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Magazines > Searcher > July/August 2008
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Vol. 16 No. 7 — Jul/Aug 2008
The Winds of Change
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

The Searcher's Voice PodcastAs I have often told you, beloved readers, I am never wrong — occasionally inaccurate — but never wrong. Of course, changes in my advice due to changes in circumstances don’t count. For many years, I have tended to dismiss the idea that librarians needed to acquire and maintain high levels of technical computing skills. (By the way, I would prefer it if you refrain from sharing information on this position of mine with anyone at Searcher’s sister publication, Computers in Libraries. Thanks.) Now I have never objected to any librarian acquiring these skills for their personal amusement and the entertainment of colleagues. In fact, everyone knows that the possession of a keen-eyed techie, a dedicated programmer, a revolutionary-minded propellerhead is every library manager’s dream.

No, I simply felt that such technical knowledge should not be required for practicing the library profession. In fact, I expected that the techies serving libraries would report to the “real” librarians. In this long-held view of mine, a librarian only needed to know enough to aim techies at the right problems and to understand their jargon, in case they stumbled upon solutions to problems they knew not of. I still recall a long-ago conversation with a friend working at a traditional online information service back at the dawn of the Information Age. She spoke of a techie who walked into a meeting with a “Eureka/Look what I made!” expression on his face. He had just found a way to make the computer find the same citation as it appeared in different sources. All the info pros in the room were staggered, but the techie was just puzzled. He had simply designed the program as a personal challenge, an interesting exercise. Surrounded by stunned faces, he realized something had happened and asked, “Why? Is it important?” “De-duping! Cross-file result sorting!” gasped an info pro. “What’s deduping?” asked the techie. Sheesh!

And then there’s the danger from techie viruses, particularly the WIH-ABM syndrome (“Was Invented Here — And By ME”). Another tale from the crypt. Long ago I worked at a firm where all the online searching came from the library. People in the computing department grew jealous of our powers and wanted to do what we could do — actually what our online vendors could do. So they pounced on a bibliographic file created at the company and lined up some overhead funding. It wasn’t much, but they told us it should cover the creation of ONE Boolean operator. They came all the way down to the library to ask whether it should be an AND or an OR. We figured NOT would be more appropriate. Nor is this the only instance. Ten or 12 years later, I was moderating an Internet Librarian conference panel. One of the speakers was there to display what the library’s techies had invented. It turned out to be a plain vanilla bibliographic database package. Considering the limited technical talent assigned by the institution to library needs, why on earth was time and energy wasted in creating something for which off-the-shelf software and services abounded? Why? I suspect because the techies wanted to see if they could do it and the library budget paid the fare for their fun.

So what has brought me to reconsider my long-held position on library “techie-ness,” you may ask. Not that I’m ever rigid in my thinking of course. It’s just that always being right sometimes makes it look that way. (And may I remind you that Snickers is a wonderful candy bar, but hardly a polite way of commenting on the conduct of others? Hmph.) As usual, the change comes from a collision of ideas. For many years now, I have believed that one of the primary obstacles to librarians achieving all that they could and all that they should is a problem of governance. Despite the fact that technologies have enabled anyone and everyone to reach a world of users, despite the fact that librarians were the first to see this miraculous change take place back in the early days of online, most of us still have to serve our paymasters first and the world a distant second. We live under the restrictions of geographic and institutional limits — ZIP code governance — though technology has often made those limits unnecessary and even needlessly expensive. If all the talented people working in libraries could cooperate and coordinate their resources, the sharing could build a network to rival Google’s.

In fact, why didn’t the Association of Research Libraries beat Google to the punch and build a Google Book Search mass digitization program on its own? Why did the idea never seriously occur to them? Because they didn’t have the budget? Not necessarily. Together the ARL libraries spend billions each year. It’s just that they don’t spend them together. Each budget is an island to itself with any coordinated efforts seen as budgetary add-ons, extras, short-term and discardable.

So what’s different now? Web 2.0, Library 2.0, social networks like Facebook or Twitter, virtual worlds like Second Life, open source software, SaaS (software as a service). In other words, “cloud computing.” While librarians have always needed to be comfortable with new technologies, the new availability of low-cost, high-performance, hardware/software platforms — such as Amazon Web Services as just one example — may let us burst through ZIP code governance. But to do that, we will need people willing to work some software solutions on their own. The development platforms in an open source-minded world will guarantee a lot of free-floating solutions and knowledgeable talent, but librarians will need more hands-on, detailed knowledge to be sure they have the right solutions to our problems.

One advantage we do have. The biggest challenge to cloud computing usually involves issues of security. People have a natural distrust of putting their most intimate, proprietary data into someone else’s hands. And that’s a serious concern. However, librarians usually want their data disseminated as widely as possible. We jump up and down trying to get the world’s attention. We grin from ear to ear when we see approaching readers.

So let’s start acquiring the skills it will take. Let’s start coordinating our efforts to do more with someone else’s machines. Let’s start comparing internal costs with external costs across the board. Let’s create active communities of skills on social networks, build wikis to consolidate technical knowledge, conduct distance learning classes to bring everyone up-to-speed.

Hey!! This could be fun. That propeller humming along on top of your head really gives you an air of distinction. Air, heck! It’s more like a strong breeze!

— bq

Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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