22 August 2007


Dear library world. After several years tinkering in the library world one thing has become terribly clear to me; I shouldn't be in it. It's taken a while to see it, because, frankly, I never wanted to see the truth, believing so strongly that I was doing the right thing, helping the good cause, and being in love with good ol' library values. But it's there, glaring me in the face ; I don't belong here.

Premise : The library world is a) dying, and b) not flexible enough to survive.

Most people in the library world will strongly disagree with a) and normally disagree with b), and of course that would be the case ; most people there live in something that's obviously not dead yet, and the lot of them have survived for many years. Heck, the library profession and philosophy have survived plenty of paradigm shifts in society, have undergone many transformations to adopt, and still are being talked about and used by many. "Alex, you're just simply wrong."

"Libraries don't do politics"

First, let's look at what the library world is currently doing about Digital Rights Management. Right. Not a lot, apart from lots of talking about what we should do about it. In fact, it's one of those areas which is shady at best ; we don't know where we stand, don't know how vocal we should be, leaving the copyright owners to dictate the direction of this beast. Why is DRM even mentioned here, and as the first point? I'll get back to that one. To see why, let's move on.

Second, to whom does the "keeper of knowledge" fall to? Traditionally, the educational institutions and their respective libraries. But as the digital age allows anyone to be their own library, with commercial success as part of that dogma, the traditional keepers of knowledge are losing foothold to others who are better resourced, have more money and think more progressively about users needs. As Amazon and Google Books alone give libraries a kick in the shin and LibraryThing gives them a serious groin punch, are we to expect these and other organizations to do any worse in the future? Hardly. And what are we doing about it? We're currently throwing Lucene (or similar) at the problem and hope that will fix it. Laughable.

Third, what is a book these days? I know, I know, it's those paper things that we've got stacks of (pun intended), and as much as traditionally these things have carried great weight (and not just as paperweight) and possibly meant more to human development through time than almost anything else, I can't help feeling that as keepers of knowledge they are failing. Let's talk about knowledge ; it's what we know, right? Not what we knew, nor that which we will know. It's what we know right now. Sure, knowing what we knew is also important, but not as important as what we know. This is the actual fallacy of stacks and their contents ; they are finite, stuck in time, their context diluted and judged less important as time go by. Metadata that stays stuck in time and diluted is no better than the item that is stuck in time and diluted. So what are we doing about it? Aha, thought so; not a lot, no scrutinizing the metadata, no semantic time analysis, no semantic modeling, no user-centered extensions, no structural relationships, no organized effort in bringing the schemas together. If the library world would like to make sure that context stays high then that itself would save them, but they're not.

Fourth, how fast are we? Hehehe, not only are most libraries public and hence part of the public service regatta, the time-to-become-a-librarian is long, their focus of high-end technologies is low, most library structures are not very competitive (this has advantages too, mind you, but not in the speed-department), often founded on traditional governance and management models, and traditionally not into development of technology (so low skills, low drive and low self-esteem in that area ; not saying those skills aren't already there, but they're not plentiful, not well-supported, and usually a lone ranger type per library).

Whining, are we?

Just a tad, but not because I haven't been able to make a difference or because I'm not being listened to. In a lot of ways I've contributed quite a bit, just like other geeky library friends around the globe have created a tiny white powdery icing-layer on a really big fat chocolate mud cake. Although you know what the kids want.

I'm a bit sad, though. Sad that I've not been clear enough about what I think we need do, and I've failed to stake out a clear direction to go in. I'm sad that I haven't found the time to do those things necessary to convince people through example, being bogged down in routine and maintenance. I'm also sad that my opinions are too strong and hence dismissed by many just because of that passion; maybe I should be less vocal, less passionate? And lastly I'm sad that I'm willing to give up on something that I truly love.

Here's why I'm giving up, though; I'm tired, so tired, of fighting for the survival of something that possibly don't have the fitness to live. The Thylacine (or, Tasmanian Tiger) was a beautiful animal, respected and feared, until about 1930 when it was pronounced extinct. It's not that the Thylacine didn't deserve to survive, but its time had come. And that's sad as well. I can say that its time had come and that I'm sad about it at the same time, but it wasn't fit enough (in an evolutionary sense) to survive. And maybe the library is a Thylacine.

Every time I see a glimmer of hope or a flash of something exciting going on in the library world, it usually fast fades into a charades of politics and committee-shuffle. I'm too impatient for this, and I seriously think the world is, too ; it will race past us as we decide on who's going to chair what committee, who'll take notes, and how we're reporting progress to what group. Also since these glimmers of hope usually is attached to specific people more than institutions or organizations, whenever that person goes or moves, so does the glimmer. Again, because we're not traditionally in the business of technical development, we're so fragile. I'm fragile. I feel I've shattered a few times too many.

And seriously, the library see no gain by being rad. Sure, we will do what we need to do to support what we do, but we won't do more. And by not doing more, you're not doing what needs to be done.

And hence, I've decided to move on. There's no need for me to explain that all the things I see wrong with the library world don't suit me, and hey, I'm not ruling out that the library world is just fine and dandy and will get by just great. But we're not compatible, that's all. It's a bit like an old couple that after many years of staying together because that's what you do, they get to a point of realization that splitting up just seems a good thing to do, and both knows everything will be just fine.

