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Code4Lib: Hurry Up Please – It’s Time

Mar - 2 - 2007
Nicole C. Engard

Karen Schneider did the first keynote. Sorry it took me so long to write this up, but it was a really great talk and the recording I got was a bit muffled and I wanted to get this right.

Libraries are in a State of Emergency

Karen started by informing us that we’re in a State of Emergency in our profession:

  • We have given away our collections
    Allowing third parties to digitize our books (ex Google Books) parties who might not have the same mission as us.
  • We don't build or own the tools that manage them
    Why aren’t ILS built by librarians – the people who know the way libraries work
  • We provide complex, poorly-marketed systems
  • We function like a monopoly service when our competition is thriving right under our nose

Of the above, I don’t necessarily agree that we’re giving away our content – I think we’re using the tools available to us to get the job done – cheap! Why not let Google digitize our books and preserve them? I guess Karen’s concern is whether they actually will preserve them – maybe #1 just needs some tweaking of the way we’re providing content to others with the necessary tools. Why not hand the books over for scanning and storing by Google, but get copies for ourselves as well. I’m not sure of all of the logistics, but I’m all for using the companies that are out there willing to help us with projects we’d never be able to afford otherwise.

Karen went on to describe our work not as “book” work – but as memory work. We are in charge of preserving access to our society’s memories. I got the impression that Karen thinks that we have forgotten our path – and wants to bring us back to it.

She urged us to follow the “5-3-1 Rule”:

  • Pick 5 issues you believe are important
  • Focus on 3
  • now, make that 1 happen.

While there are many more things (than 5) that we can fix – Karen suggests these 5 to start with:

  1. digital preservation
  2. standards adoption
  3. the sucky state of most library software
  4. third-party library content hegemony
  5. scholarly awareness of key issues in LibraryLand

Out of that list I’d pick numbers 2 through 5 (are you surprised?). Karen picked number 1, 3 and 5. The one we agree on? Our #1 thing to make happen is number 3!!

Some great things are happening in this area already.

I’d add to that list Koha – which I learned about before Evergreen.

This renaissance of librarian-built software is a powerful thing. It restores the balance of power – the ball’s back in our court. It reinstates the direction of our profession – we’re now the ones preserving memories and we’re doing it our way. Most important (to me) it sends a message to the vendors that we mean business. Who wouldn’t want to jump in and help out with this trend (if, of course, they had the knowledge to do so)?

Unfortunately – Karen’s message is that nobody cares!

  • Nobody cares about open source
  • Nobody cares about standards
  • Nobody cares about usability
  • Nobody cares about Evergreen

But, don’t take this message the wrong way. What Karen is trying to say is that we need to figure out how to sell these things to an audience who might fear the words “open source” or “free”. We need to stop talking to those who make the decisions as if they were programmers – or techies – or geeks – like us. We need to sell these things on what they mean for libraries – on what they can do for us.

From here the discussion turned a bit – Karen explained (from a director’s point of view) what directors “know” about Open Source Software. In case you didn’t catch that – the word know is in quotes – meaning things directors think they know about open source.

  • One guy in a garage"¦ probably in a torn Duran Duran tee-shirt

    • One car accident away from orphan software
  • No support model
  • Cheesy “make-do” quality
  • Arcane and developer-oriented
  • Nobody else is doing it

This is a little funny – and a lot sad. The problem comes down to the fact that we aren’t selling OSS right. We’re selling it like we’d sell it to people like us. We need to sell it to people who sometimes think that homegrown and OSS are the same thing – people who had to work in libraries that were developing their own cataloging systems – people who apparently had a great sigh of relief when ILS vendors came along and took over the work. What they don’t realize is that OSS is not the same as those homegrown products of years ago.

My problem is that I’ve been doing this very thing. Trying to sell people on Open Source when I should be selling them on the product itself. Karen critiqued open-ils.org, stating that the FAQs are not really frequently asked questions. Instead of answering questions about open source the first question should be “Why should I use this?” – makes sense to me – but then again so did the FAQ page the way it was. It’s all a matter of us changing the way we view things and trying to talk to the users – in this case our library directors and staff.

Karen warned us that there is no such thing as free software – not something you want to say in a room full of OSS supporters – but what she says has some merit. The fact is that there is always a chance you’re going to have to take your software package home, install it and tweak it to your needs – that’s not free – my time is no free. Dan Chudnov made a comment during questions and answers that the word “free” when used in conjunction with OSS really means “freedom” – I really like that idea – and maybe we need to start marketing OSS as freedom – freedom from vendors, from locked down software, from systems that don’t meet our needs – freedom to alter the code to fit our own special model.

Karen concluded by stating that every library needs a developer. There was a time when libraries didn’t have ILL staff – now it’s a requirement. Let’s make having developers in our libraries a requirement as well. I’d actually go one step further and require that your developers have library experience. I’ve worked with outside developers who don’t know a thing about libraries – and now we’re cleaning up their mess.

View the Powerpoint

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8 Responses so far.

  1. Chuck Rigney says:

    I love your statement that “every library needs a developer”, but I disagree with you that we should “require that your developers have library experience”. In my experience, there are not enough of those to go around.

    How about “every library needs a developer who wants to work at a library”.

    There are loads of developers out there with the skills libraries need. Don’t be so exclusive. Hire a great developer, then have them work on projects as part of a Web teams alongside library staff. Before long, you have exactly what you wanted – developers with library experience.

  2. Chuck Rigney says:

    I love your statement that “every library needs a developer”, but I disagree with you that we should “require that your developers have library experience”. In my experience, there are not enough of those to go around.

    How about “every library needs a developer who wants to work at a library”.

    There are loads of developers out there with the skills libraries need. Don’t be so exclusive. Hire a great developer, then have them work on projects as part of a Web teams alongside library staff. Before long, you have exactly what you wanted – developers with library experience.

  3. Nicole says:

    That works too – but then I’d add that you want a developer who isn’t set in his/her ways. The problems I’ve had are with developers who know best and feel that they are purists. Purists don’t work well in libraries. I saw all kinds of mashed up apps at this conference – amazing work – that some would think was below them. Maybe I’ve just had bad experiences – but if you can find a way to know that the person you’re hiring wants to be in a library – go for it!

  4. Nicole says:

    That works too – but then I’d add that you want a developer who isn’t set in his/her ways. The problems I’ve had are with developers who know best and feel that they are purists. Purists don’t work well in libraries. I saw all kinds of mashed up apps at this conference – amazing work – that some would think was below them. Maybe I’ve just had bad experiences – but if you can find a way to know that the person you’re hiring wants to be in a library – go for it!

  5. dchud says:

    Actually, “open source” came *after* “free software”. If you don’t know about it already, visit fsf.org and read up on their mission. It’s *definitely* time to stop talking about kittens and start talking about freedom again.

    Fwiw, last year at code4libcon I gave a lightning talk extolling the virtues of FSF membership.

  6. dchud says:

    oh, and, it was great to meet you. :)

  7. dchud says:

    Actually, “open source” came *after* “free software”. If you don’t know about it already, visit fsf.org and read up on their mission. It’s *definitely* time to stop talking about kittens and start talking about freedom again.

    Fwiw, last year at code4libcon I gave a lightning talk extolling the virtues of FSF membership.

  8. dchud says:

    oh, and, it was great to meet you. :)


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