Thursday, February 18, 2010

An inspiring vision for the future of librarianship

Last week, while in Europe, I heard a wonderful presentation by Birte Christensen-Dalsgaard the Deputy Director General of The Royal Library of Denmark. The presentation, called “Libraries in the Google Age”, brought me to a laser-like focus within the first 30 seconds when she said, “Libraries are struggling to find a way to add value…” Having personally said this so frequently that it feels more like a chant than a statement I quickly realized a kindred soul was on the stage. I was not disappointed--(unlike my experience with the recent ALA “Draft Strategy Plan” I read and commented on recently).

Birte pointed out that librarianship is “going from collections to service provisions.” (I nearly applauded right there. This is a librarian that understands what value-add to information is all about). She discussed numerous ways that librarians can provide that value-add to information, including using technology coupled with librarianship to help suggest, advise, and support users in their quest for information. However, as she pointed out, we need to use technology in order to scale our value-add to encompass the ubiquitous supply of information. Discussing methods, she talked about assigning relevance as something critical to providing quality information to users. While pointing out that the most relevant information must show up within the first two screens of the result set, she also noted that relevance is highly personal to the user. For example, a scientist typically finds the most relevant information to be the most recent, while for a historian the most relevant item might well be something quite different. Of course, she pointed out that assigning relevance in this way requires us to know a great deal more about our users than we typically do today.

Birte also looked at the issues of specialization wherein we need to use technology and librarianship to determine which of the available information resources are to be delivered to the user. Using mobilization as her next theme, she emphasized that we need to make sure our technology works with mobile devices, precisely because it is through these devices that we’ll be able to further personalize the information delivered. As an example, she pointed out that most mobile devices today have GPS capabilities; so, where the user is seeking a physical copy of an item we could use the GPS capabilities to filter down the information to that copy located nearest the user.

Returning to the question of how librarianship adds value, Birte pressed the issue of not only embracing mobilization, but broadening the scope of it by creating a tight definition for the interface utilized. By broadening the scope of the synthesized information we could also further meet the end user’s needs. Realizing that we’re facing more information, more researchers, and more knowledge, she pointed out that we’ve got to focus on creating more automated tools to handle and process information. Just as I’ve said before, she then went on to remark: we need to bring the community of users into the process of aggregating and using information. She suggested that librarians look at the Virtual Observatory as one example (See my post here, for others). She told librarians to move from merely helping users to “finding to understanding.” She was quick to point out that the “search process is also a learning process” and should be valued as such. Identifying the use and understanding of facets in the search process was an example of learning that could result from the search process.

Moving to a discussion of library services needed for users, Birte exhorted the crowd to ask themselves in the course of developing services to ask “who are we developing these services for?” The answer should be a strong guide in both how to develop the service and the features/functionality to be provided by the end product. She discussed interfaces on technology tools used in providing services and strongly made the case that “a user interface for everyone is an interface for no one.” Beyond and beneath the interface issues, she talked about digital data extensively and how we need to provide tools to make that digital data more useful to end users. Tools that allow, perhaps even encourage, users to interpret, disseminate, and work with data and to be able to place it in context. As a result, she felt librarianship would move toward providing users with “intelligent objects, not portals.” Those objects would ultimately be “able to present themselves rather than requiring intelligent systems to surround those objects for them to be presented.” Ultimately, she saw these as collections of “intelligent objects, not intelligent libraries”. Understandably, she was quick to also identify some challenges that this paradigm would invoke, including that of rights management. Like others I’ve heard, she made the case that “rights need to ride with the objects so that they can be intelligently handled.”

As Birte moved to concluding her talk, she underscored once again, the strong belief that “library services must add value to work processes and must integrate into workflows.” This was necessary because “while scarcity use to be the books, it is now time.” Excellent points and a truly inspiring talk.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The rise of the e-book

Late last year, I was asked to write an article on "The Rise of the e-Book" for Panlibus magazine. I readily accepted as I find e-books and e-readers very exciting and a whole new reading experience.

