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
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 fromAmazon.com. 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
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
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
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
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
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
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