Tech knowledge in libraries

Roy Tennant writes recently on his blog, about a panel he was recently on at a conference, where he said:

“I decided that the single most important thing I can tell you about technology in libraries is this: You don’t have enough techYou don’t have enough technical staff and the staff you have don’t have enough technical knowledge.”

By “technical”, Roy means technical technological, he’s talking about computers and digital technology. Of course, everyone in his audience nodded in agreement, and I agree too.

The question is what you do with this. Roy talks about hiring. I want to mention something else:

You need to give your existing staff time and support to develop, maintain, and extend their tech knowledge.

Not just your ‘systems’ staff. Catalogers and metadata technicians, for just one example, need to develop and extend their knowledge of character encodings and issues in computer representations of global alphabets.  Reference and user service librarians, for just one example, need to develop and extend their knowledge of the continually developing current tools available for finding and organizing research. Etc., etc., etc.

Whether or not your employees ‘come with’ technical knowledge, it is something that needs to be constantly maintained, because the technical environment is constantly changing.

This is not the same thing as assigning your staff to solve certain high-priority ‘technical problems.’  You can’t solve  technical problems unless you have certain background knowledge and conceptual understanding — at least you can’t solve them efficiently and sustainably.  And your staff can’t develop and maintain this understanding unless you allow them time for learning: Self-directed independent learning; communal learning through study groups, discussion sections, and reading clubs; as well as, where appropriate,  formal ‘training’ — but informal self-directed learning — especially when done communally — can often be more effective and more efficient.

This is not just for ‘professional’ staff. It is insulting to suggest that continued learning and career development doesn’t also apply to ‘para-professional’ non-‘librarian’ staff. In addition to disrespecting the dignity and contribution of your non-librarian-degreed staff, thinking this way also doesn’t serve the library organization — we need everyone on board, bringing their full self and their full capacities to the challenges we are facing: Challenges and work in which technology is a key component.

The library is, or ought to be, needs to be, a learning organization.  How many of our libraries operate as if they know that?  What can we — whether or not in management positions — do to help us get there?

The library is a growing organism.

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5 Responses to Tech knowledge in libraries

  1. hallelujah. also: encourage your staff to be fearless wrt learning new techniques, tools, etc. It probably doesn’t come naturally to a lot of librarians.

  2. I agree with you, Roy and Christina – but there are a number of professional and para-professional staff who seem to have developed an aversion to understanding technology beyond rote-learnt solutions for common problems, and circling their career wagons around some 1990s core competencies for their jobs.

    Admittedly that aversion can be amplified by management’s approach to innovation and training. But we don’t live in a world bereft of indepth information on skills and techniques.

    I think the pendulum is little too far on the ‘get someone to teach me’ side rather than the ‘give me time to teach myself’ side of the centre position.

  3. Robin Sinn says:

    Bullseye, Jonathan. I also like the circle back to Ranganathan.

  4. Peter Murray says:

    I agree. I don’t know how many organizations can afford the mythical 20% time, but I do think there needs to be time for staff of all sorts to try out a new tool. It often isn’t long before that experiment becomes of practical use.

  5. Pingback: Collaboration technology, high or low? | Bibliographic Wilderness

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