Future-proofing ones’ own behind …

Blatant excuse for a great poster ...

ITV3 have been re-showing all three Back to the Future films, and whilst watching Michael J. Fox encounter past and future selves, I’ve been thinking about mine.

I’ll come clean and admit that I got involved in the I.T. side of libraries partly out of a sense of self-preservation. Even ten years ago, I could see the impact technology was having on library services and resolved to try and get into that space.

It felt sensible, rather than wasting my career development XP (eXperience Points) on skills that may be of limited value to employers. I wanted to be future proof.

It was not easy, I had little professional I.T. experience, other than being ‘not scared’.

Without wishing to sound smug, I soon felt vindicated in this choice. In academic and public libraries where shelf-ready books are the norm, full-time cataloguing staff are a thing of the past. In many, workflows around print journal management are quite simply gone, along with the journals.

Skip to 2011 and I feel very much at the heart of many operations in my workplace, involved in everything from e-journal provision to staged hardware upgrades whilst still working as an evening shift manager and covering in a Reading Room enquiry service. But with the forthcoming generation of cloud based library services, how useful will my Systems Librarian skill-set be to my future library managers?

Marshall Breeding has outlined the advantages for libraries ‘in the cloud, and my limited experience supports his claims. Over the past few years I’ve implemented one SAAS system, one hosted system and two in-house services. By and large, the SAAS solution is the nicest to run, as long as its admin interface, end-user UI or API can give me what I need, (otherwise I’m stuck).

How much padding does your skillset need?

This was partly due to personal reasons, devolving some workload to SAAS and hosted solutions has allowed me to keep time free to research potential developments and to keep my skill-set fresh. How many systems librarians constantly firefighting outdated hardware and legacy software architecture (often kept alive by a moras of in-house scripts) have time to learn about the latest web design technology?

So SAAS sounds appealing, and easier! However, some would argue that by signing up for more SAAS I would also be doing myself out of a job. With no servers to manage and reports to run, a large part of my role would disappear. The kind of ‘coding-around-the-system’ I also do using scripting languages and web technologies would be possible to a degree, but potentially less so. My specialist data skills, built around ‘munging’ Marc21 would also be obsolete in the post Marc world. To dig in a little more, most of my major functions could be done by others in my institution …

  • A reasonably tech savvy librarian can handle day to day systems administration in a cloud environment, no need for all that Solaris/ Red Hat / Oracle knowledge anymore
  • An institutions’ web developer or web savvy Librarian can handle the user facing UI customisation work, maybe even sculpting custom environments around system supplier API’s
  • What is left of institutional I.T. can pick up the slack on hosting all that along with the CMS for the library website (which may also be in the cloud)
  • Support and purchase of online resources will be folded into standard collection management and reader service roles
  • Third party consultants could handle some of the thornier elements of procurement, specification, migration and implementation

I like this in some ways, I’ve said at times that other librarians should become more techy to get a greater understanding of how their data and online services work and have been considering pulling together a basic coding tutorial aimed at library staff.

But where does that leave me as a systems librarian? Well, with a bit of luck and some re-skilling I could hopefully transfer to one or more of the above bullet points, some of which would offer scope to develop better services more specifically tailored for user needs.

Would it leave a gap? Possibly. If things were to swing in another direction and a library was to adopt open source solutions, I would need to move in another direction. Either way would require flexibility and a commitment to learning new stuff.

Its often said that true I.T. professionals absorb the equivalent amount of knowledge to a three year degree programme every six months. I wonder what the time-span is for librarians?


2 thoughts on “Future-proofing ones’ own behind …

  1. Very interesting post. What with recent developments in funding for libraries I also have been thinking about ‘future-proofing’ my library career. I have been considering a leap into the IT side of things and your post raises important questions about how much proofing that actually offers! Cheers.

  2. Pingback: The effect of education on CPD « LibWig

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