[The OLD] Attempting Elegance

“day after day it reappears”

Posted in Growly, Libraries, Technology, The Profession by Jenica Rogers on March 7, 2008

Dorothea‘s been on a brilliant tear lately. Naturalizing Systems Librarians had me grinning in frustrated agreement.

Another tidbit that’s come up lately is the report from the New Skills for a Digital Era archivists’ colloquium. Over and over again, the refrain, “it seems unreasonable to expect information professionals to have the skills of a professional programmer or systems administrator” (p. x et seq… et seq… et seq… and if you think I’m kidding about the et seq, read their report yourself).

Why? Why is this unreasonable? It’s not as though a whole lot can get done in a digital era without somebody to run the damn servers. Why isn’t running some damn servers considered a librarian skill?

Because it’s not a library-specific skill? Big whoop. Neither is hiring or event planning or budgeting or project management, and we damned well expect librarians to do those, because libraries rely on them to function. Libraries rely on systems as well. Why can I not add “QED” here and walk away?

She goes on, passionately and pointedly.  We are failing our new graduates, and creating a culture in which that failure is an accepted and expected part of our work.  Why did I have to sadly point out to a colleague that I’d need a server and some of his staff time to make a project work?  Why can’t I do the work myself?  Because no one ever told me I could, expected me to learn, or encouraged me to try.  And WHY NOT?  Wouldn’t it be great if your collections librarian had the tech skills necessary to implement pilot projects without asking for campus support?  Wouldn’t it be lovely if your systems librarian didn’t have to wait for outside assistance to generate SQL reports?  Wouldn’t your library work better if everyone thought it was a part of their professional identity and responsibility to seek out the appropriate and relevant tech skills, and then learn them, and use them to do their best work?  Why are all those questions hypotheticals, rather than reality?  Because we’re acculturated by our graduate programs, and our graduate programs are sadly lacking in technological awareness and insistence.

I’ve been spending time with our IT folks lately for administrative reasons.  And I just want to say this, clearly and flatly:
Academic library staff and academic IT staff are not that far apart.  We’re just really not.  We’re support units doing our best work in support of the mission of our campus.  On top of that, we’re enamored of the things that computers can do to make our work lives easier, more efficient, and more effective in support of that mission.  We also speak very similar languages when it comes to data and user experience. Our differences, as I can see them, are mainly about our experiences as relate to where your hands hit they keys — back-end design and administration, data population, or front end.

So why can’t we be them?  Because we’ve decided we can’t, for all the reasons Dorothea points out.  And that’s just stupid.  Wasteful and self-defeating.  And, hey, frustrating, too!

I’m also currently serving on a hiring committee, and so Dorothea’s post, Your Best Self, made me laugh out loud in my office.  To whit:

The question you are trying to answer in your cover letter to me is not “Why are you awesome?” It is triply not “What do you want?” I don’t care what you want right now. (I will care once I decide to interview you, but I’m not there yet if I’m just staring at your application package.) The questions you are trying to answer are “Why should I hire you? How will you solve my problems?” You had better speak compellingly to that, and “I am awesome!” is not a compelling answer by itself. How do you know whom I want to hire, and what my problems are? I told you in the job description I wrote. This is why your cover letter needs to repeat as many of my buzzwords as possible.

In other words, your cover letter is all about me. No, that doesn’t seem quite fair, but it’s what will get you an interview. Look, I’ll tell you a secret, okay? I’ve been on search committees. The way we do the first cut on applications is to sit around a table with a grid in front of us. Across the top of the grid is a list of the skills we asked for in the job description. Down the left is a list of applicant names. We sit there and we check off boxes. If you don’t have enough boxes checked when we’re done, you’re chucked. Get it now?

Considering the current population of Chucksville, more job applicants could use this advice.  Seriously.  Don’t make us throw you out.  Try a leetle bit harder.  PLEASE.

Listening to: Colin Hay – Overkill (Acoustic Version)

6 Responses

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  1. […] with) technology as being something outside of their sphere of responsibility. The second was Jenica Rogers-Urbanek’s follow-up post about how dependent on Systems/IT we are to implement the things we dream up. The third was […]

  2. […] and the hands-off approach librarians take to their technologies, and her words have resonated with librarians throughout the bloggity blogging world. She makes some important points: Library schools […]

  3. […] Jenica Rogers-Urbanek, Michelle Boule, and Meredith Farkas all responded. I hope they keep talking, because this comes as great encouragement to a library student looking at the gap between here and there and getting ready to jump across. I’m excited by the job listings I now see that require web dev. skills along with instructional skills, XML know-how along with cataloging know-how. I’m also gearing up to learn as much as I can to get myself ready for those jobs, and often finding it a frustrating process. And, other than a curriculum that tries to pretend technology hasn’t happened, my biggest enemy has often been myself. Before I know it, when I don’t understand why the Apache server I’m trying to configure isn’t doing anything or why my fonts are all wonky after I’ve attached the CSS file, I have sometimes ended up saying to myself what I cringe when other people say: “I’m just a librarian.” It’s a common line, sometimes delivered humbly, sometimes defensively, sometimes arogantly (go figure). All of these deliveries hurt us when we say them to others and worse say them to ourselves. But I have learned to remind myself that there’s no “just” about it. Not in the world I want to work in. […]

  4. […] local librarian recently wrote an interesting piece about an interesting piece wondering why librarians aren’t system administrators […]

  5. […] The fact that I’ve gotten four trackbacks on the post about systems and librarians tells me that this issue has struck a chord.  How many new/young/reinventing librarians wish there […]

  6. Kirstin said, on March 13, 2008 at 10:50 am

    Amen Jenica! Of course, I still can’t believe how many of my colleagues are still struggling with basic computer skills (like navigating the web, troubleshooting a printer, and searching.our.OPAC (ack!), let alone deeper concepts and skills that go hand in hand with libraries these days (servers, RSS, digital libraries, etc.)

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