Computer literacy for librarians

The tools of the trade are your brain, your peers, and your computer. When it comes to your brain you have to know how to think. Think creatively. Think systematically. When it comes to the second tool, "No man in an island" and "two heads are better than one" speak for themselves. Computers provide the most powerful means for implementing the ideas created by the interaction of Tool #1 and Tool #2. Librarianship requires the mastering of all three tools in order to do quality work. You expect a surgeon to be a master at using a scalple. You wouldn't hire a carpenter who didn't know how to expertly use a hammer. In today's world, why would anybody trust a librarian, whose profession is about information and knowledge, who didn't know how to master a computer?

What does it mean to be computer literate?

Computer literacy means taking control of your computer and not letting it control you. You are computer literate when you feel you are telling the computer what to do and not the other way around. Its the ability to manage the relentless bits and bytes flooding your electronic desktop on a regular basis. Its the ability to systematically -- yet flexibly -- communicate this management process to other people. Its not necessarily knowing what button to push, but it is knowing the difference between a word processor and a text editor, a spreadsheet and a database program, or a local disk drive and a networked file server.

You've heard it a million times, "Computers are dumb." Well... its true. They're nothing but overgrown, glorified paperweights waiting to be pushed around by some human. Push 'em! To say they don't care begs the question of whether or not computers have feelings. Obviously, they don't.

Computers do just what we tell them to do. Granted, if you don't speak their language, then they're not going to work as expected. (By the way, the guys in the back room, wearing the white coats, are still perfecting the direct human-computer interface that instantly transmits your thoughts to the keyboard. Expect it see the interface available in stores by next Christmas.) They do not have minds of their own. Don't treat them as if they do. They are nothing more than a mirror, a reflection, a shadow of human experience.

In short, computer literacy is knowing what a computer can and cannot do. The next step is learning to know what kind of computer tool to use to accomplish specific computing tasks. For librarians, these computing tasks usually involve editing text, organizing text, and disseminating text.

Text editors and word processors

Text editors excel at manipulating ASCII characters. Text editors compliment word processor whose purpose is to format ASCII characters. Word processors provide the means for providing hilighting, footnoting, and stylizing text. Text editors are generally less computing resource intensive. Since they do not offer the means for formatting text, they force you to consider what you are writing instead of what it looks like.

Text editors are also the sorts of tools you use to edit configuration files, HTML files, and program source code. Generally text editors support enhanced find/replace functions, better sorting, and options for line wrapping. Text editors, by default save things as (ASCII) text files. Therefore, the files you create with text editors WILL be readable by ANY other computer. Files created with text editors are universally readable by any other computing platform. "Gee, what a novel concept. I can share anything I write with anybody else!" I find that even though I do a lot of writing, I rarely use a word processor. They have too much overhead.

Consider using a text editor instead of a word processor and you might find yourself focusing more on your ideas as opposed to their appearance. Furthermore, you are garenteed the ability to give them away.

Spreadsheets and databases

The bread and butter of libraries are lists. Lists of books. Lists of citations. Lists of facts. Lists of Internet resources. Most of these lists have structure, and structured lists are databases.

Ironically, few of us librarians have very much expertise in the use of databases. Get yourself a copy of Microsoft Access or Claris Filemaker Pro. While these applications will not handle the requirements of most library catalogs, they are more than adequate when it comes to smaller collections like subject-based Internet resources, bibliographies, image collections, reserve room materials, and frequently asked questions (FAQs). Heck, you could even organize and classify your all you email with one of these programs.

While we're on the subject of databases, learn the difference between flat file databases and relational databases. Flat file databases can be thought of as two-dimensional arrays (columns and rows). Such a model is not very flexible. One of the best illustrations of its limitation is a flat file representation of book catalog. In such a model the database would have to be designed to accommodate the maximum number of subject entries for each record in the database. Even if you do not use all subject fields (subject 1, subject 2, subject 3, etc.) these fields would take up space in the database.

Using a relational database model, you link two distinct database together based on a common field like an identification number. Because of the common field, the two databases can share data between themselves allowing you to update records in the first database by changing values in the second database. It also allows you to assign a dynamic number of field values to any "related" database. Relational databases provide the means for creating authority lists, quick and easy find/replace functions, and efficient use of hardware resources, especially disk space.

Spreadsheets are very specialized database applications. They're designed to manipulate rows and columns of numbers. A spreadsheet is an application designed to answer the "what if" questions of numerical analysis like "What if we to raise the salaries of these librarians by 4%, then what would happen to our total salary budget."

Spreadsheets are do not excel at handling text, and most of the work librarians do surround text manipulation. Use a database to manage text and spreadsheets to manipulate numbers.

Local and networked services

When you begin to distinguish the difference between local and networked resources you will begin to see that just as "No man is an island" is true so is the paraphrase "No computer is an island" either. When you learn how to use networked resources effectively, you begin to learn the possibilities of sharing data and information.

The most common networked environment is as close as your desktop computer. It is most likely connected to other computers in your library through some sort of ethernet connection. One of the other ethernet connections is most likely a file server. This server's (computer) sole purpose in life is to act as a repository for the data you create and generate. Since not all the information you create and generate is necessarily written for any person, your local file server provides the means to allow some people to view your information and other not. Learn how to save your information on the file server is such a way that the people who are suppose to see it can and the people are not suppose to see it don't. While this is a bit contrary to the nature of librarianship, it is a fact of life.

The Internet is the grand daddy of networked information resources. Literally designed to withstand a nuclear war, this network currently represents the state-of-the-art when it comes to sharing data between individuals and groups. A straight forward way to begin to learn about the world of Internet networked resources is through BCK2SKOL:

BCK2SKOL originated as a LISTSERV distribution list consisting of 30 lessons distributed over a six-week period in the spring of 1995 to approximately 200 South Carolina librarians. The course was revised based on participants' comments (and Internet developments) and was run again worldwide (to over 5000 subscribers) during the fall of 1995. This page provides links to the BCK2SKOL lessons, which are regularly reviewed and revised; lessons include "hot" links to the resources included in each lesson.[1]

While a just a tiny bit dated, it does provide more than a general overview of Internet networking.

Learn how to get the most out of the tools of your trade: your mind, your peers, and your computer. You will discover you have a wealth of untapped potential waiting to be put to use.



Creator: Eric Lease Morgan <>
Source: This is a pre-edited edited copy for Eric Lease Morgan, "Computer literacy for librarians" Computers In Libraries. 18(1):39-40, January 1998.
Date created: 1997-11-10
Date updated: 2004-11-14
Subject(s): computer literacy;