Monday, June 27, 2016

Library Specialists

One does not ordinarily think of librarianship as a profession with many specializations.  In some fields such as medicine, law, and information technology there are clearly jobs which require a particular set of skills.  An application developer does something different than a network administrator and a trauma surgeon is clearly distinct from an oncologist.   Within the library world, the differences between job roles are seemingly less vast.  Working in reference is not the same as working in serials or circulation yet one can learn those roles fairly quickly.  Indeed many libraries combine those jobs in various ways depending on the need of the organization.

However there are exceptions.  Cataloging stands out as one.  There are a great deal of rules one must learn in order to effectively describe library materials.  Additionally one must master the MARC format as well as tools such as MARC Edit and OCLC Connexion.  Furthermore the nature of the work is different than what most librarians do.  It requires a highly detail oriented focus instead of the service one which most library tasks call for.  So library cataloging is one area many librarians steer clear of unless they have a strong interest.  Systems librarianship is the same way as well to a certain extent.  In order to be a successful systems librarian, one must acquire technical skills.  These can include everything from understanding how the ILS works to programming depending on the institution.

Yet the gaps between these branches are fairly narrow.  Many systems librarians fell into the position by accident.  There is even a book devoted to the subject.  And some libraries combine job roles in all sorts of ways.  So over time what were separate departments have drifted together.  Titles such as Circulation and Systems are giving way to Access Services, Discovery Services, and Metadata librarian thus emphasizing the essential aspects of what it takes to operate a library.  Plus we all get the same degrees.  It's not always called Library Science, but the essence of what we study in graduate school is often the same.

So when considering if one is in a specialized field or job role the key distinguishing factor is education.  If one needs extra education in order to do a job, then it is a specialized one.  Thus the various branches of medicine are specialties because in many cases one either needs to know a particular body of knowledge, attend a certain school, or continue one's education beyond getting the degree itself.  The same is true to an extent in IT.  Many organizations (rightly or wrongly) require certifications in order to have certain jobs.  Even without the certification different aspects of the field require learning new skills.  For example a Systems Administrator may need to acquire in-depth knowledge of networking in order to become a Network Manager.

That is not to say all librarians are interchangeable.  We're specialists in the way lawyers are. We all have the same education and anyone can take any job.  However the more one does a particular job, the better one becomes at it.  So an experienced reference librarian will fit most easily into a similar sort of role.  Of course one can branch out and take on different responsibilities, but it is always easier to stay within one's area of expertise.

Ultimately there is a lot of politics in all of this.  Defining oneself as a specialist is the first step towards arguing for better pay or more resources.  One can start a professional association to argue for why their specialization needs to exist, be recognized, and why it should be funded.  So whenever one defines themselves as being a specialist in something it helps to reach for the nearest grain of salt. 

I'm not saying these issues aren't important - they are.  In an era of declining or stagnant budgets libraries need to distinguish ourselves in order to continue selling the value of our profession.  There may be few true specializations within librarianship, but the field itself is distinct within the broader information science world into which we are often lumped.  Librarians provide access to information, tools to use said information, and assistance in making sense of it all.  The services and spaces we provide can't be easily replicated elsewhere despite what broader cultural narratives may say.  So in a sense we are all part of a specialized information science discipline, one rooted in service and unfettered access to knowledge.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Discovery Tools

Even in the age of Google the catalog is still the heart of every library. Building a collection is one thing, requiring its own set of skills. However once the cataloging is done there remains the crucial task of providing access to everything.  Users still need to actually find what we have so carefully described and organized.  Without such a database, and the standards which accompany it, a library becomes nothing but a closet full of stuff.  In the age of information if no one can find what you have it might as well not exist.

Enter the discovery tool.  To connect the catalog database to the outside world there are products such SirsiDynix Enterprise, WorldCat Local, and various other vendor supplied solutions.  Most of the time these come packaged with the same system used to managed the catalog itself as one component of an Integrated Library System.  Thus the task of providing public access to our collections is simplified since once an item is successfully described it will be indexed and searchable in short order.

Yet there are complications.  Not all vendor supplied solutions are user friendly.  Older products co-exist with newer products because the latter are too expensive or too complicated.  Development times can be slow as anyone who has followed the progress of SirsiDynix's BLUECloud suite can attest.  So the products we use to direct patrons to our collections vary in their actual usefulness. 

