Recommended library computer skillz?
May 28, 2009 7:13 AM   Subscribe

Seeking recommendations on what software/programs I should learn to be the wiz-kiddiest library science student ever.

About to start an MLIS program this Fall. Have the opportunity to take some free or nearly free technology courses through my job. What programs are commonly used by librarians for database work or general cataloging and archiving work? I love databases but am only really familiar with FileMaker Pro and Excel. Please help me get a leg up in this area! Many thanks.

(n.b.: this would be excluding the basic MS Office and text editing programs. Think more along the lines of Oracle or library-specific cataloging/circulation programs like Millennium.)
posted by wowbobwow to Education (11 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You'll have to think a little bit about where you might wan tto be working. If you want to go work in a big library system, then you'd be better off learning the basic LAMP tech suite of stuff and being a systems person who does back-end web stuff. People with library backgrounds who are also coders are still in pretty big demand especially if you have even the most basic social skills and personality.

If you're going to be in a smaller library, you'd want to learn a lot about managing computers in a shared environment, so tech support, networking and basic troubleshooting sorts of things will go far. Learnign how to run a suite of computers running Ubuntu or some other free operating system and being able to set them up to be workstations would be something I'd look for in a new hire [note: I never get to hire anyone]

There are a few open source online catalog programs out there, the biggest being Koha and Evergreen, both of which have service companies set up to help libraries with them. Those serrvice companies hire a lot of librarians and seem like they might be good places to work to help libraries. Note: I just got back from the first annual Evergreen Conference so I'm still sort of floating on the "omg we can do ANYTHING" feeling.

Basic stuff like learning how to make a web page (understanding HTML, XML, CSS, etc) and manage content inside a CMS [popular ones are wordpress, drupal, plone and just learning how to put stuff on and off the web] are super useful. Advanced stuff like how to port web content to mobile apps is going to be really big in libraries in the coming years.

Most of the other things libraries that I work with use -- and I'm sure people in other situations will pipe up here -- are more end-user types of tools. So cataloging and circ programs come in a black box form the vendor and you don't need to know how to code to work with them so much as learn how to not be made suicidal/homicidal by their ultimate uselessness and lack of access to data. Learning how to work with data is generally something you'll need to do outside of OPAC types of things.
posted by jessamyn at 7:42 AM on May 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'm sure I'll think of other things throughout the day, but the first thing that comes to mind is basic programming skills (Perl, Python, Java, etc). If you are at all considering a job in systems work, it will help to be able to tinker with the open source tools you'll be using to manipulate the data in your database.

There are also lots of EAD authoring tools that archives are using, such as Archivists' Toolkit, that might be worth playing around with. You'll (hopefully) learn about EAD in school, and if you can familiarize yourself with some of the authoring tools you can then focus on the actual EAD content of your classes.

I also use MarcEdit a lot.

Echoing what Jessamyn said, if you have a way to do it it might be fun* to install Koha or Evergreen somewhere and play around with them, to give you some insights into how ILS systems can and do operate.

*Your definition of fun may vary.
posted by arco at 8:31 AM on May 28, 2009

I meant to say "basic programming and/or scripting skills," but you get my point.
posted by arco at 8:33 AM on May 28, 2009

Yes, what they said. I'm a cataloger. In my last job (Big Academic Library), MarcEdit was awesomely useful. So were the baby Perl skills I struggled to teach myself while working there; it would have been even better to have those going in. In my current job (Small Consortium), I can't function without AutoHotkey. Wherever you end up working may or may not have a suite of utilities that they make everybody use; either way it's good to know how to use free, open-source, and/or obscure ones. Having a lot of ways to manipulate text goes a long way toward the "not being made suicidal/homicidal" Jessamyn mentions. I have accidentally come off looking like a superhero at work a few times just by knowing about things like AutoHotkey, ASAP Utilities, TextPad, and SciTE. (Those two text editors are also good to use for coding, if you're keen to learn how.) Also, if you have a masochistic streak, try some command-line Unix. To use Big Academic Library's digital library server, for example, I had to learn a bit about tcsh and emacs.
posted by clavicle at 9:35 AM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Be insanely great at search. Know all the search tools available, and how too phrase the query successfully. Know how to talk to end users to fully understand the question they really want answered. Sorry, not quite answering the question asked, but it's what makes librarians excellent.
posted by theora55 at 9:53 AM on May 28, 2009

