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 They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
What I Wish I Had Known
It has been many years since I left library school. Suffice it to say that I remember the days of using 300 bps acoustic coupler modems to search Dialog databases with an impenetrable syntax that defies description. Now, in middle age, I'm looking back from this Google-rules world and wondering what I wish I had known in those early days. I wish I had known that Gopher--which only supported plain-text documents, in an inflexible structure--would be a flash in the pan. In the early 1990s, when I was in a group deciding whether to choose Gopher or the World Wide Web to move library information and services to the Internet, we chose Gopher. We had good reasons, but it was the wrong decision. It took us years eventually to migrate all of our content from Gopher to the web. I wish I had known that it would be important to learn a web-scripting language and not be beholden to a small number of systems programmers. Although I had minored in computer science as an undergraduate, for years I resisted learning yet another programming language. After finally succumbing to learning enough Perl to build useful and effective services via the web, I wondered why I had waited so long. The debates are moot I wish I had known that many debates that took up so much intellectual time and effort would turn out to be inconsequential or moot. Remember all the angst and anguish surrounding the "commercialization" of the Internet? The sky did not fall; in fact, commercial entities mainstreamed what until that point had been simply a rather minor and arcane technology developed by government entities. I wish I had known that the solution for needing to teach our users how to search our catalog was to create a system that didn't need to be taught--and that we would spend years asking vendors for systems that solved our problems but did little to serve our users. I wish I had known that we would come to pay the price of our folly by seeing our users flock to commercial companies like Google and Amazon. Lessons learned Have I learned any lessons? Yes and no. Although I doubt I'm any better at predicting the future now, except to acknowledge that rapid change is the only constant, I have a better idea of how to respond to the present. Don't let the past be your guide. The past may provide a good model for the future in very general terms (for example, we now expect that technologies will be replaced on a regular basis), but, remember, it can't predict the specific outcomes: nothing predicted the Internet. Cultivate personal traits and general skills. It's unlikely that we'll do things in the future the way we do them now, given the pace of technological change. So we need skills more than tools, such as the ability to learn quickly without formal instruction, to foster flexibility. Always keep learning. Learn as you breathe, almost without being aware of it. Be prepared to admit and rectify your mistakes. We all make mistakes. But those who do not want to admit and fix them are simply guaranteeing their failure. Read outside of the profession. Libraries do not drive the engines of innovation. Libraries are part of a niche market that either rides the coattails of other markets or gets left behind. If you want to know where libraries are going beyond the next few years, read magazines like Business 2.0, Fast Company, and Wired. It's about the user, stupid. While we were focused on crafting integrated library systems that served our needs, our users got left behind. Is it any wonder that they can't understand why our systems aren't as easy to work with as Amazon? Seek self-reliance. Sure, almost nothing gets done without collaboration with people and/or institutions, but the more you rely on others to accomplish your goals, the more likely you will be disappointed. When I finally learned Perl, I was finally able to do my job. A little humility goes a long way. It's easy to get caught up in a sense of importance and omnipotence. As a newly minted river guide, I thought I had "mastered" the river, but I soon learned that you can never achieve mastery. As librarians, we must remember that we don't know it all. We can learn things from Google, Yahoo!, Amazon, Flickr, and others that are charting new courses. We can either humbly and gratefully receive these lessons or allow our hubris to defeat us. I'm not so arrogant as to think I've learned all there is to know about facing the future. I just know that any lessons we learn will make it more likely we'll end up where we really want to go.