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Systems Librarian

Nature of systems librarianship 
The nature of systems librarianship: Part l

Approaching systems librarianship in terms of what it is and is not, generates definitions that are solely descriptive. One can address the issue slightly differently to achieve a broader perspective: why have a systems librarian posi­tion? This question suggests that something a bit deeper exists in the nature of systems librarianship and the development and use of technology in libraries.


A brief history of Computing in Libraries: 

To understand how system librarians have evolved in the library we need to take a brief look at history. From the development about 30 years ago of the Machine-Readable Cataloguing (MARC) standard, the creation of the library databases, libraries have been active in technological projects (automation of library catalogues in the late 1970s and early 1980s). Other applications also received attention: ref­erence database searching, administrative functions and office automation activities such as word processing. The traditional divisions in libraries, public and technical services, also influenced the development of systems librarianship, in terms of responsibilities and skills.  


As mentioned, libraries encompass a variety of tasks, resources, services, rela­tionships, and functions. For some areas of librarianship there are clear boundaries of responsibility and spheres of influence. While there is always room for interpretation and variance, there is wide agreement on what constitutes, for example, an acquisitions li­brarian, a reference librarian, or a cataloguer. Not so with sys­tems librarians. Systems librarianship has not enjoyed the same status or recognition as other areas of librarianship. This is probably related to the lack of understanding of what specifically constitutes systems librarianship. When computing, a "technical" ac­tivity, was introduced into many libraries, the responsibility for it became part of the "technical services" unit known as the acquisitions and cataloguing division within the library. 


As new technologies arise, different problems present themselves, and new users come on board, it’s an ongoing cycle as one technology fades another emerges. Or as one need is addressed, others arise. No matter what the level of technological saturation within an organization, there are identifiable cycles of exploration, experimen­tation, adaptation, adoption, maturation, and obsolescence.  


New technology exploration and evaluation 

One of the most challenging and exciting areas of systems librari­anship is the involvement with emerging technologies. This com­ponent of the job is similar to research and development. Many technologies that are developed for other industries have applica­tions within libraries and information environments. Understanding the trade-offs of implementing one type of technology over another or in the level of technology investment is critical for all librarians. Those in systems work (systems librarians) have a responsibility to see that others in the profession are aware of the implications and that appropriate policy and practice issues are addressed. 

Technical Risk Management (Differentiating Possible and Feasible) 

Organizations of all sizes must be aware of the risks involved in de­ploying technology. These risks range from hardware and software failure to privacy invasion, emergency weather damage, security breaches, etc. Increasingly, libraries have a need to invest in planning and policy making related to technical risks. Systems librarians are key individuals within organizations to lead the effort. They bring to the table a broad understanding of the technology and technical issues as well as the library and human issues. One of the largest areas to ad­dress is training users throughout the library to be aware of what is at risk and what is really happening in the use of various new technologies.


If librarians want libraries and themselves to continue existing, it is more productive to recognize that every option includes a level of risk. Some projects may involve little or no significant risk. In projects such as migrating to a different integrated library sys­tem (ILS), the risk level is high and greater consequences could develop if projections are inaccurate. Risk, however, can be known and managed.


Possibility and feasibility routinely get confused or misused. Stating that something is possible in technical terms means that someone has done it or that the technology exists so that it can be accom­plished. Therefore, in other words, it can be done. Feasibility is much more complex because the concept implies the inclusion of other factors related to the circumstances under which implementation might oc­cur. For example, the amount of money one is willing or able to spend, the length of time one is willing or able to invest, existing in­frastructure, contravening technical factors, conflicting goals, and other political constraints, among other issues, all determine to some extent whether or not something is feasible. Just because something works a certain way at one site does not mean that it will be the same somewhere else. There are many factors to consider. 


