library technology


There is a map in our ILL office.  ILL staff indicate libraries that we loan materials to by sticking a white pin in the map and they indicate libraries that lend to us by sticking a gold pin in the map.  If you are a map person, or even if you are just a library person, it interesting to check out places where things from our library have gone and it is interesting to see where things have come from.

I thought it would be interesting to see if I could duplicate the map on Google maps – and for the fun of it see if I could create a simple way to update the map.  The first thing I needed to do was get a handle on KML.  KML is a flavor of XML that Google uses to encode data about maps.  Once I had a handle on KML, I needed to find a way to get the information to populate the KML.

Like most university libraries, my library uses OCLC to facilitate lending between other libraries and us.  Additionally, the library uses ILLiad to manage that work.  Unfortunately, I don’t have direct access to the data in ILLiad, I’m not even 100% sure what data I could get out of it.  But I could get our ILL Librarian to get me a list of OCLC symbols.  And this is where things start to get interesting.

In order to get information about a library, I used the WorldCat Registry API.  From the registry I can get the name of the parent institution, name of the library, address of the library, the latitude and longitude of the library (very important for Google Maps), and a host of other information.  Pretty much everything I needed to populate my KML data.

So I wrote up a little php script that read through my list of OCLC symbols and searched the WorldCat Registry API for each one.  Fairly quickly I realized that many more symbols were failing than should.  Most often this was a result of a symbol  having more than one location to choose from.  So I tweaked my script to go through each location returned and make its best guess at which one was correct.  Which pretty much meant the first record that had a reasonably complete address.

Now I had a way to get the information about the libraries my library had been engaging in ILL with, but how was I going to get it into Google Maps.  At first I just crammed it directly into KML format.  In my hopeful first days the script generated live data.  However, as you might imagine, this resulted in considerable lag time and ultimately Google just ignored my data.  Next I output the KML data into a separate file.

Outputting the data was all well and good, but ultimately posed some challenges for updating the data.  I had always intended that the data would be able to be updated.  Entires needed to be added, deleted or changed.  I could just periodically run a new list of OCLC symbols through my script and overwrite the old file with new, updated data with any new entries and minus any that needed to be dropped.  However, I still had some failed WorldCat Registry searches that needed to be handled.  And not all of the ILL from my library goes to places that have an OCLC symbol.  So I was hoping to be able to manually enter data, when necessary,

My first solution was to update the KML file using the XML support in PHP.  While this was fun as a mental exercise, it was pretty obvious that I needed something a little more flexible and easy to deal with.  I went about moving my data into a MySQL database.  However, around this time I saw someone talking about Google’s Fusion Tables.  Fusion Tables seemed like a perfect fit for my project.  Fusion Tables are built to work with Google’s other products, like Google Maps.  Fusion Tables are smart enough to know when they are dealing with location data (most of the time) and you can import the data into a map without converting it to KML.

Ultimately, I didn’t go with Fusion Tables.  I wasn’t sure that I ultimately wanted to host this library data in my personal gmail account.  And I suspected that other people in the library would have some issues around managing the data this way.  So at first I stuck with my MySQL database.  But then my university contracted with Google for Gmail accounts with Google Docs and Sites and …  No Fusion Tables.  But I could access a Google Spreadsheet through the API.  And I could easily share the document with others in the library without having to ask for a personal email.  It was worth a try.

Ultimately, I ended up storing the data in a Google Docs spreadsheet.  I have a script that initially populated the data and two other scripts.  The first script lets to put in an OCLC symbol and have the data automatically added to spreadsheet.  This script handles the multiple WorldCat Registry entries with more subtlety, allowing the user to select the addess that they want to use, even providing a map as a visual aid.  The other script allows someone to manually enter an address and add it to the spreadsheet.  Again, with visual aids and the whole nine yards.

I should mention, that I found the latitude and longitude data in the WorldCat Registry to be less than reliable.  It was frequently absent.  Sometimes it was transposed, so the lat was the long and vice versa.  Sometime, I don’t know where it came from.  So I started using the Google Maps API to get latitude and longitude coordinates based on the address in the WorldCat Registry.

