I had an education oriented mainly towards humanities and social sciences, but after graduating from university I entered a retraining programme targeted at getting unemployed academics into the IT business. I worked as a systems designer and developer in institutions for higher education and scientific information for more than ten years, before I had enough of it (IT) and wanted to do something more related to my original background.
By chance I entered the library world, implementing, managing and coordinating library systems of all kinds, at the National Library of the Netherlands and the Library of the University of Amsterdam, where I now work as Library Systems Coordinator. I have a lot of experience with administering commercial library systems, without attending library school. I belong to the species known as ‘shambrarian’.
With ready made commercial and open source library systems the bulk of the work lies with implementation and configuration, accommodating the system to the specific library circumstances. Theoretically there are no technical skills required. But in real life all ‘out-of-the-box’ systems need more or less sophisticated tweaking to be able to fulfil all requirements, which may need technical programming skills. Until now library and information professionals did not possess these skills, because they never needed them.
Tasks and responsibilities have always been conveniently divided between completely different job types. Librarians and information professionals knew how to find information in the form of tangible physical objects (books, CDs, tapes and so on) available in a specific location. Systems people and developers took care of the computer stuff.
The landscape is changing. Information is not solely stored in physical containers anymore. Books and journal articles are increasingly becoming available in digital form. Not only is the content that libraries have traditionally been focused on digitally available on the web, there are lots of other readily available information sources, such as sound, images, video, maps, research and other data. Traditional library search and discovery systems ignore this wealth of valuable information.
But wasn’t providing access to information the original raison d’être of libraries and librarians? Yes, and that’s what they have been doing for a long time with the tools and skills needed to find and deliver information stored in the only information carriers that were available: physical objects such as books.
To be able to continue performing the primary role of libraries, it is essential that librarians and information professionals start learning the tools and skills required for working with all types of digital information on the web, not just physical objects. In the future libraries will somehow evolve into more or less virtual ‘information access portals’ relying on technology, not on systems.
Systems librarian 2.0
In the meantime, it would be a good idea for libraries and archives to start serving their users better by ‘mashing up’ information from all kinds of online digital sources with their current traditional content management systems. As people searching for stuff about a specific subject in library catalogues are interested in information about that subject, why not give them immediate access to relevant information on the web, besides showing them some books that might help them, for instance:
• showing production and performance data, including images and video registration, with a theatre play catalogue record
• showing a map with a travelogue catalogue record
• showing a concise biography of the author.
Pending the coming of new easy to use tools (like Yahoo Pipes), some technical and programming skills are required to make mash-ups. These skills are often still the realm of system administrators and developers, who may not have enough time to be involved in creating mash-ups, or lack the professional knowledge to decide on the type of information to use. Instead of setting up dedicated projects, mash-ups should become a normal procedure for libraries. It is time to mash up different skill sets, technical and information professional.
In the near future we will see a new type of information professional role, combining and replacing the old jobs of librarians and systems people: the systems librarian 2.0.
This will be facilitated by two parallel developments arising from web developments. If library information systems are hosted ‘in the cloud’ in a software-as-a-service (SaaS) environment, systems people will no longer need to spend time on routine technical system administration tasks like backups, updates and upgrades. Bibliographic records and other metadata will be available on the web directly from the source, thereby freeing up the time of information professionals and cataloguers to spend more time in making innovative information discovery tools.
More and more, Linked Data is being used to connect information on the web from a number of sources. This means that institutions use the Resource Description Framework (RDF), a global API format, to publish their data on the web in the form of relations between information units (‘triples’) using ‘vocabularies’ (thematic data models), and using URLs as persistent identifiers for the information units and relations. This can enable users and researchers to find new routes into data, make new connections, and see bibliographic data in new ways.