On being a systems librarian

This short essay defines systems librarianship.

I consider myself to be a librarian first and a computer user second. My professional goal is to discover new ways to use computers to improve library and knowledge services. There in lies the essence of systems librarianship. Systems librarianship is the art and science of combining the principles of librarianship with the abilities of computing technology.

Traditionally, librarianship has been aligned with the collecting, organizing, archiving, disseminating, and sometimes evaluation of data and information. Libraries are not about books. They are about information and knowledge. In the past librarianship has been associated with books only because books were the primary manifestations of information. In today's world, information manifests itself in many more mediums. Most notable is the electronic medium. If libraries are to continue with their self-imposed mission, then there will be a continuing need for systems librarians. Systems librarianship is like a midwife for the profession enabling our clientele to "give birth" to new ideas through the use of collected, organized, archived, disseminated, and evaluated electronic data and information.

It has been said that understanding is like a four-rung ladder. The first rung on the ladder represents data and facts. As the data and facts are collected and organized they become information, the second rung on the ladder. The third rung is knowledge where knowledge is information internalized and put to use. The last rung of the ladder is wisdom, knowledge of a timeless nature. Technology has enabled more people to climb between the first and second rungs of the ladder with greater ease. Similarly, technology can enable libraries and librarians to climb higher on the ladder as well and provide knowledge services instead of simply information services. The effective use of computing technologies by (systems) librarians is one manifestation of such a climb.

The age in which we live is changing at a rate unseen in previous times. This change, in my opinion, is being driven by computers and new communications technologies. Some people throw their arms up in frustration with the advent of this change. For me it is stimulating. I believe it can be stimulating for you too. Go back to your workplaces or your homes. Pause and reflect on the things you have picked up from your day-to-day experiences. Ask yourself how the things you were exposed to can be applied in your own situation. Then play with and explore those possibilities. If enough of us librarians can discover ways to improve and refine what we do, then librarianship can continue to provide useful and beneficial services for generations, if not centuries, to come.

Questions and answers

I was given a list of questions before this presentation. Below I have tried answer those questions.

How did you assess user needs when designing your searchable database of gopher sites on the web?

I didn't. At the same time, I don't ever recall creating a "searchable database of gopher sites", unless you are referring to the Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts. If so, then this catalogue was originally created by Hunter Monroe and based on my understanding of his process, he simply located Internet resources of electronic texts and added them to his database. A more complete description of this process can be found in " Cataloging Internet Resources: A Beginning ."

What different kinds of activities are systems librarians involved in?

In general, the activities of systems librarians are two-fold. First, systems librarians seem to devote much of their time to the maintainance of a library's computer hardware and software. In addition, much of their time is spent training library staff and resolving problems with library staff's hardware and software. Second, systems librarians are involved with implementation of providing information/knowledge services to the clientele of libraries. This second activity requires the knowledge of librarianship. Based on personal experience, the former activity does not return significant professional satisfaction.

How is librarianship and systems knowledge tied together on a practical level?

This is easy. Traditionally librarianship has been aligned with the processes of collecting, organizing, archiving, disseminating, and evaluating information. System librarians are expected to be knowlegable about the abilities of computers and computing techniques. Thus systems librarians should be aware of methods of using computers to apply the traditional processes of librarianship. Rudimentary examples include the database construction, indexing and searching techniques, and network administration.

What types of job opportunities are there and what types of skills are libraries looking for in their 'system librarians?'

Computers represent a "growth industry" in libraries. While the numbers of systems librarians in a library may not become greater than the number of reference librarians or catalogers, all responsible library administrations will understand the need for computing expertise in their institutions. Therefore there is a growing need for librarians with computing knowledge, systems librarians.

I see three necessary skills of systems librarians:

  1. Systems librarians must understand the principles of librarianship.
  2. Systems librarians must understand computing fundamentals (operating systems, data structures, programming/scripting, networking, etc.).
  3. Systems librarians must be able to effectively communicate their ideas to their peers as well as clientele without the overuse of technical jargon.

Briefly, what is your educational and experience background?

It is a good thing you said "briefly." I have a BA in Philosophy from Bethany College, Bethany, WV, 1982. After two years of being an unemployed college graduate, I made the conscious decision to become a librarian. While working at Drexel University in the Interlibrary Loan department, I began programing the OCLC M300 to create annual reports on a daily basis. I then had the opportunity to work at IBM in Charlotte, NC as an intern. I graduated from Drexel with an MIS in 1987. I got my first "real" library job as a medical librarian in Lancaster, SC. There I applied and received an Apple Library of Tomorrow grant to re-implement a "circuit rider" program. This grant allowed me to share my ideas with professional peers on a national level and allowed me to completely realize my skills with computers. Finally, because I got to big for Lancaster, I moved to Raleigh, NC to work for the North Carolina State University Libraries as a systems librarian.

What is the most difficult or challenging aspect of your job?

Presently, the most challenging aspect of my job is keeping my interest in the profession while reformatting people's hard drives and setting up print queues. Frankly, I don't consider these activities to be "librarianship" and I feel my talents and enthusiasm are being wasted. Put in a more positive light, the dynamic nature of computing technology makes it difficult to keep up without constant focus and attention to current events as well as the professional reading of journals, magazines, mailing lists, newsgroups, and general Internet "surfing." There are so many exciting things that can be done with computers to improve library services and there are not enough hours in a day for me to explore them all.

What is a typical day or week like in your role?

For a couple of years, a typical day began with reading my email and then various newsgroups. I would then explore some of the things I learned from these sources. For example I would experiment with a new program or service and ask myself how it may be applied to the NCSU Libraries. The day would continue by updating services I had created previously or I would develop tools enabling me to maintain my services more effectively. I would then write about my experiences in the form of email/newsgroup postings as well as journal articles or professional presentations. More recently, I work the "help desk" on Mondays and Tuesdays resolving library staff computing problems. The balance of the week is spent on the Libraries "Network Team" whose charge is to explore the same sorts of things I had been exploring in the previous years, except this exploration is done on a more formal basis.

What do you see as the most important components of effective teams and how do you make a team more effective?

Communication. Communication. Communication. Without effective dialog and discussion, teams will not work. Conflict in teams in natural and to be expected. Communication is the only way conflict will be resolved. Talk! Other important components include common goals, respect for other team members' ideas, and self-imposed rewards for jobs well done.

What advice do you have for someone just starting out or looking to advance to your type of role?

Conduct "information interviews." Identify a few jobs you would like to have. Identify a number of people who have such jobs. Call those people on the telephone and ask whether or not you can visit them to talk about their job. Everybody likes talking about their job. Visit them. Re-assure them that you are not asking them for a job. Ask them the same sorts of questions you have asked me today. Ask for a tour of the facility. Next, ask them for the names of other people who may have similar jobs. Go home and write them a thank note and send along your resume. They might not have a job right now, but they will remember you for future reference. This entire process hones your interviewing skills in a non-threatinging manner, allows you to widen your network of contacts, and gives you an inside look a multiple organizations.

Creator: Eric Lease Morgan <eric_morgan@infomotions.com>
Source: This presentation was given to a number of library school students at the School of Library and Information Science, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill.
Date created: 1996-04-30
Date updated: 2004-11-16
Subject(s): systems librarianship;
URL: http://infomotions.com/musings/systems-librarianship/