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Reflecting on 20 Years of Library Technology

Computers in Libraries [April 2005] The Systems Librarian

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My career in the Vanderbilt University Libraries started 20 years ago. What began as a job to hold me over until I decided what I wanted to do next in life has turned out to be a varied and interesting career. The different positions that I've held over these last 2 decades have given me the opportunity to explore technologies ranging from mainframes to micros, text to video, BITNET to the Internet, and kilobytes to terabytes. Toys abound. I've had a chance to play with hardware and software galore. Not that it's been all fun and games-ensuring that computer systems work reliably and effectively can be a lot of work, and the thought of things going awry can be quite stressful.

Although libraries made some use of computer technology before 1985, it was about that time that technology really began to get traction in the libraries at Vanderbilt. Ever since, computers have transformed almost every aspect of how the library provides its services and performs its work behind the scenes. The timing of my arrival at Vanderbilt was fortunate-I climbed onboard the elevator of library technology while it was still on the ground floor.

Some Things I've Learned

While I wouldn't put my career on a pedestal for anyone else to emulate, I do hope that I've found a few successful strategies that might be useful to others. Let me share some of them with you.

See the big picture. Understanding the big picture helps me figure out the details. From the beginning of my tech career at Vanderbilt, I've attempted to maintain a broad awareness of the key trends and the latest hardware and software developments. Though I'm not a fast or comprehensive reader, I'm always scanning trade journals and Web sites to keep up with the events in the field as they unfold. Knowing the broad landscape of computer hardware developments, networking, storage options, etc., provides context and perspective for the smaller issues that arise every day. Most important of all is to understand what computing models, architectures, and standards prevail in the industry at large and which of those show promise for the library community.

Understand the details. I also believe that only having a vision of the landscape from 35,000 feet does not make you a good technologist. A high-level view that isn't informed with a detailed knowledge of the underlying technologies may be misguided and, thus, miss the mark. If you follow technology only at the higher level, you don't have a realistic understanding of the complexities that lie beneath the surface or the level of difficulty involved in putting the concept into practice. It takes multiple layers of understanding to separate hype from substance and to develop technology strategies that are likely to succeed.

Develop a specialty. While one cannot be an expert on everything, it is reasonable to develop one or two areas of specialization. I've found that having in-depth expertise in one area easily extrapolates to others.

My chosen areas of expertise are networking and database systems. As my first assignment in the systems department, I was responsible for the terminal network of our mainframe-based NOTIS system. The network, though generally fairly stable, was quirky and subject to problems that often couldn't be resolved without looking all the way down to the electrical signals and raw data transmissions in hexadecimal. As our networks evolved through terminal servers, all the flavors of Ethernet, and, now, Wi-Fi, I've tried to maintain that same level of knowledge up and down the protocol stack. However, I find that as my responsibilities become broader, my knowledge of the details gets spottier.

Practice hands-on management. I don't think that I could be a manager or administrator over a technology-oriented organization if I didn't have at least some degree of hands-on technical work. An administrator gains a considerable advantage when he or she knows current technology firsthand. Given my personal proclivities, an administrative position that involved only budget, personnel, strategizing, and meetings wouldn't be all that appealing, even if the focus was on technology. For me, the satisfaction of developing systems or solving real-world problems outweighs the rewards of planning a budget. As I've risen through the ranks to the managerial and administrative level, I've continued to do at least some technical work, including the Perl and C++ programming that I've been doing over the last few years for the Vanderbilt Television News Archive.

The challenge lies in finding the right balance, since both managerial and technical activities can be all-consuming. But I think it's important to never give up some contact with the world of hands-on technology. Given how quickly things change, it doesn't take long for skills to become stale and knowledge obsolete.

Know what you don't know. No one can know everything. I believe it's really important to recognize that you can't be an expert on all things and that there are always new avenues of learning. Most of all, know what you know-and what you don't know.

As I begin to explore a new corner of the field, my usual first impression is that I'm only scratching the surface of a highly complex set of technologies that I may never understand in detail. But that's OK as long as I know enough to meet my immediate needs. It would be far worse for me to have a shallow knowledge of an area and think I know it all. Some of my most frustrating encounters over the years have been with consultants or job applicants who asserted in-depth expertise on topics they knew superficially at best. They didn't even know enough to realize how little they really knew.

Seek broad experiences. I've also had a lot of luck in finding activities outside my position at Vanderbilt to expand my horizons. I've spent my entire library career at Vanderbilt, and I figured out a long time ago that I needed to pursue activities in other libraries if I wanted to have a good understanding of technology in the broader scheme. What happens in a private university's large research library is a fairly thin slice of the real world. Therefore, to gain some perspective, I've always gravitated toward the projects in libraries least like my own. A public library in a rural area with a very small budget and a staff with limited technical proficiency, a special library in a nongovernmental agency, and a public library in a medium-sized city all face quite different challenges. Working with a diverse array of libraries on technology projects has taught me a great deal about the larger library profession and has helped me tackle problems that I face in my primary job.

Understand the importance of context. Technology is never an end in itself. Rather, it is a means to help an organization achieve its core endeavors. The most important lesson I've learned while working with other libraries is that I have to first understand an organization's larger mission and circumstances before I can jump to any conclusions about technology issues. A library's tolerance for risk, its comfort level relative to the cutting edge, its financial resources, and the proclivities of its personnel may drive technology choices just as much as the ideal hardware and software components and the current state of the art. While, hopefully, I understand my own organization's characteristics, absorbing another institution's features in just a few days is hard work.

Research constantly. Over these 20 years, I've also spent a lot of time writing and speaking about library technologies. I've been extremely fortunate to have been given opportunities to write for many different publications and to speak at a wide array of library conferences. Having to constantly do research in support of these activities has forced me to continually update my knowledge and awareness of many issues. Though the routine of constant deadlines is stressful, it provides me with the impetus to learn about aspects of technology more deeply than I would have otherwise.

Coincidently, Computers in Libraries (CIL), this magazine's namesake conference, marked its 20th anniversary last month. In the first year or so of my position at Vanderbilt, I attended this conference and found it to be closely allied with my own interests. Since then, I've gone to the conference every year, as an attendee the first couple of years and as a speaker ever since. My association with CIL led to many other professional activities. Nancy Melin Nelson, the conference chair in its early years, paved the way for my involvement in publishing, opening opportunities for me to edit and write books and to become editor in chief of Library Software Review.

Enough reminiscing. I do hope that this look back over my career's twists and turns and my attitudes toward technology will be helpful to you. Twenty years ago, I was especially lucky to stumble upon a profession so well aligned with my interests and abilities, even though it wasn't what I thought I wanted to do. Happy anniversary to me and to the Computers in Libraries conference.

View Citation
Publication Year:2005
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 25 Number 04
Issue:April 2005
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
Record Number:11411
Last Update:2023-12-03 20:23:53
Date Created:0000-00-00 00:00:00