Response by poster: Everyone's answers: fantastic and very helpful!

theora55 - by search tools do you mean types of searches like boolean, or searching programs? Or both? I love searches and know I have much to learn...

clavicle - ohh I have cataloger aspirations. Doesn't seem to be a concentration offered by many MLS programs. Do you have an inside scoop on how to learn about the dark arts of MARC-craft?
posted by wowbobwow at 10:23 AM on May 28, 2009

Try to get a job or internship or practicum doing it asap, that's key. When I was in library school, I basically rolled my own concentration in cataloging/metadata/things vaguely related by taking the two available cataloging classes, metadata, systems analysis, intro databases, electronic serials management, and some webby stuff. I'd have taken abstracting and indexing too if I'd been able to, but that never worked out. In retrospect it probably would have been good to go outside the department for a class or two in programming or scripting. Starting my second semester, I got a part-time job in the cataloging department that was simple enough for me to do without prior library experience, and in my second year I had fieldwork projects doing cataloging/metadata and web stuff in two different special collections. I'm sure those are the things that actually got me hired; that first job could have been done by a monkey, but it helped a lot.
posted by clavicle at 1:38 PM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Jessamyn is dead-on. The best way for you to get a leg up is to learn LAMP and how to develop, extend, or modify LAMP-powered tools. There is no point in spending time learning vendor interfaces like Millennium. They're dead easy for any wiz kid, but more to the point, the way that they'll be used varies from library to library and you wouldn't want to work for a place that cares which ILS vendor interfaces you have experience with. There's just not that much to them beyond the bottomless pits of frustration and anguish. And those are the good ones.

If you learn to develop a mysql database with a php or ruby web front end, or how to develop a CMS module that integrates an external database, or how to modify XUL interface templates for Evergreen, or how to turn a mockup into a wordpress theme, you will be a rock star at almost any library you walk into. Especially if you don't act like one.

We recently hired a intern from our friendly neighborhood School of Information. I didn't even consider any applicants that didn't have some programming experience. Open Source Software development is the future of the library! Don't waste your time learning to whack a dinosaur with a buggy whip. It ruins your nice buggy whip and it irritates the dinosaur.
posted by ulotrichous at 6:55 AM on May 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I've started reading up on Perl, it's neato! I'm slow at self-teaching, though, which is why I'm drawn more to structured courses work. ERGO:

Would this be worth my time?

Oooor howzabout this?

They would be no cost to me, just time spent. It sounds like they cover a lot of the things you all are recommending....
posted by wowbobwow at 12:53 PM on May 29, 2009

Response by poster: Ahem... "structured course work"

posted by wowbobwow at 12:54 PM on May 29, 2009

Best answer: Your first this is an / IIS class. You don't want that, those are proprietary tools that are used, generally, only in libraries with IT departments that are already full of proprietary tools. If you catch my drift. More to the point, those skills aren't very portable.

The second this (cert in web design and development) looks much better and would be a good start. Their listing of FrontPage that implies that FrontPage is used by people who know what they are doing gives me the heebie-jeebies a bit, but otherwise there are a lot of great starting points covered in that class.

Out of the IT courses listed for that program, the certificate in web design and development (your second this) is definitely the most useful one based on your question.

One note: if you take that course, don't list the cert on your resume. Certs are for poseurs; it's better to list the acronyms you are familiar with and link to a project you've done using them. Hope that helps, and good on ya for being proactive about this stuff!
posted by ulotrichous at 1:21 PM on May 29, 2009

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