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TL v63n1: David Ratledge
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Viewpoint: Technology 

David Ratledge 

Becoming a Systems Librarian

David RatledgeI have been a Systems Librarian since November 1, 1997. It is the only kind of librarian I have ever been, and right now I have to say it is the only kind of librarian I ever want to be. I have loved libraries since I was a young child. It was the usual story of boy meets library, boy falls in love with library, boy checks out a lot of books.

After entering college I had an impossible time deciding what I wanted to major in. I blame libraries for that because they developed in me an interest in absolutely everything! I drifted from major to major, eventually graduating with what is best described as a general liberal arts degree. It was great to be a college graduate and feeling like I was able to take on the world, but not so great to realize my degree had not prepared me for any specific career. I quickly decided the answer was a graduate degree with a more career-oriented major.

Looking at the graduate programs available at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, I came across the School of Information Sciences Master’s program. From the course descriptions it was obvious libraries were no longer just about books and journals and the like, but were very much about information technology as well. As technology was something else I really liked and had a natural affinity for, a career that combined libraries and technology seemed perfect for me.

The reason I wanted to relate how I came to be a System Librarian is to illustrate that you do not have to have a degree in computer science or be born a genius programmer capable of hacking into world financial systems at the age of seven to be one. All it takes is a love of libraries and technology, a willingness to continue learning and growing professionally, and the flexibility to constantly change as circumstances demand. Libraries may once have been places that changed slowly over time, but this is no longer the case. Today they are very lively, active, and constantly evolving. It goes without saying how quickly technology changes as well. The hardest part of becoming a Systems Librarian is determining what technology skills to learn. There are so many and they change constantly, with new ones frequently appearing. We should always strive to know as much as we can, but for practical reasons it is necessary to narrow our focus to what is most important. I offer the following advice therefore based on my own personal experience in a large academic library.

Be comfortable enough with desktop, mobile, and server computing equipment to not only use it, but to be able to determine how the equipment should be built and configured so you can order it and then pull it out of the box upon arrival and get it quickly and correctly setup, working, and in service. This will also provide you with the knowledge you will need to fix it later when it breaks. Become as knowledgeable as you can about the library catalog, discovery, link resolver, and other systems your library uses. Know the details of what they do and what they do not, including how and why. Then learn the same about the similar kinds of systems available from other vendors. Learn not just how to use and search the web, but everything you can about how to put information on the web. This will touch on many things ranging from web servers to HTML markup to scripting languages such as JavaScript and PHP, as well as databases like MySQL and others. Understand the basics of computer wired and wireless networking, especially IP addressing and the most common network protocols. Knowledge of how to identify and protect against computer security threats is a must. If you have the talent and time to develop expertise in computer programming then do so as it will be worth it, but at a minimum understand enough to be able to modify and customize existing programs. Then there are electronic books, journals, and databases, digital collections and libraries, digital preservation, research and data repositories, streaming media, and of course, cloud computing environments.

Sound like a lot? Let me assure you it is! Becoming a Systems Librarian is a life-long process that never ends, but it is what makes Systems Librarianship so interesting, challenging, and a valuable part of the profession.


David Ratledge is Associate Professor and Head of Systems at The University of Tennessee Libraries, Knoxville. He can be reached at 




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