:: 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 They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.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

I Know This Much Is True


   In this crazy, mixed-up world it can be tough to distinguish fact from
   fancy, hype from honesty, and the next "killer" application from
   vaporware. As information bombards us, we must employ all of our skills
   as librarians to filter out the noise and find the signal. Sometimes we
   must rely on our own experience and intuition. So here I go out on a
   limb to say what I believe to be true about information technology
   today -- not tomorrow, as times change.

   Neither an early adopter nor a latecomer be. If you adopt a technology
   in the early stages of development, you're asking for it. That
   technology may go nowhere, or be beat out by another (often worse)
   technology with greater market share (see below). Even if the nascent
   technology succeeds, you'll have to tinker with it constantly as it

   On the other hand, if you wait too long to adopt a new technology, your
   organization falls behind. So monitor technologies that you believe
   hold promise. Periodically assess the stage of development (e.g, "Has
   it been standardized?" and "Who has adopted it?"), and if it holds
   promise, start developing internal knowledge and expertise.

   Technology with market share beats better technology. History is
   replete with examples of superior technologies that lost out -- often
   because they were late to market. What this means to you is that it
   isn't enough to adopt good technologies -- they must also be popular.

   It's the customer, stupid! Beware of boys and their toys. Those who
   love technology can sometimes be seduced by its power and capabilities.
   When such decisions become a barrier to the user's needs (e.g.,
   requiring users to have the latest multimedia plug-ins to use your
   site), you're in trouble. Keep your priorities straight.

   Never underestimate the power of a prototype. You can explain a new
   system until you're blue in the face, but comprehension may escape your
   listeners until you demonstrate it. Prototype systems, even simple
   mock-up screen displays, can make your vision real. If the prototype is
   functional, all the better.

   Back it up or kiss it goodbye. There are only two kinds of computer
   users -- those who have lost data and those who will. Enough said.

   Buy hardware at the last possible moment. Moore's law (from the founder
   of Intel), which states that the number of transistors that can be
   packed on a chip will double every 18 months, means computers get more
   powerful while getting cheaper. The same goes for peripheral equipment.
   So the wise hardware buyer will put off buying anything until the last
   possible moment, thus maximizing purchasing power.

   Don't buy software with a zero at the end of the release number. If you
   buy newly released software, again you're asking for it. The first
   release of a program, or a major revision of one, is almost certain to
   pack its fair share of bugs -- ranging from minor to catastrophic. Let
   others stumble over the first release.

   If you can't be with the operating system you love, love the one you're
   with. Religious wars are for zealots -- you have work to do. Become
   proficient in the MS Windows, Macintosh, and Unix operating systems.
   Know their strengths and limitations. Attain a level of comfort working
   with each, so you can hit the ground running in any situation.

   Burn, baby burn: the only good CPU cycle is a used one. Computers are
   here to do work for us. If you're not running them into the ground,
   you're probably not trying hard enough. Don't worry about the load on
   the machine; an unused CPU cycle (when the computer sits idle, awaiting
   the next instruction) is a lost opportunity. Worry about convincing the
   bean counters you need more of them.

   You can never have too much RAM, disk space, or CPU speed. Like love or
   money, the concept of "too much" does not apply here. Probably the
   single cheapest thing you can do to improve your efficiency and
   effectiveness is to spend $100 on RAM. It can be amazing what a little
   extra volatile memory can do for your computer.

   I can think of no reason why a computer for a library staff person
   running a modern operating system and standard applications should not
   have somewhere between 96-128 MB of RAM or more. Your time is
   expensive, but RAM isn't. Have your financial officer do the math.

   If you've learned a technology thoroughly, it's on its way out. The
   only constant is change, and, with technology, change happens fast. We
   have no choice but to get used to it. Do you remember Gopher? Archie?
   WAIS? These are all tools that came and went inside of five years or
   less -- a mere footnote on the time line of libraries. So learn
   constantly and make strategic decisions about what deserves your

   For any given project, there are several ways it can succeed and
   countless ways it can fail. Your job is to distinguish between them.
   But at least it's comforting to know that you have some latitude in
   your decision-making. Your choice to use one particular database, for
   example, likely won't decide the success or failure of your project.
   Other, perhaps more insidious factors like internal politics are likely
   to be your downfall.

   As digital librarians, we must make decisions about technologies --
   which to learn and which not, which to use and which to ignore -- all
   day, every day. But then, isn't that what librarians should be good at?
   We make similar decisions whenever we decide what books or journals to
   buy. Sure, there are some differences, but our goals remain constant.
   Whether we buy a book or a network hub, we must always keep the needs
   of our customers foremost.