How Libraries Might Once Again Become Technology Leaders

Joe Lucia, Villanova University’s University Librarian, made some interesting suggestions about open source development in a recent post to NGC4Lib, a mailing list dedicated to “Next Generation Catalogs for Libraries.”

What most frustrates me in a general sense is the degree to which in libraries our human capital and our financial resources are tied into commercial software that rarely meets our needs well. That is old news. The issue is how to break free of the inertia that keeps us in a technologically paralyzed state….

What if, in the U.S., 50 ARL libraries, 20 large public libraries, 20 medium-sized academic libraries, and 20 Oberlin group libraries anted up one full-time technology position for collaborative open source development. That’s 110 developers working on library applications with robust, quickly-implemented current Web technology…. Instead of being technology followers, I venture to say that libraries might once again become leaders….

Yes, we’d need to establish sound open source management protocols and we’d have to guard against forks and splintering of effort that might undermine the best possible outcomes. But I keep thinking about how successful Linux has been, with developers around the world. Surely librarians and library technologists could evolve a collaborative environment where we’d “play nice” and produce good results for all.

I think it’s great to see a library director (and board chair of PALINET, an OCLC regional service provider) talking about this sort of thing. And it’s not just talk: he pays Andrew Nagy, in part, to lead the development of the exciting VuFind open source OPAC project.

It seems that Lucia has bought into the idea that open source development can disperse effort and expenses fairly and efficiently. For that reason, open source is an excellent model, especially for academic libraries, who have enough money to pay really good programmers, but not enough money to pay them to duplicate each other’s effort. In general, Lucia’s vision makes so much sense to me that I view something like a commitment to shared software development among academic libraries as all but inevitable.

Many technology companies already work this way to some degree. For instance, the software described in the excellent post, A Day Without Open Source—Linux, Apache, Bind, Firefox—exists in part because Google, IBM, Sun, and thousands of other large and small companies encourage their developers to help maintain and improve open source code. And it’s not just code: W3C, which maintains open Web standards, is organized into committees, and those committee are composed primarily of employees at for-profit companies. We’re starting to see that same sort of encouragement for open standards and software echoed in libraries, most of it centered around code4lib.

One concern I have about Lucia’s statement is that he may be applying standard software development thinking to open source development. As Eric Raymond has documented in The Cathedral and the Bazaar and The Art of Unix Programming, there are fundamental differences. For one thing, forking can be incredibly useful: Firefox is a fork of Mozilla. For another, many believe that open source works in part because people tend to work hardest on projects that excite them, such as transgressive technologies that place them in direct opposition to entrenched organizations like Microsoft and the Recording Industry Association of America. It may be hard to find programmers who are excited by the sorts of projects that committees of library directors would vote to approve and fund.

Another concern I have is, while it’s great that PALINET is partnering with LibLime to support Koha, what about OCLC? When do we get to see the code for the software that we pay OCLC to support for us? As Karen Schneider points out, “If we built a 66,000-member association, it would look an awful lot like ALA.” I strongly suspect that if we build a huge new technology cooperative for libraries, it’s going to wind up looking an awful lot like OCLC. Only the new one might not feature people with the talent and success of Karen Calhoun, Roy Tennant, Andrew Pace, Lorcan Dempsey, etc.

My hope is that Joe Lucia and the folks in the preceding sentence are working to change OCLC from within. It isn’t that OCLC is evil, but there are reasons that LibraryThing’s Tim Spalding tried to talk Tennant out of going to OCLC, why the Library of Congress’s Dan Chudnov joked that Tennant’s move to OCLC made him his mortal enemy, and why it made sense for Tennant to explain his move. Some of the concerns expressed in Steve Oberg’s “OCLC: the Microsoft of the Library World?” and “Answers to Roy Tennant’s questions” ring true, as do some of his readers’ comments: OCLC is a monopoly and a vendor.

It would be helpful, at least when it comes to creating and sharing open source code, if OCLC could play a role similar to the one played by the Apache or Mozilla Foundations. Having a superstructure like Lucia talks about could be a good thing, though ultimately it may not matter whether it’s OCLC, another organization, or simply a commitment by academic library directors to hire more programmers. The members of code4lib and oss4lib are already doing their part. It will be interesting to see how many of Lucia’s fellow library directors are as motivated as he is to make sure libraries again become technology leaders.

Aaron Swartz Is Speaking at Midwinter

Aaron Swartz, co-creator of RSS, co-founder of Reddit, technical lead on the Open Library project, etc., has agreed to speak at ACRL’s University Libraries Section Current Topics session at Midwinter. The session is scheduled for Saturday, January 12 from 1:30-3:30 p.m.

As a new academic librarian, this is exactly the sort of thing I’d like to see more of, especially at the bigger meetings. I’ve heard that LITA, Access, Computers in Libraries, and code4Lib are great conferences, but they’re also small compared to ALA Annual and Midwinter, ACRL, and SLA. And while “big conference” speakers like 2007 ALA Auditorium Speaker Julie Andrews and 2007 SLA Annual keynote Al Gore are fabulous, and I’m an unabashed fan of 2007 ACRL keynote John Waters, it’s time we use the pulling power of speaking to thousands of librarians (not to mention the larger budgets for the bigger events) to bring in people who are setting the tone for the non-library information community. I think the world of Clifford Lynch and Karen Schneider and Roy Tennant and Jessamyn West, but I also think the world of influential technologists like Paul Graham, John Gruber, Mark Pilgrim, Aaron Swartz, and Steve Yegge. I want to see these folks at our conferences. We need to hear from them and they need to hear from us.

