Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Let Me Draw You a Picture

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Let Me Draw You a Picture

Article excerpt

I DON'T THINK WE ALL NEED TO BECOME CODERS, BUT I DO THINK A LOT MORE OF US NEED TO BE ABLE TO THINK LIKE CODERS AND TO ABSORB THAT MIND-SET INTO OUR DAILY PRACTICE. ...

Last month I ranted about my hope to bridge the "techie versus nontechie" divide among librarians. Looking back at what I wrote, it was a bit much-I don't really expect many of you to drop this magazine and go learn Python or sign up for a class in Discrete Math later today. Even the small amount of hand-waving I did about giving my suggestions "to staff under or around you more technical than you" is a copout. I suppose I was really aiming that column at those among you who feel, like I felt a few years ago, that you need to deepen your technical understanding but are blocked by a lack of training or mentors.

Having met a lot of librarians in a lot of places, though, and having thought about this issue obsessively since I was a library school student, I have to admit that even those criteria probably still don't add up to a lot of people. If that's correct, then it's not enough. I don't think we all need to become coders, but I do think a lot more of us need to be able to think like coders and to absorb that mind-set into our daily practice and long-term thinking in libraries.

Why Think Like a Coder?

There are practical and strategic advantages to having more librarians who are able to think algorithmically, able to think probabilistically, and able to spend a few days in a text editor now and again helping solve problems. The primary reason this is important is that-like it or not-librarianship is more about computerized information processing than ever before. As this balance shifted in recent years, we've been slow to pick up the slack by producing code-sawy new librarians or retraining current ones to do more automated processing (whether as programmers or otherwise). Our software interfaces lag behind popular online services by whole generations of design and usability improvements; our legacy systems slow us down and drain our energies; our ability to respond to the opportunities and challenges that new technologies such as online journals and ebook readers present hampers our effectiveness. We need more people who can think like librarians and work like programmers because we need more people with both sets of skills to do a better job than we're doing now.

Another reason we need more code-savvy staffers is to ensure that the staff at any particular library can assess new technologies in terms of their potential benefits and drawbacks and their implementation and support costs. It's one thing to look at and play with shiny new Web 2.0 applications as a demonstration, which any of us can do. Even experienced coders struggle to properly estimate and budget for the costs involved in adopting new systems, but in most cases, having some experience is going to be more helpful than having little to no experience.

The next reason requires a bit of a mind hack (and a reminder that I was an economics major in college). The opportunity cost to our profession of not developing more coding skills among practicing librarians is great simply because it's so easy these days to learn something useful about programming. In other words, even just 5 years ago you had to know quite a bit about software and systems before you could build a dynamic, database-backed website. (Remember how many talks you used to hear about this at conferences 5 years ago?) Today, new languages and frameworks have made these systems several times easier to use, and, in the same interval, computers and network connections have grown faster, become cheaper, and are nearly ubiquitous. If you were the kind of person who could pick up a little bit of HTML and CSS a few years ago but felt stymied after that, I can assure you-you can go a lot further now a lot faster, if you're willing to roll up your sleeves a bit and give up a few hours a week to pick up new skills. …

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