I’m in Saskatoon for the Access Library Conference, an annual get-together of Canada’s technology-minded librarians. It’s only my second Access (even though I was the programming chair for Toronto 2015) and the conference hasn’t even properly started yet but I’ve already had some great conversations that have me thinking.

On the flight from Vancouver, I read the first of Sam Popowich’s articles on professional development in libraries, Coding and Professional Development—Part 1: A Study in Contradictions. In the article, Sam talks about how modern library work requires people to learn to interact with systems and to hack together technological solutions to problems. He focuses on the systemic biases that prevent librarians from learning these critical skills – gender, class, and the political power dynamics of the institution.

He also touches on how library workers acquire these skills, quoting Andromeda Yelton on how even enjoyable educational efforts can fall short of real substantive learning:

In 2015, Library Technology Reports (LTS) dedicated an entire issue to “Coding for Librarians: Learning by Example” (Yelton, 2015). The purpose of her survey and report, Yelton writes, was to answer the question of how librarians use code in their daily work. The impetus behind this study was the rise of programming tutorials and hackathons not only in tech-focused arenas (such as the Access and Code4Lib conferences), but in more general-purpose library conferences as well. Yelton writes that “these short workshops are wonderful for exposing people to fundamental concepts and creating positive experiences around code, but students don’t necessarily know what to do next” (p. 5).

– Popowich, p. 6

It’s especially clear to me that archives workers suffer in this area. I’ve counted four archivists at Access so far, including myself; our national and provincial archival conferences are not focused on technology. So where are archives workers, many of whom do not come to the profession with technical backgrounds, getting their technical training?

We aren’t receiving it in the traditional venues of professional development (conferences). I’d hazard a guess that most archival institutions aren’t footing the bill for their archives workers to take programming or data carpentry courses. And we’re certainly not getting it from our college and university training programs.

To be honest, I think the answer is nowhere. There is no concerted effort to teach archives workers technological skills, even though their work would benefit hugely from the investment. Instead, we learn on the fly – projects are dumped on us that we have to learn to manage. Data migrations, digitization initiatives, setting up new systems – we are placed in difficult, stressful situations and we learn to deal. Sometimes dealing means learning to use enough technology well enough to get by. Sometimes it means shutting down and refusing to adopt the new technology that was so unceremoniously dumped on us.

The archives is often on the receiving end of scorn for entrenched Luddism, but the lack of support for tech learning in our institutions would make anyone wary. We know that the scope and scale of our problems cannot be solved by taking a 1-day workshop, yet we struggle to find champions for transforming our educational models among the venerable leaders in our field. Sam writes:

…the fact that this has to be argued in 2016 at all is an indication that many libraries still do not recognize the benefit of fundamental, low-level software development skills for library workers in many areas, such as the automation of routing cataloguing and metadata tasks or the manipulation of spreadsheet data in all units of the library.

– Popowich, p.5

Where technology threatens the status quo of the institution, the archives may not tread. Whether that means learning the skills needed to take ownership over machine-readable data, being allowed to select the software that best suits the needs of the collection rather than using the institutional database solution, or providing technical education to new archival workers in a classroom setting, support of tech learning marks a shift in the paradigm – from the primacy of traditional modes of archival work (A&D, appraisal, reference) to a recognition that technology work not only impacts these areas, but has transformed them already.

Sam concludes:

This contradiction, between low-level digital work being central to library labour and the inadequate recognition and support among library administrators, can provide an opportunity from bottom-up communal professional development, but only with the expense of political capital, which raises all sorts of issues around privilege and power within our institutions.

-Popowich, p.7

Archives often follow libraries when it comes to technology; it makes sense that we also lag behind when it comes to educating about technology. Our profession, so inward-looking on so many subjects, must begin to examine why this is, or we’ll continue to be left behind.

Small print

Thanks for the inspiration, Sam! Sam’s article can be found in Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, vol. 12, no. 1 (2017), DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.21083/partnership.v12i1.3961.


Tech Learning in the Archives

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