Stepping out of the clown shoes
September 2, 2015 8:49 PM   Subscribe

 
Libraries are hamstrung by expensive, insufficient vendor “solutions.” (I’m not hating on the vendors, here; libraries’ problems are complex, and fragmentation and a number of other issues make it difficult for vendors to provide really good solutions.) Libraries and librarians could be so much more effective if we had good software, with interoperable APIs, designed specifically to fill modern libraries’ needs.
Sigh. If only this applied uniquely to libraries. Unfortunately, it's everywhere.
posted by anarch at 9:26 PM on September 2, 2015 [16 favorites]


Enterprise™.
posted by primethyme at 9:38 PM on September 2, 2015 [8 favorites]


Libraries' (very real) tech pipeline problem strikes me as a bit odd, considering they—through their books, events, workshops, and other resources—function primarily as a multi-purpose pipeline for their communities. How is that they are so capable of helping others, despite all the bulwarks, but seem to have such difficulty helping themselves? Genuinely curious.
posted by waninggibbon at 9:43 PM on September 2, 2015


How is that they are so capable of helping others, despite all the bulwarks, but seem to have such difficulty helping themselves?

I haven't worked in a library in a long time (worked as staff in an academic library for years), but one of the things that was almost written is stone for some librarians is that "Change is Bad, Don't Ever Change." So while there is a huge drive to want to have new things, help patrons with digital literacy, every book its reader and every reader her book, there's also a big streak of "We've always done it this way" that can be difficult to overcome.

Add in an insanely patriarchal management system where dudes seem to get promoted to where they can do the most harm, and a general attitude that employees without a library degree do not have any ideas worth pursuing, there is an incredible amount of inertia that takes forever to move. There's usually money for equipment and paying vendors to make things, but there's an ever-growing maw of stuff to feed.

Librarians are wonderful people fighting incredible battles with publishers, the government, and their own patrons, and they deserve better. They get it coming and going, because they have to do more with less (the most depressing part every year was trying to figure out which journals we could no longer afford, because the major academic publishers raise prices faster than anything on the planet, even more than tuition or healthcare) and there isn't enough staff to ramp up any homegrown talent.

I'm not even getting into the insane degree requirements (hopefully one or more advanced degrees and an MLS), just to walk in the door and pick up a job that pays less than you'd make in the public sector. Public libraries have different problems, since they are usually even more woefully understaffed, and have to be a video store, internet cafe, community center, and coffee shop as well as a library simultaneously.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 10:07 PM on September 2, 2015 [11 favorites]


Libraries are mostly trying to solve the problem of developing a critical mass of skilled software developers who won't high tail it out of libraries as soon as they can get hired somewhere that will pay them market value. If a few places succeed in solving it by being a much better place to work for marginalized people then that will be a huge success.

But libraries, especially academic libraries, aren't especially immune to academia's toxic culture mixed with a profession that continuously has identity crises about the future of libraries.

There are a few efforts at non-traditionally structured consulting services that offer custom software development, training, preservation consulting etc. that seem to me to be a promising way to rethink how the necessary task of creating software for libraries and museums and other public institutions is done. Very very few libraries can fund the cost of software development on their own, it's just really expensive.

I saw a tweet a couple of years ago commenting on the trend of "UX librarian" job postings that made the point that the job was asking someone to be a UX expert, possess a Master's degree, and accept a librarian's salary to do UX work.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:12 PM on September 2, 2015 [11 favorites]


I think this woman has some good ideas but fundamentally writing software at scale is pretty hard and it should come as no surprise that most full-time software companies are pretty shitty at it. Doing it as a sideline is even tougher.
posted by GuyZero at 10:13 PM on September 2, 2015


As an aside, person who's quote inspired this article, Bess, is a close friend of mine and has a lot to say about working in tech and libraries that is worth listening to. She originated the metaphor of developers and sysadmins in conflict as 'werewolves vs vampires' (that Jeff Atwood subsequently employed in a blog post) in a series of conference presentations a few years ago that still hold up really well.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:17 PM on September 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oh and she's also a MeFite.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:18 PM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think this woman has some good ideas but fundamentally writing software at scale is pretty hard and it should come as no surprise that most full-time software companies are pretty shitty at it.
Scale can be a boogeyman. I found this essay interesting for its parallels to code in government. The size of problems faced by government and library technologies tends to be O(n) (rather than O(n2) like on the social web), and completely within the bounds of reason for a novice coder who’s an experienced professional in other areas. A couple forces hide this underlying simplicity: the need for software vendors to artificially inflate the complexity of what they sell and the tendency for academics, who advance digital humanities ideas useful to libraries, to rely on computer science students for engineering labor. There’s no code in the world as precious as that written by a 21 year-old exercising brand new ideas from an algorithms class.

