In my co-op work term at Prosentient Systems Pty Ltd, in Sydney Australia, my job description is Systems Librarian. I've learned a great deal about library systems in this position and it's given me many more options for my future career path.
Prosentient Systems is a small company. Aside from me there's one part-time worker, Rob, and the owner, Edmund. I'll refer to them throughout this document.
At work I had my own desk and four major responsibilities. In my first two months at work I kept a detailed worklog of what I was doing, so you can see the specific tasks. Below is the executive summary report.
IFLA ICT Handbook Research
In the beginning of my term in May, while I was getting acquainted with the Koha ILS I was going to be assisting clients with I had an outside research project to help Edmund with. Edmund is the Information Officer for the International Federation of Library Associations. Before I arrived Edmund had been asked to write up a policy manual for the United Nations on implementing Information and Communications Technology in Parliamentary Libraries.
While Edmund was writing the document, I performed supplementary research on tools that would be useful to highlight in sidebars and the like. I also organized a wiki to make the document accessible as Edmund was writing it so the other members of the committee could have access and make any suggestions or comments they'd think Edmund would find useful. Edmund took his document to the IFLA conference in August and got further feedback from the committee there. Because the handbook will be published by the United Nations the wiki I created for the document is not public.
Also in the leadup to the IFLA conference I performed some layout tasks in Microsoft Publisher for the IFLA newsletter. This involved proofreading, choosing fonts and repositioning text and graphics on the page.
While the IFLA tasks were interesting they were more of a sideline to my main work which was in the realm of technical support for libraries using Prosentient-hosted Koha installations. Early in my term I spent time getting to know the software (which I had used only a slight amount before coming to Australia) but soon I was answering all sorts of questions our client libraries would call in with (or submit on our bug-tracking forums). This involved getting right into the system preferences and figuring out the ways that many different libraries could be using the software.
Most of our clients are special libraries supporting different institutions/businesses including healthcare groups, museums and the Australian Stock Exchange in Sydney, so I got to know a lot about different procedures at these different types of libraries.
Because Koha is an open-source system the code is open for tinkering with. At Prosentient, Edmund does most of the major code-rewriting but as I got more familiar with how things worked behind the scenes I was able to rewrite code to customize Koha in small ways for our clients as well. Another part of my job in regard to Koha was monitoring the Koha email lists to keep up to date with what was happening in the open-source community.
I also was responsible for training new clients in configuring and using Koha in their libraries. This involved hands-on demonstrations and public-speaking kinds of things. I had to explain software to information professionals. This is the area I feel I really shone in. My knowledge of library systems from my previous working life and my SLAIS courses (especially LIBR511 - Cataloguing) made the process work really well. Clients enjoyed dealing with me and I enjoyed dealing with them. In June I travelled to rural Victoria to do training for two regional hospitals on-site and on my own, and there are plans to send me out again in September (in my second term at Prosentient).
Other Duties & Responsibilities
Apart from those tasks I did general help with some of Prosentient's other projects including Quality Assurance testing for some of their carpooling software, graphic design tasks like making icons for a map, and maintaining databases that support some of Prosentient's hosted mailing lists. In September Rob and I began to plan a website redesign using the open-source Joomla Content Management System.
Learning Objective Progress
In terms of my learning objectives, I've learned a lot about Koha and how the system operates. I've been learning more about coding in the Perl programming language that Koha uses. I can make template changes in the modified HTML that Koha 3.2 uses. I can replicate code found in one module in another.
I have learned to use a number of Microsoft products in this position, including the programming aspects of Visual Studio and the layout functions of Publisher. I've also been using TechSmith's Camtasia to create screencasts which has been a challenging experience (I'm used to doing my audio-visual work on Macs and the PC environment is different) but one I've adapted to well. I use Photoshop to to minor graphics modifications including creating images wholesale for some of our clients' OPACs.
This has been a very technical job and all of these software skills are the kinds of things I'll be able to bring with me to new positions, making them exceedingly useful.
I've developed include a greater facility with the telephone. One of the biggest challenges for me has actually been getting over the fear of asking people to repeat themselves for their names, since the Australian accent isn't something I was very used to hearing before coming down to Sydney.
I've also gotten to do a lot of customer service work which is always useful. I'm getting better at explaining technical things to people who, while they may not be exceedingly technical, are also not stupid. I'm learning how to get to the heart of the question people want answered, even if they aren't sure exactly what it might be. My cataloguing coursework has been invaluable leading up to this position, and as my time at Prosentient progresses I've been learning much more about the nitty-gritty of how it works for real. Many small libraries do not have the time or resources to care very much about having detailed records. I've been running up against the practicalities of making a catalogue work with the time and staff available at all sorts of special libraries, which has been very enlightening.
In the summer session at SLAIS I took a course on Social Media for Information Professionals which came in very handy. I'm the most familiar with social media in our office so I've been kind of the go-to expert on that kind of thing. I created a Twitter account for the company and I've been the publicizer of our efforts within our client-base, and I've learned more about how this gets integrated into a real-world business. Our redesign of the Prosentient website (which is ongoing) has also been illuminating in the "How this works in the real world" sense.
