Appreciating our Heritage while Embracing a Future

Tom Wilson, LITA past president and all-around insightful LITA Top Technology Trendster, posted a commentary to the “Where have all the programmers gone?” post that deserves top billing 1. Please read and digest it before coming back here. And it’s not late to the party at all, Tom — I believe it is only now just getting interesting.

As you pointed out, my observations were not intended to denigrate the choices made by our elders. They stepped up and built complex systems that needed to be specialized to library data management tasks because there was nothing else around for them to use. And the complexity of those systems meant countless hours of library staff engaged with patrons to mediate their search requests (at first) and then to teach them how to use the interfaces (as the users became more sophisticated and the interfaces simpler). Now I would argue that at this point, roughly the late 80s and early 90s, the profession as a whole got locked into this “mediated-or-instruction-needed” mindset from which we have yet to recover. I am also drawing the correlation, perhaps incorrectly so, of the technology transfer that occurred during this time of talent from large research libraries to corporate entities that supply us with the automation systems we now rely on. Or, as you put it more eloquently at the start of this quotation:

It is not productive to fault our fore fathers/mothers in libraryland for what happened in this regard. BUT it laid a foundation of thinking that remains a huge burden today. That is: that all library applications are specialized.

It is in the second and third sentence that I think we agree: the mindset at the core of the profession right now that library applications are specialized applications is a huge burden impeding our progress. And while I’ll agree that there is a mindset in the profession that needs to change, I am not convinced that a) libraries (big and small) as organizations have the creative programming talent capacity now as individual entities to capitalize on any sea-change of foundational thinking of the profession; and b) libraries (big and small) as organizations cannot look to the existing “library automation” vendors as the primary providers of solutions in a newly reconstituted vision of “what is the library.”

Addressing the first point, with rare exceptions I don’t see institutions as organizations scaling up their technical staff to handle the raw building tasks of the kinds of services we’d like to see in a reconstituted vision of the library. I do see some evidence that progress is being made here and there, but there are no large programming shops being built to create the next ILS-equivalent. (Side note: I hereby apologize for the connotations created by the phrase “next ILS-equivalent” — that phrase makes sense to me on the surface but it causes deep shudderings in my bones.) I have come to believe, though, that tools and techniques from the open source world can be used to aggregate the capabilities resident in the distributed “libraryland” to share the risk and reward of the next ILS-equivalent (damn — I used it again). I wrote about that earlier in an open letter to adherents to Christensen’s philosophies called Aggregation of Risk in Pursuit of Disruptive Technologies (comments on that post are still welcome to as we move forward in Ohio with the concepts outline there). Also, a colleague from Ohio State and I co-authored an article for the SmartClassroom newsletter of Campus Technology about “betting your career” on open source that I think will have relevance here. The article is to be published on the 19th and I’ll post a copy on DLTJ after a seven-day embargo.

Addressing the second point, it is my assertion, under Christensen’s theories, that “library automation vendors” are not going to be the source of the disruptive innovation that we need. Like the library organizations themselves, they are caught up in the sustaining technology cycle that has lead us to the position we are in today. I would also assert that it is the libraries, not the vendors, that are on firmer footing to break the cycle for the the exact “ideal driven” reasons you cite. Or, to apply Christensen’s model, the vendor’s values/resources/processes triad will drive them harder to continue the sustaining technology cycle — more so than a library organization’s values/resources/processes triad that includes “ideal driven” components.

All-in-all, though, this is going to be an exciting thing to watch over the next couple of years. Hope to continue the conversation and the mutual education….

Footnotes

  1. For those that have not yet encountered this idiom, “top billing” is a motion picture industry term that refers to actors whose names appear first in credits. They are usually in the principle performers and typically have the most screen time in the film. Read more in Wikipedia []
(This post was updated on 09-Jun-2011.)