Thursday, 4 July 2013

Rise of the cyborgs: the growth of librarian-IT hybrids

On 2 July 2013, I delivered a presentation at CILIP's Umbrella conference in Manchester under the theme heading 'Beyond Information Matters'. The full paper should be available in the Umbrella Conference Proceedings to be published by Facet Publishing (1). Below are the slides as presented and the script of the presentation. 

1.0. Information and technology 

Technology changes us. Technology makes us more than we are. Technology gives us the ability to change the world around us and surpass our human limitations. Technology allows us to communicate, to discover, to transcend the physical, and to expand our collective mind. Technology has changed the world and will continue to do so. Technology is a fundamental aspect of modern information provision and librarianship. Computers, digital information, and digital data are an intrinsic part of this profession and have altered the way we think about information; the way we define information. The information world has adapted remarkably quickly to technological advances and, in the wake of this, so too have the people involved in information work. A new category of information worker is emerging that, for lack of a better term, I've called the librarian-IT hybrid (2). 

In my career, I've worked in several joint library-IT roles. These roles were either directly funded by both the library and the IT department like my role as Roving IT Support at Manchester Metropolitan University or roles which so heavily involved major IT and coding skills that they can be considered joint roles like my current role working on the Qatar Digitisation Project at the British Library. In this paper, I discuss the emerging role of librarian-IT hybrids, the skills and knowledge that they need to meet the challenges they face, and the implications for the future of librarianship and information management.

According to the old paradigm, libraries, archives, and museums contained information in the same way a cage contains a prisoner: the information was in books, books were in the library, and so, by transference, the information was in the library. In the book The Information, James Gleick argues that around the time of the development of the telegraph, 'information' became separated from the physical objects containing it and our language and thinking adapted accordingly. Information escaped from the cage. 

Naturally this changed librarianship. Any change to information – to our defining commodity – changes the profession. Starting with the telegraph, technology changed librarianship. The quantity of digital information now exceeds the quantity of analog information. All this data – this linked data, this Big Data – is more easily accessible, more easily movable, and requires a gestalt shift in our perceptions of its properties. As for the effect on people, computers and an unparalleled communications network make us collectively more intelligent. We are developing what H. G. Wells called a ‘world brain’. 

It's an exciting time to work in an information field. Digital collections are no longer addendums to print collections: they are integral parts of libraries. Every library – or almost every library – is now a hybrid library mixing print and digital. Access to computers and mobile computing mean that users can access resources 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Users' expectations have also changed. They expect library staff to perform different tasks: connecting to the WiFi on an iPad, setting up an email account, solving problems with the OPAC. 

2.0. Library and IT 

With the increased reliance on technology for storage of information and access to information, there is a corresponding reliance on IT departments. Librarians in a range of sectors regularly work with their IT departments for assistance, for tech support, and for service development. But library staff and IT staff are often separated in different departments of the same overall organisation. Even worse, many libraries actually have strained or antagonistic relationships with their IT support. At a Digital Skills Sharing Event in Canada Water Library on 17 January 2013, teams of public librarians and publishers presented reports of new digital approaches for public libraries. A recurring theme was the difficulty many libraries encountered working with their council IT departments. See the tweets from Mick Fortune on the day for some examples. Tasks as simple as setting up an account on a social media platform were hindered by council restrictions on communication, IT departments unwilling to support new tech, or librarians' lack of understanding of the technology's requirements. 

Librarians and IT staff respect and require one another and yet often have these difficult relationships. I wouldn't like to speculate on why this is – different approaches, different mindsets, the whole Kirk vs. Spock, logic vs. emotion debate, I don't know – but it seems to be there and it's something that I, and those in roles like mine, have to deal with. Librarian-IT hybrids operate in this strange intersection and in the midst of this unusual symbiotic relationship. 

3.0. Technology and change 

What is the librarian-IT hybrid? It used to be that tech skills were restricted to a subset of information professionals: Systems Librarians, E-resource Librarians, Technical Specialists, etc. But now more librarians at all levels in all sectors are using more technology. Information professionals need IT skills in order to provide information effectively and hence to do their jobs. The digital librarian does not necessarily have 'librarian' or 'IT' in his/her title. The roles may be jointly funded by both the library and the IT department or may be more informal. 

In a 2009 study published in College and Research Libraries, Mathews and Pardue performed a content analysis of randomly selected job adverts from ALA's online JobList over a five-month period. 72% of the job ads contained at least one IT skill. They found what they describe as a “significant inter-section between the skill sets of librarians and the skill sets of IT professionals.” Skills in Web development, project management, systems development, and systems applications were in particular demand. They concluded that “As IT continues to pervade how patrons access and utilize library resources, librarians continue to look more like IT professionals.” 

