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5 technical skills information professionals should learn

22 March 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Gus MacDonald

Part of being an information professional involves watching the current technological trends and implementing them in organisational settings as appropriate. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether we are simply ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ by starting to use technologies that will simply go away within a short amount of time, or if they will endure and grow over time. One thing is certain, however. If a new technology is out there, your users are trying it out, and they will expect to see their library doing the same. Adopting these technologies in our professional settings helps us do what we do best as a profession: connect people with the information they need. 

From e-book licence agreements to malfunctioning printers to e-mail overload, there is not one part of an information professional’s life that technology has not impacted. It can be difficult to keep up with all the changes as information professionals continuously adapt to the newest technologies that enter our organisations. How can we decide what we need to know, and what can be ignored for a bit longer?

Unfortunately, there is no one set of correct answers to these questions. Back in 2008, I published a chapter called “The Library School’s Role in Preparing New Librarians for Working with Technology” in a book called Core Technology Competencies for Librarians and Library Staff: A LITA Guide. In my chapter, I presented the results of a survey I sent to placement site supervisors to ask them what they thought were the most important technical skills that new librarians needed.

Generally speaking, the participants said they need to be able to do basic tasks such as perform computer troubleshooting, use common software such as word processing and spreadsheet programs, and search online abstracting/indexing services and catalogues. The responses varied based on the type of library and position, however. So, the good news is that not all information professionals need to be programmers, but some do. 

That survey is almost a decade old now, and technology has only moved forward in terms of its impact on our jobs and our lives. In preparation for my forthcoming edited series from Facet Publishing, Computing for Information Professionals, I have spent some time considering what technologies impact all information-related professions. Below is a list of the five most prominent technologies that seem to be facing the profession today. 

Sorting Out Social Media

Most organisations have social media presences now. Simply having an account on Facebook or Twitter, or having an organisational blog, is not enough to be effective. The account has to be kept current with frequent posts of interest. Followers must be responded to quickly and appropriately if they have questions or comments. The organisation must have a plan in place for dealing with inappropriate posts from users or other difficult situations.

According to Jodie Bell’s post from 2014 on the CILIP Blog, “5 ways libraries are using social media”, while 61% of libraries she surveyed had been using social media for at least three years, 72% of libraries surveyed had no social media policy or plan in place. Without strategic decisions and guidelines for best practices, organisations will likely not get the most out of their social media presences, and may find themselves unprepared for difficult situations.

For further information about social media:

Creating the Cloud

What does the term “cloud computing” mean, and how does it affect information professionals? If you don’t know the term, you probably use the cloud every day and didn’t know it. Essentially, the cloud consists of servers that store your information on them instead of storing your information on your computer’s hard drive. For example, if you have ever used Google Docs to store or share word processing files, you have used cloud computing because your documents are stored on Google’s servers rather than on your computer. Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, and all those other sites are also in the cloud, because they store all your data on their servers. With cloud computing, work is typically performed in a Web browser such as Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Chrome, because users’ computers are constantly communicating with the servers in order to store and retrieve their data. 

Within organisations, difficult choices need to be made about how and where data is going to be stored. It is can be expensive and time-consuming for individual places organisations to manage its their own servers. Instead, some are opting for cloud-based solutions for file storage, email service, and more. Additionally, many newer integrated library systems have the option to be cloud-based, which means a library does not have to run its own servers or maintain ILS clients on individual computers. For example, the open source ILS Koha could be hosted by the Koha support company LibLime. The library’s data is stored on cloud-based servers, and all staff-side work including cataloguing, circulation, and acquisitions, is performed in a Web browser. With these and other options, it is truly revolutionising the options that organisations have for managing their information, and the roles that allof staff must take. 

For further information about cloud computing

Making Makerspaces

Makerspaces are not quite as mainstream as the other technologies in this post, and it might be too soon to know whether they are just a trend or if they will be around for a while, but they are definitely something to watch. According to Sharona Ginsberg, Learning Technologies Librarian at SUNY Oswego in New York, a makerspace “can be any area where people gather to make and create. These spaces often include 3D printers, but do not necessarily have to. In makerspaces, people share supplies, skills, and ideas, and often work together on projects.”

Sharona goes on to explain, “Many libraries have found that maker culture and makerspaces fit naturally with their existing missions, and have begun to incorporate makerspaces into the services they offer their communities.” While the makerspace itself as a physical space is not a technology, the resources that must be provided in a makerspace are. 3D printers, 3D scanners, and associated software and hardware are typically provided in the space, mostly free of charge to the user. Since many people do not have this type of equipment at home, and because the collaborative physical space is essential to the users’ experiences, makerspaces definitely have the power to bring people into the library. Both academic and public libraries are experimenting with them. Even if your organisation cannot financially support a makerspace, think about what kinds of technologies you could provide that would increase your users’ interest and engagement. 

For further information about makerspaces

Modelling Mobile Apps

As the saying has gone for a few years now, “There’s an app for that.” With the exponential growth in smartphone and tablet use over the last few years, apps are on track to replace traditional web sites as the way users get information from the companies and organisations they access online. If you work in a library, is your catalogue easily accessible on a smartphone? If you are a patron of the City of Westminster library, “you can get mobile access to the library catalogue allowing you to easily search for, renew and reserve items online. You can also scan a book's barcode anywhere and immediately find out whether the book you want is in stock at your library.”

Creating an app for library services does not imply a major change in a library’s mandate. It simply means that the library is providing its information in a way that many people use more often than any other online technology these days: their phones. It is worth looking into whether your ILS vendor’s OPAC is mobile-friendly, or if it has an app that your library can easily configure and implement. If not, consider advocating for one; if librarians do not ask for it, the vendors might not see a reason to make it. Also consider what an app developed just for your library could do. For example, you could provide floor plans with call number ranges, links to recordings of recent events, or anything else that you have traditionally provided on your website. 

For further information about mobile apps

Dealing with Data

Full disclosure: data is one of my favourite subjects! I have been working with databases since the mid-1990s, and I continue to be fascinated with data of all types all the time. It is one of the reasons I became an information professional. 

As my forthcoming book, Mastering Data and Databases for Information Professionals, will explore, there are so many types of data, and we need to work with all of them. Relational databases, such as those in Microsoft Access, also store much of our cloud-based data, and they have local practical uses in our institutions as well. Big Data and Linked Data are terms that many of us have heard, but may not understand fully.

Here are four distinct types of data that all information professionals should be able to work with: 

  1. Structured data is highly organised data that is stored in formats such as spreadsheets (for example Microsoft Excel) and relational databases (for example Microsoft Access and databases that run library management systems). 
  2. Semi-structured data has less structure than structured data. Examples of semi-structured data include data stored in markup languages such as eXtensible Markup Language (XML). Library metadata standards, such as Dublin Core records, are stored as semi-structured data. 
  3. Unstructured data cannot be stored in tables or fields as structured data or semi-structured data can. Big Data, which involves large amounts of datasets with no particular format, falls under this category. 
  4. Linked data is a newer type of data that is still undergoing development by the library and scientific communities. Linked data is stored in “triples” that are similar to English sentences, allowing both humans and computers to derive semantic meaning from the data. For example: has homepage >

For further information about data

What do you think? Do you agree with my list, or are there other technologies that are more important for today’s information professionals to understand? Let us know in the comments section!

About the author

Dr Diane Rasmussen Pennington, a former systems librarian, is a Lecturer in Information Science in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.

Published: 22 March 2016

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