Why I Learned to Love the Command Line

by Rebecca Halpern

I’m sure you’ve all heard a million times by now that libraries are looking for young professionals with technology skills. And I’m sure you’ve all thought to yourself “But of course, I use technology all the time! I’m proficient in the Microsoft Office Suite, I conduct online research like a champ, I would medal in the social media Olympics!” And, of course, you’d be right. Libraries do need professionals that are intimate with and can teach software applications, are comfortable with online research both in databases and free web resources, and can smartly and strategically develop a social media plan. But I’m also increasingly sure that we need to up our game in order to stand out and better serve our patrons. I’m talking about the hard stuff, the stuff we were hoping we’d never have to think about because of our blessed IT departments, the stuff that puts us face-to-face with the command line: y’all, I’m talking about coding.

Coding is an invaluable skill for young information professionals. While we won’t be expected to attend to database or systems administrator duties, we may be expected to embed videos in our library website’s HTML file, or modify a database, or troubleshoot electronic resource access issues, or simply be familiar enough with coding restrictions and limitations to have informed discussions with our IT department. Austin Public Library is currently transitioning to the Drupal platform to decrease the reliance on the IT department for doing basic things like updating a blog. Platforms like Drupal and WordPress do not in themselves require any programming knowledge, but knowing HTML, CSS, and JavaScript will enhance interactivity and customizability. In other words, it just can’t hurt to be familiar with a programming language (and, believe it or not, its kind of fun!).

I’m lucky in that because my program has such a focus on information science, it offers several programming courses, the most popular of which is Database Management which teaches the language PHP and database language MySQL. I went into the class expecting to see unfamiliar faces, students who are in my program but take mostly usability or information architecture classes. Instead, I was greeted with mostly people like me: library- or archive-track students who want to improve or begin their programming knowledge. We move at a quick but manageable pace. More importantly, while the assignments are difficult, they’re so different from what I’m used to (ahem, writing papers, ahem) I find a good challenge in them. In addition to looking good on a resume and making me the official computer genius of my family, coding also challenges my brain in new ways, forces me to think creatively and problem solve, and affords many opportunities to collaborate with my classmates when a script just won’t do what I want it to—and I think we can agree those are skills useful to ANY information professional.

I want to be clear that I’m not advocating that librarians become professional programmers—programmers spend years of their lives and dedicate their career to the art. If your library or museum is lucky enough to have a dedicated IT department, bless them. I will say though, as library websites become the primary service point by which patrons interact with the library, librarians should know how the web works, what languages it works in, what languages do what, and how the web is structured. My vision of the future library does not have each department working in a vacuum, separate from one another, but rather librarians and IT professionals working together, sharing a common language, and figuring out how to best serve the community.

What can you do if your program doesn’t offer any introductory programming courses? First, look outside of your department; many graduate-level departments teach introductory courses. Talk to your advisor and see what your campus offers. Similarly, if you can receive credit for them, check your local community colleges.  There are also lots of free online sources. Code Year is a great program that has weekly assignments and is done entirely online for FREE. The W3 Schools have all of their training manuals online and they are easy to understand and offer exercises. The beauty of programmers is their willingness to put their work on the web for others to use, modify, and learn from.

Read the comments on the original version of this post for further discussion and resources.