The nature of systems librarianship:Part
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another is outdated.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:
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:
inefficient use of time
too much invested in process, not enough in outcome risk of getting someone else's
balance- only balances articulated issues encourages abstract mission
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
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
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
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
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.