Friday, January 01, 2010

A look back at my last decade working with library systems

Like everyone else (e.g., my Twitter buddies), I've been thinking about the past decade as a whole and what it's meant. I started by thinking about the arc of my career in library systems, such as it's been and then, more importantly, began to think about what this past pivotal decade has meant for libraries.
The first bit - my own career - I look back on with a combination of nostalgia, pride (intermingled with the occasional cringe-worthy memory), and amusement. I never thought I'd still be in the field 11, going on 12 years after I began with a library automation network. What I remember about working with library systems in my little part of the world at the turn of the century (1999/2000) is listed below. (Feel free to comment & correct me, btw):

* I was working on a Tandem mainframe-based system. We had pretty much just finished converting everyone from what we called the "old" dumb terminals to a pc-based system, with terminal emulation to support our still-text-based Integrated Library System. The "buzz" in libraries was all about client/server technology, with the occasional minority voice advocating for the use of thin client systems that seemed to be more of a compromise between what worked best in each environment.

* I believe we had just deployed our first generation web-based catalog. Before that it was the old text termiinal-based OPAC.

* I had poo-pooed the original Unix web server we had, thinking that we needed a Windows server because, after all, everything was about the GUI in those days and the command line unix just seemed hopelessly outdated. So I remember the switchover to a Windows NT web server being a great (if in my mind, overdue) move. How funny that I'm now pushing my current place of work to move from a Win2003-based web server to a Linux box! What goes around comes around, I guess. Another great lesson in folly on my part - I used to have a certain prejudice against those who used Macs. I'd graduated from the little self-contained IIse boxes to the use of pcs. I was quite certain that Apple would soon be dead and that those who clung to this technology were misguided and just couldn't handle the sophistication of the Windows environment. (Note: I'm writing this from my home Mac mini & I did battle with our IT department in the past year to get a MacBook Pro for work. But yes, I run a Windows XP Pro virtual machine, since we're predominantly a Microsoft shop.)

* We were grateful that Y2K never turned into a disaster, but there'd been a lot of work behind the scenes to ensure that the code on our mainframe, for example, had been updated to ensure a smooth beginning of 2000. And then there were the patches to be applied to those pesky spreadsheets, and so on. I'm not a programmer, so I don't know how close we truly all came to disaster.

* The websites were built on static HTML, with no separation of style and content. There was no blogging yet, at least none that we really knew about. The easiest sytem, such as it was, was to create a site on Geocities, which - if I recall correctly - had an online wysiwyg editor. That was probably our closest thing to blogging in that time. I had a personal Geocities site, and published up information about our wedding. At the time, HTML seemed complicated to me! ;) Our libraries - the more sophisticated ones - used FrontPage to create their sites. I think there were a few outliers using Dreamweaver, but FrontPage was the solution that I came to know best. I'll be honest - you could actually do a lot with FrontPage Server Extensions to control things like subweb permissions, for example, though I don't know how many people exploited its fuller potential. We used table-based layout & the replacement of one image with another through the basic javascript to make it seem like you were pressing a button onmouseover seemed pretty slick to me at the time. "Push technology" and personalized web portals were just showing up, but they would fail in their first iterations, only to become regular features in the web world in slighly altered ways. Now "push technology" = RSS & many websites require you to create a login but most of these sites don't expect you to anchor your whole online life there, with the notable exceptions of personalized homepages like iGoogle and - of course - Facebook.

* For inventory control and offline situations, there was an emergency "Auxiliary Circulation" setup that just cached barcodes. The inventory control module required a special scanner device that was completely devoid of any intelligence, but mobile. You could bring it out to the stacks and scan in barcode numbers. You'd then bring the device back to a circ terminal & plug it in. Plug & play was just beginning & was imperfect. I don't even think we had USB yet (or it wasn't widely adopted). I think we were using the PS2 mouses (& that was an upgrade from the serial ones). We used parallel ports for printers.

* We were using peer-to-peer networking, had no firewall yet, and felt that "security by obscurity" was good enough because - after all - who would target libraries? The word was already getting out about such practices not being good adequate, but we hadn't fully drunk the KoolAid at that point. There were libraries who were already embracing the NT-based hierarchical networks, but we weren't there yet.

