Considering the librarian tech skills gap

There’s more to be said about my LibraryBox anecdote from my NLS6 keynote, and it’s chasing around my head and I want to get it out before I lose it, so envision your blogger sitting on her couch with a mug of green tea and a laptop, stealing from her exercise hour to write this. With all due credit to Andromeda Yelton for prompting me to take this one step further just as I was thinking about doing that.

I basically used the LibraryBox story to say “there’s cool stuff happening in the library technology space, but it’s often too complex for Generic Librarian M to figure out, and that’s a problem.” It is a problem. But I glossed over why.

Here are a few of the whys, as I see them, from my position as Generic Librarian M. (I know that I have a relatively powerful voice, and that I’m pretty tech-savvy, and privileged in those regards — but my tech skills are, truly, pretty generic. I pay people to maintain my WordPress installs.)

1. We aren’t taught crunchy tech skills. This is changing, I know, but it wasn’t true 10 years ago. But if you consider that many of the people in the heart of our profession — our Generic Librarians K, L, M, and N — got their degrees a decade ago, and learned the majority of their core skills while they were getting that degree, you can see that there might be a skill gap. It’s more problematic when you also consider that 10 years into your career you’ve often settled in a bit, and know where you’re going, and have more time and space to consider “fun projects”. You’ve proven yourself, and now you have a little room to move and stretch. And our current cohort of librarians ready to move, stretch, and fiddle with interesting projects weren’t taught to be software developers, or project managers, or to think entrepreneurially about library services.

2. We don’t know how to learn crunchy tech skills. So teach yourself, right? That’s what some of you are thinking. Some of you are thinking “I taught myself. Go learn.” And that’s fair, to some extent. It’s particularly fair coming from the subset of people who are very comfortable self-teaching, and the other (overlapping?) subset who are in jobs that require that they constantly self-teach new skills in order to get the job done. When your native headspace is “got a problem? Learn to solve it,” it’s easy to say “go teach yourself”. But if I’ve learned anything in my 4 years in this administrative chair (she types, from her couch), it’s that people learn in different ways. And some people — people who are valuable, valued, productive, and effective — don’t learn well in self-teaching environments. They need the structure and the assistance of a more formal learning space. And when it comes to hands-on, practical, applicable tech for libraries, those feel hard to come by. (Maybe they’re not; maybe there are dozens of ways to learn this stuff in formalized learning environments. I don’t know. I do know that they feel hard to access.) And that’s problematic: if we want to upskill broad swathes of our profession, we need more and better ways to do that.

3. It’s not our job to learn crunchy tech skills. And if we want to upskill broad swathes of our profession, it needs to be their job to do so. Each of us only has so much time in our lives and our days to dedicate to the dozens of things we’re supposed to be doing, the dozens more we want to do, and the yet dozens more we dream of doing. I want a PhD and to write a book; I don’t currently have time in my life for either project. So if I don’t have time to pursue my own heartfelt dreams, I certainly don’t have time for Code Year. And all of that is made more painfully obvious when I say that it’s also not my job to learn to code, or build a LibraryBox, or write a book. The things I make time for are the things that either are at the top of my passions list, or are my job. I do the things I adore, and the things for which I am paid. And that’s extrapolate-able onto lots of librarians: They do the things they love, and they do their jobs. The problem, in re: tech skills, is that we have  not, by and large, made it librarians’ jobs to do, learn, and know these things. (This is my gripe about “Emerging Technology Librarian” as a job title; if you hire one person to pay attention to emerging tech in libraries, aren’t you then giving all the other people tacit permission to ignore emerging tech? Because it’s not their job? It should be their job!) And if it’s not the job, and it’s not the passion, it doesn’t get done.

