Professional Life / Technology

Getting Along With Computer Science Folk

It’s a simple fact: each year library and information science becomes a more technical field; there is an increasing expectation that by the time you leave library school you will have some amount of technical skill (coding, web design, database creation, etc.). As many schools adopt more and more technical information science courses, the once harsh line that separated librarians from computer scientists has become a lot fuzzier.

Much has been done to increase dialogue, positive relationships, and collaboration between the two groups. Many LIS careers now include technical components and interaction with computer scientists, IT personal, and other technically-minded people is often the norm. While many LIS students approach technical classes with trepidation and anxiety, many others come away with a passion for the work and enough technical fluency to hold their own in a future workplace that includes highly-skilled computer science professionals.

Teamwork is the best! (Source: http://thegoldguys.blogspot.com/)

However, I have noticed, both in personal and professional instances, a definite negative reaction when librarians tell computer scientist students and professionals that they are learning technical skills. I’ve experienced this myself and have heard similar stories from other LIS students. So, for my inaugural HLS post, I decided to reach out to my friends with degrees in computer science (of which I, coincidentally, have many) to figure out why library students and librarians are often met with such an icy reception from our CS counterparts, and what we can do to change it. From their responses, I gleaned the following reasons/problems, and have tried to posit solutions. Please keep in mind that the quotes and ideas below represent the opinions of individuals about a multi-faceted problem; my intention is not to stereotype or offend, but to explore ways to build partnerships and mend discord.

  1. One friend suggested that a key problem is past exposures to non-CS people learning CS. For instance, at his undergraduate institution his early, introductory classes were usually about half filled with CS majors and half filled with business or engineering majors who were fulfilling a CS requirement. In his experience, many of the non-CS majors spent most of the class complaining about how hard the material was and how much they didn’t like it. Thus, while many of us often struggle with our tech classes and find them challenging, it is important not to come across like we’re bashing CS or that we resent it being part of our degree. If you do resent having to learn tech skills that much, I would suggest a different line of work; the LIS field will continue to embrace new technologies and expect technical skill from students and professionals.
  2. Another problem I gleaned from my conversations with friends is one of image and perception. The stereotype of the bookish, card-catalog obsessed librarian of the Dark Ages still exists, as evinced by one of my friends: “I’d guess that a librarian would use programming for building a catalog or doing research – both things that are considered slow, low-tech… This reinforces the view of libraries as low-tech – an unfair view, yet one that I have to admit to holding to some small degree.” To combat this mindset, we must be forthcoming with details and excitement about the outcomes of LIS technical knowledge and education. Explain to the skeptical parties that LIS students and professionals are working with humanists and computer scientists to develop cutting edge research tools, with historians and in archives to make one-of-a-kind resources more accessible, and with local communities to increase public engagement and digital literacy.
  3. Lastly, one of my friends suggested a simple case of “tech elitism”: “They think they’re better because they know more about something that’s valuable and thus can look down on those less familiar with the same thing.” Others echoed this opinion, suggesting that sometimes people can be arrogant. This boils down to a general problem that probably extends to a few bad apples in every field. The only advice here: don’t let the haters get you down. If you explain your mindset, intentions, and reasoning for learning tech skills and they still scoff? In the words of one of my good friends: “I have no idea what is going on with them but they sound like jerks.” Agreed.

With such an interdisciplinary field, librarians must always be ready and willing to collaborate with new groups and disciplines to ensure the continued excellence of our work. How do you combat skepticism, derision, or simple misconceptions about librarians and the LIS field? Any great recommendations or success stories from effective collaboration and understanding between LIS folks and others to share?

Also, for encouragement and resources regarding library students learning tech skills, please refer to the following past Hack Library School posts. These posts were a huge contributing factor towards my own decision to embrace new tech experiences and learning opportunities:

Why I Learned to Love the Command Line

How to Hack Your Summer Vacation

Librarian By Name, Geek By Nature

11 thoughts on “Getting Along With Computer Science Folk

  1. There’s also MLS students who come from a technical background. At least that’s my background, and what admissions folks tell me. One person told me that ~20% of their MLS students have professional I.T. experience. Since I haven’t started my program yet I’ll be interested if others find this accurate

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  2. Definitely! I’ve met a handful of MLS students with technical backgrounds. We’re definitely not as high as 20% at my institution, and in my experience many of us are new to most technical areas that we’re taking classes in. But I think technical people who make their way to LIS degrees and careers are awesome and can help foster further collaboration!

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  3. The real gem in Web Design is how many designers and developers without a formal education treat CS majors – with ice. Their reason is well-founded: they’re often better. In fact, they makeup the who’s-who of the web. I think it would behoove and humble CS-folk to recognize this.

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  4. As a librarian/web developer/graduate of an engineering school but with a non-CS degree/wife of a software engineer, I could write entire essays on this and I’m not sure how to focus my thoughts. But from my huge grab bag of mixed feelings the one emerging most strongly is this — if we’re going to talk about getting along with software people, shouldn’t there be fewer of us sitting inside an echo chamber talking about what software people look like from a librarian perspective, and more of us doing what you did to write this post — asking them?

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  6. I actually haven’t found it to be true that CS people are hostile towards librarians. I think some may be a bit surprised with how techie librarians can be, but I’ve never felt talked down to.
    I have a great relationship with other IT people at my place of work. They answer my stupid questions, they put up with me pestering them (can we please have modern browsers installed on our public computers?), and sometimes I even have a useful bit of information to share back. It’s pretty symbiotic.

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  7. I’m not exactly sure where I fall on the spectrum, but I’ll add in my 2 cents. I finished my LIS program in 2011 and fell into an information architecture position. Now 1.5 years later, I definitely have a more nuanced position than I did back then. When I left my program I definitely felt like the “technical” aspects of my curriculum had been lacking. Now I know that this was true. It’s not enough to simply teach someone XML, HTML, CSS, etc. As with playing an instrument, you’ve got to practice those skills day in and day out. The dissonance between programmers and non-programmers is that (at least in my experience) when non-programmers attempt to insert themselves into the conversation they tend to come across as ignorant. And vice versa. The key is team work and honesty. At this point my XML, HTML skills are excellent, but my Javascript, Python, and XSLT skills are mediocre. My counterpart (who’s also a friend) more than compensates for my deficiencies and we actually make a pretty good team. The key to our success has been that we both continuously learn from the other and neither expects that we’re gonna be an expert.

    It’s not that LIS and CS people don’t get along (again in my experience), but more that many LIS people straight out of school simply don’t have the skills or experience that most CS people do and CS people don’t have the skills or experience that LIS people do. The key is teamwork and mutual education.

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  8. Thanks for this post Nicole! I’m starting my LIS Master’s degree at UofI in January and have been slightly anxious thinking about taking technical classes. My boyfriend is a CS grad student — and naturally am surrounded by a lot of other CS/Engineering majors — and can vouch for their side of the story (as well as some of the “arrogant” personalities), which has mad me nervous about not having a solid technical background. Nice to see the LIS world being aware of some issues within the technical field and creating changes as the field changes as well! Makes me even more excited to start this new career :)

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