At my keynote at Code4Lib a few weeks ago [recorded here about 90 minutes in], I got a good laugh when I equated the continuum that catalogers and programmers inhabit to that described by Kinsey in his famous discussion of sexuality. Since then, perhaps as a response to my presentation and Eric Hellman’s at the end of Code4Lib there seems to have been a resurgence of the conversation that comes and goes, particularly on cataloging blogs and discussion lists, about whether catalogers should learn to code and thus, perhaps, shift their personal position on the continuum I was describing (though probably not on Kinsey’s).
To be honest, I get a little frustrated by these conversations, mostly because I think they miss the point about what it is that both catalogers and programmers bring to the table. Far too often, the conversation devolves to: ‘Why can’t you be more like me?’ I frankly don’t think that point makes any more sense now than it did some decades ago when the same arguments were made in support of all librarians learning to catalog. It’s not that I’m trying to discourage librarians, particularly the cohort at the beginning of their careers who see technology as a big part of their futures, from delving more deeply in the mysteries of code. Those who see the value and have the opportunity to learn should take advantage of that, just as more programmers working in the library sector should be exploring the history and culture of knowledge organization in libraries [A good place to start: The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization, by Elaine Svenonius. Cambridge, MA : MIT Press, 2000]. Note that I didn’t say ‘cataloging’, because it’s more than that, just as what programmers do and how they think is only partially about coding. Whatever we can do to move ourselves closer to the middle of that continuum, to understand more about how technology works under the hood, and more about how library data was organized and created over the last century or so, the better we’ll be able to work together to solve the problems we see limiting our forward progress. For me, it’s about respect and understanding, which may or may not include emulation.
I’m perfectly willing to admit that some of my irritation with the argument that learning to code is necessary for librarians is that I don’t know programming at all, and the likelihood that I’ll learn to program at this stage of my life is similar to the likelihood that I’ll grow a few more inches (in a vertical direction, mind you) before I shuffle off this mortal coil. I don’t think my lack of programming knowledge has impeded me in learning what I need to know about the technology that interests me and has been the focus of my career for the last 15 years or so. In fact, one of the compliments I received a few years ago from a programmer is one I particularly treasure: he told me that I thought like a programmer. It will surprise nobody that I have no idea what that really means, but I took it as a compliment, and it was certainly meant as one.
I’m far more interested in learning more about ontologies, knowledge and vocabulary management, and information architecture, and it seems to me that this is an area where the significant gaps in librarian knowledge affect our ability to envision our future and make it happen. For the most part, we have some basic understanding about vocabularies but it’s almost entirely built on MARC (mine certainly was a few years ago), and that’s not going to help us much moving forward. This area is not, in my experience, one where programmers have either interest or knowledge, but it’s a natural extension of the path librarians are already headed down.
According to Myers-Briggs, I’m an ENTJ, and aside from learning the interesting categorizations of people that is a big part of Myers Briggs, my take-away from the workshops I attended was that there’s no good-better-best kind of personality or approach for any particular profession, task or team. Particularly for a team, what you want is diversity, not a group that thinks all one way. I’ve never forgotten this point, and still think it’s the key to any of our endeavors. I think the Code4Lib model is a terrific one for getting our heads together and figuring out how to move forward, and I hope to continue to look for ways to get more catalogers to attend and think about how they might contribute, as well as airing these issues in their own venues. (And many thanks to the programmers who show up regularly at ALA!)
Aside from my strong feeling that there are other, more significant gaps in our knowledge than coding, there are two additional aspects of this ‘librarians-should-be-coders’ discussion that really worry me: first is that it will discourage those who don’t have the opportunities to learn coding from learning what they need to know to understand the technology that drives our world, well enough to participate in the change we need. My second big concern is that we’ll start focusing again on the ‘why can’t you be more like me’ instead of remembering that we need the skills and understanding of a broad range of librarians and technologists to get where we need to go, not just the ones who have been convinced that coding is the best way to prove their enthusiasm and commitment to moving ahead.