4. The technology headspace is openly hostile to most of the profession. And learning and upskilling  doesn’t get done when it’s hard to do. One thing that makes it hard to do is feeling unwelcome. The tech, code, software geek community has made your Average Librarian M feel particularly unwelcome. First, there’s the basic fact that when you let an analytically-minded expert write documentation and learning objects, they are not what one might call “user friendly” or “approachable”. The amount of jargon and out-of-reach baseline assumptions that litter most documentation and “outreach” from tech projects is absolutely daunting to Average Librarian M. It communicates, very clearly, that this is not your space. You do not belong here, you do not understand, go back to what you’re good at. And, yes, I advocate that you have to experience the discomfort of learning and failure in order to grow, but I don’t think that needs to mean that you feel actively disenfranchised before you can be a bigger person. The second thing that is a clear and obvious problem in terms of the hostility of the space is that librarians are, in majority terms, women. And the tech world is not only notoriously hostile to women in tech, but often gleefully so. See Kate Kosturski’s summation of the Adria Richards story for the most recent example. Check out the Tech Leaders section of the 2013 Movers and Shakers awards, where the gender balance literally flips from the other sections of the awards, for another less aggressive assessment of the state of library tech. Knowing that’s the set-state for the industry, and also knowing that the men willing to DDOS a company because they’re pissed at a female developer are the people gatekeeping the skills… someone tell me why I’d want to try REALLY HARD to gain entry? I’ll stay right here in my library, thanks very much.

And so. I don’t actually think it’s OKAY that I decided LibraryBox was too hard. I think that means I have a gap in my skills and abilities, and in a perfect world, I think I should fix that. But our world’s not perfect, and, like many among us, there are reasons why I’m not going to leap that gap right now.

But more of us need to be leaping. It needs to be easier to leap. I want to leap. What can we do to get us there?


  1. Oh, the ‘go teach yourself’ thing.

    I’m a comfortable autodidact and this *still* drives me up the wall. Because what it says, well, it dovetails with your point #3 — “well, we might find it useful to have these skills in our library, but we won’t actually clear any time for you to do it, so just go do a brain-intensive thing after a full work day, and a commute, and getting dinner on the table and the dishes done, and maybe putting a kid to bed, and, you know, the *entire rest of your life*.”

    Because yeah. That’s a winning strategy for learning intellectually intensive things.

    As for the M&S — as one of the, I guess, two people holding down the female part of that category — well. Yeah. I’m pretty comfortable in male-dominated environments, too, but also outspoken that you shouldn’t have to be okay with being an extreme minority, particularly as that has nothing to do with interest in or aptitude for code. And…well. Hm.

    So I’ve had really positive experiences in library tech spaces, honestly. The sort of troglodytic stuff you see in tech at large is much, much rarer in libtech, and in particular a lot of code4lib men have been outspoken about supporting our new Code of Conduct, and being allies in general (which has made me feel tremendously more included and supported there).

    But at the same time, I AM really aware that when I hang out at ALA the ratio’s 80/20, and when I hang out at LITA it’s more like 50/50, and when I hang out at code4lib it’s more like 20/80. That the higher I turn the “knowledge of code” knob, the more alone I am. And honestly it makes me doubt my own skills — like, oh, clearly women don’t do this, the fact that *I* am must be some kind of illusion — even though by any objective measure I actually do have more code skills than most people in libraryland, of any gender.

    And that gets us right back to “women need solid skills for dealing with being a minority, and impostor syndrome, and self-doubt, if they’re going to do this thing”, which…seems like entirely the wrong axis to filter along.

    I’m going to spend the next few decades making this better. FYI.


  2. An addendum to #3 about making it our jobs to learn crunchy tech skills is that doing so means having the administratively-approved time to do so, which means that crunchy tech skill time means that some other time is going un-done. As I look at how I structure my own work, I’m finding there’s not enough of things to delegate or not-do, so we need to find a way to give our librarians and staff time to learn things.


  3. Andromeda, yes. All of that. I had the same doubt in my first year as a library director — “no one here is my age, so I must not be old enough to do this, I don’t belong here.” Except I do. Coping with imposter syndrome… yeah.

    And please do spend the time on making it better. Please.

    Colleen, yes. yes yes yes. YES.


  4. I would also note that it is not Jason Griffey’s fault, or LibraryBox’s, that I didn’t follow through. I know several people with my basic skill set who’ve made it work to great effect. Griffey is also hard at work improving the whole experience and process, taking feedback from those who’ve worked with it to make it better.

    So let’s not make this about whether or not LibraryBox is too hard. That pretty much totally misses the point. 🙂


  5. As to point #2 even for those of us willing to sometimes do the teach yourself thing (as one who prefers formal learning): I have been taking that route in regards to WordPress and .htaccess files as I added more blogs and want to secure my sites. And I have been having some success. But like most any tech learning it is all one big rabbit hole to dive into.

    To be truly decent–not great, just decent–at those two topics I also need to learn (some) PHP, regular expressions, httpd.conf and other areas of Apache, server logs and how to access them and understand them, and the list just continues ad infinitum.

