Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant
Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
Honoring Technical Staff
Librarianship faces a pivotal and possibly disastrous problem. Our noble and essential work, for which we labor in quiet and unrecognized solitude, mostly attracts people for whom technology holds little interest. Instead, we attract people who love books and who understand that democracy rests on a foundation of open access to information. We are strengthened as a profession by this but also weakened. We must do better at attracting technical talent or risk sacrificing our vital professional goals. We also must work to retain the talent we've somehow been able to lure away from dot-com stock offers and salaries higher than we can afford. Recent dot-com failures have improved the market somewhat, but most library positions are still far from approaching what private enterprise pays. We need to honor new blood, fresh ideas, and the willingness to take risks. We must do this or lose such people. If we do not, we deserve to lose them. Losing ground I know this from trying to hire. I know this from talking to people about why they entered the profession and why they are leaving. I know this from personal reflection about my own career. Money is by no means everything, so I am not merely advocating higher salaries or better compensation packages, although those are worthy goals. I am talking about recognition, a sense of worth, and support. If we are to attract and keep technically talented people who also subscribe to and back our professional precepts and goals, we must compensate for our incapacity to match competing salary offers. We must honor them for their contributions, as we honor those who build our collections and who organize our holdings. We must stop assuming that, since they bring technical skill to their jobs, they are less than professional. Today, in this digital world, professional work is technical. A few years ago, I was up for promotion (at an institution where I no longer work). The process required a dossier documenting my entire professional career, three letters of recommendation from those familiar with my work, and a self-authored summary of my accomplishments and their impact. I labored on it, striving to achieve a balance between overwhelming the review committee with achievements and evidence and succinctly stating what I had done and how it was important. My letters included at least one from someone of international stature; all were from colleagues from outside the institution. By this time, I had published two books, authored numerous periodical articles, been an invited speaker at international conferences, and in my primary job assignment had accomplished all I had been assigned and more. But I was exclusively assigned to technical tasks. Not getting it During the review process the word came down that the reviewers did not quite understand my work and therefore my contribution. They required another letter of recommendation. In a review, this is not a good sign. I dutifully solicited another letter--this time from someone inside the institution--and asked the person to focus on how my technical work helped the institution. The promotion, when it finally came, felt like ashes in my mouth. I had already received the answer to my request for promotion--"We don't understand what you do, therefore it is difficult for us to evaluate the importance of your contribution." It felt as if it were somehow my failing. To me, either the benefits of my contributions as a professional should have been obvious or they clearly were not of significance. I was wrong. My contributions were not obvious, as much as I thought they should have been, given the international recognition I had achieved. My contributions were too technical--there were no metrics for calculating such contributions against those more traditional jobs in, for example, collection development and reference. I had, in a sense, no colleagues against whom they could measure me, and therefore my contribution was misunderstood and unrecognized. Remember the techies That incident no longer bothers me--I got over it and hold no ill will toward that anonymous review committee--but there are others out there who deserve your understanding and recognition. These techies mostly make you uncomfortable because they deal with things that either enable you to do your work or ruin your day when they don't work. But they're people like you who need appreciation and recognition just as much or more than they need the paycheck. Techies should be honored for their contributions whether they have MLS degrees or not, but those who have both an MLS and technical skill are even more valuable, since they bring a knowledge of the profession. They are few in number, and we should do all we can to encourage and support our existing professional staff to expand their technical experience and capabilities. Library schools are attempting to meet our changing needs with updated curricula that reflect the changing needs of libraries. Institutions such as the University of Michigan's School of Information and UCLA's Department of Information Studies are but two examples. Still, not all graduates coming out of these revised programs go into libraries; many end up in new kinds of positions in the private sector. If we cannot attract and retain qualified technical staff, we may as well pack it in now. Without such capable technical staff, we have no digital future--at least not one under our control.