…and about those techie librarians

As I was writing my post about losing your techie librarians last week, I did some thinking. My list was a little longer and I removed a few items that could have gone either way — that I saw as important as a techie librarian, but that I thought non-techies might say “See, that’s what’s wrong with those techie librarians….” Examples like “Make them submit all of their work to a non-techie committee that meets infrequently” can highlight this nuance. In my world, getting all of my techie decisions second guessed by non-techies can be frustrating and seemingly fruitless. To other staff, I’m sure that seeing me working away on a project that springs fully formed from my laptop is equally frustrating, possibly. I learned, at my last library job, how to ask for feedback on projects as I worked, to try to get people to feel like they were part of the process while at the same time not just saying “So, what do you guys think of the new website?” Getting responses on the new website design that indicated that I should change the colors, add more photographs or rework the layout when we were a few days away from launching it made me gnash my teeth thinking “But I’ve been working with you on this all along, for months…!” and yet their responses indicated that clearly I hadn’t been, not in a way that was genuine to them.

Or, maybe not. One of the hardest things about technology is trying to assess people’s relative skill levels when the information they give you about their own skill levels is all over the map. While we have long worked with best practices in many aspects of the library profession, many best practices in the technology realm either exist totally outside of most people’s consciousness, or the “tyranny of the expert” problem pops up where a library director assumes that because they are in charge, they can overrule best practices without a better follow-up option. The websites of our professional organizations and those sold to us by our ILS/OPAC vendors don’t help.

There is a blind spot in working with technology where people making the decisions have a tendency to assume that other technology users are like them. The ideas of usability, web standards, and accessibility as abstract concepts don’t matter as much as what’s for sale, what your tech team can build, and what your library director’s favorite color is. The patrons become a distant third consideration when techie and non-techie librarians battle for turf. Trying to bring up the patrons in a usability debate becomes a complicated mess because everyone knows one or two patrons that, as exceptions to the rules, complicate the approach and strategies employed by the bulk of the rest of the patrons. Especially in rural or poorer areas, users with very little access to technology understand it differently than people who have grown up with it, used it at work for decades, or who have a familiar working knowledge of it. Do you design a website for your digitally disadvantaged community (who pays your salary) or do you design the site that will help them understand it, and do you know the difference?

I’ve been enjoying teaching adult education tech classes more than I enjoyed being a techie in a non-techie library, but let’s be fair, the library probably runs more smoothly without me there also. No doubt, hiring and retention of skilled technology-savvy librarians is an important point and a good management concern. On the other hand, there is an oil and water aspect to the techie/librarian mix and the techie in a library can be seen as the new kid in a classroom where everyone else knows the rules and the local customs. The techie librarian often doesn’t look, work, or sometimes even talk like longer term tenured librarians. This we know. The same can be said for catalogers often, but since their jobs are understood and understood to be essential for the functioning of a library (and have been since day one) I find that their eccentricities and quirky non-patron-facing job function seem to be less problematic than some of the same oddballness of the techies.

Again, it’s just me saying blah blah blah about the work that I do and the things that I see but I know that as a techie, the longer I work outside of libraries but with librarians, the more I wonder how to fix this problem and the less I think I know how.

7 thoughts on “…and about those techie librarians

  1. Jessamyn, I found this post to be very thoughtful and insightful. What you describe is what I’ve experienced, a LOT. Especially this: “The techie librarian often doesn’t look, work, or sometimes even talk like longer term tenured librarians.” And this: “There is a blind spot in working with technology where people making the decisions have a tendency to assume that other technology users are like them.” Thanks for writing this.


  2. Presenting evidence to support your views I’ve found to be crucial as a web developer in a college/library setting. There some sites out there with data which support accessible web development. It’s tough to take the time away from programming, designing etc… but generally people won’t say “No” to good development principles if you have something to back up your arguments.