    This fact alone is enough to seriously deter someone and then you add the other issues …. I keep trying on occasion to do some of this self learning but it is usually the endless seeming depth of the rabbit hole that makes me wander off in frustration, again feeling defeated and less competent. Tis a great way to build one’s confidence and skills.

    Keep plugging away is one answer. But we all have limits, often valid based on other contraints. I just wanted to add this as I have been thinking about it lately, as I’m in the midst of it again, but have seen little commentary on the “rabbit hole” aspect of learning tech topics.

    Thanks for your post!


  6. Colleen, Jenica, anyone else relevant — I’d love to talk with library adminstrators about the challenges they face in protecting this time for staff. It seems like a huge piece of the puzzle and I don’t understand it very well.


  7. Also Jenica, as I’m sure you realized, the fact that you ARE more or less my age and you ARE doing this is totally inspiring. “Oh, hey, I guess I could do something like that.”


  8. Andromeda: ALA. Let’s talk.

    Kate, thank you for writing it. I agreed wholeheartedly.

    Mark, I think you’ve hit on something in particular: that it’s not “learn one new thing.” It’s “learn one new thing and twentyseven other things that are important parallel and interconnected things you will need for success.” It’s a systems learning problem rather than a discrete skill learning problem…


  9. Hi Jenica, thanks for writing on this topic. I am pretty sure that not all but surely many emerging technology librarians will feel similarly towards the libraryBox and they will have the exactly same problems from #1 to #4 that you listed. Since libraries are so heavy on the operation side and quite light on the innovation/experiment side, even technology librarians are mostly tied to the operational tasks and is left with little or no time for anything experimental. If you don’t mind me asking, what would be your advice to those tech librarians in such circumstances, and what do you think library administrators can do to help all of us generic librarians to get better at picking up new skills whether it is design, coding, or something else?

    Perhaps another follow-up post? =)

    *And I hope more librarians who want the support, discussion, learning community in technology to join @libtechwomen (Twitter/IRC/G+).


  10. One other element to the “not enough administrative time” comment is being too thinly staffed to have time to do this work at all. I work in an environment that if we have one library person out, it is difficult to find desk coverage, let alone project coverage. We’ve been creative and strategic about how we spend our time in down periods, but the capacity for this kind of work is limited in a very real way.

    That being said, we’re working to identify what can be done by students, what must be done by staff, and where can we find time to work on the technology skills most critical to our success as a library. It’s not easy, but I’m optimistic.


  11. When I got my MLS- (try 12 years ago- Jenica 🙂 ),
    It was always my plan to get computer certifications, hardware/ software etc. so that’s what I did, in addition to “have a life”. I can tell you that the software certifications are now fairly worthless, not because of job changes but because of script changes, for example, I haven’t coded in HTML for years, mostly because there are software tools that’ll handle it.
    The hardware certifications are nearly obsolete, but are easier for me to keep up with.

    The best thing I’ve seen out of WI DPI continuing education requirements for Directors are the mandatory tech hours. The road block is teaching “crunchy” tech skills to people that have no interest in knowing how their RFID systems really work at the software level. And why should they? They have contracts with vendors who handle it. (They should care so that they don’t make expensive mistakes and for basic troubleshooting) There’s a RFID class and certification from CompTIA which I recommend.

    Specialists are needed for a lot of these issues as Mark pointed out- why? Because it’s not one thing, it’s actually learning about 10 things, 2 of them will be obsolete in 5 years. Thank god I learned Flash- oh wait now it’s HTML5- curse you silicone chippery!

    Having grand plans of knowing the detailed world of tech as a librarian is a lofty dream, but reality says that you have to have a balance. There’s no way to be awesome at both.
    Dual-classing will only get you so far.


  12. I understand that a primary reason to encourage librarians to become computer scientists is due to budget. Libraries don’t have the funding to hire someone who has a degree in computer science to take care of the application development, programming, and other tech skills needed to keep the library going. Thus, a whole new set of skills is expected of librarians even though they never planned on this career path, otherwise, they would have pursued a degree in computer science.

    However, my defenses rise whenever this topic of librarians needing tech skills comes up due to having heard too many librarians argue that the average person with a bit of training could never do a librarian’s job properly without having their MLS. Yet, they are wanting with very little education, mostly self-taught with snippets of stolen time, to do a very complicated job that people can get PhD’s in. The hypocrisy drives me batty.