Looking to the future (one example)

Introducing eBook readers (Sony) and Kindle™ ( Amazon). There are currently two eBook readers out there. Let’s take a brief look at the Amazon Kindle. It’s a convenient, portable reading device with the ability to wirelessly download books, blogs, magazines, and newspapers. Thanks to electronic paper, a revolutionary new display technology, reading Kindle’s screen is as sharp and natural as reading ink on paper—and nothing like the strain and glare of a computer screen. Using the same 3G network as cell phones, the Kindle downloads eBooks from Kindle lets you download and read the beginning of books for free. At 10.3 ounces, Kindle is lighter and thinner than typical paperbacks, and fits easily in one hand. Its built-in memory stores hundreds of titles. An optional SD memory card lets you hold even more.  

Surely the above mentioned new technology will directly impact public libraries, as did the internet. In what time frame will new technologies develop and to what degree will they directly impact libraries is certainly open to debate. They will affect a number of performance and service issues, that is clear. With education and entertainment applications (include virtual environ­ments), the desire for three-dimensional interactions, etc. Technical professionals (systems librarians) are in a prime position to inform the de­bate.
One major challenge for this profession today is keeping up with new and emerging technologies. The development of and change in technology occurs at a pace far more rapid than in the recent past. While this challenge can be overstated, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for people in these positions to master all new technologies or new applications of technology. Be that as it may, focusing on certain sets of technological de­velopments or applications that appear relevant may be the only sur­vival technique in this scenario, unless, of course, one wishes to be totally consumed in the process. Along with this strategy, one must also understand that projections of what technological development will offer the world in the distant future are more the preview of science fiction than honest forecasting. 

Librarian and Systems Librarian (technical professional)

Systems librarians bring to the table a vast array of skills and approaches related to technology, organiza­tions, and information. For libraries these technical professionals of­fer expertise and sensibility for computing and networking within the context of a library. Systems librarians also provide an interface between two-worlds. Libraries and computing creates the opportunity to blend the very best that each has to offer. Libraries and other or­ganizations would do well to consider the value of having people employed in strategic positions who understand and can communi­cate issues related to knowledge management (i.e., creation, organi­zation, presentation and delivery) and technology management (i.e., process, means, priorities and planning). 


Systems librarians are often caught in the middle of two "in­dustries", neither of which completely embraces them. Despite the negative associations attributed to people in tech­nical positions, library systems staff has a rich and proud history that has had great impact on the mission and operations of libraries. Systems librarianship represents a blend of library science, com­puter operations, and management. Historically, this specialty arose out of existing library positions in response to technological ad­vancements within libraries. It is now a bona fide segment of the profession. For more than thirty years, the contributions of people in these positions have defined the nature of the field. 


The literature on systems librarianship indicates that these positions perform many duties, ranging from library systems administration to training and PC hardware/software support. A systems librarian is a spe­cialist, like an acquisitions librarian, reference librarian, or inter­library loan librarian. Just as they receive focused training and develop on-the-job exper­tise in their respective areas, systems librarians acquire the knowl­edge and skill levels they need through a variety of opportunities. 


In an ideal environment, systems librarians would have a solid understanding of the operations of most, if not all, units within li­braries, in addition to understanding systems work. To be an effective systems librarian, one must also possess knowledge of library automation, computing and net­working. On the surface, it may appear that these demands are too high and no one could possibly be expected to function ade­quately in both arenas (i.e., libraries and computing). 


To accommodate the need for technical expertise and to attract suitable candidates, some libraries have made technical positions management level as well, thus increasing the overall salary range for a position. It is sad, but true, that libraries in general tend to pay less than many other industries for comparable positions, particularly in technical fields. Building expertise in-house is not without its challenges. For example, it can be very expensive to send staff to appropriate training. Once knowledge has been gained and hands-on experience follows, the expertise that has developed is highly marketable. It will cost to develop, main­tain, and retain a trained and experienced technical staff. 

