Welcome to my inaugural column for Computers in Libraries magazine. Beginning this month, The Systems Librarian will shift from its previous home in the "Library Systems Today" section of Information Today, a sister publication, where it's been for about 2 years. Information Today provided a great opportunity for me to write about my various experiences in working with computer technology in libraries. I'm delighted to write this column for the readers of CIL now. In this first edition of The Systems Librarian in this new venue, I'll talk some about my general experiences in library automation, pointing out along the way some of the issues that I see as central to systems librarianship. Please bear with me as I spend most of my space in this issue telling you about some of my adventures and experiences in the field in order to set the stage for future columns that deliver more substantive information on specific topics.
My Intended Audience
My column aims to provide practical advice to those whose job responsibilities involve automation and technology in a library setting. Those of you who read this column work in all types of librariesacademic, public, corporate, school, and special. So don't worry: I'll make it a point not to limit my perspective to the realm of academic libraries. While most of my work takes place at a large university, I'm also aware of the issues that face public libraries. A majority of my consuiting clients have been public libraries, and that has helped me develop an understanding of the significant differences in automation concerns in these libraries compared to the academic sector. Having experience in multiple types of libraries has helped me broaden my perspective as I speak and write about automation.
While many libraries title the key position in this area as "systems librarian," it can also take many other names and forms, including "network manager," "information services librarian," or "automation specialist." I see the audience of this column as including not only systems people but library administrators as well. The more that administrators understand the key issues and technologies involved in library automation, the better they will be able to establish high-level strategies and allocate the resources necessary for a library to be successful in this area. I hope that library assistants and other support staff that work with computers in the library will also find useful information here, especially those who strive to advance their careers in the library toward greater involvement with systems and automation.
A systems librarian may not always be a librarian. I'm not. While I've been working for the last 18 years in a series of professional technology-oriented positions in the libraries at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, I gained my experience through hands-on work, study, and experimentation, not in an M.L.S. program in a graduate school. I was fortunate enough to be given opportunities to become involved with personal computers and networks from the time that libraries were using them. Even before I worked in libraries, I'd gained considerable experience in computing, going back to the days of entering programs and data into a computer with key punch cards. So a knack for computing plus a background in philosophy and logic turned out to be great training for working with computer systems in libraries. The writing and communication skills that I absorbed through my liberal arts education have been enormously helpful, especially as I became involved with extracurricular activities such as writing and public speaking.
Today I hold a position called "library technology officer" at Vanderbilt University. I'm responsible for high-level planning for the library's use of technology and for a number of special projects. I keep my skills current through staying involved in the hands-on technical implementation of projects-including database design and Web programming in Perl. One of my most interesting responsibilities involves the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, the world's most comprehensive archive of national news programming available to the general public. (Visit us at tvnews.vander bilt.edu.) You'll be hearing more about this project in future columns, since it touches on so many areas of interesting technology. At the archive, we work with a large-scale Web-enabled database of metadata and news program abstracts and an e-commerce system that allows our users to make requests for videotape loans. Planning is currently underway for converting the archive from videotape to digital media. The issues involved with digitizing this very large collection have brought me into a complex world of digital video compression standards, metadata format options, and digital preservation concerns. But the copyright and information property issues stand as the most complex issues of all. While I've talked about this project some in previous columns published in Information Today, you can expect to hear more. This has been one of the most exciting and technically challenging projects that I've been involved with in my entire career. Video and other rich-media technologies are sure to be an ever-increasing part of the information that libraries manage.
Automation: A Key Issue
One of the core responsibilities in the systems librarian position is implementing and supporting the automation system. The entire operation of the library, from circulation to cataloging to public services, depends on the efficient operation of an integrated library system that automates all the functions of the library and manages all its vital information systems.
I've long had a strong interest in library automation systems and the companies that develop and support them. Here at Vanderbilt, I've been deeply involved in the selection, implementation, and support of our automation systems-beginning with NOTIS and moving on to our current SIRSI Unicorn system. I keep close tabs on the other large-scale systems on the market too. To balance the experiences that I get at Vanderbilt with large-scale library automation systems, I've evaluated and reviewed practically all the small PCand Macintosh-based systems, both for a set of reviews published in a book and for a now-defunct publication called Library Software Review, for which I was editor in chief for a number of years.
