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Views on technology and libraries

People to People delegation on “Educating the Information Professions” in China

So, last October I received a letter inviting me to be a part of a delegation of library and information science practitioners and teaching faculty that would be visiting with colleagues in China to discuss “educating the information professions” in our respective countries. This was proposed and being led by Nancy Roderer, Director of the Welch Biomedical Library at Johns Hopkins University, who happens to be my first mentor and Director that I worked for (at Yale’s medical library, back in 1995-1997), fresh out of library school. Wow, what an opportunity, but how to come up with the money for this in a short time frame?

So I wrote a grant proposal to the in-house grant program that we have at the Hesburgh Libraries at Notre Dame, which provides funding for research in librarianship for its library faculty. I proposed to study and contrast the formal and informal education of systems librarians in the United States and Canada with those of China. Those of us in the sub-discipline of systems librarianship know how much of an ad-hoc process it can be to actually get into this role in libraries, and despite more technology focus than ever before in LIS programs, we still talk much about the ‘accidental systems librarian’, one who through a confluence of technical skills, learning ability, intellectual curiosity and need, gravitates towards roles in providing support for library computing infrastructure in the institutions in which we serve. I’m intrigued whether this has been formalized any more in professional programs than when I went through my studies (McGill MLIS ’95). I’ve also been reading up on the idea of ‘communities of practice’, and I think there are some excellent examples of where communities within the sub-discipline of systems librarianship come together and organically form themselves into an intentional community of practice, where the informal education along with a group of peers bridges the gap between the formal education one receives in MLS and related programs, and the practical hard and soft skills one needs to be a successful systems librarian, for example in a higher education institution in North America.

Take the Code4Lib community, for example, a group of library computing professionals (not all degreed librarians, which is important to note) that are engaged with the possibility and practice of leveraging open source software to provide solutions for library needs. This is quite an interesting ‘community of practice’ in that it grew up organically from within systems librarianship, first with a mailing list, and IRC channel and a website, and then with a major national annual meeting that regularly sells out and has more recently spawned a whole host of regional Code4Lib meetings through the US, Canada and Europe.

So what is so interesting about all of this? Well, for one there continues to be a dearth of published research on the topic of systems librarianship. Its important to understand the role of systems librarians within the context of libraries and where they can best contribute, particularly when technology approaches in libraries seems to be accelerating. We have a handful of good books on the subject, beginning with Tom Wilson’s excellent 1998 work “The Systems Librarian: Designing Roles, Defining Skills” and Rachel Singer Gordon’s more recent “The Accidental Systems Librarian”, and then perhaps a dozen articles, but that’s pretty much it. Tom’s work posits that there have been systems librarians since the last 1960s and although they have had various titles, they have cluster of important characteristics, skills and roles within libraries, and as technology changes the titles change but the raison d’etre for the position remains largely the same: enabling the use of technology to support the mission of the library and the communities in which the library serves.

The combination of examining these questions within the context of a rapidly emergent nation such as China, and the increasingly significant state-directed information industry there seemed even more interesting to me. If we have developed some of these norms of defining what the sub-discipline of systems librarianship over the course of the past 40 years in North America, what is the experience of this like in China, where modern library and information science only began following the ‘Great Reforms’ of the 1980s in deconstructing the Cultural Revolution period (1966-1975) which severely damaged higher education institutions in China. To what extent are the roles of the equivalent of systems librarians in Chinese libraries equivalent to those of their colleagues in North America, and what is the mix of formal and informal education for successful members of these roles, and to what extent are there communities of practice around systems librarianship in China?

I’ll be exploring these issues on my visit to China with the delegation, April 17-26 in our visits to six library organizations and schools in Beijing and Shanghai. I will document and share my thoughts as much as I can here throughout this trip, and welcome your comments and insights as I do so.

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Filed under: librarianship, travel reports

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