What scripting languages and/or CMSes are most important to learn in a library environment?
January 22, 2004 2:48 PM   Subscribe

Library/information science question(s): My code-fearful friend succeeded in getting through library school without exposure to more than basic HTML. I now have him on a diet of Dreamweaver and XHTML, with a sprinkling of GoLive. He's wondering about next steps: for someone who wants to be well-equipped to work in an academic, medical, legal, or similar library or archive (with web development as part of his job, rather than the focus of it), what scripting language(s) and/or content-management systems are most important to learn? Is the library world fragmented in this regard, or is there a dominant technology? What would be a logical entry vector into this world for someone without a comp-sci bone in his body (in terms of languages/systems, and specific learning resources)?[no more inside]
posted by stonerose to Computers & Internet (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Speaking as some with a Librarianship degree, in my limited post-graduate experience of the service in the UK, Librarians don't tend to bother with this sort of thing -- they let someone else do it for them. If it's a large accademic library then this kind of IT is handled by the general Uni department. In the public service it's pretty ad-hoc. There tend to be initiatives of one sort or another but those involved are hardly ever library professionals. The only time I can think that coding experience might be useful is in a one man band -- for example a small specialist collection at an art gallery or petro-chemical company -- if the librarian wants to speed up cataloguing duties. But again, in these cases there are a number of bought in packages such as Alice which do that kind of job very well anyway.
posted by feelinglistless at 3:11 PM on January 22, 2004

disclaimer: I work at a small public library in the US.

The answer soooooo depends. If you friend wants to go all out and try to become a systems librarian, knowing javascript and perl and all the regular coding languages is going to be important. And php/cgi if they do web stuff. However, for a lot of library jobs in all but academic and large public library jobs, you are considered something of a wizard if you know where the "any" key is. In these sorts of situations, the next thing for your friend to know how to do is teach stuff like the basic email/web classes and the HTML he knows. Also, it is usually vastly overlooked, but if your friend is skilled at understanding regular expressions, using good Boolean terms in searching, and being able to debug weird search issues [we had a quirky thing at my library where you couldn't search for the book She's Not There because the geniuses at the online-catalog-company decided to make all Boolean terms literal, so you were literally searching for records that didn't contain the word "there"] that would make him a big asset to any library. Being able to test and evaluate various online/locally mounted databases and be able to usefully explain how one is better than the other makes you a good addition to a library team. Your friend should mess about with Lexis/Nexis [if there is a place he can do that] as well as PubMed or other online library catalogs and get a feel for the different kinds of searching and how to make them return weird results.

Thanks to the Gates Foundation many public libraries in the US are all-Windows shops, usually running Win2K or Win98 so look into ColdFusion and IIS development environments. Movable Type is always good to know to install a library blog or to spruce up the amount to which other staffers can interact with the library website.

There is no dominant technology. If you can save your library money you will generally be looked upon fondly, so I recommend getting to know some of the Open Source systems for librarians while you're at it.
posted by jessamyn at 3:21 PM on January 22, 2004 [2 favorites]

(with web development as part of his job, rather than the focus of it)

Are you saying a) he wants to be equipped to do web development, if his job happens to require it? Or b) he is specifically looking for a job where part of the responsbility is web development?

If (a), I agree with feelinglistless. Most libraries are large enough that the web page design is separate from the librarians--the librarians would certainly specify the content on the web pages, but would probably have a dedicated person to actually do the web pages. (I've got an MLS and work for a large corp., and I don't do any web page design.) If he ends up in a smaller library then, yes, he might have to write web pages himself, but with some knowledge of Dreamweaver and HTML, he's already ahead of the curve. Also, I'd say that what technologies he needs to know would depend quite a lot on what's desired on the web page, so it would be impossible to say which specific systems would be useful without knowing more about the specific job he ends up in, and what's wanted out of the web pages. So I'd suggest the ability to sell "I can learn and apply new technologies quickly" in the interview would probably be more important than knowing any specific system. If he ends up with a good company, he may even be able to get them to pay for training on whatever he needs for the job, rather than having to undertake it on his own.

If he's specifically looking for a job with a web development component, I don't have much advice there.

(on preview: what jessamyn said, too.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:29 PM on January 22, 2004

My wife is at NYPL, and from what I can tell the librarians and archivists there concern themselves far more with the provision and structuring of metadata rather than with development per se. While there are some individuals on the staff who are highly (highly!) competent, when they have heavy lifting to do, they turn to outside shops just as any other institution might. Razorfish and the NYPL have a close relationship, for example.

I'd say it can't hurt to develop a comprehensive understanding of X(HT)ML, but like folks have suggested above, that'll only make your friend the go-to guy on staff. Does he really want to be that?
posted by adamgreenfield at 4:42 AM on January 23, 2004

Thanks for the advice, folks - you've probably saved him a lot of overkill!
posted by stonerose at 6:08 AM on January 23, 2004

I'm chiming in late, and I'm not only not a librarian but I don't know one, but the clue seems to be right in the question here: If your friend is, truly, "code-fearful," he should avoid this (hypothetical? offer on the table?) job that will require him to produce the stuff. It will only bring misery. Unless he is actually thrilled about the possibilities of using these technologies, and already throwing himself at the most interesting possibilities, he's not going to like a job that requires them.

If "code-fearful" is exaggeration or euphemism for "code ignorant but actually interested," -- though that doesn't sound like the case with all that "not a CS bone in his body" talk -- that stuff can be resolved with a little self-study in whatever the work requires.
posted by majick at 11:34 AM on January 23, 2004

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