So we beat on, boats against the current… 14

I have long puzzled over the fact that in the golden age of the library function, there has been a systematic failure of library institutions.

By “library function” I refer to the functions and institutions that maintain the memory of the human species. This function includes those institutions and people who save, organize, and provide for eventual retrieval the human record. In spite of the fact that what we do is often ignored or disrespected, it the genetic trick as a species. It is a key aspect of what we are built to do. We are not the fastest species nor the strongest. Smartest? Roll your own wry comment on that. But we remember and we do it with many institutions I lump in the library function: libraries, archives, museums, and so on, with apologies to the archivists.

In my lifetime, the human record has starting moving from paper, stone, vinyl recordings and so on to digital forms. When I was graduated from library school in 1971, the importance of information as a thing would get a perfunctory: “yeah, yeah.” Now, everyone knows.

The failure of institutions of our field to adapt to this new information environment is a calamity for the species and one that is being remedied by bypassing the institutions that, traditionally, have done the library function. There is an old saying that “the Internet routes around trouble”–an expression that indicates a foundational principle of the Internet architecture. I believe that with so many things going on in the information world, we can see the human species routing around the traditional institutions because there are increasingly more efficient methods for remembering, organizing, and retrieving the human record—which we humans cannot not do–and which these traditional institutions do not do well. Not all people are routing around all library institutions. Not everywhere. Not everyone. But many–perhaps most. Librarians did not invent Yahoo nor Google. We made the sale about the importance of information but couldn’t consummate it. We have much to contribute to this new information world but we are largely failing.

I was forced to consider this dynamic again recently in a microcosm of the general problem I have outlined. What restarted this whole train of thought was a report that discussed integrated library systems in a specific context. I apologize for a special pleading but it was both inaccurate and sad. There was no aspect of this report that struck me as informed and the people who paid for it are in peril and they don’t know it. The recommended solution for their problem WILL NOT WORK because the recommended technology won’t do what the marketing folks said it will do and the person who wrote the report, I infer, was none the wiser. You would think after the events of the last year or so, library decision makers would have wised up. One would suppose that by now librarians would have their defenses up to resist vaporware and the blandishments of the slick.

I think one problem is that we do not have a critical mass of technically trained or technically astute people in the field nor an assessment culture. In the librarians’ house, there are many mansions…just not a big enough IT one. And the ones we have…well, you know how they are…not like us…difficult. We treat them like the Dilberts of the library world because too many library decision makers do not understand much about technology.

Years ago, Kathleen (de la Pena) Heim, in a different context, made the perceptive observation that we “need to recruit a new us.” We didn’t in information technology. As a result, we certainly do not have enough IT folks with an understanding of the library function in the field and information seekers are routing around us seeking information.

In many fields with a requisite critical mass of technically-trained people, there is an assessment community. PC Magazine, Ars Technica, and other such sites provide independent assessment of computers, hard drives, thumb drives, and so on. I remember reading magazines that discussed “hi-fi” and reviewed equipment back when I could hear. There are magazines like Consumer Reports for consumer products. These days, one has sources like the reviews and comments at sites like if you are purchasing computer equipment and discussions there are often lively but usually informed.

In the library world, we have a blizzard of marketing twaddle about technical subjects and a host of people who comment but too few with the ability to pierce the marketing veil and tell folks in the library community what these various products will and will not do based on an accurate understanding of the underlying design concepts and their execution. We do not have an assessment community. How many IT failures based on librarians believing impossibilities do we have to endure?

Boswell quotes Samuel Johnson as saying: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Except in the library world.

Bob Molyneux

14 thoughts on “So we beat on, boats against the current…

  • Seattle Surburban

    You might want to get in touch with the IT director at the King County Library System, in Washington State. They’re by far the most efficient, the most progressive, the most technically-savvy of the dozen libraries that I’ve used (both academic and public).

