the Systems Librarian Imposter Syndrome
by Rachel Singer Gordon 1
Due to the newer nature of this subfield of librarianship and the lack
of formal technical training experienced by a number of systems librarians,
many feel needlessly inadequate in their positions. An understanding
of the importance of a library background and skills in the success
of any systems librarian can help these individuals overcome their "imposter
syndrome" and settle more comfortably into their positions.
Meg pursued, "Charles says I'm not one thing or the other, not
flesh nor fowl nor good red herring." -- Madeline L'Engle, A
Wrinkle in Time
Like Meg in Madeline L'Engle's classic YA novel, many systems librarians
-- especially those who originally entered librarianship intending to
concentrate on another specialty -- worry about failing to fit into
the tidy categories that have traditionally marked our perception of
the profession's subfields. While categorization is a natural librarian
impulse, systems librarians (and their employers) need to realize the
futility of trying to package systems job descriptions into neat little
boxes. Systems librarianship by its very nature fosters both overlap
and ambiguity; systems librarians need both an understanding of the
needs of each department and the ability to work with librarians in
During any given week, a systems person in a public library may be helping
technical services to write and implement policies in the automation
system, adding links to the web site for the children's department,
and disassembling the PC at the reference desk to replace a broken CD-ROM
drive. In an academic library, she might be negotiating electronic license
agreements, adding new resources to the Intranet, and teaching students
effective database and Internet searching. In smaller libraries, systems
librarians can fill dual (or triple, or quadruple…) roles in departments
like reference and systems or cataloging and systems, rather than having
the luxury of concentrating solely on the technological portion of their
job. In any library, their actions impact and intersect all departments,
since technology is so intertwined with both the institution's day-to-day
activities and its larger mission.
The skills and philosophy underpinning the field, however, draw upon
the foundations of librarianship itself; a library background is essential
to the effectiveness of any systems librarian. Systems librarians who
realize their inherent strengths and learn to use their existing library
skills in dealing with changing technology both feel more secure in
their positions and are better able to serve their institutions.
Faking It Through
Unfortunately, it often takes library systems personnel years to settle
comfortably into the ambiguity inherent in their jobs. Many originally
entered librarianship with the intention of specializing in some other
subfield of the profession, or completed their degree before an emphasis
on technology was common. They lack formal training in technology management,
troubleshooting, network administration, and many other duties as assigned.
This lack, combined with the need to deal with constant change, leads
many otherwise successful systems librarians to feel as if they are
"faking" their way through their jobs. When those with an
official IT background proclaim that there is but one true standard
of expertise and education that defines systems librarianship, this
only exacerbates the feeling that they fail to measure up. They go through
their duties convinced that they will eventually be exposed, unable
to resolve a critical issue or unable to answer a crucial question.
Joan Harvey talks about a syndrome called "the imposter phenomenon,"
in which otherwise successful individuals believe that others overestimate
their talents, that their success is not due to their own ability, and
that they will eventually be exposed as frauds in their position (Harvey
and Katz, 1985). While this syndrome occurs in people across all professions,
those in positions that constantly require doing new tasks or taking
on new roles are particularly susceptible to these feelings. Their cure
lies in realizing that their success stems from their own abilities
and actions rather than in some random or external force. The cure for
systems librarians lies in realizing that, as long as they know (or
can find out!) enough to keep the systems in their own institutions
humming along, they are successes -- and integral to the smooth functioning
of their library.
New Roles, Familiar Skills
Whether or not they do so consciously, systems librarians in all sizes
and types of libraries draw on their existing skills and background
in order to serve effectively in their positions. It is precisely because
they have these skills to draw upon that they are able to be successful
in a systems role, with or without formal technical training. Essential
traditional library skills for systems personnel include many of those
we are either taught in library school or learn on-the-job. Following,
find several ways in which systems librarians use these skills -- and
suggestions on how they can extend their knowledge and abilities to
serve even more effectively in their positions.
One academic librarian notes: "It has never ceased to amaze me
how much better I am at finding solutions to problems in knowledge bases
(like Microsoft's) than my technical staff, most of whom, frankly, can
barely spell."1 A background in librarianship is an invaluable
tool in navigating both online knowledge bases and offline manuals,
researching problems, and locating answers. It serves us well as we
build a personal collection of resources that will be useful in our
own technological environment. A librarianship background gives us insight
into whom to trust, where to start, what to look for, and how to evaluate
potential solutions to our support dilemmas -- and helps us to avoid
implementing untrustworthy techniques that can create more damage than
the original problem.
While each systems librarian's support toolbox and strategies will be
unique to her situation, there are resources that will be useful in
many environments, some of which can be found on the Accidental
Systems Librarian web site. Many systems librarians also pick up
tips from colleagues or from online discussion lists and make a habit
of bookmarking sites and ordering reference materials they come across
in their reading.
The skills that systems librarians have picked up through reference
coursework or while working on a public service desk are also valuable
additions to their support toolbox. A typical technical support interview
with a staff member or library patron eerily parallels a typical reference
interview. In each, the trick is to work from the original inquiry to
the actual problem by asking questions designed to narrow down the issue.