You can expect to hear lots about the business side of the library automation industry in this corner of CIL. Tracking the growth and decline of companies, mergers and acquisitions, and product strategies is one of my top professional interests. Whether I do it by roaming the exhibit halls of ALA and other professional conferences, by constantly monitoring each vendor's Web site, or through an extensive set of personal contacts with key players in the industry, I make it one of my priorities to keep abreast of developments in the library automation business environment. As changes occur in the industry-either through gradual evolution or through significant events-I'll be sure to provide the background, perspective, and context to help you make sense of this ever-changing industry. One of my chief concerns is that libraries do not take enough of an active role in shaping the direction of development of their automation systems, leaving it to the commercial companies to set the agenda. This concern translates into one of my main goals: informing readers about industry developments and challenging them to become critical and analytical consumers of library automation systems.
Dynamic Web-Based Systems
Printed articles such as this one provide snapshots in time of the information related to the issue at hand. To gain even more current information, it's helpful to have the benefit of a continuously updated resource. In addition to the writing that I do for print publications relating to library automation, I maintain a Web site focused on this topic called Library Technology Guides (see www.librarytechnology .org). This site consists of a number of Webenabled databases that help me keep track of the details relating to library automation companies, products, news announcements, and the literature in the field.
Library Technology Guides also includes the lib-web-cats (">www.librarytechnology.org/libwebcats) directory of libraries, which serves not only as a way for the general public to find the Web sites and online catalogs of libraries but also provides tools to track trends about various automation systems used in libraries. For each library listed in the libweb-cats, I include the name of the automation system currently in use and whenever possible, any previous systems. This data allows users to perform queries that reveal trends in which library automation systems currently enjoy success in the marketplace and which systems are losing ground. I maintain Library Technology Guides primarily to meet my own needs for detailed information in my own areas of interest; as a secondary benefit, it serves as a constantly updated online resource for people with similar interests. This project also gives me a chance to experiment with various approaches to building dynamic Web sites. Systems librarians often find themselves involved in building Web sites and Web applications. Whether it be for the library's basic Web site or for creating digital library collections, essential tools of the trade include the servers, software, databases, protocols, and standards involved in Web-based systems. One of my specialties of late involves creating Webenabled databases. I've been involved in creating systems to support image collections, bibliographic citations, audio clips, and video content. I find this work both technically challenging and personally rewarding. Future columns will cover the ins and outs of the technologies, concepts, and tools involved in developing and supporting dynamic, database-driven Web sites.
What's Worked in My Career
As I wind down, I want to pass on a bit of general, practical advice. One of my basic beliefs about what it takes to build a successful career in a systems office lies in developing a broad knowledge of the field and then developing one or more specialties. Unfortunately, few of us have the intellectual capacity to have in-depth expertise in every aspect of the technologies that are used in our field. But it's important, I believe, to have a broad understanding of the general concepts of business computing, networks, library automation, and Web architecturethese are the key building blocks of almost everything we do. Such broad knowledge is vital to strategic planning, resource allocation, and sound day-to-day decision making. Then, having a specialty where you become an expert in a particular area of technology is also important. Not only does it allow you to perform miracles within your area of specialization, but it also gives you an appreciation for the level of detail that exists in the other areas.
Detailed knowledge of one aspect of technology, coupled with an analytical approach, makes it easier to solve problems in any area, given the parallels and similarities that exist among all computerbased systems. So, while you can't be an expert on everything, pick at least one small area and teach yourself how it works from top to bottom. My own chosen area of expertise has been network communications. As I learned how networks operate down to the packet level, I've been able to apply that knowledge in a variety of ways and to gradually expand that expertise to other areas. This strategy of balancing a broad strategic view of technology with selected areas of specialized expertise has worked well in my career. I hope you'll check my new column each month for news and information that might serve you well in your own career.