April 20, 2018

You Don’t Have Enough Tech

I recently spoke at the Information Today “Library Leaders Digital Strategy Summit”, a mini-conference held in conjunction with the Internet Librarian Conference in Monterey, California. I was signed up to be on a library technology panel, and to focus on what library managers needed to know about technology. In the execution it was less formal, since the panelists were parceled out among the tables where the participants were sitting while Rebecca Jones and Mike Ridley plied us with questions.

In typical style, I didn’t like the first question, so I answered the question I wish I had been asked. I did this because whenever I address an audience I try to think about the most important thing they should hear and I focus on that. That’s what I told them, and then I said:

“I decided that the single most important thing I can tell you about technology in libraries is this: You don’t have enough tech. You don’t have enough technical staff and the staff you have don’t have enough technical knowledge.”

Heads nodded all over the room. Apparently, as I often do, I had stated the obvious. But it opened up a rich vein of discussion that stretched into the buffet lunch that we brought back to our tables. While chatting with one library leader, we agreed that the best way to hire new staff wasn’t by specific experience, but personality characteristics. I even wrote a Library Journal column about it way back in 1998 (see the archived version).

The other part of this is that the day is long past when we should be hiring staff without any sort of technical capabilities. I mean, done. Fully baked. To help illustrate this, I related the fact that I had decided to go to library school to get my masters in the early 1980s. Even then, I knew that computers were going to be important to librarianship. I mean, srsly. However, since I couldn’t stomach the idea of spending years in a basement somewhere (where most computer science students were relegated back in the day), I majored in Geography and minored in Computer Science. I then went to library school to get my Masters, where I had already far surpassed the computer science requirements at the time.

This means that even 30 years ago the handwriting was on the wall. Tech was our future. It still is, only more so. If you are a children’s librarian your charges shouldn’t know more about how to use an iPad than you do. If you fancy yourself a public service librarian you had better know how to troubleshoot public computers and printers.  If you are an archivist you are (or should be) at Ground Zero of your institution’s digitization plans. There are, in other words, no professional positions in a modern library that lack a technical component.

Also, the more technical abilities you bring to your position — any position — the more valuable you will be to your organization. So you decide: how valuable do you want to be?

Meanwhile, as the sun rose higher in the Monterey sky and we looked out from our perch at the top of the Monterey Marriott overlooking the bay, we perhaps could be forgiven for thinking we could see farther than we really could. Today’s world was at least 30 years in the making. We had a warning. We knew this was coming. We have no one to blame but ourselves. You don’t have enough tech.

Photo courtesy of igb06, CC BY-NC 2.0 License

Roy Tennant About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant is a Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research. He is the owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib electronic discussions, and the creator and editor of Current Cites, a current awareness newsletter published every month since 1990. His books include "Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anne Grodzins Lipow" (2008), "Managing the Digital Library" (2004), "XML in Libraries" (2002), "Practical HTML: A Self-Paced Tutorial" (1996), and "Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook" (1993). Roy wrote a monthly column on digital libraries for Library Journal for a decade and has written numerous articles in other professional journals. In 2003, he received the American Library Association's LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Excellence in Communication for Continuing Education. Follow him on Twitter @rtennant.


  1. Roberta Johnson says:

    I couldn’t agree more, but I have to comment that too many librarians seem to feel that their own technical abilities are enough – that they don’t need to hire staff specifically for/with IT skills. Everywhere I see Tech Services staff running the computer lab or administering the RFID system or the LAN (is that even the right word anymore?). Just because I am interested in computers and learned to write code in 1994 doesn’t mean I should be doing a truly technical job. I don’t mean to sound critical, but as a technology-based field, we should be looking for the best IT staff we can afford – and then we should spend a little more. At our library we have an unusual model of IT service in that we hire a company to provide it, AND they work out of our building, which provides excellent patron and staff service and a wealth of expertise on call. I can’t imagine going back to the previous staffing and trying to manage 200 computers, dozens of devices, RFID tech, a VOIP system, data storage and recovery, a DVR security system, fiber, ticketing systems, you name it!

  2. It is true that librarianship is currently facing significant challenges arising from new developments in information technology. However, we cannot expect librarians to be able to work as an IT technician. The challenge is not that the library does not have enough technical staff, but that it needs more technology-oriented librarians. The technology-oriented librarians are librarians who believe that the library services would/should be delivered through new technology.
    This type of librarians always seek out for technological solutions to ensure that library services are reliable and deliver high performance. The technology-oriented librarians always pay attention to new developments in information technology and try to apply them into library services.
    These people are the librarians who have the abilities to add technology’s value to library services and add library service’s value to new technology. They are a bridge linking between the library community with the IT community AND to be able to represent the library services demands in technology context and translate those demands to technical requirements.