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February, 2011:

Why Not Grow Coders from the inside of Libraries?

How fantastic would it be if every small library has an in-house developer? We will be all using open-source software with custom feature modules that would perfectly fit our vision and the needs of the community we serve. Libraries will then truly be the smart consumers of technology not at the mercy of clunky systems. Furthermore, it would re-position libraries as “contributors” to the technology that enables the public to access information and knowledge resources. I am sure no librarian will object to this vision. But at this time of ever-shrinking library budget, affording enough librarians itself is a challenge let alone hiring a developer.

But why should this be the case? Librarians are probably one of the most tech-savvy professionals after IT and science/ engineering/ marketing folks. So why aren’t there more librarians who code? Why don’t we see a surge of librarian coders? After all, we are living in times in which the web is the platform for almost all human activities and libraries are changing its name to something like learning and ‘technology’ center.

I don’t think that coding is too complicated or too much to learn for any librarian regardless of their background. Today’s libraries offer such a wide range of resources and services online and deploy and rely on so many systems from an ILS to a digital asset management system that libraries can benefit a great deal from those staff who have even a little bit of understanding in coding.

The problem is, I think, libraries do not proactively encourage nor strongly support their in-house library staff to become coders. I am not saying that all librarians / library staff should learn how to code like a wizard. But it is an undeniable fact that there are enough people in the library land who are seriously interested in coding and capable of becoming a coder. But chances are, these people will have no support from their own libraries. If they are working in non-technology-related areas, it will be completely up to them to pursue and pay for any type of learning opportunities. Until they prove themselves to be capable of a certain level of coding, they may not even be able to get hands-on experience of working in library technologies/systems/programming. And when they become capable, they may have to seek a new job if they are serious about putting to use their newly acquired programming skills.

It is puzzling to me why libraries neglect to make conscious efforts in supporting their staff who are interested in coding to further develop their skills while freely admitting that they would benefit from having a programmer on staff. Perhaps it is the libraries that are making the wrong distinction between library work and technology work. They are so much more closely intertwined than, say, a decade ago. Even library schools that are slow to change are responding and adding technology courses to their curriculum and teaching all LIS students basic HTML. But certainly libraries can use staff who want to move beyond HTML.

At the 2011 ALA Midwinter, I attended LITA Head of Library Technology Interest Group meeting. One of the issues discussed there was how to recruit and maintain the IT workforce within libraries. Some commented the challenge of recruting people from the IT industry, which often pays more than libraries do. Some mentioned how to quickly acclimate those new to libraries to the library culture and technology. Others discussed the difficulty of retaining IT professionals in libraries since libraries tend to promote only librarians with MLS degrees and tend to exclude non-librarians from the important decision-making process. Other culture differences between IT and libraries were also discussed.

These are all valid concerns and relevant discussion topics. But I was amazed by the fact that almost all assumed that the library IT people would come from the IT sector and outside from libraries. Some even remarked that they prefered to hire from the IT industry outside libraries when they fill a position. This discussion was not limited to programmers but inclusive of all IT professionals. Still, I think perhaps there is something wrong if libraries only plan to steal IT people from the outside without making any attempt to invest in growing some of those technology people inside themselves. IT professionals who come from the general IT industry may be great coders but they do not know about libraries. This is exactly the same kind of cause for inflexible library systems created by programmers who do not know enough about the library’s businesses and workflows.

So why don’t libraries work to change that?

One of the topics frequently discussed in librareis these days is open source software. At the recent 2011 Code4Lib conference, there was a breakout session about what kind of help would allow libraries to more actively adopt open source software adn systems. Those who have experience in working with open source software at the session unanimously agreed that adopting open-source is not cheap. There is a misconception that by adopting open source software, libraries will save money. But if so, at least that would not be the case in any short tem. Open-source requires growing knowledgeable technology staff in-house who would understand the software fully and able to take advantage of its flexibility to benefit the organization’s goals. It is not something you can buy cheap off the shelf and make it work by turning a key. While adopting open-source will provide freedom to libraries to experiment and improve their services and thereby empower lirbaries, those benefits will not come for free without investment.

Some may ask why not simply hire services from a third-party company that will support the open-source software or system that a library will adopt. But without the capability of understanding the source and of making changes as needed, how would libraries harness the real power of open-source unless the goal is just a friendier vendor-library relationship?

In his closing talk at the 2011 Code4Lib conference, Eric Hellman pointed out the fact that many library programmers are self-taught and often ‘fractional’ coders in the sense that they can afford to spend only a fraction of their time on coding. The fact that most library coders are fractional coders is all the more reason for having more coders in libraries, so that more time can be spent collectively on coding for libraries. Although enthusiastic, many novice coders are often lost about how certain programming languages or software tools are or can be applied to current library services and systems and need guidance about which coding skills are most relevant and can be used to produce immediately useful results in the library context. Many novice coders at librareis who often teach themselves programming skills by attending (community) college courses at night at their own expenses and scouring the web for resources and tutorials after work can certainly benefit from some support from their libraries.

Are you a novice or experienced coder working at libraries? Were/are you encouraged to further develop your skills? If a novice, what kind of support would you like to see from your libraries? If experienced, how did you get there? I am all ears. Please share your thoughts.

