Computers in Libraries
Vol. 22, No. 9 October 2002

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Building Digital Libraries

Playing in the Technology Sandbox
by Donna Stevenson

One sign that you are doing something that you love is that you not only want to complete your projects, but you also like to play with the technologies involved in them. I consider this "play" to be the examination of virtually anything unfamiliar that doesn't provide immediate results. Perhaps it is attempting a project a second time using a different technology, or it's doing a new project slowly with the learning curve of unfamiliar tools, even though you could put something together at a much faster pace with those you already know. And, as you might think, playing can also be trying things with a new technology that aren't meant to produce any practical result at all.

The desire to try new things is pretty much a job requirement in the fast-changing world of Web development. Still, it is definitely a sign that you've chosen the right field if you find yourself making excuses to tinker, and if you linger over some detail because you think it would be interesting to see if you can get it just right.

Over the years, I've learned again and again that experimenting with technology is an important way to renew the excitement of a job and to increase creativity. In this column, I would like to encourage you to play, remind you why it can even be good for the bottom line, and talk about ways to make it more satisfying and useful.

Getting Your Hands Dirty

You may naturally find ways to investigate new technologies, or you may have to work at it a little. Other people often have wonderful ideas as to the kinds of things you could be trying. You may meet a librarian at a conference who can't stop talking about the wonders of shell scripting, you may see a listserv message about the uses of XML, or you may meet a graduate student in computer science who raves about PHP as a scripting language. To get ideas on your own, you can check out Web pages on top new technologies or magazine columns about new issues. Of course, I recommend this magazine, and I also like the LITA Top Technology Trends My favorite way to keep in touch with what's going on is the Web4lib electronic discussion list

Is It Still Considered 'Work' If It's Fun, Too?

Remember that the idea of work is all relative. You may find that what is a chore to someone else is play to you. Perhaps there are graphic buttons that need to be made, and the person who usually makes them has done this again and again, so it is kind of boring for him. If you've never tried making them before, this might turn out to be a wonderful project for you. You may actually relieve the tedium of someone else's job while simultaneously providing yourself with a learning experience.

A part of you may think it's obvious that we need to keep current, but no matter how much you may want to try new things, it is easy to get caught up in to-do lists and deadlines, and to not make time for exploring unknowns. Isn't there always a deadline looming or a crisis building? Often, we have to justify taking the time to experiment with new technologies, and I think it can be harder to justify this to ourselves than to anyone else. We don't have to worry, though, because there are lots of good reasons that playing makes us better at our jobs.

First, playing re-energizes you. Imagine you're working on an important project that will take you 8 hours to complete. Now, what if I told you that if you took an hour to examine a new technology before starting, the project would only take you 6 hours to finish? Wouldn't the practical thing be to take that first hour to try that new thing? OK, I can't make any guarantees or specify any exact time savings, but if you put this into practice, I think you will find that it is true. Energized people can get things done faster and better.

Playing is also a wonderful way to stir up creativity. There may be times when you have problems that you're having difficulty solving. You may have a kind of writer's block in coming up with solutions. Trying things for the fun of it can help unblock you; it can start to free your mind from narrow assumptions about a situation. It's a mental coffee break that can inspire thinking of new ways to solve your problem.

A final justification is that the answer to your problems might be right there in that new technology, even if you don't know it yet. There have been many times in my career when I've explored and played and found that doing what I wanted to do was very easy with the new technology, though I hadn't expected this when I started. For example, I was recently experimenting with the files for the OPAC on our test server. I would make changes to different files and then check the output to see what the result was; I was just having fun exploring the system. Suddenly, I noticed on the results screen that one of the changes I had made did exactly the same thing as a troublesome JavaScript I'd been trying to work with. I was able to eliminate the JavaScript and replace it with the other method. How could I have known this without trying it out? You need to take a technology out for a test drive before knowing what it is good for.

A Safe Place to Play

I highly recommend that you develop for yourself an area to play in. Ideally that would be a separate server where there are no production services. Unless you can take down the whole machine without patrons being inconvenienced, you should be cautious when you're unsure what the outcome of your changes will be. You must have a safe environment in which to experiment and fail, or new systems technologies will remain outside your reach.

OK, having your own server for a sandbox is a luxury that not all of us get. You can still set aside accounts or directories in which to play safely. You can set up development files specifically for your experimentation and a separate directory for the production files. Make sure files are backed up so that you can feel confident that it can all be restored if problems pop up; at some point you may discover that while you've been playing, things have stopped working altogether.

Getting Productive Results

It may turn out that your tinkering produces useful results, but there are other aspects to consider beyond whether something is working. For something to be a production service, you will want to consider whether your product is truly reliable. Not only does the technology need to be working now, but it also needs to be solid enough, and your problem-solving abilities up-to-speed enough, that you will be able to keep the service up in the future. When you are on the cutting edge, there are fewer resources to support you when you do have problems—from documentation to the experience of people who have been there before you.

If you put your project into production, you will also want to make sure that everything you've done is documented well enough that if anything happens to make you unavailable, someone else will be able to follow what you did. Unfortunately, this can be a problem with a new technology, because other people may not know anything about it. If someone else needs to take over the project, make sure that learning that new technology is part of his or her job description.

You also should consider whether you feel some pressure, internal or otherwise, to make the results a production service. Don't let your exploration trap you into feeling as if you have to do that. Even without the service going into production, you've learned something; you've become more energized and creative. These positive effects are enough to justify your time; nothing is wasted when you've learned something.

Making Playground Friends

Lastly, I think it is important to encourage others to try new technologies and to extend themselves into new areas. Whether it is a colleague, someone who works for you, or someone you meet at a conference, encourage him or her by talking enthusiastically about something you've recently learned. Take the time to show him or her how to get started. Share your sandbox. Sometimes it takes someone's holding your hand to get you going; pass on that favor to other people. It is to everyone's benefit to create a stimulating, creative, and renewing work environment.

One additional note: Though I've enjoyed writing the Building Digital Libraries column this past year, this will be my last column. Recently I had the unexpected opportunity to move into our Systems Department to work on our libraries' Web catalog, and this change in direction of my career has made me feel the need to take some time to get up-to-speed in my new area—including spending a lot of time playing with the Web OPAC technology! Of course, I'll still be keeping an eye on this magazine for interesting new ideas. I hope you will too.


Donna Stevenson is a systems librarian at the University Libraries of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana. Her duties include Web page design and programming for the libraries' Web OPAC. Her e-mail address is
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