Q: I have been a librarian “on the front lines” for 6 years and I want to switch to technical services. I have taken web (XHTML, CSS) and beginning programming (JAVA, C++) courses and I am currently taking a cataloging course. When time permits, I volunteer in technical services at two area libraries. However, when I peruse job postings for catalogers, systems librarians, etc., I get overwhelmed by all the qualifications listed and feel I will never be truly qualified for any of these positions. Any advice to help in pursuing this library career change would be greatly appreciated.
A: Great question! This dilemma affects many librarians who desire to make a role change and are lacking in relevant experience. I moved from a reference role into a systems role (at a past job) because I became frustrated with the ILS (integrated library system), and wanted to update its look and functionality. The person who was in that role had shifted her attention to something else, and was actually happy to let me take over. I was working in a small, specialized, academic library at the time and I was able to acquire on-the-job experience over time.
First, decide on which area you want to focus on, cataloging or systems. Although both are in technical services, they are quite different. The primary role of a systems person is maintaining the ILS and troubleshooting technical problems, for several different systems. The primary role of a cataloger is cataloging, using one or two different systems and managing bibliographic access to materials. Each role will require a different set of skills and experience. The systems person will need to understand some cataloging in order to make sure the system is running smoothly and doing everything it can do for the cataloger. Since I am speaking from personal experience, I will talk mainly about systems, but similar information can be applied to cataloging positions.
To be qualified for a systems librarian position, you need experience. This is why you don’t see postings for entry-level systems librarians. I have seen the job postings that you mention and I always wonder if the employers are getting any applicants who have all of the requirements…. doubtful. I also know of several libraries who have hired non-librarians for their systems roles, probably because they could not find MLS holders with the specific computer programming experience they desired.
Second, the role of the systems librarian can vary greatly by size of institution. So think about where you would like to be.
Larger institutions (university libraries, public library systems, large corporations, etc.) will most likely need more people with very specific skills and expertise, because they have more systems to manage and more people to serve. They expect a systems person to be able to develop something unique for their user population and/or environment, if they cannot find it commercially. Larger institutions usually have several people, with differing skills, working in a systems department where they typically focus on the ILS and other systems that work with the ILS. Jobs in larger institutions may offer a better opportunity for specialization, experimentation and training.
Smaller institutions will most likely need fewer people with diverse skills. Small libraries are often largely dependent on commercial systems, which offer both hosting and service, so the systems librarian (who is usually on his or her own) may not need to know any programming languages or be required to develop anything new for the user population. This is good, because many systems librarians are also expected to do reference, collection development and instruction. Systems people who work in smaller institutions often find themselves in charge of everything digital and computer-related including the web site, course management systems, software and hardware, and electronic resources. Jobs in smaller institutions will offer lots of variety.
Third, don’t despair just yet. You will get the experience you need, but it might take time. Clearly you are motivated, so keep doing what you’re doing: volunteering and taking classes, if you can. Specific web and programming skills will definitely boost your qualifications. Start small and local — use your current job to get experience now. Talk to your supervisor and let her or him know that you are interested in doing more technical services tasks. Are there people you can learn from in your current job, people who can mentor you and teach you about specific systems? Knowledge of an ILS is usually a requirement for systems (and cataloging) positions. See what you can learn about the one in your current library and the one where you volunteer.
And finally, look closely at the requirements and the preferred skills for the job at hand. If you have all the requirements, then by all means apply. Don’t let the preferred list (which can be quite long) discourage or deter you. Best of luck!
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