Aaron has agreed to speak about the Internet and new collaboration technologies. Naturally, he’ll also talk about the Open Library. He plans to keep his actual presentation relatively short, about half an hour, to allow plenty of time for questions and discussion. To get a sense of what he’s like as a speaker, check out the video of his October 25 presentation at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, which he delivered to a small but appreciative group that included several librarians. Of course, my hope is that there will be a lot more of us in attendance when he speaks at ALA Midwinter in Philadelphia. For which advance registration closes on November 30, 2007. I’ll be there. Will you?

If I Could Recommend Just One Book

I believe there are two kinds of worry: the worry that you’re failing to live up to the world’s expectations and the worry that you’re failing to live up to your own. The first is the worry that you got an “F”; the second is the worry that you haven’t gotten a 100. When I wrote about worry in my last post, it may have seemed that I was talking about the first kind of worry when I was really talking about the second. I think we’re doing a great job and I couldn’t be any happier about investing my time and money in becoming an academic librarian. But I think we should make systematic changes in order to become more effective.

The philosophy behind making these sorts of changes is discussed in a book by Donald Berwick called Escape Fire. If I could recommend just one book for academic library professionals, Escape Fire would be the one. Here are his first three “properties of interaction that ought to be objects of investment and continual improvement”:

  1. Regard information transfer as a key form of service, and increase the accessibility, openness, reliability, and completeness of information for patrons.
  2. Interactions should be tailored to patrons’ needs. The call to arms here comes to me from a friend who, when he was director of a small library, placed over the entrance a sign that read: “Every patron is the only patron.” Each person in need brings to us a unique set of qualities that require unique responses… We are not finished—we have not achieved excellence—until each individual is well served according to his or her needs, not ours. Our measure of successful interaction is not just an average of how we have done in the past for “them,” but also the answer to the inquiry, “How did I just do for you?”
  3. Interactions begin with this assumption: The patron is the source of all control… The current system often behaves as if control over decisions, resources, access, and information begins in the hands of the librarians, and is only ceded to patrons when the librarians choose to do so.

And now a confession: Donald Berwick is not a librarian and his book is not about libraries. Berwick is a physician, and in the above I’ve substituted the word patron for patient, librarian for caregiver, etc. But that’s only to drive home an important point: academic libraries, like the health care system, have a tremendous amount of money and an enormously intelligent group of skilled, caring practitioners. We’re working hard and doing well, but we’re capable of doing much, much better. I hope you’ll read Escape Fire, especially the title speech, which is available for free online. And I hope you’ll recommend a book for the rest of us.

Who Are We and Where Are We Going?

I started library school soon after Michael Gorman’s American Libraries “President’s Message” on the crisis in library education. Gorman’s May 2006 article seemed to ignite a firestorm, in part because of his incendiary descriptions of “millenniarist librarians and pseudo-librarians… intoxicated with self indulgence and technology” who reside in “acronymic backwaters,” as well as “faculty in LIS schools who are, at best, indifferent to libraries and, at worst, hostile to libraries and their continuing mission.”

Naturally, the ensuing debate got my attention. Like many new academic librarians, I’m a thirtysomething career-changer. I left a good job in order to be a full-time graduate student, and library school is expensive; all told, the decision carries a $100,000 opportunity cost. I chose to attend Drexel University in part because I’m interested in the intersection of libraries and computing, but I was concerned that Drexel’s strength in information science might mean librarianship would get short shrift. Gorman’s assertions played on those fears. Would my new colleagues find my preparation wanting?

The major counter-arguments I found were laid out in Michael Buckland’s Redesigning Library Services: A Manifesto. Given that Gorman provided the foreword for Manifesto, I suspect we have different readings of Buckland’s work. And his is probably right, given that he was ALA president and I got my diploma in the mail on Saturday. But what I see throughout Buckland’s Manifesto is an understanding that emerging technologies and ambitious standards and classification systems are our most efficient means for making information more accessible to patrons. He places technology within the arc of history, explaining how we got where we are, and describing where he believes technology could enable us to go next. Fifteen years after Manifesto, the barriers to exploring Buckland’s ideas seem to me to be cultural, not technological or financial.

“Cultural barrier” is another way of saying “identity crisis”. Buckland brilliantly predicts the issues we should consider, but he is not prescriptive when it comes to solutions. It is up to us to as individuals to determine the most important problems we could be working on, and up to us, collectively, to develop useful technologies. The best way to ensure our irrelevance is to remain divided. Our vendors license our electronic infrastructures to us, they own most of our journals and many of our most important copyrights, and they’re well on their way to owning virtual copies of all our books. I enrolled in library school because I love libraries. I love the profession because of the talented librarians around me who share my delight in assisting patrons. But, as a new academic librarian, I worry that our profession may retire before I do.