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 They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.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