    Of course, they have a long history of understanding and embracing technology. They computerized their card catalog in the 1950s (!), delivering it in paper form, like phone books. In fact, they couldn’t have been more than a couple of years behind the AT&T Bell System, because the computer technology involved really was brand-spanking-new at the time.

    And they actually managed a not-quite-seamless but very successful technology transitions when they moved from Dynix to Millennium in 2004. (I like many people have seen plenty of botched computer upgrades. These days, when I hear a bank is upgrading its computers, I’ll switch to another bank.)

    They’ve got what III (the vendor of Millennium) refers to as a “development-oriented culture.”

    Of course, it’s a bit of a special case. They’re located in the home county of Microsoft and, and with not one but two Google offices. Many of their patrons are highly technological and expect nothing less from them.

    They’ve embraced basically every technology available to libraries. Self check-out, self check-in, automated materials handling, digital books, digital audiobooks, digital video, home access to databases, etc. But they don’t just adopt it for the glitz — it actually works. Compare them to Seattle right next door — they use barcodes and it all works, Seattle uses RFID which has bugs aplenty. This strikes me as one very notable instance where they saw through the hype of the marketing presentation

  • drdata

    I think we can agree that King County is an example of how to integrate IT with the library function.

    My argument was not that there were no examples but too few. We are reduced to naming individual examples rather than contemplating an environment of where all libraries or most libraries have done as well as King County. What would that nationwide information environment be like?

    My argument that the lack of critical mass of people who are comfortable and knowledgeable about both the library function and IT has hampered us as a nation and as a species, let alone as a field. It has hampered us as a field by a long record of bad IT decisions–one of which I lament here–and also in not being able to overcome the penchant for the information silos that are our national configuration of libraries: individual, and barely communicating entities that thwart easy information exchange. We think locally and act locally.

    The folks who are building the institutions which will do the library function in the future aren’t so constrained. So, King County is both an exciting example of what is possible but, alas, a rare one. PINES is also an exciting but rare example of what is possible.

    Bob Molyneux

  • Seattle Surburban

    Aren’t libraries just one more symptom of a larger problem? We have too many local government in this country, too many individual entitites each with conflicting goals.

    When your library is funded from local taxes, it’s very hard to cooperate with other libraries. I’ve seen plenty of this in New Jersey, or in Massachusetts, where for historical reasons localism is particularly strong. For example, the libraries may participate in lending networks, but the loan periods are not harmonized, or videos will not be loaned across libraries, or the cross-library search is really bad, or whatnot. When each individual library is run as its own entity, with its own Board and its own separate funding source, it’s hard to get any kind of initiative going across thirty other libraries.

    King County solves this by being a fully-integrated system — all of King County (excluding Seattle) belongs to one system. Georgia Public Library Service solves this by being a statewide supplier of services — although the individual libraries are separately run, GPLS is unitary over the whole state. In this, GPLS is probably more of a model for other systems than KCLS, because it’s probably easier to create an overarching structure to serve individual libraries, than to get all these individual libraries to actually merge into one system.

    I hate to predicate the success of library IT on governmental reform, but I don’t think mere IT-savviness is enough to break down the silos. You need a structure around it, one that is conducive to integration.

    [I corrected a slight typo — drdata]

  • drdata

    Oh, I don’t know about “too” many governments…that is the way the Federal system works. And when it works well, we have divided powers and the chance for experimentation. I don’t think that is the problem.

    Before we had software that had the capability to do the kinds of things that Evergreen can do, the library community came up with interlibrary loan which was a cooperative mechanism that spanned governmental entities. And there are other examples of such cooperation. From experience, we know it can be done.

    I would agree that having strong IT skills are not sufficient to break down silos or however we would characterize modernizing the nation’s library services. Part of the problem is attitudinal and I must say that I see foot dragging and skepticism among many in the library community about facing the lessons from the last years–that was the reason I mentioned Dr. Johnson’s famous observation.