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N.B. If you are a formally trained CS/E person, you may want to know that I am using the term ‘coding’ loosely in the library context, not in the context of software industry.  Please see this really helpful post “after @bohyunkim: talking across boundaries and the meaning of ‘coder’” by Andromeda Yelton which clarifies this. Will K’s two comments below also address the usage of this term in its intended sense much better than I did.  I tried to clarify a bit more what I meant below in my comments but feel free to comment/suggest a better term if you find this still problematic.  Thanks for sharing your thoughts! (2/22/2011)


Surprise – a Personal Brand is a By-product!

At the 2011 ALA Midwinter Meeting at San Diego, I moderated a panel discussion about personal branding sponsored by ACRL New Members Discussion Group. The program aimed at providing new and budding librarians with an opportunity to think about personal branding and have a lively information discussion with an excellent group of panelists who shared their experience and thoughts on the topic of personal branding.

I won’t summarize the discussion here as I wasn’t able to make very detailed notes. So the following is more of my own take-aways, what I have personally learned from and got to think further after the discussion. (If you are already interested in personal branding, see Further Resources at the end of this post.)

What personal branding is all about

Although a large number of new and budding librarians engage in personal branding in one or another way and some succeed brilliantly at it, many others also struggle or fail. Whether we call it a personal brand or online presence, we recognize those who are successful at having one. While personal branding may seem easy and effortless when seen from the outside, it is certainly a time-consuming endeavor that cannot be taken lightly. As a result, new librarians are often unsure about how to begin, how to keep up, and how to manage one’s own personal brand.

Unfortunately, the term “personal branding” has a negative connotation and gives the impression that personal branding is about having huge egos and/or simply moving up on the career ladder at the expense of others. But this is not what personal branding is about. Personal branding is about acknowledging the fact that, whether we like it or not, information about us online – regardless of its inaccuracy and incompleteness – will inevitably represent us and consciously deciding to take charge of that mass of information about us.

After all, a personal brand is no more than others’ perception of you based upon available information gleaned (nowadays more and more from the internet). In today’s world in which people google others for all sorts of purposes ranging from dating to a job interview, almost everyone has a brand whether they are aware of it or not.

The matter is whether one will consciously manage that brand and build a positive online presence for oneself or will be simply affected by it.

A personal brand is a by-product, not an end itself.

It’s a mistake to think of personal branding as an end itself. A successful personal brand is a by-product of the successful pursuit of one’s own interest, contribution, and networking in librarianship.

The best way to build a successful personal brand is therefore to pursue one’s own interest. The more practical and exciting one’s pursuit is to oneself, the more active, engaging, and passionate one would be.

Looking to connect with other budding librarians and exchange tips about the stressful job-seeking process? In need of advice from more experienced colleagues because you just got your first professional librarian position and you found yourself to be a solo-librarian? Seeking to network with other colleagues in your narrow field of specialization? Just starting to build virtual reference service at your library and would love to find out what the best practices are?

All these interests are completely practical. None of these interests seems to have anything to do with personal branding. If anything, they seem to be completely selfish in the sense that they directly come out of one’s own tangible needs.

However, if one pursues these interests with passion, successfully learning from and sharing/communicating with others and truthfully and accurately representing oneself in the process, it will be only a matter of time for the person to be known and recognized among others with similar interests.

Personal branding doesn’t mean giving up privacy.

Whatever one’s brand is – whether online or off-line, the brand is never the same as an actual person. While one should be true to oneself in interacting with others online, it is a mistake to think that our online persona can represent us one hundred percent or to think that having a personal brand implies giving up privacy entirely.

The fact that the social media allows one to share immediately almost everything with others in an instant does not mean that you must share everything with everyone nor that everything you can share is worthy of sharing with everyone.

Rather, the social media gives you the power of sharing and communicating only the things that you decide to share and communicate. One can still have a strong online presence /personal brand while remaining a private person.

A brand is what represents you, often, as X. What would be that X? A cat lover, a web services librarian, a metadata expert, a PHP maven? a interlibrary-loan specialist? Pick your own X and keep your privacy in all matters other than X.

Personal branding is what you make of it.

In the ACRL New Members Discussion Group panel discussion I moderated, I asked each panelists the following five questions.

  1. What comes to mind when you hear the term, “personal branding”?
  2. What is wrong with not being engaged in personal branding at all?
  3. How and why did you start your own personal branding? What did you do and what did you learn?
  4. How and why did you pick the personal branding channel of your choice (e.g. Twitter, Blog, Facebook, etc.) and what do you think are the pros and cons of those channels?
  5. What are the values/benefits of personal branding to you?

If the tense of 3. and 4. are changed from the past to the future, these can be easily used for those who are interested in becoming more active online in the librarian community to pursue “specific” interests. Do you see the values/benefits in investing time and energy in pursuing your interests in certain social media platforms? If the answer is yes, try to answer the five above questions clearly and make your plan accordingly, keeping in mind that your personal brand is not an end itself but a by-product.

I tried to dispel some of the misconceptions about personal branding such as it is all about marketing oneself shamelessly without really deserving it or about giving up one’s own privacy. But eventually personal branding is something different for each and every individual. It is what one makes of it.

Further resources

If you are interested in the details of what was discussed in the actual panel discussion, see this live tweet archive: http://twapperkeeper.com/hashtag/nmdg.

At the end of this post, if you are ready to embark on your personal branding, feel free to check out this handout from the ACRL New Members Discussion Group and follow up on the further discussion with other new librarians here at ALA Connect – New Members Discussion Group.

Also check out a great write-up and thoughtful comment by Steven Bell about the panel discussion “The WHY of Your Brand” in the Library Journal.