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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)