Where are all the techies?

I’ve been contemplating this question since I started library school last semester, when I was enrolled in my program’s basic technology course, the only technology course students are required to take. Where are all the next system designers and OPAC developers and library tech programmers? They certainly weren’t in my class.

Lately it seems a lot of other people have been contemplating this question as well. Dorothea wrote an outraged post about the lack of systems awareness and the hands-off approach librarians take to their technologies, and her words have resonated with librarians throughout the bloggity blogging world. She makes some important points: Library schools aren’t requiring their graduates to have a thorough grasp of library technologies. Librarians don’t consider managing their technologies something they should have to do. Many libraries don’t even have a dedicated systems librarian on staff. These things have to change. But the problem lies, too, in the students currently attending library school.

I am constantly surprised to find how few students in my program know, or want to know, how library systems work. There was a girl in my tech class last semester who had never even had an email account before enrolling in the program, and she frankly wasn’t much interested in learning about using it, or using any of the other technologies she will be presented with in her career. To my mind, librarianship is increasingly about the technologies we’re using, and if you aren’t interested in those technologies, you have no business going into the field. Harsh, perhaps, but for libraries to be players in the networked, information saturated world, we have to step up our game, and we’re not going to be able to do that with a bunch of librarians who can’t even be bothered with email.

Some part of the problem does lie with the library schools. While my program requires one technology class, it was kind of a joke of a technology class. We didn’t deal with HTML (although I hear tell another professor teaching the course does), we didn’t really learn about managing an ILS, or a server, or databases, or even basic computer troubleshooting. If that is the sole course students take on library technologies in their time in library school, they are poorly served to go into the increasingly technology-reliant library profession, and the profession will suffer for it.

Perhaps some of the problem lies, too, with organizations like ALA who are not promoting the notion that librarians are technology professionals. If the major professional organization doesn’t seem to think that technology is a major component of the job, why would people outside of the field, who might be contemplating becoming librarians, think they need to learn about it?

Again, maybe it sounds harsh, but I often find myself thinking that those librarians who don’t want to learn to manage a server or build a better OPAC or manage an open source ILS should quit and make way for those of us who can and want to build better systems for ourselves and our patrons. No, I don’t think every librarian should be a programmer (well, I don’t always think that, anyway), but I think if you can’t figure out how to connect to a printer or install software or build a basic website, you are in the wrong field. And if you’re not willing to learn these things, you shouldn’t be in library school.

I’d like to see more people talking about why these basic skills should be minimum requirements for every library job, and what the schools and the organizations should be doing to promote the field as a technology-related one. And I’d really like to see more of my fellow students excited about creating awesome library tools. To my mind, that’s the best stuff in the field right now, and with well-taught, excited, engaged technology professionals, there is no end to the cool stuff we could do.

11 thoughts on “Where are all the techies?

  1. Jonathon

    I’ve told this story before, elsewhere, but I think it bears repeating:

    Last fall, I attended an open house day at a certain library school in the upper midwest that is so 2.0 it doesn’t even use the word ‘library’ in the name of its degree anymore. (OK, it was Michigan.)

    During the portion of the day where we were supposed to all crowd around little tables and talk with representative students from the various tracks, I overheard someone ask the students at the ‘library science’ track table what the technology requirements were for the program.

    The answer? Other than a handful of Powerpoint projects, which you’d be working in groups on and could get someone else in your group to handle the actual computer part, you ‘wouldn’t really’ need any computer knowledge at all.

    I actually felt momentarily like I might be sick, and it still makes me angry, though (for other reasons, mostly money) I’m no longer seriously considering going there. ..

  2. Dorothea

    You’re right about library-school students. They won’t take a single step to learn anything techie while they’re in the program, and then they HOWL afterwards that they weren’t prepared for the job market.

    Takes two to tango, and the fault isn’t entirely at library schools’ doors.

  3. Bess Sadler

    Dorothea and Laura, I agree with you on most points, but let’s not paint with too wide a brush. I’ve seen the library school students you’re talking about, and $DEITY knows I attended a program that needs to pick up the pace with regards to technology, but I’ve also seen cause for hope. When presented with opportunities for learning, I’ve also seen many previously non-techie LIS students catch the spark and go onto careers as systems folks and repository rats (okay, that’s twice now I’ve borrowed from CavLec’s vocabulary).

    The problem is also in the funding available to library schools, and in the crop of professors they have to draw from. The sad fact is that most people doing current (not even cutting edge! just current!) work at the intersection of libraries and technology can make much more money with much less hassle doing just about anything except teaching in a library school.

    I think I’m approaching that line where a comment becomes its own blog post, so why don’t I just go write that? Great blog, Laura K. I’ll be a regular reader know that I know about you.

  4. Dorothea

    There is hope, and despite my general grumbliness I try to be that hope when I’m in the classroom. (With, I will say, at least some success.)

    But the structures and mindset these hopeful newbies (of any age) are walking into are not propitiatory.

  5. amy

    wow. i couldn’t agree more. great post.

    my MLIS never even evaluates different OPACs, let alone require that you take anything more than the standard tech class (create databases using InMagic, evaluate Dialog vs Google). some advanced classes are offered, but those tend to have more of a records management focus.

    and students who grumble about not being prepare for the “real world” need to take some responsibility for that. this is your career people, not some shmo job. it’s going to involve more than just going to class and getting a piece of paper – you’re going to have to take some initiative. (i spend my spare time reading blogs and playing with a variety of different tech tools so that i won’t be a totally useless employee tech-wise.)

  6. ranti junus

    Students who feel about not enough tech class to whet their tech appetite, IMHO, could either enroll in computer classes (if their school offers them) or at a local community college.

  7. iPC

    I totally agree with you. Librarians should know the basics of computer (programming to) especially in our increasingly technological age.

  8. Pingback: Conversants and more stuff about library school students « Words For Nerds

  9. Dave Dwiggins

    Just got around to reading this post… Preach on! I think we’re making a good effort at Simmons, but ultimately you’re right that 488 (at least the way it’s taught by some profs) can turn into a remedial class, not something that’s really going to teach anyone to push the technology envelope.

    At one point Candy and I sat down and brainstormed a list of “techie skills librarians should know something about.” It was a long list (and could probably be pared down.) But it pointed to the number of things we don’t cover in a systematic way.

    I think if you’re motivated you can get a pretty good technology background at Simmons — it’s just that not everyone is that motivated. Some people still come to library school (and I include my compatriots in the Archives program) with nostalgic visions of a computerless world — they have dreams of living a monastic life amidst books and documents. But the fact is that to do a good job in today’s library world, you have to be good at tehcnology. (Just like you have to be good at dealing with people, managing conflict and change, etc.)

    I also think you’re right about the ALA. For better or worse, I think it tends to have a very “public library, frontline service” approach that doesn’t emphasize systems management as a key part of librarianship. Sure banned books and freedom to read are important, but so is making sure librarians can still provide access to information when more and more of it is digital.

  10. wendyb

    great post laura! when i start beating myself up about not being techie enough all i have to do is look around at most of our classmates and realize that I am doing okay.

    I don’t consider myself a techie. I don’t function well with the details of doing code but I think that curiosity is really important. On my database management notebook I wrote down this somewhat cliche phrase that I read on lifehack . “I wonder how that works.” Really isn’t that it? Even if class taught us more xml, css, sql, it would be up to us to play and make and break things on our own.

    a library student friend of mine always says that he is happy when he hears about people like your “never used email” student. More jobs for us.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *