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Systems Librarian

Nature of systems librarianship2 
The nature of systems librarianship:Part ll

Training, Documentation, and Support
It is ironic that an organization can spend thousands of rands on technology and not a cent on the materials required to use it effectively, but this does happen. In libraries, one of the most common areas of responsibility for systems librarians is training, documentation, and support. People in these positions are actively involved in providing one-on-one assistance and group sessions both formally and informally on the use of ILS applications, word processing, database searching, e-mail, Web searching and many more. Creating a written record of how things work and what steps to do to resolve particular problems is critical to a well functioning systems department and library technology program. 

Planning and Budget 

Technology plans can consume an enormous amount of energy-some of which is need­less. Nonetheless, having a direction with identifiable, measurable goals is useful to keep a library on track. Without some planning a li­brary could end up with one having more computing power than it can use, while another is outdated. Systems librarians can and do provide assistance in constructing a technology agenda in consultation with others in the library. Any worthwhile plan must include some source of funding (whether it be from Council or Provincial) to make it happen. 


The secret to planning is seeking a balance between the signifi­cance of the project and the investment in the planning process. The most costly portion of planning is time. The time spent on one process cannot be reinvested in some other process. Therefore, the decision to enter into a planning process and to determine the level of activity required should be taken very seriously. Planning can proceed along very formal lines that include tools such as systems analysis, whether or not the options considered include automation and computing.  

One of the consequences of the pace of change in this industry (ICT) is that planning becomes useless and therefore serving no purpose for many organizations. Yes, they have a strategic document, but it doesn't, and cannot, carry any serious weight in decision making precisely because it is not humanly pos­sible to predict trends accurately for the distant future. Many com­panies would go out of business if they were forced to follow plans that were developed five or ten years ago. Furthermore, few, if any, companies, much less libraries, can completely replace their in­vestments in information technology every few years just because there is a faster processor or newer versions of a compiler, assuming they can even guess what options will provide the best return on their investment. Formal systems analysis can be useful for large-scale projects that encompass entire organizations or entail huge expenditures. 


The case for planning:

  • orderly 
  • efficient use of resources 
  • balanced objectives and outcomes 
  • relationship to organizational mission opportunity for range of inputs and perspectives avoidance of common pitfalls 

The case against planning:

  • too rigid 
  • inefficient use of time 
  • too much invested in process, not enough in outcome risk of getting someone else's solution 
  • balance- only balances articulated issues encourages abstract mission statements 
  • no spontaneity-inability to respond to change 
  • miss opportunities to learn-some things can't be known in advance 

Much of the planning process revolves around attempting to look into the future and discover the most advantageous route to pursue. In fact, with regard to technology, any projection beyond four to five years is likely to be either wishful thinking or relatively vague in its content. Care should be taken when making significant decisions based on sets of assumptions.


Along with planning comes budgeting. Once an organization takes the plunge, the costs are at best stable, and usu­ally they go up if an honest analysis is conducted of all related ex­penses. Realistically, however, libraries should be looking at replacement schedules of three to five years for PC’s (desktop computers) and peripherals and four to six years for server and host computers. These are average timeframes that may need to be addressed on a case­ by case basis considering the necessary performance that is de­manded for a particular technology. 


Specification and Purchasing 

One of the growing areas of importance in systems work is the cre­ation of adequate, accurate, and incontrovertible technical specifica­tions. As computing becomes more popular, the common perception is that all computers and computing devices are commodity items, meaning that the only difference between one manufacturer and another is the price. While this is becoming true for several com­ponents of computing (e.g., hard disk drives and CD-ROM drives), it remains uncertain for others (e.g., motherboards, RAM memory, power supplies, and barcode scanners).  

The old saying of getting what one pays for holds true in many cases with computers and com­puting devices. The reason for enforcing rigorous specifications is not to spend more than one must to acquire a useful and appropriate device. Indeed writing specifications and adhering to them costs time and money. Rather ensure that one receives what one expects and that the reliability and performance of the item will be adequate. The context of a particular purchase will guide the level of de­tail that is necessary. For example, if a library needs three local printers, a few moments invested can determine the requirement for laser versus ink jet, quality of print desired, and speed.  


Furthermore, another aspect of specification and purchasing is standards. Ad­hering to industry and local standards can reduce performance and compatibility problems in the future. Often proprietary solutions lock an organization into one vendor's vision or set of solutions. Determining the need for, alternatives to, and implications of standards-based technical solutions is prime intellectual territory for systems librarians. Organizational/local purchasing standards are important as well. Many organiza­tions decide to acquire only HP printers, flatbed scanners, faxes and photocopiers. While some local standards, or the fact that they exist at all-are controversial for some users, they are necessary to deploy an organization's resources wisely. 


These sets of local purchasing standards create an environment in which systems librarians are forced into a philosophical disagreement that cannot be resolved. One way around the issue is for systems librarians to support the ICT department and inform users why such stan­dards exist and how they assist in the efficient investment and de­ployment of technology within the organization. 



One of the most potentially damaging myths in systems work is the notion that vendors can be relied on to provide all information about computing and networking. For organizations that do not have any level of internal technical expertise, it is common to seek support from vendors in these areas. While many vendors offer accurate tech­nical information, some requests for information could create conflicts of interest for vendors (i.e., they are being asked to suggest solutions in areas in which they sell products). Technical staff with intellectual awareness that seek informa­tion from multiple unrelated sources, asking pointed questions and demand clear answers, and never assume without some proof. Libraries sometimes fall prey to overdependence on a vendor. While for some libraries the ILS vendor may be the only option, in general it is wise not to depend much on any single vendor for technology products and services. Al­though libraries can do well in outsourcing a number of services, re­sponsibility and accountability should not be contracted out. 


For some libraries the solution may lie in outsourcing. Small public libraries may be able to receive the support they need from an information communication and technology (ICT) department. Outsourcing certain functions has been popular in business and industry for a number of years. While some public libraries have been generally suc­cessful in achieving their goals through outsourcing IT, it is worth noting that a number of larger public libraries and companies are reconsidering the op­tion, citing unmet expectations in vendor expertise, focus on core competencies, quality of service, cost, and transition to new technol­ogy.  


Hardware knowledge 

The capacity and speed of the central processing unit (CPU), the amounts and types of memory, the capacity and types of disk drives and other storage devices, and the design of the network interface all contribute to the overall performance and applicability of a particu­lar computing solution for a task at hand. While it is useful for a sys­tems librarian to be able to mold the technologies already in place, readily available, or inexpensively procured to address particular needs, it is frequently counterproductive to expect solutions to fit circumstances for which they were not designed. The only difference, once you decide on features, is the price. Certainly, more re­sources should not be expended than are necessary. But sometimes knowing the appropriate limit prior is often difficult, if not impossible. The de­tails of configuration and capacity influence other factors, such as performance, reliability, and longevity, in addition to scalability. 


It is worth noting that the notion of scalability includes the idea of flexibility. Once a solution is in place, can it be modified to reflect changing needs? Or is it so specialized that it cannot be modified? For most libraries, change of some degree is a constant; this factor should influence all technical decisions. Technical solutions need to be maintained and monitored. 


Continuing Training and Development 

Together with the value of education and prior experience, technical work demands an ability to learn as one goes. No one will know everything from the start; the universe of knowledge is too broad, and change is too persistent. Functioning in this environ­ment often requires learning on the fly approach that discomforts some people. Certainly some learning can be planned, just as many projects are known in advance. Systems work, however, does re­quire a comfort with learning based on immediate need and this real­ity reinforces the need for conceptual understanding that can be particularized as needed.  


Be proactive and learn by making use of information on the internet. News groups, online journals all provide information, but no one can cover them all. Select sources that broaden as well as deepen understanding, develop a personal list of ones that are most useful, and remember that one can unsubscribe just as easily as one can subscribe. 


