Thursday, June 23, 2011

Open source is not a trend (Library technology thoughts, pt. 8 of 8)

Back when I started this series, I noted my surprise and disappointment with the fact that I couldn't, in good faith, include open source software as a trend. Surprise, because library-vendor economics are brutal, and more and more librarians are going to decide that if we are going to have headaches with our tools no matter what, they might as well really be our headaches. Disappointment, because I have tried to move our library [shouldn't link to back-end database] tools [just in case] to open source whenever possible.

However: remember the idea that the headaches would be our headaches? It turns out it only works if there is a consistent "we." People keep leaving. In the case of the archives, positions have been eliminated after incumbents moved on. IT officially doesn't support our fringe Linux set-ups, and turnover at IT has meant that our unofficial support has mostly evaporated too. That back-end database I'm not providing a URL for? We actually haven't been able to get into it for months, because a) nobody on staff can trouble-shoot it, b) it supports services the university has largely de-funded, and c) the position responsible for getting an outside contractor to fix it was vacant from February to June. (For that position, MySQL experience was a preferred qualification. Out of roughly 60 applicants, maybe one had it. In my corner of libraryland, at least, we can't pay for the skills we need.) Maybe larger institutions can pull it off. Maybe consortia can pull it off. I'm not sure. Before they can, though, there are all kinds of organizational culture changes that need to happen first, and the few signs I have seen of that have been sloooooow. (Now is an especially good time to point at the Library Loon's post on the exodus of tech-savvy librarians.)

I am not saying the situation is necessarily so much worse than when we were using proprietary software. But it isn't better, and libraries need to get better on the tech side. That is kind of the whole point of this series of blog posts. Given the brutal library-vendor economics referenced above, and the independent incentives to merge library systems with course management and enterprise systems, I don't see long-term institutional support for the creation and maintenance of library-specific open-source tools. (Not that short-term support is so strong either; we're about a year past the point where the promised reserves module for our hosted Koha ILS was supposed to come online, entirely because of funding cuts at supporting libraries.) While open source is happening in CMS, I can't see it happening at the enterprise level, like, ever--so, yeah, not a trend. It pains me to say it, greatly. Hopefully someone has a good counterargument?

Monday, June 20, 2011

The *really* integrated library system (Library technology thoughts, pt. 7 of 8)

I'm back from a nearly two-week vacation...just in time for everyone else to go to ALA in New Orleans! Looking back on this series of posts, I notice that my estimated timeline of "a week or so" has become "over a month." This kind of thing has a way of happening.

Moving on...

(I have a list of six predictions about what I expect to see happen in academic library technology over the next 5-10 years. This is prediction #6.)

Academic libraries will move to integrate their systems with course management and enterprise systems at their host institutions.

One part of this prediction is my frustration with library systems that don't play well with others. Students update their address information and name changes with the registrar; they and we both get annoyed that they have to do it over again with us. Our EZproxy server has a very dramatic on-again, off-again relationship with the student information database, resulting in students who can't get into our online databases. (We have at least one outbreak of such incidents each semester, made worse by the fact that the IT guy who knew how to work with EZproxy left over a year ago, and IT has not prioritized recreating that skill set, not that I blame them under the circumstances.) Our electronic reserves system? My views are unprintable.

Another (related) part of this prediction is the large number of usernames and passwords library users are expected to remember. I know there are tools that allow for single "master passwords," but these tools, as I understand them, are a) third-party solutions for b) problems that shouldn't exist in the first place. It's like needing one library card to check out books, another for DVDs, and yet another just to get through the front door. Ridiculous. Actually, no, it's more like having multiple entirely separate libraries that we make people trek around to. The end result is that a lot of resources get ignored.

The third part of this prediction is, once again, assessment and administrator influence. It is a blindingly painful headache to answer questions like, "How many books purchased from the Environmental Studies departmental allocation got checked out to ENV majors who got A's in their senior capstone seminars?" Greater systems integration could reduce that pain to a dull throbbing.

MPOW is consolidating around its Jenzabar CX enterprise software (and moving to a hosted service, no less). It also has Google Apps for Education for the students. IT feels better about the library taking the Jenzabar route over the Google Apps route for things like electronic reserves, so that is what I am looking into this summer. I am hoping there will be a nice clear solution. If there isn't now, I expect there will be in the next 5-10 years. I have difficulty imagining that I'm the only library director who is frustrated with the status quo--and even if I am, I have difficulty imagining that university administrators will continue to want to spend buckets of money on potentially redundant (-ish) and definitely inefficient library systems.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Library tech: too important to leave to the librarians? (Library technology thoughts, pt. 6 of 8)

(I have a list of six predictions about what I expect to see happen in academic library technology over the next 5-10 years. This is prediction #5.)

Administrators and accreditors will drive technological change in academic libraries more than faculty will.

