Systems administration requires people skills

In the future, people responsible for the maintenance of a library's computer hardware and software will have learned to incorporate the principles and practices of librarianship with the principles and practices of systems administration.

A look around

Someone once told me the purpose of a systems department is much like the purpose of the Los Angles Police Department. In other words, a systems department's purpose is to "Serve and Protect". Unfortunately, this is not enough because computers are not an end in themselves but rather a means to an end defined by people. Systems adminstration, especially in libraries, must include the human touch.

Frankly, I think libraries took a wrong turn a bit more than twenty-five years ago when MEDLINE and ERIC first made their appearances. It was at that time librarians should have taken notice of how computers could be used to facilitate the organization and dissemination of information; it was at least at that time when librarians could have seen the possibilities of databases. Librarians could have created their own databases and provided services similar to DIALOG. It wasn't long after MEDLINE and ERIC when "online card catalogs" started coming into vogue. Again, librarians should have seen the writing on the wall and started learning to command computers.

Granted, it wasn't all librarians' fault. Computers in those days were primarily seen as number crunching machines. No one foresaw the era of the personal computer. In fact, it was commonly believed that only a few computers would be needed to handle all the computing tasks of the world. Computer programing was also a real hassle. There definitely was no graphical user interface and more than likely you had to write your own programs to fit your individual needs. Nobody liked handling all those punch cards and dealing with the problems of what to do when you accidentally spilled them on the floor. Furthermore, computers, even more so than today, were seen as "geek boy toys" and few women knew how to play with them. Remember, librarianship was, and still is, a profession where women are definitely the majority.

A side bar

At least one person realized the value of integrating the principles of librarianship and the strengths of networked computers. That person was Frederick Kilgour, the President and Chief Executive Officer of OCLC from 1967 to 1980. I had the opportunity to share an office with Mr. Kilgour in 1996 when I was teaching an Internet class in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Maybe I have romanticized my memories of that time, but from where I sat he seemed like a librarian through and through. He was doing scholarly research for a work since published as The Evolution of the Book. He was doing "information science" through citation analysis. He frequently quoted Ranganathan and his five laws of librarianship. Not only that, but he had more ideas about how computers could be used to provide and enhance library services than many of my peers. In fact, he was the person who articulated for me the idea of a current awareness service based on our library's new book acquisitions. In that articulation he emphasized the need for traditional reference interviews in the creation of patron profiles because "librarians always need to be in touch with the patrons".

Human skills

This brings me back to my point. Because computers were hidden away in the back rooms, were not seen as tools for "mere mortals", and were difficult to use, computers attracted people who didn't have people skills. Computers attracted people who were interested in the computers in and of themselves and not necessarily what computers could do to improve humankind's situation, or even on a more mundane level, as tools to enhance library services. In my opinion, the situation is more or less still true today. Many computer types are interested in doing "kewl" things as opposed to putting computers to use in more practical ways.

Boy, what I would give to find a systems administrator who knew the benefits and principles of the basic reference interview. Instead, what you usually find is the electronic help desk, an email address where you are suppose to send pleas for assistance. Haven't they learned that people can't right down what their problem is because they don't understand the problem? Furthermore, writing something down is more difficult than simply expressing the same thing verbally. Once the help desk does get around to looking into your problem they usually try to fix it when you aren't there and the situation goes from bad to worse because they fixed (a.k.a. upgraded) your hardware or software and now a new problem arises. Its a never ending cycle that I sometimes think is perpetuated by systems administrators as a means of job security. (Just kidding, really.)


The solution is two-fold. First, you, the end-users have to take charge of your computer. Think of it as the dumb collection of microprocessors and printed circuits that it really is, and remember that your computer is truly difficult to break. You really have to try hard to ruin its functionality, and even when you do you can almost always restore it to its prior state unless you've used something like a hammer to break it in the first place.

Experiment with your computer. Play with your computer. Take thirty minutes each day just to poke around on the hard disk looking at all those files. Try creating that little macro you've always wanted to have. Explore all the menu options of that word processing program or database application. After all, what's your boss going to say? Are they going to deny you the opportunity to learn how to use this expensive thing they've bought for you?

The second half of the solution is to encourage administration to hire systems administrators with people skills. The systems administrator is there to provide a service to you. They provide support for your work the same way you provide support for your clientele and patrons. In order to do this job effectively, the systems administrator and their staff have to be able to communicate with the people they serve and learn what their needs are. Computers are a means to an end, not and end of themselves. Systems administrators and their staff who think computers are more important than people are not systems administrators you want managing your computer hardware and software.

There might come a time in the future when computers are easier to use. Think of automobiles. All of us drive them, but few of us know how to fix them or really know how they work. Ideally, this is what we want in our computers, but computers are so flexible in their functionality (unlike cars) that making something where one size fits all is really difficult to do. When this time does come we will be spending more time using the them for what they are, tools, instead of configuring, upgrading, installing, and maintaining the machine. Remember, computers were suppose to deliver us from menial tasks and allow us to go home early and smell the roses.

Creator: Eric Lease Morgan <>
Source: This is pre-edited version of Morgan, Eric Lease. "Systems Administration Requires People Skills," Computers in Libraries 19(13):36-37, March 1999.
Date created: 1999-01-07
Date updated: 2004-11-14
Subject(s): systems administration; librarianship;