I have a few books on my list like Applied Secretarial Practice and Control through Communication that I hope will shine some light on cutting through scale complexity by appealing to pre-digital methods.
posted by migurski at 10:31 PM on September 2, 2015 [10 favorites]


As a programmer who works in a library, but not a librarian, there is a mirroring sentiment. But at the same time, why do librarians want so desperately to code? I was pretty easily talked out of pursuing a MLIS, but there seems to be a real thing for librarians becoming programmers too. It's probably Beth, she is pretty charismatic... but hopefully not to be all ivory tower about it, programming is a full-brain activity if it's going to be done well, and as far as I can tell the librarians around me have at least part of their brains already accounted for. We can coexist, cooperate, build on strengths, maybe. Hopefully.
posted by Tad Naff at 11:12 PM on September 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


But at the same time, why do librarians want so desperately to code?

I think librarians want to have as many skills as possible since the people making budgets are always trying to get rid of them.
posted by thetortoise at 2:49 AM on September 3, 2015 [14 favorites]


Libraries are deep in the Enterprise Software hole. They have a vast array of intensely domain specific requirements, and a fair bit of fragmentation besides. Combined with the aforementioned shrinking budgets and conservatism and the result is intensely enterprise software.
posted by wotsac at 4:08 AM on September 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


As a (fledgling) software developer, I feel like there's the same disconnect here that I see in more general "Everyone should learn to code!" campaigns. Librarian is a great candidate for a job that can be made easier by having enough programming to write scripts to automate some tasks and munge data. But the difference between that skill and the ability to develop comprehensive, quality, user-facing applications is similar in scale and kind to the difference between a librarian who knows enough carpentry to make some new book shelves, and a librarian who is able to act as general contractor to build a new library building. The latter skill is just not something that you pick up here and there. Trying to hire a Librarian / UX Designer / DBA / Software Architect / DevOps unicorn is like trying to find a carpenter/librarian who will not just frame your new library, but also design a new library building that is both aesthetically pleasing and structurally sound, and then personally install the electrical and plumbing systems.

And then you add in the problem that people with those more specialized skills are highly sought after and compensated in lots of other industries, and you end up with the current situation where a lot of library software is expensive, mediocre, poorly-maintained, and/or built by people with little understanding of how the software is actually used.
posted by firechicago at 4:25 AM on September 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


I know Coral Sheldon-Hess -- great to see a link to her here on the blue. Also people interested in these issues might be interested in the blog of the Library and Information Technology Association (a division of the American Library Association).

patriarchal management system where dudes seem to get promoted to where they can do the most harm

I only know this story by hanging around with library tech folks rather than being one myself, so please correct me if I get bits wrong, but I hear about this sexism, and wanted to expand on that note.

If you're not perceived as a man, and you're more interested in the technology side than in working out on the floor directly doing patron service, you might get a job as a cataloger. And maybe (through self-teaching and picking up tips from peers) you'll get some dribs and drabs of tech training to become a power user of the tools you're given, to make the data-munging easier, maybe even learn to do some scripting (in Excel or in a proprietary language that works with one of your proprietary tools, maybe on the command line). There is little or no possibility for career advancement or growth.

But if you are perceived as a man, people call what you do "metadata engineering" rather than "cataloguing," and IT and higher-ups actually answer your "how does this work and how can I make it work better for this purpose?" questions (rather than saying "just deal with it"). When it's time to upgrade or customize things, the higher-ups give you a chance to try your hand at writing glue code that runs on the server, and give you time to do self-teaching or go to trainings while on the job. When a developer position is set to open up in the library technology department, the higher-ups ping you to see whether you'd be interested, since you already know a lot of this stuff, and wouldn't it be good if library IT had someone in-house who really understood what librarians need? Or, when a more librarian-y position is set to open up, they ping you, because it would be great to have someone in that position who groks the tech, right? Career advancement, raises, people listening to the words that come out of your mouth.

