Profile of a Systems Librarian

 

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My name is David Hughes and I am the Systems Librarian in the library of Dublin Business School.

What path did you take to get to your current role.

A rather convoluted one!   A BSc in Molecular Biology saw me start a PhD, but for various reasons, that crashed and burned.  To salvage a Master’s degree from the wreckage, I had to do some fairly extensive library research.  Funnily enough, I did think about librarianship at the time, but saw a syllabus for a Master’s course and thought ‘that’s really dull!”

However, using Biological Abstracts (ask your parents!), I was impressed by the power of subject indexing to aid the retrieval of information that I needed and thought that would be something I’d like to try.  After a brief detour as a trainee computer programmer, I found an indexing position with a start-up that had landed a contract with Elsevier B.V. to produce database records for EMBASE.

After that company was bought out and closed down, I moved to a job as an Information Scientist with a UK government department.  This was a gateway role: I was indexing, classifying and doing other IS stuff (e.g., bibliometrics), but also doing some more traditional library roles: such as cataloguing and literature searching.  For personal reasons I was moving to Ireland and it was suggested to me that to improve my employability here, I should do the library degree at UCD.  After completion of the Master’s I had two part-time jobs: working on a XML project in UCD and at DBS as a part-time library assistant.  Incredibly I was offered full-time positions in both but chose DBS, so here I am.

Describe a typical day

A typical day involves handling queries (email, telephone, instant messaging) from students & staff, a lot of which concern access to resources, and performing triage on any library IT issues that have arisen i.e., can I solve the problem; does it need to go to our IT department or is it something a vendor needs to look at?  After I finish this, for example, I have to investigate why YouTube won’t work on Internet Explorer on our student PCs and/or find a solution if possible.   At the start of term, there’s also the need to make sure that all students can borrow from the library and have access to our electronic resources. Similarly, I have to ensure that ex-students can no longer borrow books or access our resources.    That’s the bread and butter, but there’s usually ongoing projects to manage or to work on (in recent times that has included implementation of a new library management system [Koha] and snagging our new reading list software [LORLS]).

What traditional library skills are important to have within your role?

Search and retrieval and the reference interview in particular; you’d be surprised by how many queries consist of: “it won’t let me login” and replying “tell it I said to let you login” won’t cut it. However, you never know when some other skill is going to be needed; cataloguing came up in the context of the library management system switch for example.

What non-traditional library skills are important to have within your role?

IT skills, obviously. Project management: a lot of library work consists of discrete projects (go on, think about it), and having some project management experience is important. People skills and being able to communicate effectively; it’s important to be able to say “no thanks!” politely but firmly to cold-calling electronic resource salespeople.  Thinking about it, people skills should be a ‘traditional’ library skill as this is a service professional after all.

Are there any specific software packages or technologies you use on a regular basis within your role?

Koha, Microsoft Office – one of the best things I ever did was take a Microsoft Access training course.  MySQL, Notepad ++, Zotero, HTML.

What is the most rewarding part of your role?

Hopefully making a difference to our users by either by giving them access to the information that they need or resolving the particular library IT issue they have at the time; it’s nice to receive thank you emails and see smiley emoticons on the instant messaging service.  It’s almost pathological, but I like solving problems; I like (pretending) to be the expert!

What is the most challenging part of your role?

There are a million and one things I’d love to do, but can’t because of corporate IT policy – that’s not a complaint, it’s just the way thing are, so some workarounds have to be found.  Time management – answering all the queries, getting all the trivial jobs done and finding the time to keep abreast of what’s happening in the LIS world; Twitter is absolutely essential in this regard.  Librarians shouldn’t just be providing access to information to their users, but should be actively seeking to improve their knowledge of their own field: every day ought to be a school day.  Maintaining a quality service in a time of budget cuts.

What are the career prospects within your area of librarianship?

Mixed. On one hand, IT skills are needed for more and more aspects of librarianship. On the other hand, critical though system roles are in the 21st century library, there’s a danger that they will be hived off to IT departments.  This would be bad as IT departments (in my experience) just don’t have the same service ethos as we do.   A little IT knowledge – even just being able to understand what IT staff are talking about – can take you a long way. Having a 10 minute conversation with the technical support guy for our print management software in her presence was what convinced my manager, the awesome Marie O Neill, to offer me the systems role in the first place.

Do you have any advice for people interested in pursuing a role in your genre of librarianship.

In general, find a niche for yourself. Network, network, network! In particular, look at spreadsheet (e.g. Excel) and database software (e.g. Access, MySQL) in a little depth.  Learn some HTML and XML.  Don’t worry about not being able to code; chances are you’re not going to work in a library where that’s required.  Be willing to admit you don’t know something but you are prepared to go and find the answer. If you’re interested in systems librarianship, The accidental systems librarian by Nicole C. Engard and Rachel Singer Gordon (Medford NJ   Information Today Inc.) is well worth a read.  Also, be aware that you don’t have to work in a library to use these skills, and don’t worry about Imposter Syndrome, it’s not just you; a lot of us feel that way.