    The point of this post, though, was not so much about this technology we have now nor the attitude among some of our colleagues but the lack of critical mass of IT folks with an understanding of libraries. This fact implies that folks making technical judgments with the best attitude or the most insightful and visionary plans don’t have enough of a clue about matters technological to make sound technical decisions. And in this case, they couldn’t buy that clue.

    IT skills are not sufficient but they may be necessary.

  • library geek

    So painfully true! I come to the library world after over 25 years in software development and testing for embedded systems. I’m still coming up to speed on web-based development, while going to library school and working part-time doing technical support for a small library that is part of a 20+ library consortium. The consortium is beginning to seriously consider adopting an open source ILS. Meanwhile I struggle to support a staff that clings to its Micro$oft applications like they were life preservers. The expression “play with this new thing for a while and tell me what you think” produces only fear and loathing.

    I hope that by the time I finish the degree I will have enough webby experience to get work as an open source ILS customizer, but I fear that I may miss the window: either public libraries crash and burn due to irrelevance, or they bypass lowly newcomers like me and hire web developers with 5+ years of experience in the commercial world.

  • drdata

    library geek, be of stout heart.

    Three things to consider:
    1) back in the early days of the Internet, I taught classes where folks thought, OMYGOD, the train is leaving the station and I won’t ever catch up. The numbers changed over the years but I would say something like: there are X million people on the Internet and the population of the earth is X billion. You are not at the end of the line but the beginning.

    Same thing with open source in libraries. I have done two studies and each showed about 1% penetration of open source ILSs in the US public library market (which is the best one for this type of question). I think this number will grow, don’t you?

    2) I talk in this post about the failure of library institutions. There is no reason to think that libraries will disappear in your lifetime. True, they will change and if the library community doesn’t improve its institutions, the new institutions doing the library function will be starting without the benefit of what we know.


    3) I have argued that the library function is a part of our DNA. If one set of institutions fails, another will arise. As one who has done library work outside of libraries, I can assure you, your library skills are very much in demand and that you have made a good choice–assuming your library school has embraced the future and given you the skills you need. And even if not…well, it sounds like you have made a good start in any case. Library schools can’t do everything.

    This is the most exciting time to be working in a field that organizes data because just about everyone in the world now understands the importance of information and many, many want people who know how to manage it. It is a valuable skill. And don’t be surprised if you end up doing something different from what you imagine. The Mosaic browser is not quite 15 years old so be ready for tomorrow and its wonderful surprises and opportunities for those skilled in the library function. I have often said: everything I learned, I learned in library school. Not literally true but not so far off.

    I remember returning to teaching in a library school after one of my sojourns outside of traditional library institutions where I had seen what someone with library skills could do. I told my students then that “The Internet is the Librarians’ Full Employment Act.” That turned out not to be true as true as I had hoped because of a number of factors, some of which I addressed here, but there is much to do for someone who has a feel for the library function. You may not be called a librarian and you may well not do it in a traditional library but don’t doubt that this is the golden age of information.

  • library geek

    Thanks, drdata, I needed some encouragement! I’m 3/4ths of the way through the program, with the dreaded Evaluation and Research class looming this fall, and I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that I’ve taken the wrong road. I was *so* sure 2-1/2 years ago. If I had taken the money I’ve put into tuition and instead bought a 5- or 10-course pass with LearningTree, I might be more gainfully employed by now. Oh well. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. No my school is not very rigorous as far as the technical aspects of modern librarianship are concerned. It’s a far cry from a school such as Drexel. So I’m just picking it up on my own. Fortunately people are very generous with their knowledge. Free and inexpensive on-line tutorials are readily available. And of course I have books!

    (Do you know that if you reply anything other than the word ‘no’ in the “Are you posting spam” box, the comment gets rejected? I tried “no, I am not posting spam,” and it was marked as spam.)

  • Seattle Surburban

    @library geek: Go easy on the “Micro$oft” and “Windoze”. I understand this is sort of like flashing a gang mark, to show that you belong. On the other hand, it’s going to instantly identify yourself as a fanboy. In certain contexts that’s a distinct negative.