Multiply across intersecting axes of oppression.

This is a reason why Sheldon-Hess in her essay is specifically discussing the pipeline of *marginalized* people gaining these skills. We know that it's important for people of varied perspectives to develop software that affects lots of people -- otherwise you get crap like Git not dealing well with authors changing their names, or webcams only recognizing white-skinned faces, or metadata fields that assume the gender binary, or websites/apps that assume everyone has broadband or a generous data plan, etc.
posted by brainwane at 5:03 AM on September 3, 2015 [13 favorites]


Library catalogues are the original big data systems, and librarians should have been on top of the entire digital data show; but their own timidity coupled with the aggressiveness of software makers made them into bit players.
posted by No Robots at 5:29 AM on September 3, 2015


I don't have nearly the coding skills that Sheldon-Hess has, but I am so deeply grateful to her for articulating all the "CLOWN SHOES" stuff that I am experiencing right now. (I'm not much of a coder, but my tech skills are pretty strong, and I've occasionally been getting interviews for "technology librarian"-type jobs.)

Here is a job I may or may not apply for outside of Boston. In addition to the MLS, they want "strong knowledge of networking," Wordpress, graphics editing, Integrated Library System experience, HTML, CSS, web design and development, and strong reference/customer service skills -- this is a job that pays $45k, and in a relatively expensive part of the country.

I know library salaries aren't the way they are because libraries don't want to pay good people what they're worth, but the fact that people with good tech skills have much better career options than librarianship means that it's really hard for libraries to hire and retain those people.

It's also true, I think, that libraries tend to hire more based on your on-paper skills than anything informal or self-taught, which shuts out a lot of people who don't have the time and money to pay for more classwork. (Libraries could pay for that kind of professional development, but then they face the problem where as soon as a person has those skills, they can use them to get a better-paying job outside of libraries.)
posted by Jeanne at 5:35 AM on September 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


Library catalogues are the original big data systems, and librarians should have been on top of the entire digital data show; but their own timidity coupled with the aggressiveness of software makers made them into bit players.

The past 30 years have been a cascade of missed opportunity - libraries might have created Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter, blogs, news aggregators, and on and on. Bureaucracy and NIMBY-ism, combined with the (perceived or actual) conservative nature of the profession, and the unfortunate "cost center" reputation, interfered with those opportunities.
posted by theorique at 5:35 AM on September 3, 2015


I haven't worked in a library in a long time (worked as staff in an academic library for years), but one of the things that was almost written is stone for some librarians is that "Change is Bad, Don't Ever Change."

This - I've been an academic librarian for 10 years now, and a recurring barrier to change is the librarian-as-educator mentality that became ubiquitous c. 1960-70 as librarianship rebranded as a Profession. Understandable in context, given that it was considered a low-paid, medium-skill paraprofession before, but its legacy has been toxic. Users would tolerate our confusing paper indexes and librarian-centric cataloging when there were no other good-enough options, but not now. Librarian-oriented design made the leap to our interfaces and our vendors', and among many older librarians there is a white-knuckled conviction that designing better ones is "spoonfeeding", "dumbing down", etc. There are many of us that remain convinced that our job is not to design better tools for our users, but to teach them to use the shitty ones we have unthinkingly created. Or they're just complacent and unconcerned.

