Dreaming bigger

23 December 2017

I missed the deadline for the GLAMBlogCLub in November, ironically because I was going through a month that was particularly lacking in 'balance'. At my place of work, D-Day arrived on Melbourne Cup Day: we migrated from Amlib - a system we'd been using for 20 years - to Koha ILS. The migration itself went fairly smoothly, but inevitably there was a lot of work cleaning things up afterwards. Twenty years of custom, practice, and not-particularly-controlled data entry will mess with even the most comprehensive data migration plan. I put in some very long hours in November, but that's not sustainable for very long: I had to remind myself in the weeks that followed that I don't have to get everything done and everything perfect in the next week, or even the next month.

I've long been somewhat sceptical of the idea of 'work-life balance'. Working and 'life' are not two opposites to be balanced. In professions like librarianship this can be especially so: many librarians proudly identify as librarians primarily. This is not unproblematic, but it does highlight that separating 'life' from 'work' is quite artificial. The idea of 'balance' needs to also be interrogated. Working hard or long hours is not, in itself, necessarily unbalanced. The idea of flow or being 'in the zone' can often lead to long periods of productive and highly enjoyable work. Flow is pretty hard to achieve in a busy open plan office, but I've had periods of getting enjoyably lost in the Koha weeds over the last few months, piecing together how we might reconceptualise our collection management, or take advantage of a particular feature. My loss of balance was, rather, driven by a self-imposed requirement that our migration must go flawlessly, or I would somehow have let down the entire Koha and library community. In hindsight this was a stupid amount of pressure to put on myself, but it happened. At the very moment I should have been feeling excited and triumphant at what turned out to be a reasonably successful migration (system down for only one day, which was a public holiday anyway), I was instead exhausted, stressed and not much fun to be around. I'm about to start six weeks of leave, so no need to feel any kind of sympathy! I think the lesson here is to always maintain a sense of perspective, and have people around who can tell you when you're starting to get out of control.


Koha ILS is the first open source library management system in the world and I still can't quite believe I managed to jump through all the hoops to move my five-branch library service onto it. There are things about Koha that are magical because they just work the way people expect them to work, but naturally there are also parts of the system that are less well developed, or appear to have been poorly thought through, or simply work in a particular way that is fine for many libraries but not so great for ours. Such is the nature of software generally, but the beauty of an open source system is that if you have the money or skills, you can fix, improve or extend it. My argument for moving to Koha has, from the beginning, been about flexibility and local control of our tools, rather than about saving money. Of course, the way this all works is that open source software is collaborative. It's not just that individual developers or organisations can use the code, but rather that the system is built by the Koha community as a community. Bugs are listed, patches are tested and signed off, proposals are made, questions are asked and answered. It's not perfect. I'd like a lot more documentation, and exactly how the whole system works is pretty mysterious for newbies, but everyone involved recognises that: they're just all really busy. The people I've spoken to about this have all responded by encouraging me to help fix it, rather than responding in any defensive way: the way to make things better is to just make things better.

I've been a fan of open source - and Koha - for a long time, but this year as I've worked on Koha implementation I've been surprised how much moving to a completely open source architecture has changed the way I approach the options available to us for future projects. We're now running an open source web CMS (Joomla!), room and equipment booking system (Brushtail), and library management system (Koha). With our core system now open source, I've noticed that my colleagues and I are already starting think much more in terms of "we could approach problem X with solution Y" rather than "I wish system A had feature B". It can be a subtle difference, but the very fact that we could adjust how our system works without asking anyone's permission has changed the way we think about what's possible at all. In reality, 'asking for permission' still happens with Koha core development, because patches are discussed, tweaked and signed-off. But this is collaboration with peers, not begging a vendor for a feature that's "not on their roadmap". For the ambitious solutions we'll need funding and fee-for-service development. But unlike the black box of proprietary software licensing, we'll have a reasonably clear idea what we're going to get for our money.

Seeing my own and other's thinking expand like this in such a small period of time, I've been thinking about the hidden benefits of open source. I've always thought about it as a collaborative way to make tools, and I've long thought that librarians need to make our own tools if we are to fulfil the promises our profession makes. But I'd not really consciously considered that open-source could also expand our collective horizons because of its collaborative nature. Institutions - especially those that are part of of funded by governments - naturally want expenditure to fall into neat boxes. This is the reason, I think, so many libraries buy off-the-shelf software licenses and subscription packages: it's easy to explain to Procurement, and means you can shift the responsibility onto the vendor. But with the responsibility goes the control. When we lose control, our mindsets change. We either become compliant, or we become demanding, but either way the scope becomes smaller. When you're spending all your energy begging for an extra option in that drop-down menu, you don't have the mental bandwidth to be dreaming up whole new use-cases for your software generally. Proprietary software has 'user groups' of course, but this is not collaboration - it's more akin to a club or a union. You can collectively bargain or beg, but you can't really collectively build and make. It's the expanded scale of what's possible now that changes things in a way I hadn't deeply thought about before. So I'm going to enjoy my summer break, but I've never been more excited about my work. Because while we still need to burn it all down, we've got to build something out of the ashes.

We'll dream bigger when we build it together.