The Accidental Systems Librarian

Robin Yeates (Consultant, London, UK)

Program: electronic library and information systems

ISSN: 0033-0337

Article publication date: 1 September 2004




Yeates, R. (2004), "The Accidental Systems Librarian", Program: electronic library and information systems, Vol. 38 No. 3, pp. 217-218.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Books aimed at library professionals are becoming more and more specialised. This reflects the profession itself, and no more so than in the library computer systems field. It is no wonder that many of us became “accidental systems librarians”. This work is intended to bolster systems staff who gained their role by luck, assignment or gradual assimilation of duties. It also tries to explore how non‐systems library staff can use technology more effectively, rather than merely learning the IT basics. Presented as a volume of practical advice based on extensive experience, as a whole it also takes a timely look at the relationship between traditional library and newer ICT skills so that those planning their careers can engage effectively in library innovation.

Evidence for much of the content here is derived from a 2001/2002 survey of 144 systems librarians: the 17 questions asked are reproduced in an appendix. Some comments from respondents illustrate the introduction, no doubt stimulating a few nods amongst experienced readers, as will the assertion that librarians have a propensity to want to solve problems.

The first chapter defines terms, with the now customary acknowledgement of the difficulty in doing so. Most importantly, however, it discusses competencies and assessment, and stresses that the library context comes first and technology, as a tool, comes second. So, it will always be necessary to understand libraries before systems can be most effectively exploited there.

New areas of technical expertise needed arise continuously. The second chapter covers a topical range, from Microsoft and Macintosh to open source software, networking and Web design. The sheer number of topics is clear from the very brief paragraphs devoted to newer ones such as e‐books, virtual reference services and distance learning. The main message is that systems staff need to be librarians and adapt to institutional needs.

Libraries organise knowledge. We are here exhorted to use similar skills to organise IT knowledge, for example about inventories, licensing, statistics and user support. Finding answers comes naturally, and chapters look at Internet‐based research techniques as well as associations, conferences and informal networks. Providing user support also requires instruction skills, and a chapter discusses how these can be obtained or delivered through training programmes. A useful page discusses the setting of appropriate boundaries (the systems manager should not be teaching basic word‐processing), so that skilled staff time is not wasted, reminding us that it is important to spread knowledge rather than hoard it.

Accidental systems staff (among others) need to hone their independent learning skills, and both advice and specific, selected Web resources are presented here. One area often developed is project management, and a chapter is devoted to administration of projects such as library system migrations, software rollouts and network upgrades, as well as staff management.

The book includes an unusual chapter, more commonly found in magazines or professional journals, giving useful real‐world advice on topics such as finding a job, branching out, negotiating a promotion (or raise!), “technostress” and ethics. The concluding chapter suggests that boredom is never going to be an issue for accidental (or other?) library systems staff. You only have to look at the index to confirm this. Unusually, almost every letter has an entry, even in the 14 pages, although Q (Que) and Z (ZDNet) are single terms. Only Y is missing (no Yahoo!), although Google does feature under G.

Ken Kozlowski (2004) has asked in a recent article in Informed Librarian: “What other era in library history offered this much diversity of work and the chance to establish oneself as the top informational dog in an organization?”. This book does not take a historical perspective to answer this, but it certainly reflects the careers of many librarians, and not just those in the US, from where most of the evidence here comes. This is a very readable, thoughtful, pragmatic and valuable book that should be read by anyone considering library (or museum/archive) staff development or a career in libraries. Its timely relevance to the UK is indicated by the 2004 Tavistock Institute draft report (Sommerlad et al., 2003) on the People's Network, which states: “A recurring theme in focus groups and workshops was uncertainty about the changing nature of librarian work and anxieties about the new demands being made on staff by library users in the emergent network library”.

Specialisation is widely recognised as leading to faster personal development. So it is not surprising that the generation of librarians who have experienced the introduction and development of computers and the increasing sophistication and diversity of computer systems in libraries should be encouraging others to address the “unique mix of frustrations, challenges and triumphs” that systems work in libraries offers.


Kozlowski, K. (2004), “Guest forum, January 2004: technology gets better – our job gets tougher”, available at:

Sommerlad, E., Child, C., Ramsden, C., Barkat, S. and Kelleher, J. (2003), Evaluation of the People's Network and ICT Training for Public Library Staff Programme – Interim Report, New Opportunities Fund, London, available at:

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