Library Day in the Life, Day 5: Friday January 29th (sort of...)

Okay, it's not January 29th. It's two weeks later, which means that it's my server support guy's last day. On the 29th, he tweeted that he'd given his notice. I can blame my lack of a #libday6 post either on my depressive state from hearing this news or the fact that we headed up to the mountains for a weekend of skiing that evening, and in the evening was the only time I had to do posts that week. Or both.

So what's the story? Four years ago to the month, our campus IT was starting to think about retiring the aging UNIX server on which our library web site was hosted, so library IT called a meeting to discuss the library's web needs. I was 8 months pregnant with #3 (read: cranky), fed up with the status quo, and ready to throw down about our web needs if campus IT wasn't supportive.

So here's the status quo. I had been on the job almost exactly a year, having arrived in February 2006, at which time we owned a single directory on the aforementioned aging server, named Carbon. Carbon was a workhorse that in days past ran email and served web sites for most of the campus prior to a mass migration to MOSS (Microsoft Office SharePoint Server). The library didn't make the migration because we serve all three schools on the Auraria Campus, so we couldn't be locked into a CMS that did not support a look and feel independent of its branding-the library has its own branding. This was fine with me, because from what I had heard from other webmasters on campus, the best thing about MOSS was that you could opt out of it.

Library staff had very limited access to our space on Carbon, which made development of any kind beyond static web pages that a handful of users could edit nearly impossible. The four dynamic applications we ran with PHP/MySQL were jammed into a single database-we were only allowed a single MySQL database "for security purposes"-and the data had become corrupt. When I asked why only five library staff had user accounts on the server, I was told that that also was "for security reasons." I finally pressed for a more in-depth answer on this, and I was told that only a limited number of staff could access our directory because of "all of the patron data it contained." After a hearty facepalm, I politely explained that our patron data was stored in house on our ILS. Once this misunderstanding was cleared up, I was free to request any number of users and groups I wanted on the server; however, I was not allowed access to it to make those changes, and there was always a bottleneck of requests on Carbon that delayed our user management.

Finally, whenever any maintenance was performed, the Apache restart was overlooked, as most other departments on campus had migrated their sites off into their own *nix space or onto the MOSS system. The maintenance was usually performed on Friday evenings. I know this because of the panicked calls I got from the reference librarians who opened the desk on Saturday mornings.

As it turned out, my crankiness at the meeting was unfounded-except for the whole 8-months-pregnant thing. At that February meeting, I met Josh, the aforementioned server guy. He was still relatively new to campus IT, and the outcome of the meeting with him, his supervisor, and one other was that he was tasked with setting up a LAMP stack for us in our own virtual environment. I had root access! Complete autonomy! He taught me how to create and manage users and groups and how to assign permissions in Linux, and how to set up virtual hosts and configure Apache. He helped me set up a migration plan to get the PHP/MySQL applications that we had on Carbon into the new space.

We've grown from that single directory on the shared server to hosting five separate websites, four of them using robust content management systems, Drupal and MediaWiki, which he helped me install initially until I become comfortable with such tasks. We likely would not have been allowed to even install these programs in our previous environment. This has obviously contributed a great deal to my own professional development as well.

Here's the cautionary part. Last spring, I gave a presentation with my boss and a coworker about "Working with Campus IT: Becoming a Partner Instead of a Client." We talked about our many successes in opening communication channels with campus IT, and in mine, I talked about how we were able to grow our web presence with Josh's support. I did brag, however, that they likely wouldn't find someone as good, and the line on the slide also cautioned that "ad hoc relationships between individuals, no matter how well intentioned, create dangerous points of failure." I told them about the web server outage we had on the Saturday after Thanksgiving one year. I was at my parents' in the mountains, and Josh was at his nephew's birthday party. No one else could get in to restart the server. Whoops. While it wasn't a perfect setup, it allowed the library-and me personally-to accomplish so much more.

In my experience as a librarian at three academic institutions, campus IT has put the library in too small a box, not understanding or even attempting to understand the web development needs and opportunities for modern academic libraries. Josh never told us “no,” always went out of his way to support the success of our web projects, even when doing so was something he was no longer officially tasked to do. This included working outside of regular business hours on many occasions to assist with upgrades, migrations, and outages.

Josh's departure onto a career path that better suits his interests and career development leave us now with no Linux support from campus IT, but they've suggested that we work with an outside contractor that they know for the support that we need now. And, if you know me, you know I've been bragging for three weeks about how I finally have a full-time programmer on staff. So I'm not totally out in the cold, and I bet she and I can take care of most of the day-to-day stuff.

So anyway, here's my final #libday6 offering, two weeks late. I'm happy for Josh that he's moving on to focus on what interests him most professionally, and rereading this, I'm proud of what I've accomplished in nearly five years-my employment anniversary is Sunday. I still have much to learn, and our environment is far from perfect, but being handed the reins to my own server has taught me so much. Not bad for a librarian with an English degree.