Only then can we resolve the issue or answer the question. In each instance,
we also need to know the point at which we need to call on an expert
-- in this case, vendor technical support or support personnel in our
larger institution or system.
Karen Ventura, Head of Systems & Technology at Novi Public Library,
advises that systems librarians "collaborate with other library
technology folks…Together, we do much more than we could do on
our own. And if there's something that I am not familiar with, chances
are someone else at another library is. This way, the library technology
world is much more manageable!"
Librarians are master networkers from way back; the sheer proliferation
of professional e-mail discussion lists, workshops, conferences, and
interest groups attests to our reliance on each other's knowledge and
experiences. The image of a solitary researcher toiling away in a back
room is passé; our strength lies in our collaboration.
Systems librarians are no exception to this need to network. From mailing
lists such as SYSLIB-L,
to conferences that include Computers
In Libraries and ASIS&T,
specialized forums on technological issues serve every interest and
level of expertise.2 The inclusion of tech topics in more general conferences
and among the workshops offered by local library systems offers a further
opportunity for systems librarians to enhance their technological skills
while they keep a foot in the traditional library world. Successful
systems librarians take these opportunities to learn from one another,
share their own experiences, and, above all, to realize that they are
not alone. Teaching and learning from others, beginning to feel part
of a larger community, is a large step toward overcoming the sense of
being an imposter.
Organization of Knowledge
Any systems librarian who has needed to lay his hands quickly on a CD
key, a grant number, a technical support phone number, or a video card
model number knows the value of organization. As the computing environment
expands, both physically and in complexity, well-organized records allow
systems librarians to keep track of everything from installed systems
and software to vendor information and institutional IP addresses.
Organization also helps us track and make use of the statistics of which
library administrations are so fond. Electronic statistics include web
site usage statistics, information on electronic database usage, and
reports generated through an institution's ILS (Integrated Library System).
Knowledge -- and the ability to find information -- is power! The well-organized
and informed systems librarian can justify his position and carry out
his duties in relative calm.
In their quest to keep informed, empowered systems librarians are inveterate
lifelong learners. Learning can be achieved in many ways -- informed
systems librarians make a habit of keeping up with developments in fields
relevant to their library's environment and potential. Savvy systems
librarians take advantage of a mix of on- and offline opportunities,
which can include relevant reading, online tutorials, web logs and announcement
lists, formal coursework, and on-the-job education. Every professional
activity is an opportunity for learning. The more knowledge a systems
librarian acquires, and the stronger her background in both technology
and librarianship, the more comfortable she will be in her position.
Systems librarians who remain open to learning from every situation,
and who make a conscious effort to improve their skills, are empowered
by their own efforts.
University of Washington systems librarian Emalee Craft explains: "As
a librarian, a lot of my skills involve how to communicate effectively
with users in a way that will help fill their information needs. I think
these same skills have been invaluable in relating technological terms
and ideas to other staff members and users of the library."
Whether or not systems librarians are formally involved in technology
instruction in their institutions, every tech support call and every
computer-related interaction provides an opportunity to teach. Any technological
knowledge they can communicate to their colleagues helps empower other
library staff, making everyone's job easier. Any technological knowledge
they can communicate to their patrons enables library customers to make
effective use of institutional resources, making their colleagues' jobs
easier and improving the image and effectiveness of the library. One
of systems librarians' most important roles, therefore, is that of communicator
-- both imparting knowledge and translating technical terms and ideas.
A Bridge Between Two Worlds
Using traditional skills to fill new roles, systems librarians bridge
the two worlds of technology and librarianship. They also benefit from
the best of both worlds, using both sets of skills to confront changing
technology as librarians, and in terms of the larger goals of their
institution. Once they are able to relax into their positions, they
are able to feel the excitement and possibility that comes from bridging
these fields. As University of San Francisco Director of Library Systems
Karen Johnson exclaims: "You will never get bored. If you like
change, living on the edge (at least the edge of the library), then
this is the job for you."
At the end of A Wrinkle in Time, Meg finds to her relief and
delight that she is so much more than she imagined. It is precisely
her unique combination of personal strengths and skills that make her
able to face her fears and save the day -- and her brother Charles.
Successful systems librarians draw on their own unique combination of
strengths and skills in situations ranging from the dramatic (the Internet
connection is down and classes are scheduled all day for database training)
to the everyday (a printer failure, a press release needing to be posted
on the web site, a patron with a technical question). Neither flesh,
nor fowl, nor good red herring -- simply a necessary bridge between
technology and librarianship.
1. Quotes are taken from answers to a survey on systems librarianship
which was posted online from late 2001-early 2002. The text of the survey
can be found as appendix A to Rachel Singer Gordon, The Accidental
Systems Librarian (Medford, NJ: Information Today, 2003).
2. Find links to a number of library technology discussion lists at
Gordon, R.S. 2003. The Accidental Systems Librarian. Medford:
Harvey, J., and Katz, C. 1985. If I'm So Successful, Why Do I Feel
Like a Fake? The Imposter Phenomenon. New York: St. Martin's.
Rachel Singer Gordon
Rachel is a the former head of computer services and current part-time
librarian at the Franklin Park Public Library, Ill. She is webmaster
of the library careers site Lisjobs.com
and author of The Accidental Systems Librarian (Information