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).

Some examples of this discussion can be found here and here.

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.

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By Diane Hillmann, March 2, 2011, 5:12 pm (UTC-5)

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Currently 9 comments

  1. Comment by Diane Hillmann

    Ben: Thanks for your feedback! And I must admit that I was fairly intentional about using ‘programmers’ and ‘catalogers’, even though I know quite well how irritating those categorizations can be. It was an attempt to provoke conversation, by using the narrowest possible terms, knowing that for most of us they don’t cover what we do very well. I hope you’ll enjoy the Svenonius book–I reread it myself every once in a while, and it always inspires.

  2. Comment by Diane Hillmann

    Bohyun: I don’t think I understood your point to be that ALL librarians should learn to code. I was certainly trying to make the point that promoting coding (in the narrow sense you seemed to mean) was a strategy that had a downside, and to suggest other gaps in knowledge that might be a better focus for attention for many librarians.

    I really do appreciate your enthusiasm, but I talk to a lot of librarians who are looking for ways to learn more about technology, and I do want to provide them with other options, rather than suggest that learning programming would fulfill their needs. For a particular cohort, it might, but it is not a useful direction for most librarians.

  3. Comment by Diane Hillmann

    Rachel: Yes! Exactly!

  4. Comment by Diane Hillmann

    Eric: Much as I appreciate your expansive notion of what is coding and who is doing it, I’m not seeing that expansive notion ‘out there’ where librarians are talking about learning to code. They’re talking about things like perl and PHP and stuff like that, not ontologies. I appreciate (and generally agree with) the notion that we’re all in this together and SHOULD be inclusive and not balkanize ourselves (which is what I especially liked about Code4Lib, BTW), I still worry abut how the librarians-should-do-coding message is being received by those who already feel overwhelmed by technology.

  5. Comment by Ben Anderson

    A few comments from a software engineer’s perspective…

    The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization

    Thanks for the tip, Diane – I just ordered the book.

    what programmers do and how they think is only partially about coding

    right on – I prefer the term Software Engineer as that’s what my degree says. Both terms (programmer/coder) tend to severely limit the scope of our profession. It also makes people think that if they can learn to write code, then they can do what we do.

    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

    again – right on. Technology can be understood w/out knowing how to code. If a software engineer/architect can’t explain what they’re doing from 10,000 ft, then that’s their fault – not the programming language illiterate librarian’s.

    great post, Diane.

  6. Comment by Bohyun Kim

    I am surprised that my question was misinterpreted as ALL librarians should be coders by some. It was a question not so much about what librarians should do as about what the strategic direction of libraries should be. Librarianship can certainly benefit from other disciplines such as computer science, logic, philosophy, anthropology, marketing, education, etc. All of these can bring in the desired diversity. But some common understanding between different fields makes it easy for a team of people with different expertise to work together.

  7. Comment by Eric Hellman

    If you’re developing ontologies today, Diane, then you’re a coder, no ifs ands or buts. Today, the boundary between coder and non-coder is whether you create new ontologies or merely apply someone else’s. Today’s ontologies are instructions that help computers interpret metadata.

    I’m just saying you need to accept your inner coder as part of what you are, and not something you have to change into. That’s why the Kinsey analogy is so apt.

  8. Comment by Rachel

    Couldn’t agree more. We need to learn more about what each role contributes to the whole ecosystem of “libraries”, so that can appreciate and understand the importance of the individual/function, and therefore increase our success at collaborative efforts. I believe the issue of linked open data provides a great opportunity to gather a broad range of expertise that exists in our libraries to work together, in a way that did not present itself before.

  9. Pingback by Library and IT – Synergy or Distrust? – Library Hat

    [...] to see that the question was sometimes completely misunderstood. For example, I never argued that ‘all’ librarians should learn how to code (!). Those who I had in mind were the novice coders/librarians who already know one or two programming [...]

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