Career Strategies for Librarians
Getting Technical
by Bob Persing

Librarians as a whole are not generally a reactionary group.  Even so, many experienced librarians have
made this sort of comment at some time: "I didn't become a librarian to spend my time fixing
computers."  And yet there is really no avoiding the growth of technology in libraries.  No matter what type
of library position you are seeking, you should expect to deal with automation.

Systems librarians obviously deal with hardware and programming languages constantly.  But all other
librarians will interact with the Infernal Machines, too.  You'll probably have a PC on your desk, which will
need some care and feeding.  Public service librarians will be asked a steady stream of "techie"
questions, involving running CD-ROMs, downloading data and transferring files.  Technical services
librarians must not only use their library management systems (LMS), but also bibliographic utilities,
vendor-supplied databases, not to mention word processors and spreadsheet programs.

If you are a supervisor, you must also be prepared to do basic tech support for your staff.  Don't be lulled
by the presence (in some cases) of dedicated tech support staff.  No matter how good they are, they go
to lunch like everybody else, or take vacation days, or get called away to other branches with more urgent
problems.  You may still be the person expected to do triage on a recalcitrant PC or delete a frozen print

This may sound daunting if you, like many librarians, are more interested in scholarship and public
service than in technology.  Don't lose hope yet, though.  No one expects every librarian to do detailed
computer support.  Think of yourself instead as a "part-time techie."  This involves a few simple

Have some basic knowledge handy.

Be flexible.

Talk the techie talk.

It's not hard to keep up a basic knowledge of the software industry and its products.  Regularly read or
scan a couple of general-interest computing journals, like Wired and PC Magazine.  (Or web sites, if you
think printed paper is quaint and old-fashioned.)  A very basic knowledge of software packages can go a
long way.  Even just knowing their names is useful.  When someone asks for help with ProCite, knowing
that it's software for constructing bibliographies -- even if you know nothing else about it -- puts you one
step ahead.

When you need more detailed information, remember one of the old axioms of librarianship: "You don't
have to know everything, just where to look."  There's a lot of online help within programs, and a lot more
on web sites.  So long as you can do a basic web search (a ubiquitous skill these days), you can find
something about almost any software package.  

Lots of problems do not require deep knowledge so much as common sense.  My institution recently
introduced a new Java-based accounting system.  Minimizing the client screen causes a major memory
blockage, slowing all other programs on the machine down to a crawl.  Diagnosing this problem took no
knowledge of Java or advanced Windows technology.  All it took was knowing how to find the memory
status screen in Windows NT.  I also didn't need fancy knowledge to implement a solution: I tell people
not to minimize that application.  (Pragmatism is often an excellent tool.)  

While keeping up with new advances, try to spare a few little grey cells for computing history, too.  You
may think the days of DOS scripts and the "autoexec.bat" went out of style with Miami Vice.  But you'll be
amazed at the software still floating around, maybe even in your library collection.  Work at a federal
depository library, and you'll find a remarkable collection of old programs on CD-ROM.  Chances are
someone will try to use one sometime.  Chances are it will be your night on the reference desk.  

Even for areas with which you have little contact, or which are covered by other librarians, "talking techie
talk" can still be very important for you.  Let's say you need data extracted from your LMS.  If your library
has a systems librarian to write reports, you don't need to know much about Perl or SQL or Access.  It's
better if you know what they are, though, so when the systems librarian mentions them, you don't stare at
them blankly.  (It's not polite, anyway, and it unnerves them.)  Your SQL guru may know the system's
underlying table structure backwards and forwards.  But if you can't clearly describe the data you need
and the results you want, it will likely take you more time and trouble to reach satisfaction.  

The technical skills of any part-time techie also require continual refreshing.  You don't necessarily need
to be ahead of the technological curve, but you can't be very far behind it, either.  Even something as
simple as opening a Microsoft Word document can be technically challenging, if it was made with a later
version of Word than the one you're using.  You need to keep your mind flexible to deal with such little

The more knowledge you have, the more opportunities may arise.  I recently had the opportunity to work
with a library software company on redesigning LMS staff screens.  The company didn't expect me to
know any code or do any programming.  But when their programmers talked about which Visual Basic
controls they had licensed, they expected me to at least generally understand the concept.  Knowing a
little of the vocabulary allowed me to keep up while I figured out the rest.  

Exhausted thinking about keeping up with the tech world?  Here's a more positive thought for you:
computing knowledge can also potentially lead you down new and exciting career paths.  Most of the
older systems librarians today started in other specialties.  Lots of them wandered into systems work by
the "back door," learning programming and analysis because no one else on staff had those skills.  In
recent years, web masters and HTML gurus have been sprouting from the same seeds.  There will
certainly be other similar opportunities in future.  Maybe, after volunteering for some project, you might
find an unexpected path opening up for you.

About the Author:

Bob Persing is the serials librarian at the University of Pennsylvania Library. He received his MSLS from
Simmons College in 1992. He has been active in NASIG, ALCTS and the Voyager Users Group, and
edits a column for Serials Review.

Article submitted Apr 2002

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