Student Impressions of Tech Skills for the Field

by Sarah Nguyen


Back in March, during bloggERS’ Making Tech Skills a Strategic Priority series, we distributed an open survey to MLIS, MLS, MI, and MSIS students to understand what they know and have experienced in relation to  technology skills as they enter the field. 

To be frank, this survey stemmed from personal interests since I just completed an MLIS core course on Research, Assessment, and Design (re: survey to collect data on current landscape). I am also interested in what skills I need to build/what class I should sign up for my next quarter (re: what tech skills do I need to become hire-able?). While I feel comfortable with a variety of tech-related tools and tasks, I’ve been intimidated by more “high-level”computational languages for some years. This survey was helpful for exploring what skills other LIS pre-professionals are interested in and which skills will help us make these costly degrees worth the time and financial investment that is traditionally required to enter a stable archive or library position.

Method

The survey was open for one month on Google Forms, and distributed to SAA communities, @SAA_ERS Twitter, the Digital Curation Google Group, and a few MLIS university program listservs. There were 15 questions and we received responses from 51 participants. 

Results & Analysis

Here’s a superficial scan of the results. If you would like to come up with your own analyses, feel free to view the raw data on GitHub.

Figure 1. Technology-related skills that students want to learn

The most popular technology-related skill that students are interested in learning is data management (manipulating, querying, transforming data, etc.). This is a pretty broad topic as it involves many tools and protocols which can vary between a GUI or scripts. A separate survey that does a breakdown of specific data management tools might be in order, especially since these types of skills can be divided into specialty courses, workshops, which then translates into a specific job position. A more specific survey could help demonstrate what types of skills need to be taught in a full semester-long course, or what skills can be covered in a day-long or multi-day workshop.

It was interesting to see that even in this day and age where social media management can be second nature to many students’ daily lives, there was still a notable interest in understanding how to make this a part of their career. This makes me wonder what value students have in knowing how to strategically manage an archives’ social media account. How could this help with the job market, as well as an archival organization’s main mission?

Looking deeper into the popular data management category, it would be interesting to know the current landscape of knowledge or pedagogy in communicating with IT (e.g. project management and translating users’ needs). In many cases, archivists are working separately from but dependently on IT system administrators, and it can be frustrating since either department may have distinct concerns about a server or other networks. In June’s NYC Preservathon/Preservashare 2019, there was mention that IT exists to make sure servers and networks are spinning at all hours of the day. Unlike archivists, they are not concerned about the longevity of the content, obsolescence of file formats, or the software to render files. Could it be useful to have a course on how to effectively communicate and take control of issues that can be fuzzy lines between archives, data management, and IT? Or as one survey respondent said, “I think more basic programming courses focusing on tech languages commonly used in archives/libraries would be very helpful.” Personally, I’ve only learned this from experience working in different tech-related jobs. This is not a subject I see on my MLIS course catalog, nor a discussion at conference workshops. 

The popularity of data management skills sparked another question: what about knowledge around computer networks and servers? Even though LTO will forever be in our hearts, cloud storage is also a backup medium we’re budgeting for and relying on. Same goes for hosting a database for remote access and/or publishing digital files. A friend mentioned this networking workshop for non-tech savvy learners—Grassroots Networking: Network Administration for Small Organizations/Home Organizations—which could be helpful for multiple skill types including data management, digital forensics, web archiving, web development, etc. This is similar to a course that could be found in computer science or MLIS-adjacent information management departments.

