It's Too Darn Hot: A Curmudgeon's Asides

By Karen G. Schneider | This week it's hot as a pistol across the United States, and as I sit in my office without A/C, a feeble fan drying the sweat on my face, I'm grumpy. Grumpy enough to line up a few peeves against the wall and slap them around.

Open-source software
Yes, I know, open source is a saint and you'd let your sister or brother marry it. But I hate the idea that for some librarians if a particular software is open source, hands down, it's the right choice. The right choice is the software that meets the mission. While the principles behind open source are admirable, when an open-source product doesn't meet your library's needs, your first obligation is to your users.

Some open-source software (OSS) is almost beyond reproach. Apache, Linux, MySQL, PHP, and Perl are software programs with huge user communities that have proven their worth. But I've experienced (or been made to suffer) software based on this argument:

Stepford LibrariansMe: What's a good search engine? Here's my criteria (unfurling long list).

Another Librarian: Use X. It's open source!

Me: But the software doesn't meet my criteria!

Another Librarian: It's open source!

Me: But what good is it to me?

Another Librarian: It's open source!

Or even worse—and this makes me glower—Another Librarian responds, "It's free!" Which reminds me of a tee-shirt seen at a technology conference: "We make open source affordable." The TANSTAAFL principle applies here (There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch). Software isn't "free" unless the labor to maintain it is "free." Maybe you have the in-house expertise to deal with OSS... but even so, it's still your time and therefore money, and if you don't, you'll have to buy it.

A strange target, you may think, but iPods irritate me because Apple irritates me, with its smug hipper-than-thou commercials and its draconian DRM policies. Just ask Overdrive about trying to work with Apple in order to provide e-books. Librarians who tout open-source software while iPods trail out of their über-cool messenger bags doubly irritate me. You want to change the world? Get Apple to play well with others! Oh, and another thing: take off that iPod while you're riding your bike around town, ya big lug!

Scrooge McDuck 2Penny-wise pound-foolish library-tech spending
That list could roll out the door and down the street. Needless to say, the perps will remain unnamed to protect the guilty and keep me out of trouble. But to start with:

Libraries that go through elaborate, staff-intensive contortions to avoid the purchase of a piece of hardware (such as a small server) that would solve a problem or provide a service.

Bandwidth-stinting—"We can't do X because the bandwidth would be too expensive." In some large systems, that is probably the case. In some remote locations, as well. But when I hear it from a small-to-medium system buying its own bandwidth, I say, show me the cost sheet.

Buying cheap retail-store computers—the kind some human will be fixing a lot over the next two years—instead of negotiating bulk purchases for enterprise products with service plans.

One library I worked in had a staff-to-computer ratio of 1:7—except up in Admin, where it was 1:1. If computers are so important that every administrator needs one, maybe, just maybe they're important for the front-line staff? I also have been in a library where the staff had to take turns to use a computer and sat waiting for it. Computers are cheap. People are expensive. Buy more computers. If nothing else, how are information professionals supposed to upgrade their skills if they don't have access to equipment?

Then there are the library consortia that prop up services with questionable return on investment—from in-house book processing to "pool collections" where books are laboriously schlepped from one library to another—and fund these services by overcharging for underpowered technology support. One library system I was in was charging libraries $100 per month per IP address—that's $1200 a year per Internet-enabled computer—and the only justification, the budget made clear, was that this money was needed to prop up old-tyme services.

Retrograde anti-technology policies
Ah yes, the good old days, when libraries had card catalogs, we all read books by gaslight, and women didn't have the vote. Who wouldn't want to go back to that era?

Some library practices that mystify me:
  • Libraries that insist users turn off cell phones. I never turn off my cell phone (well, except on airplanes). It stays on, either muted or not as appropriate. I use it for my timepiece, e-mail, Web, and chat. Asking cell-phone users to take calls outside is reasonable. Asking us to turn off our brain-assist systems is not and makes libraries look clueless.
  • Self-policing library computers. Absolutely, leave it up to the users to manage themselves. I'm sure the same person who squeezed an SUV into a compact parking spot is going to observe a thirty-minute time limit. No need for you to buy time-management software!
  • Libraries that make it impossible for users to save files. Yes, I read a thread on the PUBLIB list where the library explained that users couldn't save files to any device and the computer was erased on reboot... Come on. Find a way to help the user save his or her file, or don't offer the service.
  • Libraries that block instant messaging/gaming/Flickr/YouTube and so forth because computers should be used for serious purposes. Have you ever browsed your new-book shelves? Danielle Steele, Jan Karon... let a thousand flowers bloom, but don't kid yourselves that you have an intellectual renaissance going on over in the stacks. Libraries serve important roles in society, and one role is that as provider of recreational information. Whether it's in a book or on a screen, let people explore their worlds.
One last beef
As I was getting this piece ready to go live, the news said we might get down to double digits tomorrow. Hey, there's no global warming, right? So here's my final beef: we need a government that believes in access to information as a public good. We don't need Web sites pulled down, government reports rewritten, or flacks posing as reporters and lying to us. We're fortunate that ALA goes to bat for us on these issues. So when you renew your dues, you can complain about ALA loud as you want, but don't grouse about the quality of advocacy we get. It's hot, all right, but when I think about ALA going to bat for us, I don't mind feeling a little bit warm.
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