Magazine article Computers in Libraries

A Time of Opportunity for the Library Programmer

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

A Time of Opportunity for the Library Programmer

Article excerpt

One of the most rewarding aspects of working with technology in a library involves finding ways to solve day-to-day problems and to shape its computing environment to best meet the needs of its staff and users. It's great to find ways to support the organization in ways not necessarily possible with the out-of-the-box automation systems that comprise its official technical infrastructure. For a library to be able to extend and enhance its technical environment, it's helpful to have one or more staff members with the ability to write or modify scripts and programs.

Not all libraries may need in-house programming capacity--the vast majority don't. But if your responsibilities include involvement with the library's technical infrastructure, or if you manage technology and you are thinking about the skills needed as your organization moves forward, you might think about where computer programming falls into the mix of skill sets to cultivate. This month's column takes a look at some of the opportunities, advantages, and caveats involved with having a programmer on staff.

Acquiring Programming Skills

Gaining mastery of a programming language enables a wide realm of possibilities in solving problems. In libraries, some of the common tasks include extracting or transforming data, creating utilities that address gaps in functionality not available in other products, or finding ways to connect applications. With even a basic level of proficiency, you can begin to accomplish useful tasks. Once you gain a higher level of mastery, opportunities to make important contributions to your library, or even to the broader community of libraries, greatly expand.

Library programmers arrive at their station by many different paths. Some will come with training in computer science and programming. These individuals will have great technical skills but have to work hard to learn more about library-specific issues. Libraries deal with data in quirky ways that may seem unusual to those coming from an IT background in other industries. Alternately, many others begin with experience or education in the library profession and gravitate toward technology, so they may have picked up some level of programming skills along the way. It's the blend of experience with library issues and knowledge of professional programming concepts and techniques that can produce an outstanding library programmer. The cultivation of a great library programmer blends two areas of expertise--facility with one or more programming languages and a strong knowledge of the idiosyncratic realm of the data structures, protocols, and standards that pervade our profession.

Gaining a detailed knowledge of MARC records, for example, ranks as an important prerequisite to dealing with data issues related to integrated library systems and other core bibliographic applications. This knowledge involves not just the details of record structure but also at least some understanding of how each of the major fields functions. Learning the rules that govern the fields, subfields, indicators, leaders, and other components of the MARC record can be challenging but will pay off for those wanting to work with this aspect of library data. Similar examples pervade other aspects of library automation in which knowledge of the practice and traditions of the discipline will benefit the software developer.

Many systems librarians have taught themselves how to write programs. It's a great approach as long as you make sure that the techniques learned fall within the mainstream of professional programming. It takes awhile to work up to the point of developing programs that not only work as intended but that also perform efficiently and that do not contain security problems. Teaching yourself how to program should be consistent with your preferred learning style. Some like to jump in and start learning through doing, often following a trial-and-error approach and using books or documentation for reference along the way. …

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