Figure 2. Have you taken/will you take technology-focused courses in your program?
Figure 3. Do you feel comfortable defining the difference between scripting and programming

I can’t say this is statistically significant, but the inverse relationship between 15.7% who have not/will not take a technology-focused course in their program, compared to 78.4% of respondents who are not aware of the difference between scripting and programming is eyebrow raising. According to an article in PLOS Computational Biology,  the term “script” means “something that is executed directly as is”, while a “program[… is] something that is explicitly compiled before being used. The distinction is more one of degree than kind—libraries written in Python are actually compiled to bytecode as they are loaded, for example—so one other way to think of it is “things that are edited directly” and “things that are not edited directly” (Wilson et al 2017). This distinction is important since more archives are acquiring, processing and sharing collections that rely on the archivist to execute jobs such as web-scraping or metadata management (scripts) or archivists who can build and maintain a database (programming). These might be interpreted as trick questions, but the particular semantics and what is considered technology-focused is something modern library, archives, and information programs might want to consider. 

Figure 4. How do you approach new technology?

Figure 4 illustrates the various ways students tackle new technologies. Reading the f* manual (RTFM) and Searching forums are the most common approaches to navigating technology. Here are quotes from a couple students on how they tend to learn a new piece of software:

  • “break whatever I’m trying to do with a new technology into steps and look for tutorials & examples related to each of those steps (i.e. Is this step even possible with X, how to do it, how else to use it, alternatives for accomplishing that step that don’t involve X)”
  • “I tend to google “how to….” for specific tasks and learn new technology on a task-by-task basis.”

In the end, there was overwhelming interest in “more project-based courses that allow skills from other tech classes to be applied.” Unsurprisingly, many of us are looking for full-time, stable jobs after graduating and the “more practical stuff, like CONTENTdm for archives” seems to be a pressure felt in-order to get an entry-level position. Not just entry too; as continuing education learners, there is also a push to strive for more—several respondents are looking for a challenge to level up their tech skills: 

  • “I want more classes with hands-on experience with technical skills. A lot of my classes have been theory based or else they present technology to us in a way that is not easy to process (i.e. a lecture without much hands-on work).”
  • “Higher-level programming, etc. — everything on offer at my school is entry level. Also digital forensics — using tools such as BitCurator.”
  • “Advanced courses for the introductory courses. XML 2 and python 2 to continue to develop the skills.”
  • “A skills building survey of various code/scripting, that offers structured learning (my professor doesn’t give a ton of feedback and most learning is independent, and the main focus is an independent project one comes up with), but that isn’t online. It’s really hard to learn something without face to face interaction, I don’t know why.”

It’ll be interesting to see what skills recent MLIS, MLS, MIS, and MSIM graduates will enter the field with. While many job postings list certain software and skills as requirements, will programs follow suit? I have a feeling this might be a significant question to ask in the larger context of what is the purpose of this Master’s degree and how can the curriculum keep up with the dynamic technology needs of the field.

Disclaimer: 

  1. Potential bias: Those taking the survey might be interested in learning higher-level tech skills because they do not already know the skills, while those who are already tech-savvy might avoid a basic survey such as this one since they already know the skills. This may put a bias on the survey population consisting of mostly novice tech students.   
  2. More data on specific computational languages and technology courses taken are available in the GitHub csv file. As mentioned earlier, I just finished my first year as a part-time MLIS student, so I’m still learning the distinct jobs and nature of the LIS field. Feel free to submit an issue to the GitHub repo, or tweet me @snewyuen if you’d like to talk more about what this data could mean.

Bibliography

Wilson G, Bryan J, Cranston K, Kitzes J, Nederbragt L, Teal TK (2017) Good enough practices in scientific computing. PLoS Computational Biology 13(6): e1005510. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005510


Sarah Nguyen with a Uovo storage truck

Sarah Nguyen is an advocate for open, accessible, and secure technologies. While studying as an MLIS candidate with the University of Washington iSchool, she is expressing interests through a few gigs: Project Coordinator for Preserve This Podcast at METRO, Assistant Research Scientist for Investigating & Archiving the Scholarly Git Experience at NYU Libraries, and archivist for the Dance Heritage Coalition/Mark Morris Dance Group. Offline, she can be found riding a Cannondale mtb or practicing movement through dance. (Views do not represent Uovo. And I don’t even work with them. Just liked the truck.)

#snaprt chat Flashback: Archivist and Technologist Collaboration

By Ariadne Rehbein

This is a cross post in coordination with the SAA Students and New Archives Professionals Roundtable.

The spirit of community at the 2016 Code4Lib Conference in Philadelphia (March 7-10) served as inspiration for a recent SAA Students and New Archives Professionals Roundtable #snaprt Twitter chat. The conference was an exciting opportunity for archivists and librarians to learn about digital tools and projects that are free to use and open for further development, discuss needs for different technology solutions, gain a deeper understanding of technology work, and engage with larger cultural and technical issues within libraries and archives. SNAP’s Senior Social Media Coordinator hosted the chat on March 15, focusing the discussion on collaboration between archivists and technologists.

Many of the chat questions were influenced by discussions in the Code4Archives preconference workshop breakout group, “Whose job is that? Sharing how your team breaks down archives ‘tech’ work.” On the last day of the conference, SNAP invited participants through different Code4Lib and Society of American Archivist channels, such as the conference hashtag (#c4l16), the Code4Lib listserv, various SAA listservs, and the SNAP Facebook and Twitter accounts. All were invited to share suggestions or discussion questions for the chat. Participants included archives students and professionals with varying years of experience and focuses, such as digital curation, special collections, university archives, and government archives. Our chat questions were:

  • How do the expertise and knowledge of archivists and technologists who work together often overlap or differ? How much is important to understand of one another’s work? What are some ways to increase this knowledge?
  • What are some examples of technologies that archives currently use? What is their goal/ what are they used to do?
  • Who created and maintains these tools? Why might an archive choose one tool over another?
  • What kinds of tools and tech skills have new archivists learned post-LIS? What is this learning process like?
  • What are some examples of tasks or projects in an archival setting where the expertise of technologists is essential or extremely helpful? Please share any tips from these experiences.
  • Do you know of any blogs/posts that are helpful for born digital preservation / AV preservation / digitized content workflow?

Several different themes emerged in the chat:

  • The importance of an environment that supports relationships between those of different backgrounds and skills. Participants suggested developing a sharing a vocabulary to clearly convey information and providing casual opportunities to meet.
  • The decision to implement a technology solution to serve a need may involve a variety of considerations, such as level of institutional priority, cost, availability of technology professionals to manage or build the system, security, and applicability to other needs.
  • Participants suggested that students gain skills with a variety of different technologies, including relational databases, command line basics, Photoshop, Virtual Box, Bitcurator, and programming (through online tutorials.) The ability and willingness to learn on the job and teach others is important too! These are useful tools and may also help build a shared vocabulary.
  • Participants had engaged in a number of collaborative tasks or projects, such as performing digital forensics, building DIY History at the University of Iowa, implementing systems such as Preservica, and determining digital preservation storage solutions.
  • Some great resources are available for born-digital, digitized, and audiovisual preservation, including AV Preserve, the Digital Curation Google Group, the Bitcurator Consortium, The Signal blog, Chris Prom’s Practical E-Records, the Code4Lib listserv, Digital Preservation News, and National Digital Stewardship Residency blog posts.

Please visit Storify to read the full chat:

Storify of #snaprt chat about archivist and technologistsMany thanks to Wendy Hagenmaier of the ERS Steering Committee for inviting SNAP to share this post. #snaprt Twitter chats typically take place 3 times per month, on or around the 5th, 15th, and 25th at 8 PM ET. Participation is open to anyone interested in issues relevant to MLIS students and new archives professionals. To learn more about the chats, please visit our webpage.

Rehbein_snaprtcode4lib_ersblog_02Ariadne Rehbein strives to support students and new archives professionals as SNAP Roundtable’s Senior Social Media Coordinator. As Digital Asset Coordinator at the Arizona State University Libraries, she focuses on processing and stewardship of digital special collections and providing expertise on issues related to digital forensics, asset management workflows, and policies in accordance with community standards and best practices. She is a proud graduate of the Department of Information and Library Science at Indiana University Bloomington.