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IT and Sympathy

Submitted by Karen G. Schneider on January 19, 2007 - 8:42am

Tea and Sympathy I'm a big fan of the interactive/ dynamic/ RSS'ed/ video-blogged/ to-the-user-born school of library services. The days when we saw our job as input/output for books and journal articles are, I hope, long over. Most of us get itchy when we think about spending a year to make a minor decision… that way of doing things is so very 1995.

But when I talk to colleagues inside the belly of the IT beast, they share one heartfelt concern: think about what you're asking for.

One stereotype of the library systems department is of the crusty old folks who talk in geek-speak and love to say “no.” It is not the first time I find myself working in library IT, and it again both distresses and amuses me to see IT departments portrayed out there in LibraryLand as the meanies who won't let you install any old software you want on your desktop—NOW; or ask you to wait when you come up with a really neat idea that involves deploying a new service library-wide—NOW; or when you want an YouTube video complete with fake falling snow and jumping Santas because everyone else does it and wouldn't it be neat, and of course you want it—NOW. (Actually, we did our own video inside the IT department, I must confess, and it was wonderful... so perhaps I'm a bit Janus-faced on that particular point. But you get my drift.)

Most of us are buckling under the weight of what we have to support. In one six-month period at MPOW (My Place Of Work), my department is "looking forward" to several humongous upgrades, some long-overdue disaster preparedness planning, and the annual purchase and deployment of new equipment, which even though fun (shiny new computers!) is a lot of work (the bump plan for older equipment, the configuration, the roll-out, etc.).

Oh, and then there is updating the Web site, rolling out blogging software, upgrading our wiki software, continuing to digitize content for our electronic theses, and the inevitable committees for all that stuff we rightly agree should be collectively decided within the broader library organization. If idle hands are playthings of the Devil, we're the epitome of virtue. And this is a fairly calm period.

When my peers talk about their support issues, even more distressing—and not at all amusing—is to consider the vast junkyard of abandoned ideas—technologies that took some effort and resources to deploy, but were not given a decent chance from the departments that requested them. (Sometimes IT itself can be a bad offender in this area; raise your hands if you have purchased or inherited fancy hardware that never got deployed.) It's as if the departments expected the IT folk not only to deliver the hardware but the planning, training, integration with services, and marketing as well.

Here then is my “strategery” for IT planning by non-IT departments.

Hierarchy of Needs by Maslow

First, if they haven't told you what they're up to, sit down with your IT people and ask what their schedule is, and where your needs for new stuff fit in. It would be wise for IT to do this proactively, but they may not think this way, and you can help them get there. You may find out that IT has some pretty important stuff on the docket, pretty far down Maslow's hierarchy, that you weren't aware of because it's not visible or sexy—from some essential upgrade to the network to disaster planning.

Second, do some IT planning on your own. New technology deserves a fair chance at succeeding, and you play a role in its success. Where do you want your department to be six, twelve, eighteen, or twenty-four months from now? Get it all out on paper, from the most fundamental (upgrade all computers in the public areas) to the most blue-sky (we're going to open a library branch in Second Life and sell tee-shirts).

When you look at the plan, don't just think about acquiring the shiny toys; think about your timelines and what outcomes you want; about the procedures and policies affected by the new technologies; about the training and evaluation issues every technology brings to the table; about the support issues. (You might even go way out on a limb and ask yourself how this service benefits your users.)

Third, remember nothing is “free,” even if it didn't come with a price tag. Second Life isn't “free.” Instant messaging isn't “free.” Wordpress isn't “free.” (In fact, that sucking sound you hear may be your RSS feeds dragging down that server hosting your blogs.) Or, more correctly, all of these technologies are “free” as in “free kittens,” not free as in “free beer.” They come with maintenance and deployment issues, from opening ports on a secure network, to how much bandwidth they will use, to how much time IT personnel need to devote to deploying and maintaining the “free” software.

Fourth—this may not be easy—share your tentative plans with IT. Yes, go to their department and sit down with them, whether or not they have come to visit you. They may even surprise you by having considered the same issues you are thinking about; they may have some suggestions; most of all, they may be far more likely to help support your plans and integrate them into their budgets and workflows. (They may also be quietly testing these tools; in most cases, IT is really very fond of and interested in new technology.)

If you work with IT, you may also find they are far more willing to support the occasional serendipitous request to support the fascinating new service no one anticipated when the plans were laid out. When you are being nibbled to death by ducks, it becomes easy (if not absolutely necessary) to say “no” or “not now”; your objective is to gain IT's trust. Who knows--they might even approach you with an idea or two.

A few tips.

Whatever you do, don't blindside the IT department. It is a very bad idea to go to a meeting of higher-ups and blast IT for what, in your opinion, it has or has not done, or slide in a completely new request they have never heard of while IT sits there gape-mouthed wondering how in Hades this will get done. This should go without saying, except it has been repeated to me so often by IT department heads that I find I must say it.