For the sake of my presentation here, I moved the data back into Fusion Tables.  Here’s how it looks:

It’s not clear that WP is playing nice with Fusion Tables right now, so I’m not sure that is going to show up, so here is the link – https://www.google.com/fusiontables/DataSource?snapid=S285421YrX2

Recently, William Denton posted an email on the NGC4Lib list about a talk he is giving at Access 2010.  In the description of the talk, he included the following:

Reference librarians are whiny and demanding.
Systems librarians are arrogant and rude.
Users are clueless and uninformed.

I started my library career as a reference librarian, but have spent the last 9 years working in systems.  During all that time, I have been an active library user.  So I guess that makes me whiny, demanding, arrogant, rude, clueless, and uninformed.  I’m sure I could find someone who would call me any of those things.  We all probably experience moments where we exhibit those unattractive traits.  It does little or no good to classify our colleagues and our users that way.  But response to the post makes it clear that those labels resonated with people.

So, why do we feel this way?  I’m sure there are many things that contribute to this feeling, but I want to focus on one issue, how our systems department interact with the rest of the library.  I currently work in a department called “Library Systems Support“.  This sense of support defines how the department interacts with other library staff.  While I don’t think about it from day to day, it still shows up in the interactions with staff members and in decisions that are made by management.  It makes the library staff view systems as people who work for them.  And it makes the systems department view the library staff as a drain on their resources.

 

Dilbert.com

I believe that working in partnership between systems and the rest of the library will help us break down the barriers that breed the hard feelings expressed above.  Of course, many library system departments do work in partnership with their colleagues and most or all probably do at times, but many libraries do still view their systems department as the “back office” operation which supports the “front office”, reference and special collections, operations.  And that dynamic fosters relations where not only is it likely that departments will have problems communicating, but it is often in the departments interest to not communicate.

When systems works as a partner with other departments in the library, both players can focus on the users and on the businesses processes of the library.  When systems serves as support for other departments and is not involved in the business of the library, the needs of the users and the definition of business processes becomes a negotiation.  The end result is that neither the user or the library is served.  Instead, the individual departments are served.  The things that the staff think are important are preserved.  The things that don’t directly impact the staff are the first to go.  Working as a partner changes the game.  Instead of starting from either department’s goals, both parties can work from a common goal.  Sure, that’s a bit idealistic, but the likelihood that focus is kept on the end result, rather than on who’s going to do the work, increase significantly.

It isn’t all milk and honey.  Working as a partner with other library departments is going to make more work for systems.  It will probably make more work for the other departments as well.  But working together will break down barriers between the departments.  So Systems will see Reference as more than whiny and demanding.  And Reference will see Systems as something more than arrogant and rude.  And we’ll realize that the users aren’t clueless and uniformed, they just need our help.

I recently came across a post on Rory Litwin’s blog about what “librarianship” is.  This is a topic that is of interest to me, in part because it is my chosen profession, but also because I think there is confusion among librarians about what librarianship is.  Librarianship, to me, is a profession.  This distinguishes it from being just a job.  When you are the member of a profession, it is your responsibility to think about what that means.  Just as an example, on one of the email lists that I subscribe there has been a lengthy discussion about privacy and the ALA Code of Ethics.  As a “professional”, I believe these are the kinds of things that you you should be thinking about.  When you have a job, you just show up and do what you are told.

So what is the confusion about librarianship?  I think Rory’s post hints at it, but I see it more pronounced on some of the email lists that I monitor.  People talk past each other on a topic because they don’t start out with the same assumptions.  To go back to Rory’s post for a minute, as someone points out in the comment, Rory talks about the fields of “web designers, information architects, web searchers, information scientists, user experience experts” belonging to other professionals, but then claims that librarians should acquire greater knowledge about “scholarly communities, the research into reading behavior, learning theory, media studies”, although those are fields that also belong to other groups.

I think the division created by Rory is informative, and relevant to the failed connections I was talking about earlier.  On the one hand is the a list of “technical” disciplines we should be wary of and on the other is a list of “pedagogical” disciplines that we should embrace.  The same dichotomy influences discussions on the mailing list mentioned above.  Arguments about what machines can/will do to make human intervention unnecessary versus how our users really use the machines can go on for weeks and usually only make both sides dig in more (Although, I do think recently it seems like there has been a little give on one or both sides).  The sad thing is that, for the most part, librarians aren’t experts on either the technical or the pedagogical issues.  We flounder around grabbing for whatever is popular (web scale!!!) or what catches our fancy (active learning!!!) without the training to back it up and without the research to show that it is worthwhile.