    Do we really believe that we should change the direction of the education received when obtaining a MLS from cataloging, reference, collection development, etc. to web design, server maintenance, coding languages, and usability testing? Are we trying to change librarianship to compter science?

    I see computer scientists as the people who can organize and present data. I see librarians as the experts who interact with that data to turn it into information. The librarians share this information with the patrons who turn it into knowledge to go and make things better, hopefully.

    Except for the budget issue, do we really need the librarians to also be the computer scientists?


  13. Kelly: I for one am not particularly interested in encouraging librarians to become computer scientists, in part for the reason you cite: that it’s a deep and broad skillset requiring full-time dedication. My husband has a computer science degree and is a software architect in the tech industry; I’m very clear on the gap between his skills and mine.

    That said, learning to read and write a bit of code is not the same as becoming a computer scientist (or software engineer); nor it is useless. There’s a huge amount you can do if you can write programs even only a few dozen lines long: automating routine procedures to save time and free yourself up for those librarian judgment calls that *can’t* be automated; communicating hugely more effectively with IT, developers, and vendors; improving the web presence that is so much of how patrons interact with libraries today; seeing things that are broken (and that you might be able to fix) that previously looked like just some inevitable status quo.

    To look at it from another direction, would I expect a software engineer on the Google Books project to gain an expert cataloger’s proficiency with MARC and AACR2? No…but I *do* think that getting some basic familiarity would make that person more effective *as a software engineer*. Similarly I think many librarians would be more effective *as librarians* with some knowledge of code (and that having some knowledge of code would open up new, even previously unseen, possibilities for being effective).


  14. Thanks for articulating what I have been thinking about lately. You are spot on in #3, a common pitfall of emerging tech only being on one person’s plate means everyone else assumes they don’t need to know it, or sometimes worse, it can make people feel left behind. I try to balance the shiny with everything else that I need to do, but have accepted, at least for now that I’ll need to do more learning on my own, and then make the case.


  15. Thank you for this. IF I can find time, I’d like to respond in length to questions raised on, but thank you for this piece.

    On the crunchy/non-crunchy (creamy? like w/ peanut butter?) distinction, I try to treat it as a learning style / cognitive preference division. Some people are comfortable w/ trial and error learning, some are less facile in this environment. I don’t know how to learn or teach tech skills without throwing a lot of possible solutions at a problem and seeing what works. I know a lot of people who CAN’T try a solution without KNOWING it will work. This is very uncomfortable for them, much like traditional classrooms are uncomfortable for people who don’t have a natural preference for learning through written or aural text. Just like a lot of smart people are made to feel stupid in the classroom, tech makes a lot of smart people feel stupid as well. Unfortunately, this can cause people to act out and alienate the very people who can help them most. I try not to hear “dance for me tech-monkey” or “read the manual for me, I’m too important for that sort of thing” when given poorly phrased requests, but it can take some effort.


  16. Andromeda: I appreciate your comments and can see your point. It definitely helps in communication if there is some common experience and understanding of terminology.

    Dorothea: You could be right. Also, with just the comment I left and Andromeda’s response, a gap may be with the expectation of expertise learned – the ability to code anything vs. just do something.


  17. This is an issue that I’ve had with all sorts of open source projects, that they’ll create the tool to a certain point and call the job done. Leaving the user to build it etc. Which is fine in some situations (and maybe overall for LibraryBox), but in so many others it’s completely insufficient.

    For another example, the bibliography->Endnote parsing tool I created is one of the least powerful tools out there – but of the many more-powerful ones I found, there was only one I could figure out how to install myself, and none I could recommend to the library users who need it. (To be fair, at least some were explicitly intended for other audiences. But still.)

    So I wish more developers wouldn’t call a project done until it’s built and documented and usable by the people who want to use it. If you can’t afford the time to all this, I understand that because it is a good chunk of work; but at least be upfront that the project’s not really per se *done*.


  18. I think that Deborah and Andromeda and Demonic are right on point with where my thoughts are: It’s not that I want librarians to replace programmers via half-baked skill development that we don’t take seriously enough. It’s that I want librarians to be able to be informed consumers with some agency in the process by which they choose and implement tech in their libraries and worklives. Right now, that’s still really hard: many of us don’t understand the underpinnings of our tech, or how it’s built, or how it works, or why it’s broken. We don’t need to know how to fix it, we just need to understand why it might be broken. (ie, I don’t want to know how to replace the alternator on my car, but it’s good to know that the battery and the alternator are part of the electrical system of said car.)

