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.

About Bohyun (Library Hat)

Bohyun Kim is the Associate University Librarian for Library Information Technology at the University of Michigan Library. Formerly, she was the Chief Technology Officer and Professor at the University of Rhode Island Libraries.
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2 Responses to Library and IT – Synergy or Distrust?

  1. Andromeda says:

    I would amend “Librarians tend to miss that there can be an overlap in the role of IT and that of librarians” to “Librarians and IT tend to miss that there can be an overlap in the role of IT and that of librarians”, but yes.

    Bridging this sort of gap (both individually and by building larger-scale structures) is one of my long-term professional goals; I am totally envious of you for having cultivated so much conversation on it :).

    So yes, how do we do that? I think the culture issues you note in your anecdote are a big part of things; theoretical synergies don’t matter if cultural differences are too severe. And I think this is one of the best reasons for more librarians to learn to code, and more libraries to support this; it gives librarians the vocabulary (and mindset!) they need to talk to programmers and be taken seriously, seen as a potential partner rather than some clueness n00b who needs tech support. (I’m not sure what sorts of experiences on the part of programmers could build an analogous bridge into librarianship. Many of them have good childhood memories of libraries, so there’s a start, but it’s not enough.)

    Which is to say: I think it has to start small, with individuals. Individual librarians who can code just enough to set up a reasonable technology partnership, which then exposes programmers to library issues. Individual sympathetic people in the IT department or in industry who can work together on projects. (And I think it has to start with projects — short-term, defined, outcomes-based — not with programs; because the stakes are lower and it’s easier to get that temporary commitment, because programming (in industry, at least, dunno about campus IT) is very project-oriented. Projects or communities of interest, meeting regularly for lunch or something — I don’t think the two groups have enough shared practice to have communities of practice, yet.)

    Hm. For the software types who read this blog: what would incentivize you to be involved in a library project? Where do you see a value proposition? (If, um, anywhere.)

    As for this: “There are lots of resources online. Don’t make excuses and plunge in.”

    I think it’s both true and misses the point of the post you were making. Yes, a lot of what you need to learn (or at least start learning) is freely available and doesn’t need anyone’s help or permission, and librarians need to take more initiative on that front. On the other hand, when my husband needs to learn a new programming language for his job, it is seen as part of his job and if he spends time at work to do it, no one is going to give him a hard time for that. If libraries-as-institutions are not going to protect librarians’ time to do that, that’s a huge barrier to taking advantage of the resources.

    And there is also, frankly, a lot of cultural stuff surrounding the use of those resources, which I think is invisible to programmers because they are *in* the culture. Past a certain point it’s genuinely hard to make progress without a community, or at least mentors or peers. Some questions are hard to google for (I was trying to figure out some “or” syntax the other day…it is hard to formulate a useful google query about “or”…but easy to ask a human). Some things are matters of code but also matters of culture (what are the norms surrounding submission of patches to open source projects, or participation in their communities? I have no idea). Online communities can be swift and brutal in punishing people who do not comply with their cultural norms (which is their right, but falls on you a lot more heavily if you’re coming from outside those norms). Some things you simply can’t know on your own (what are best practices surrounding a particular software process? in fact you may not even know there *are* best practices — autodidacts can have huge problems this way).

    Software people past a certain age are much more likely to be doing their “independent”, online learning embedded in some sort of community (CS majors, coworkers, etc.). Librarians often are alone, which limits not only the answers you can get, but also the questions you know to ask.

    Which is not an excuse for not starting. Just an argument that “it’s all online” is too simplistic.

  2. @Andromeda: All very excellent points – I have little to add. : -) Yes, being inside and outside of a community of practice makes a huge difference no matter how much free staff is available to learn online.

    What I most worry about is that libraries have stakes in recruiting programmers to libraries. I believe this will make a difference in libraries surviving in a way libraries envision in the future. By contrast, programmers and IT professionals have no intrinsic reason to care about libraries. So unfortunately, the libraries’ missing the overlap in the role of librarians and that of IT will mean always much more loss to them than to IT organizations or software companies.

    Would there be a way to interest programmers and IT to our library-land? Considering libraries are all about information, it seems that it shouldn’t be too difficult. But here the cultural differences seem to be a major obstacle. I would love to see this change, but it is a very difficult place for libraries to be to initiate a change that would be favorable to them.

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