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 They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.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