Do You Trust Your IT Staff?

The Saturday morning RUSA MARS program Do You Trust Your IT Staff? Do They Trust You? has been tough to summarize without throwing in a lot of snarky commentary.

By its very title it assumes an us-vs-them mentality between systems and public services and that "us" is the reference librarians while "they" are the IT staff.

It became apparent that the IT staff was considered to include all systems librarians, IS managers, and tech support crew. The systems people on the panel seemed to spend a lot of their time earnestly explaining how they’re really trying to help the librarians do their jobs.

The speakers were:

  • Craig Davis, Director of Adult Services, Chicago Public Library
  • Karim Adib, Director of Library Automation, Chicago Public Library
  • Dennis Newborn, Head of Library Systems, West Virginia University Libraries
  • Mary Ellen Spencer, Head of Research and Reference Services, Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

Craig joined CPL as manager of the then-new Near North branch, which served a diverse population from Cabrini-Green and Gold Coast areas of Chicago [i.e., these are polar opposites on the income spectrum]. Internet computers were a novelty for both patrons and staff, and "tedious signup procedures became migraine headaches."

Tech support was available only by calling in from one of 79 branches to the central library, running back to the computer to try a suggested fix, running back to the phone to report the results, and then if the problem continued, waiting for technical staff to arrive. Sounding a theme repeated through the program, Craig said there was a "need for librarians to be librarians and not technicians."

The big advantage of getting Karim on board at the library was his success in meeting that need. There is a new automated signup system. PCs at the library now seem to fix themselves. "We’re not slaves to the technology any more."

Karim started off by quoting a Gates Foundation study’s statistics: four years ago 20.9% of all library locations offered public computers; now 98.9% do. Chicago Public Library was adding PCs at a huge rate, trying to bridge the digital divide.

But this was changing the very nature of the service. The challenge was to return the libraries to library service. At the same time, the information services department was unable to do information services as they were totally occupied just fixing PCs.

Step 1 when he arrived was the "emperor has no clothes" exercise: convincing branch staff to say things were broken when they were broken. Staff had developed a jaded attitude about technology, but "if it’s really working, you don’t see it as technology, you see it as a useful tool."

Step 2 was to invest an enormous amount of money in the network, in PC management software, and in new equipment. Public stations with no floppy or CD drives meant fewer components to break; remote diagnostic capability meant no more staying on the phone with IS to troubleshoot.

IS was then able to develop enabling software such as a fill-in form on the intranet that lets people who maintain content post it on the web. Karim’s approach to selecting projects for automation: If the human element wastes people time and doesn’t add value, automate it. If the human element adds value — e.g., the reference interview — refuse to automate it.

Dennis asked, about the computers in the university library, "Whose computers are these anyway?" The obvious answer, he said, was that they’re the university’s [I take this to mean, they don’t "belong" to either IT or to the library staff/patrons].

In the past 5 years there’s been an explosion of networked computers including wireless networks and a tenfold increase in departmental PCs. Attacks from the outside are constant: 7,000 viruses and crack attempts counted in just a month. These security woes used to "take computers away" from the librarians so they couldn’t do their job.

A major campuswide network and computer security campaign virtually eliminated this problem. Part of this project was a standardized PC image for the staff. I got the sense that people didn’t much like that, and Dennis was explaining why it is that the standard image was helpful.

He said there was earlier a tension between technical services and public services; now it seems like that has turned into a tension between IT and public services.

Mary Ellen answered Dennis’ question differently. "Whose computers are these?" – "They’re the users’." She then addressed these points:

Why do we end up with this pushmi-pullyu of IT vs. public services?

  • Security focus vs. access focus
  • Need for standardization on systems side can hinder public services’ desire to create customized information services and to use their creativity
  • Technical planning not intertwined with planning of new services
  • "Tremendous learning curve" for employees — but new hires bring fluency in technology

How do we address it?

  • Build relationships with IT staff.
  • Public services: reach out to IT.
  • Public services: focus on big picture. The very attention to detail that makes you a good researcher can keep you from appreciating/participating in useful projects
  • IT: listen to the reference librarian’s random anecdotes. They are the usability test.

The most interesting points from the Q & A and subsequent conversations after the program:

  • It was news to the moderator that advances in technology (self-diagnostic and remote diagnostic on PC) might actually solve problems that it was earlier seen to create
  • CPL operating on a $14 million technology budget this year as part of a 5-year plan; their expenses on technology are justified and budgeted years in advance
  • Warning from Dennis on any arrangement where the IT staff is not in daily contact with the library staff, preferably have separate library systems office
  • Need for a translator between reference librarians and IT
  • Useful for librarian to find out information needs of IT staff and meet them
  • The speed of technology change for existing staff has been disorienting and brutal over the past 5 – 10 years, but seems to be calming down now
  • Trust is developed by working together; it really depends on the people
  • Part of the strain is the line of angry patrons forming at the reference desk when "the information is stuck in the computer" and it’s human nature to shift the blame to IT rather than say We, the Library, have a problem right now answering your questions

Many in the room seemed to share the assumption that computer services and applications are support tools for public services – not in themselves public services. Is this an assumption shared by most reference staff? Is it an assumption that needs to change, or not?