So we beat on, boats against the current…

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