August 2007

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.

SunRocket, the second largest VOIP phone service provider behind Vonage, recently, and suddenly, went belly-up. I was one of the 200K plus victims of phone service that was there one day and gone the next. I talked to my parents on Sunday night (7/15). Monday night (7/16) I noticed that the usually green light on my SunRocket “gizmo” (their name for their analog telephone adapter, or ATA) was red. On Tuesday, when I logged into WordPress, their highlighted post was about how SunRocket was dead and gone. There was no word from SunRocket and I was left to figure out for myself what was next; should I go with the local phone service provider, should I jump on one of the offers from SunRocket’s competitors, or wait for SunRocket to tell me where I should go next. I ended up sticking with VOIP and going with a competitor that had been one of my early choices.

Suddenly I was one of 200,000 people scouring the web for for any hint of what was going on. Reading posts from laid-off employees. Obsessively following the news, trying to figure out what I should do next. For VOIP providers, 200K new customers were suddenly ripe for the picking (assuming that they didn’t feel so burned by SunRocket that they went running to Ma Bell or Verizon – or whichever monopoly is your local provider). There were press releases picked up as news stories about how this or that provider was going to “save” SunRocket’s abandoned customers.

Some of the offers seemed too good to be true. After all, I had chosen SunRocket for how cheap it was and paid for a year’s service (actually 15 months with my 3 months of free service for signing up! I really should have gotten the free phone instead). I looked up reviews to see who had a go reputation – although clearly financial information would have been a better basis for a decision. I looked at 3 websites that allow users to post their reviews of VOIP providers. Reading the reviews, something was clearly wrong. The reviews varied wildly for any one provider.  One reviewer would describe the service as “the best they’ve had” and the next would tell a horror story of hidden fees. And if you read long enough you would eventually come across reviews for one company accusing another company of padding their own reviews or sabotaging their competitors.

How was I to interpret these reviews? How was I supposed to choose a VOIP provider (if you are considering VOIP for your phone service I would recommend getting any financial data you can and see if you can get information on their strategy for acquiring new subscribers)? What I needed was someone to tell me who I could believe.

This made me think about recent focus groups we had conducted in order to redesign the website at MPOW. In those focus groups it was evident that the only reason that some of the students used the library’s website at all was because of the library brand. They were told by their instructors that they needed to use “academically valid” websites and the easiest way to accomplish that was to use websites with the libraries imprimatur. I really could have used someone who would have told me where to look for good information about VOIP providers.

When I was in library school, we were taught that users rely on the library to sort out the quality stuff from the chaff. These days it seems that this is a forgotten role of libraries, at least in the discussions.  For books, at academic libraries the approval plan dictates much of what the library buys, assuming there is money in the budget to buy books.  For journals, “the big deal” drives the library’s purchasing decisions.  For everything else, users – including librarians – turn to the web, where both need to evaluate the resource on a case by case basis.

This is my frustration, I want one place to go that has good information about VOIP providers.  Consumer Reports is a source for good information, but thre is too much lag in the information available there (the last review of VOIP providers appears to be in the January ’06 issue).  I see this as somewhere the library can still intervene.  That we can still collect good information, so people (me, myself and I) don’t have to cross their finger and hope what they are reading is reliable.

“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.

Last week I came across a post by Emily Clasper about her life as an overachiever and her realization that not everyone shares her passion to be the best. I really appreciated her enthusiasm and her positvie approach. But, like some others that read her post, I found the tone of some of her comments to be condescending, “The world (and that includes LibraryWorld!) needs people who don’t necessarily want to be the best. In fact, that’s very beneficial to those of us who do.” But more than that, I was struck by how out of step this was with the discussions in the circles that I move. In the blogs I read and on the email lists I subscribe to, the talk is more frequently about letting go of the idea of getting things perfect.

Wikipedia says the Principle of Good Enough “is a rule for software and systems design. It favours quick-and-simple (but potentially extensible) designs over elaborate systems designed by committees.” But the principle can be applied in areas beyond systems design. If something is “good enough” then it serves it purpose, so we need to look at what is gained or lost by going beyond the requirements. Of course, there are many times that we want to excel beyond the requirements; whether it’s to stand out among the competition, because of individual pride, to anticipate future needs, etc. But that needs to be weighed against what is lost:

  • Is the time and effort put into being the best worth the improvement? What’s the Return on Investment (ROI)?
  • Are you alienating your coworkers?
  • Are you missing another opportunity while you are putting your effort into this project?
  • How do you know when you’ve reached the best? Isn’t there always room for improvement?
  • What about projects that fall short of the best? What happens to them?

I recently read a management article (don’t remember where) about applying the POGE, that had excellent example that I’m sure we are all familiar with. We have all had the experience of sending some text to colleagues or supervisors for feedback and having it come back marked up in red ink, highlighting minor errors that are at best grammatical changes, but more frequently, they are style changes. I know because I do it myself. You assume, they asked me to look at it, they must want my opinion. But unless you have something to say that is going to make a significant difference in the outcome of the message, it is always best to let the author know that is it fine. In most cases that’s all they wanted, reassurance.

Emily quotes Seth Godin, the author of The Dip, as saying, “People settle. They settle for less than they are capable of. Organizations settle, too. For good enough instead of best in the world.” However, even Seth Godin admits that sometimes good enough is, in fact, good enough and “a clean towel is a clean towel“.