When someone finds out I’m a librarian, they automatically think I know everything there is to know about, well, books. The thing is, I don’t. I got into libraries because of the technology. My career in libraries started with the take off, a supposed library replacement, of ebooks. Factor in the Google “scare” and librar*s were going to be done forever. Librar*s were frantic to debunk that they were no longer going to be useful, insert perfect time and opportunity to join libraries and technology.
I am a Systems Librarian and the most common and loaded question I get from non-librarians is (in 2 parts), “What does that mean? and What do you do?” Usually this resorts to a very simple response:
I maintain the system the library sits on, the one that gives you access to the collection from your computer in the comfort of your home. This tool, that lets you view the collection online and borrow books and access databases and all sorts of resources from your pajamas, my job is to make sure that keeps running the way we need it to so you have the access you want.
My response aims to give a physical picture about a technical thing. There is so much we do as systems librarians that if I were to get in-deep with what I do, we’d be there for a while. Between you and I, I don’t care to talk *that* much, but maybe I should.
There’s a lot more to being a Systems Librarian, much of which is unspoken and you don’t know about it until you’re in the throws of being a systems librarian. There was a Twitter conversation prompted when a Twitter’er asked for recommendations on things to teach or include in on the job training for someone who is interested in library systems. It got me thinking, because I knew little to nothing about being a Systems Librarian and just happened upon it (Systems Librarianship) because the job description sounded really interesting and I was already a little bit qualified. It also allowed me to build a skill set that provided me a gateway out of libraries if and when the time arrived. Looking back, I wonder what would I have wanted to know before going into Systems, and most importantly, would it have changed my decision to do so, or rather, to stay? So what is it to be a Systems Librarian?
The unique breed: A Systems Librarian:
- makes sure users can virtually access a comprehensive list of the library’s collection
- makes sure library staff can continue to maintain that ever-growing collection
- makes sure that when things in the library system break, everything possible is done to repair it
- needs to be able to accurately assess the problem presented by the frantic library staff member that cannot log into their ILS account
- needs to be approachable while still being the person that may often say no
- is an imperfect person that maintains an imperfect system so that multiple departments doing multiple tasks can do their daily work.
- must combine the principles of librarianship with the abilities of computing technology
- must be able to communicate the concerns and needs of the library to IT and communicate the concerns and needs of IT to the library
Things I would have wanted to know about Systems Librarianship: When you’re interested but naive about what it takes.
- You need to be able to see the big and small pictures at once and how every piece fits into the puzzle
- Systems Librarianship requires you to communicate, often and on difficult to explain topics. Take time to master this. You will be doing a lot of it and you want everyone involved to understand, because all parties will most likely be affected by the decision.
- You don’t actually get to sit behind a computer all day every day just doing your thing.
- You are the person to bridge the gap between IT and librarians. Take the time to understand the inner workings of both groups, especially as they relate to the library.
- You’ll be expected to communicate between IT staff and Library staff why their request, no matter the intention, will or will not work AND if it will work, but would make things worse – why.
- You will have a new problem to tackle almost every day. This is what makes the job so great
- You need to understand the tasks of every department in the library. Take the time to get to know the staff of those departments as well – it will give insight to how people work.
- You need to be able to say no to a request that should not or cannot be done, yes even to administration.
- No one really knows all you do, so it’s important to take the time to explain your process when the time calls for it.
- You’ll most likely inherit a system setup that is confusing at best. It’s your job to keep it going, make it better even.
- You’ll be expected to make the “magic” happen, so you’ll need to be able to explain why things take time and don’t appear like a rabbit out of a hat.
- You’ll benefit greatly from being open about how the system works and how one department’s requests can dramatically, or not so dramatically, affect another part of the system.
- Be honest when you give timelines. If you think the job will take 2 weeks, give yourself 3.
- You will spend a lot of time working with vendors. Don’t take their word for “it,” whatever “it” happens to be.
- This is important– you’re not alone. Ask questions on the email lists, chat groups, Twitter, etc..
- You will be tempted to work on that problem after work, schedule time after work to work on it but do not let it take over your life, make sure you find your home/work life balance.
Being a systems librarian is hard work. It’s not always an appreciated job but it’s necessary and in the end, knowing everything I do, I’d choose it again. Being a tech librarian is awesome and you don’t have to know everything about books to be good at it. I finally accepted this after months of ridicule from my trivia team for “failing” at librarianship because I didn’t know the answer to that obscure book reference from an author 65 years ago.
Also, those lists are not, by any means, complete — I’m curious, what would you add?
Possibly of interest, a bit dated (2011) but a comprehensive list of posts on systems librarianship: https://librarianmandikaye.wordpress.com/systems-librarian/