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

Submitted by Karen G. Schneider on July 26, 2006 - 10:48pm

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. Technorati tags: Apple, Digital Rights Management, DRM, e-books, Hardware, information access, intellectual freedom, iPod, librarians, libraries, open source, software

Comments (20)

"Alan, for better or worse,

"Alan, for better or worse, maybe worse, Windows is the client of choice for most library computing environments, and that may drive decisions about what versions of their client are available." By "their client," I assume you're referring to OverDrive and their Media Console. That's true, but the more important issue, in my mind, is that Microsoft has cut Mac users off from accessing *any* Windows Media content with Windows DRM. This includes free-on-the-web content like that from MTV Overdrive (no relation, as far as I know :-) ) as well as the digital content that libraries are licensing from OverDrive and NetLibrary. I just think it's a little unfair to rail against Apple's "draconian DRM policies" while letting Microsoft off the hook. Apple's Macs and iPods handle content with no DRM at all (like plain ol' MP3's) just fine, thank you.

Ed, I wasn't singling out

Ed, I wasn't singling out open source software. I was providing a rationale for why you can't just say, "it's open source, ergo, it's good." Yes, these ARE the same questions I'd ask of proprietary software. In evaluating products, I use the same checklist across the board--rigorously. Open source does have some advantages, but it's not a slam-dunk every time. Right, Chris, I hate bad software. Thank you for noticing that. :-) Even more, I hate product decisions that aren't well-founded. I've made them, more than I'd like to admit; I've seen them made. Quite often, open source software is a good choice. I refer again to the whole LAMP suite. But whether it's open source or proprietary, you can't make a product decision based on what the product might look like in the future, with enough development--unless, with open source software, you are truly willing and able to invest in that development AND that development will be accepted by that product's developer community (so you don't end up writing another piece of silo software--in essence creating the worst kind of software, something that is neither open source nor open market! Hey, did I just coin a phrase..?). Alan, for better or worse, maybe worse, Windows is the client of choice for most library computing environments, and that may drive decisions about what versions of their client are available.

"Just ask Overdrive about

"Just ask Overdrive about trying to work with Apple in order to provide e-books." No, Apple hasn't provided OverDrive with access to their DRM. On the other hand, OverDrive does not produce a version of their OverDrive Media Console software (necessary for using the service) for the Mac OS. And there's no real reason they should at this point, since the OMC is directly tied into Windows Media Player and Windows DRM -- and Microsoft doesn't produce a version of WMP for the Mac that can handle Windows DRM! I don't think Apple is perfect, by any means, but I get tired of them being tagged as the #1 bad guy in most discussions of the digital audiobook - iPod standoff.

"Some open source software

"Some open source software has good documentation. Some does not. ... Some open source software has an excellent track record of evolving in response to technological developments and user needs and interests. Some does not." This is exactly true of any software. I don't see why you are singling out Open Source here. The commercial ILS that we pay huge sums of money has documentation that isn't worth the paper it is written on (and it is not even available in print)! And if you think the commercial ILS vendors respond to user input, all I can say is that my experience in this area has been quite the opposite. Sure OSS isn't always the answer, but these complaints you are listing are nothing unique to OSS.

Ahhhh, I get where you are

Ahhhh, I get where you are coming from now Karen. You hate bad software, sure, no argument from me there, I hate bad software too.

I'm going to ignore the

I'm going to ignore the last paragraph because there's too much backstory involved. However, our latest selection process was intentional and had appropriate resources, particularly in combination with my bargaining skills, and we're happy with our choices. From funding open source development projects, I know I got the better bargain. In terms of standards for open source, I mean that an open source product should have characteristics of any good software... though there are some nuances for OS products. Some open source software has good documentation. Some does not. Some open source software is maintained by a large and active community. Some does not. Some open source software has an excellent track record of evolving in response to technological developments and user needs and interests. Some does not. I think we can all point to open source products that rival or outperform their proprietary equivalents. We can also think of examples where that is not the case. One of the interesting nuances you bring up is that we could have poured a lot of money into one product to have it meet our needs. (It would have cost us more than buying what you call an "off the shelf" product.) That's an interesting observation because I see that as one of the concerns about open source. When you have a large user community, such as for Apache, the product evolves in a broadly useful manner. But a small open source product with a smaller user community can skew a product one way or the other.

