Computers in Libraries
Vol. 21, No. 10 • Nov/Dec. 2001 

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Technologists and Tinkerers
by D. Scott Brandt

Let me ask you this: When was the first time you really messed up something on a computer? You know, you probably said, "shoot" or "fudge" and got a sinking feeling deep in your stomach as your heart started to pound in your throat. I'm not talking about dropping your keyboard and having keys fly all over the floor (happened to me my first day on the job at Purdue as technology training librarian). Or dropping your printer and cracking a circuit board (happened to me on my second day on the job at MIT). I mean something like outputting someone else's database to find that entire entries were completely gone (ever wonder why I don't do the Buyer's Guide anymore?)—something really scary. Something that rates an 11 out of 10 on the "oops-I-think-I-really-messed-up" scale.

Remember when? But now let me ask you this: When was the last time you really messed up? How long ago was it? My guess is that it happened a long time ago. Well, long in computer years, if you know what I mean. (Computer years are like dog years; 1 equals 7 human years. So if it was 3 years ago, that's like 21 years ago in computer time.) I think that's because we've all become a lot more savvy. In fact, I think it's safe to say, and OK to admit, that we are technologists and tinkerers.

I read in the paper on the day I wrote this column that we were celebrating the 20th year of the personal computer. Wow, time flies when you're squinting at a computer monitor, eh? Twenty years ago I was one of those rare students entering library school as an undergraduate. I wanted to check out a course because I heard that not only did you not have to do keypunched cards, but there were actually computers—Texas Instruments "Silent 700s"—you could take home. (And I think I've been taking my computer home ever since ...)

The PC has done much to alter the face of librarianship. Without it we would be stuck using dumb terminals to access Dialog, OCLC, and online catalogs that would probably be controlled by the computing center. Those terminals were dumb in more ways than one. All they did was provide simple access to a larger entity—basically, they were no more than telescopes, if you think about it. We could see information up close, but there wasn't much more we could do than look at it. Once the PC came along we eventually gained memory, processing speed, and applications to manipulate the data in many ways. Over the past 20 years we have evolved from onlookers to creators, integral participants in the online revolution. And the PC has been our tool for making changes.

Librarians Are Inventors
Having spent the summer in Birmingham, England, on sabbatical, I'm reminded of the great inventor James Watt (who was originally from Scotland, but lived in Birmingham). He is credited with creating the steam engine and thus fostering the Industrial Revolution. Coincidentally, the process for producing iron more cheaply and more quickly developed near Birmingham at the same time, which provided the materials for that revolution. (Birmingham, by the way, is no longer an "industrial city," unless you use the term as it applies to music—"Brum," as they call it, is heavy into the DJ nightclub scene.)

The thing is, Watt didn't invent the steam engine. A type of steam piston was already in existence in Germany, used for mining. That primitive prototype had a lot of problems, though, and Watt turned his attention to one problem in particular. The chamber in which steam was produced got so hot that it had to be cooled down or it could explode. This condensing phase put an immediate but necessary damper on productivity because you had to continually stop work to cool things down.

Watt had an idea—why not make the chamber out of something that didn't get so hot? So he tried to make it out of wood. Guess what? Didn't work. But the important thing is, he didn't get disillusioned. He turned the problem over in his mind and then came up with another approach. He thought there might be great benefit to creating a second container to divert heat and prevent a cooling down phase (or rather, allow it to happen simultaneously). Thus, Watt's great contribution to the industrial revolution was a separate condenser. In other words, he kept tinkering with the problem until he found a piece of it that he could improve.

I think librarians are a lot like Watt. Not all inventors create a totally new product, like Bell and the telephone or Marconi and the wireless. Although I am reminded of the first hypertext online catalog index, HyTelnet, created by Peter Scott, and the MyLibrary interface, fostered by Eric Lease Morgan, even those guys probably tried numerous approaches until they produced something very effective. I think more inventors are like Edison, who tried variation after variation of filaments until he came upon tungsten.

