I read Roy Tennant’s recent post on why you shouldn’t learn HTML with some amusement, since I would have given the same advice in the late 1990s when I was starting library school and Tennant was writing his book on helping librarians learn HTML. When I was in library school, there were advocates, possibly inspired by Tennant’s example, who were pretty sure that we’d never be successful librarians without knowing HTML, which at the time wasn’t the quaint idea that it seems now. With reluctance and curiosity, I attended a couple of workshops that were going to teach me HTML and provide me with the necessary skills to become the successful professional librarian I hoped to be. I even have a book on the shelves in my office on HTML, acquired during library school and quite possibly unopened until this day. My HTML knowledge then and now consists of being able to steal the code I need to fix any problem I might encounter with a web editor or content management system. I can’t remember the last time I needed even that much knowledge.
The advice to learn HTML (or CSS, or [insert the code du jour here]) is well meant, and possibly well taken. Every once in a while I get the urge to pick up a new skill and give it a try. Last January I signed up for one of those learn-to-code websites (Codeacademy, I think), and I went through the first few lessons before I assured myself that a) it bored me and thus held no inherent interest, and b) I don’t need to learn it because I don’t see a need for it. I don’t need to learn it, and I didn’t need to learn it 15 years ago, because there are other people and other tools that learned it for me. I didn’t need to learn much HTML because I had Netscape Navigator, with its combination browser, email client, and HTML editor (for you younger librarians who might never have used Netscape Navigator, you can try SeaMonkey to see what it was like. It’s a continuation of the Netscape project and gives that old school Navigator feel). Then I had Dreamweaver. Now I have LibGuides or Google Sites or SeaMonkey.
I also ignore the advice of the gurus et al. because I knew early on that if people had to learn how to code to use computers, the personal computer business would never have been successful. I can even roughly determine when I came to this realization: the fall of 1985, during which I was enrolled in my high school’s mandatory computer science course. It was also just after I had been given my first personal computer, the pitifully weak but durable Apple IIc (discontinued by Apple in August 1988, but discontinued by me at the end of my first year of grad school in August 1993, when it was replaced by the boxy little Apple Color Classic that carried me through 1997).
The teacher assured us that the class was necessary so we could learn about computers so we could get good jobs someday, because computers were the future. Something or other is always the future. In order to guarantee our place in the competitive future, we learned to program in BASIC and FORTRAN. No, I shouldn’t say that. We were taught to program, but we didn’t all learn. I learned important skills, like getting really cute girls who were into computer programming to help me with my homework, but I can’t say I learned to program very much. I learned how to tell my computer to stream “HELLO” across the screen, which is pretty much the extent of what I learned to do during last year’s brief excursion into codeland. Back then, I knew what I needed a computer for, mostly writing, trying (and failing) to play text-based computer games, and viewing the most ridiculous pornography I’ve ever seen (and that includes the kind with people dressed up like animals or superheroes). None of those things required me to learn to code, just like none of the things I do with computers now–which is a lot–requires it.
If I’m a heavy computer user who doesn’t need to know that stuff, and most people who use computers don’t know or need to know how to code or even have extensive computer knowledge, why are there always people telling us that we do? It’s the same reason why social media “gurus” or “sherpas” tell us that we need to embrace some new social media site or risk…really, I don’t know what we might risk, but it’s supposedly something dire. I guess we’ll risk not being “with it” or “happening” or whatever the current slang is to describe people desperate to seem acceptable to some in-crowd or another. The reason isn’t because we need to learn how to code or embrace Twitter or whatever. It’s not that we need to learn something; it’s that they need to say something.
Sometimes this thing they say is instructive, insightful, and honestly felt. I can’t find it now, but before I tried my last coding jaunt I read a great article by someone who pointed to all sorts of practical uses he had for his coding knowledge. Some program wouldn’t work, he would work around it. He had some tech problem? He would code his way to a solution. I was impressed, and thought, yeah, that sounds really smart. And after a few lessons I realized he was a man with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail. He solved problems with code because he had code in his toolbox. He probably solved problems I would never realize I had, because he could. This isn’t to take away from his knowledge and skill. I was impressed by both that and his argument. It’s just that I don’t have those problems, and if I do I’d solve them some other way.
Based on my experience, I know the gurus’ giving advice about things I must learn is wrong. I can learn those things, and I might even benefit from that learning, but I don’t have to and will probably do just fine without learning them. I don’t follow sherpas and gurus because I prefer to go my own way. Leaders need followers, but I’m not much of either. I’ve found that it’s much easier to develop skills as I need them than to be told that some skill will benefit me because the teller has the skill and reaps benefits. If I had needed to learn to code for work, I’d have done it. The thing is, that’s true for most skills. I can’t code worth a damn, but I write pretty well and am a tolerable public speaker. Yet I would never tell people that unless you learn to crank out a coherent thousand-word essay quickly or give a good impromptu talk, you’ll never be much of a communicator and thus not much of a librarian. It’s important, because communication is the future.
Communication is the future. That sounds pretty catchy. Maybe I should try this guru thing after all.