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Library and IT – Synergy or Distrust?

In my previous blog post, I asked why libraries are not actively encouraging those who are novice coders among library staff to further develop their coding skills.

I was surprised to see so many comments. I was even more surprised to see that the question was sometimes completely misunderstood. For example, I never argued that ‘all’ librarians should learn how to code (!).  Those who I had in mind were the novice coders/librarians who already know one or two programming languages and struggle to teach themselves to build something simple but useful for practical purposes.

On the other hand, all comments were very illuminating particularly in showing the contrasts between librarians’ and programmers/IT professionals’ thoughts on my question. Below are some of the most interesting contrasts I saw. (All have been paraphrased.)

Librarian (L)
– I am interested in learning how to code but I lack time. Most of all, it is hard to find guidance.

Programmer/IT professional (P)
– There are lots of resources online. Don’t make excuses and plunge in.

L is lost in learning how to code while P thinks everything needed can be found online! Interesting, isn’t it? Ls and Ps are likely to be coming from two completely opposite backgrounds (humanities vs. sciences) and cultures (committee and consensus-driven vs. meritocratic and competitive).

Librarian (L)
– IT distrusts the library staff and doesn’t even allow admin privileges to the staff PCs.
– IT people are overprotective over their knowledge. Not all but many IT tasks are relatively straightforward and can be learned by librarians.

Programmer/IT professional (P)
– Librarians require an MLS for even technology positions. That is crazy!
– You are arguing that librarians can learn how to properly program in their spare time without gaining the proper theoretical understanding of computer science and training in software engineering. That is crazy!

L thinks P should recognize that library staff do work in technology just as IT does and wants P to be more open and sharing instead of being mysterious.  On the other hand, P wants to see L value programmers and IT for their expertise and thinks that an MLS is an unreasonable requirement for a technology position at libraries. I think both parties make excellent points. About the over-protectiveness, I think perhaps it is half true but half likely to be a communication issue.

And here are some of the most valuable comments:

  • Librarians tend to miss that there can be an overlap in the role of IT and that of librarians and regard them as completely separate ones.
  • The management buy-in is important in promoting technology in a library. A nurturing environment for staff development can be quite helpful for the library staff.

I think these two comments are very close to answering my question of why libraries don’t actively encourage and support those among the library staff who know how to code albeit in a rudimentary manner to further develop their skills and apply them to the library context. Although almost all libraries today emphasize the importance of technology, the role of librarians and that of IT, librarianship and technology are often viewed as completely separate from each other. Even when there is an interest in incorporating technology into librarianship, both libraries and LIS schools seem to be puzzled over how to do so.

It is no doubt a tough problem to crack. But it explains up to a certain degree why there is not much collaboration found between librarians and programmers (or IT in a wider sense) at most libraries. Why don’t the library and the IT at a college/university, for example, form a closely-knit educational/instructional technology center?  While reading the comments, I kept thinking about the story I heard from my friend.

My friend works at a large academic library, and the university s/he works at decided to merge the university IT and the university library into one organization to foster collaboration and make the two departments’ operation more efficient. Two departments came to reside in the same building as a result. However, there was so much difference in culture that the expected collaboration did not occur. Instead, the library and the IT worked as they had done before as completely separate entities.

The university administrators may have had the insight that there is an overlapping role between the library and the IT and seen the potential synergy from merging the two units together. But without the library and the IT buying into that vision, the experiment cannot succeed. Even where a library has its own IT department, the cultural difference may hinder the collaboration between the library IT and the rest of the library staff.

How can the gap between librarianship and IT be bridged? As I have already said, I don’t think that the problem is to be solved by ‘all’ librarians becoming coders or IT professionals. That would be implausible, unnecessary, and downright strange.

However, I believe that all libraries would significantly benefit by having ‘some’ library staff who understand how programming works and so all libraries should support and encourage their staff who are already pursuing their interests in coding to further develop their skills and deepen their knowledge. (This is no different than what libraries are already doing regarding their paraprofessionals who want to pursue a MLS degree!)  Even when those staff are not themselves capable of developing a complicated, production-ready software system, they can easily automate simple processes at libraries, solve certain problems, and collaborate with professional programmers in troubleshooting and developing better library systems.

So, my question was not so much about librarians as individuals as about the strategic direction of libraries whose primary concern is providing, packaging, disseminating, and maintaining information, resources, and data. And I am glad I asked my half-baked question. You never know what you will learn until you ask.

The way we communicate, Facebook, libraries, and life

Monday this week, Facebook announced its new messaging system. The new messaging system is Facebook’s attempt to unify SMS, email, instant messaging, and Facebook’s existing messaging service in the already powerful and vast social network platform with five hundred million users. I highly recommend actually watching the video included in this announcement because it explains well as what Facebook regards its new messaging system.