So, what is librarianship?  I can’t say that I know, but the idea I have been mulling around in my head since reading Rory’s post is that librarianship is about making sense out of the world of information.  Making sense in the broad sense in terms of defining the information universe, creating ways to describe the information in the universe, and developing ways to identify and access information.  And also, making sense in the micro sense, such as teaching information literacy to a class (or a single student), cataloging a book, building a local collection, or making a web site that helps users find what they are looking for.

To make this sense out of the incredible amounts of information out there and make it available to that person who walks in the front door or surfs over to your web site, you do need all the skills that Rory listed: an understanding of scholarly communities, the research into reading behavior, learning theory, media studies and you also need to be web designers, information architects, web searchers, information scientists, user experience experts.

Last week I attended a presentation by Don Norman, the author of The Design of Everyday Things and many other excellent books.  His forthcoming book will be entitled Living with Complexity. Several points from Dr. Norman’s presentation got me thinking about how I could apply them in Libraryland.

The first point was that simplicity exists only in your head – the world is always complex.  The example used in the presentation was the Unix command prompt.  To the experienced Unix administrator this is a familiar and comfortable place.  A place where the experienced administrator can make magic happen.  For the user who has limited, or no, experience, it isn’t simple at all.  In fact it may send them to the local bookstore, or Amazon.com, looking for a book to tell them what to do next.  In contrast to the apparently simplicity of the Unix prompt, Dr. Norman showed a picture of the cockpit of an airplane.Cockpit of 747 The cockpit of the 747 in the image to the right seems very complex to most of us – at least those of us not trained to fly a 747.  For those who are trained as pilots, the set up is fairly easy to understand.  First, many of the controls are duplicated to accommodate the co-pilot.  Additionally, controls are grouped according to how they are are used.  Navigation and control are in one area, while communications is in another area.  The layout of the cockpit makes it easy for the pilot to understand the controls.

While it’s never been compared to a plane’s cockpit, the most frequent comment I get from staff at my library is that the home page is too complicated and too busy.  To me, however, the complexity and busy-ness should function like the airplane’s cockpit.  It should be laid out in an understandable fashion that gives the user not only access to the complexity buried beneath the home page, but an understanding that there is a complexity.  That there is a wide range of information available.  To find just what you are looking around, you may need to poke around a bit.  This is not to say that everyone should have to poke around, there needs to be express lanes for users doing the most common tasks on the web site, but hiding the complexity of library only makes it more difficult for the user.

Current approaches to representing that complexity are far from perfect.  And new solutions that provide a single index that searches many of the library’s resources can help filter some of the complexity.  However, even these solutions mask the complexity more than they cure it.  To deal with the complexity of its results page Google gives you search options that narrow the scope of your search (Scholar, Blogs, Images, etc.).  However, those categories still fail to represent the complexity or give us enough options.  So we are left to hope what we are looking for is in the first few pages of results – to Google’s credit, it often is.

Library web pages lack one of the strengths of cockpit design – standardization.  Pilots can move from plane to plane and expect similar layouts.  In libraries, for now, our users have to learn a new interface every time they come to a new library home page.  And the incentive in libraries is to come up with something new rather than make user experience uniform from interface to interface.  It creates a challenge for our users and it creates a challenges for the librarians who maintain web pages.

Dr. Norman also pointed out that there are many things we don’t expect people to be able to do intuitively, such as driving.  We expect people to spend some time learning to drive, perhaps even taking classes.  Although it may be unfashionable to say in some circles, doing research is a skill that has to be developed over time.  Obviously, the stakes (usually) aren’t as high as they are when you are driving a car.  But being able to identify and meet your information needs is valuable skill that we spend all of our lives practicing.  Unfortunately, research doesn’t have the clearly defined rules and standard tools that driving does.  This makes it even more complex.

I want to be clear, I’m not coming down on the side of librarians who I have known who thought our users just need to learn how to use our stuff.  Users do need to learn how to do research, but librarians need to work towards making our tools more consistent and easier to use.  To go back to automobile example, manufacturers keep making better cars; standardizing the order of the gear shifter, anti-lock brakes and now cars that park themselves.  Just because the user has a responsibility to learn, does not relieve librarians of the responsibility to make better tools for research – or to teach users how to do research.  Ideally, librarians would develop a tool that would teach its user how to do research while .  I’m sure someone somewhere is working on these issues, but I don’t see it mentioned frequently in the Library literature.

