Tuesday, February 19, 2013

You Build A Library with Books



Back in December I was returning by train from Toronto where I had just spent the day at the 2012 Scholars Portal Day and keeping in the spirit of the day, decided to participate in my first #libchat on Twitter.

I got some curious replies to my answer to the evening's second question (above) and so I resolved to take some time in the future to expand what I meant by my admittedly pithy statement.  But I need to unpack some thoughts before we take that trip.

We are in a moment of time in which the number of librarians being hired is steadily dropping and yet, if I may glom on a passage that is not about librarians, but of humanities scholars, which may or may not include librarians, depending on your inclination...

this so-called crisis comes at a moment in which highly-trained humanities scholars are in fact most needed. They are needed to help grapple with the wholesale digital transformation of our cultural heritage. They are needed to help organize and preserve and begin to interpret the deluge of born-digital data that will form the primary material for scholars of art, literature, and history for years to come [too small too fail]

Why aren't librarians more of a presence at science conferences? Why aren't we in strong numbers at first year experience, composition conferences, or future of publishing conferences? [hat tip LSW]

Why are the only libraries represented at O'Reilly's Strata (the "making data work" conference) are only ones of code?

Why aren't librarians being hired in workplaces where the cost of not being able to find necessary information has been recognized and even quantified?


Studies by IDC, as well as organizations such as the Working Council of CIOs, AIIM, the Ford Motor Company and Reuters have found that:
  • Knowledge workers spend from 15% to 35% of their time searching for information.
  • Searchers are successful in finding what they seek 50% of the time or less...
  • 40% of corporate users reported that they can not find the information they need to do their jobs on their intranets....
  • Some studies suggest that 90% of the time that knowledge workers spend in creating new reports or other products is spent in recreating information that already exists


It's now largely recognized that we can never return to a world of information scarcity and that to protect and nurture ourselves that we all need to be net-smart and develop strong and ethical information filters.

So why isn't this a golden age for librarians?

I'd like to put forward one reason why is this the case.

It's the tools we use.  No one else uses them. And that's a problem.

I have a colleague who has a rule that one should - if possible -  only invest the time and effort to learn programming languages and software that has at least one O'Reilly "animal cover" book dedicated to it.  As a professional who has wasted hundreds of hours having to develop web pages using Lotus Notes Domino Designer, and in doing so, suffered a massive opportunity cost of not learning and keeping up to date with web standards and practices (until only recently - thank you Drupal!) let me tell you that there is much hard-earned wisdom embedded in that rule.

No software is an island. The strength of software lies in the strength of the community of developers who animate the code and bring it to life.  Island biogeography is a risky long-term strategy.

The library software community is not very big and not very strong. Just over two weeks ago another library software company was bought out by venture capitalists, one that includes a a former managing director of Bain Capital. When I said in November that the library profession uses technology like the Republican Party, I didn't think these words would end up being so literal.

And now a confession. I am no longer impressed by the work of talented, well-meaning librarians who spend hours and hours of effort wrestling with shabbily documented APIs and resort to even screen-scraping in order to turn the interfaces of shabby library software into something usable for non-librarians.  Here is my hard earned wisdom to share:  your development work is for naught.

Commercial library software is not based on iterative improvements.  The business model of library software is entirely based on vendor lock-in. Vendors only spend money on software development where the contracts are up and there's an alternative around.  All those things your staff complained about over the last five years? Fixed in this new version!

(Non-commercial ILS systems are based on iterative improvement based on open systems. The skills that you learn by managing them can be used elsewhere.  That publishers are sponsoring development in such systems is a really interesting and positive (err) development in this space).

True to their business model, most of the library software vendors are now selling what are known as URM systems (because their previous iteration as ERMS like Ex-Libris' Verde, didn't go over so well). These systems essentially do away with the library catalogue as we know it, and replace it with 'integrated to the point that they cannot be separated' discovery layer, the backend, the resolver and license records and put them all on one of their servers along with all of your records of library's collection and your patrons.

What could possibly go wrong?

In Canada, our National Library and Archives are being burned down by the Harper government. It is entirely plausible that our academic library system - especially the larger universities in these systems -might only remain to preserve our culture for our future.  We cannot outsource that responsibility.

We don't have to invest in our the library equivalent of Lotus Notes. We don't have to bet against the Internet. We can have open systems like Evergreen or Kuali OLE.  We can connect our systems and solve our pressing workflow issues by using the tools that non-library world uses such as Google App Scripting.

There are all sorts of tools we can use to solve our library's day to day work.

Just look through the O'Reilly book catalogue and see. Their publishing choices are based on evidence based trends that they discern from the book market.

I would love to see our future libraries built with the knowledge from books.

7 comments:

Alan said...

"I am no longer impressed by the work of talented, well-meaning librarians who spend hours and hours of effort wrestling with shabbily documented APIs and resort to even screen-scraping in order to turn the interfaces of shabby library software into something usable for non-librarians. Here is my hard earned wisdom to share: your development work is for naught."

Mita, this sums up my current feelings about library software so perfectly I want to frame it.

Riven Homewood said...

I've always felt that librarians made a serious mistake by choosing to position the profession as "let us show you how to use the library" rather than "We are experts in organizing and finding information. Let us find what you need." But then, I've never been a fan of disintermediation.

Alexander hauschild said...

Even with 12 years experience as a digital archivist I got passed without an interview for that Blizzard job. I'd love to know who got it.

Alexander hauschild said...

Even with 12 years experience as a digital archivist, I got passed without an interview for that Blizzard job. I'd love to know who got it just to talk to them about how they approached it.

Elisa said...

Oh, this is so right on! I'm currently both a staffer at a large research library and an MLIS candidate. As such, I've recently been serving time at our reference desk and also on the library's website advisory committee. My mind is increasingly blown by the inertia of usability-poor library software and database packages and by the unquestioning traditional reference services that act as a crutch for those packages. Riven's comment nails it, too.

Elisa said...

Oh, this is so right on! I'm currently both a staffer at a large research library and an MLIS candidate. As such, I've recently been serving time at our reference desk and also on the library's website advisory committee. My mind is increasingly blown by the inertia of usability-poor library software and database packages and by the unquestioning traditional reference services that act as a crutch for those packages. Riven's comment nails it, too.

Helen Kula said...

I loved the thread around Strata as I've been dismayed by the complete absence of the library community in any and all conferences, summits and workshops around 'big data' (how I hate that term but that's another story) - there's a ton out there besides the O'Reilly flagship btw. Ontario has invested millions in the Southern Ontario Smart Computing and Innovation Partnership (SOSCIP) and academic libraries, as far as I know, have no role in this. And remember 'content curation' - buzzword du jour last year - and something I still see jobs posted for? Something librarians have been doing for an eternity yet we failed to claim this expertise as our own when others began looking for it...