I've been exposed to more special libraries during my time here in Sydney than ever before. These are a window into diverse possibilities for my future career. I've also been involved with thinking specifically about parliamentary libraries because of my work on the IFLA documents and the rest of Prosentient's work with the Parliamentary Library of New South Wales. However, I don't think parliamentary libraries are for me exactly. I much prefer the style of most of the smaller organizations I've come into contact with. I've got a much more diverse view of libraries than the traditional Public/Academic library split we often think about in school.
Personal Learning Reflections
One of the things I was excited about in this position was the chance to help in training. I know that if I end up in an academic library some day I will have an instructional role, so having some further experience in actual instruction (not just my English teaching experience in China).
The biggest learning "experience" I had in this arena was heading out to Bairnsdale, Victoria to train a pair of librarians in using Koha in a two-day session. This involved overnight train travel and being out on my own to train these clients (with cell-phone contact to the office if necessary). I was nervous but the opportunity and trust placed in me to be able to do this was extremely encouraging.
I spent my two days in Bairnsdale a bit over caffeinated but I was able to show the librarians how their systems were going to work and what they could do with them. Afterwards they praised me to Edmund and because of that two day training relationship I'm sort of their go-to contact in our office. That connection with clients is something I hadn't realized I would be making, but it's something I welcome.
If you're interested in a bit more reflection on my experiences, here is a short selection of posts from my blog (note that there's a bit of cussing involved on my blog, so if that bothers you, don't feel the need to read these):
- Techno-babble as a Second Language
- IT is Tough
- Introducing Yourself to Clients Avec Suavity
- The Matter of Experience
I've had an excellent time working in the small office environment at Prosentient. Edmund and Rob offer me a lot of autonomy and guidance. I've been given the chance to figure things out myself and then come in to Edmund to figure out why I am having trouble. I feel like my role in the office is as sort of a first filter for clients to try and help sort through their issues before sending them up to Edmund. I feel like that's a useful role and frees Edmund up to do other things.
One thing I feel a bit sidelined on in my role is the NSW Parliament project, but that's because of their higher stakes relationship with Edmund. I know that my contributions there need to be quick and are a priority for Edmund because they are a large and important client. My role is a supportive one and it's there that my lack of technical skill with the servers comes to the fore. This isn't a terrible thing, as being a sysadmin isn't necessarily my career goal, but I do notice it. I feel like the learning curve on that would be terribly high to get beyond the assistance I'm currently able to give in those areas.
Recommendations to Students
A student coming to work for Prosentient should be ready and able to poke around in systems. Documenting issues that are happening to clients and figuring out why they're happening is a big part of the job, so you need to be able to think like a computer. Having cataloguing skills is really useful, as you'll often be more knowledgeable than the people you're training. You have to temper that book-knowledge with how they do things in their libraries, so being flexible and willing to adapt to the client is important.
Life in Sydney
As far as working in Sydney, there are a few things to be aware of. We took a long time to get my visa. In fact, I entered the country on an electronic tourist visa because my work visa hadn't come through by the time I was scheduled to start. Edmund is very flexible (this is where Prosentient being a small company really helped) so we worked out a way for me to be able to live even if I couldn't legally be working. So start on the visa early.
The visa application process requires a bunch of certified copies of your original documents (like your passport and student ID). I'd thought this meant notarized or certified by a pharmacist or some other arduous procedure, but in Australia it can be a university instructor. I got SLAIS profs to sign the photocopies I sent to Australia along with the phrase "I certify these are true copies of the original documents." They also attached UBC business cards. That all worked out fine.
Once I was in Sydney I also needed to get a chest X-ray as part of the visa application. It's possible you might be able to get that done in Vancouver if you're working on your visa application earlier than we were.
In Sydney, rent is very expensive. Advertisements (I used domain.com.au for my rental searching) show the price per week not per month. You also need to have four weeks' bond for the landlord before you move in (this is the deposit). That adds up quickly. Edmund helped me with that for me since I wasn't getting paid as soon as I arrived. I found a place in Ultimo (the area right near Prosentient) where my girlfriend and I pay $340/week for a room with a private bathroom in a shared student accommodation place. There are 8 international students living here sharing a kitchen.
If I were looking for a place here now, I would look for something more in the Redfern suburb, which would be a twenty minute bike ride away. It's a bit more affordable (if a bit more sketchy an area - think East Vancouver).
As far as the work goes, I think things have gone very well and I don't know what I would change. Having a bit more background in Perl beforehand would have been useful. I've learned a lot about SQL databases while working here, but actual programming has a steeper learning curve.
I've learned how friendly librarians are and the fact that I'm Canadian makes people even more accommodating. All the librarians have been very good to work with, and Edmund and Rob have been very friendly and welcoming to their co-op student from the far side of the world.
I've enjoyed my time at Prosentient and feel I'm learning a lot about the kind of work that's possible in relation to libraries beyond the traditional Public/Academic type situation. Edmund has been an exceedingly supportive and encouraging supervisor who's given me lots of room to grow. This has been an excellent experience, all in all.