  3. Great post. At an interview, I was asked over and over by the various depts if I spoke English vs. Tech. I asked if they spoke English vs. Library and they were all *shocked*. The biggest problem I saw on both sides was the often refusal to translate their language be it *library* or *tech* into something the other person could relate to. While they expected the techies to know how to communicate to them, many library staff refused to understand that “techies” don’t walk in off the street understanding MARC, Z39.50, lending, borrowing, OCLC, etc. A cataloger told me that she should be able to ask anyone in IT anything about technology and get an answer immediately. She shouldn’t have to wait for our web manager to come back from lunch. I asked her if the same was true for cataloging…could I ask her a serials cataloging question. Of course not! How is that different.

  4. I’m one of those techies who’s leaving, and my reasons are as following ;

    – Most librarians think they are experts in everything, probably due to the low resources libraries are getting so they feel they need to put on as many hats as possible. But then I as an expert in certain fields gets overruled by librarians who think they know about this stuff. They don’t; they’ve only read something about it in a magazine somewhere.

    – Guts; libraries don’t have the guts to do anything outside of their rather conservative box. Often “low resources” and the belief that there is some political importance in what they’re doing seems to drag them back into conservative ways of handling people, projects and problems. (This one also includes “pulbic service” syndrome) Sure, there’s the occasional small stint of excitement, often put forth through shere geek force of will, but anything prioritised is dumbed down.

    – Design. All of the problems we’re trying to solve require some degree of design skills. Libraries don’t normally hire people with such skills. (And no, I’m not talking visual graphical design here) Usability, information architecture, UCD, contextual design … I could go on.

    – Lack of leadership; there are lots of managers here, even good ones, but no leaders (with a few notable exceptions at the very top). When resources are low and wages even lower, what can you offer your developers if not tricky problems solved in exciting ways because we believe in what we do? Leaders show the way and inspire, while managers maintain some old pathway and leaves no room for creativity and inspiration.

    Sure, chalk me up as somewhat bitter and fed up, but I leave with a heavy heart; I truly believe in the potential of what libraries can do, I love the symbol of it and its goals, I love the challenges and problems, and all I want to do is to jump in there and do things right. But alas, I also loath the way things are run. And yes, my background is diverse but mostly in the commercial sector. Enough said.

  5. I’m not quite certain that catalogers are as valued as they once were, either… I’ve heard disturbing stories about academic libraries laying off formerly-professional or paraprofessional cataloging positions in favor of student workers, or getting rid of the these jobs entirely through attrition. I really would like to learn how to explain the value of cataloging to people who aren’t trained in libraries or as librarians, as I’ve been pretty poor at that myself.

    On the actual subject of the post ;), I know that a lot of these usability issues are being taught in schools now, at various levels- I just wonder how it’s actually being practiced. That’s one of the reasons I look through these types of blogs, to see what it is that people should learn in class or out of class (where I work).

  6. This post, and those lists people posted about how to lose a techie have been percolating in the back of my mind for a while. I think what I want to say is, it’s not really about the technology. I was born in the last year of the baby boom, and I think I can kind of see both sides of this so called divide. It’s more of a cultural/generational difference. I have had techie types in my organization tell me why they cannot help me with something I want to do, but I have found that many times it depends on who is asking, and something will get done for someone with more pull than I might have.
    I get the sense that your comments are directed at upper management. What about your peers in the organization? Techies should try talking to us frontline refgrunts. We may not have power, but we can be allies. We work with the public and have a pretty good idea of their needs and skill levels. Maybe together we can make a more compelling case to management for some kind of technological innovation.
    I will never forget the out and out contempt I saw in library school for the end users who had to cope with the things they designed exhibited by some real techno types. These techies had the attitude that if you can’t figure it out then you must be stupid. I still see today something of a witholding of information by some techies, because once everyone learns the secret password, then they lose what little power they have in the organization.
    I know I may get some nasty comments for saying this – but my main point is – can’t we all just get along? I don’t consider myself a techie, but I am trying to remain aware of what is going on. I am trying to learn what I can without annoying the techies who don’t have the time to explain to me what seems very obvious to them.
    I just hope we can find a way to foster a true spirit of collaboration on both sides of the techie-non-techie divide. My advice to techies – find some allies in your organization who will help you to make your case.

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