Meanwhile most libraries also subscribe to competing products such as Ebsco Discovery Service (often branded with a name unique to the institution).   These discovery layers drawn on multiple sources including the vendor's databases as well as one's own catalog if the correct information is uploaded.  For one (astronomical) price, the library patrons have a single interface with which to conduct a federated search.  There couldn't possibly be anything else to say.

Except the lines become blurrier still when one returns to the aforementioned library vendors.  The latest generation of Online Public Access Catalogs are essentially discovery layers themselves.  One can, for example, connect Ebsco Discovery service to an instance of Sirsi's Enterprise.  Innovative Interfaces offers a proxy server (WAM) to connect to one's subscription databases.  And of course OCLC's own WorldCat Discovery draws on all of the holdings information you already give them. 

So there a lot of choices.  Both users and libraries benefit from the competition.  However there is always the risk of presenting too many options.  Often libraries will give users a choice of searching EDS, the catalog, and a journals indexing service such as Serials Solutions or Ebsco Publication Finder.  They each have their merits, but do we really need multiple user interfaces?  Often they present subsets of the same information so can't we all just use Blacklight?

Perhaps.  I have no direct experience with Blacklight, but it requires both knowledge of Ruby on Rails and Apache Solr.  The geek within me salivates at the thought of getting my hands on such technology.  However reality quickly intrudes.  Libraries, especially public libraries, often don't have the technical infrastructure necessary to run Blacklight.  Then there is the issue of people.  Even in academia it can be hard to recruit and retain staff with the necessary expertise to set up and run such machinery.  Above all budgets are perpetually flat or declining for all but the wealthiest institutions.  So for most organizations, the only options are vendor supplied solutions often hosted in the cloud.

Of course there is always Google.  Except not really.    The standard interface, including Google Scholar, works well enough for basic information gathering.  However search engines offer massive quantity over quality.  There are no subject headings, call numbers, or abstracts.  All one gets is a little blurb and a title which, while sufficient for the average bear is not nearly feature rich enough for a doctoral student or experienced researcher needing to find all the literature on a particular topic.  Let us also not forget search engines use proprietary algorithms to decide what they think is relevant to your search.   Say what you will about the Dewey Decimal system, but it's an open, eminently usable standard which has been helping people locate information for 125 years.

Then again, Google Scholar does offer integration with library systems.  So one can add one more item to the discovery tools bag.  Once again I have little direct experience with Google Scholar beyond searching and reading posts on the EZProxy listserv.  If anyone has worked with it, feel free to leave a comment below.  However given Google's core business I am skeptical of the platform's future, especially as the company's efforts (e.g. Google Now) and current technology trends seem to be moving away from keyword searching alone.

None of the above is a uniquely librarian problem.  Cultural heritage institutions as well need to provide access to, and awareness of their holdings.  However due to the unique nature of such materials the standards to describe them are different - and a lot newer.  For example encoded archival description was created in the late 1990s.  By contrast MARC is nearly fifty years old and so widely adopted as to make its replacement difficult.

Ultimately the issue of collection discovery and access is a multifaceted one.  Description standards are only one small piece of the puzzle.   A bigger problem is the lack of technical expertise and funding faced by many institutions.  Without money and good IT staff most of us don't have the leverage to negotiate the best deals with the best vendors.  So while there is hope for the future much trouble remains in the present.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

What Makes a Library?

For information science professionals there isn't much doubt what a library is.  We all learn in school about how libraries are where published works go.  They're repositories of books, DVDs, magazines, journals, etc each one cataloged at the item level.  They differ from archives and museums in the type of materials within and how they are handled.  By and large the dictionary seems to agree with me.

However a library is more than simply "the place with the books".  Computer programs can contain libraries which have code necessary for them to operate.  They greatly facilitate development by reducing the need to reinvent what has already been created elsewhere.  Moreover collections of things - not just books, but CDs, DVDs, records, photographs - can be considered a library.  We also consider the physical building where all of those are located to be a library.

Its tempting to consider each of those as separate bullet points in a list which cannot be reconciled.  They're all apples and oranges, really.  We need six different definitions to refer to six different things even though its the same word being used.  The word "archives" similarly refers to either a certain type of materials managed in a specific way or the building where they are housed.

Still we can pull out a common thread from the definitions of the word "library".  They all refer to some place where information is stored.  Information is more or less a set of facts.  It lives in storage mediums of which books are the most well known, having been around for well over 1000 years.

Yet there are other ways of keeping information.  CDs, DVDs, records, hard drives, USB drives, and even physical buildings can contain information organized or not. However its a stretch to seriously call a hard drive a library.  Yes there is information there, but it may or may not be organized and is only available to those with access to the disk.