The library domain is a complex one.  The array of resources that libraries make available to their users is staggering.  We need to do a better job of getting our resources in the hands of our users.  To do that we have to work WITH our users to help them understand what information they need and how they can use it.  We can’t abandon them to the single search box of Google or Bing!

Below are my notes for the Poster that I will be presenting at the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago on July 13, 2009.

The data and charts that accompany these comments are available for download.  As is the raw survey data.

Who was surveyed and when?

  • Libraries that are using Drupal for their web site or planning to use Drupal for their website were surveyed from May 1, 2009 to June 15, 2009.
  • 71 libraries completed the survey.

Type of Library

  • Academic libraries represented the largest group with 37 University, College, or Community College libraries responding.
  • 26 Public Libraries responded.
  • The remainder of the libraries were made up of a vendor, a consortium, Government, Special, School, and Medical Libraries.

Before Drupal

  • More than half of libraries were using Static HTML with some dynamic content for their web sites.
  • Libraries using only Static HTML or Static HTML with dynamic content make up more than two-thirds of the libraries that responded to the survey.
  • Libraries using a homegrown CMS were the next largest group.

When was Drupal implemented?

  • Of the libraries that responded, the bulk of the libraries were either still in development or had implemented Drupal more than a year ago.
  • Libraries who responded could be broken down into 3 nearly equal categories:
  • Libraries who had implemented more than a year ago.
  • Libraries who had implemented during the previous year, and
  • Libraries still in development.

Functionality

  • CCK and Views, Classification, Search, and Syndication/Aggregation are the most popular functions according to respondents to the survey.
  • Public and Academic libraries generally agreed about how popular each function was.
  • Notable exceptions
  • User-contributed content which 8 public libraries had implemented versus 3 Academic libraries
  • Multi-user and Personal blogs (14 Public v. 6 Academic)
  • Rich text editing (20 Academic v. 10 Public).

How hard were these tasks?

  • “Learning Drupal”, “Changing the site’s look and feel”, and “Module Selection” were reported as the most difficult tasks in Drupal.
  • “Creating and marking up content”, “Configuring access rights”, and “Installing Drupal” were reported as the least difficult tasks in Drupal.
  • “Getting help in the forums” and “Contributing to Drupal” were also rated as relatively easy.
  • “Finding skilled Drupal Developers”, “Finding skilled Drupal Designers”, and “Finding good documentation” were reported as challenges.
  • In general, Drupal was rated relatively easy
  • No task was reported as difficult by more than 50% of the libraries.
  • 3 tasks (“Creating and marking up content”, “Configuring access rights”, and “Installing Drupal”) were reported as easy by more than 50% of the library.
  • Close to 80% of the libraries reported “Creating and marking up content” as easy.

Who is responsible?

  • The Academic libraries who responded to the survey split almost evenly between having a single person responsible for the use/implementation of Drupal and having the Library’s IT department take responsibility.
  • Public libraries were more than twice as likely to have a single person assume responsibility for the use/implementation of Drupal over having a Library IT department take responsibility. This may reflect the availability of an IT department in the library more than any preference.
  • Similarly, assigning responsibility to a Committee or Task force was nearly twice as likely in an Academic library than in a Public library.
  • Assigning responsibility to a Committee/Task force was reported by one-third as many Public Libraries as reported that a single person had responsibility.
  • Academic libraries reported assigning a Committee/Task force responsibility half as often as an individual.

Challenges

  • The steep learning curve of Drupal was the by far the most frequently mentioned challenge in implementing and using Drupal.
  • Concerns about staff resistance, staff understanding of the new architecture, and lack of communication were also common themes in the responses.

Benefits

  • Decentralizing the content, ease of updating content and freeing up the time of the programmer/webmaster were frequently mentioned as benefits of using Drupal.
  • Many libraries also mentioned increased functionality for their web site as a benefit of using Drupal.

According to the Association of Research Libraries, the number of face to face reference transactions declined by more than half between 1995 and 2006 (1995 Average – 210016.76; 2006 average – 90522.1226). This trend is generally blamed on the expansion of electronic resources during that time and a shift away from traditional print reference tools. But don’t people who are using electronic reference tools need help using them? Is using Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature in print that much more difficult than using the electronic version? And was the purpose of the Reference Desk simply to instruct people how to use the print indexes to do their research? Isn’t there more to the job than that? Aren’t the reference librarians there to help with research? Shouldn’t the kind of questions that made up reference transactions still need to be answered? With the explosion of information, shouldn’t people need even more assistance developing their research strategies?