In contrast to other Librarians:  

To understand the nature of systems librarianship, it is helpful to contrast it with other types of librarianship. Systems librarians are similar to other specialists in libraries because they bring a given set of skills to the table and offer certain perspectives to an organization. Systems librarians specifically con­centrate on supporting library operations through the application of technologies. They seek to manage the organizational technological resources in a manner that best serves all users. All librarians, including systems librarians, need to use computers to some degree to perform their duties. The level of knowledge and responsibility, however, is much higher for the sys­tems librarian in this case. Systems librarians’ computing knowledge puts them in the best posi­tion to see the issues that relate to the overall implementation and management of information technology resources within the organi­zation.

Systems librarians are individuals who can function in demanding environments that re­quire vacillating focus shifts between broad and narrow issues. The abilities to learn new skills quickly, adopt new paradigms gracefully, and balance competing priorities continuously will become essential. Rapid change is a common prediction for most professions. The nature and rate of change is a matter for debate, but one major need that frequently goes unmentioned is the evaluation and determina­tion of change. The focus is often on change as an event, rather than as a process in which people participate. When change is seen as a human process, the opportunities for involvement, choice, and di­rection are more evident. The people in these positions in part seem able to balance the stress in the position through enjoyment of the responsibilities of the position: communicating with other systems people and receiving mutual support and sleuthing through difficult problems.


Given this perspective, they have a duty to be intimately fa­miliar with the technology, both that which is currently employed and that which is potentially useful, and the applications and services in use and available in the market. This level of responsibility does not imply that systems librari­ans are the only ones who "do technology"; in fact, these positions exist so that others can "do technology." Through effective imple­mentation, maintenance, and training, systems librarians ensure that the investment that an organization has made in technology remains productive and useful. How exactly this role plays itself out varies from library to library. 


What specifically constitutes the responsibilities of a systems librar­ian?

Common areas of responsibility for systems librarians should be explored in greater depth. These include: integrated library system (ILS) management; network design, management and support; server and host administration; desktop computing; training, documentation, and support; application development; planning and budget; specifi­cation and purchasing; technology exploration and evaluation; mis­cellaneous technology support; technical risk management; security systems and communication and coordination. These technical areas are fre­quently combined with more general management responsibilities.


Systems librarians are called on to be fluent in many different aspects of computing and networking. Thus, they are expected to possess a wide-ranging array of knowledge and skill in both library and computing operations at significant depths. Systems librarianship demands broad and deep technical exper­tise and experience with many relevant technologies. Systems librarians need to view the entire enterprise from a total resource management per­spective; systems work is more than just a few fancy computers or a really cool Web presence. 

Overlap between many of the responsibilities of sys­tems librarian and those of the ICT department: 

As libraries have become increasingly automated, the existence of some type of systems librarian has become more common. With libraries moving to second- and third-generation systems and in­tegrating scores of electronic resources for patron access, the need for systems librarians has become commonplace. The most complex site to manage is one that employs main­frame technology. In these cases, several specialists may be required to handle operating system maintenance, application software main­tenance, communica­tions systems operations, and backup management. 


For most libraries, the key elements will be operations and performance monitoring and backup management. Vendors usually maintain the software themselves (i.e., the li­brary is not responsible for programming). The systems librarian is responsible for monitoring the system and notifying the vendor when something is not working correctly or something suspicious has occurred, attending to rebuilds, schedule reports, user access and privileges, etc. 


In most cases libraries effec­tively rely on the support of their in-house ICT department due to the fact that in most libraries the Technical Services department/division only consists of one or two technical professionals. The details concerning who is responsible for what is important as each unit within the organization is aware of and understands its responsibility, because libraries need com­puting and network support in the form of specification and purchase, installation and maintenance, and operations and management, software licensing, etc.  

This creates an overlap between many of the responsibilities of sys­tems librarians and those of suppliers and other departments, for example, information and communication technology (ICT) department. Some librarians have even questioned the appro­priateness of having librarians performing systems responsibilities, ar­guing that other technical staff (ICT department) should be responsible for these duties. At the same time, much has been said about the need to avoid the negative aspects of centralized control of computing resources by the information and communication technology (ICT) department. They have often been cited as misguided, non-communicative "control freaks" by their users. 


