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Library services and in-house software development

Library services and in-house software development

This essay outlines two opportunities for the library profession: 1) the increased need for library services and not necessarily library collections, and 2) the ability to be leaders in the implementation of services through in-house software development.

Collections and services

Librarianship, especially in an environment of globally networked computers, is not so much about collections as it is about the combination of collections and services. It is no good having one without the other.

Computers can store enormous amount of data and information. (Whether or not they can store knowledge or wisdom is an essay for another time.) There are an enormous amounts computers in the world, and an enormous number of those computers are connected to each other through the Internet. By extension, there is an enormous amount of information available to anybody with a Web browser and an Internet connection.

This enormous amount of information is essentially a collection. No, it is not necessarily organized. No, it is not necessarily owned by your library. But it is a collection, albeit a very very large one. Access to this collection is not so much of an issue as it is making use of the collection. “What do I do with all of this information?” “How do I use it?” If I work in an academic environment, the question might more specifically be, “How do I effectively use this access to do my work — my teaching, learning, and scholarship?”

What do people do with data and information once they acquire it? Answers are not so difficult to articulate. People read it. They file it. They organize it. They annotate it. They share it with their friends and colleagues. They delete it. They edit it. They save it for future reference. They print it. They integrate it into other activities. They compare it to other pieces of data and information. They validate it. On and on and on. All of these things could be called services applied against their collections. Some of these services are natural extensions of traditional librarianship. Thus, here are opportunities for growth of the library profession — the creation and maintenance of information services. As more and more people have access to information and as more and more people can carry huge amounts of information around with them on their keychains and their iPods, the problem is not so much about access to collections. Collections are easily accessible, especially after they’ve been digitized. Think Google Print. The problem is what to do with the information to accomplish my work.

With the increasing number of library-like institutions providing library-like services, it is important for libraries to differentiate themselves. Libraries need to adapt to the changing environment of networked information and changing user expectations. Libraries need to grow beyond the the creation and maintenance of collections. Everybody creates collections. Everybody has collections. Everybody provides access to collections. Collections abound. Providing services against the collections ensures the collections have utility. Here is need to be filled, and building on the profession’s knowledge of the collection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of centralized information I believe we can discover, improve, and implement these processes against the collections of individuals. These things are called “services”, and they will empower people and make them more productive.

I believe a Zen Master once said, “Collections without services are useless, and services without collections are empty.”

In-house software development

In order to provide rich sets of information services against collections it will be necessary to implement those services in a computerized environment. This is much of what the user will expect. If we decide to be leaders in this area — the creation and maintenance of services, then we, as a profession need to learn how to control the computer environment as opposed to being controlled by it. Through in-house software development libraries can achieve this goal.

No I am not suggesting every librarian be a computer programmer, but I am suggesting the profession become more knowledgeable of basic information technologies as implemented through the use of computers. Relational database are a good example. Librarians love to create lists. List of books. Lists of journals. Lists of Internet resources. In a computerized environment these lists are currently best implemented in relational database systems, yet most of the profession can not articulate what this means and differentiate it with a spreadsheet.

Another example is searching. “Librarians love to search. Everybody else loves to find.” Searching, in today’s computer environment, is best implemented through the use of an indexer. Indexers extract all the words from documents, creates a list of the words and their positions in the documents, and then associates each word with one or more documents where the word can be found. Computer-generated indexes work just exactly like back-of-the-book indexes except every word, not just the words a human thought were important, is listed. There are many indexers available for use. By learning how to use them we can make things searchable. Why don’t we as librarians know more about this technology and create more of our own indexes? There sure is enough content available for indexing.

The profession does not need to learn how to create new relational database systems, nor does it need to invent new indexers. We missed that boat almost twenty years ago. Instead the profession needs to learn how to use and “glue” these applications together, and that process is called computer programming. We need to learn how to use and combine databases and indexers together in order to build collections and implement services.

“Ah,” you say, “I don’t need to know about these things because I have vendors supply this for me.” Yes, that might be true, but such an approach to the situation is expensive in terms of time. It is not possible for third party commercial institutions to create solutions quickly enough for librarians to be seen as leaders in the field and to expediently satisfy local needs. On the other hand, if libraries posses the skills to write computer programs — control their computer environment — then they will be empowered to create solutions more immediately and more specifically. How comfortable are you outsourcing your collection, reference, or cataloging operations? In today’s environment computing services are no different.

No, I do not advocate not taking advantage of vendor-supplied solutions to library problems; there is a definite need for such things. At the same time I do advocate a greater degree of computing expertise in libraries. Would you trust a carpenter who did not know how to exploit the use of a hammer? Would you trust a surgeon who was not an expert in the use of a scalpel? Why should you trust a librarian, especially a librarian working in a computerized environment, who did not know how to expertly use a computer?

Eric Lease Morgan
University Libraries of Notre Dame