I believe that the students and faculty really do need our help, but for some reason they are not using our reference services. Stephen Francoeur lists some reasons why students may not ask for help in his post Why don’t our students ask for help? Interestingly, all of the 8 reasons listed could be addressed through better marketing of the reference services:

  • They don’t want to ask a “dumb question” or appear incapable of doing the research themselves.
  • Libraries and research make them anxious.
  • They don’t know they need help.
  • They’re overconfident.
  • They really don’t need our help.
  • They forget that reference services exist.
  • They don’t know that reference services exist.
  • They had a bad reference experience elsewhere that turned them off the service.

If students don’t know or can’t recall that reference services exist, then clearly the word is not getting out. Since students (and faculty) do need our help, we clearly aren’t communicating or demonstrating the value of our services very well if they still believe that they don’t.

One thing that is missing from Stephen’s list is the librarians themselves. All of the reasons listed talk about what the students do or don’t do, but to solve the problem of anxious students, librarians have to do a better job of making the students feel welcome and comfortable asking whatever questions they have. And bad experiences (elsewhere of course, because they never happen here) can only be countered by ensuring that all the experience that students have dealing with the library are good experiences.

During the most recent ALA Midwinter Conference in Philadelphia, I angered 2 colleagues of mine when I suggested that the number of reference transactions is falling is because we aren’t doing a very good job. If we were doing a good job, people would be lining up to use our services. The best marketing tool is the satisfied user. I believe that students need the help of professionals who can help them formulate a research strategy and execute it. When reference statistics go down, it means that fewer people are getting the help that they need. And if that is the case, then libraries are definitely not performing their job very well.

I started my professional librarian career as a reference librarian – well, actually I was a Serials/ILL Librarian for the first 2 years, but the place was so small that everyone staffed the reference desk. After 5 years as a reference librarian, I moved into a systems position. For the next 5 years I worked with the library’s catalog. When I had worked in reference, I was a believer in information literacy and the library’s role in education. I was not really concerned too much with cataloging. When I worked in Systems, I was stuck between the need for technical services to quickly and efficiently process items and the reference librarians trying to find those items. It was clear that neither side understood the issues facing the other.

Now I follow the discussion and debate around the future of cataloging and I get concerned that neither side understands what the other is saying. When I had just started working in systems, some of the reference librarians came to me to complain about this or that in the catalog (why can’t we browse publishers? why do I get these results for that search? etc.). I tried to explain it, but the reality was they weren’t interested – they just wanted it fixed. The problem was of course, that nothing was broken. Choices had been made and these were just the consequences. To “fix” it, different choices would need to be made – with their own consequences.

One complaint I had from a reference librarian was that she had difficulty finding journals in Chinese for a student who was looking for something to use to practice reading the language. I considered the many pitfalls that could have caused her difficulty. 1) The language codes are sometimes not applied consistently in the records, and when they are, there are still some problems with how the catalog indexes them. 2) The code for serials was also problematic and inconsistently applied. 3) Maybe it was corruption in the database, or more likely the index – it was temperamental. Wow, our catalog does suck!

So I tried to recreate the problem. I typed “periodicals” in as a subject term and “chi” in as a language code (yeah “chi”, live with cataloging long enough and you’ll be surprised what you absorb). I got 117 results. When I asked the librarian if that is what she saw, her response was “how did you get that?” I described what I did. She had no idea that there were ways to search by language. In fact, there was an option to limit by language, so she wouldn’t have needed to know the cryptic code “chi”. In addition to not knowing about the options to search languages, the librarian hadn’t thought to use the subject term “periodicals” – apparently she was trying to search for a Romanization of the Chinese word for journal.

I thought about this example when I was reading Thomas Mann’s essay “The Peloponnesian War and the Future of Reference, Cataloging, and Scholarship in Research Libraries“. I thought about the level of service that he demonstrates in his example in the essay and I wondered if the rest of us are getting the most out of the tools that we have. For our catalogs, are we making the data the best it can be, or are we just waiting for computers to fix it – or at least be able to decipher it? Do we know how to use our catalogs to find the things that we, and our users, are looking for? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves. And I think that too often, not always but too often, the answer is no.

