BOOK REVIEW: THE ACCIDENTAL SYSTEMS LIBRARIAN
by Rachel Singer Gordon. Information Today, 2003. 1-57387-161-3. $29.50.
Reviewed by Marylaine Block
Who better to write this necessary professional book than Rachel Singer Gordon, who herself became a systems librarian by virtue of being the only one in her library willing to unscrew the back of a computer to see if she could figure out what was going wrong, the only one willing to spend half an hour on hold waiting for tech support. Much of what she knows, she learned on the job.
And as she points out in this book, that's fine, and even commendable. The time has long since passed when librarians, who pride themselves on helping people find the answers they need, can responsibly refuse to acquire any understanding of how the computers, which they and their patrons are absolutely dependent on, work.
But there's a lot more to the job than willingness, and even more than technological expertise, though Gordon devotes chapter two to the range of technological tasks a systems librarian might be responsible for. The job also requires the use of our ability to organize knowledge, and our ability to do research, and Gordon devotes a chapter to each of these.
Why? For one thing, we need to keep track of an enormous amount of information about each and every machine, software installation, service contract, upgrade, license agreement, and maintenance or repairs done on each machine. We need to organize all this information because we'll have to have it in hand when we talk to tech support, or complain about overly frequent system crashes, or decide which machines need to be replaced. Gordon tells you what kinds of documentation you'll need, and suggests ways of organizing it.
We need our research skills in order to find answers in tech support databases which may or may not describe the problems in the same language we do, or may not describe them at all -- in which case, we need to be able to find other sources, like listservs or general tech sources which may have the answers. We need to be able to do research in order to choose our next generation hardware and software, and to understand the licensing terms we're being asked to abide by. We need our research skills to analyze what skills we will need in the future and figure out the best way of acquiring them. Gordon suggests a number of resources, both print and online, that will assist us in these tasks.
Some research needs will be met through networking, with other systems librarians, with our larger organization's technical people, and with our software and database vendors' support personnel. Gordon offers a chapter on networking resources -- online discussion groups, local library systems, professional associations and conferences, and informal networks. In another chapter, she outlines, and gives links for, numerous ways to take courses, in person and online, to improve your technical skills
Those are some of the most obvious things you would expect to do as a systems librarian. But are you prepared for the role of teacher? Systems librarians have to train their own librarians and staff in the basics of the system and the software packages, and in rudimentary troubleshooting -- unless, of course, they're willing to be interrupted every other minute with requests to unjam the printer, replace a toner cartridge, and bring a computer back from the blue screen of death. The systems person will also need to train library users, perhaps in person, but certainly with simple cheat sheets on how to use the equipment, OPAC, and databases. So Gordon devotes a chapter to instruction methods, making sure we understand the special needs of adult learners.
She stresses throughout the fact that technical skills are only half the job, because ultimately, they have to make sure the machines are meeting the real needs of library users and staff. Therefore, it's important for systems librarians to remain librarians, to watch users and see how they interact with the machines, to observe what frustrates them. Human relations skills and the ability to communicate clearly are at least as important as the technical skills.
That's because systems librarians will inevitably be administrators as well, planners of new systems, and maybe managers of technical staff and student assistants. Gordon devotes a chapter to administration chores like selecting an integrated library system, writing an RFP, choosing a vendor, setting a timetable for system migration, training library staff, and managing support personnel.
Anyone who's learned to do all of that is eminently employable. Gordon concludes with a chapter on the steps in finding that perfect job. As the woman who runs a website called LISJobs.com [http://lisjobs.com/] to help librarians find the job of their dreams, she knows whereof she speaks.
The book (and the author) is a great contribution to the profession, which can be read equally by librarians who are learning systems work on the job, and by aspiring librarians who have figured, probably correctly, that technical ability will increase both their job offers and their salary offers.
You can get a good idea of what it has to offer by exploring its companion web site, http://www.lisjobs.com/tasl/.
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I've come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
Douglas Adams. The Salmon of Doubt. 2002.
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