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.