Technology and Libraries: Building Social (and Career) Capital
As librarians we generally think of technology in terms of what it can do to help us provide better or expanded service or allow us to perform functions with greater ease and efficiency. We often fail to remember that our technological expertise provides us with social capital. This social capital only exists when those outside the library, particularly management, realize the amount of technical know-how required to provide access to a wide range of e-materials from a variety of providers - and they won’t realize it unless you tell and SHOW them.
We all know the value of a well publicized launch of a new service, but building a tech savvy reputation means going beyond the usual. If you’ve set up an RSS feed or blog or for the library, don’t only give it a great intro, but offer workshops in setting up RSS feeds or blogs for departments, groups or clubs. Show your knowledge and your willingness to share.
Another approach is to see where a knowledge vacuum exists and fill it. For example, at my institution Academic Computing offered faculty many workshops on setting up a course in Blackboard and some very introductory workshops on Microsoft Excel. However, none of those workshops addressed integrating the Blackboard grade book with an Excel grade spreadsheet or how to use Excel to create bell curves, or other charts of student grades. So the library developed and offered such a workshop. By providing faculty with an expanded range of tools to analyze and display information we displayed our technical expertise, our involvement in the academic program, and our commitment to the use and analysis of information in all its forms.
We’ve also offered skills development courses to administrative support staff on the Microsoft Office Suite. Perhaps not really a library function, but our library staff are trained teachers where the IT staff isn’t. The Deans and other administrators were very happy that their support staff became more productive, IT was happy that they had one less task to do – and the library’s social capital expanded.
Obviously, it is very important to have a good relationship with the IT department. This means respecting its expertise and constraints. It also means letting IT staff know you “talk tech”. For example, help the IT staff understand that the “catalog” is not some low end listing of “stuff” but a complex relational database linking materials, authors, subjects, locations and users through rules and algorithms. Whenever possible, partner with IT. For example, develop handouts together, with library staff checking that all instructions are clear and don’t miss any steps. At our small campus there’s no IT help desk, so the library serves as a help point, pointing students to print or online instructions, helping them go through the steps and, if there is still a problem, contacting IT.
A library/IT partnership presents great opportunities. librarians (especially if they have faculty rank) can provide IT with a voice and support on academic committees while the library gains a voice and support on technical and infrastructure committees or task forces. Such cooperation usually results in many opportunities for informal interactions and discussions between library and IT staff that can lead to smoother technology improvement projects and better day-to-day support.
It is especially important to work with IT if higher administration is not that technologically au courant or not inclined to expand technology. If the Library and IT present a unified front on a request for upgraded bandwidth or new hardware or specialized software the request will have more power. Upper level administration will generally notice when the IT staff respects the technological expertise of the library.
Building social capital is not done just to improve the library’s image – it’s a way to have your qualifications recognized and to gain a seat at the planning table. All too often crucial technology decisions are made by planning groups that don’t include a representative from the library. It is important that someone from the library serve on every committee that addresses: IT; website development and maintenance; instructional technology; learning resources; and infrastructure planning. If you’re not in on the planning people who know little or nothing about libraries will make decisions that have a long range impact on the services you can offer, such as decisions about firewalls or filters – or even wiring.
Yes, wireless networks are great and eliminate the need for a network connection at every carrel, but you still need sufficient connections for current and future printers, desktop units, and networked projectors. What about power outlets? Are there enough and in the right location for computers, monitors, printers, photocopiers, scanners, projectors, clocks, lamps, and for students to keep their notebooks charged? Someone from the library needs to review the electrical schematics before any new library related construction or renovation is given final approval. If you’re not on the committee you’ll probably never get that chance.
Getting to the point where you have the opportunities you need and deserve to provide input isn’t easy. You must first develop your technological know-how to the point where you feel you have sufficient expertise and then be able to communicate that expertise to administration and IT. You might have to make many, many attempts to develop rapport with IT. Even with the respect of IT and some administrators you might find that the organizational structure or politics of your institution make it difficult for you to serve on the committees which impact the library. Even when you’re on a committee, it might be hard to agree on goals, let alone strategy. Often IT is more focused on security than access, and management more focused on budget than services. It is your job to show how your requests are reasonable and necessary; how they will improve services and support the institutional mission; and how they will position the institution for the next big trend while supporting current needs. The greater your social capital the easier that will be.
Shelly Warwick, MLS, Ph.D.
Touro-Harlem Medical Library
Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine
Touro College of Pharmacy