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Career Strategies for Librarians
Teach Yourself To Be Tech Savvy
by Elsa Anderson

At this point, everyone has heard the arguments for learning tech skills.  Our patrons are more tech-
savvy, the expectations made of librarians are greater, and our patrons have higher expectations for the
library.  If the one public access computer goes down and you’re the only one on the desk, you’re going
to have to do something.   

But it’s not just about a new skill set added to the already-great demands placed on librarians.  It’s about
another way to help people, another place where we can serve as mediators and quality control between
an overwhelming amount of information and a confused and frustrated patron.  And you never know
when you’re going to end up being the tech support on call in the library, whether it’s because the IT guy
is at lunch or because “Systems Librarian” is 5 percent of your job description.   

You don’t have to be born knowing these skills.  There are ways to pick them up and polish them.   

Why take a general theory class?

General theory classes are sometimes criticized for not teaching specific skills, but they can help giving
you a framework and basic theoretical understanding.  Then you can learn specific skills later.  Some
MLS programs offer these classes, and you can also find them in places ranging from your local
community college to online.   

Getting specific

Once you have a general foundation, you’ll be able to investigate specific technology topics that are out
there.  For example, learning the basics of HTML or CSS can give you much more flexibility when trying to
fix your webpage in Dreamweaver.  Short, simple workshops can give you a good idea of how things
work.  Set up an online portfolio for yourself in Wordpress, or try creating your own website.  These are
great professional development tools and you’ll learn more in the attempt than you would expect.  Try to
take a database workshop, or sit in on a presentation about doing something cool with JavaScript.  Even
if you don’t have a specific goal in mind, learning about what can be done will open your mind to the
possibilities that are out there.   

Maybe there’s something specific you’ve been wanting to learn, or perhaps the director of your library
has been hinting that it’s about time somebody set up a database for something.  Maybe you’ve got a
great idea for a service you could offer patrons, but the IT department is swamped.  Before you tackle a
new project or software application, you can learn a little about what you’d be getting yourself into by
consulting Wikipedia.  It often has simple, nontechnical explanations of what programs do and how they
work, as well as what other programs go along with them.  It also has links to the websites of many of
these applications and some background on how each one was developed.  This is especially helpful if
you want overviews of big concepts or explanations of specific terms, like Linux, Java, or Apache.  

There are also lots of options if you’re looking for an actual instructional program.  There are plenty of
good, free tutorials online.  Try www.landofcode.com for HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.  Born Geek (www.
borngeek.com) offers add-ons and lots of cool little things you can do with Firefox and Google, along with
simple instructions on how to use them.   

Webjunction (webjunction.org) offers many library resources, including classes and advice on
technology and library-related software.  Their classes are free to library staff in twelve states and only
$50 otherwise.  The course offerings cover everything from collection development to training technology,
from Unix to Photoshop to HTML and MySQL.   

State and regional library consortia often offer classes with reduced rates for library staff at member
institutions.  Take a look at your consortium’s website or brochures.  With the reduced prices and the
ability to take classes from your computer at work or home, it’s worth the time.   

Library schools frequently offer continuing education and additional skills workshops.  Although these
can be pricey, they can be well worth the time.  Even if you won’t master Perl programming or Java in a
few hours, the basic understanding of how they work can serve you well in knowing what is possible
when designing your own projects.   

If there is a community college or graduate school with a tech program in your area, they probably offer
basic workshops and general tech classes.  Some may be expensive, but some are free, so investigate
what’s offered locally.  Another advantage is that almost all of these options count towards educational
credits for teacher certification programs.   

Your integrated library system vendor may offer free webinars on how to use their system, or free talks
on general technology issues.   

Start following blogs that deal with the areas you’re interested in.  There are blogs for every library
subject, and even more for any tech-related topic.  If you don’t have time to check hundreds of blogs every
day, you can simplify your life by setting up an RSS aggregator at www.bloglines.com.   

Further possibilities

Here’s a more general suggestion: try sitting with the IT guys at lunch or inviting them out for coffee.  
Even if 80 percent of the work-related conversation is way over your head, you’ll learn a lot.  And the
things you’ll learn from them will help you understand how your library fits into the broader technology
scheme in your institution—how is your network set up, and where does your computer fit in?  Once you
know this, you will be able to do some basic troubleshooting on your own.   

If this isn’t feasible, do you have a techie friend who can be bribed with coffee to talk about some of this
stuff with you or answer your questions?  Notice something—anything—tech-related that you don’t
understand in the course of your workday, and ask him or her why it works that way.  Remember
technical terms to look up in Wikipedia later.   

Why bother?  

Why bother with any of this?  There will always be people around who are more tech-savvy, better at
troubleshooting, understand the network better, and don’t get confused trying to navigate through the
Windows Control Panel … right?   

That’s true, but lots of library troubleshooting and tech work doesn’t involve hardcore programming.  
Frequently it can be as simple as closing and opening the browser so that the database recognizes the
proxy server, or checking to see which program is hogging all the memory on the frozen computer and
closing it.  Sometimes it just takes a quick search through Word’s help file, or finding and deleting
problematic jobs in the print queue.  Having a basic grasp of how the network works, what programs do
what, and what a print server does will give you a broader understanding of where problems can arise
and which quick fix is appropriate in any given situation.   

Learning basic tech skills can also help you find areas in which you’d like to specialize.  Do you find
networking and packet-sniffing fascinating?  Do you really enjoy tweaking database interfaces or OPAC
appearances?  Do you love social software and want to implement it in your library?  Is it worth your
while to learn Java, or is what you really need HTML and an understanding of when to use JavaScript?

Being a librarian gives us the best of both worlds: we can teach a patron how to save a document, and
then turn around and call our ILS vendor to have them tweak a report or fix a complicated problem.  The
more understanding you bring, the easier it will be for you to diagnose problems and to talk to the IT
people.  When you can talk to IT on their level (or closer to their level, anyway) and come in with some
idea of what the problem is, they’ll appreciate it, and it helps your relationship with them for when the big
problems crop up.  It also helps to get that reminder of how your patrons feel when they look at the
screen and can’t find the scroll bar on the side.  It gives you humility, more breadth to serve your patrons,
better troubleshooting skills, and an improved ability to talk to tech support.  Why wouldn’t you bother?

About the Author:

Elsa Anderson graduated from the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science in
August 2005. She is currently the Systems and Acquisitions Librarian at Marlboro College in Marlboro,
Vermont.

Article published April 2007

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