Our catalogs have a lot of room for improvement, but the value that is added by libraries is in the role played by people that making our stuff available for the library’s users. For the catalog, a large part of the value is added by the catalogers who describe the library’s stuff. The better we describe our stuff and the more useful (and usable) that description is, the more value that is added. On the other end, reference librarians add value by assisting in the retrieval of the stuff. Ideally, the reference librarians have worked with the catalogers to leverage the data in the catalog and create a reasonably intuitive interface. And ultimately, the reference librarians will serve as the user’s guide to finding what they are looking for. When the reference librarians don’t understand the catalog, the catalogers are limited in ways they can leverage the data, and the catalog suffers.

For the 5 years that I was supporting the library’s catalog, there was increasing energy behind the “OPAC sucks” crowd. And more and more energy given over to adding tagging, reviews, faceted browsing (“guided searching”), etc. to the catalog. I wholeheartedly support the experimentation with these features, but I think we could have made more improvement to our catalog by giving our reference librarians a better understanding of how cataloging (and by extension the catalog) works and by giving our catalogers a better understanding of how the reference librarians (and by extension the faculty and students) were using the catalog.

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”Isaiah Berlin, based on a Greek parable.

In the supplemental material to Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, called, Good to Great in the Social Sectors, he suggests that the social sectors adopt not the language of business, as some people have done, but the language of greatness. One of the concepts employed by Collins is the Hedgehog Concept. The Hedgehog Concept is about attaining the best long-term results and having the discipline to stick to it.

The Hedgehog concept defines three key parts: finding what you are passionate about, finding what you are best at, and finding a way to pay for that. The idea is similar to Conceptual Integrity. In libraries, we are passionate about information – organizing it and connecting people with it (well, at least I hope we are). What we are best at may be a little more challenging – and will vary from library to library, but for sake of discussion let’s say that we are best at evaluating and organizing information while preserving it for future generations. Collins says that we need to tie our “resource engine” to those two answers. All three of these things need to be tied together and reinforce one another.

Finding the resource engine is the tricky part. Collins says, “the wide variation in economic structures in the social sectors increases the importance of the hedgehog principle–the inherent complexity requires deeper, more penetrating insight and rigorous clarity than in your average business entity.” Most libraries rely on their parent institutions (universities, cities, businesses, etc.) for their primary source of funding. In turn, those institutions have to have a resource engine: business revenues, tuition, taxes, etc. or some combination.

To go from good to great the resource engine must be closely tied to what you are best at and what you are passionate about. That is, your resource engine should reflect the overall mission of the organization. The example is a homeless center that specialized in giving people the tools to support themselves. For Collins, it would be inappropriate for the center to rely on government subsidies for their funding. Instead the center gets the bulk of its funding from small donations from individuals who support the mission of the center. Using resource engines that are not closely tied to what you are passionate about and what you are best at, will cause the mission of the library to stray and eventually dicate what the mission is.

This is where I see the similarity to Conceptual Integrity. Employing the Hedgehog Concept or Conceptual Integrity involves staying focussed on your goal and not following resources that don’t support and integrate into your goal. For libraries, this may mean that they turn down offers from campus IT to collaborate on an Information Commons, resources from the Gates Foundation, or E-rate discounts. It could also mean that you don’t buy more copies of the latest Harry Potter even though you know circulation numbers will go up. Of course, it may mean that you do all of those things, the important thing is to be disciplined about evaluating the resources.

Recently I came across a post from The Other Librarian about institutional reluctance to implement technology initiatives. I think the author has some good points and certainly does a good job of voicing the frustrations of techies. But, I can’t help but think that all the energy he is putting into his frustration with management wouldn’t be better used moving his plans forward. To quote the Brazen Careeerist, “There are no bad bosses, only whiny employees.[If you haven't read it, Daniel Chudnov had an excellent post on One Big Library about the frustration some techie librarians are feeling. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it, even if you aren’t a techie librarian. I think it applies to anyone trying to promote new ideas in their library.]

First, let me commiserate, I have been the person at work trying to get the library to embrace technological change. With regard to those changes, I have had mixed results getting them implemented. Some were never implemented, some were, and some were implemented after I had left. I have even implemented some and lived to regret it. Having gone through the frustrations that Ryan is expressing, I totally agree with much of what he has to say.