When I was making my list of predictions, I thought this was more distinctive than it necessarily is. It is largely a restatement of the accountability regime I talked about with user satisfaction. But it is also a statement about shared governance, and that statement is: whatever power administrators do or don't share with faculty, it will be power that they choose to share, making a system of delegated rather than shared governance. If that delegation even happens. More likely is that faculty senates and committees will continue their slow descent into advisory status.

This descent is one of the reasons I have trouble understanding the perennial libraryland debate about tenure for academic librarians. Even if tenure put us on equal footing with teaching faculty--which I'm not convinced it does or can--I am not sure why we want to be pushing for a status with diminishing rights and responsibilities. We need to stand on our own professional profile of skills and principles.

The shifting balance of governance will be especially significant when it comes to technology. Technology is expensive. It is expensive all the time. You buy it, you tweak it, you babysit it, you perform CPR on it, you replace it. Or you let it go bad and deal with the time and energy expense of really angry users. Whatever you do or don't do with technology, it is going to cost you.

Which means that administrators will pay close attention to it. There has been a lot of talk about how faculty will react if the Georgia State e-reserves case goes badly, but I am more interested in how administrators will react if they decide the library is an area of legal exposure for their institutions. In a different area, accessibility and assistive technology, what I have seen motivate policies and budgets is concern about ADA lawsuits. Very broadly speaking, from my limited experience, faculty will want their electronic reserves and won't want to divert resources for accessibility away from, say, journal subscriptions (or inflated "permission fees" to the CCC). Administrators will want the legal risk to go away. Faculty may or may not get the results they want, but if they do, it will be because administrators made a choice about how grumpy a faculty (and student body) they can afford to have. Where librarians fall on that pecking order, I don't really like to think about too much.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

No smiles, no dollars (Library technology thoughts, pt. 5 of 8)

(I have a list of six predictions about what I expect to see happen in academic library technology over the next 5-10 years. This is prediction #4.)

Academic libraries' ability to use technology to mediate satisfying experiences for users will be the single most important factor in maintaining support from their host institutions.

Support for academic libraries can be financial; support can be political; support can be moral. All kinds of support, though, depend on the supporter continuing to believe that the library is doing its job--or, at the very least, that the library is capable of doing its job. And, increasingly, what is the job of the academic library?

To look good in assessment.

Looking good in assessment is not the mission or purpose or vocation or aspiration of the academic library. But it is becoming its job, the thing that pays the bills. In the corporate-influenced university, everything comes down to the bottom line, and the bottom line is reputation or money or both. Universities operate more and more under what Gaye Tuchman calls an accountability regime. (I recommend reading Tuchman's whole book on the topic.) Is your university or college accredited? It is moving in this direction. Does it hire deans and provosts and presidents from among the itinerant class of professional administrators? It is moving in this direction fast.

What administrators want in terms of library assessment results varies from institution to institution. Broadly speaking, though, they want libraries to demonstrably support the assessment goals of the institution as a whole. And the most important of these goals, in terms of money and reputation, usually are:

-1- Student satisfaction.

-2- External funding.

-3- Achievement of student learning outcomes.

Student learning outcomes are mostly a bottom-line concern for accreditation. In the aggregate, parents and students mostly want reassurance about two things: Will college be a personally rewarding experience? Will a decent job be waiting upon graduation? Student learning outcomes certainly can be a proxy for those concerns, but I do not see them becoming a major concern in and of themselves. In any case, my hunch and fear is that achievement of student learning outcomes will have no significant correlation with any library variable within a single institution.

Which leaves student satisfaction and external funding. Most of what I have seen that ties libraries to external funding is faculty singing the praises of their local library in enabling them to win grants and carry out grant-related activities. In other words: faculty satisfaction. Combine student satisfaction with faculty satisfaction, and we get the general category of user satisfaction.

Why do I see user satisfaction as a technology issue, though? Clearly, there are important non-technological aspects of a satisfactory library experience. There are skilled and friendly staff, welcoming and inspirational spaces, and useful print books and journals. However, these aspects are going to become less distinctively relevant to assessment over the next 5-10 years. Skilled and friendly staff who are facilitating, guiding, and teaching the use of networked resources--to say nothing of maintaining those resources--are a networked service. The most incredible academic library space in the world will see little use if it doesn't have wifi. And the biggest sources of external funding, the STEM fields, are moving much faster into electronic resources than the humanities and social sciences.

Further, the collection and analysis of user satisfaction data had better be a technological activity, and the more automated the better. In a zero-sum library job environment, every person-hour spent on assessment will be a person-hour taken away from some other activity. If academic libraries want to receive strong support from their host institutions, part of using technology to mediate satisfying experiences for users will need to be to capture their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with any given interaction, and to respond with positive changes in library systems and resources and services, in an iterative cycle of (sigh) continuous improvement.