk to IT people. My best advice is to believe in yourself – don’t be intimidated by the techies – and fight for what you believe you need. Remember that IT staff don’t understand libraries and/or the complexity of technology in the library. Systems librarians need to be the bridge that connects library technology to information technology.