* There WAS no wireless. Let me reiterate. There was no wi-fi anywhere, let alone in our libraries. Heck, cell phones were still more of a luxury than a requirement in Connecticut and beepers were the more populus solution to keeping in touch. They seemed revolutionary though, because you could easily carry them everywhere (they were small enough to be worn on your belt). I recall beeping my husband with the numerical code "143" (for "I love you" - character count in each word, get it? Everyone at once, now -- "Awww...." Did I mention we were newlyweds?) SMS? texting? Are you kidding me? I don't know if the technology was even available, but it certainly wasn't a part of our original cell phone plans and I had never heard of it in those days.

* Highspeed internet consisted of 56K Frame Relay setups that were very expensive but cutting-edge for our libraries, as I recall. Bandwidth was ALWAYS an issue.

* The annual Computers In Libraries conference was - if I recall correctly - more about the integrated library system and hardware components than about the internet. People kept saying that the future was the web, but we were all certain that the lack of bandwidth would bring everything to a grinding halt. The revolution in web technologies at the time was really taking hold in business (we were at the height of the dot com boom in the late 90s), though often it was difficult for us to convince libraries that non-mediated use of web browsers was a worthwhile service to provide for the public. Heck, they used to have rules to prevent the public from accessing their email on public computers. Some libraries went so far as to block sites like Email, BTW, was usually considered to be a client software-based activity. The people who worked for our library network used a third-party website to hook into our email remotely from the libraries, but just to give you some perspective - there was no Gmail.

* The dot-com crash wouldn't begin until later in 2000. When it did occur, the naysayers who felt that the prospects of the web's long-term success were overstated said "I told you so".

* IM and IRC were already in practice - even a little old-school, but IM was mostly for those participating in the old AOL, or at least that was my impression. I'd used IRC even back in '94, when my sister was going to library school (not library information science school) in Pittsburgh. But for anyone who's still trying to get your colleagues to embrace IM, let them know that it's been a technology widely used by the public for a very long time.

* Rocket book ebook readers became popular among my coworkers, but there was a serious lack of content. As a result of the lack of popularity, many predicted that the overwrought ebooks trend was DOA.

* The cutting edge in devices was PDAs, particularly Palm Pilots... smart phones were just about to make their first appearance. I think I got my first one, which had a Microsoft OS & a mini-version of Word, Excel, etc., through TMobile, in 2002 or 2003.

* We were about to embark on a cutting edge virtual reference endeavor, which we began in 2001. Messaging a librarian online was a brand-new and highly controversial idea. A decade later, it's still controversial for some librarians.

* The "Systems librarian" wasn't really a fully-formed concept yet. We still believed that catalogers would automatically be the best people to run our libraries' technology. Library school programs - for the most part - didn't offer much in the way of systems training. It was as though you could tack on technology learning after the fact, after the degree. That it was a simple and easy set of skills to master - just memorization of processes and steps rather than a way of looking at the components of the technology and understanding how they relate and how they could be improved upon. As a result, librarians with any technology skills whatsoever were fewer and further between than they ought to have been. It helped my career, but it didn't do great things for our field.

Overall, there are so many lessons I've learned about my work in library systems in the past decade. But the one that stands out for me most - the one that's most worth passing on at this point - is that all technologies transform. There are many technologies that appear, gain a minor foothold, but because they are somehow in conflict with how people have previously envisioned the technology, are not immediately embraced. When they don't gain immediate populus acceptance, the naysayers point to this as proof that the idea itself is flawed and that the technology will never succeed. Ultimately, however, the kernel of what was good in that technology - the impulse that initially drove it forward - remains. A new way of getting at that kernel - a redo of the initial technological concept with better marketing, packaging, or techniques finally appears and at that point - the public having been primed to the concept already - it becomes popular and successful (example, the ebook is back and more successful than ever; its much-cited lack of sensory appeal be damned). So Second Lifers, don't despair- virtual worlds will reemerge, too. Will your Second Life real estate increase in value? Perhaps not. But somewhere, what is effective and compelling about the concept will reappear.

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