Furthermore, honor the requests you make by bringing them to fruition as best you can. This will mean some self-restraint and selectivity. But every technology deserves to be deployed to the best of its ability. It's said that the single most important factor in a woman's economic success is how many children she has; apply that rule to library technology, and you can have a few good things done well. Even one good thing done well is a lot. Otherwise, you may find yourself sitting in that junkyard wondering where the year went.

When I was in South Africa in October presenting about Library 2.0 to their special libraries association, I offered this formula: Find five technologies you like; focus on three; implement one. This less-is-more approach can be hard to hear if you are trying to get staff comfortable with exploring new technologies or you are encouraging younger librarians to offer ideas, but if you point out that no new idea will go ignored—that it will simply be part of a larger context of potential services to be evaluated for deployment—that could also educate staff that every good idea exists in a much larger context.

The less-is-more approach also introduces newer librarians to the radical concept that a really good idea should be honored with the time, training, tools, and attitude it deserves. Again, you would be surprised at how interested IT is in these tools as well; it's often just a question of priorities and staffing.

And maybe, just maybe, the library without an offsite backup plan or with direly outdated equipment should be putting its effort into those problems, and deferring (not ignoring) the roll-out of the latest squeaky new 2.0 toy (and I have rarely met a 2.0 toy I didn't like).

Finally, when you speak of IT—and you will—please be kind. Do not refer to your IT department as the technocrats in the back office preventing you from doing your job, and do not refer to IT people without library degrees (who may have IS degrees and certifications out the wazoo) as “nonprofessional.”

Again, you may think these are obvious points, and I haven't heard this kind of silliness from people at MPOW, but I've witnessed it at other institutions, and my spies and moles tell me this is not rare. Not only is this poor behavior on your part, but it's lousy strategy. You will need IT to help you get your printer unjammed or figure out why Second Life isn't working, and treating them professionally is just the first step to a relationship that in the end honors the institution and the people it serves.

Next month: "Out of the Cold Room and Into the Streets: A Call to IT."Technorati tags:


Comments (16)

Dear Karen, The 'free

Dear Karen, The 'free kittens' analogy is so helpful for those of us who work in ICT for the nonprofit sector. You, madam, are a goddess! Many thanks and best regards from Deborah Deborah Elizabeth Finn Cyber-Yenta Boston, Massachusetts, USA http://public.xdi.org/=Deborah.Elizabeth.Finn http://www.cyber-yenta.org

Thanks for the words of

Thanks for the words of wisdom, Karen . . . they are exactly that! You have made be pause and think about my own impatience with what seems to me sometimes to be a glacial pace at which IT projects get done at MPOW. One needs to look in the mirror and ask if the things one has promised others are not likewise a bit icebound. We all face the same challenges: too many projects; too little time. One's IT folks are feeling just as buried as one's self is! I promise to be nicer!

Thank you very much for your

Thank you very much for your post. I manage a very energetic team of 14 highly motivated professionals who love working for the Library even though none of them are Librarians (including me). Combined, we have close to 100 years of IT experience in libraries. Most of your comments agree with the perspective we experience. I thought to share some questions we usually try to answer before we embark in a new project. If you can help answering some of them to back up your initiatives, your IT staff will thank you inmensely. Usually, technology ideas are generated in response to a problem. Defining the real problem is, most of the time, a difficult task. Answering these kinds of questions may help define the real problem: What is the benefit to the customer? Why should we do this? What is the objective? What are the goals? How this project fits in the Library’s Strategic Plan? Is this doable? What are the risks? Are we doing something similar, or are we planning to do something similar? How much time and $$ is this going to cost? What resources do we have/need? Who will do it? Who will manage it? Who will implement it? Who will maintain it and update it? What would be the impact for staff and public? When should we do this? If we do this, what else we should not do? Do we have enough resources (IT and non IT) to do this? Are there tools that do this or should we build them? Is privacy at risk? Just after answering this and other questions, then we embark in project management (schedules, tasks, milestones, beta, launching, etc). Great post.

You hit the nail on the

You hit the nail on the head. Thanks so much for writing it down for all of us (both in IT and outside IT). After working in the IT dept of an academic library for nearly 6 years, I've seen nearly all of the situations you described. And the advice to Librarians, IT, etc., is superb.I hope your article is read & considered by many!

Excellent posting. I work in

Excellent posting. I work in the IT DEPT of large academic library. For me the part that resonates is '...and do not refer to IT people without library degrees (who may have IS degrees and certifications out the wazoo) as “nonprofessional.” I have heard this verbally and non-verbally. I am not invited to meetings to discuss spending $40,000 on a new service- only brought in at the end to 'make it work'. I read about usability, information architecture, etc... but I am not a librarian, so I can't possibly help in coming up with schema for the web site. I always try to point out that a large bank doesn't have bankers running their website, they have an IT professional. But, so far it falls on dear ears. Also, the number of our staff hasn't increased in 10 years! Anyway- great post!

