Decentralizing Library IT

I’ve always gravitated toward library jobs in library systems and technology, but I recently took on a new position as head of a tech services department in a smaller academic library.  Some of my colleagues expressed surprised that I’m moving out of a traditional library IT or systems role, but my former position was as a systems librarian within a technical services department, and for the past few years, a significant amount of my time recently has involved developing collection and metadata-related system integrations for acquisitions and cataloging. A few trends have made me think that I’m not alone in branching out and applying systems skills to diverse functional areas of the library.  It has become relatively commonplace for the work of technology innovation to occur, at least in part, outside of traditional library IT departments; for example, reference and instruction librarians playing a tightly integrated role in the optimization of discovery interfaces, tech services staff using Python and linked data technologies to clean up and enhance metadata, and instruction librarians and access services staff creating and managing high-tech MakerSpaces.

More personnel across the library are embracing and developing high tech skills traditionally housed in library systems or IT departments.  The following are six general trends I’ve observed that are influencing the spread of technology development outside of traditional library IT.

Increasingly high technical skills are required for most library areas

  • Job advertisements for almost every functional area of the library emphasize advanced technical knowledge (beyond typical office application knowledge), especially with regard to ILS systems management.  In a 2016 study of library job advertisements, the authors found a wide range of job titles that require knowledge and skills in information technology, including Metadata Librarian, Digital Archivist, Information Literacy Librarian, and Research Data Librarian (Shahbazi, Fahimnia, & Khoshemehr, 2016).   Scholarly communications, data services, e-resource management, reference, and other library staff positions may all be positioned outside of traditional library IT, but are all deeply involved in the utilization and development of library technologies.

Optimization of cloud-based systems can be distributed

  • With cloud-based application hosting, managing physical servers and backups may become less burdensome, but the need for knowledgeable personnel to configure and optimize often complex cloud-based systems is as essential as it has always been.  Scholarly communications, e-resource, and access services library staff may play highly integrated roles in the development and optimizing of library systems.  Beyond acting as consultants for the management of these systems, knowledge in scripting and interoperability mechanisms enables staff outside of library IT to holistically contribute to the development of cloud-based library applications.

More opportunities to build integrations

  • New library services platforms often enable a number of integrations with third party systems via APIs and other web services.1 Many of these integrations require a deep knowledge of workflows and data structures between multiple systems, so including involvement from multiple functional areas is usually required. The combination of knowledge of a functional area with knowledge of how the library system works can result in some seriously powerful and useful applications.

The increasing importance of data wrangling

  • Sources of metadata are increasingly varied, requiring data wrangling, work that is often made more efficient by developing coding or scripting methods to automate routine tasks.  Metadata specialists are often experts in developing macros in OCLC Connexion (for example), and increasingly require access to a computing environment that enables writing, testing, and using code to further automate metadata cross-walking and cleanup, including use of Python, OpenRefine, and other tools for dealing with enormous amounts of messy data.

Customization of discovery and library e-content

  • Discovery platforms are complex and often highly customizable. Many reference and instruction librarians have a robust understanding of user behavior and information literacy goals that are essential for development of usable interfaces, as well as skills in user experience (UX) testing and interface design.  Reference and instruction librarians are often experts in course management systems and LibGuides, and know good tricks and hacks for optimizing digital learning content.  Library collection development, scholarly communications and technical services librarians deeply understand content and how to make it findable, and increasingly play pivotal roles in configuring harvesting and transformation of metadata into discovery systems.

Systems beyond the ILS

  • Libraries are engaging with a much wider variety of technologies than just an ILS – libraries support institutional repository and digital library software, data management software, authority systems such as VIAF, open publishing, etc. While working with these systems does not necessarily require a background or emphasis on systems administration, it is definitely helpful to have an understanding of the architecture of such applications and how applications might interact with each other.
  • Systems knowledge is applicable to more than just technology. Thinking like a programmer can often be useful when performing workflow analysis and optimization, as well as problem-solving even in non-technical areas.

Are “true” library systems administrators still needed? (Yes, obviously)

When researching for this post, I came across an amusing article by Roy Tennant from back in 2011 titled “If You are a Library SysAdmin, you are TOAST”.  The article presents a (seemingly not satirical?) argument that movement to cloud-based systems in libraries will make library system administrators obsolete:

When I, as just a moderately savvy librarian, can learn maybe five to ten very specific steps and be able to deploy any application I would likely want to deploy, why do I need to talk to my system administrator ever again?

Obviously, six years after this article was written, with many libraries firmly embedded in the cloud with a variety of library applications, the role of the system administrator in library is not at all diminished.  While work involving physical servers and backups may be less common for many applications, system administrators and those with IT skills in libraries are still in huge demand to be on hand to evaluate, optimize, and provide integrations for cloud-based library systems.

I think it’s safe to say that the more people in any organization with technical knowledge, the better.  Managing decentralized technology projects, however, does require leadership and coordination.  When learning to develop applications, coding is often much more fun than worrying about server administration and security – but of course, someone has to be concerned about security and help those who may just be learning about technology adopt secure development practices.  Library technology projects don’t have to come out of library IT departments, but leadership from library IT departments should be open and supportive of library technology initiatives coming out of non-library IT areas, while facilitating secure practices.  Coordination on the part of library IT is also essential to avoid duplication of effort and ensure that projects being developed are sustainable and supported by the technology environment of the larger organization.  Encouraging the open exchange of technology-related ideas across the library prevents tech savvy staff feeling they need to hide their pet projects lest they get ‘in trouble’ with a restrictive library IT department.

In my view, there’s simply too much technology change happening in library to keep all technology development centralized in a single unit within the library.  Adding tech-savvy positions within non-technology departments is not a bad strategy – it can help support innovation out of library departments that haven’t traditionally been expected to drive technological change.  However, continually raising expectations with regard to technical knowledge can be stressful, so ensuring that strong support for professional development is in place is also important.  In my own new position, I’m excited to channel my knowledge of APIs and interest in data visualization technologies into creating some cool collection management and assessment tools, and I’m not at all concerned that I won’t have an opportunity to apply my technical knowledge in the rapidly changing landscape of library technical services and collection development.  Working outside of library IT means that I need to communicate closely with the head of library IT about the projects I’m working on, and also be sure to closely follow other technology-related projects across the library and be proactive about offering my skills where they might be helpful.  It also means that I need to work to support the technical expertise of staff in my department, particularly as related to library system management in acquisitions and cataloging.    No matter your role in the library, there’s plenty of technology-related work to go around.

  1.  See, for example, the Ex Libris and OCLC Developer Networks, both of which provide great documentation and example applications to novice developers.

One Comment on “Decentralizing Library IT”

  1. You might be interested in this Issue Brief that I wrote with Dale Askey that Ithaka S&R published last month about the organizational structures and related challenges in academic library IT: “Finding a Way from the Margins to the Middle: Library Information Technology, Leadership, and Culture (http://www.sr.ithaka.org/publications/finding-a-way-from-the-margins-to-the-middle/) … some similar observations and claims.


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