Considering the librarian tech skills gap

There’s more to be said about my LibraryBox anecdote from my NLS6 keynote, and it’s chasing around my head and I want to get it out before I lose it, so envision your blogger sitting on her couch with a mug of green tea and a laptop, stealing from her exercise hour to write this. With all due credit to Andromeda Yelton for prompting me to take this one step further just as I was thinking about doing that.

I basically used the LibraryBox story to say “there’s cool stuff happening in the library technology space, but it’s often too complex for Generic Librarian M to figure out, and that’s a problem.” It is a problem. But I glossed over why.

Here are a few of the whys, as I see them, from my position as Generic Librarian M. (I know that I have a relatively powerful voice, and that I’m pretty tech-savvy, and privileged in those regards — but my tech skills are, truly, pretty generic. I pay people to maintain my WordPress installs.)

1. We aren’t taught crunchy tech skills. This is changing, I know, but it wasn’t true 10 years ago. But if you consider that many of the people in the heart of our profession — our Generic Librarians K, L, M, and N — got their degrees a decade ago, and learned the majority of their core skills while they were getting that degree, you can see that there might be a skill gap. It’s more problematic when you also consider that 10 years into your career you’ve often settled in a bit, and know where you’re going, and have more time and space to consider “fun projects”. You’ve proven yourself, and now you have a little room to move and stretch. And our current cohort of librarians ready to move, stretch, and fiddle with interesting projects weren’t taught to be software developers, or project managers, or to think entrepreneurially about library services.

2. We don’t know how to learn crunchy tech skills. So teach yourself, right? That’s what some of you are thinking. Some of you are thinking “I taught myself. Go learn.” And that’s fair, to some extent. It’s particularly fair coming from the subset of people who are very comfortable self-teaching, and the other (overlapping?) subset who are in jobs that require that they constantly self-teach new skills in order to get the job done. When your native headspace is “got a problem? Learn to solve it,” it’s easy to say “go teach yourself”. But if I’ve learned anything in my 4 years in this administrative chair (she types, from her couch), it’s that people learn in different ways. And some people — people who are valuable, valued, productive, and effective — don’t learn well in self-teaching environments. They need the structure and the assistance of a more formal learning space. And when it comes to hands-on, practical, applicable tech for libraries, those feel hard to come by. (Maybe they’re not; maybe there are dozens of ways to learn this stuff in formalized learning environments. I don’t know. I do know that they feel hard to access.) And that’s problematic: if we want to upskill broad swathes of our profession, we need more and better ways to do that.

3. It’s not our job to learn crunchy tech skills. And if we want to upskill broad swathes of our profession, it needs to be their job to do so. Each of us only has so much time in our lives and our days to dedicate to the dozens of things we’re supposed to be doing, the dozens more we want to do, and the yet dozens more we dream of doing. I want a PhD and to write a book; I don’t currently have time in my life for either project. So if I don’t have time to pursue my own heartfelt dreams, I certainly don’t have time for Code Year. And all of that is made more painfully obvious when I say that it’s also not my job to learn to code, or build a LibraryBox, or write a book. The things I make time for are the things that either are at the top of my passions list, or are my job. I do the things I adore, and the things for which I am paid. And that’s extrapolate-able onto lots of librarians: They do the things they love, and they do their jobs. The problem, in re: tech skills, is that we have  not, by and large, made it librarians’ jobs to do, learn, and know these things. (This is my gripe about “Emerging Technology Librarian” as a job title; if you hire one person to pay attention to emerging tech in libraries, aren’t you then giving all the other people tacit permission to ignore emerging tech? Because it’s not their job? It should be their job!) And if it’s not the job, and it’s not the passion, it doesn’t get done.

4. The technology headspace is openly hostile to most of the profession. And learning and upskilling  doesn’t get done when it’s hard to do. One thing that makes it hard to do is feeling unwelcome. The tech, code, software geek community has made your Average Librarian M feel particularly unwelcome. First, there’s the basic fact that when you let an analytically-minded expert write documentation and learning objects, they are not what one might call “user friendly” or “approachable”. The amount of jargon and out-of-reach baseline assumptions that litter most documentation and “outreach” from tech projects is absolutely daunting to Average Librarian M. It communicates, very clearly, that this is not your space. You do not belong here, you do not understand, go back to what you’re good at. And, yes, I advocate that you have to experience the discomfort of learning and failure in order to grow, but I don’t think that needs to mean that you feel actively disenfranchised before you can be a bigger person. The second thing that is a clear and obvious problem in terms of the hostility of the space is that librarians are, in majority terms, women. And the tech world is not only notoriously hostile to women in tech, but often gleefully so. See Kate Kosturski’s summation of the Adria Richards story for the most recent example. Check out the Tech Leaders section of the 2013 Movers and Shakers awards, where the gender balance literally flips from the other sections of the awards, for another less aggressive assessment of the state of library tech. Knowing that’s the set-state for the industry, and also knowing that the men willing to DDOS a company because they’re pissed at a female developer are the people gatekeeping the skills… someone tell me why I’d want to try REALLY HARD to gain entry? I’ll stay right here in my library, thanks very much.

And so. I don’t actually think it’s OKAY that I decided LibraryBox was too hard. I think that means I have a gap in my skills and abilities, and in a perfect world, I think I should fix that. But our world’s not perfect, and, like many among us, there are reasons why I’m not going to leap that gap right now.

But more of us need to be leaping. It needs to be easier to leap. I want to leap. What can we do to get us there?

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