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.