I have no idea what to do next, though. All I know is that I'm starving.

Update : Just a note that this isn't a formal resignation as much as a personal one. I haven't formally quit. Yet.

Update 2 : Here's a follow-up on this post.


At Wednesday, August 22, 2007 1:13:00 PM, Anonymous donna said...

Congratulations and good luck!

At Wednesday, August 22, 2007 1:33:00 PM, Anonymous Dan Scott said...

Alas. Your resignation is a blow to a community striving to create a relevant place for libraries in the future. It was refreshing to see someone in the world of libraries working seriously with topic maps and the like.

I selfishly hope that you'll take some time to hang out with Samuel and mom, reconsider, and come back renewed. I can hope, anyways. But if not - best of luck in your future endeavours!

At Wednesday, August 22, 2007 3:16:00 PM, Anonymous James Robertson said...

Hi Alex,

You've been doing great work, one of the few to make sense (and actually use!) the whole "topic map thing".

It's sad that's it's got to this point, and I agree that there are some fundamental challenges facing libraries (I've said as much in some of my conference talks).

At the end of the day, if you can't get what you want (and need) where you are, the right decision is to move on to greener pastures.

Good luck with it all!

Cheers, James

At Wednesday, August 22, 2007 5:34:00 PM, Blogger  said...

Wow, to think I left you my football boots and guards to such a quitter-er :o

I jest, naturally. But I don't agree that books dilute, or lose their significance over time. People say that the most interesting part of wikipedia is the revision history; the ability to look back in time. I think that Libraries really do try to make their collection more accessible but struggle, for all the reasons you make.

Oh, and your Thylacine analogy could be closer than you think, but not in the way you meant. The Thylacine became extinct due to human (specifically European) settlement - nobody cared enough about the Thylacine to ensure its survival in the new environment. By the time enough people cared, it was too late. Ignorance, apathy and inaction were its downfall...

Regardless, the Library will be a sadder place without you - hopefully I'll be back before you fly the coop. If not, so long, and thanks for all the salted liquorice!


At Tuesday, August 28, 2007 4:06:00 PM, Anonymous magia3e said...

Yes, I agree that libraries are dead. I wrote on this a while ago. ...pity that the NLA doesn't realise the Grim is just over the hill.

Only one more step then -- take the plunge and quit!


At Wednesday, August 29, 2007 1:25:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Alex, I disagree.

Maybe we're loosing the technology battle, maybe we're moving away to be an archive of a time of humankind.

But books are not only data. Reading is not only about rational knowledge. It's also about connecting to one feelings. We don't read only to get "information" in the sense of a rational worldview, we interpret the data in a new way every time we read. And we speak with other people about our readings, and we share different kinds of knowledge.

It's nothing bad about driving with the technology train and connect paper with the net. But libraries are also a place where people met, where they talk to each other and where they interchange social knowledge.
Maybe we're fighting to retain users that don't want to go to the library anymore. Maybe we should get other users, other uses of our books.

Greetings from Argentina
(academic librarian building a science fiction library)

At Wednesday, August 29, 2007 9:18:00 AM, Anonymous Harvey Hahn said...

Alex, I didn't know if your "farewell" from NGC4LIB meant that you had unsubscribed or not, so I'm writing here to be sure my message gets through.

I hope that you DON'T unsubscribe and that you continue posting. To help cope a bit with situations like the one that recently escalated rather negatively, you might consider (at least for a while) limiting yourself to original posts and responses only to people who seem openminded and/or on the same page as you. Just because someone responds to a post of yours does NOT mean that you must automatically respond to them. (I've had some experiences along these lines in a whole different context, and it can tear you apart inside.) You can just let things be and go on from there.

I, for one, do NOT want to see you leave NGC4LIB or remain silent. I have learned so much from your posts! You are one of about 4 or 5 people on NGC4LIB whose ideas and opinions I respect very highly.

As a librarian for 30 years, MARC is my lingua franca, but that doesn't mean I'm necessarily "stuck" there. I'm trying to learn of new ways of looking at things, particularly using current technological means (such as what you describe). I'm relatively savvy with computers, especially programming. (I first started in 1975 by soldering together a kit for the MITS Altair 8800 and knew of Bill Gates, the principal author of Microsoft BASIC, when he was only a teenager.) But nowadays, hardly a day goes by that someone hasn't invented a new programming language or a new data structure or whatever. It's very hard to keep up. That's why I enjoy your posts so much, especially your passionate post about XML this past Monday. I want to learn more about how to apply the newer technologies to libraries and to my library's data in particular (most XML, etc., books don't touch the topic). *I* need to hear you. *We* need to hear you. Please reconsider your decision!


At Thursday, August 30, 2007 12:16:00 AM, Blogger  said...

I like your marriage analogy. Every marriage carries its moments when we realize we still love our partner, but there is a huge gap between what we would want them to be and who they really are. But in the end a firmer sense of reality in this matter can make a relationship stronger. Remember that part of love is respect, and respect is seeing things as they really are not as how we think we need them to be.

It will be sad for the other sparks out there when yours goes out.

Remember Kuhn's analysis of scientific revolutions: new paradigms don't replace old ones by changing peoples' minds; younger minds are raised in the new paradigm.

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