Sarah, I'll repeat verbatim

Sarah, I'll repeat verbatim a discussion I had with an admin type some years ago: Admin type: are you staffed correctly? Me: Depends. What do you want done?

Definitely, bring chocolate.

Definitely, bring chocolate. LOTS of chocolate!

Nice post. I can

Nice post. I can particularly emphasise the 'Go VISIT your IT people' bit; having been on all sides of the IT/everyone else divide, I can relate. It's sort of ironic, really, because the IT stereotype (and partially true, simply because of the nature of the people who are good at IT) is that of someone who would prefer to communicate over email/IM rather than phone or *gasp* in person, and visiting IN PERSON seems a horribly retrograde step. Which is why, of course, it _works_. Your IT person will favourably remember the person who bothered to come and visit in person, rather than sending a terse, pointless email, to set up a meeting time with the relevant person. And then they'll remember the person who came the SECOND time to the 'meeting', armed with chocolate and nice documentation and a clear idea of what's needed and priorities, not to mention some non-work-related gossip about shiny toys. Some inside grumbles about people NOT in IT never harms, of course. So when your idea gets sold to the managers and they swoop down on the IT grunts from above, shrieking 'DO IT BECAUSE THE CTO SEZ TO!', your people can smugly say 'On it' and know who _really_ to report to. The hardest part of this whole process is the intitial breakthrough; finding the person who'll actually talk to you and has enough authority to follow through with promises. Sometimes you have to smarm whole groups at once :) - Fiona (infoaddict).

Excellent post! The best bit

Excellent post! The best bit of advice I read here was: '[...] and you can have a few good things done well. Even one good thing done well is a lot. Otherwise, you may find yourself sitting in that junkyard wondering where the year went.'

Great essay. I don't do IT

Great essay. I don't do IT for libraries (although I did help with some programming on conversions for the local school system my first wife did), but this post resonates for anyone dealing with an IT department. I work in the mainframe world for a state government agency and the issues are the same.

I think a further point of

I think a further point of discussion is the fact that most IT departments in libraries are severely understaffed. I don't mean in the 'ooh, we don't get to do up to the moment cool projects' sense. I mean the 'everyone's working unpaid overtime just to tread water' sense. As libraries add more and more cool projects, features, resources, and services, they are doing so without adding more IT staff to implement and support these things. I would ask library directors who have IT plans on the docket to seriously consider adding staff in order to allow you to follow through on those plans. I frequently hear from library staff complaints about how every time a new project is given to IT, it takes months to complete. Why do you think that is? They are overloaded. They need more staff. Or less work. You choose.

A well-balanced discussion

A well-balanced discussion on IT planning. Thanks Karen. I've heard the 'Free IT = free as in kittens, not beer' trope attributed to you before and I love it. For me, the key thing change in the 2.0 world is that librarians (I feel) can no longer sit back and wait for IT to make things happen for them. There needs to be alot more understanding of IT in all areas. Having IT do all the planning, design, implementation, maintenance, training etc. etc. will leave us in the dust. People who want IT-related things to happen have to think hard about what they are willing to put into the implementation before it happens.

Best blog entry title of the

Best blog entry title of the month! And the post is great, too - I especially appreciated the 'find 5, focus on 3, implement 1' approach.

Hey, who stole my formatting?

Hey, who stole my formatting?

'...YouTube video complete

'...YouTube video complete with fake falling snow and jumping Santas because everyone else does it and wouldn't it be neat, and of course you want it...' Hey, that sounds like good stuff! 'When my peers talk about their support issues, even more distressing—and not at all amusing—is to consider the vast junkyard of abandoned ideas—technologies that took some effort and resources to deploy, but were not given a decent chance from the departments that requested them.' I call this from the 'Dept. of Bad Ideas'. It's a painful but healthy exercise on occasion to go over the failed technologies and abandoned initiatives of yesteryear -- just to learn caution and to develop a true sense of the cost of things. I sometimes feel we're repeating the mistakes of the past when I hear people bubbling over with enthusiam about Web/Library 2.0 -- with little thought to context or user preference. The solutions begin to sound top-down, motivated more by what we want rather than by what our users are actually coming to us for. This IT business -- never a dull moment.

Huzzah! This is an excellent

Huzzah! This is an excellent post. Really, in the end, IT folk are people too, and quite often are interested in the same goals. The issue is learning how to communicate well across the culture gap, and having empathy for IT's interests and concerns as well. What seems like a 'simple new service' may really be anything but.