:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

What I Wish I Had Known


   It has been many years since I left library school. Suffice it to say
   that I remember the days of using 300 bps acoustic coupler modems to
   search Dialog databases with an impenetrable syntax that defies
   description. Now, in middle age, I'm looking back from this
   Google-rules world and wondering what I wish I had known in those early

   I wish I had known that Gopher--which only supported plain-text
   documents, in an inflexible structure--would be a flash in the pan. In
   the early 1990s, when I was in a group deciding whether to choose
   Gopher or the World Wide Web to move library information and services
   to the Internet, we chose Gopher. We had good reasons, but it was the
   wrong decision. It took us years eventually to migrate all of our
   content from Gopher to the web.

   I wish I had known that it would be important to learn a web-scripting
   language and not be beholden to a small number of systems programmers.
   Although I had minored in computer science as an undergraduate, for
   years I resisted learning yet another programming language. After
   finally succumbing to learning enough Perl to build useful and
   effective services via the web, I wondered why I had waited so long.
   The debates are moot

   I wish I had known that many debates that took up so much intellectual
   time and effort would turn out to be inconsequential or moot. Remember
   all the angst and anguish surrounding the "commercialization" of the
   Internet? The sky did not fall; in fact, commercial entities
   mainstreamed what until that point had been simply a rather minor and
   arcane technology developed by government entities.

   I wish I had known that the solution for needing to teach our users how
   to search our catalog was to create a system that didn't need to be
   taught--and that we would spend years asking vendors for systems that
   solved our problems but did little to serve our users. I wish I had
   known that we would come to pay the price of our folly by seeing our
   users flock to commercial companies like Google and Amazon.
   Lessons learned

   Have I learned any lessons? Yes and no. Although I doubt I'm any better
   at predicting the future now, except to acknowledge that rapid change
   is the only constant, I have a better idea of how to respond to the

   Don't let the past be your guide. The past may provide a good model for
   the future in very general terms (for example, we now expect that
   technologies will be replaced on a regular basis), but, remember, it
   can't predict the specific outcomes: nothing predicted the Internet.

   Cultivate personal traits and general skills. It's unlikely that we'll
   do things in the future the way we do them now, given the pace of
   technological change. So we need skills more than tools, such as the
   ability to learn quickly without formal instruction, to foster
   flexibility. Always keep learning. Learn as you breathe, almost without
   being aware of it.

   Be prepared to admit and rectify your mistakes. We all make mistakes.
   But those who do not want to admit and fix them are simply guaranteeing
   their failure.

   Read outside of the profession. Libraries do not drive the engines of
   innovation. Libraries are part of a niche market that either rides the
   coattails of other markets or gets left behind. If you want to know
   where libraries are going beyond the next few years, read magazines
   like Business 2.0, Fast Company, and Wired.

   It's about the user, stupid. While we were focused on crafting
   integrated library systems that served our needs, our users got left
   behind. Is it any wonder that they can't understand why our systems
   aren't as easy to work with as Amazon?

   Seek self-reliance. Sure, almost nothing gets done without
   collaboration with people and/or institutions, but the more you rely on
   others to accomplish your goals, the more likely you will be
   disappointed. When I finally learned Perl, I was finally able to do my

   A little humility goes a long way. It's easy to get caught up in a
   sense of importance and omnipotence. As a newly minted river guide, I
   thought I had "mastered" the river, but I soon learned that you can
   never achieve mastery. As librarians, we must remember that we don't
   know it all. We can learn things from Google, Yahoo!, Amazon, Flickr,
   and others that are charting new courses. We can either humbly and
   gratefully receive these lessons or allow our hubris to defeat us.

   I'm not so arrogant as to think I've learned all there is to know about
   facing the future. I just know that any lessons we learn will make it
   more likely we'll end up where we really want to go.