open argument 101

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.

6 thoughts on “open argument 101”

  1. Applause, applause!

    I was actually quite impressed by the complete absence of name-calling in the white paper situation (well, absence as far as I’ve seen).

    I was a bit confused about Library 101. That’s what we call the part of our website that introduces students to how to use the library. I was sort of hoping it might be something I could put on that part of our site, which desperately needs attention.

    So I don’t really get why it’s called Library 101. But I love the enthusiasm in it. 🙂

  2. HiLaura:

    I regret that you feel I am suggesting that people who choose open source are “stupid”. Nothing could be further from the truth. I do think that folks should look at both sides of the ILS decision and make their decision with the full information. Also much in open source software is the right choice.

    I also agree that open source ILS’s are worthy of development and provide a competitive push to everyone. That said, it doesn’t mean that they are the right solution at this time for every library or that all of my points matter in every library.

    Also, I have a fairly thick hide so I’m not particularly “hurt”. I do see nearly all of the comments and conversations and most are sharing good information. As someone who cares about the profession at large, I do regret that some of our colleagues leave a permanent digital trail of trash talk, swearing and name calling instead of contributing to the discussion with their thoughts. Many voices in our profession have been driven out by this kind of behaviour, classify it as you will. Debating using unprofessional and bad behaviour is not good and productive. If you don’t like what I wrote, submit another opinion and join the conversation Cluetrain style. Maybe the events this week can have a positive impact on all conversations on issues of importance to librarianship.

    Stephen

  3. Got to be honest here — on my first reading of the leaked PDF, it was pretty clear and obvious that Abram was implying that libraries who had moved to open source were “stupid”. In particular, I still find the decision to include an uncited and (as yet, still) unverified quote from Cliff Lynch bizarre at best.

    It do think it would be stupid not to have expected a strong and vocal reaction to the publication of the document, but, like Rochelle, I’ve seen no evidence of trash-talk, name calling, or abuse directed at Abram’s family.

  4. In my information literacy classes, I teach my students to critically evaluate sources and ask them to look for biased, misleading language, to notice whether authors cite their sources, and to look for commercial bias. I fear Mr. Abram’s report would not stand up well to such scrutiny. I find the tone of the original position paper patronizing and dismissive of librarians who seriously consider adopting open source ILS’s. He makes many claims regarding open source ILS’s without citing any sources. Finally, it goes without saying that open source ILS’s potentially threaten SirsiDynix’s market share should they become widely adopted.

    Our library consortium (PALS) is seriously looking at open source ILS’s and will likely run a pilot in the next year or two. As a consortium, we enjoy an economy of effort because we have folks at PALS who possess the necessary expertise to develop the functionality we need from open source products. Given the success of our recently implemented VuFind OPAC, I am confident in the ability of the consortium to develop a robust, functional open source ILS which serves the needs of my library and other libraries across the state.

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