Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Library Information Systems Quicksand

When the Internet came of age over ten years ago libraries had few information systems choices. Creating software applications back then required fairly complicated development tools and a relatively high degree of programming skills. It was rare for a library to have staff with such skills. Libraries had little choice but to license technologies from vendors.

As the paradigms have changed so have the tools and protocols of application development. They have become very accessible. Still, from my vantage point libraries seem to continue to fall further behind. As a profession we seem to be stuck in information system quicksand.

One of the problems is that most of the vendors used proprietary technologies instead of those that support open standards. These closed systems which our vendors have provided us have made solutions such as federated and metasearching quite complicated, if not impossible, primarily since our systems can not talk to one another.

While libraries have embraced consortia solutions for most large scale purchases, the collective vision of library leadership has failed to see the potential for open systems development that would result in new library systems based on open standards. These systems could be built using an open architecture and shared with the library community. Community source, if you will.

At the very least, I believe our library leadership and professional organizations need to begin demanding that vendors begin using open standards and opening up their APIs. By continuing to embrace proprietary vendor solutions - as they decide to build them - we may be destined to remain two or three years behind the technology curve.

I do applaud those libraries that have abandoned traditional library ILS vendors like Ex Libris, Innovative Interfaces, and SirsiDynix and instead have embraced systems like Endeca and AquaBrowser. While the later are still vendor solutions at least they are offering solutions that libraries need now, not just talking and planning for "future enhancements." Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Medical Library Association Technology Trends Panel

Yesterday, I participated on a panel discussing technology trends at the Medical Library Association's Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.

A listing of the trends discussed with links to examples is available from the MLA Medical Informatics web site. It was a packed house and spilled out into the hallway. The trends discussed included:

The perpetual beta
Mobile/Wireless computing and communication in the clinical setting
Death of the desktop?
MMOG and collaboration among strangers
Technology enhanced visualization and containerless content
Cloud architecture
Web. 20 gadgets
Second Life
Learning 2.0

Many of these trends may seem to many to be 'old.' One must keep in mind that a significant number of MLA members are librarians from small to mid-sized libraries. In many cases they are the only librarian and have no in-house technology support. As a result, they may not have the resources of the time to keep up with technology trends.

After the session I stopped into the hotel's bar to have an adult beverage with my fellow presenters. To my surprise, also at the table was the Krafty Librarian. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, May 14, 2007

Managing Libraries by Crisis

Does the following scenario sound familiar?

You identify an issue within your organization but unable to get the support to solve it before it turns critical. You communicate the issue on several occasions and it is ignored, that is until the issue becomes a real crisis. Once the issue becomes a crisis it becomes THE organizational priority. Resources once unavailable to resolve the issue proactively are somehow made available. You are left saying to yourself (maybe out loud) "I identified and communicated that issue long ago many but nobody paid attention!"

This approach is what is referred to as management by crisis. It is a reactive method of management in which strategies are formulated as events occur.

In management by crisis, certain situations are known to exist within the organization but for a variety of reasons they are ignored or not seen as an immediate threats. In such an environment, planning doesn't occur and resources remain unallocated until the issue actually becomes a crisis. More time and resources are then spent to repair and manage by crisis then were required to prevent it. The New Orleans' levees come to mind.

This is a different concept than crisis management. Crisis management implies that the timing of a situation was relatively unpredictable. For example, an earthquake, tornado, or a zero-day virus attack. Crisis management forecasts a potential crisis and plans how how to manage it with a generic strategy based on experience and anticipation. As a crisis unfolds the manager identifies its nature and then intervenes using the plan in order to minimize damage and to expedite recovery.

In the Katrina example, FEMA (should have) served as a crisis management organization. In contrast, the US Army Corps of Engineers apparently managed the issue by crisis. They apparently were aware the levees would not hold years ago and failed to step in to do anything until after the disaster. They have spent significantly more to repair the broken levees than it would have taken to build them properly to begin with.

While it is a desirable trait for a leader to have a set of crisis management skills, it is not that uncommon to see leaders that manage by crisis. It is a type of leadership which is built on managing day-to-day issues and not on strategic planning. Some leaders may actually see the identification of a crisis, the action steps and resources allocated to resolve it, and the elimination of complaints as being an aggressive / proactive management style. In fact, it is a defensive / reactive / passive management approach.

One way to spot an organization that manages by crisis is when the success and direction of the organization is determined by the complaints they get. Those issues with the most complaints are given a high organizational priority. Project planning and decisions are guided by the potential for complaints.

When the complaints decrease the leadership pats itself on the back for dealing with the issue. The incorrect assumption is that no complaints means everything is fine. The Hawthorne Effect is also an issue in organizations managed by crisis: the increased attention to the crisis results in a temporary increase in effort focused on the issue.

Strategic planning is one way to break out of the management by crisis cycle. By creating a strategic plan and using it set direction many more issues can be properly anticipated. The result is a managerial approach that is more aggressive in nature and is focused in on managing change. When change is effectively managed it becomes a part of the organizational routine. The strategic plan becomes the road map for planning and critical issues can be addressed more proactively. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, May 07, 2007

Web Designers No Longer Monopolize Design

I finally got around to reading Virginia Postrel's April 6th, 2007 BusinessWeek article entitled Doing It Yourself. It is an interesting read in light of some change occurring within my workplace, an academic library.

We are probably not the only library IT shop that has a web design team that performs work for outside departments for a fee. Those fees recovers the salaries of the development and design staff. Over the years, our developers have created many design templates as well as a very handy tool set which has facilitate web development and eliminated the need for most content managers to know anything about HTML. Skills developers are required since the underlying infrastructure uses Cold Fusion.

There have also been discussions about the local deployment of an enterprise content management (ECM) system and of the UM.Sitemaker solutions. Both of these tools can create basic web sites and are poised to disrupt the current web design group's business model. These potentially disruptive technologies are generally being discounted by developers, who tend assert that without their specialized skills good design is not possible.

The reality is that these days the tools are cheaper, more powerful, and easily found online that as Ms. Postrel puts it, "permit customization, Build-a-Bear style" that "lets amateurs recombine predesigned modules to produce professional, or semi-professional, results." With these tools many libraries may no longer need to work with developers designers to create basic web portals and will likely suffice for much of the web portal design work which has been historically done by developers.

Designers should not react in fear that we will stop needing their skills. There will always be a need for skilled designers and developers. As Ms. Postrel points out "To fear that shoddy DIY work will replace good professional design is to suggest that the two are indistinguishable to the untrained eye." Still, these new tools will likely require library developers to refocus their energies on creating web applications that supplement and enhance web portals rather than building out the portals themselves. Sphere: Related Content