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Galen Charlton: Natural and unnatural problems in the domain of library software

I offer up two tendentious lists. First, some problems in the domain of library software that are natural to work on, and in the hopeful future, solve:

  • Helping people find stuff . On the one hand, this surely comes off as simplistic; on the other hand, it is the core problem we face, and has been the core problem of library technology from the very moment that a library’s catalog grew too large to stay in the head of one librarian.  There are of course a number of interesting sub-problems under this heading:
    • Helping people produce and maintain useful metadata.
    • Usefully aggregating metadata.
    • Helping robots find stuff (presumably with the ultimate purpose of helping people to find stuff).
    • Artificial intelligence. By this I’m not suggesting that library coders should be aiming to have an ILS kick off the Singularity, but there’s plenty of room for (e.g.) natural language processing to assist in the overall task of helping people find stuff.
  • Helping people evaluate stuff . “Too much information, little knowledge, less wisdom” is one way of describing the glut of bits infesting the Information Age. Libraries can help and should help—even though pitfalls abound.
  • Helping people navigate software and information resources . This includes UX for library software, but also a lot of other software that librarians, like it or not, find themselves helping patrons use. There are some areas of software engineering where the programmer can assume that the user is expert in the task that the software assists with; library software isn’t one of them.
  • Sharing stuff . What is Evergreen if not a decade-long project in figuring out ways to better share library materials among more users? Sharing stuff is not a solved problem even for digital stuff.
  • Keeping stuff around . This is an increasingly difficult problem. Time was, you could leave a pile of books sitting around and reasonably expect that at least a few would still exist five hundred years hence. Digital stuff never  rewards that sort of carelessness.
  • Protecting patron privacy . This nearly ended up in the unnatural list—a problem can be unnatural but nonetheless crucial to work on. However, since there’s no reason to expect that people will stop being nosy about what other people are reading—and for that nosiness to sometimes turn into persecution—here we are.
  • Authentication . If the library keeps any transaction information on behalf of a patron so that they can get to it later, the software had better be trying to make sure that only the correct patron can see it. Of course, one could argue that library software should never store such information in the first place (after, say, a loan is returned), but I think there can be an honest conflict with patrons’ desires to keep track of what they used in the past.

Second, some distinctly unnatural problems that library technologists all too often must work on:

  • Digital rights management . If Ambrose Bierce were alive, I would like to think that he might define DRM in a library context thus: “Something that is ineffective in its stated purpose—and cannot possible be effective—but which serves to compromise libraries’ commitment to patron privacy in the pursuit of a misunderstanding about what will keep libraries relevant.”
  • Walled garden maintenance . Consider EZproxy. It takes the back of a very small envelope to realize that hundreds of thousands of person-hours have been expended fiddling with EZproxy configuration files for the sake of bolstering the balance sheets of Big Journal. Is this characterization unfair? Perhaps. Then consider this alternative formulation: the opportunity cost imposed by time spent maintaining or working around barriers to the free exchange of academic publications is huge—and unlike DRM for public library ebooks, there isn’t even a case (good, bad, or indifferent) to be made that the effort results in any concrete financial compensation to the academics who wrote the journal articles that are being so carefully protected.
  • Authorization . It’s one thing to authenticate a patron so that they can get at whatever information the library is storing on their behalf. It’s another thing to spend time coding authentication and authorization systems as part of maintaining the walled gardens.

The common element among the problems I’m calling unnatural? Copyright; in the particular, the current copyright regime that enforces the erection of barriers to sharing—and which we can imagine, if perhaps wistfully, changing to the point where DRM and walled garden maintenance need not occupy the attention of the library programmer, who then might find more time to work on some of the natural problems.

Why is this on my mind? I would like to give a shout-out to (and blow a raspberry at) an anonymous publisher who had this to say in a recent article about Sci-Hub :

And for all the researchers at Western universities who use Sci-Hub instead, the anonymous publisher lays the blame on librarians for not making their online systems easier to use and educating their researchers. “I don’t think the issue is access—it’s the perception that access is difficult,” he says.

I know lots of library technologists who would love to have more time to make library software easier to use. Want to help, Dear Anonymous Publisher? Tell your bosses to stop building walls.

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