:: Digital Libraries Columns


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 They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

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

   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

   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

   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.