What is Systems Librarianship


Of course, let's begin with the question, what is systems librarianship? Normally we might go to the literature to answer a question like this. Indeed, the literature is helpful, but it's sparse. The LISTA database only returns 131 results with a 45 year coverage for a search using the thesauri term SYSTEMS Librarians. I can get more results if I expand the search query, but then I get less relevant results, and the main idea is the same: this is an understudied area of librarianship.

It's been that way for a while. Susan K. Martin wrote the following over 35 years ago:

Of the specialist positions that exist in libraries, none is as underexamined as those of the systems librarians---the people who identify the needs of the library for automated systems, cause these systems to be implemented, and analyze the operations of the library (p. 57).

Perhaps as a result of this underexamination, sometimes there is confusion around the requirements and skills needed in this area of librarianship. Martin (1988) captured this tension when she wrote the following in 1988, which is still true today:

Over the years the library world has argued whether systems librarians should be librarians who have learned information technologies, or computer experts who have learned about libraries (p. 61).

The argument is partly a matter of jurisdiction. Abbott (1998), writing on librarianship in the sociology of professions, illustrated how:

The future of librarianship thus hinges on what happens to the perpetually changing work of the profession in its three contexts: the context of larger social and culture forces, the context of other competing occupations, and the context of competing organizations and commodities. To these complex contextual forces, any profession responds with varying policies and internal changes (pp. 434-5).

Essentially, Abbott means that professions, like librarianship, are always changing. The mechanisms for that change are structural and cultural (Abbott, 2010), but a changing profession means that its "link of jurisdiction" (Abbott, 1998, p. 435) changes, too. It not only changes, but professions constantly compete with each other over to adopt new areas of jurisdiction. So when we ask, as Martin (1998) did, whether librarians should learn information technologies or whether computer experts should learn libraries, I find myself thinking the prior is more important for libraries and their patrons. It means that librarians are expanding their jurisdiction by also becoming computer experts rather than computer experts expanding theirs.

That leads us to the next questions: what does it mean to be a computer expert for a systems librarian? What does a systems librarians need to do and know?

The answer is that it is a mix. Some part of the work involves systems administration, but that has broad meanings, and systems librarianship is more specific. Or, it has a more specific domain: the domain of libraries and librarianship.

A systems librarian might thus be considered a library systems administrator. Under this view, they need to be someone who knows about libraries, how libraries work, what they do, about their patrons, what their values are, and then use that knowledge to build the infrastructure to support that.

Given this, and the technologies involved, such work requires constant learning. Jordan (2003) identified three areas of learning:

  • pre-service education in library schools
  • on the job training
  • professional development in the form of workshops, courses, and conferences (p. 273)

Pre-service, formal education is a small part of any professional's career, regardless if that profession is in medicine, law, or librarianship. Thus the goal of pre-service education is to prepare people to adapt and grow in their fields. Jordan (2003) wrote that:

While formal training is undoubtedly important, the ability to learn new technologies independently lies at the foundation of systems librarians' professional life, because they often have to use technologies, or make planning decisions about specific technologies, before they become common enough to be the subject of formal training sessions (p. 273).

Even though Jordan's article is 20 years old and the technology has changed a lot, the basic duties of the systems librarian remain the same (Fu, 2014; Gonzales, 2020). Wilson (1998), as cited in Jordan (2003), refers to a list of the "typical responsibilities of systems librarians." These responsibilities look different today, because the technology is different, but conceptually, they're the same as they were then. In fact, this work will focus on a subset of this list that includes:

  • integrated library system management
  • server management
  • documentation
  • technology exploration and evaluation (Jordan, 2003, p. 274)

Gonzales (2020) highlights these and more current areas that include:

  • content management systems
  • electronic resource management systems
  • website redesign
  • help and support

Other items on Jordan's (2003) list are still relevant, but due to various constraints, this work will not cover the following areas:

  • network design and management
  • desktop computing
  • application development
  • planning and budget
  • specification and purchasing
  • miscellaneous technology support
  • technical risk management (p. 274)

In short, this work specifically focuses on a few of the bigger technical aspects of systems librarianship. Other works (or courses) and other sources will provide learning opportunities on the more managerial and administrative functions of systems librarianship and librarianship, in general.

If you are interested in learning more about network design and administration, then I encourage you to read my chapters on Networking and TCP/IP and DNS and Domain Names in my book on Systems Administration with Linux.

