Tradition and technology – a librarian’s education.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that librarians love dissing their formal library education.

I have at times joined that chorus because studying librarianship was mostly really boring  and I really did learn more about being a librarian through the practical doing than through my degree. (Side note: having the qualification does allow us to call ourselves a profession, which means we have standards and ethics we adhere too and this is a good thing.)

I studied online for my library degree and I wonder whether this affected the experience and development of practical skills – I certainly knew the theory of how to conduct a reference interview but hadn’t ever done one, at a face-to-face course this might have been different.

Some of the reasons my library degree seems irrelevant is because I just don’t use those skills. By choice, I studied archiving and preservation. I was never likely to work in an archive but I thought it might be useful to have a broader range of skills just in case. It was (at least thus far) pointless and I would have been better studying event and program development. But the same could be said of learning Dublin Core or half a dozen more things that are not relevant to what I do everyday. Bur with a different career path those skills could be hugely relevant, so context is everything.

What do I wish I’d been taught at library school? Part of me thinks that question is irrelevant. Librarians need to know many things to be able to do their roles effectively and some of those things are still traditionally “librarian” – collections, MaRC, databases and keyword searching etc.

But…

I became a librarian because I love books and reading (cue eye-rolling) and that’s not really what I do. I’m not sure my degree did enough to really paint the picture of the industry in its current state besides the odd reference here and there to how the internet has changed librarianship. I feel that there was way to much focus on the traditional and it was way too easy for the tech stuff to be bypassed by book loving wannabe librarians (I did take web design, which was probably the most valuable skill I got from my degree but it wasn’t compulsory).

It should have been compulsory for me to learn and understand systems and programming because it would break down a lot of barriers that exist between tech and librarians. I have a great general knowledge of technology, I’m really good at troubleshooting issues with equipment or systems and assisting customers. But there’s a whole other level of knowledge about library systems that is integral to functioning in a modern public library and understanding that would be hugely beneficial.

When I was studying all that other level tech stuff wasn’t really of much interest to me and the friends I made during the course felt the same way. The unfortunate consequence of this is that tech and systems were not seen as integral to every librarian, or seen as massive barrier to access for our communities. Now I’m in a tech librarian role, I live and breathe the critical importance of this every day but librarians outside those employed in tech roles need to join the conversation.

Why? I think it’s fair to say that men do a lot of the tech roles in libraries. And while I’m not looking at opening that can of worms (one day I might be brave enough to write a blog post about all of that) I did once read an article that said while women don’t make up 50% of the tech roles only 50% of the problems in tech would be solved. (I don’t have a reference to that article other than to say it was hugely influential in my journey from book loving to tech nerd librarian).

It’s undoubtedly redundant for me to say technology inhabits every aspect of our lives. But the consequence of that fact is that technology skills and knowledge are the most important things you need to work in libraries. It’s more important than collections or program development or even reference interview. But while it’s considered the realm of tech librarians then only a limited amount of thinking can even go into solving some of the barriers technology and systems cause for our communities.

This is not a criticism of tech librarians but rather a comment on the number of people doing the thinking. If four people are focused on an area then you’ll get four people’s ideas – they may be good ideas but it’s still only four people’s ideas. But if you have 30 people interested and focused on an area then  you’ll got 30 completely different ways of thinking about something, which in the long run can only be of benefit especially if those people come with a diversity of interests and perspectives.

For example, take the library catalogue. The OPAC in and of itself is a massive barrier to accessing the library collection. In the age of google it doesn’t really feel that logical to have to search for and index information the way you’re forced to in a catalogue (hello MaRC haters). We also know that developing a catalogue that’s more like Google is still years away. But what if everyone who worked in the library was able to be part of that conversation. What if it wasn’t tech librarians, boffins and vendors but all librarians, would that speed up the development? If we all said this is of critical importance and here’s how we think it could work, would that help?

So yeah I kind of wish I’d studied programming, data management, information architecture and not archiving and I wish we all had to do the same.

Disclaimer 1: I finished my library degree in 2011, a lot could of changed by now. Also my experience is based on my choice of university I know there are some courses with a stronger focus on technology. 

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