The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 21, Number 5
1997


What It's Like to be a Systems Person for a University

Notes from a talk by Paul Evan Peters to the preservation and conservation students at Columbia University, early 1980s

1. You're never put to work on anything that's working. They always put systems people to work on things that are really screwed up. Your job can be emotionally taxing till you learn this. Lots of negative waves.

2. Things are always more fragmented than you'd like. As you walk from library to library you're walking from era to era, like the Twilight Zone. Harmonize the differences, take a chance at finding the common thread--no one else can tell you what it is. The differences are amazing. Make no attempt to standardize things; it's hopeless.

3. A disproportional share of projects are initiated at the top, and suddenly. Be prepared. Look into prices, etc.; have a plan for when the call comes.

4. Having ideas is not nearly as useful as selling ideas. Everyone has ideas. You're not distinctive unless you can sell it, make it happen. Sometimes you don't have to have ideas--just notice when people are lining up in the same direction and get out in front of them.

5. In the long run your disciplined way of thinking will be recognized. If people come to you with unusual problems, that's a sign they like the way you think. Keep being systematic.

6. Learn to make decisions on the basis of available information (i.e., learn to enjoy risking your job). (Allen Kent at Pittsburgh, Peters' mentor, said when you make a decision a day that risks your job, you'll know you've arrived as a systems librarian.)

7. Very little work you'll do is of a design nature. Much of the work you'll do is burying old systems and maintaining the present system. In time, you may get to do a design project.

8. You don't run the library. But be an activist. Be ready to tell people, if they ask you, how you'd like it to be. Learn the ropes. You can dilute your role in systems by trying to change management. Do the most you can within the limits.

[This bit of Peters' wisdom, from notes taken at the time, is offered as a kind of belated memorial tribute, 14 months after his death. -Ed.]

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