Thursday, June 27, 2013

What is a Web Librarian, Anyway?, by Coral Sheldon-Hess


Before I started library school, I had no idea what a wide variety of careers there were within our field. I had done a bunch of reading about librarianship, but for some reason I still thought EVERY librarian spent all day answering questions, selecting materials, writing blog posts about important civil liberty and publishing related issues, and running fun/educational programs and trainings. Of course, I realized they must also spend time on the same things every office worker does (meetings, reports, and spreadsheets, mostly). I also figured library administrators did more reports/meetings, while front-line staff answered more questions, but in my mind every librarian was somewhere on that range.

I’m not sure when I realized that my ideas were off the mark, but I know it was probably pretty early in library school (I graduated four years(!) ago, just so you have a sense of time). Even so, I didn’t know I wanted to be a web librarian until my last semester, when I started seriously looking at job ads. I had no idea that was a thing, until I saw the listing for the job I have now.

So in case anyone else doesn’t know it’s a thing—or if you do, but you don’t know what kind of thing—I wanted to share what I do.

Here’s what they said my job was:
The Web Services Librarian is responsible for the ongoing design, development, and evaluation of the Consortium Library’s web presence. This position works closely with library staff and university communities to ensure delivery of web services and online resources. The Web Services Librarian provides expertise on web technologies to library faculty and staff and promotes the Library’s website as an instructional tool.
Having held the position for a while now, I can tell you that description is fairly accurate, if vague.

I feel like I spend a lot more time doing other “office worker”-type stuff than I do designing and developing webpages—seriously, I spend a lot of time on meetings, not just sitting in them but making agendas and minutes and reports. My joke has always been “I thought this was a technical job!” And it can be, but it’s usually a lot more about talking to people. And that makes sense when I think about it. You can’t go changing a webpage that your coworkers use every day without having some discussions. But it goes a little deeper than that: I’ve spent a lot of effort building trust and working on how my organization thinks about our web presence, getting people to agree that the website is for our patrons more than it’s for us—and that patrons should be able to use it without first being taught how. (If I leave, I hope they’ll change the “instructional tool” part of the wording before recruiting a replacement!) I’ve also worked to convince everyone that the library’s participation in social media is worthwhile. As part of those efforts I wrote a social media plan, a plan for our web presence, and a best practices document/template for our LibGuides—so there has been a lot of writing, beyond web content, too.

On the strictly technical side, I do development in HTML, CSS, PHP, and JavaScript. I am starting to play more with APIs, which let me do cool stuff, usually fairly quickly. Relatedly, I also find, evaluate, recommend, and provision web-based software to solve my coworkers’ problems—ideally, solving some of our website users’ problems at the same time—and then I train my coworkers on how to use it. (Which just might be my favorite part of the job. I love teaching people how to use tools.) I maintain, customize, and support my coworkers in using WordPress (we use the multisite variation), LibGuides, LibAnswers, and LibCal, and I help out with maintaining an OpenAtrium (Drupal) intranet. We’ll be moving from LibraryH3lp to LibChat this summer, and I’ll do the back-end work and training to make that happen. For my own development work, I primarily use a content management system called MODx.

Many (most?) web librarians do usability testing on their websites; however I’m our only web designer/developer, with support from my department head on projects from time to time. I can’t do constant usability testing and development the way some web librarians do. It’s something I would like to do more of if my department grows or if I someday find myself stretched in fewer directions on a day-to-day basis. But I do informal usability testing/observation when I can, including when I work at the reference desk, and I watch our web analytics.

There are other aspects to my job, but that’s the crux of the work I do that I consider “web librarian work.” Is there anything you want to know? Other web librarians, did I leave out something you do on a regular basis?

Coral Sheldon-Hess is the Web Services Librarian at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She was a 2012 ALA Emerging Leader and a 2010 participant in PNLA's Leadership Institute. She holds an MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh and an M.S. in Electrical & Computer Engineering from Carnegie Mellon. In her spare time she co-founded and now co-manages a programming workshop for women, crochets, geeks out, bicycles (poorly), and evangelizes on behalf of the Oxford comma. You can find her online at her blog or on Twitter as @web_kunoichi.


  1. How possible do you think it is to become a web librarian without a CS background? I am currently in library school and my interests really lean toward tech, but I don't have a tech-y background. I did learn HTML in college (over 10 years ago) and am right now taking a class to re-learn the newest HTML and CSS. I'm hoping to learn Javascript and PHP sometime over the next year. However, when I look at job listings it seems like they want you to know every programming language under the sun! It's somewhat disheartening to someone just starting out when it seems like if you don't know everything up front you might as well know nothing.

    Do you have any thoughts about this, or advice for those interested in this realm of librarianship without a CS background?

    1. I think you could definitely be a web librarian without a CS degree--very few of us have them, I think. I don't--though the minor may have helped.

      Your instincts are good: getting up to speed on HTML, CSS, and JavaScript is a definite minimum (though I'll admit, my JavaScript skills aren't the best, so you don't have to be *amazing*, just fluent enough to fix others' code, at least at the outset). PHP or Python or some other server-side language will also be necessary, but different shops use different languages. The nice thing is, once you've learned JavaScript and some server-side language, learning new ones will happen way more quickly.

      Some libraries will take enthusiasm and a willingness to learn in lieu of some of the specific language requirements, but some don't have the flexibility to do that. You may find that it's easier to get a job as a generalist librarian in a small enough library where you can take over the website and learn in that capacity, before jumping into a full web librarian job.

      There are some great online resources--not just CodeAcademy and others like that, but also classes through LITA and Skillcrush and a number of different places, where you can get up to speed pretty quickly.

      I hope that helps?