LibraryFilter: Should I make my goal to be a systems librarian?
May 24, 2007 4:36 PM   Subscribe

Reading up on a few posts here, I realized I am building on being pretty well-equipped to become a systems librarian. Should I concentrate on it?

I've got an ever-developing background in programming/information tech. Barely any of it is formal, but I have a technophilia that makes picking up concepts and executions not-horribly-difficult (read: if I had bothered to study during my time as a CS major, I would've been out with flying colors).

A bit of background: I kinda fell ass-backwards into wanting to be a librarian, but it seems to be the only "professional" profession I could so much as tolerate doing day-in day-out (my real desire: opening up a comic book store, sadly, is not in the cards). My community college has a "Library/Media Tech" certification that I'm enrolled in as an undergrad that pretty much teaches the ins and outs of library staffing, and I just finished an internship at a public library where most of my assignments revolved around being the only person around with both the time and will to dive face-first into computer-related activities. I'm back on track with my undergrad studies (after the standard high school -> college -> depression -> drop out cycle), and planning to transfer to a four-year and major in English with a minor in IT, and then off to get an MLIS (or an MIS, depending)

So is this a viable goal? During my internship I realized that I'm much, much more fascinated with the back-end of a library system rather than client service, but will I be given the opportunity to make this choice? Would getting certification (CCNA, etc.) help me out?
posted by griphus to Education (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a systems librarian. My undergraduate was in English/creative writing, I have no certifications of any kind, but I've worked in library systems for a decade. I don't think I've seen any advertisements for systems lib-type folks where certifications have been required.

I guess whether or not you can become a systems librarian may end up depending on what you mean when you say back-end. Do you mean OPAC administration? Systems administration in general? Web programming? Tech services stuff? Also, what sort of programming? Library back-end stuff -- at least in the academic sphere -- is largely UNIX oriented. Not sure about public -- Jessamyn (at least) will know.

You mention that you were more fascinated with back-end stuff than client service, but I hope that doesn't mean that you actively dislike public service -- IMHO, every librarian should strive to be excellent at public service whether they spent a lot of time dealing with the public or not. I sure as hell don't want to get that reputation as a systems type who is a jerk to work with, and I hope you don't either.
posted by the dief at 5:34 PM on May 24, 2007

I was in an MLIS program for a year and I can tell you that there are a lot of systems librarians who don't have an MLIS. Actually, most of them are computer scientists or statistitions. I don't want to take away from those who are getting/already have an MLIS. I just think that getting a masters in computer science would offer you a lot more money and flexibility in your career.
posted by HotPatatta at 5:52 PM on May 24, 2007

I'm just curious, why major in English and not IT? If it is because of your interest in the discipline, that's fine, but if it's to give you a leg up on library school admissions, it won't have that effect.

BTW, a large number of the folks I've run into at the Digital Libraries Federation forum who work in academic libraries doing a lot of back-end programming stuff had CS degrees but no library degrees.

(Graduate of a very IS-centered MLIS program here)
posted by needled at 5:54 PM on May 24, 2007

HotPatatta, it may very well offer griphus more flexibility in their career if their career aim wasn't explicitly to be a systems librarian. Yes, you will find people working in library systems who don't have MLSs (hell, I was one for years) but I wouldn't have the job I have now without the MLS -- most job advertisements for systems librarians explicitly require one.
posted by the dief at 5:58 PM on May 24, 2007

From what's been said so far, it appears the best course of action for griphus may be to work as a systems librarian after undergrad and then decide whether to pursue an MLS or not. Also, in the U.S. I have been seeing a fair number of job postings for systems librarians at large universities which do not require the MLS, just relevant experience and preferably a CS or related degree. The situation may be different in Canada.
posted by needled at 6:04 PM on May 24, 2007

needled, this is entirely possible. Maybe I'm being pedantic -- in fact, I'm almost *assuredly* being pedantic -- but whenever I see the term "librarian" applied to something, I think it requires an MLS. I mean, that's what "librarian" means, right? At any rate, I think if griphus wants to get their MLS the set of systems librarian jobs available to 'em will be syslib jobs that require an MLS + syslib jobs that don't, whereas without an MLS it will just be the jobs that don't, so I'm inclined to say go ahead and the ticket.
posted by the dief at 6:20 PM on May 24, 2007

er, get the ticket, that is.
posted by the dief at 6:24 PM on May 24, 2007

I agree with you, a "librarian" has an MLS, but it does sometimes feel like a losing battle when anybody who works in a library is referred to as a librarian ...

From watching others in library school and following various LIS forums, going straight from undergrad to library school is not advisable, in terms of admissions or getting a job post-MLS. Since it is possible to get a systems librarian-type position without an MLS, and since these will tend to be entry-level positions, it wouldn't be a bad idea to work at such a position for a couple of years. The OP might be fortunate enough to have an employer fund the MLS, and they would come out ahead of many library school graduates.
posted by needled at 6:36 PM on May 24, 2007

I'd second needled. I work at a library where an MLS is required for the "systems librarian", but it's so difficult to keep that position filled that I've been called to fill in for as long as a year - and without the schooling you're getting now.

