:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

Facing the Not Knowing


   As I write this, I'm 30,000 feet over who knows where, on my way to
   another speaking engagement, where library staff will be gathered to
   hear what their future holds. I will tell them that I don't know. If I
   knew, I'd be only too happy to share, but I don't have more than some
   educated guesses. What I do have is a strategy, come what may, which I
   will use to fill the gap of not knowing. Because we can't know, not
   really. Who predicted the dominance of the Internet and Google? I
   certainly didn't.

   Constant change

   So I'm left with a strategy for coping with constant change, all for
   which any of us can hope. You may have your own strategy; this is at
   least part of mine. Maybe it will help in the absence of certainty.

   Guard your data with your life. Many of us have been part of one or
   more system transitions. If you have, you understand that our data is
   all that really matters. Library vendors will come and go, but our data
   remains. Increasingly, however, our data is likely to be caught in the
   system we're using. How do we capture and migrate data, such as how
   many times a book has been checked out? Such data is increasingly
   valuable as we try to build systems that rank or recommend items in our
   collection. Before signing a contract for an integrated library system,
   we would do well to know whether we can extract such data and, if so,
   exactly how. Because, in the end, it's the only thing we really own.

   Build not for longevity but obsolescence. As librarians, we tend to
   think in terms of longevity--of designing and planning for the long
   haul. This approach is the exact opposite of what we need when dealing
   with technology. Few technologies last very long. Beyond pencils and
   toilet paper, the list is quite short. Certainly no technology based on
   the use of electricity has ever had a very long shelf life. Therefore,
   the most important thing we can plan for is how to extract ourselves
   from the existing technology. We need to know our exit strategy.

   Learn a technology only well enough to do what you must. Given that no
   technology lasts, we shouldn't waste time learning things we may never
   need to use. When a new technology comes along that enables you to do
   something useful, learn it only well enough to accomplish your goal.
   Anything beyond that may be wasted effort. If you need to learn more to
   accomplish additional tasks, then you will have a specific goal and
   know that what you learn will be put to good use.

   Never get in bed with someone you don't want to see in the cold light
   of morning. Selecting a vendor is as much about deciding whom you wish
   to work with on a regular basis as it is about selecting a specific
   technology solution. Choose your vendors carefully.

   If it doesn't have an API, it's not worth having. An application
   program interface (API) is simply a way for two software applications
   to communicate. Typically this involves a structured query of some
   kind, which in its simplest configuration is a URL with a set of
   parameters including a query and various additional settings. What is
   returned by an API is a response that typically is encoded in XML,
   which can be parsed and acted upon by the querying application. An API
   provides a method, then, for one software application to use data or
   services provided by another application. For example, if your catalog
   has an API, you could create a new-book alerting service by querying
   the catalog for newly added items and then processing the result into
   an email message or RSS feed even if your vendor does not provide this
   service. An API is the last refuge of an imaginative librarian saddled
   with an inadequate library computer system and you should not have to
   pay more for it.

   Lived forward

   In A Breath of Snow and Ashes, the latest volume of the "Outlander"
   novels, Diana Gabaldon's time-traveling characters are disturbed to
   read a newspaper account of their own deaths and then be fated to watch
   the grisly day approach. But even in the novel, Gabaldon does not allow
   the past's future to unfold as the future foretold. There is no way,
   Gabaldon seemed to assert, that we can truly know what our future holds
   for us and when--not even when it is a matter of historical record.

   We need to become comfortable with the not knowing. We need to foster
   personal and professional strategies when things don't go as planned.
   Looking up, I see the clouds below and a darkening sky above. Caught
   between heaven and earth, the future and the past, all that any of us
   have is now and the way we choose to face it.