    I took a networking class in grad school – the basics of our internet infrastructure and how and why they affect libraries. This was 2001, mind you, and so this was useful, timely, and newish. And I cannot tell you how helpful that’s been to me. I understand how the internet was built, why, and when. I understand the basics of how information moves around and what standards govern that. And so unlike many on my campus, I understand why sometimes our access to the web is broken, but the campus webserver is still accessible from our offices. As an example.

    I can’t do the same thing with most of the software that supports my daily work.

    I can’t do the same thing with the hardware that runs that software that supports my daily work.

    I can’t do the same thing with the interfaces that power my access to the information that supports my daily work.

    And i can’t do the same thing with the many interesting emerging projects that look like they could be cool, could have an interesting impact on the things i’m passionate about, and that I’d like to fiddle with. Because I just don’t have the baseline knowledge.

    I don’t want to change the alternator, or tune my engine, I just want to understand how the pieces fit together so that when I read documentation that says “Flash your hardware with OpenWRT” i know WHAT THE FUCK THAT MEANS. Which I don’t. Or, perhaps, the documentation could understand and accept that some of us don’t know what that means, and explain it in lighter, more layman’s terms. Yes, it means the experts have to dig further, but… how many people are shut out because step one makes them go “BUH?”


  19. Jenica and commenters, can you take a stab at expressing what you think you’d need to know to investigate software, hardware, and interfaces in the way you specify? Laundry lists, case studies, examples — express it however makes sense to you.

    (This is not an idle question. Continuing education for librarians is part of my work brief. I’m actively trying to figure out what else to teach and how to teach it!)


  20. Jenica, thanks for this “oft thought, but ne’er so well express’d” post. Many of the issues you’ve raised, and commenters have expanded on, have been very much on my mind. Especially the problem of tech learning not being built into our jobs in a way that makes pursuing it feel very achievable. Especially, especially, when the rabbit hole seems to go so deep, and copious free time is in limited supply.

    Dorothea, speaking for myself, I keep struggling with even identifying what it is I need to know. It feels like a lot of this is also related to the rabbit hole problem. Just when I think, “if I can learn something about x, I think I’ll be better able to do the stuff I’m interested in,” I find out that learning x first requires that I understand more about y and z. Which in turn, assume some familiarity of k through m. Meanwhile, my actual working hours (and then some) are expected to focus on r, d, and a.


  21. Great article, Jenica! I have also been trying to come up with practical ways to approach this problem. One approach I’m trying to get off the ground is developing a library technology curriculum that builds on RailsBridge (, and introduces topics like text indexing, searching, and library discovery concepts like relevancy. I am also considering what it would take to turn this into an online course to be delivered via a library school.

    I would love to start offering regular RailsBridge workshops at our library. I have taught at RailsBridge workshops in San Francisco, and here is what I’ve seen work:

    – we break into small groups so everyone can work through the curriculum at her own pace. In some groups, where students are missing background technology skills, we address that. I recently taught a railsbridge workshop where we barely touched any code, we just talked about how the Internet actually works, at a conceptual level. The feedback from the students was that they previously hadn’t had anywhere they could ask questions about that without fear of looking ignorant.

    – we explicitly exist for women. Anyone can come, but setting the expectation that the workshop is FOR the women who are present dramatically changes the dynamic, in a positive and inclusive way.

    – It’s a time to spend working on technical challenges in a supportive helpful environment. When we can build these into conferences, it’s maybe even time you’re being paid for.

    I’m certainly not claiming that workshops like this address all possible problems, but it seems like a concrete workable step in the right direction.

    Also, I second Bohyun’s invite to join libtechwomen, where you will meet many other kindred spirits who are working hard to solve these problems.


  22. Ok, Dorothea, here’s where I ended up:

    I think what we need, explicitly, as mid-career librarians looking to stay relevant and informed and knowledgeable about the products and services that shape our work, is baseline understanding. We need frameworks. We need vocabulary. We need environmental context.

    I think this applies to hardware and to software, as well as the infrastructure they all ride on, as all three are crucial to understanding the services technology supports and delivers.

    What I don’t know — because I don’t know what I don’t know — is how to tell you which skills, vocabulary, and frameworks to teach. I just know that right now, I feel under-informed and under-aware, and it’s clear I’m not alone.


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