The Accidental Systems Librarian

Richard Turner (Head of Learning Resources, Mount St Mary's College, Spinkhill, UK)

New Library World

ISSN: 0307-4803

Article publication date: 1 September 2004




Turner, R. (2004), "The Accidental Systems Librarian", New Library World, Vol. 105 No. 9/10, pp. 386-387.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

What a fantastic subject for a book! It is a wonder that there have not been more books about the way in which many systems librarians, in all sectors, ended up doing that job by sheer accident. This is a joyous and triumphant affirmation of how traditional library skills enable information workers to deal with the complexities of library technology positions.

At the school where I work, the Head of ICT is actually a Classics teacher who came to the school to teach Latin and ended up helping students get A grades in A‐Level IT! And this was simply because he liked tinkering with computers as a hobby when they first became popular in the 1980 s. Ask him for the story of the path to where he is now and it is all very vague!

In the library world, this accidental systems librarianship is much more common. As libraries were automated, the demand for IT skills dragged in those who just liked working with computers or who were younger and so (it was believed) had more experience of working with computers during their education. Often, a person started with taking temporary responsibility for a project or system and never quite managed to lose that responsibility. Many librarians in charge of systems have had little formal training in systems management, which is often very different from home computing, but, as the author emphasises strongly, traditional library skills have proven to supply a useful background. Most systems librarians end up learning the specifics on the job.

Although this book is American, the arguments and examples will be recognisable to most information professionals, especially those in academic and public libraries.

Behind the carefully thought out comparative and compatability study of the skills of librarianship with the needs of information technology in libraries, the basis of this book is a survey of 144 systems librarians carried out in 2001/2002. It should, of course, be clearly pointed out that Rachel Singer Gordon is one of these accidental systems librarians and her personal experience is what stokes the enthusiasm of the book.

Of course, the term for systems librarian is interchangeable with some of the myriad of other titles for the same or similar jobs, such as automation librarian, technology librarian, computer services librarian, network services librarian, etc.

In her opening chapter Gordon looks at defining systems librarianship. Each chapter starts with a charming and succinct quotation about the subject to be covered. As previously noted there are so many different titles for systems librarians that this can make the definition process clouded. In this chapter the author also focuses on a library background being so useful for effective systems work in libraries. This is partly due to the interpersonal and communication skills enabling a liaison between technology and people, a humanising of technology. Interestingly, the author states that new technology in libraries should be seen first of all through the eyes of a librarian and then as a computer specialist, which is a good point as IT people may wish to implement something just because it is possible and/or cool, with scant regard for its need among the client group. Each chapter has a “Works cited” bibliography at the end of each chapter.

From definitions and generalisations, the author goes on to address technical areas that the systems librarian will need to master. Again, an upbeat author cheerfully suggests that the openness to learn constantly changing skills is more important than being a computer geek. Skills can be learned – “This is why crash courses exist!” This chapter covers the joys of Microsoft, Apple, Open Source Software, networking, Web design, integrated library system management, troubleshooting, programming, security and some delightful “Miscellaneous issues”, such as e‐books, digitisation projects, Internet access, distance learning. This chapter does not purport to describe all of the elements of a systems librarian's job, but rather a flavour. For those thinking about becoming a systems librarian, then it is a useful checklist of things that you may need to know or learn about. However, Gordon urges us not to be intimidated as you will not need to be an expert in all of them and much depends on the individual institution.

Gordon then continues with this link of traditional library skills and the needs of IT management. In particular the organisation of knowledge, a basic principle of librarianship, is really designed to make life simpler in all areas. Keeping track of how technology can be run smoothly through statistics, inventories and documentation comes as second nature to those working in libraries.

Logically, following on from organisation of knowledge is a chapter on research techniques. As Gordon points out, “Systems librarians have an inherent advantage over IT personnel in nearly any other type of institution, for one simple reason: we know how to find answers”. This chapter deals with resources, techniques, dealing with information support and researching technology purchases.

The chapter on networking not only looks at computer networking, but also the equally important professional and social networking that is so important to information professionals. This covers online discussion groups, special interest groups, professional associations, conferences and informal networks.

Instruction techniques for both colleagues and clients should be facilitated by the fact that bibliographic instruction has always been one of the librarian's basic functions. The section on instruction techniques includes adult learners, training techniques, training staff, training clients and online training.

This section is enhanced by further consideration of independent study for the systems librarian. This considers such aids as online tutorials, community college computer training, local workshops, library schools, self‐education and the author reassuringly stresses the importance of current awareness.

Systems managers need to understand project management too, so Gordon provides a helpful consideration of administration and management issues which explores issues such as creating a technology plan, planning IT projects and managing systems staff.

A final, empirical chapter points out that real life experience is the only thing that can create a successful systems librarian. This section also looks at how to look for a job in this area, how to negotiate for a promotion, or pay rise, and ethical issues, such as data protection.

The book is supplemented by appendices that look at the accidental systems librarian survey questionnaire, a list of recommended reading (which is unusual as an appendix when this is usually a bibliography) and an intriguing list of Web sites. In addition there are a number of “Sidebars” which are usually practical examples of issues in each chapter, although these are the sort of things that often appear as appendices. The index is clear and thorough, as is the contents page and its attendant chapters’ layout.

Rachel Singer Gordon's book was based on a journal article for Computers in Libraries. The accidental systems librarian notion is so striking that is has easily and happily been expanded into this book. This often amusing and always practical work will be of interest to anyone in any sector of the information science sector, from the IT specialist to traditional librarians. It can be seen as a primer for those already finding themselves mysteriously in charge of their library's systems or for those who quite fancy giving it a go. Both pitfalls and rewards are not shied away from in this work, but the overwhelming message that the reader gets after finishing this book is that, yes, you too could be an accidental, or even a deliberate, systems librarian!

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