The Coding Debate

Last week, I read this post by Wayne Bivens-Tatum on why librarians don’t need to learn how to code, and I got a bit hot under the collar. Yesterday I read this excellent rebuttal by Lane Wilkinson on whether coding is an essential librarian skill. I agree on nearly all points with Lane’s argument, especially this part at the end:

Some librarians need to learn how to code and pick up one or more programming languages, but most librarians don’t. And while most librarians might not need to learn how to code, all librarians should understand the basic principles and foundations of coding, if only so that they can better communicate with those who do learn and apply programming languages.** Heck, even Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s dismissive attitude towards code is only possible because he has a basic understanding of code: the very ability to “steal the code I need to fix any problem I might encounter” requires some understanding of what coding problems look like, what correct code looks like, and so on.***

So, coding is a weakly essential skill in librarianship: all librarians need to know what a programming language is, how to talk about it, and what coding can and can’t do. But, then again, that’s how it is with every other skill in librarianship. The only things that are strongly essential in this profession are our values and principles; our theories and concepts. Show me a skill you think is strongly essential for librarianship, anything from coding to cataloging, and I’ll show you a great librarian who nonetheless lacks that skill. And the next time someone says that “all librarians must have skill X”, ask if they really mean “all libraries need someone with skill X.” I bet you’ll find they actually mean the latter.

** (And, from a pedagogical standpoint, it could be that teaching a programming language is the best way to teach the principles of coding. But, that’s a pedagogical tactic, not a tacit admission of strong essentialism. )

*** (Also, just to be clear, HTML is a markup language, not a Turing-complete programming language. So, strictly speaking, WBT’s position on HTML is irrelevant to the issue of coding in libraries. Still, the same “learn it on the fly” approach to programming languages is popular, so for my purposes it’s a distinction without a difference.)

I have two defined thoughts that go beyond Lane Wilkinson’s comments, which, once again, I think are excellent. The first thought is personal. I learned the very basics of coding in library school, as a person who was emphatically NOT A CODER. As a librarian working in a tiny library (which does employ a coding librarian, thankfully), I do need to be able to talk intelligently about code on a nearly daily basis. It allows me to build relationships with my co-workers, the IT department, and some faculty. And I did use my HTML skills last week when our ILL form broke (which, as Lane notes, is not coding). No, I was not responsible for fixing it, but scouring the code did allow us to talk to the web designer in a way was more intelligent than taking the car to the mechanic and saying, “It just won’t go.” This issue of communicating intelligently with people whose job it is to do the coding is essential, and it is ironically the cornerstone of Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s argument against coding.

The second thought has to do with the desperate need that libraries have for coders. Anyone who has used an ILS or library database can see that we need coders. And what we need is librarian coders. As a librarian who received a degree from an Information School, I was able to see on a daily basis exactly how intertwined our disciplines are. Librarians inform user experience designers who inform archivists. Our worlds overlap. It was incredibly frustrating to see the user experience designers, whose coding ability and frame of reference could make such a difference in modern libraries, take their talents to big information companies like Foresee and Google. I don’t blame them, really, but this exodus is notable.

We don’t all need to be coders. I’m a passable coder who could be better if I needed to be, but, like Lane Wilkinson, my talents and interests are in instruction and technology. The point is, we can’t educate librarians to be non-coders, because libraries need coders. And since traditionally educated coders don’t seem to be flocking to the less-than-Google-rate salaries available in libraries, what we need are librarian coders.

Do all librarians need to code? No. Do libraries need code? Yes. There is an obvious overlap here.

3 thoughts on “The Coding Debate

  1. Hi Meg, thanks for adding to the discussion about the basic skills of librarianship. However, I want to point out that my post was not really a rebuttal of Wayne’s position. Actually, he and I have pretty much the same view (cf. his follow-up post “The Basic Skills of All Librarians”).

  2. Ms Mond says:

    I never thought that libraries would need coders! But then again, I don’t know much about the profession. Thanks for the interesting read : )

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