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David Ratledge 


The Changing Nature of Librarians from the Perspective of a Systems Librarian

David Ratledge

When I began my professional career in libraries in 1997, I started as a systems librarian. It is what I had decided I wanted to be prior to earning my degree, so when the time was right and a good opportunity presented itself, I took it. There was no question in my mind what my goal was, and there was no question that is what I was, given that the first two words of my job title were “systems librarian.” I was newly-minted and clearly labeled so I and the rest of the world knew exactly what I was.  

While not everyone in my library at the time could fully articulate the duties and responsibilities of a systems librarian, they did know I specialized in library technology. Things had advanced far enough by that time that my library was full of networked desktop computers for staff and library users along with a number of server-based systems and resources such as email, a web site, an automated catalog, commercial databases served from networked CDs, and so on.

When I became a professional librarian, systems librarians had been around for a while but were still newer, relatively speaking, than other more traditional types of librarians, but their importance was well-established and their numbers were growing as technology continued making stronger inroads into libraries. If you needed to hire a librarian to implement and manage technology in a library, you advertised for a systems librarian. It was all very simple, easy, and without confusion.

In 2016 I still work in a library managing technology as my primary job duty, but things are no longer clear and simple. Technology now permeates every aspect of libraries. If someone asked me in 1997 what I did, I would tell them I was a systems librarian and that seemed to satisfactorily say it all. Today, I am not sure what to call myself. I often still think of myself as a systems librarian, and even refer to myself that way on occasion, but it no longer feels right.

Systems librarians do still exist, however. You can find position openings where searches are underway for them and the position descriptions are written as expected, but over the years I have noticed the number seems fewer and fewer. And rarely do I see or hear of anyone referring to themselves as a systems librarian.

Does this mean systems librarians are a dying breed? With technology now such an integral and necessary part of libraries, some technical work that once almost always fell to systems librarians is now often handled by other librarians. Many librarians today are very adept at installing software, connecting hardware, diagnosing and correcting minor problems, and even working with XML, creating web sites, and writing computer programs. But, libraries still have technology needs that require librarians with high-level technology skills devoted to meeting those needs. Given the growing complexity of technology, I expect such needs will always exist.

With relief then, I, and others like me, can say our particular skills are still very much in demand in libraries. However, I now do more things than ever that are NOT technology-related, while other traditionally non-technical librarians are doing more things that ARE technology-related. This leads me to believe there is no longer any value in categorizing systems librarians as a separate breed, and it is time we start calling ourselves simply librarians. While once the lines dividing systems librarians from other types of librarians were easy to draw, and may have served a useful purpose, today those lines are increasingly blurry and getting more so all the time. I do not see what benefits derive from subdividing the title of librarian into areas of specialization. Certainly where users are concerned, in my experience, they do not care what kind of librarian I am, only that I am one and can help them. And I think this applies not only to systems librarians like myself, but to all other types of librarians as well. Ultimately what matters is that we continually evolve and be whatever our users need us to be. The simple title of librarian is ageless and says everything that needs to be said, no matter what particular roles we play at any given time. 



David Ratledge is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Technology Infrastructure at The University of Tennessee Libraries, Knoxville. He can be reached at




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