Learning tech skills for librarianship
October 26, 2008 7:28 PM   Subscribe

Answers to my previous question about academic librarianship and other situations have made it clear that I need tech skills. How can I go about developing these skills?

I want to learn html, how to create databases, and many other skills as required to be competitive as a librarian in metadata, digital initiatives, or image collections. I'm starting from scratch, at the beginnings of the library degree, and I don't think my program teaches these skills to a level that would be meaningful to employers. I always learn best by having a task to complete and figuring it out as I go along. Is it possible to find unpaid experience somewhere, perhaps in a library setting, that will allow me to teach myself to create web pages, databases, etc. with little to no prior knowledge? My university seems to have union rules against unpaid work, so volunteering on campus may be out of the question. What are other ways to learn to create web pages and databases, when you are slim on having content yourself (i.e., where can I find content that will really put me through my paces)?
posted by waterandrock to Work & Money (9 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Does your library school provide practicum opportunities? Mine does, and you can do work in a lot of settings. For example, I know someone who created metadata records for Entertainment Weekly -- she had no prior metadata experience, but that was the point of the practicum. Check with your departmental secretary or ask around; they're common in library school.

You should also check out the O'Reilly books on HTML, XML, PHP, and so on. They're really great teaching books and the Head First books in particular provide you with a series of well-constructed assignments. I taught myself XHTML and CSS in two days with their book Head First HTML with CSS & XHTML, for example.

You might also want to check out the blog post Skills for the 21st Century Librarian from Meredith Farkas of Information Wants to be Free (a good blog to keep your eye on). It's an insightful look at what "technical" skills you really need to succeed as a librarian.
posted by k8lin at 7:50 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Start your own website and do it all yourself.
posted by Riverine at 8:08 PM on October 26, 2008

Head First HTML with CSS & XHTML is seconded.

I learned in two weeks, and I was taking it slow. You can supplement with more technical-type texts afterward if you want more nuance in your designs, but a little XHTML/CSS knowledge goes a long, long way, I find.

Database design is tougher, but I learned the rudiments from a book I got from... my local library! At least you're in a position where the answers you seek are not far from home.

As far as practical experience building websites goes, I would find a student organization with no or very little web presence, and volunteer to make them something nice. They don't have a thing, so ANYTHING you produce will be an improvement. A win for everybody. But mostly you.
posted by AAAA at 8:08 PM on October 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Web Building Primer. Type things out, mess with the examples.
posted by mandal at 8:15 PM on October 26, 2008

Is there an undergrad course you could audit? When I was in school there was a "databases for business" class that taught the fundamentals of SQL but didn't get into the ugly details that CS students would be interested.

I would definitely recommend a course on database design and theory. HTML/CSS is simple stuff that you can learn from a book/internet.
posted by kenliu at 8:44 PM on October 26, 2008

If you're in school, check out Safari TechBooks, it provides many of the O'Reilly books online.

I learnt HTML just before I went to library school, back in 1998, from an article about HTML in a library journal (oh, the irony). I built my own websites from scratch on all kinds of silly topics - the most important thing was to gain the skills. Once you have learnt enough, THEN build an online portfolio to use when you start job seeking.

Look also at information architecture, not just HTML/CSS - plan whatever website you build before you start. Start with mockups, sitemaps, and a plan for what you want the site to achieve. The idea of helping out a student organisation is a good one.

If you want to go into digitial initiatives, start reading blogs and reports, and start a blog of your own. It's an underexplored area still (at least through blogs). Especially if you are interested in preservation and metadata.

Network with other librarians with tech skills - subscribe to the web4lib mailing list, check out groups on FriendFeed who will often talk about tech subjects.
posted by wingless_angel at 8:59 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

The main way to learn this stuff if there aren't classes in it is to design a project yourself -- something that will motivate you to mess around with it -- and learn the ins and outs of it. I don't know you, but I do know a lot of librarians and I've found that sheer force of will and a general good attitude will go much MUCH farther than "tech skills" in terms of what you'd need to know to be good at a library job. One of the things about tech generally is that it changes, so while general database knowledge is a really good thing to have -- specifically understanding how a relational database works and how to create queries and etc -- product-specific knowledge is somethign you will always have to be learning as you go so being game and willing to pick up new skills is huge.

So, my advice

- get a blog with wordpress or something where you can really get under the hood. Learn how to install plugins (php), customize themes (HTML+CSS) and interact with the databases some
- learn the ins and outs of Excel or other spreadsheet programs. Just knowing how to use Excel and mail merge will put you head and shoulders above many librarians
- muck around in fee-based databases like the kind your university offers. Learn how to construct complicated queries in all the differing sorts of interfaces and learn how to get the results sent to you in standardized format via RSS or email or whathave you
- mess about with citation tools like citeulike and Zotero
- install Firefox and look at Greasemonkey scripts (javascript) and see if you can write your own
- volunteer or get a job with a digital archive program. there's often a lot of grant-funded projects like these at many schools, learn how data gets from the raw scanned format into a database, tagged with metadata, and etc. People do it all different ways, so as you go be aware that there aren't fixed stadards for how this stuff works, though there are best practices.

Above all, learn what other librarians are doing and talking about, what works and what doesn't work, and what the hot topics are in their general field. The more willingness you show to learn -- and I'd add code4lib to the list of listservs to think about following -- the more you'll get an idea of what projects people are doing and what sorts of things you could do within them. Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 5:06 AM on October 27, 2008 [4 favorites]

As someone who's designed webpages for libraries (not a librarian) and is completely self-taught, I'll second the advice to use a personal website as your first project. I'd definitely do it the old fashioned way--get a HTML book, any HTML book, to teach you the very basics. Then, examine the source code of webpages you like to get an idea of what's going on under the hood. Definitely read up on W3 compliance, and stay away from programs that build your webpages for you, because they create bad code. This might sound like a lot of work--in some ways, it is--but you'll have a clearer idea of the fundamentals of webpage creation and it's really not that difficult. After all, I was able to learn this way back when I was 13.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:15 AM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I personally don't necessarily see the use of learning just HTML or how to create databases on their own. It seems to me that both of these things have become slightly less relevant now that tools and systems exist that do a lot of this for you. Focusing on HTML was probably a lot more relevant when it controlled layoud as well as content, but now that visuals are generally controlled with CSS as long as you focus on the basics of HTML (lists, headings, and semantic tags like address, etc) which should really only take a week or two, you don't need to delve too deeply in HTML.

Similarly, it's now possible to interface with nearly all databases without needing familiarity with SQL. Knowing SQL helps, a lot--it can give you total control over your data--but it's far more important to know the fundamentals of organizing information, whether you put it in a database or not. Odds are good that if you get to the point where you are in an influential position in the technical areas of your librarian, you will be choosing the software or talking to developers about an in-house solution. So becoming familiar with the development process. Knowing how programmers think about information is really really useful. I've picked this up by, uh, being a programmer, but I'm guessing there are books out there that can teach you the fundamentals of how information gets translated into things like databases and systems. Having a strong background knowledge of information architecture, systems analysis, etc. will really help I think.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:17 PM on October 27, 2008

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