Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Systems Administration Requires People Skills

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Systems Administration Requires People Skills

Article excerpt

Eric Lease Morgan works in the Department for Digital Library Initiatives of the North Carolina State University Libraries in Raleigh. His e-mail address is and his home page is at

In the future, people responsible for the maintenance of a library's computer hardware and software will have learned to incorporate the principles and practices of librarianship with the principles and practices of systems administration.

Someone once told me the purpose of a systems department is much like the purpose of the police department. In other words, a systems department's purpose is to "Serve and Protect." Unfortunately, this is not enough, because a computer is not an end in itself but rather a means to an end defined by people. Systems administration, especially in libraries, must include the human touch.

Where We Went Wrong

Frankly, I think libraries took a wrong turn a bit more than 25 years ago when MEDLINE and ERIC first made their appearances. It was at that time that librarians should have taken notice of how computers could be used to facilitate the organization and dissemination of information; it was at least at that time when librarians could have seen the possibilities of databases. Librarians could have created their own databases and provided services similar to DIALOG. It wasn't long after MEDLINE and ERIC when "online card catalogs" became popular.

Granted, it wasn't all librarians' fault. Computers in those days were primarily seen as number-crunching machines. No one foresaw the era of the personal computer. In fact, it was commonly believed that only a few computers would be needed to handle all the computing tasks of the world. Computer programming was also a real hassle. There definitely was no graphical user interface, and more than likely you had to write your own programs to fit your individual needs. Nobody liked handling all those punch cards and dealing with the problems of what to do when you accidentally spilled them on the floor. Furthermore, computers, even more so than today, were seen as "geeky boys' toys" and few girls knew how to play with them. Remember, librarianship was, and still is, a profession where women are definitely the majority.

At least one person realized the value of integrating the principles of librarianship and the strengths of networked computers. That person was Frederick Kilgour, the president and chief executive officer of OCLC from 1967 to 1980. I had the opportunity to share an office with Kilgour in 1996 when I was teaching an Internet class in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Maybe I have romanticized my memories of that time, but from where I sat he seemed like a librarian through and through. He was doing scholarly research for a work since published as The Evolution of the Book. He was doing "information science" through citation analysis. He frequently quoted Ranganathan and his five laws of librarianship. Not only that, but he had more ideas about how computers could be used to provide and enhance library services than many of my peers. He emphasized the need for traditional reference interviews in the creation of patron profiles because "librarians always need to be in touch with the patrons."

You Gotta Be a People Person

This brings me back to my point. Because computers were hidden away in the back rooms, were not seen as tools for "mere mortals," and were difficult to use, computers attracted people who didn't have people skills. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.