Overcoming the “Tech Deficit” (and helping others to)

Since library camp, I've been pondering the plight of "tech-depressed" libraries--that is, libraries that don't have at their disposal either the staffing or the equipment to provide the services they would like. The problem is not so much purchasing software, since almost all of the good software is free. Open source, for instance, doesn't cost a penny in licensing fees, but it does require expertise, experience, and finesse to mold it into an implementation of your vision...

...Which leads me to believe that envisioning the future of tech in libraries requires someone who is passionate about technology and all the great things it can do. In fact, without that one person, or those few people who create the impetus, a library is often left doing things like foisting their website development off on someone who once experimented with exporting word documents to HTML back in the nineties. But what if your small, tech-starved library does have someone who is raring to launch headlong into a project like the dreaded website redesign? Say you are that person and you've scrounged up enough money to buy a decent new server, the box arrives and it's sitting in your office. How do you get from point A (server in a box) to point B (a bangin' new website with all the bells and whistles you want) if you don't even know which operating system should go on the server?

Step 1: Take the server out of the box ..

Ok, so that's actually not what this post is about--I'll be writing in much more detail about website redesign over the course of this year. No, The point I'm trying to make is that you may be an extremely motivated staffer, but if you're not technically a techie, you're bound to run in to situations where you don't know where to begin and the idea of putting together a critical path completely overwhelms you. Where do you turn? There is some measure of relief available now if you know where to look, but ultimately that expertise needs to come from another library. That means that the more fiscally-fortunate libraries need to decide whether they are going to commit to being a resource for the larger library community. If so, how would that even look?

Paying it forward

We talked about the notion of "paying it forward" at some length during one of the sessions at Library Camp. One individual, Sean Robinson, has put together a wiki where willing parties can sign up, offering their expertise and services to other libraries. The caveat is that if you take advantage of another person's willingness to help, you, in turn, need to make yourself available to help someone else.

I think this is a great idea that may very well help a lot of people, though it does have some drawbacks. For instance, while I have volunteered my time and services on his wiki, I'm generally very busy and may not have time to help someone when they need help. There is also no assurance of the quality of information and help you'll receive. In addition, while Sean has started a wiki (which is a very nice gesture on his part, and I encourage other to participate), if a service like this grows, a fair amount of thought would need to be put in to developing a database and interface that would make accessing the right expertise fairly intuitive. Who knows, it might look like eHarmony for library geeks!

Officially adopt and open-source agenda

If you have coders in your library, make your administration familiar with open source. Make sharing your code official policy so that when you have written something useful that may benefit the larger library community, you can immediately release it without seeking approval. Know what type of license you'll release it under. Will you use GPL, Creative Commons? You'll also want to ensure that your vendor will not have a problem with you exposing their "process" via code.

Implement this process technically--set up a process through which new and updated products can be released to the public and current users can be notified of bug-fixes, vulnerabilities, etc. In my case, I use this blog to release potions of code and make a post whenever I do an update. Your library could do something as simple as making your CVS or SVN repositories available (CVS and SVN are open-sourced (of course) version control packages--I'll be talking more about those in the future).

Coding for everyone

If your library commits to distributing code for general consumption, the next logical step is to look at how your coders are coding. Does their product stand alone? Can it be ported easily to another organization? Are software libraries modular enough so that another library could start coding with them right away?

If not, then you may want to change your programming style. Write completely object-oriented software. This has many advantages not only in terms of making software reusable in other organizations, but you can reuse the code in-house as well, saving critical development time that may otherwise be spent duplicating work. Of course, most experienced programmers know this, though even the best coders can let bad habits slip in that will tax portability.

Devote resources to open source projects

Consider allocating a portion of your staff's time to contributing to open source projects. There are, literally, millions of projects out there and perhaps thousands that are pertinent to a library setting. If you're using a piece of software, consider giving a little something back. In addition to lending support to an all-volunteer community, you'll be helping to improve the tools we can all make use of.

Public documentation

Be sure to document both successes and failures diligently. This makes sense not only for future reference in-house, but when made publicly available, those notes can be a valuable resource to others. As libraries, we should be no stranger to maintaining documentation. Of course it's a matter of training yourself to write documentation on a daily basis--In IT, we're all busy and we all know that documentation is the first thing to slip off the table. Also, some details are sensitive, so you'll need to know which notes to make available and which ones to place under access control.

