Future imperfect

A couple of weeks ago I watched Simone Giertz's TED Talk, Why you should make useless things. Giertz recently underwent surgery for a brain tumour, and unsurpisingly it appears to have increased her zest for life even more. Because I'm self-absorbed, Giertz's talk made me think of my Twitter bots. I've made several, some of which are still running, and they pretty much all fall under the more salty description Giertz uses for her work when she's not doing a TED talk: "Shitty robots". Her talk explains why she makes shitty robots, and underneath all the self-deprecating humour there's a lesson, I think, for libraries and librarians.[1]. Giertz describes her perfectionist childhood, a straight-A student terrified of failing. The only way to learn about robotics without an engineering degree was to redefine failure as success. When Giertz builds a hopeless breakfast machine, or a terrifying hair-cutting drone, their impracticality is part of the point.

Now, I'm not suggesting that libraries should deliberately design things to fail. After all, there's quite enough poorly-designed and user-hostile library technologies in use already. Rather, the way to move beyond the current state of library tech is for libraries and librarians to start building things now, with the tools and knowledge available to them: and do it knowing it's going to be pretty crappy at first. We have to move beyond the crippling fear of making mistakes in public if we are to create our own future.

At last week's VALA fortieth birthday event[2] we heard about how Australian libraries embraced the future and took risks in the past. I discovered that the first library service I ever worked for had been a pioneer in moving from catalogue books to microfiche catalogue records. No cautious easing in for Camberwell-Waverley Library Service: they took 1978's budget for catalogue books, and spent it replacing all the print catalogues with microfiche and readers in one hit. We also heard about Vicnet, the State Library of Victoria's ambitious and mostly successful spinoff that helped public libraries and community groups to get online through the 1990s and early 2000s, and provided information online in a large number of community languages. These sorts of projects were far riskier than it might seem now that we know they succeeded, and largely built be people who, as much as they surely planned ahead and approached things methodically, were ultimately making it up as they went along.

It's easy, and common, to think of these sorts of projects and wonder "what happened?". Why aren't libraries doing exciting things like that any more? Where did all the innovation go? Whilst I can see half-empty glasses with the best pessimists around, increasingly I'm beginning to think that the exciting things and innovation didn't go anywhere. At the VALA 40th, Tom Denison refered to his allocated decade (1998 - 2007) as "the decade librarians dealt with their existential angst", because it was the time we finally got what we'd been trying to build: always-available, self-service finding aids for library books, journals and other information. This was the decade I started working in libraries, and I remember well that it was a time when we began contemplating why libraries and librarians were "still needed", as we deleted shelves full of reference books and print encyclopedias. This is a conversation many people still seem to want to have, and perhaps worry about. Yet it's worth reflecting that the time Tom was talking about is now twenty years past. If we're still here two decades later, is it really necessary to keep wringing our hands and reminiscing about the good old days? We remember the exciting things and the innovative libraries and librarians. That's why it looks like there were more of them in the past. But if you look hard enough, it turns out there are libraries and librarians all over the place creating genuinely new and exciting things.

Casey-Cardinia Libraries got sick of paying outrageous sums for fairly simple hardware, so now they're building their own RFID circulation kiosks. Oslo Public Library wanted a user-centric library software system. Commercial options weren't up to scratch, and the MARC format was holding them back. So in 2014 they decided not only to build their own modular system based around Koha ILS but also to dump MARC and use RDF instead, without waiting for anyone else. Meanwhile, Melbourne University Library has built a dedicated data forensics lab.

Not every library will, or should, have a data forensics lab, build their own equipment, or even store catalogue records as linked data. But I find it comforting that some libraries are doing these things: not 'innovating' by buying a bunch of new consumer-grade electronics, or copying something they saw at the last conference, but genuinely building new tools, techniques, and solutions for their own problems. They're led by librarians who have practiced saying things like "It's in beta" and "It's an experimental feature". Librarians who eagerly ask library users to "Let us know if you see something" instead of passively providing "feedback forms" they hope nobody will fill in.

Yes, public libraries in the UK have been gutted in the last few years. Yes, libraries in the USA and parts of Australia are struggling to serve communities with opiod addictions and insufficient mental healthcare services. Yes, the world of academic publishing becomes ever more complicated. But, with the possible exception of the invention of Gutenberg's printing press, there has never been a more exciting time to be a librarian. I, for one, don't intend to waste it wallowing in nostalgia and fear.

Four weeks ago I resigned from Brimbank Libraries to take up a new role at CAVAL. Like VALA, CAVAL turns forty this year, and helps librarians to build our own future together. I'm excited to be moving into a role where I'll help academic librarians to think about how they can be part of new services, new ideas, and new ways of doing librarianship. And hopefully, the'll create useful things. And maybe even useless things. And take risks. And make it up as they go along.

And in forty years from now, maybe librarians will wonder what happened, and why they're not more like us.

  1. Well, I mean where else did you think I was going with this..? ↩︎

  2. video available soon! ↩︎