I’m at the code4lib conference this week and I’m writing this as a reminder to myself for next year that, well, I just don’t care…

I don’t care about the latest faceted search. I don’t care about the latest Open Source OPAC replacement. I don’t care about the latest Open Source ILS. I don’t care about project updates or software demos. I don’t care about API/standards/vendor/LC/OCLC bashing. I don’t care about reinventing the 20th century training wheels that library coders are so obsessed with (it’s their job after all).

The people here are great, and I care about them both individually and as a class — I have a genuine affinity for library geeks of all kinds and this is, after all, a conference that tends to filter out everyone else. So it’s not like it’s not nice to be here, but the information being presented is useless to me to the point of irritation. And despite the fact that I like so many of the folks here, there’s definitely a cliquish feel to the whole thing with the hugely active IRC back channel of ongoing commentary (which really should be displayed where everyone including the presenters can read it), and the in-jokes (dongles). However welcoming, it can be a hard place to be a newbie.

I want to stand up and shout “Folks. Listen. The world has moved on!! Deal with it.” I haven’t felt the need to set foot in a library, except for a meeting, in the last 10 years. I haven’t used a library OPAC or ILS, except for the purpose of researching the system itself in at least a year. I have logged into a university library to get access to subscription-only journal articles, but I actually found those articles in Google. My library’s only utility to me is as the proxy gatekeeper for ACM or Elsevier, and these days it only keeps me out.

Many of the presentations and discussions are about alternatives: full-text vs. metadata; cataloger-created metadata vs. user-created metadata; Open Source vs. commercial; Google vs. the OPAC; data distribution standard A vs. standard B; marc vs. everything else. There’s a corollary notion that interoperability means everyone has to agree at some level. What really needs to happen is that everyone needs to get used to the idea that the ideal world in which everyone supports a few standards and data formats is the one we used to have, or imagine we had, and it’s gone. And it’s not coming back.

What we have now is chaos. Many, many people are working very hard to maintain control over increasingly chaotic data and less-and-less predictable user behavior. They’re trying to hang on to users, even scholars, who are increasingly getting their information through Google or YouTube. They’re trying to figure out how to deal with steadily increasing digital collections, steadily decreasing user satisfaction, tone-deaf vendors, and sinking budgets.

Let it go. Chaos is good. Keep your systems open and flexible. Watch. Listen. Integrate instead of compete with Google. Integrate data from the social networks. Share everything. Aggregate. Watch. Listen.


By Jon, February 25, 2009, 2:31 pm (UTC-5)

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Currently 8 comments

  1. Comment by Liz

    Thanks for the post. If chaos means we can share stuff and not worry about controlling everything all the time (like academic articles that are so important that they have to be locked away in some database that you can only access if your library has paid a lot of dollars to a private company to let students and academics read papers that the universities produced in the first place), then we need it sooner than later.

  2. Comment by Mal Booth

    I like this. A lot. You’ve managed to express what I tried to say earlier this year at a conference. Good on you!

  3. Comment by Ross

    Phil, I’m a little curious how you go from Google creating acceptance for Sitemaps by “just doing it” to “Jangle is a crazy standard”. Why is AtomPub the ‘crazy standard’ as opposed to SRU, OAI-PMH or NCIP?

  4. Comment by phil.cryer

    Agreed – the talks were all nice and good, but I don’t want more cutting edge stuff before things that are out there are accepted. In other words, things coming down the pipe that look promising are cool, but they’re usually still in development, it’s time to draw a line in the sand so to speak and jump on something. Look at how Google standardized on sitemaps.xml? Now it’s the standard thing search engines use to learn about sites, that’s not to say that other standards are being ignored, but this is a good one to have. At Mobot I’ve got a server with hooks into searching our images site for Tropicos.org. I’ve got DiGIR, Tapir, OAI-PMH via Fedora-commons, and we have Biocase in the works for another option. So regardless of which is the latest/greatest (Biocase) most providers still use DiGIR – so we’re covered. Yes, it creates more chaos as you mention, but I agree that it is a ‘good thing’ – it allows for more communication because we speak all these protocols. We’re getting to do new things building from scratch for new sites here, but I always want to allow for the basic communication first before I go crazy and start supporting Jangle. Not that Jangle won’t be useful, but it should compliment the earlier, more basic, standards that are used and easy to implement.

    I think it’s a goofy saying, but it’s like when Casey Cassim would say, “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars” at the end of his radio show; it’s apt here. Let’s start sharing data via popular/accepted “standards” now, and build for the future to allow others.

    P (fak3r)

  5. Comment by Ross

    The clique-ish-ness… Yes. I have no idea how to reduce that, and, yes, I realize that I contribute to the problem. That doesn’t mean that I don’t also get irritated by it.

    I guess I understand why you’d have this reaction to Code4Lib. I suppose if libraries didn’t keep my lights on I would have a hard time getting interested in the presentations, as well. I wouldn’t want to attend Code4Actuaries, for example. The part after the 4 is probably the important context setter.

    I do think there should be some emphasis on ‘harnessing the chaos’, however. This is why the FRBR talk was actually important. This is why the Freebase talk was important (slide backgrounds notwithstanding). It’s an ugly, chaotic world that is only going to get uglier as the information space grows wider and faster. Providing some semblance of cohesion in this chaos for a particular community (or communities) is the sort of role libraries need to be taking.

    It was good meeting you and hanging out with you. I get what you’re saying in this post. A nice followup might be what it would take for a library to be relevant to you.

  6. Comment by Tim

    You know, I agree with much of what you say. I can’t gin up my interest in most of the talks either. And the cliquish feeling irks me too. I’m part of this community somehow, and yet feel profoundly alienated from it. And I think you’re damn-right about the “mess.”

    But I don’t understand not visiting the library in ten years. David Weinberger says this too—that he never visits the library, namely Widener. Can I have his library card? Can I have yours? I know you’re a book person from last night’s conversation—something that would be apparent anyway. Maybe it’s time to go back, and get seriously, messily lost in the stacks.

  7. Comment by Shirley

    This is a great post. I totally agree that libraries need open and flexible systems, to find ways to exploit freely available services offered by Google and social networking sites for our own purposes rather than trying to “compete” with them, share more, and generally pay attention and respond more nimbly to the rapidly evolving information sphere. I find it difficult to understand what you think libraries should be doing if not playing some role in helping users to navigate and make sense of the chaotic information environment. Which, in my mind at least, involves at least some form of organization (aka exerting some level of control over at least a portion of the chaos). What does a library that “embraces the chaos” do?

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