Stereotypical Vendors?

Posted on     5 minute read

× This article was imported from this blog's previous content management system (WordPress), and may have errors in formatting and functionality. If you find these errors are a significant barrier to understanding the article, please let me know.

Recent posts by Richard Wallis and Paul Miller, both of Talis (a 40-year-old company in the U.K. specializing in information and metadata management), question a perceived division of library automation vendor technical staff with that of open source solution technical staff. I wasn't at Code4Lib this year (I'm going to try to get there next year), but from the context of the blog postings and comments it seems like the Talis developers were showing some really cool stuff and concern was expressed by participants that they don't want to see Code4Lib turned into a vendor forum.

I'm taking two paragraphs of Richard's post out of order. The first of these out-of-order pieces is this one:

I know this is a very broad-brush picture of the world we operate in, but I believe that most vendor employees will recognise the caricature of the librarian who has no concept of the commercial realities of life; and most librarians will recognise the caricature of the evil vendor squeezing every possible cent from library budgets for the benefit of their shareholders.

At a gut level — stereotypically-speaking — I think that is a piece of what is going on. In my position, when I wake up in the morning I think about the code that I will write that day (on a good day I'll write code, that is) that will be of direct benefit to the higher education community in the State of Ohio. Richard and Paul, when you get up in the morning, I'd wager that the code you write will factor into some commercial/business goal of Talis. I'll further wager that few of us are employed for purely altruistic purposes for writing code for libraries. (If such jobs exist, I'd like one, please.) The issue runs much deeper, though, I think.

Somewhere, many years ago, I ran into the notion that stereotyping is a necessity for humans as beings that are undergoing constant stimulation.

Categorization serves several useful functions for us. Most obviously, we can simplify our environment by categorizing objects. Second, categorization enables us to generate expectations about the properties of those objects. These expectations, in turn, guide our behavior toward the objects. A third consequence of categorization is that it permits us to consider a greater amount of information at any one time. Wilder, David. A. 1981. Perceiving Persons as a Group: Categorization and Intergroup Relations. In Cognitive Processes in Stereotyping and Intergroup Behavior, ed. David. L. Hamilton, 213-257. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates. p. 213.

The summarized version of this that I try to keep in mind is: "Put simply, individuals need categorization to understand and make sense of their environment, both physical and social. Social categorization or stereotyping, according to this view, is a cognitive necessity." Ottati, Victor, and Yueh-Ting Lee. 1995. Accuracy: A Neglected Component of Stereotype Research. In Stereotype accuracy: Toward appreciating group differences, ed. Yueh-Ting Lee, Lee J. Jussim, and Clark R. McCauley, 29-59. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. pp. 40-41. In a certain sense, it goes back to primal instincts to be able to look at an object coming towards one and decide whether or not it is a threat. (Big, furry, with claws? Threat. Run. — Furry, long ears, hops? Catch. Eat. With apologies to the sensibilities of those viewers/listeners who are vegetarians.)

So that said — this tension between a for-profit company and a community-oriented organization — anything that fuels animosity between the two sides is bound to cause friction. This comes to a head with a second paragraph (again, taken out of order) from Richard's post:

There has always been a traditional, and probably healthy, tension in the Library Systems market between libraries that need Library Systems to support their operations, and the vendors who build, sell, and support them. This tension is no doubt fuelled by the cultural differences between the profit based commercial business environment that vendor staff operate within, and the institutionally funded public/academic community supporting ethos driven world of the librarians.

Therein lies the rub. Perhaps it is cultural or geographic, but I would not characterize the relationship between the library automation vendors and their customers as "healthy tension" — particular with the subset of that community that has an open source leaning. I have had direct or close indirect dealings with three major automation vendors (and many more smaller ones) in my 16-year good heavens — has it really been that long?!? career as a library technologist. And I can say, categorically, that I have little faith and trust that the library automation vendors can innovate us to a level that our patrons are increasingly expecting (and/or seeking elsewhere). A recent meeting with a sales representative from one of these companies hammered that point home with a demonstration of a product that had caught up to where the state of web innovation was, well, about three years ago. When pressed on issues of currency when dealing with the web (microformats and other semantic web technologies, rich RSS feeds, strong REST or SOAP APIs no, I didn't actually use the terms REST and SOAP with the sales representative to the internals of the system) the response was, as I interpreted it, defensive and patronizing.

That said, to its credit (in my opinion) Talis seems to be a different breed of vendor and one that is more in tune with a collaborative, open development process. Although we have not had any direct interaction, the mere fact that this is being discussed on a company sanctioned blog already speaks volumes. Please do realize, though, that as an "evil vendor" you have a great deal of built-up resistance to overcome. At least, stereotypically-speaking again, in the North American higher education marketplace.

This discussion is most welcome. Thank you for bringing it up.

The text was modified to update a link from to on January 19th, 2011.

The text was modified to update a link from to on January 19th, 2011.

The text was modified to update a link from to on August 27th, 2012.