For any systems librarian (technical professional) to advance, sufficient investments must be made in training and de­velopment. For  technical professionals to remain educated about emerging technologies, new applications, new challenges, new options for old problems, and technological implications, among others, training and development funds should be budgeted. Introductory material is insufficient; advanced training opportunities must be provided and funded. 


Salary Parity and Equity 

One important need in most library positions is a continued com­mitment to improving the salaries and wages of employees. Parity and equity are two metrics in evaluating pay scales. Parity compares salary and wage data within a position grouping across industries; equity compares salary and wage data within an organization or unit. Technical positions within libraries have notoriously paid below mar­ket value, and it is unlikely that libraries will ever on average com­pete with some other industries. Financially attracting tech­nical professionals with reasonable experience is likely to be diffi­cult. Equity issues are a matter of being internally consistent. If a li­brary is not generally increasing salaries and wages over time and is increasing minimum hiring values, trouble is lurking on the hori­zon. 


Automation Reduced the Libraries Staff and Expenses? 

Librar­ians need to consider areas in which operations can be streamlined, or in some cases cut. Certainly technology has been sold to libraries, and the corporate world, as a means to reduce overhead and improve service. Unfortunately for many years some librarians have perceived library computing to be a means to reduce the cost of operating a library in the form of reducing staff. There is no documented proof of this perception. In fact, there are many examples to the contrary. There is little evidence that automation has reduced staff size. While it may have drastically downsized certain depart­ments (most notably cataloguing), this has not usually led to a staff shrinkage in the library as a whole. More often, it has meant the redeployment of staff. Librarians must consider areas in which the application of technologies, combined with planning and appropriate discipline, can reduce duplication of effort, increase ef­ficiency and improve overall services to constituents. Automating library functions accomplishes increased efficiency, increased productivity and the creation of new services. By embracing automation in the form of computers and telecommunications technologies, libraries are now able to offer new value added services. 


The Future for Systems Librarian (technical professional) 

Technical professionals generally have a bright future. Contrary to the belief that computers are advancing at such a fast rate that support personnel will not be needed in the near future, organizations continue to invest substantial portions of their budgets in information technology support. It is clear that computers and networks at this point in time will not install themselves, nor will they troubleshoot themselves and automatically resolve problems, nor have they become so entirely transparent that training is not needed. While it is true that the software and hardware man­agement and diagnostic tools available on the market have significantly improved over the past decade. 


In-house training and training companies are also on the rise, suggesting that the market is far from saturated at this point. Users are not yet able to be self-sufficient in all aspects of computing and networking without some type of introduction and training; perhaps they never will be. This should come as no surprise, as users are hu­man beings who absorb information in myriad ways and possess dif­ferent learning styles.

There is no hiding the fact that systems librarianship is a demand­ing field. It is not, however, without reward and enjoyment. For professionals who are frequently operating behind the scenes, it is important to do what is necessary to get the job done. As libraries further and further depend on various technolo­gies, it would be wise for all librarians to keep in mind the value of having individuals with ties to multiple disciplines involved in man­aging the lives of libraries.


I have attempted to explain and illustrate the nature (essential qualities and character) of systems librarianship. It is a specialty within librarianship that entails a wide array of skills and approaches to computing and networking within the context of libraries and information based settings.  


Librarians in general provide an appreciation of the complexity, diversity, and richness of information and human need; a variety of means to organize information and queries and support access to meaningful content and a commitment to service for all users. To these valuable contributions, systems librarians add technical aware­ness and expertise, a sense of mission larger than the individual or the technology, knowledge of the importance of the work at hand, and an ongoing commitment to get the job done.  


Systems librarians provide a means of enhancing the overall support and use of technology. The marriage of comput­ers and information for decades now demands skilled professionals that understand at great depth both of these intellectual universes, as well as a number of the human contexts in which this relationship re­sides. This need is not likely to diminish any time soon.

The Systems Librarian: Designing Roles Defining Skills

The Systems Librarian: Designing Roles Defining Skills

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 The Systems Librarian: Designing Roles Defining Skills 

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