Librarians have been tinkering with things for over 20 years. And they keep improving them. They've set their sites on more than just the library's Web site or the online catalog interface to it. Look at the University of Texas' TILT tutorial, or the CORE tutorial at Purdue University, for that matter. They started from prototypes, became beta, and are now on their second or third generation of development.

Sometimes when we think of the "librarian inventor" we think of those so-called techno-geeks in the systems department. Anyone familiar with the old NOTIS Users Group Meeting or who is now on the Endeavor listserv probably associates the name Alan Manifold with identifying bugs and fixing patches, which he has been doing for a long time. (Before that he wrote his own online catalog but had to abandon it when he didn't get funding for it.) Likewise, the name Marshall Breeding of Vanderbilt is closely associated with numerous approaches to improving systems security, as evidenced by his workshops on the topic at national conferences.

Speaking of which, the Computers in Libraries conference just had its 16th anniversary, and has been a precursor to the equally successful and helpful Internet Librarian and International Internet Librarian conferences, in their fifth and third years respectively. These are some of the few national conferences that provide tinkerers and inventors with a forum to discuss their approaches to and applications in the library computing field. One of the reasons I've continued to be a part of the Information Today, Inc. organization is the commitment of Tom Hogan (publisher) and Jane Dysart (conference program chair) to provide a venue for practical and applied solutions to problems so that all of us can discuss and share them.

Beyond Simple Know-How
I know, there are some librarians out there who really push the barriers of savviness: programming in XML, using ICQ (a conferencing program that "spells" "I Seek You") for reference questions, writing Linux batch jobs for the network. But there are a lot of other librarians out there who haven't created something new, or maybe don't seek the limelight, who have made little changes that make a difference.

And this is what I would argue is the changing role for librarians—not just becoming computer savvy, but becoming technologist tinkerers and inventors. James Watt went on, like Edison would later, to create a shop where he and others continued to work on perfecting steam engines. Several people working for him got patents for their inventions—little improvements that would help the Industrial Revolution grow. I think there are librarians out there in library land who are tinkering every day and coming up with nifty little inventions to help further the online revolution.

As someone who does a lot of workshops around the country, and who sits on program committees for two of the conferences mentioned above, I get to hear about a lot of tinkering. Not big inventions, just little things—Web sites, databases, Webliographies, and the like. Often people will e-mail me and ask me to look at something they've done, just to give them feedback. Sometimes it will be in areas that are a little over my head (I know, I can explain what XML does, but I haven't written any XML code for applications). Sometimes the applications aren't "ready for prime time," they're just ideas in progress. Tinkering.

Other times people will share tips with me on things they've found out by tinkering. For instance, in Word you can use the "Shift-select" method to select sequential lines of text just like you select sequential files in a directory folder (i.e., click at the beginning of a sentence, then click at the end, and the whole sentence is highlighted). It comes in pretty handy when you're trying to highlight several lines of text and the window scrolls wildly out of control on you. And it turns out you can do that in a Web browser too, anywhere there is text (or similar objects) to select. Or, in PowerPoint you can hold down the Control key and click on the Slide Show icon to create a miniature slide show window to preview your slides while you are working on them. And I remember the first time someone showed me how to right click over a link in a Netscape browser window to copy the URL to paste into a document. Nothing earth-shattering, but useful.

Constant Improvement
I think tinkering comes naturally to librarians because technology comes naturally. Information as we know it is intimately integrated with technology. In fact, a lot of people even have a hard time separating the two! But for the most part, it's a good thing. Look at all the good it's done for us—a lot of libraries have local databases on everything from new acquisitions to community information that they can spin out onto the Web for people to access remotely. The object of the technology isn't all that new—booklists and clippings files—but the way it's done is an improvement.

Just like Watt and all those other inventors, we should strive to constantly improve on what we're doing—look at technology problems from different angles, turn them around in our heads, come up with new approaches. Then if we could just get patents on these things ...

D. Scott Brandt is technology training librarian at Purdue University Libraries in West Lafayette, Indiana. He has won several awards and frequently speaks at professional conferences. His e-mail address is  

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