3 years ago today was my first day in this position. A month earlier, 2 significant events had occurred within days of each other. The I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145. It was a catastrophic day in history, and will forever remain one of those days when you remember exactly where you were when you heard the news.

The second horrific event occurred in what was to become my new work home – in fact, I had already been offered the position of Director. The library automation system, that managed operations for this 14 branch library system, crashed, losing all the data for items in the system and all the data relating to items’ status (checked out, on hold, etc.). What made the crisis unimaginable was that there were no current usable data backups. The most recent usable backup was 6 months old. It was uploaded into new software by the vendor and we carried on. What made the crisis bearable (we kept telling ourselves) was that it was only data, and could be mostly restored, not like the lives lost on the I-35W bridge that would never be again.

As we forged on, we couldn’t check anything in until we determined if there was even a viable record, and if there wasn’t – well, you know what we had to do. So everything returned was stacked and stored, on shelves, tables, in bags and even laundry tubs, until we could get to it — item by item. Here’s what the meeting room looked like for several months.
Books and media

Well, I could tell you all about the next months as we recovered, and the next year as the lost catalog records were identified and restored. But that conversation is better had now over coffee or wine or beer (good for sob stories). The important thing is that I quickly learned what a wonderfully committed staff I had. We dug in, and did it and capstoned the process with a full system inventory – the first one ever done in this system. What a positive affirmation it was to find out how few items had been lost.

The last 3 years have been a growth period for me. I’ve been told my experience is common, but it proves that you never know what you don’t know until you don’t know. The important thing is, that not knowing something is the beginning of learning.

So, here’s to another year. It’s been a quiet anniversary day of small challenges. Nothing like those days 3 years ago. We’re a better organization, with a more secure system (we hope). Like every other library, never have so many (public) expected so much of so few (staff), who are working with ever-shrinking financial resources.

Open source – why?

Once upon a time technology was an awesome mystery and we were amazed just to watch what it did. We put those geeky gods who made it work on pedestals and carried their coffee. Technology made any job that involved keeping track of stuff easier.

Libraries were particularly thankful for automated procedures that tracked the hundreds of thousands of pieces of stuff that we entrusted on loan to thousands of people. We were so mystified by how it worked and thankful that it did that once we found a program and learned how to use it (another monumental task) we didn’t want to think about picking out something different or learning new tricks to use it. Besides that, librarians are by nature collectively a cautious bunch who don’t welcome a great deal of change.

So, a few vendors developed logistics type software to manage library materials and procedures and everyone was happy. The vendors didn’t do a lot of research and development and library systems didn’t change much.

During the next 20 years, technology changed the way we managed business and lived our lives. Since I’m a late arrival librarian, I wasn’t in libraries during the early technology implementations. I was involved in automating processes in several other businesses, also related to keeping track of and assigning accountability to things. I automated processes in hospital logistics and later on in grocery store sales operations. In both cases, the end results of the processes and procedures were not so different than libraries’ implementation of technology management systems.

While technology vendors in many areas have made refinement and development a priority and the systems in use now don’t look much like the early legacy systems, library automation systems have changed not so much. While most businesses do not tolerate clunky procedures or incomplete responses, the performance and results of library automation systems does not come close to other systems. Library automation systems cannot deliver the kind of interactive performance that is standard in most other industries. Furthermore, library automation vendors do not deliver the responsiveness in customer service that libraries need to remain viable in a competitive economy that sometimes marginalizes the value of library services.

There are reasons for library automation vendors’ failure to deliver desirable performance or service. First of all, I don’t think that libraries initially asked for a lot. Furthermore, with minimal profits to be made off from libraries, I don’t think that development of library systems was very lucrative for systems developers, and there wasn’t a lot of competition out there. Effective customer support doesn’t seem to be a priority and in recent years, company mergers have resulted in fewer viable choices for libraries to go where the service is better.

Enter the realm of open source options, where “they” becomes “us.” My library’s options for automation services do not have to be driven by what my vendor offers. There are choices my organization can make where we could potentially have more influence in the development of service-point utilities. And most importantly, there are other options for my organization to consider in deciding who would really understand and respect us as a customer for their services.

MINITEX is sponsoring workshops this month to allow libraries to look at open source options for integrated library systems. At the first session this week the room was packed with library managers and system administrators. The sizes and capacities of our organizations varied considerably, but we hold in common a desire for better systems and service than legacy library vendors provides.

My friend DL did an excellent job summarizing the first session on Koha, which means I don’t have to . In his summary, he discusses the question on whether buying open-source from a vendor isn’t just another vendor. Yes, it is, but with a difference that there is a different relationship with an open-source vendor. The underlying program is as open and available as we wish it to be, constrained only by our own limitations. Indeed, my systems geek has already downloaded his own copy of Koha to experiment with and learn from.

Will all of us who are educating ourselves through the open-source workshops rush out and implement a Koha or Evergreen based ILS? Most likely not. We have varying abilities and budgets. Some have the capacity to dive right in, others will build cooperatives, others will make a decision to remain status quo. But through our discussion, we’re becoming better informed and more discerning about the potential for library automation solutions to equip us to provide the most cost-effective and best possible customer service and access.