You'd be very fortunate to find an employer that will fund the MLS studies (there are a few that can be done entirely online). The more likely scenario is that they'll give you a lot of flexibility in your work schedule so you could attend to the homework and/or classes involved. About half of our subject librarians are people who started out as clerical assistants, cataloggers, etc, and became Librarians and were thus able to 'move up'.
posted by lysdexic at 7:05 PM on May 24, 2007

I'm a public library technology manager. In my 9-person department, only 1 had an MLS when they were hired, and none have the word 'librarian' in their title. I think needled is on the right track... don't consider an MLS a prerequisite for the work you want to do. Finish your undergrad and get a systems job at a library, then see if it's worth the time and money to get an MLS. In my hiring experience, IT people who are passionate about libraries and aware of what's going on in the industry are shoo-ins for library geek jobs regardless of their certifications or matriculations.

Frankly, when an applicant comes across my desk who has an MLS (which is pretty dang rare), I think, "oh, that's nice. Hope they're not an elitist snob about everything."

Good luck... this is an exciting time to be in the information business. Don't waste your time on certifications; I would advise putting the effort towards becoming a PHP master. Make a hot library-oriented mashup and you'll get an interview anywhere you apply.
posted by ulotrichous at 7:30 PM on May 24, 2007

Thanks for all the advice so far, guys. I guess I should just start boning up on programming on my own and try to score a gig out of/during undergrad, then? I've already consigned myself to the fact that I'll probably be spending late undergrad doing schoolwork, working a job and volunteering at the library if I cannot get hired at a library. If I do, can I assume it's the page -> staff -> specialized staff (or possibly just starting off as staff) route for me? The library where I interned, the non-supervisory staff were pretty much just doing Everything there was to do and there didn't seem to exist a track to be the Computer Guy.
In fact, I don't actually remember anyone in there maintaining the computers. I can only assume those jobs exist at the headquarters-level, am i right?

To answer a couple of questions:
dief - I have absolutely no problem working with the public (I used to manage a mom-and-pop clothing store in downtown Manhattan), and I'd like to think that I am likable and charismatic and am never actively rude to people, but I'm still pretty much an introvert and find that much social interaction stressful and exhausting.

needled- it is personal interest that I am following the English track. I want to do research and write (academically) about comic books and that's really the only way. I'll probably be trying to enroll in the roll-your-own-english-major program at SFSU. Unfortunately, there's no actual permanent work for a comic book scholar, and the sheer stress of the academic world and tenure track makes me want to run to the latest burger-flipping position.
posted by griphus at 8:15 PM on May 24, 2007

Cool - I'm sure you've heard of the comic book collection at Michigan State University, then?
posted by needled at 3:53 AM on May 25, 2007

....there didn't seem to exist a track to be the Computer Guy.

Sometimes you can make the track happen, if you really really want to work at a certain place.
posted by lysdexic at 7:28 AM on May 25, 2007

griphus, a lot of librarians (with MLS) tend to be forced into a systems position. When I got my first library job out of grad school it was as a cataloger. But the school was so very small that there was no one who knew anything about computers or systems. Because I was the youngest librarian there, it was assumed that I could do the work of a systems librarian. Luckily I knew a teeny bit of Unix and could learn the rest of what I needed quickly.

If you can get a position at your academic library as a student worker, hopefully in the systems department, that'd be a great advantage. Also, as it's been suggested a thousand times before, while working on your MLS do your best to get a part time job in a library of some sort.

With most library schools, there are tracks for "computer guy" they are just well hidden. But I offer one caveat. Don't assume you know what kind of librarian you actually want to be. I thought when I started that I wanted to be a reference librarian at a public library. But once I got into the coursework and got a little experience under my belt, I realized that I was best suited for something completely different. I'm now a head cataloger at a mid-sized academic library and I love it. I still act as back-up systems librarian for our ILS and do some perl script writing as necessary.

One thing you learn as a practicing librarian that never really gets mentioned in library school is that there is no one job, no one skill set in the library world. In most libraries every body does at least two jobs with different skill sets. The best librarians I've met are those who are unafraid to learn new technologies and skills to meet the needs of the library and the instititution.

Good luck. And for the record, our systems librarian may be retiring in a few years. If you can get everything lined up by then, let me know and I'll be happy to see what I can do.
posted by teleri025 at 8:10 AM on May 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Just a quick plug for the School of Information Studies at Syracuse.

I'm a distance student in the MS Information Management program, which has a lot of overlap with the curriculum for the systems track of the MLS program. (IM and MLS are both in the same school.) I'm very happy with the program so far.
posted by mingshan at 10:19 AM on May 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

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