Technology is not a threat to librarians. Really it is something we need to be embracing and most librarians are. Public libraries are still the only access to information for a large portion of the population, especially when that information is online.

You don’t need to wait for the perfect solution to start applying technology. Technology is changing rapidly — and more and more rapidly all the time. Choosing a technology and going for it, even when the technology isn’t quite ready can still add value for your users. As Ryan mentions the rapid development of software may solve the problem by the time you are implementing. But even if it doesn’t, the increasing interoperability between systems is making it easier to ditch one system if it doesn’t meet your need and move to another one. And, …

Projects that fail can still be valuable. A lot can be learned from failure for the individual and for the institution. Hopefully, the first lesson that is learned is that the failure of most projects won’t mean the end of the world. Shortly after I had started at a FPOW, we were discussing upgrading the OPAC. Almost everyone at the table expressed a concern about how faculty would receive any changes to the OPAC. Being younger, and less wise, I ranted and raved about “changing it every month until they got used to change” while pounding my shoe on the table Khrushchev-like (well, the shoe stayed on my foot, but the table-pounding happened). I learned later that the previous upgrade to the OPAC had gone poorly and some faculty did, in fact, still harbor a grudge about it. But, even in this case, the only way past those hard feelings is to show those faculty members that you learned from the last time and wouldn’t make the same mistakes.

The main flaw in Ryan’s post is that he says, “Technology has reached a stage that any idea to implement a technology ought to begin with a “yes.”,” but he doesn’t make the case why technology deserves that “yes”. What “stage” is it where you can assume a yes? Wouldn’t we like all of our ideas to receive a “yes”, whether or not they are technology-related? What is different about technology that it should be given a ‘”yes”? Shouldn’t all new ideas start with a “yes”? Don’t the people who want to bring new ideas into reference deserve the benefit of the doubt also? It seems the focus is on technology because that’s where the author works. And for that reason, technology ought to get the benefit of the doubt.

Unfortunately, there are many good reasons to give a “no”. So, it is probably not reasonable to expect a yes. I’m not trying to say that there aren’t bad “nos” out there. I do wish that more managers started from, “Sounds good, what do we need to do to make it happen.” But the reality is that it is safer, quicker, and easier to say “no”. So it is up to us, the techie librarians to make it easier to say “yes”. This is the other problem I have with Ryan’s post, it gives up too much responsibility to management. Instead of taking responsibility for showing how “sexy, in-demand and turning heads” his ideas are and creating a “yes”, he complains that management is “telling us we are fat in our jeans.”

Managers are people too. I think it is easy to forget that managers are people too and are under a lot of the same pressures that you and I are under. This was pointed out to me in one of my first professional jobs out of library school. Many of the younger librarians were frustrated about the management team because it would strike down ideas for what often seemed like arbitrary reasons. We wasted many hours grumbling about the management team. One day, I was grumbling to a friend of mine who was a member of the management team. After listening to me complain about how management won’t do this, but they should because of that, he said to me, “They don’t know that. You need to tell them that.” It was eye-opening. How could they not have known? But of course they didn’t know. They are concerned with completely different issues. I was the expert in that area.

The point is that we can’t expect a “yes” – we can’t even expect that they will understand what we are talking about. Not because it is hard to understand, but because they are not the people who are knowledgeable about this stuff, we are. They are worried about demands from reference, from special collections, from patrons, from faculty, etc. They want to do what’s best, but they don’t have all the background knowledge that you do. If you want to move forward with a project, it is up to you to take responsibility for creating the “yes”. That’s what looks sexy to management.

In addition, because managers are people, they don’t want you to tell them that they are fat in their jeans either. Penelope Trunk from the Brazen Careerist tells the story of when she worked for someone who refused to learn how to use a computer. She even did some of his word processing (‘He once said to me, “You’re such a fast typist!” And I thought, “You’re such a complete idiot!”’). Instead of expressing that thought, she realized that there was a lot she could learn from him and that his shortcomings gave her an opportunity to show her talents.

The fact is that it is not about “nay-ers” who want to plan versus “yeah-ers” who see the value. I consider myself a “yeah-er” who wants to plan, because I see the value. I also see using my experience to help plan as somewhere that I can contribute. So the next time that someone makes a point about planning, test them out. See if it is an offer to help with the plan. Draw them in, “Hey, you are right, we do need to consider some issues. You seem to have some real insight, can you help me out?” To be frank, it probably won’t work, but at least they’ll know that you care about their issues and you value their input. Hopefully, at least you will at least gain someone who is on your side.

