Last Friday, July 26th, was #sysadminday, or System Administrator Appreciation Day. Taking place on the last Friday of July every year, this pseudo-holiday initially started as a celebration of the system administrator but has grown to celebrate all IT workers. It is a day for celebrations, computer-themed cakes, and old war stories. It’s also an excuse for me to share my favorite IT horror picture.
#sysadminday is not as widely celebrated in libraries as you find in other places of work, but the work done by IT and other technology workers doesn’t differ all that greatly from other IT and technology work done elsewhere. This is where our story begins.
Someone posted a happy #sysadminday message on the Troublesome Cataloger and Magical Metadata Fairies FB group and a small discussion started about what exactly a sysadmin is and does. I chimed in with a library-centric example that a sysadmin might do – keep the ILS up and going. It’s not all that uncommon for library IT sysadmins to keep systems like the ILS going. It’s also not all that uncommon for your systems librarian who is officially responsible for the ILS to be the unofficial sysadmin of the library. The discussion moves on with more small talk.
But we soon found out that Someone Was Wrong On The Internet, and that someone was me. The screenshot of the exchange is below. The parent comment was deleted soon after my responses, so only the screenshot was left. I crossed out the names to protect the innocent and the guilty.
[For those who don’t want to read the alt-text, the main comment in question is this: “That’s not the kind of sysadmin they’re talking about for sysadmin day. For sysadmin day, they’re talking about the IT sysadmins who keep all the computers (especially the servers) running (and backed up and upgraded and so on).” A link to the wikipedia page for sysadminday follows.]
At first, I chalked this little episode to a textbook example of mansplaining.
However, after some reflection, the comment is more serious than just your generic mansplain. This comment erases the labor of many in the realms of library Technical Services and Systems departments.
Let’s break this down and get into some of the details as to why this is:
How does this comment erase labor?
The comment in question restricts the system administrator day to a particular type of IT professional, the system administrator. This ignores several realities:
- #sysadminday celebrates all IT workers, as documented in various resources and practiced in the real world.
- For those who have IT departments, IT staff are usually in the position of working in multiple areas due to limited resources. Sysadmin duties are more likely to be everyone’s duties in IT.
- For those who do not have Library IT departments, sysadmin duties are spread out to those who have the skills. This happens at smaller or more resource-limited libraries. These folks might come from Technical Services as well as Public Services.
To gatekeep #sysadminday to only a person who is a dedicated system administrator in an IT department that can afford to have a dedicated sysadmin removes all others who do sysadmin duties from the picture of recognition.
Whose labor did it erase?
It erases any IT-related labor performed by staff who are not in traditional IT departments. This can include folks in both Public and Technical Services, as well as folks who work in Library IT within an organization that has an organizational IT department. Those library staff perform IT duties for a variety of reasons:
- Organizational IT does not know how to deal with certain types of servers/infrastructure
- For example, Organizational IT might be a Microsoft shop, but your library needs to have Linux servers for library systems and applications
- There is no Library IT department to speak of, and organizational IT doesn’t get Library IT needs
- Lack of resources in organizational/library IT for additional infrastructure/systems needed in the library
While my Public Services colleagues find themselves doing IT as part of their “other duties as assigned”, my focus in this answer will be Technical Services. Technical Services staff require many complex systems and applications to keep their department, as well as the library, up and going, and this is how your Systems Librarian, or Cataloging Librarian, or other TS staff become your accidental library sysadmin.
I lived through this type of IT work in multiple libraries. I did not belong to an IT department, and in one library there was no official Library IT department to speak of. In my work in Technical Services, I kept servers patched and running, troubleshoot servers and staff computers, assisted in playing “whack-a-mole” with blacklisting IP addresses trying to screen scrape the library catalog, and replaced server parts as well as entire servers.
[The reaction from the ILS vendor rep when I hauled the old ILS server out from the server room was priceless.]
So, when someone says that a Technical Services librarian that has done sysadmin duties cannot be a sysadmin, it erases the labor of that librarian. It even erases that time where she was in the server room very early in the morning, hot-swapping a failed hard disk drive in the ILS database server, a task not uncommon to many library sysadmins.
Why do I (the reader) care if this labor is erased?
Because erasing this labor reinforces the class hierarchy in librarianship, reinforces gender stereotypes and power dynamics, and reinforces the inertia that prevents Technical Services from gaining and maintaining the resources they need for sustainability.
It serves to reinforce the notion that valuable technology work only happens if someone is in a certain department with a certain title. Particularly in Technical Services, technology work is usually invisible labor – the curse of “other duties as assigned”. This leads to TS workers to be underpaid or unpaid for the skills and duties that they are actually performing. Considering that in many places facing budget cuts or ways to reallocate resources look at Technical Services for these cuts or sources to move resources from, your existence in TS turns into a never-ending cycle of “doing more with less.”
When we look at the data collected by Library Journal in their 2017 Placements & Salaries Survey, we find that Technical Services positions are near the bottom of the list for average salaries. Catalogers and metadata staff average salaries are in the middle of the pack, but near the top of the list are your technology workers – IT, Systems technology, UX, etc. The results are similar if you sort by median salary. TS workers who do similar technology work to IT work are most likely not getting properly compensated. On the topic of compensation, in both LJ’s 2017 survey and the May 2019 AFL-CIO (DPE) Fact Sheet on Library Workers, men are consistently paid higher than the other gender that the surveys recorded, which is women.
Sadly I don’t have ready access to data about the gender ratios in library departments; however, I’m not sure if I need the numbers to state the fact that library technology roles are usually filled by cismen. It was only a few years ago when the Code4Lib annual conference attendance finally started to not be overwhelmingly cismen. Library technology mirrors general technology in several aspects. The ones better paid are the ones in technology roles, and in librarianship, you have those roles filled by cismen.
Being a woman in library IT is hard enough. I recommend reading We Can Do I.T. for a collection of recent recollections and essays about women working in library IT. But before I even took a traditional library IT role – the role of IT manager – my technology work in Technical Services faced many challenges concerning recognition. I was in a triple bind – not only I had to prove myself to others in the library technology world that a woman belonged there, but that a Technical Services librarian belonged there as well. A cataloger who codes? A TS librarian who is in charge of the feeding and caring of her ILS servers? I was in the wrong department with the wrong job title with the wrong gender.
This is why that comment by our colleague at the beginning of this post is more than just mansplaining. By erasing the technology labor performed by Technical Services workers with a comment in a public forum for Technical Services workers, the comment serves as a reminder to TS folks that their labor doesn’t count as real labor, labor that shouldn’t be properly recognized or compensated. It is to keep folks in line with their prescribed roles, dictated by those who control the role definitions.
All of this because someone suggested that the person keeping your ILS up and going should be celebrated on #sysadminday.