We see further anecdotal evidence of this overlap in the rise of the 'shambrarians'. Not enough research has been done on this strange LIS subculture but it consists of IT and other systems workers embedded within libraries who have not had formal librarianship or information management training. As this rigorously scientific chart from shambrarian, Dave Pattern, shows, they fall within the traditional boundaries of both librarianship and IT and self-identify as shambrarians – a particular breed of librarian-IT hybrid. 

More informally, increasing numbers of information professionals are becoming 'everyday cyborgs' (3). This is a term that's coming into use to mean people whose lives are integrated with and supplemented by the technologies they use everyday and, to some extent, rely upon to function in the world. While it can mean those who supplement themselves with, for examples, prostheses to achieve a base level of physical function, it can also refer to those who use integrating technology to expand their capabilities. I, for one, rarely go anywhere without my smartphone. Consider the development of mobile computing (smartphones, tablets, etc.) and the development of ubiquitous computing like Apple's iWatch or augmented reality products like Google's Project Glass: these developments lead to newer levels of integration with technology, with the Internet, and with our computers. In transhumanist philosophy, humans integrated with technology become “creatures of nature and culture, biology and technology...”

Why shouldn't we as information professionals lead this change? Digital librarians use technology to enhance themselves and their service. They can lead the change. Whether it's a formal thing like the joint library/IT roles that universities have pioneered or informal like shambrarians or 'everyday cyborgs', librarian-IT hybrids are a growing subculture within LIS. They will have the skills and the knowledge to lead information management into the future. 

4.0. Skills and challenges

So moving away from science-fiction and back to reality, what skills do librarian-IT hybrids have and what unique challenges do they face? Informally, I could answer from my own experience but that would only be my perception. To write this paper, I conducted an informal email survey of six individuals (4) who self-identified as doing “a mix of IT and library work” in response to a tweet. They identified a range of skills required of librarian-IT hybrids and outlined some of the challenges they face. 

The first group of skills are traditional library skills. Several respondents mentioned cataloguing skills (“MARC, AACR2/RDA, Dublin Core”) as important for their role. Also mentioned was understanding of library licenses, software licenses, copyright, etc. and understanding of technical library services eg. interlibrary loan. 

The second group of skills are what Jenica Rogers calls “crunchy tech skills”. These range from the ability to troubleshoot users' computer problems to programming skills. Lauren Bradley, based in New York, USA, referred to “Core Technology Competencies... [which include] everything from basic computer skills to Microsoft Office to our ILS.” At one end of the spectrum, librarians can be called upon to help users set up email accounts, configure tablets to connect to WiFi networks, search large-scale databases like Westlaw, or other tech-related everyday tasks to help users. At the more advanced end, Goddard (2003) identifies the following 'high-demand skills' for systems librarians: “networking protocols (TCP/IP, HTTP, telnet, ftp and Z39.50), UNIX and Windows/NT operating systems, hardware troubleshooting, database design and administration, Web design and development, and programming in SQL, PERL, C/C++.” 

Of particular focus – especially for US librarians in the Higher Education sector – are coding skills. Initiatives such as Codecademy, the code4lib community, the Library Code Year Interest Group, and the ALA's ACRL TechConnect blog (Enis, 2013) are enabling and empowering librarians to learn programming skills that help them develop digital services for users. Andromeda Yelton discusses the utility of coding for librarians: “Librarians do a lot of work with data processing and web stuff, frequently involving repeated, predictable, or systematic steps. Edit this whole pile of MARC records to a particular standard. Provide more context in your chat widget. Anything of this nature is amenable to improvement through code, and a lot of the improvements are surprisingly low-hanging fruit — things that could be implemented with a dozen lines of code.” 

The third group of skills relate to a particular challenge faced by librarian-IT hybrids. Every respondent mentioned challenges related to communication and/or relationship management. As mentioned, the relationships between libraries and their assigned IT departments can often be strained. In my roles spanning two teams, I found it difficult to foster communication between the two groups. “Systems librarians often act as a liaison between the library and the main computing department.” (Goddard, 2003) In order to deal with the communications difficulties of a joint library/IT environment, librarian-IT hybrids need communication skills and people management skills. Goddard (2003) argues that technologically-minded librarians can break down the technical language barrier that divides library and IT departments. Gordon (2003) refers to this as “translating IT-speak to librarians and library-speak to IT staff” and one of the email respondents similarly “refer[s] to myself as a “translator”; I frequently have to translate between library jargon and IT jargon...” Similar bridging of communications barriers comes with learning how to code: “The ability to understand code, even if you don't write it, comes with the ability to talk about it intelligently.” (Enis, 2013) 