The point is that if we maintain a good working record of how we've done what we've done, whether it be in a blog, wiki, or even word files, we can point to it later when someone comes to us and asks, "how did you do that?" From experience, I can say that no matter how much time you spend on a project, if you walk away from it for a few months, it becomes very hard to recall specific details. Write it down clearly and concisely.

Tech "tracks" at conferences

I would like to see a "tech track" added to many of the larger library conferences. For instance, ALA could have a series of presentations that are geared toward the more technical crowd. Unless you're attending a self-proclaimed geek-fest like code4lib, the "tech speak" in most presentations needs to be watered down such that it's not very helpful for those who need to move on to the next level. Those are the individuals who are stuck in that frustrating nether region between power-user and full-blown geekdom.

A tech track could cover topics such as best practices for deploying Linux in libraries, how to use squid and dansguardian to provide both filtered and unfiltered browsing, using iptables to create a secure computing environment, an introduction to flash and amfphp, Subversion and CVS for version control. There is a lot of great material in that strata that doesn't see the light of day at conferences because it's too technical for the organizers. I believe a good number of conference-goers would be interested and could handle the elevated level of technical difficulty.

Co-ops & consortiums

If libraries can pool their resources to build an inter-library loan solution, can they not do the same with IT? For example, couldn't five or six small libraries get together and agree to co-locate a server or a set of servers? A co-op could even share expertise in a much more formal arrangement where response times are more predictable. The cost would be a fraction of what it would be to pay for those services outright. This would take a significant amount of planning and developing up front, but the payoff would be huge for a group of small, tech-deprived libraries libraries.

Reallocating resources

Of course, I've talked about this before, but I'll say it again. The 21st century library faces an entirely new set of challenges that can only be addressed through the judicious use of technology. As such, the planners and budgeteers need to make some decisions as to where money is spent. Maybe less needs to be spent on material (gasp!) one year so that it can be spent on technology. Look at where your patrons are spending their time, get a sense of what they want and need. It may be that your community is happy with what you're doing, or it may be underwhelmed by what you're not. As always, identifying what they want should drive spending, it shouldn't be the other way around, where patrons are forced to use what we've spent money on.

Long-term planning

I was interested to hear from one individual at Library Camp who was in the middle of a strategic planning initiative. I was thrilled by the fact that she had come to the event as a way to help her hash out some of the ideas she and her institution were working with as they plugged away at their planning. Radical new ideas are the cornerstone of long-term planning. A willingness to change and adapt to technology is another, so when it comes time to map out the next ten years of library service, there should be a recognition that technology is playing an ever increasing role in our institutions, as well as a commitment to ensuring a place for it on the mantle of public service.

Libraries as family

If we were like our profit-seeking commercial counterparts--not charged with the noble mission of preserving and promoting knowledge and thought, the very idea of sharing our successes with one-another would seem ludicrous. One of the reasons I love working in a library is because of that mission and because the ultimate goal is not to hoard, but to share--an act that can often times be completely counter-intuitive to human nature. But we can reach out to each other and extend ourselves using the full measure of our humanity because, in the end, we are all one library, just as brothers and sisters are all one family. Family takes care of its own--no other public institution is quite like us which is why we'll always help out another member whether they've found themselves stumped in a technological quagmire or ravaged by flood.

[update]
After publishing this post, I received an email from Glenn Peterson of Hennepin Public Library. He's just completed work on a new site called EngagedPatrons ... not to be confused with a service for soon-to-be betrothed library users, EngagedPatrons strives to assist qualifying libraries meet some of their online goals. From the site:

We provide website services for public libraries. We enable you to offer your users a more engaging and interactive web presence. EngagedPatrons.org (EP) services fit seamlessly into your existing web site. To your users, it appears they have never left your site!

Be sure to check out the FAQ as well as it fills in some of the interesting details about how the service works.

Fantastic work, Glenn! This is exactly what I'm talking about when I say libraries take care of each other.
[/update]


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