I’ll admit it: there’s almost nothing I like more than drama and action on the internet, and the past 24 hours or so have provided plenty.
Yesterday afternoon saw the release of the much-hyped Library 101 video and its attendant website, which was largely, but not exclusively, lauded. Yesterday evening my FriendFeed brought me the white paper on open source ILS systems [pdf] by SirsiDynix VP of Innovation Stephen Abram, which has been largely, but not exclusively, criticized and ridiculed. (ILS, for my non-librarian readers, stands for Integrated Library System — basically the software that runs your public catalog and your backend record-keeping — cataloging, aquisitions, circulation, statistics, the whole works.)
Along with 64 or so other people, I tuned in to the UStream broadcast of the Library 101 presentation yesterday, or at least the video part of it. My connection was a bit shaky, and while the video itself seemed to work fine, I couldn’t hear much of what the presenters were saying. I’ve watched a few things from Internet Librarian this year on UStream, and in general it is pretty great, so my thanks to the folks who set it up. Since then, a couple of people have said to me that they didn’t think it was really that great, or that they didn’t really understand it, or that they had some other reaction that was not entirely positive — and they felt that because their reaction wasn’t entirely positive, they couldn’t say anything. And that made me really, really sad.
I read the white paper last night and participated in some of the early online commentary, and I’ve had several discussions about that with people, too, and today I read Stephen Abram’s blog post on the subject, where he seems to be quite hurt by the pileup of criticism. Reaction has so far not been terribly sympathetic.
Two events, two commentary pileups, two very different tones. Why? We’ve talked in the biblioblogosphere in years past about uncritical me-tooism and how it stifles conversation and shuts down thoughtful, critical voices. We have also seen plenty of trainwrecks: comment threads rife with personal attacks and you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists mentality. (In this particular instance, Abram’s paper has a bit of that quality to me — you use a standard ILS (preferably SirsiDynix’s) or you’re stupid (“Proprietary software has more features. Period. Proprietary software is much more user-friendly.”) — but then it is a piece of marketing material from a for-profit corporation, so to some extent, that’s to be expected.)
But I digress.
I was underwhelmed by the Library 101 video. It was neat to see so many faces in it (although, like Jessamyn, I would have liked to see them in the credits), and it’s clear from the video that Michael Porter and David Lee King care about it deeply and are enthusiastic about libraries and the future to a degree that few of us can manage. The site, although somewhat annoyingly slow to load, has a lot of good resources, and I look forward to reading the essays that people have submitted. I don’t really get pouring that much of one’s time and money and effort into an online video project, but if it gets some librarians to think about their skills and what they need to move into the future, and if its creators had fun doing it and there are people who enjoy watching it, that’s all to the good. Despite what readers of this blog may think, I actually think there’s a great deal more to being a librarian than being tech-savvy, and I’d like to focus more on some of those things, but I know there are a lot of people who still need to hear the tech message, and perhaps this video and its attendent resources will reach some of them.
So maybe you can’t in fact really criticize Library 101. It’s a labor of love and a labor with a message. The message is hard to criticize, and while you can critique the artistry, you have to remember that it’s a couple of guys doing this in their spare time. They’re not out to make money — in fact, from what they’ve said, they have lost money on this thing. I don’t want anyone to feel that they can’t criticize the video, but at the same time, I don’t think there’s much damage done by the pile-up of compliments.
But it is entirely legitimate to criticize Abram’s paper. ILSs are big money, and they are sold largely by for-profit companies and paid for — in the public and state university library worlds — with public money. I am not an expert on open source ILSs, but I think they are an important and worthy development. It’s possible that the flaws Abram cites exist. I could point out a number of flaws that are present in SirsiDynix systems, too. But the existence of flaws is not an argument against development — if anything, it is an argument for it. I value open source projects because they are, to my mind, ideologically aligned with libraries in a way that corporate enterprises never will be. That doesn’t make them perfect; that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think long and hard before adopting any given ILS. But it makes them worthwhile — and worth defending.