The final group of skills are personal skills: skills or personality traits that help one succeed in an environment merging library and IT. These include: research skills and the ability to analytically extract information from sources; curiosity and a willingness to learn; “a strong interest in learning new things” and “an enquiring mind”. The ability to self-teach was identified as a necessary skill in response to a particular challenge. Multiple respondents stated that there was no formal IT training in place for library staff within organisations. Hugh Rundle, a public librarian in Melbourne, Australia, said, “I've learned about networking, CSS and XML at work because I simply need to in order to fix things.” Lauren Bradley said, “I come from a cataloguing/technical services background, so I had to learn all the tech skills on the job.” Rogers identifies the lack of formal training in 'crunchy tech skills' as a challenge for libraries of the future: “our current cohort of librarians ready to move, stretch, and fiddle with interesting projects weren't taught to be software developers...” Even though such skills are valuable and necessary, Rogers says that new librarians are not taught them and it is not being made their job to learn them. “The problem, in re: tech skills, is that we have not, by and large, made it librarians' job to do, learn, and know these things.” 

5.0. Addendum and retraction 

That was the gist of the paper I wrote for the Umbrella Conference Proceedings. And yet, since I wrote that paper, my thoughts have moved on. There's been a massive gap in time – and more importantly for me, in emotional and experiential development – between pitching the session and presenting it. I'm no longer sure that technology is the overwhelmingly positive thing that I've presented it as. Revelations about government surveillance on civilians have left me unsure about the pervasive role of technology in our communications and the role of librarians in managing sensitive information like that handled by Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, or Daniel Ellsberg. Working in the British Library and discovering dysfunctional elements in an institution that I once blindly admired leaves me in doubt that digital information can be neatly corralled and organised even by massive organisations. And both of these are because people are flawed: we are all of us broken and lost and anyone who claims to have any answers is lying or trying to sell you something. Grandiose statements about the future of librarianship sound impressive and prophetic for a moment and will be blogged and tweeted and applauded before being washed away in the tsunami of information now breaching against us. 

The librarian-IT hybrid faces an amplification of the inherent risks of integrating technology into our lives. A recent study from the Balance Brain Centre in Seoul, South Korea, investigated 'digital dementia': the deterioration of cognitive abilities and the lack of development of the right hemisphere of the brain due to smartphone use and particularly their use as a replacement for memory (5). xkcd recently pointed out the erroneous nature of arguments decrying the pace of modern life and the effects of technology so I don't want to make that argument: I would sign up for Google Glass in a second were it commercially available in the UK. But I worry about librarian stress, a hashtag that was doing the rounds on Twitter a few months ago, and, more pressingly, librarian burnout. Is it exacerbated by reliance on technology? On being constantly connected to our peers and to a vast information network? Does this increase the anxiety of young professionals. I don't know. Further research required. 

Things are changing around us. Librarianship is completely changing and that we work in the shadows of the Googles, the Apples, and the Facebooks of the world. The future of librarianship is technology and the skills and challenges I've mentioned are probably those that the next generation of information professionals will face. But I offer no answers about what this means and I make no judgements. We all of us have to make our own. 

(1) And it has footnotes. Only some of which are replicated here.

(2) The term 'librarian-IT hybrid' was chosen purely because it sounds better than such ugly portmanteaus as 'cybrarian', 'Webrarian', or 'digibrarian'. I kind of wish I'd used 'digital librarian' because it's a lot less clumsy-sounding but I submitted the abstract for this paper months before thinking of that term. 

(3) You may prefer, as I do, the more subtle and less science fiction-y concept of Luciano Floridi (2007) in which “[w]e are all becoming connected informational organisms” or 'inforgs' (3a). “This is happening not through some fanciful transformation in our body, but, more seriously and realistically, through the reontologization of our environment and of ourselves.”

(3a) Which raises the question: why is the paper called 'Rise of the cyborgs' and not 'Rise of the inforgs'? I had to come up with the title before writing the paper and hence before I came across Floridi's work. Plus 'cyborg' sounds cooler and I think we can agree that that's more important than philosophical accuracy.

(4) Thanks to: Lauren Bradley, Patrick Berry, James Fox, Elizabeth Psyck, Hugh Rundle, and Julia Stark.  

(5) I'd take this with a pinch of salt because the left brain/right brain thing is actually bullshit.

2 comments: said...

Reading 'we are all of us broken and lost and anyone who claims to have any answers is lying or trying to sell you something' made me smile. I so know what you mean.

Houston said...

This is great!