Why I Gave Up Learning to Code

I’m going to take a slight departure from project management to talk about something closely related, coding. There are countless pieces out there written by others far more qualified than me about the necessity of librarians learning to code. This idea had become so ubiquitous I really thought that my ability to get a job would be predicated on my ability to learn how to code. I’m happy to say that isn’t the case and while I learned a great deal in my efforts I have to wonder if I could have spent that time learning something much more useful.

Technology has always been a part of my life and I’ve been something of an earlier adopter for a many things but I never had any formal STEM type education. My undergrad degree is in political science and I worked in politics and law. It was really not that long ago that I would still routinely use a typewriter. During library school, I took a web fundamentals class that was largely based around learning HTML and CSS and some of the back end server things necessary for setting up your own site. I had some previous experience with this from playing around on the web but the class really helped to pull that together. Around that time I also setup some self-hosted WordPress sites (something I still do and really enjoy).

But upon finishing school and starting to look at jobs and figuring out what I wanted to do, beyond librarian, I kept hearing about the importance of learning to code for new librarians. While reviewing job postings, this started to become clear as I saw many positions looking for a unicorn that could do pretty much everything (often including coding). Seeing this, I took it upon myself to learn the skills that seemed to now be required if I was going to get a job.

I picked up some reference books (I tend to like the Head First series for starting out as they are actually readable) and starting trying to self teach. I thought PHP and MySQL would be a good place to start as I could beef up my web skills and add something more to my resume. As I started going through the book and working on the exercises I was struck by something I hadn’t really ever encountered; not being able to pick up a new skill with ease. I’ve always been a quick learner and eager to develop new skills but none of that seemed to apply here. Work was difficult and I made many mistakes. I thought maybe it was the book so I checked out Code Academy. While that helped a bit, I would take one step forward and then hit a wall I couldn’t overcome. This lead to frustration and I’d take a break. But after a few weeks all I succeeded in doing was forgetting anything I had actually learned previously. Then I would start again only to become frustrated even more quickly. After an extended period of not working on anything, I thought I’d try something completely different. Maybe it was the PHP stuff that just wasn’t for me. What if I tried Python?

I started this next attempt with very realistic expectations of where I was at. So much so I got a book on learning Python for grade schoolers from the library. I thought “If they could do it then so could I.” But the reality is I couldn’t do it. And this time it didn’t just lead to frustration, it was full on depression. Clearly there must be something wrong with me if I can’t even meet the challenge of a book geared towards children.

Around this time my pre-library job became very busy and I was able to put this out of my mind. Shortly thereafter I saw the posting for my current job and ended up where I am now. I got that library job (doing some very interesting work that I really enjoy) despite not being able to learn how to code. What I realized is that I am something of a technology generalist and that works out great for the work I do as a project manager. I often have to talk with developers and turn around and summarize the information for others in a way they can understand. My attempts at learning how to code have helped that greatly but I can’t help but look back at the frustration and time I spent and wonder if there would have been something better I could have been doing.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned was just how difficult coding can be, espcially for those that don’t approach the world in very logical way. Those that are able to master that in addition to the many other facets of librarianship truly have my respect. But coming in at close second is the fact that there is no one magic skill set that will make you the best librarian. Libraries need those that can code but they also need metadata experts and people with exceptional public service skills (something we often overlook at times).

I still occasionally dabble, working on deep search box to tie into the discovery system or a simple bookmarklet that lets you get at xml behind the records. Nothing incredible but enough that I can convince myself it was all worth it. But more importantly, I have a much better understanding on where my strengths are and the type of work where they can be best applied. I’ll probably never try another earnest effort at learning how to code and frankly I’m happy for it.

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