Magazine article American Libraries

The World Online: IT Skills for the Practical Professional

Magazine article American Libraries

The World Online: IT Skills for the Practical Professional

Article excerpt

TECHNICAL LITERACY IS NO LONGER A SPECIALTY BUT A SURVIVAL SKILL FOR ALL LIBRARIANS

I remember, 20 years ago, scrambling to pull down the National Union Catalog volume we needed for copy cataloging--and carefully ensuring that it did not topple over and crush someone beneath its weight. This has a way of shaping your perception of information retrieval. I remember paper tapes, acoustic couplers, audiocassette backup, and 300-baud circ systems. Each one of these was a small step along a continuum that exploded with the networking of the PC.

I have been fortunate enough to see my career develop in tandem with the growing influence of technology on the profession, but even those of us experienced in absorbing the impact of technical development sometimes rock with the shock of it. Still, we are "career survivors" whose skills will be useful in this profession 20 years hence, and the story of my technical education may be helpful to librarians who wonder where they will be in two decades.

The golden olden days

It was so much simpler in the '80s. The function of technology was pretty well defined--it was all back-office operations, and even though circulation was a point of public interface, the public did not interface with the hardware but with the staff person using the hardware. The configuration, at its most complex, was a dumb terminal with a printer attached, and it either worked or it didn't work. When it didn't work, you called the techie "guy" [sic] to come fix it or swap it out.

Operations--the collective tasks of massaging data into usable forms, printing reports, updating programs, and monitoring sensitive hardware--was housed in an out-of-the way section of the building, or in another building altogether. This segregation of the technical infrastructure from the service model was not a problem when the functionality was so strictly defined.

Reference searches online over the acoustic coupler (a type of modem that fit over a telephone's mouthpiece) were performed only by specially trained librarians, able to maximize the return on the investment of the search. The use of online databases was very expensive, and very few librarians were allowed near them. The professional searcher was most often found in the academic setting, and the average cost of a search was $20.

The Dialog librarian, the Online Computer Library Center searcher, and the operations staff were each proud and jealous of their particular function within the organization. They did not readily share these skills, as they were highly prized and increased the marketability of the person who had them. A mystique developed that you had to have a certain "temperament" to work with technology--just as one once had to be a Libra to be a cataloger.

Watson, can you hear me?

The first major automation project I undertook was to convert a manual system for tracking rotating fiction collections to a dBASE III database. There were several goals:

* To improve the ability to track collections.

* To simplify the process of rotation.

* To create a comfortable interface.

* To free up the space in the middle of the room dominated by dozens of trays of circulation cards, of various colors and of dubious reliability.

I really didn't know much about PC database systems. I went to the Center for Creative Leadership in North Carolina, where I was then employed, and took a course from Duncan Smith, not yet the guru of readers' advisory. Then I read a book. Then I developed the database, staff interface, and reporting functions. It was a simple project, but it achieved what we wanted to achieve (unofficially, more office space), and I gained confidence in pursuing technical solutions.

My next project was a compiled dBASE application that tracked donations to libraries and generated cumulative reports.

Emboldened, I undertook a regional retrospective conversion project using that newfangled CD-ROM technology; we developed a union list on CD using the General Research product LaserQuest. …

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