Even those mediums are changing.  People increasingly use and access information stored some where other than their computer.  The rise of cloud computing, not to mention big data, mean the tools needed to access information are becoming more sophisticated than ever.  Google is probably the biggest source of information for most people, alongside social media.

However there is a fine line between a library and a discovery tool.  A search engine is really the latter.  It contains nothing save records of your searches and other personally identifiable information.  The actual information is elsewhere in databases, web sites, and apps. A better comparison would be Ebsco Discovery Service which acts as a search engine for all of the company's database products and one's library catalog if configured to do so.

The trouble is the actual information sources are rapidly leaving the physical library which has muddied the waters.  Books still exist, and will for some time for various reasons, but many patrons increasingly want to access items available only over the internet.  Sometimes the library owns the actual materials - for example digitized photographs.  However such is not always the case.  Increasingly the library is merely a clearing house for products controlled by others, mostly private corporations. 

So there has to be something more to the concept of the library.   In a lot of people's minds, libraries are just places with books.  While nostalgia can be a powerful force, the perception is neither accurate nor helpful.  The key ingredient in what makes a library - or a museum, archive, or any similar institution - is the human factor.   Within their walls are people willing to help and guide would be patrons.  Staff may create curated exhibits, pathfinders, or further describe materials purchased elsewhere.  They may create public programs, do outreach, or provide communal spaces in which to work.  Computers, wi-fi, and maker spaces are supplements which allow patrons to take the information gleaned from the sources in the library and apply it in new and different ways.

A better analogy for a library would be a department store.  It too is a physical place full of goods purchased elsewhere.  Today almost anything sold to consumers can be bought on Amazon.  However the array of products available there is bewildering so finding what one wants can be challenging.  Brick and mortar stores have people in them who can make recommendations and point one in the right direction (at least theoretically).  Furthermore the relatively narrower choices actually makes decision making easier because there are only so many options the human brain can consider at any one time.

The idea of the library as a department store is not perfect.  Retail sales associates are typically low paid workers, where as librarians are trained professionals.  The issue of labor practices in the retail world are beyond the scope of this post.  However emphasizing the human element over the presence of books as the most important part of libraries puts us all in a far better position going forward.  It shifts the perception of the library to be something valuable rather than a holdover of the past.  A similar argument can be made for archives and museums, however they are already in a stronger position as their materials are largely unique to each institution.

Of course we all face greater challenges than simply perceptions.  Funding continues to remain a challenge. Everyone says they love libraries, but love does not pay the bills.  Giving information away for free means dependency on public agencies and donors for resources.  Ultimately the vendors end up in a stronger position.  However by changing the way people think of libraries we can at least make it easier to marshal public support and maybe even get a few more people to come through the front door.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Blurring Professional Lines

A while back a friend of mine asked how archivists could maintain core professional values while always collaborating with other professions.  It's an intriguing question, which had not occurred to me at the time.  Last year I wrote about  the differences between various branches of the information science world.   My main point was that the walls between us are largely of our own making.  There is a great deal of politics in the making of professions and sometimes that gets in the way of good ideas.

Yet we must consider the opposite point of view.  There are reasons libraries and archives do things differently.  Standards of description and access have evolved the way they did not just because people can't get along, but to meet the real world needs of practitioners.   In other words a certain amount of separation from allied professions is necessary to effectively do one's job.

But that's not really the point.  Not all collaboration is made equal and some partnerships are one sided.  Librarians, for example, vastly outnumber all other types of information professionals.  We've been around longer and our standards are more developed.  So "collaboration" between us and say archivists can easily look like the library is assimilating the archives.  It is worth pointing out that many university archives are already contained within libraries. So there is always the risk that in seeking to collaborate with our allies librarians may end up swallowing them.

I am not arguing for the very silos which now exist.  In an ever changing digital world, the boundaries between what belongs in a library and what should be in an archive is definitely blurring. A certain amount of collaboration is needed in order to operate effectively in the digital world.  So within the relatively safe confines of our offices, we absolutely should be reaching out to those across the hall and lend a hand on projects where our expertise could be of value.

My fear is that too much blurring of professional lines may render some information professionals invisible to the wider world.  If everyone who manages information looks like a librarian then we're all liable to be lumped together within the same organizational unit and forced to compete for the same money.   The same principle holds true for advocacy both within and outside our organizations. Archives probably face this problem more.  Many people don't really understand the difference between what an archivist does and what a librarian does.  If we blur the lines between us too much we risk creating confusion.  Worse, it could make archivists look redundant to cabinet level staff who do not understand the very real differences between information science professionals. The less clear those boundaries become, the harder it is to justify attending expensive conferences or asking for money for new personnel.