I did worry that in the time it takes a print publication to make it to the readers would be long enough that the rate of transformation in this technology could obsolete some of the things I wanted to say. Indeed, the past several months have included the introduction of Nook from Barnes and Noble and the iPad from Apple, two devices that bring major new features to this technology.

Still, I think much of what I said in the article, just published, remains valid. See what you think. It is on pages 4-5 of this month's Panlibus magazine which you can download from here:

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Balancing innovation and focus - Part 2

My post of yesterday drew a couple of interesting comments so far, one quite favorable, the other far more critical. As always I thank everyone for the their comments but I felt the critical response missed or misunderstood some of my key points. While I wanted to answer in a comment back, the length of the response, given our blogging tool, dictates a separate new post.

Now I probably shouldn't be surprised, but I always am, when we in the library software industry, with decades of experience in producing software for a specific market segment, try to share our experiences with those who are developing software under new models (community and open source in this case) for the same market and we find our concerns brushed aside or ignored or told our statements “don’t follow”. It reminds me of all those times my parents sat me down, told me that if I did “x” it was likely “y” would result. I nodded my head, went out the door, did exactly what they said not to do and then was surprised when “y’ resulted. I learned the lesson, but later than needed and in a much more difficult way than was necessary had I only been willing to listen and build on their experiences.

Let me be more specific. The reason I focused on community and open source is because it is clear, at least to me, that many of the OSS initiatives underway are ignoring key lessons that apply to all software (be it proprietary or open source). In the case of proprietary software, many of the answers have been worked out, but this isn’t yet the case for open or community source software. I think we’ll all agree that the motivating market forces are different between the two models – proprietary uses monetary means to prioritize and to decide, open source uses community, consensus and other motivators. Each has their advantages and disadvantages. However, despite those motivators many of the market behaviors will remain the same, no matter which (or both) of the software models is employed.

The point in saying that implementing one type of software over the other requires the same amount of staff is really entirely outside of my post. But let me respond anyway. First, I’d like to note that the amount of time required to install most products is very dependent upon the extent of the local site customizations. Most proprietary products can be installed and put into production reasonably quickly. However, most customers choose to extensively modify workflows, interfaces, etc. to accommodate local practices. I'll also note that when compared to OSS, most organizations supporting OSS tell anyone considering it: don’t select open source expecting cost savings, because that isn’t the primary benefit. Bottom line, installation time is more a function of local choice than a requirement of the type of software. I would also argue that while an institution may spend equal time implementing either type of software, the richness of the final solution may or may not be comparable. To complete the analysis, one needs to look at what does the final solution offer in totality? As I’ve said more than once about our Open Platform approach, which allows OSS extensions on top of our proprietary solutions: “Start higher, go farther.

When we talk about redundant investments between vendors we need to remember again that there are different market variables that determine which solution(s) will prove viable in the market. With proprietary software we have a free and open market that will use monetary variables to decide among the competing solutions, which is the best to meet specific market needs. On the OSS side, the monetary force is currently judged (although clearly debatable) as a much smaller variable and as a result it responds to a different set of forces. But one of the key points my post was trying to make is that they are all rooted in addressing largely the same market needs that we in the proprietary software world must answer to, including: Does it provide a solution to the need? How many customers will use the product (community)? What are the costs to produce/maintain it? Will this result in good support being provided to the users at a reasonable cost?

The issues are the same, it’s just the mechanisms that provide the answers that vary and in the end the answers will share more than they differ, regardless of it being OSS or proprietary.

