Thursday, March 17, 2011

On the Why Grow Coders from inside of Libraries question

You have to take a look at this great Library Hat blog post on "Why Not Grow Coders from the Inside of Libraries?" Author Bohyun Kim's opening paragraph makes a compelling argument about the benefits of having in-house developers at libraries:

How fantastic would it be if every small library has an in-house developer? We will be all using open-source software with custom feature modules that would perfectly fit our vision and the needs of the community we serve. Libraries will then truly be the smart consumers of technology not at the mercy of clunky systems. Furthermore, it would re-position libraries as “contributors” to the technology that enables the public to access information and knowledge resources. I am sure no librarian will object to this vision. But at this time of ever-shrinking library budget, affording enough librarians itself is a challenge let alone hiring a developer.

Bohyun Kim (@bohyunkim) mentioned the difficulty of luring an IT professional into libraries. But at DrupalCon, I met several people who'd migrated into libraries from the world of "commercial web development". I know that this just anecdotal, but it reinforced other times recently when I've watched IT pros go into either libraries or state government from the commercial world. They were often pained by the pay cut, but in the current jobs environment (not to mention with the rising cost of healthcare and the outsourcing of IT), it may not be so hard to hire those IT folks after all.

On the flip side, I totally agree that those librarians who are so inclined, with enough of a technical background, could and should become developers. It would help libraries... a lot! Moreover, I think that the libraries should commit to providing resources and support for these staff. But we do, as a profession, derive a benefit from getting people from outside the library world to work with us. They give us new perspectives on the best way to do things. And there's a part of me that thinks that it may be easy for developers to come into libraries with the right skillset already in place and adapt their mindset, principles, and concepts to the library environment. Developers are used to working for all sorts of different agencies and organizations - everything from nonprofits and government to for-profit. If they're user-centered, they'll learn the library environment & be good additions to it, regardless of their background.

But what I wanted to point out most was what I feel the real issue is - a lack of vision and leadership in regards to the library's role and how technology plays into this vision. If you think that the library is nothing more than "books" (which is what most of the non-library-using world thinks it is - that's our "brand", if you will), then you wouldn't put resources into information technology. Instead, you'd expend time and create jobs (and whole departments) for aspects of handling those books.

And that's just what happened.

What we really need is to cement the vision of libraries as providing support for the community's information needs. And given that so much information is online (and, in fact, that we're putting it online) this commitment means that we need expertise in information technology. There are some library leaders who are committed to this. In some cases, they were committed enough to - like Darien Library - change the organizational structure to reflect their values. They've done away with the cataloging department and instead created a technologically-inclined user experience department. I don't mean to kill the sacred cow (and there are places where catalogers are still needed, but for most public libraries, honestly, they need to build better systems more than they need original cataloging).

But what do you think? I know it's a bit of the same old argument we've been making since (at least) the 1990s, but I think it's worth getting to the root of the issue and then establishing a way forward that will resolve that issue. To me, it means that all library directors have to buy into the need for (and complexity of) better technological support. Solutions include library directors supporting staff who want to code, integrating IT with all of the library, and hiring from the non-library world. There are a number of methods to deal with this problem. It's just that the people with the hiring power and the budget have to agree that it's a problem.

1 comment:

Bohyun said...

Hi Sharon, Thanks so much for adding your thoughts on this! I think libraries should do both: growing coders inside and also brining in coders from the outside. And I agree that this requires the library management's commitment. Librarians are information professionals and as such some of us have expertise in coding makes sense as coding is what brings data and information out to the public. But the current library environment does not have a mechanism to train the interested library staff to become specialized in coding unlike cataloging, acquisition, reference etc. I hope this changes over time and see the management gets to understand the significance of this move in establishing libraries as a new type of organization beyond its books.