How is programming work supported (or not…) by administrators in libraries?

[Editor’s Note:  This post is part of a series of posts related to ACRL TechConnect’s 2015 survey on Programming Languages, Frameworks, and Web Content Management Systems in Libraries.  The survey was distributed between January and March 2015 and received 265 responses.  The first post in this series is available here.]

In our last post in this series, we discussed how library programmers learn about and develop new skills in programming in libraries.  We also wanted to find out how library administrators or library culture in general does or does not support learning skills in programming.

From anecdotal accounts, we hypothesized that learning new programming skills might be impeded by factors including lack of access to necessary technologies or server environments, lack of support for training, travel or professional development opportunities, or overloaded job descriptions that make it difficult to find the time to learn and develop new skills.  While respondents to our survey did in some cases indicate these barriers, we actually found that most respondents felt supported by their administration or library to develop new programming skills.

Most respondents feel supported, but lack of time is a problem

The question we asked respondents was:

Please describe how your employing institution either does or does not support your efforts to learn or improve programming or development skills. “Support” can refer to funding, training, mentoring, work time allocation, or other means of support.

The question was open-ended, enabling respondents to provide details about their experiences.  We received 193 responses to this question and categorized responses by whether they overall indicated support or lack of support.  74% of respondents indicated at least some support for learning programming by their library administration, while 26% report a lack of support for learning programming.

Of those who mentioned that their administration or supervisors provide a supportive environment for learning about programming, the top kind of support mentioned was training, closely followed by funding for professional development opportunities.  Flexibility in work time was also frequently mentioned by respondents.  Mentoring and encouragement were mentioned less frequently.


However, even among those who feel supported in terms of funding and training opportunities, respondents indicated that time to actually complete training or professional development, is, in practice, scarce:

Work time allocation is a definite issue – I’m the only systems librarian and have responsibilities governing web site, intranet, discovery layer, link resover, ereserve system, meeting room booking system and library management system. No time for deep learning.

Low staffing often contributes to the lack of time to develop skills, even in supportive environments:

They definitely support developing new skills, but we have a very small technology staff so it’s difficult to find time to learn something new and implement it.

Respondents indicated the importance to their employers of aligning training and funding requests with current work projects and priorities:

I would be able to get support in terms of work time allocation, limited funding for training. I’m limited by external control of library technology platforms (centrally administrated), need to identify utility of learning language to justify training, use, &c.

26% of respondents indicate a lack of support for learning programming

Of those respondents who indicated that their workplace is not supportive of programming professional development or learning opportunities, lack of funding and training was the most commonly cited type of support that respondents found lacking.

Lack of  Funding and Training

The main lack of support comes in the form of funding and training. There are few opportunities to network and attend training events (other than virtually online) to learn how to do my job better. I basically have to read and research (either with a book or on the web) to learn about programming for libraries.

Respondents mentioned that though they could do training during their work hours, they are not necessarily funded to do so:

I am given time for self-education, but no formal training or provision for formal education classes.

Lack of Mentoring / Peer Support

Peer support was important to many respondents, both in supportive and unsupportive environments.  Many respondents who felt supported mentioned how important it was to have colleagues in their workplace to whom they can turn to get advice and help with troubleshooting.  Comments such as this one illustrate the difficulty of being the only systems or technology support person in one’s workplace:

They are very open to supporting me financially and giving me work time to learn (we have an institutional license to and they have funded off site training), but there is not a lot of peer support for learning. I am a solo systems department and most of our campus IT staff are contractors, so there is not the opportunity for a community of colleagues to share ideas and to learn from each other.

Understaffing / Low Pay for Programming Skills

Closely related to the lack of peer support, respondents specifically mentioned that being the only technical staff person at their institution can make it difficult to find time for learning, and that understaffing contributes to the high workload:

There’s no money for training and we are understaffed so there’s no time for self-taught skills. I am the only non-Windows programmer so there’s no one I can confer with on programming challenges. I learn whatever I need to know on the fly and only to the degree it’s necessary to get the job done.

I’m the only “tech” on site, so I don’t have time to learn anything new.

One respondent mentioned that pay for those with programming skills is not competitive at his or her institution:

We have zero means for support, partially due to a complex web of financial reasons. No training, little encouragement, and a refusal to hire/pay at market rates programming staff.

Future Research and Other Questions

As with the first post in this series, the analysis of the data yields more questions than clear conclusions.  Some respondents indicated they have very supportive workplaces, where they feel like their administration and supervisors provide every opportunity to develop new skills and learn about the technologies they want to learn about.  Others express frustration with the lack of funding or ability to collaborate with colleagues on projects that require programming skills.

One question that requires a more thorough examination of the data is whether those whose jobs do not specifically require programming skills feel as supported in learning about programming as those who were hired to be programmers.  30% of survey respondents indicated that programming is *not* part of their official job duties, but that they do programming or similar activities to perform job functions.  Initial analysis indicates there is no significant difference between these respondents and respondents as a whole.  However, there may be differences in support based on the type of position one has in a library (e.g., staff, faculty, or administration), and we did not gather that information from respondents in this survey.  At least two respondents, however, indicates that this may be the case at least at some libraries:

Training & funding is available; can have release time to attend; all is easier for librarians to obtain than for staff to obtain which is sad since staff tend to do more of the programming

Some staff have a lot of support, some have nill, it depends on where/what project you are working on.

In the next (and final) post in this series, we’ll explore some preliminary data on popular programming languages in libraries, and examine how often library programmers get to use their preferred programming languages in their work.

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