IT and Sympathy

By Karen G. Schneider | 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: