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.)

Students Reflect (Part 2 of 2): Failure and Learning Tech Skills

This is the fourth post in the bloggERS Making Tech Skills a Strategic Priority series.

As part of our “Making Tech Skills a Strategic Priority” series, the bloggERS team asked five current or recent MLIS/MSIS students to reflect on how they have learned the technology skills necessary to tackle their careers after school. In this post, Anna Speth and Jane Kelly reflect thoughtfully on adapting their mindsets to embrace new challenges and learn from failure.

Anna Speth, 2017 graduate, Simmons College

I am about to celebrate a year in my first full-time position, Librarian for Emerging Technology and Digital Projects at Pepperdine University.  In this role I work on digital initiatives, often in tandem with the archive, and direct our emerging technology makerspace. By choosing to center my graduate career on digital archiving, I felt well prepared for the digital initiatives piece.  However, running the makerspace has been a whirlwind of grappling with the world of emerging tech. My best piece of advice (which we’ve all heard a million times) is to maintain a “learner mindset.” I’m a traditional learner who has mastered the lecture-memorize-regurgitate academic system. This approach doesn’t do much when it comes to hands-on tech.  I am faced with 3D printers, VR systems, arduinos, ozobots, CONTENTdm, and more with minimal instruction. I watch tutorials, but these rarely offer a path to in-depth understanding. Instead, I’ve had to overcome the mindset that I’m not a tech person and will make something worse by messing with it. If the 3D printer doesn’t work, you certainly aren’t going to make it worse by taking it apart and trying to put it back together. If you don’t know how to reorder a multipage object on the backend of CONTENTdm, create a hidden sandbox collection and start experimenting.  Remember that the internet – Google, user forums, Reddit, company reps – is your friend. Also remember (and I tell this to kids in the makerspace just as often as I tell it to myself) that failure is your friend. If you mess something up, then all you’ve done is learn more about how the system works by learning how it doesn’t work. Iteration and perseverance are key. And, as this traditional learner has realized, a whole lot of fun!

Jane Kelly, 2018 grad, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Developing new tech skills has, at least for me, been a process of learning to fail. The intensive Introduction to Computer Science course I took several years ago was supposed to be fun – a benefit of being able to take college courses for almost nothing as a staff member on campus. It might have been fun for the first three weeks of the semester, but that was followed by a lot of agonizing, handwringing, and tears.

I now reflect on my time in that course as an intensive introduction to failure. This shift in mentality – learning how to fail, and how to accept it – has been key for me in being open to developing my tech skills on the job. I don’t worry so much about messing up, not knowing the answer, or the possibility of breaking my computer.

As a humanities student, it simply was never acceptable to me to turn in an assignment incomplete or “wrong.” In that computer science class, and in the information processing course I took at the iSchool at the University of Illinois a couple years later, an incomplete assignment could be a stellar attempt, proof of lessons learned, and an indication of where help is required. The rubric for good work is different for a computer science problem set than a history paper. It has been a valuable lesson to revisit as I try to develop my skills independently and in the workplace.

I have acquired and maintained my tech skills through a combination of computer science coursework before and during library school, an in-person SAA pre-conference sessions that my employer paid for, and, of course, the internet. Apps like Learn to Code with Python or free online courses can be an introduction to a programming language or a quick refresher since I inevitably forget much of what I learn in class before I can put it to work at a job. Google and Stack Exchange are lifesavers, both because I can often find the answer to my question about the mysterious error code I see in the terminal window and reassure myself that I’m not the first person to pose the question.

More than anything, my openness to what I once thought of as failure has been pivotal to my development. It can take a long time to learn and understand exactly what is going on under the hood with some new software or process, but that’s okay. Sometimes a fake-it-til-you-make-it mentality is exactly what’s needed to push yourself to tackle a new challenge. For me, learning tech skills is learning to be okay with failure as a learning process.


 

Speth-Anna_800x450Anna Speth is the Librarian for Emerging Technology and Digital Projects at Pepperdine’s Payson Library where she co-directs a makerspace and works with digital initiatives. Anna focuses on the point of connection between technology and history.  She holds a BA from Duke University and a MLIS from Simmons College.

 

ERS_jane-kellyJane Kelly is the Web Archiving Assistant for the #metoo Digital Media Collection at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America and a 2018 graduate of the iSchool at the University of Illinois. Her interests lie at the intersection of digital archives and the people who use them.

Students Reflect (Part 1 of 2): Tech Skills In and Out of the Classroom

By London Stever, Hayley Wilson, and Adriana Casarez

This is the third post in the bloggERS Making Tech Skills a Strategic Priority series.

As part of our “Making Tech Skills a Strategic Priority” series, the bloggERS team asked five current and recent MLIS/MSIS students to reflect on how they have learned the technology skills necessary to tackle their careers after school. One major theme, as expressed by these three writers, is the need for a balance of learning inside and outside the classroom.

London Stever, 2018 graduate, University of Pittsburgh

Approaching the six-month anniversary of my MLIS graduation, I find myself reflecting on my technological growth. Going into graduate school, I expected little technology training. Naively, I believed that most archival jobs were paper-only, excepting occasional digitization projects. Imagine my surprise upon finding out the University of Pittsburgh required an introduction to HTML. This trend continued, as the university insisted students have balanced knowledge.

I took technology-focused courses ranging from a history of computers (useful for those expecting to work with older hardware) to an overview of open-source library repositories and learning management systems (not to be discounted by those going into academia). The most useful of these classes was the required digital humanities course. Since graduating, I have applied the practical introduction to ArchivesSpace and Archivematica – and the in-depth explanation of discoverability, access, and web crawling – to my current work at SAE International.

However, none of the information I learned in those classes would be helpful on its own. University did not prepare me for talking to the IT Department. Terminology used in archives and in IT often overlaps, but usage does not. Custom, in-house programs require troubleshooting, and university technology classes did not teach me those skills. Libraries and archives often need to work with software not specially designed for them, but the university did not address this.

Self-taught classes, YouTube videos, and outside certifications were the most useful technology education for me. Using these, I customized my education to meet the needs companies mention and my own learning needs, which focus on practical application I did not get in university. I understand troubleshooting, allowing me to use programs built fifteen years ago. Creating a blog or using a content services platform to increase discoverability and internal access is a breeze. In addition to the balanced digital to analog education of university, I also needed a balance of library and general technology education.

Hayley Wilson, current student, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

When registering for classes at UNC Chapel Hill prior to the Fall semester of 2017, I was informed that I was required to fulfill a technology competency requirement. I had the option to either take an at home test or take a technology course (for no credit). I decided to take the technology course because I assumed it would be beneficial to other classes I would be required to take as an MLS student.

As it turns out, as a library science student on the archives and records management track, I had a very strict set of courses I was required to take, with room for only two electives. None of these required courses were focused on technology or building technology skills. I have friends on the Information Science side of the program who are required to take numerous courses that have a strong focus on technology. Fortunately, while at SILS I have had numerous opportunities outside of the classroom to learn and build my technology skills through my various internships and graduate assistant positions. However, I don’t think that every student has the opportunity to do so in their jobs.

Adriana Cásarez, 2018 graduate, University of Texas at Austin

Entering my MSIS program with an interest in digital humanities, I expected my coursework would provide most of the expertise I needed to become a more tech-savvy researcher. Indeed, a survey course in digital humanities gave me an overview of digital tools and methodologies. Additionally, a more intense programming course for cultural data analysis taught me specialized coding for data analysis, machine learning and data visualization. The programming was challenging and using the command line was daunting, but I was fortunate to develop a network of motivated peers who also wanted to develop their technical aptitude.  

Sometimes, I felt I was learning just as many technical skills outside of my general coursework. The university library offered workshops on digital scholarship tools for the academic community. My technical skills and knowledge of trends in topics like text analysis, data curation, and metadata grew by attending as many as I could. The Digital Scholarship Librarian and I also organized co-working sessions for students working on digital scholarship projects. These sessions created a community of practice to share expertise, feedback, and support with others interested in developing their technical aptitude in a productive space. We discussed the successes and frustrations with our projects and with the technology that we were often independently teaching ourselves to use. These community meetups were invaluable avenues to learn from each other and further develop our technical capabilities.

With increased focus on digital archives, libraries and scholarship, students often feel expected to just know or to teach themselves technical skills independently. My experience in my MSIS program taught me that often others are in the same boat, experiencing similar frustrations but too embarrassed to ask for help or admit ignorance. Communities of practice are essential to create an environment where students felt comfortable discussing obstacles and developing technical skills together.


Stever-LondonLondon Stever is an archival consultant at SAE International, where she balances company culture with international and industry standards, including bridging the gap between IT and discovery partners. London graduated from the University of Pittsburgh’s MLIS – Archives program and is currently working on her CompTIA certifications. She values self-education and believes multilingualism and technological literacy are the keys to archival accessibility. Please email london.stever@outlook.com or go to londonstever.com to contact London.

IMG_0186-2

Hayley Wilson is originally from San Diego but moved to New York to attend New York University. She graduated from NYU with a BA in Art History and stayed in NYC to work for a couple of years before moving abroad to work. She then moved to North Carolina for graduate school and will be graduating in May with her master’s degree in Library Science with a concentration in Archives and Records Management.

casarez_headshotAdriana Cásarez is a recent MSIS graduate from the University of Texas at Austin. She has worked as a research assistant on a digital classics project for the Quantitative Criticism Lab. She also developed a digital collection of artistic depictions of the Aeneid using cultural heritage APIs. She aspires to work in digital scholarship and advocate for diversity and inclusivity in libraries.