There are definitely positive signs of change - hell, we now have a library UX-focused journal - but there is a huge amount of dead wood in administration that just flat out refuses to see UX as a critical issue. We are going to see many academic libraries radically downsized, farmed out, or eliminated in the next 20 years as trends like OERs, declining enrollments, and curriculum / academic services outsourcing deepen. In bad times, relevancy and responsiveness to users become a baseline of simple survival (and not a guarantee of it), and many of us just will not be able to do it because of the mindset of our leaders.
posted by ryanshepard at 5:53 AM on September 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


That said, this is an old, old problem. Klaus Musmann, in his Technological Innovations in Libraries, 1860-1960: An Anecdotal History relates that the response of many library administrators to the rapid growth in the popularity of phone reference was not to change service models to facilitate it, but to cancel it in an effort to protect legacy services.
posted by ryanshepard at 6:04 AM on September 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


If you're not perceived as a man, and you're more interested in the technology side than in working out on the floor directly doing patron service, you might get a job as a cataloger. And maybe (through self-teaching and picking up tips from peers) you'll get some dribs and drabs of tech training to become a power user of the tools you're given, to make the data-munging easier, maybe even learn to do some scripting (in Excel or in a proprietary language that works with one of your proprietary tools, maybe on the command line). There is little or no possibility for career advancement or growth.

LITERALLY MY CAREER
posted by clavicle at 6:31 AM on September 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


This has been a great source of frustration for me.

Libraries, first of all, do not have that much money. This is why they can't hire people with programming skills, and when they do have someone with programming skills, they can't afford to keep them. Then they're being taken advantage of financially by vendors and publishers and politicians and while not all those problems can be solved, the vendor one often could be if more librarians had the tech skills to say, "this is a subpar product", or "what this product does is fairly simple and could be easily done in house if we had one or two people with programming skills, so there's no way I'm paying that much." Then so much manpower is wasted on manually doing things that could easily be automated, and that's eating into library budgets too.

The problems mentioned in the article for librarians attempting to learn to code, however, are not unique to librarians. It's a how to draw a horse problem. Code Academy and such tools teach you syntax, but they don't really teach you programming and they definitely don't teach you all the other things that are not programming that make up 50% or more of a programming career. Learning how to make that leap, without a full time commitment, is something I don't think we've really figured out yet. It's one of my areas of focus right now though, both because the need is there and the need is magnified for minorities.

My workplace is full of people who've worked in careers like academia and had to learn a tinnnnnnny bit of programming to get their job done. Then they realized, wow, I could just do this and have a dependable job and not be taken advantage of as a grad student or adjunt professor!! I imagine the situation is the same for librarians.
posted by tofu_crouton at 6:36 AM on September 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


I should also say that if someone is introducing new technology to their workplace, they have to know all that technology so much better than someone entering a tech company that has a technical infrastructure in place. This means the bar for a librarian who wants to learn new skills for their job is actually higher than it would be just to be a junior dev in some established tech shop.
posted by tofu_crouton at 6:39 AM on September 3, 2015


Oh. By the way.

If you're not perceived as a man, and you're more interested in the technology side than in working out on the floor directly doing patron service

In case anyone missed it, this is not arbitrary; there is a reason why they expect us to be more interested in working out on the floor doing patron service. You know the words. Sing it with me. Emotional labor.
posted by clavicle at 10:03 AM on September 3, 2015 [7 favorites]


clavicle, if you were at code4lib (North America) in the spring of 2014, then I may well have learned about this pattern from you (among others).
posted by brainwane at 10:32 AM on September 3, 2015


Alas, not me. Code4lib is one of those things I would really like to do but there's been no money for it.
posted by clavicle at 10:41 AM on September 3, 2015


Then they're being taken advantage of financially by vendors and publishers and politicians and while not all those problems can be solved, the vendor one often could be if more librarians had the tech skills to say, "this is a subpar product", or "what this product does is fairly simple and could be easily done in house if we had one or two people with programming skills, so there's no way I'm paying that much."

I don't think tech skills are the solution here. Libraries already know the software is sub-par, but there's not really a lot of software that could be replicated in-house for less money than it costs to just buy it from a vendor, so they have to choose from a limited pool of mediocre options. Sure, libraries should be demanding better from vendors, but I don't think it's a lack of tech skills that is holding people back there.

I think the best strategy for libraries would be to pool their resources and invest in creating better software. This happens already with some open source projects, but usually in a piecemeal, uncoordinated way. We could be doing a lot better. Again, the barrier isn't really a lack of tech skills (although that doesn't help), but the fact that library administrators have generally been unable or unwilling to make it happen, for structural and cultural reasons.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 12:18 PM on September 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


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