 

The email lists that I am subscribed to have recently been inundated with discussion that can be characterized as “traditionalists vs. modernists.” The reality is that it has been hard to tell what the discussion is about because too often each side is talking past each other. The basic debate is similar to the debate about user-centered design. One side says the Library needs to be responsive to what the user wants. The other side says the users that users don’t always know what they want. The problem with the debate is that these things are not necessarily at odds with one another. In fact, in most cases they are 2 sides of the same coin.

The library’s responsibility is to its users. So, clearly they need to be responsive to what their users want. The problem comes from a slippery definition of what the word want means. You’ll have to pardon the philosophy major in me, I know semantic arguments are out of vogue, suffering from Bill Clinton’s torturing of the word ‘is.’ In the debate the word ‘want’ is used for everything from “I want to do research to write a paper” to “I want to be able to tag books.” Both of these are perfectly reasonable requests that the library should respond to. However, I would argue that one is central to the mission of the library, while the other is a means to that end.  It is disingenuous to view them as equivalent.

To be fair, many people in the debate believe that the library should respond to all its users wants equally.  If your users want to be able to tag, then you should provide tags. It is appealing customer service model. It looks like it is making people happy. And relieves the library from the having to come up with a plan to serve its users better. The ultimate problem is that it generally doesn’t make people happy.  The more immediate problem is that once your job is simply to respond to user requests, you are no longer a library. You are what your users think you are. As a result, if your users think you aren’t important, then you aren’t. This is how libraries end up being closed by their constituencies.

A successful library will define its contribution to its users. This is particularly important for libraries because they are often not in a position where they can define their value through revenue.  In Alan Cooper’s book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum, he talks about “conceptual integrity,” a term originally coined by Frederick Brooks. He puts it this way, “The customers, no matter how well meaning they might be, don’t have the ability to think of your product as a single, conceptual whole.” Cooper is talking about designing software, but demonstrates that it applies to service industries. His example is a consultant, who when he is starting out, is selling his “brains,” people hire him for how smart he is. As he builds his reputation, his clients start to hire him for his experience, his “gray hair.” When he is hired for his experience, he is doing work he has already done and stops learning new things. From there it is just a matter of time before the lack of new and different projects causes the consultant to fall behind the cutting edge, until he is no longer able to get work. Cooper calls this the “death spiral.”

Libraries are just as susceptible to the death spiral. You could argue that libraries are already in the death spiral. Instead of defining what they are, having conceptual integrity, they are scrambling to catch up to users wants. As a result, people are going to Amazon to find books and Google for everything else. Because our users are going to Amazon for books and Google for the rest of their information, libraries think they need to be like Google and Amazon. The reality is that we are not in competition either Amazon or Google, but since we lack conceptual integrity, we don’t even know that. I’m sure most of us have heard of a user who instead of using the library to identify a book, uses Amazon to find the book and comes to the library with an ISBN. It is a sad story about the state of libraries.

The cause of this sad story is a lack of conceptual integrity. Many libraries don’t know or don’t understand their role, what they are trying to accomplish. This brings me back to the modernists vs. traditionalists debate. The debate is fueled because many people on both sides don’t understand the ultimate goal of what the library is trying to accomplish. Unfortunately, this confusion is understandable as librarianship as a profession has not done very good job of communicating what it is all about. This is compounded by libraries that don’t maintain a sense of conceptual integrity, and if the library has one, it isn’t communicated to the staff.  The divide between technical services and public services also prevents librarians from seeing the conceptual whole 9in fact the debate on the lists is often TS vs PS or either of them vs systems.

If librarianship, or the library, had a strong sense of what it is, then the debate would not be about whether it is our job to tell people what they should want or whether we add tags because someone asks for it. The debate would be about how these things relate to our missions. Do tags help users meet their library-related goals? Are there resources that are better than Google at meeting certain user goals? By having conceptual integrity, we could have a conversation where we are all on the same page.

Earlier I said that Amazon and Google were not in competition with libraries, but if our users are going to Amazon instead of coming to the library, then aren’t we in competition. I say we aren’t in competition because we aren’t in the businesses that those two companies are in, but there is overlap. The overlap is actually to our advantage. This, however, is a discussion for another time.

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