"I've heard a lot of talk

"I've heard a lot of talk about open source but I haven't seen too many rigorous discussions of *standards* for the same." Karen, could you clarify what you mean by that? Standards for what? For OSS? What aspect? It seems to me you could replace 'open source' with 'proprietary' in that sentence, and everything is just as true. If you mean standards of software development, how exactly are the "standards" of software development any different with open source vs. proprietary software? If you mean 'library standards' (MARC, Z39.50, MODS, Dublin Core, etc.), how do open source applications differ in implementing those standards? How many proprietary systems used in libraries would stand up to a "standards" test? (however you're defining that) I don't disagree with your statement: "The right choice is the software that meets the mission". And I feel your pain when you say you've dumped tons of money into a product that didn't meet your needs. But software is just software. Given a clear specification (which it sounds like you have), I maintain that the OSS route, properly implemented, has a lot more to offer long-term than just buying an off-the-shelf proprietary solution. It may be that your organization doesn't have the in-house resources it needs to develop and implement your ideal search engine (without seeing the spec I can't be sure). Even if that's the case, if anyone has enough wide-spread recognition and clout in the library world to succcessfully build a community around a software idea, it's you Karen. Seriously ... I bet there are hundreds ( if not thousands ) of libraries who need something similar and who would jump at the opportunity to piggy-back off of your research; and who would contribute resources to make your idea a reality. Many of them don't have the means to even write up a specification, and are stuck implementing whatever they can afford. Why not pool all those resources and build something that's going to benefit the whole community?

I'd like to take the

I'd like to take the administrators who think patrons should police themselves and put them in the compact spots so those Hummers could run over them...

Maybe I was just taking you

Maybe I was just taking you too literally, at work encountering all my own pet peeves on one of those days that just limps by like a 3-legged horse. There were a lot of points that, sarcastic or otherwise, were really right on, and I just jumped on to the one that stuck out in that great effort to vent.

Gabriel, maybe I missed the

Gabriel, maybe I missed the mark in my writing? I was being sarcastic... I *loathe* libraries that force patrons to police themselves just as much as I loathe SUVs in compact spaces. I even have a Flickr set dedicated to those baddies!

The one point I seriously

The one point I seriously disagree on: libraries DO need time-management software. At my branch, we have people who stay literally all day long playing games, searching for jobs or doing whatever it is they're doing on the Internet. They make reservation after reservation, act like the library computers are their own personal machines and often hold little regard for the concept of waiting in line or sharing the public space. I'd rather use my time helping patrons and finding ways to make the library a better place than tapping people on the shoulder after 30 minutes because they refuse to close their game of Runescape. I've worked in libraries that did not have time-management software and it's a complete nightmare. Like it or not, there must be some level of regulation to ensure that everyone who wants to use a computer gets that chance. In a perfect world, we could have patrons who manage themselves, play fair and properly self-police. That world doesn't exist. It is not an anti-technology policy to give everyone a chance to use the technology. This doesn't mean we're draconian - in fact, I feel it ensures patron privacy by not having me telling people it's time to get off the computer and let someone else use it. I don't want to be the Library Police any more than the patrons want to be policed. I do wish our PC Management software gave staff more control over reservations, though. I often have to throw up my hands and blame it on the software instead of finding a proactive solution to speeding up the queue and getting people who've been waiting online. We also need more computers at my library, but that's a whole other issue. They just upgraded the staff computers at the desk, shuttling off the old (and still perfectly useable) PCs to some warehouse. Why we couldn't have kept a few in the library and worked them into the space to better answer what seems to be our #1 demand these days is beyond me. And that asshat who squeezed the SUV into the compact space just cut me off in traffic, is riding alone and has about as much need for an SUV as I have for a backhoe.

Oh, and I forgot: as long as

Oh, and I forgot: as long as I'm an avatar, I want thin thighs, too! ;-) Seriously, this is a good (if somewhat predictable) debate and one that needs to be held. I've heard a lot of talk about open source but I haven't seen too many rigorous discussions of *standards* for the same.

Owen, I've already spoken

Owen, I've already spoken more specifically than was really comfortable for me. I wish we always had the option of inheriting an organization where we picked all the staff, hardware, network operating environments, advisory boards, or even users. What a nice clean Second Life Job that would be. We could all be wasp-waisted avatars with smooth faces, flitting about our perfect jobs. In real life, some of us inherit environments and sometimes even inherit spending mandates that can take years to free ourselves from. In real life, ALL of us inherit the overhead of maintaining whatever products we have--proprietary or open source. OS development can suck up money just as easily as any other development. If it's not the right product, and not the right development, you're still tossing money to the wind. There is good OS, and I've saluted it. (Aspell is another one, btw.) Feel free to talk to me offblog about my experience.

