IT (and not that Stephen King creepy clown, either)

Eli Neiburger, known for the “Libraries are Screwed” presentation at the Library Journal eBook Summit, is stirring the pot once more by calling for the replacement of reference with IT people. From Library Journal:

"We need big servers and the geeks to take care of them," Neiburger said. "What are we going to cut to be able to hire a geek? We are going to cut reference staff. Reference is dead," he said.

Despite the fact that a trained librarian can bring value to a reference interaction, the patron today, acclimated to Google searches, does not feel that way, and librarians cannot change their mind, Neiburger said.

For what it’s worth, I totally get where Eli is coming from. He’s touted a move towards libraries owning their digital content rather than licensing it. For eBooks, it means going to the authors themselves and making a deal with them to get their works for the library to distribute. To this end, you need the data infrastructure (various hardware purchases and a patron-friendly interface) to make it work; for that, you need to have a robust IT squad. And if library budgets are presently zero sum, that money will need to come from somewhere. In eliminating the reference library staff (and replacing them with paraprofessionals), the savings generated can fund the digital infrastructure.

If I’m understanding Eli correctly, this future vision of the library would be one that has a paraprofessional front (circulation and reference) with any remaining librarians in the back (administration, cataloging, and IT). 


To be honest, my biggest concern is taking librarians and removing them from contact with the public. This whole “let’s move librarians off public desks” seems like a step backwards for user experience by overly focusing on digital content to the detriment of face-to-face service. Personally, I think librarians struggle with assessing what their patrons want as it is and this would create an unnecessary aloofness to overcome. I believe there is value to having a librarian in the public spaces, even if they are relegated to handling actual reference/research questions. While discovery online is not at the library website (perhaps something having library geeks could work on), discovery in-person is still a viable service and one that I believe librarians should still have a hand in.

Also, I don’t think this kind of arrangement scales very well. I can see how it would work for larger libraries, but I’m having a hard time imagining it for smaller staffed public libraries (and, as an aside, nigh impossible for school libraries). I think with some help from commenters that we might be able to guess at the minimum level of staffing and funding where Eli’s IT move would be viable. My hunch is that it could create it’s own “digital content divide” where some libraries can afford to staff and fund a robust digital infrastructure while others would simply be relegated to current vendor offerings. (Now, if you introduce consortium arrangements to fund regional IT staff and hardware, we’re talking a whole new ballgame.)

I’d like to highlight some of the comments made on Friendfeed that the article presents a false dichotomy; that you can have reference or IT but you can’t both. Why not? Perhaps it is a better question about MLS graduate programs; could they create a program where a person can speak geek and reference? Or geek and cataloging? Or geek and administration? Should these programs be focused on making hybrids?

I think there is geek in the future, but I’m not completely sold on it being the only way to go.

11 thoughts on “IT (and not that Stephen King creepy clown, either)

  1. I don’t know about any other MLIS students, but I’m fairly certain I could handle both ends. Though I do think that geek literacy is important for librarians, because geeks love libraries. I don’t think some IT skills are too much to ask of anyone these days, especially librarians. It’s the 21st century after all. 😛

  2. Agree with Collin about the “super librarian.” While my IT skills are lacking to say the least, it is an area that I know I need to focus my education on. Is it too much to ask that librarians are walking fusions of reference and IT? Librarians need to have the IT know-how combined with the traditional reference problem solving mentality and the more modern customer service mentality.

  3. Well, librarianship has been suffering from a false dichotomy for years: the “access services” vs. “technical services” divide has led to librarians being pigeonholed into one type of service or another. So we have librarians sticking to reference because “I’m not a computer person,” and librarians mouldering back in cataloging because “I like books, not people.”

    • Excellent point! I was shocked when I spoke with a young, recent (December 2010) graduate of library school who has been told in no uncertain terms to choose either public services or technical services and plan a career accordingly. That’s just crazy talk, IMHO. While it’s true that the divide still exists that doesn’t mean it should, and it doesn’t mean that that particular distinction should still be important.

      • I am a December 2010 library school graduate (thought not the one Bonnie mentions), and though I have not been told this directly, I can see a bit of the either/or happening in the field. I currently work in a nonprofit organization’s special library, and I like to think I’m pretty well-rounded. In fact, one of the reasons I pursued librarianship in the first place is because I thought it would be a good way to combine my various interests and talents.

        However, being a generalist is not always what it’s cracked up to be, either. Should I start looking for a new job, I suspect my tech savvy isn’t quite at the level of most “systems librarian” postings, and my reference savvy is not on-par with the demands of strictly “reference librarian” positions. I think I could handle either type of job fairly well, but would probably rather be in a position that combines a little of both, like the aforementioned “super librarian.”

        • Just a word of encouragement – if you’re missing one of the tech skills that they want, apply anyway if you feel you can honestly say that you can teach yourself as you go. Technologies change, and people need to change with them. I’d rather hire someone who can learn today’s technology because they’ll be able to learn tomorrow’s, too. If you know today’s technology because you were formally taught, that will soon be yesterday’s technology, and paying for you to go back to school every time something new comes along doesn’t appeal.

          Ok, that was more than a word, but you get the picture.

          • That’s really good to hear! I do pride myself on being a pretty quick study, and am mostly self-taught when it comes to technology. My tendency is to learn the technologies that will best help me solve problems and make life easier (for me, our customers, etc). Along the way, I’ve built up a pretty good knowledge base, but perhaps the best thing I have going is my willingness to learn and experiment. I’m 29, so while I’m not technically a digital native, I have no fear of technology. I really do think librarians will be better off if they know a little geek as a second language!

  4. I visited an academic library recently where only student assistants sat at circulation and reference. The reference librarians stayed in their offices. However, they were reserved for one-on-one appointments available via the library homepage, which were very popular. I think as long as we still make librarians easily accessible, it might not be the end of the world if they aren’t sitting at the front desk(s).

    • Actually, I’ve found that reference librarians have great input when it comes to making things like OPACs and other technical interfaces usable and accessible. Having them “in the back” and available by appointment might free them up to work with tech services and geeks for a good integrative library service.

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