I’m still coming to grips with how boring librarianship can be. More of my workday than I’d care to admit, not to mention my life in general, is taken up by mundane upkeep, routine maintenance, and basic troubleshooting. “Have you tried restarting?” sorts of things.
Library technology sure ain’t perfect. When you link out to hundreds of databases and thousands of other content hosts, having a totally operational system is pretty much impossible. Our vendors also regularly commit no shortage of rookie mistakes while employing infrastructure shoe-stringed together with a staggering amount of technical debt. That doesn’t help matters any.
My university’s website uses a deployment server to receive uploaded files via a secure connection. According to our in-house documentation, “When files are in place they will be moved to the production environment. Sync happens every second.” The publisher Elsevier, a company with an annual profit margin of over one billion dollars, employs a similar mechanism involving the manual execution of a script to refresh their customer’s inputted OpenURL settings. In our case, it took over two months to execute this update properly.
Prolonged downtime is never fun. The agonizing thing about these situations is that the longer they go on, as the support ticket worms its way through a stumped front-line of tier one support representatives, the more likely you are to get a response back describing how the resolution won’t be forthcoming at all quickly. In my experience, for any system that’s been down a certain amount of time, the odds of it coming back up within an equal and further duration of downtime remain constant for as long as the outage continues.
One of the reasons there’s so much mundane clean-up work on my plate is that I have colleagues who sure think it’s fun to go off and create new web pages, but rarely give a second thought to checking their existing content for accuracy. I ran a search today on our LibGuides platform for the domain name of our OPAC that shut down in 2014. It found 355 results. Again, an example from our campus IT: if an internal knowledge base document has not been updated in six months, and the author ignores warnings to do so, that file is automatically deleted.
I suggested a similar policy be enacted for purging neglected information from the library’s web presence, but it sadly didn’t go over very well. And so this tacit refusal to weed stale content makes the situation with our website rather akin to a library where each of its employees is too cool to re-shelve books. Being engaged is good. Insisting on putting your mark on something by adding extra unnecessary decoration and other deviations from standards, however, serves as an overall detriment to the user experience.
Every one of the dozen or so web migrations I’ve completed has included a goal (by using, for example, server-side includes to insert a standard header and footer, the introduction of Dreamweaver templates for enforcing a common style, adding a WordPress theme that standardizes page elements, and so on) of creating a more restrictive editing environment in order to narrow the gap between what is technically possible and what is allowed by our web publishing guidelines, particularly with regards to following a universal design. And every time it’s a battle tooth and nail in getting editors not to skirt those restrictions.
Librarians, particularly when operating within a consortium, seem to practice the opposite philosophy, although “standardization wherever possible, differentiation where it matters” is a good rule of thumb to follow with just about everything. For example, our new site will adhere to the university’s revamped page templates with one important variance: the search box delivers results by default from the library’s discovery layer, not the campus website.
If you work at a nuclear power plant, or any number of similar places, an exciting day on the job is not a good thing to have. By the same rationale, I sure could boost our LibAnswers statistics by shutting off our EZproxy server or blanking out our homepage. Those that tout use numbers by equating the number of questions asked with the value of a library would do well to consider that every tallied reference transaction should rather be treated as a missed opportunity to have a more user-friendly interface which made asking such a thing unnecessary.
Social media, conferences, and the literature are filled with the dazzling and transformative deeds being done by librarians. There’s enough of them to make you feel like a Salieri in a field of Mozarts. Our profession certainly needs more innovation, and putting off making those adjustments constitutes as much a danger to our future as is neglecting the boring stuff. We have not sufficiently adapted with technological changes, and several misguided attempts to retain relevance have caused us to lose focus on our core mission.
More than ever, we’re needed to aid in the spread of knowledge. What practically any soldier who served in Afghanistan feels about the current situation there is in many ways similar to how anyone in the field of education should feel when they read the headlines about people taking bleach, Invermectin, Hydroxychloroquine, and worse because they were misinformed about how to best treat and prevent Covid-19.
There’s a certain mystique that emergency personnel have cultivated within our society for how they deal with crisis situations. The structural engineer or building inspector who painstakingly ensures that such catastrophic failures are avoided, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly receive the type of hero worship that “our brave men and women in uniform” do. And not to sound salty about this, but being a trucker or logger or a roofer is a hell of a lot deadlier than serving in the military or law enforcement.
If we invested enough in the right safety measures, less emergencies would occur in the first place. This involves re-prioritizing a few things, and not having to operate in crisis mode all the time—in favor of abandoning wishful thinking by focusing more on preventative maintenance. For our profession, the close equivalent to this concept is the fatalistic idea that library research is and will always be hard to do, so you better ask a librarian for help. That’s a misguided approach to the problem.
We certainly don’t need to make using a library harder than it already is. There’s an apocryphal story about how packaged cake mixes only gained popularity after the requirement to add an egg was included in their recipe, supposedly to convey that the new procedure wasn’t cutting too many corners. As someone working in a library with 384 different entries on our databases list, I can attest that we’re a long way from needing to add such obstacles. Quality doesn’t always equate with difficulty, anyway.
Looking at the recent news about climate change, terrorism, and pandemics makes me think it’s inevitable that I’ll be involved in another crisis someday. But there’s a difference between being prepared for emergencies and behaving in such a negligent way that causes them to happen. Sure, there would be some thrills to it, but I’d just as soon not see civilization collapse, in other words.
Backing up files, updating dead links, enforcing consistency in the presentation of content, even when automated as much as possible, are all about as glamorous as folding the laundry. And that’s a problem. When done right, all of that work goes largely unnoticed. We don’t therefore adequately appreciate the effort taken to keep things running smoothly or how hard it is to design an interface that simply gets out of other people’s way.
The only constant nowadays is change. Habits can easily devolve into gratifying yet unnecessary busy work. We must continually optimize our environment by overhauling legacy procedures and designs lest we run the risk of becoming obsolete. But the allure of becoming engrossed with bright and shiny novelties also mustn’t come at the cost of ignoring our ordinary responsibilities, however dull they may be.
If “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” maybe proactively avoiding problem incidents from happening should be valued at least as much as is saving the day when they do unfortunately occur. So pretty please, with sugar on top, the next time you’re clamoring for attention or excitement and feel like starting some fancy newfangled project, make sure the ones you’ve already committed to are either completed, being properly maintained, or ought to be cancelled without regret.