One of the fallacies which librarians battle is that libraries exist for the sake of books. It is understandable that people make this mistake. For decades, libraries have been associated with books, but that doesn’t make it correct. Books are a means rather than an end. Libraries exist to promote access to information. For centuries, books were the best way to store and make accessible large amounts of information, hence the association between libraries and books. However, the internet has vastly changed that equation. We still love books, but they are no longer the primary way that people access information. Not only have the means of access changed, the barriers to access have too. It used to be that physical access was one of the main impediments. You needed to actually have a copy of a book to get the information. Promoting access meant having a great collection, or having a good inter-library loan system. These are still important, but there are new barriers as well. Information overload, fake news sites, the possibility of surveillance and technological barriers are much bigger barriers to access these days. This means that if librarians want to fulfill their mandate of promoting access to information, they must be competent to navigate new information sources. However, this isn’t enough. Libraries also need the infrastructure to access the internet in a secure and private way and the knowledge to maintain and operate this infrastructure.
This means that libraries need staff with IT training. This isn’t optional any more than it is optional for libraries to have staff who can process and catalog books. It is certainly reasonable to hire someone to help put together your network and computer infrastructure (i’ll talk more about this in a minute), but on a day to day basis, you need people in your libraries who understand how to use computers, how to help patrons who run into problems, and how to answer questions about security and privacy online. There are many good training resources available for this type of knowledge. There are moocs, webinars, books, and courses at the local community college. All library staff should have a basic level of competency in these areas, just like all library staff should be able to help patrons find books. Ideally though, you should have members of your staff who go beyond a basic level. We expect children’s librarians to have a deeper knowledge of early literacy training. We often have someone on staff who specializes in genealogy or historical research, and yet many libraries neglect IT training for their staff despite its central role in a libraries mission today.
Another reason that libraries should invest in technology training for their staff is so that they can communicate with IT contractors and can clearly convey the library’s needs. I find that many people who aren’t comfortable with technology tend to just defer to their IT person (contractor, volunteer, random person off the street). This leads t problems because a library’s IT needs differ significantly from most businesses and even from other government departments. This means that the best solution for a library will likely not be something that fits with what a IT person usually does. Being able to clearly communicate a library’s needs and judge whether a proposed solution meets those needs is very important in order to achieve the best outcomes.
Like any other complex subject, IT isn’t something you can acquire expertise in overnight. It is something that library directors and boards of trustees need to prioritize though. It is something that they should be actively working to develop within their staff. This could be done by recruiting to bring in people with these skills or through training to develop these skills in existing staff members. IT should not be an afterthought in a modern library. It is time that we recognize that it is as important to what we do as books are.