    @drdata: I’m not surprised that KCLS is looking into Evergreen. They were squeezing so much out of their existing ILS that they were sure to reach the end of the toothpaste tube sooner rather than later.

  • drdata

    Seattle Surburban,

    KCLS, I believe, has gone beyond evaluation.

    You cited that system above as a kind of counter example to my original post–that is, they haven’t succumbed to the trends I lamented there. As you will recall, I agreed with your point partially. In light of this RFP, I would further argue that they are aware of the foundational architecture of Evergreen as outlined in Mike Rylander’s Generations post ( and how that architecture relates to their library.

    The various ILSs have different architectures that, viewed chronologically, are a veritable museum of coding practices over the years. We have seen machines get smaller and more capable while coding practices become more flexible and robust. When everything works, the result has proven to be better applications running faster on more capable machines. I run programs now on a PC that is more capable than that first mainframe I used.

    Amazingly enough, there is ILS software running that was designed during the time I wrote my first programs on punch cards. We know a bit more about software and database design now, don’t we?

    I think we can conclude that the original design practices and decisions of ILSs persist beyond the time those practices have become generally obsolete. I infer that changing the underlying architecture of a large application is profoundly difficult but I will leave that thought for a different time.

    In any case, each ILS’s design constrains what each of them is capable of. Evergreen was designed taking into account the most current thinking on software design and hardware of any ILS. There are implications from these facts that affect libraries but now I come full circle to where I started.

  • library geek

    Seattle Suburban,

    The town I work in has no money to extend Sunday hours beyond the 3 winter months that we have now, no money to give the library a full-time custodian, and no money to give the library a full-time technical support person (me). I can’t get new printers for the public computers, and I can’t replace the staff printers that have died. But the town does have the money to upgrade every single one of its computers, in every department including the library, to MS Office 2007, at a couple of hundred dollars a pop. (Did we ask for Office 2007? No, but we’re getting it anyway.) Please do not refer to me as a “fanboy” or “gang” member. As far as operating systems go, I am an agnostic. Whatever works, works. But finances are a real concern in the public library world.

  • Seattle Suburban

    drdata — I’m surprised at how long the library ILS market has remained stagnant. But verticals have a tendency to hold on to legacy systems for unhealthy amounts of time. The airlines were running their legacy systems (dating back to the 1960s) into the new century — heck, they were transmitting data on teletype lines into the mid-1990s. Around 2000 there was a massive shake-up, and now (almost) everyone is running modern C++/SQL/three-tier systems. I think library systems are reaching a similar inflection point. Now that patrons have and Netflix, they’re going to want their libraries to offer a similar

    library geek, I’m sorry if I used some irony (e.g. gang mark), but you sound a lot more reasonable and knowledgeable in your previous post, where you avoid Slashdottisms. You want to put your best face forward.

    Budget mismanagement is a function of your town’s politicians. I’m not surprised that the Microsoft salesman was happy to take some extra commission. I’m sure American Lafrance, for example, would be happy to sell your town an extra fire engine that they don’t need, too. (Example — there are more fire engines in Bergen County in New Jersey than in all of New York City, even though NYC has about the same land area, plus taller buildings, plus more people. The reason: there are dozens of little towns, and each fire chief wants a larger truck than the surrounding fire departments. This country in general needs to rationalize government expenditures, or we’ll go bankrupt. Libraries are one of many things that suffer from such budgetary indiscretions — parks, town services, etc.)

    I am rather surprised at the “couple of hundred dollars” pricing that you cite, however. Are you extrapolating from retail pricing, or were you involved in the budget meetings? Volume licensing, plus upgrade pricing, should push incremental copies of Office into two digits (especially the more basic SKUs of Office, as opposed to the Professional Enterprise Ultimate Edition). The first copy is more expensive than the 1000th, and a fresh install is more expensive than an upgrade.

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