"I've also bled money out

"I've also bled money out the wazoo improving one small OS product. The money I spent doing that could have been spent on real services or on migrating earlier to a better product." Choosing an open source project in which to invest is just as important a decision as choosing proprietary software. Plenty of people have bled money out the wazoo on bad proprietary sofware too. The difference between spending money on open source and spending money on proprietary sofware is that at the end of the day, if you've spent your money wisely, your money spent on open source has improved the product for you and for everyone else using it. You have no guarantees with proprietary software that any of the money you spend will ever lead to improvements in the product which affect you personally. And either way you'll have to pay again for the upgrade!

Wow, it must be nice to be

Wow, it must be nice to be able to get a budget to spend on proprietary software and hardware with service plans. Of course we know we're spending money (via time) on "free as in kitten" software, but at least that money has already been approved. We fight the good fight, but we have to pick our battles (like the fancy new server for the LIS, or the fancy new LIS on it). Sometimes, to serve the needs of our patrons, we have to nurture a few kittens.

"The right choice is the

"The right choice is the software that meets the mission." I agree with this. I wish libraries could support OSS for mere philosophical reasons, because they should be natural allies. However, when it comes to pragmatism and getting the job done, it behooves one to investigate all the options. For us, there were no proprietary vendors out there who could meet our growing needs. Seriously. So we chose to write our own solution. Now, this in itself didn't require us to go open source, but by doing so we gained a lot of advantage and were able to tap into resources that would have been otherwise denied us. Free software is definately "free as in kitten", but that's okay, because we love cats! -- Jason

Preach it sister! You have

Preach it sister! You have just given me the chance to get a lot of things off my chest, without having to say a thing. Thanks!

I guess the question you

I guess the question you have to ask yourself is: why doesn't a given open-source search engine meet your criteria? Probably the answer is: because you haven't invested any money in it to make it do what you want. If you were willing to invest the same amount in a open-source search engine (like Zebra or Lucene) that you are willing to invest in a proprietary one, I'll guarantee you could have every feature you want and more. It's simple math: it costs less to pay programmers to develop and maintain software once than it does to pay annual license fees for software that a company developed 5 years ago (that was likely sponsored by a library btw). Why are Apache, Linux, MySQL, PHP, and Perl doing so well? It's because the communities have invested serious capital in them. On the other hand, getting libraries to invest in open-source software is like pulling teeth (I should know). There's this notion that because the development model is 'open', they should be able to install the software, migrate data, fix bugs, implement new features, etc. at no cost whatsoever (or get help on all of the above for free). At the same time, libraries continue to pay ridiculous prices for their software while complaining because it doesn't do what they want. Well, that's my two cents.

First, Lucene isn't a

First, Lucene isn't a search engine. It's indexing software. It's used to power some very good search engines, and I believe in Lucene. It's great. The companies that also believe in Lucene invest in its development. It's a good symbiotic relationship. I won't mention the search engine I was pointed to, except to say that I could sink a depressing amount of money into it and it wouldn't do what I wanted. In fact, I've already been that route. (In fact, it's not really a search engine, either, just a rudimentary indexing/search tool. But that's another story.) I've also bled money out the wazoo improving one small OS product. The money I spent doing that could have been spent on real services or on migrating earlier to a better product. The LAMP products succeed because they have critical mass. That gives them audience and accountability, and plenty of hands on deck. I didn't even get into the issue of the products that are basically stuff written by one guy in a garage, and are only nominally open source. I stand by what I've said. I've lived it for five years. You go ahead and invest in Zebra. Let me know how that works out for you.

I agree that FLOSS isnt a

I agree that FLOSS isnt a magic bullet, but I also agree wholeheartedly with the above comment. The thing that I would add, is that in the first paragraph, you talk about open source and it not being a good thing just because its open. But then you say "we need a government that believes in access to information as a public good." How about we need a library community that is committed to open standards and open access to information, ie, dont just talk the talk, walk the walk. Get involved in open source code, don't buy into locked down proprietary models of data storage. My 2 cents also