My post was not and is not designed to “divide” the world of software types. I’m quite proud of the fact that so much of my career has shown a steady path of trying to use and unify the best of both of these worlds. The post was written to extend that once again, by sharing experiences and knowledge I’ve gained in functioning in the shared and individual environments of proprietary and community/open source software. The question now is this: Will the OSS community learn these lessons the hard way or are they willing to build on our experiences?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Balancing innovation and focus

I attended the fall CNI Membership meeting recently and, as always, it’s a great meeting. Cliff Lynch always opens the meeting with an excellent overview that clearly defines current trends and issues in the field. One issue he raised (starts around minute 71:00) caught my attention in particular. That was the thought that we need to be concerned about the sustainability of so many open source initiatives in this field. While clearly calling out the positives that some projects are moving under the Kuali umbrella and the combination of DSpace and Fedora into the DuraSpace effort, he also called for some focus on the part of the profession. Since I’ve raised this very issue in some of my previous posts (here, here and here), this deeply resonated with me. I applaud Cliff for raising it. His voice is widely heard and deeply respected.

So, I was a bit surprised (and worried), when I attended the session on IR+, a new open source repository offering being developed by the University of Rochester. I think this project is a perfect example of precisely the point Cliff raised in his opening remarks. On one hand, they’ve got some obviously talented and hard-working developers who’ve developed some interesting new repository features with their project. Yet, because it is a new project, they were also strongly making the appeal that they hoped others would see the value and thus join their community to help develop the product yet further. All of which underscores the question that Cliff (and I) are asking – how many of these types of initiatives can the shrinking resource pool of academic programmers (focused on libraries) support and support well?

Of course this question can’t be simply answered as it is tied to a variety of related questions, like:

  1. How big a community does a product need to be viable?
  2. How many sites are using the product?
  3. How clean is the code? and on and on…
I guess what I found somewhat more bothersome about the IR+ presentation was this: I’ve long followed what the University of Rochester does, because they are some very innovative thinkers and some of the features and reasons they gave for developing IR+ were features I’d seen them implement in the open source repository product they were previously using; DSpace. In fact, the presenter said at one point “we had so modified DSpace that it no longer looked or behaved like DSpace..” I found that remark particularly interesting given that sharing the developments done to OSS code is certainly part of the OSS model. If they did submit the code (and I don’t know that they did or didn’t), one has to wonder if their changes weren’t committed to the main trunk, or if they were, if they weren’t adopted by others? Would that mean their needs were so unique and specialized that they weren’t shared by other institutions? If they elected not to share all their developments with the DSpace , why not? (This Facebook post makes a similar point).

The questions can keep mounting, but I think there is a larger and more important issue at stake here. Again in his remarks at CNI, Cliff used a phrase that I'm going to borrow here: “redundant and poorly coordinated investments.” It captures, at a high level, the need for administrators, be they in the library or on the campus, to ask these questions when considering investments in open or community source to determine if their project/product addresses a need:

  1. Is there a product (proprietary or otherwise) that can substantially address the needs being expressed and, if so, has a full and accurate cost comparison of those options been prepared? The questions should be extended to ask: if the proprietary solution was put into place and thus into production more quickly, would the time savings realized by so doing result in the ability to invest in other OSS projects that would offer a greater return on the investment because they’re meeting new end-user needs through new and possibly innovative feature sets?
  2. When the needs of one institution are found to be totally unique, is it an indication of innovation or lack of focus? When we encounter these situations are we taking the time to ask if is a call for a revised workflow, a new best-practice, or is it something truly unique and that clearly adds value?
  3. Is it possible for academic librarians to agree to establish a criterion for OSS projects that says, if an OSS concept proposal can’t enlist “x” people in its community within “x” time, it should not be undertaken and that no code should be developed until such a milestone can be achieved?
  4. Finally, we should always be asking how any OSS project contributes to the larger agenda of the institution. Is it supporting the mission, goals and objectives as defined by the administration? If not, why are we doing it? If it does, be sure to understand how it will not only support those things, but be self-sustaining in doing so.
I’ve long been an advocate in this blog that librarianship is in need of a clear definition of the future of the profession and to examine how technology (open source or proprietary) will move that definition to fruition and, at the same time, leverage librarianship. We have scarce resources and large needs. I think we all need to make sure we wisely balance innovation and focus.