Year Two: Systems Librarian

Last year, in January 2012,  I started a student co-op position as a systems librarian at Prosentient Systems. I had already finished 10 of 16 required courses of my Masters of Library and Information Studies (MLIS), and I was looking to get some more work experience in library technology and technical services.

When I started there, I had taken one 2 day course in PHP and one 6 week course on database design at the University of British Columbia. In terms of formalized education, that was it.

Yet, after being inspired by library technologists at the Access 2011 conference in Vancouver, I decided that I was pretty keen to try my hand at library technology. I had already been working in libraries for several years in a variety of paraprofessional (and frankly professional) roles where I focussed on the technical aspects of librarianship, but I hadn’t crossed over into library technology per se.

However, when a wireframe was required for a usability class, I decided to build a whole website on the uni network using PHP. Over the Christmas holidays, December 2011, I downloaded a XAMPP package, and experimented with Ubuntu, Apache, MySQL , and PHP on a spare server I had laying around at home.

Arriving at Prosentient Systems in January 2012, I was overwhelmed by the immensity of Koha. It’s a powerful, full-featured system which can be rather imposing.

At first, I interacted with it as a “superlibrarian”. I modified system preferences, I added content, set up circulation rules, etc.

Next, I started editing templates, since they were mostly just HTML, and I knew HTML reasonably well at that point.

Then, I started looking at the Perl scripts that filled the template variables with dynamic content.

Then, I started debugging further…and further…and further. I found it easier and easier to diagnose and eradicate bugs.

This year, in 2013,  I find myself writing new features in Perl for Koha, and writing new systems in PHP . While I’m sure I still have much to learn in regards to best practices in software development, I think it’s rather amazing that I’ve gone from non-programmer to programmer in 1-1.5 years.

Now, in June 2013, I find myself reading textbooks on UNIX system administration and TCP/IP network administration. I’m setting up SSH servers, so that I can interact remotely with my new Debian server.

I feel like I’m learning in leaps and bounds. My only complaint is not enough time to do everything. If I could have my way, I would have an extra 24 hours a day, so that I could read more, write more, test more, and deploy more.

I wonder a bit if my library knowledge is falling by the wayside. Am I privileging IT over LIS? Is there really a difference?

I suppose the difference I feel is not between “disciplines” but rather motivation and inspiration. While all bug fixes are important, what prompts my enhancements? Client requests. These enhancements are not prompted by my own analysis of information needs and core business goals of organizations. I suppose it’s this intellectual analysis that is falling by the wayside.

I wonder if it’s helpful to think of IT as the practical implementation of information studies while LIS is the theoretical implementation of information studies.

Probably not.

I suppose I sometimes feel like library technologists often spend their time addressing minor issues or achieving superficial goals when we could be doing much more innovative work.

Of course, this might be caused by LIS. Stereotypically, we librarians do tend to be very detail-oriented. Perhaps too detail-oriented. I think sometimes we librarians get hung up on superficial details and we forget the forest for the trees.

So what do I think going forward half-way through year two as a systems librarian?

Well, as I said, I’m amazed that I’ve achieved so much in this 1-1.5 years. Of course, I think that I have lots left to learn about technology, but I’m excited to pursue that knowledge and skills.

I suppose the thing I’m uncertain of is what needs to be done not only in terms of my own professional development in the library field but also what needs to be done FOR the library field. Are the solutions all technical? We hear about the death of the print book and the rise of the ebook. We hear about the death of MARC and the rise of BIBFRAME and RDF-based library metadata. Electronic devices, especially mobile devices, abound.

Undoubtedly, it’s important to address the technical challenges that face libraries and the information world in general.

Yet…I keep wondering if we’re doing enough strategic thinking about what libraries need to do. When I first started library school, I imagined that public libraries needed to reconsider their place in people’s lives. As I went through library school, I continually read that special libraries also needed to do more for their larger organizations. There is so much that health libraries and law libraries can do within their larger organizations, yet it seems that they often think of themselves more as book repositories than information centres.

I would like to do more to see special libraries take on a larger role in the management of information in their larger organizations, yet…as a systems librarian who supports many clients…I find I don’t have the time, connections, or resources to do so.

I think that’s the problem. The people who are in place to understand institutional information needs and those people who do understand them are not necessarily the people with the technical ability to create the tools and infrastructure needed to meet these information needs. Likewise, the people with the technical ability do not have the time or ability to discover those information needs.

I think the role of the systems librarian has often been to bridge the gap between the library and the system, but as systems librarians have to do more and more, they don’t have the time to take full advantage of being that bridge.

I wonder if the solution is to give systems librarians more time or make librarians more technically savvy…