Ok, folks. I’ll admit it; for the most part I sat idly by last May when Jeff Atwood wrote his “Please Don’t Learn to Code” blog post. I was in the middle of a learning-to-code slump and beginning to wonder myself if programming was really such a necessary skill for librarians to have. He argues that learning to code has become a meme that everyone is bandwagoning onto and that, really, very few people need to learn how to code for their jobs.
But today, when I came across Roy Tennant’s post, “Why You Should Not Learn HTML,” on Digital Shift (the home for technology-related stories published by Library Journal) I had to put my foot down. A Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research and the author of a practical guide to HTML (published in 1996), Tennant’s post, in which he discourages LIS students and professionals from learning HTML, is supposed to be edgy and shocking. He argues that, despite his previous opinions and publications, most librarians do not need to know any HTML. They can simply rely on WYSIWYG editors and web editing software. He also argues that actual web programmers can do anything you can do, only much better, so you shouldn’t bother: “If you do not intend to write software, or be employed as web lackey, then learn something else.”
I have to say that while I respect Roy Tennant and his years of education, service, and experience, I, as a lowly graduate student, have to disagree on multiple accounts.
Coming off of my summer of disappointment with trying to commit to learning to program via Codecademy (a lovely site, by the way; it’s just that I need a classroom setting to really learn technical things), I enrolled in a Web Design class at my library school during the Fall 2012 semester. I was anxious, because my tech skills were fairly limited (although my hardware skills were significantly improved by a Network Systems class I took in Spring 2012). But by the end of the semester I had successfully completed a number of lab design activities, conducted a needs assessment and design plan for a client, and created a website, from scratch, using HTML and CSS (no web editors or programs for me!).
The class was a great experience, I learned a lot, and I feel significantly more confident about my technical skills and my ability to work on websites. Thus, a few rebuttals to Tennant:
- I created a website. By myself. It is awesome. Go check it out (it’s for my little sister’s photography enterprises). Now, am I aware that a real web programmer/designer could have done it much better, in a shorter amount of time, and with cooler/flashier effects? Of course I am. But that’s not the point. The point is: I created something, from scratch, using practical knowledge, that I can present to future employers and say, “Hey, this is cool, right? I did it myself! I’m resourceful and knowledgeable! I’ve got skills!”
- Have I ever had to create a website, from scratch, for my job (at an academic library)? No. Of course not. We use OpenCMS for the library website and have a library-wide template that we work within. BUT, has knowing HTML and CSS come in handy on a weekly basis? Absolutely. OpenCMS has a WYSIWYG editor, but if you want your page to look remotely pretty/nice/professional, you absolutely have to open up the HTML editor all the time. Case in point: I recently facilitated part of our library website’s change from this (some CSS, but pretty minimal) to this (extensive CSS styling). As you can see, the latter is much smoother, cleaner, and more professional-looking. While I did not write the CSS for it, I did need to know how to go in and tweak things to make it fit this page. Sometimes it really helps to be able to jump into the back-end of something and figure things out from there.
- That being said, some libraries really do have to design things from scratch. Not every institution has the money to hire a web designer or pay for a subscription to a web design site or program. Small libraries with limited budgets often have to rely on the expertise and initiative of their staff alone.
- Because Roy Tennant has been successfully employed for so long, maybe it’s been a while since he’s taken a gander at entry-level librarian position postings. Even for jobs without “technology” or “web” in the title, basic HTML/CSS/web design knowledge is almost always listed as a preferred, if not required qualification. LIS students are told from Day 1 that the field is changing/has changed and technology has to be a huge part of your degree.
So, in short, I disagree, Roy Tennant. Learning HTML has done nothing but good things for my academic future, my current job situation, and my future career prospects. And after reading another Digital Shift post about how LIS students and librarians are learning to code and effectively using their programming skills to enhance their libraries, I will definitely be looking into the programming class options at my school next semester.