If you are interested in learning about application development, then you can pursue courses in a variety of programming languages, such as R, Python, JavaScript, and PHP, as well as courses on relational databases, such as MySQL or PostgreSQL, and so forth.

As Jordan (2003) identified, there is a lack of formalized training in systems librarianship in LIS schools. This is as true today as it was in 2003. This course was created to address the lack of that training. However, it can only be a start. Technology is constantly changing, and that means we must always embrace more informal learning opportunities. LIS programs are only two or so years long (if attending full time), but our careers, hopefully, will span decades. So all this course can ever be is just a starting point.

It is a big start, though. This course should lay a strong foundation for self-growth and self-education in the variety of technologies that we will learn and use here. Although separate areas of librarianship, my work (and course) on electronic resource management complement this one in many ways. For example, this work supports several parts of the technology section in the NASIG Core Competencies for Electronic Resources Librarians. It is no coincidence these two areas of librarianship often overlap or are assumed in a single librarian position.

Cloud Computing

Lastly, I want to mention cloud computing. This has become a major area of change in the last decade or so. It used to be more common for librarians to install their integrated library system software and store their bibliographic data on their premises. In the last ten years, there has been more migration to the cloud, which means that both the integrated library system software and the bibliographic data are stored off-site. Liu & Cai (2013) highlight the beginning of this trend toward cloud computing that continues to play a large role in systems librarianship (Naveed et al., 2021). As Liu and Cai note:

Systems librarians used to make their livings by managing hosted library systems. This situation is silently changing with the library systems moving onto the cloud (p. 26).

This trend has changed some aspects of systems librarianship. It means that systems librarians, while still a technical area of librarianship, need to work more closely with the vendors who themselves are hosting library systems. However, the trend does not erase all locally hosted solutions. Many libraries and other information agencies continue to support local collections and will either host those locally or work to get the bibliographic information for those collections ingested into their cloud-based integrated library systems.


The remainder of the course will be more technical and will prepare you to work and understand the systems that support the modern library. We will cover a lot, too! We will begin with setting up virtual machine instances on Google Cloud. We will use a distribution of the Linux operating system for these virtual machines. We will then learn the basics of the Linux command line. Next, we will learn how to use the version control system called git. We will use git to document our work flows and push that documentation to GitHub.com. On our Linux servers, we will create a web server out of what is called a LAMP stack, which stands for Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP. We will use the web server to setup a basic website and a bare bones OPAC. (I'll provide the code for this.) Then we will learn how to install and setup two content management systems: Wordpress and Omeka. Lastly, we will spend the final two weeks of the semester installing and setting up the open source Koha ILS.

Let's get started!


Abbott, A. (1998). Professionalism and the future of librarianship. Library Trends, 46(3), 430–443. https://www.proquest.com/docview/220452054/abstract/A48FC30B10D94886PQ/1?accountid=11836

Abbott, A. (2010). Varieties of ignorance. The American Sociologist, 41(2), 174–189. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40664150

Gonzales, B. M. (2020). Systems librarianship: A practical guide for librarians. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781538107133/Systems-Librarianship-A-Practical-Guide-for-Librarians

Fu, P. (2014). Supporting the next-generation ILS: The changing roles of systems librarians. Journal of Library Innovation, 5(1), 30–42.

Jordan, M. (2003). The self‐education of systems librarians. Library Hi Tech, 21(3), 273–279. https://doi.org/10.1108/07378830310494445

Liu, W., & Cai, H. (Heather). (2013). Embracing the shift to cloud computing: Knowledge and skills for systems librarians. OCLC Systems & Services: International Digital Library Perspectives, 29(1), 22–29. https://doi.org/10.1108/10650751311294528

Martin, S. K. (1988). The role of the systems librarian. Journal of Library Administration, 9(4), 57–68. https://doi.org/10.1300/J111v09n04_06

Naveed, M. A., Siddique, N., & Mahmood, K. (2021). Development and validation of core technology competencies for systems librarian. Digital Library Perspectives, 38(2), 189–204. https://doi.org/10.1108/DLP-03-2021-0022

Ratledge, D., & Sproles, C. (2017). An analysis of the changing role of systems librarians. Library Hi Tech, 35(2), 303–311. https://doi.org/10.1108/LHT-08-2016-0092

Wilson, T. C. (1998). Systems librarian: Desinging roles, defining skills. American Library Association. https://www.worldcat.org/title/1038159656