Ultimately what works within the processing room, may not in the board room.   Institutional politics have a very real impact on funding and staffing levels.  So while we should be working together to ensure the long term preservation of our cultural heritage, the never ending competition for dollars is more adversarial.  The library and the archives need to remain separate enough to be able to justify their continued existence but not so much so that we don't talk to each other.  It's a delicate balance. However my feeling is that those who are up and coming can walk the line.  We understand the values of collaboration well enough.   We also understand that there are bigger fish to fry.  Because while information science professionals debate what silo they belong in, Google continues its endless march towards being the only source of information people will ever want.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Technology Unites Us All

By Victorgrigas (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0
(], via Wikimedia Commons
I've written before about the differences which separate the various information science disciplines. The short version is: different philosophies, standards, and professional histories.  While everyone who works in a library, archive, museum, or related field utilizes with information they don't do so in exactly the same way.  Each of the standards and best practices used by different people serve a specific purpose.  Information is conveyed in different ways, by different occupations, for different reasons.  A librarian will catalog a book so patrons may discover it and read it.  An archivist will arrange the personal papers of the author of said book, possibly including the manuscript for the printed version, so researchers may better understand the individual's life and the context in which their work was produced.  A museum curator will preserve artifacts from that same author's life and give visitors a better idea of who they were.

However there is something more fundamental which unites everyone mentioned above: technology. By that I mean information technology. In the world of paper we really did inhabit separate worlds. But as time goes on there seems to be more and more convergence between libraries, archives, and museums.  Books and journals are increasingly becoming digital.  So too are the materials entering the archives.  And while museum objects will always be , well objects, one must now consider computers and electronic devices among their ranks with all the challenges that implies.   There is also the software we use to manage our collections, our websites, applications used in the preservation of digital materials, and more.

Everything mentioned above requires a computer in one way shape or form.   Library catalogs sit on a server probably made by either Dell, IBM, HP, or Cisco.  Again the web servers on which they sit are no different then any other. The same goes for the PCs, laptops, and mobile devices which populate our offices.  For those institutions which utilize cloud computing, the same rules apply.  Amazon Web Services is still Amazon Web Services regardless of who is using it.

The software on top of the hardware is often the same as well.  Archives and museums don't have their own separate operating systems and so collection management software will require either Linux, Windows, or maybe Mac OS X.  It might also need a Database Management System such as MySQL, Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server.   There may be other requirements such as Java.  And our websites all use HTML, CSS, plus maybe Javascript and PHP. All of these technologies are not unique to (or even created by) the information science world.

One can see why technology skills are so important.  While people associate our jobs with books, paper, and dusty old pottery at some point we all utilize information technology.  The more one knows about it, the easier one's job will be when such opportunities arise.  For example a little knowledge of Linux enables installation of Omeka on a local web server or FOG for computer cloning.  Some knowledge of programming greatly facilitates web development and reduces the need for content management systems such as WordPress.  And if one is seeking to purchase cloud-based services, some tech savvy is essential in order to make informed decisions and control costs.  Just take a look at how quickly Amazon Web Services bills can add up.

On the other hand, there is only so much we can do.  Much of the time the actual hardware is controlled by central IT departments.  There are good reasons for that as those folks know more about such things than most of us.  But some times IT policies restrict our freedom of action.  Budgets can be an even bigger obstacle.  And even for those of us who have taken the time to educate ourselves, implementing free and open source software is almost always more difficult than purchasing an off the shelf solution.   Given that a lot of people who staff libraries, archives, and museums, often come from humanities backgrounds and have little technical experience those barriers can seem insurmountable.

Yet knowledge is power.  Even if there is little room, technical knowledge can go a long way towards helping us communicate with those IT departments who hold the keys to the kingdom.  They don't always understand what cultural heritage institutions do and might very well have inaccurate views. Hence why we're sometimes overlooked when it upgrade time comes around.  It is much easier to make our voices heard if we can clearly articulate what we need and why we are important.  In other words, in-reach is far more effective if you can effectively state your needs.

Information technology often seems unintelligible.  But it doesn't have to be that way.   Few librarians need to know the finer points of configuring a Storage Area Network or how to set up High Availability in VMWare.  But knowing enough to clearly articulate why your IT department should give you a Linux web server or allow you to install ArchivesSpace will go along way.