What librarians do

So I just gave (or co-gave) a presentation here on Umlaut as deployed here as our Find It service.

One of the most exciting parts to me was that various (non-IT)  librarians in the room, un-prompted, starting throwing out ideas of what it could do in the future. Quite good ideas. I had to resist the techies urge to respond to them with “Well, yeah, but see, that’s harder than it might seem to make work like that…”, and instead try to be encouraging and positive, because it was great to have such a conversation. We hardly ever have such conversations.

Why? I think becuase usually a non-technical librarian has absolutely no way to put such innovative thoughts into practice.  As Karen Schneider talked about in her 2007 Code4Lib Keynote, libraries have ended up outsourcing a significant part of their core business to vendors,  in a way that we pay for it, and we get it, and we pretty much take what we get.

My experience made me realize today that one of the (many) negative side effects of this is that librarians have lost the opportunity (and thus been implicitly  ‘trained’ not to even bother trying) of doing what librarians should be doing in this era when so many of our services are delivered over the web: Figuring out how to make these services meet our users needs better!

Contrary to popular belief, you can’t just let your users tell you what your services will be. Sure, of course you need to listen to your users. And if you listen and observe very carefully, you can figure out what your users needs are, some of which they may not even be able to articulate themselves, but others of which they most certainly can.  But you can’t count on your users to identify the best solutions to these needs. That’s what we’re for, that’s why we’re professionals!

And, to me at least, it’s one of the most most interesting and rewarding parts of our jobs.

But the outsourcing of much of the libraries business to vendors has taken the opportunity to do that away from most of us — an IT geek like me in a library that let’s him get away with it still has some. Most non-IT librarians have had it reinforced that they shouldn’t even bother. And while you have to be an IT type to implement new online services or features, you shouldn’t have to be one to be engaged in dreaming up and planning them.

One thing open source can do is return this power to us.   I’m pretty pleased where Umlaut (and my ability to explain it) is finally at the point where it’s future potential can be seen enough to encourage non-technical librarians to start suggesting “Hey, but what if it could do this and that to? Wouldn’t that be great?”

And, if I can somehow find the time amongst the way too many really great things that I’d like to do if I had time, maybe soon it will!

6 thoughts on “What librarians do

  1. I agree, and even if libraries don’t go all the way with open source they still need “know how” about their systems in order to be strong development partners and better customers to vendors.

  2. Open source is part of the equation but I’d say the harder part is holding those conversations. Your ability to take in suggestions without pushing back — without telling people it’s too much work — that’s a critical part of making those conversations successful. Also you’ve spent a lot of time building credibility with non-IT staff — listening in meetings and producing features that are clearly aimed at user needs. That’s tough work to do and it’s not always fun and sometimes it seems like it takes forever but the results are, to my mind, well worth it.

    By the way, librarians at Welch love Umlaut although they don’t know it’s Umlaut. Maybe you could give your presentation here sometime.

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