Reconsidering digital librarianship

Late at night on March 22nd, I recalled that there are Digital Humanities and Digital Librarian positions in existence. Positions, that is, to which, I haven’t been paying attention. Why is that? Because I’m afraid of coding? SQL? Maybe the classes I took in Computer Programming were difficult, not because the material was particularly challenging (though, OK: Relational Database architecture is challenging), but rather because they weren’t taught in a way that was optimal for my learning style.

Originally, I had hoped to become a Digital Librarian, which is why I focused on Digital Services in my program. However…some of the more technically-oriented classes — particularly Database Management (it wasn’t management; it was designing and building a database) and Intro to Programming — were difficult enough that it made me question whether I really wanted to go into the field. (It doesn’t help that the Tech field and the Library field use many of the same terms, and I left off of my degree not being certain of whether they actually meant the same things.)

Right now, I have the opportunity to seek training which 1) is less expensive, and 2) does not in any way impact my Financial Aid or academic standing. A large part of trying to get out of the LIS program “early” (that is, within two-and-a-half, to three years), had to do with ending the stress (of never being certain of when my living situation might be upended), and not risking my GPA.

Well — that, and not risking going beyond my allotted seven years of Federal Financial Aid: I took several years off at the beginning of those seven years, and was concerned about complications which could have arisen if I took up a time-span at my University which exceeded 7 years overall (but not 7 years of aid). The only drawback at the University itself would have been needing to retake three classes, in effect restarting at a later date. But still.

I have read about how this is a known issue in higher education: tying academic performance (in the form of grades) to Federal financial support and the ability to remain a student, discourages students from taking risks and taking classes in which they may optimally be challenged and learn — as versus taking classes which they know they can pass.

However: outside of the University system, it seems the rules change. If I am to try out for a Tech job (for instance if I have to take a skills test), I’ve heard that employers are looking for the ability to do the work, not a piece of paper. This is from family who have worked in the Tech industry.

I haven’t done the research into Digital Librarianship skill requirements (as I already know I don’t yet meet them): though it’s a good project to tackle when I next get back to reading over job descriptions and job ads. The enumeration of needed skills shows me what I need to study.

Particularly where it comes to being able to retake a class in which I might do poorly at first — until the point at which I am able to grasp the domain and become functional within it — I find myself a bit more at ease.

I’ve also been given the tip that Linked Data — that is, the model that US libraries are moving towards in regard to Cataloging — is essentially applied Data Science. I’ve been finding a lot of references to Data Science within the last two days. This seems to be a hot topic…or the algorithms are watching.

In the interim between my last job and now, I have gotten a basic grasp of the concepts behind the graph databases used in Linked Data. Beyond that, I can see that we’re in transition between an older form of organizing data (that is, the card catalog) and a newer form of accomplishing the same end: the collocation, differentiation, and discrimination between different information sources. Those information sources have been largely texts, but in the present, we have much more media at our disposal. Most of it depends on computing.

What I can see, especially looking forward; is that if we can do something about the digital divide, we should be able to store a vast amount of information within computer files. I don’t think physical, printed books will ever become obsolete, but it’s very apparent that the necessity of keeping something in hard-copy may eventually turn out to be a luxury (perhaps a necessity, if you’re a scholar or academic — or otherwise, don’t want anyone to know what you highlighted, or to see your marginalia [hey, I used the term correctly]).

Even before I entered my LIS program, I knew something about the disadvantages of maintaining our information in physical volumes. Quite frankly, physical volumes get dirty. They also get destroyed, and lost. This isn’t a problem in the same way with digital objects.

The cleanliness factor was a problem I had with my library from the beginning to the end of my most recent couple of jobs.

With the pandemic arousing the thought in me that I could be right in wanting to provide a higher level of service, I can see that my own problem with uncleanliness within library spaces (specifically Public Library spaces), is not totally unfounded. The major issue is how to make digital libraries accessible to everyone, when it still costs money to get a decent eReader (though it costs less than I would have expected, for a basic one).

That’s still not a cost, in principle, that I think anyone in a Public Library setting wants to impose on a patron. Eliminating physical volumes goes against one of the key ideals of Librarianship, which is equity. That is, you shouldn’t have to be able to afford spending money on an eReader, to be able to access information. The elimination of financial barriers to information access does seem, after all, to be a large part of the rationale for the existence of libraries (in the US, at least).

On the other hand: for those who can afford it, using an eReader feels — to me, at least — much safer than picking up physical materials which have been in many hands, before. Digital books don’t require going out to commingle with the public (unless a patron has no home internet access)…nor do they require quarantine periods.

In essence, I think a lot of library content will eventually go digital, though we’ll be dealing with hybrid forms of libraries for likely, a very long time. If I’m expecting library content to go digital…certain tools like Dewey Decimal Classification or Library of Congress Classification, may become obsolete (except for physical materials). I’ve already seen digital content without these codes, in one of my libraries.

I would expect more algorithmic suggestion of titles — other ways of helping readers to browse and find materials. We are transitioning away from the card catalog, and away from (largely) print media. There have to be better ways to do this. Right now the American Library community appears aligned behind BIBFRAME and Linked Data, as a route towards the future…and I’m wondering what of Cataloging will stay the same.

Maybe just the underlying principles? This is probably a question that’s going on in any field dealing with rapidly changing technology…

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