The main idea is to create a Social Inbox that unifies all different modes of communication based upon one’s social network, thereby giving the context and the priority often needed for us to move through different emails and messages. It is a smart move by Facebook.  And it’s a reason for one to worry even more about our putting too much of our (not even just social) lives into one private company’s hands whose business plan is yet to be known. What will Facebook take from us once it decides to make money out of what they own, i.e, data of our lives?

According to Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, the inspiration for this system came from a number of high school students who use mostly SMS or Facebook and rarely e-mails because e-mails are too formal and slow. So what does the Facebook messaging system offer to satisfy the teenagers’ needs for faster and more informal communication? Messages with no subject line, no cc, no bcc, one thread, and no need for paragraphs. Messages are sent as instant messages on Facebook, or either as an email or an SMS message depending on what the recipient “friend” prefers.

This sounds somewhat similar to what Google has attempted early this year with Google Wave but actually more ambitious. Also while the purpose of Wave was never quite clearly defined and focused too much on the real-time aspect of the communication, Facebook’s advertising for its new messaging system is simple and and to the point. It focuses on the convenience you will enjoy if you adopt the Facebook messaging system as the main platform for  your communication needs. That’s a much better sales pitch than real-time communication.

Facebook

Facebook by sitonmonkeysupreme in Flickr

Although Facebook explicitly specifies that its new messaging system does not intend to replace emails, the arrival of the new Facebook messaging system makes me worry about whether I will be soon living in the world inundated with the briefest messages like SMS and Twitter regardless of what setting I am in – work, family, friends, business, entertainment, culture, sports, etc.

I have recently realized that more and more people adopted the trend of forgoing the traditional greetings and sign-offs in their emails. No “Dear/Hi/Hello”, no “Best/Thanks/Cheers/Regards”, and often with not even the sender’s name in the email body. This SMS-like terse email trend is catching on thanks to the prevalence of smart phones.

Granted that typing itself is pain on the phone sometimes. It is only reasonable that the communication device we use determines the mode of our communication. However, this kind of e-mail style written on the phone is now becoming popular in normal e-mails that people compose in front of computers. Why bother with greetings and sign-offs if others do without them? So now everyone is sending emails like SMS messages. I confess that I initially felt quite far apart from those teenagers who complain that e-mails are too informal and too slow. But then I myself am not free from typing away on the phone terse and even cryptic emails trying to send out responses promptly on the go. And it is in an utterly informal fashion that I chat, vent, and joke with people on Twitter.

So the changes in the way we communicate are not just happening among teenagers. The informalization of everyday communication is happening to all of us. And one day, the mental reflex that interprets the terseness and informality of a message as rudeness may be regarded as a mere relic from the pre-digital age.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO LIBRARIES? Many libraries are already in Facebook and Twitter sending out and exchanging informal and brief messages. Some of the libraries also offer SMS as an option for users with research or reference questions. So are libraries going to be communicating with users in this increasingly more informal and faster manner?

Text a Librarian from http://www.textalibrarian.com

This would probably true for most library services. However I doubt if this would very much change the nature of research assistance that libraries offer. At least until we find a way to “think faster” rather than merely to communicate faster what we have thought.

Actually “communicate faster” may be an entirely wrong mantra for research as it may deprive you of the opportunity to critically reflect on the thoughts you have formed through research. Perhaps you made wrong assumption. Perhaps you missed an argument somewhere building up to your big proof.

How do librarians help users to do research better when the common mode of communication and information consumption becomes ever faster, immediate, and hectic? How do libraries show and persuade users that there are different gears they will need to use when they are in the middle of research while still engaging them and be responsive to the faster and more immediate communication channels that users make use of everyday? Certain services libraries provoke are simply not suited for the faster and immediate mode of communication and that’s due to the nature of research , not any fault of libraries.

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ps. On a personal note, I am intrigued by this passage in the Facebook announcement: I’m intensely jealous of the next generation who will have something like Facebook for their whole lives. They will have the conversational history with the people in their lives all the way back to the beginning: From “hey nice to meet you” to “do you want to get coffee sometime” to “our kids have soccer practice at 6 pm tonight.” That’s a really cool idea.”

I am inclined to think that if somebody asserts that having the entire conversation history of his or her life in Facebook is a great idea, then that somebody may as well not know much about life, which is filled with more things that we would rather forget than remember and with more break-ups and fall-aparts than happily-ever-afters.  Is it really sufficient to place the people we know into two categories, friends and non-friends?  Are those going to be the categories that we apply to the people we meet throughout our lives?  Of course, Facebook doesn’t have the evil plan to make our human relationships flat and shallow.  But now that friend-ing, poking, status-updating, liking, and brief messaging seem to be just  good enough, are we willing to go beyond that?  I believe we all have the need for hiding ourselves from time to time behind “the arbitrary ten digit numbers and bizarre sequences of characters.”  But Facebook thinks that’s anachronistic.

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