In South Africa most Councils’ (Municipalities) ICT departments have the ultimate say and have complete control over Councils’ computer related projects and purchases. A familiar scene is a systems librarian on bended knee at the ICT department, trying desperately to get a project approved. The sad reality is that in some instances the funds and projects (business plan) were approved by the Provincial Services but the information and communication technology (ICT) department does not support the project even though the initial project will be at no cost to the Council. 

Managing by default 

Managing a situation or circumstance without much thought or prepa­ration might be called management by default. Implementing most technologies entails making a variety of de­cisions regarding parameter settings, naming conventions, user re­strictions, colours and layout, among many others. These decision points are common, but they do have implications for how a technol­ogy or device operates and how easily it will be managed over its life span. In many cases, the choices revolve around which options will be default values and which will require special attention.

The same type of approach can be taken to a variety of man­agement tasks in systems work. Any time there is a need to deal with the resolution of a multifaceted set of problems, discovering a change that will address the most aspects and dealing with the ex­ceptions individually saves time and effort, as well as money. Man­aging in this fashion requires a keen sense of what solutions may address outstanding issues, an awareness of how interdependent many things are, and a willingness to negotiate effective resolutions despite what might appear on the surface of the problem or request. Techniques such as these are necessary for there are not enough hours in each day to deal with all problems and requests individually. Some may require special attention, but if that approach becomes the norm, soon efficient time management goes out the window. 

Understanding the technical mind 

Not everyone employed in technically re­lated work thinks or acts the same or is motivated by the same in­centives, but there are some orientations that are common to people drawn to this type of work. One area in which tensions are common is in communication styles. For example, when problems are reported, technical staff are oriented toward fixing the problem and will be seeking relevant de­tails on the symptoms of the problem. If the nontechnical person reporting the problem insists on diagnosing the problem rather than describing the symptoms, the technical person is likely to get frus­trated. It would be as if a patient visiting a doctor were to respond to the question, "What's wrong?" with the answer, "I have tonsillitis," rather than, "My throat is sore and it feels as if I have an inflammation." Likewise, the nontechnical person is likely to be offended by the technical person telling him or her that he or she doesn't understand the technology. 

A technical manager must remain aware that these tensions ex­ist and will arise from time to time. Technical staff are neither al­ways in the right nor always in the wrong, but they do need to be supported in matters that assist them in performing the duties for which they were hired. 

Communication and Coordination 

In addition to excellent technical skills and knowledge, a systems librarian must possess communication skills. On the surface, it is obvious that someone who will be involved in training will need to have reasonable skills in this area. Systems librarians should be able to translate highly technical processes and procedures into language that laypeople can understand and benefit from, and they are re­quired to inform other technical people about the needs of libraries and their users in technical language and logic that makes sense to them. In addition, many times systems librarians will need to com­municate with vendors that do not serve the library community di­rectly or with agencies and individuals outside the library world. 

Communication (trust occurs only when there is communication) 

Communication is a critical component of technical work. It warrants a high level of attention from a systems librarian. Both within the library and with external departments, foster­ing and maintaining open and productive communication channels is important both for effective technical work and for creating and pre­serving positive perceptions of the library’s services rendered to the community. 


Technical professionals historically have not been known for their interpersonal communication abilities. This circumstance must change. As libraries are increasingly intertwined with information technology, the people who understand the capabilities, implica­tions, and limitations of the technology must be able and ready to articulate library concerns in a meaningful fashion. 


And therefore credibility grows out of trust. Too many systems librarians (technical professionals) have presented unrealistic technology goals, misrepresented the complexity of technical projects, and discounted the concerns of less technically literate people. To become believ­able one must demonstrate a history of accomplishments within your organization. Systems Librarian: Part ll  


The Accidental Systems Librarian

The Accidental Systems Librarian

The Accidental Systems Librarian by Rachel Singer-Gordon Published in 2003 by Information Today

The Accidental Systems Librarian


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