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More Than a Hack: Empowering Your Library Through Coding

Computers in Libraries [Jul/Aug 2015]

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Copyright (c) 2015 Information Today

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Abstract: A number of trends have converged to make it easier than ever for librarians to craft new tools and services for the benefit of their organizations. Libraries face ever-increasing challenges, especially in providing access to collections via electronic and print formats, as well as in meeting expectations for personalized and easy-to-use services. Despite the movement toward reliance on externally hosted systems, the need for libraries to create or customize services to meet the specialized requirements of their communities or to enhance the productivity of their personnel has never been greater. "Hacking" can be thought of in many ways, but I see it as making use of programming, scripting, or other creative technologies to solve problems, to improve or enhance existing applications, or to create new ones to meet specialized needs. The ethos of hacking stands to bring many benefits to libraries.


A number of trends have converged to make it easier than ever for librarians to craft new tools and services for the benefit of their organizations. Libraries face ever-increasing challenges, especially in providing access to collections via electronic and print formats, as well as in meeting expectations for personalized and easy-to-use services. Despite the movement toward reliance on externally hosted systems, the need for libraries to create or customize services to meet the specialized requirements of their communities or to enhance the productivity of their personnel has never been greater. "Hacking" can be thought of in many ways, but I see it as making use of programming, scripting, or other creative technologies to solve problems, to improve or enhance existing applications, or to create new ones to meet specialized needs. The ethos of hacking stands to bring many benefits to libraries.

Impact of Cloud-Based Platforms

The shift toward cloud computing has deep ramifications for how libraries deal with technology. We're now in a transition away from systems based on locally implemented hardware and software that requires significant technical expertise to administer and maintain toward reliance on services that are hosted externally and accessed via web interfaces. The shift isn't universal, but almost all libraries will see a portion of their technical infrastructure provided via webbased services rather than on systems they implement and manage directly.

Some organizations using hosted applications may opt to rely mostly on external support. The new slate of web-based platforms can often be employed without local technical personnel or programmers. The vendor providing the system can be tapped to deliver a complete set of implementation services, including migrating data from any incumbent products, configuring policies, customizing branding, or web design and presentation. This approach may be wellsuited for libraries that need to focus their personnel on service delivery and collection management and that traditionally have not kept dedicated computing staff in-house.

I've heard some librarians express concerns that the new slate of web-based, multitenant platforms are a loss of control relative to how they perform their work internally and provide access to collections. These platforms provide more comprehensive functionality and address a more inclusive set of library materials than earlier systems. In many cases, they come packaged with discovery services. Although some libraries might implement these systems as an all-inclusive solution with little hands-on local intervention, there are also opportunities for greater involvement. While there may be some circumstances in which libraries yield aspects of control, these platforms also offer the ability for libraries to exercise a more direct role in any areas they consider as most critical.

APIs Enable Technical Creativity

For the libraries that make this shift to externally hosted, web-based platforms for managing their collections and for the automation of their operations, I see opportunities for increased empowerment for their organizations. This assertion may seem a bit counterintuitive, given that these platforms don't provide access to their internal programming. The avenue for technical creativity comes primarily through the APIs they expose. These platforms are increasingly expected to expose APIs that enable libraries to extract data or build new features based on their data, policies, and the units of functionality residing in the platform. These new platforms are part of a growing ecosystem of APIs expected in applications that goes far beyond the library domain to enable organizations to exercise the functionality and data of their systems to solve problems or deliver services beyond built-in capabilities. Increasingly, the quantity and quality of the APIs exposed by platforms are factors that libraries consider when selecting new technology products.

These APIs can be exploited in different ways. Seasoned programmers or software engineers can build sophisticated applications around them. APIs also provide powerful capabilities that can be tapped into with relatively simple programs or scripts. A few lines of Ruby on Rails, PHP, Python, or Perl can yield incredibly useful web components, widgets, or data analysis tools.

Reorienting Technology Talent

This transition to increased reliance on externally provided systems requires libraries to have to rethink their approach to technology. In the previous model, considerable resources had to be dedicated to maintaining infrastructure components. Systems librarians or technical professionals would attend to necessary activities related to the care of server and storage components, operating systems, databases, network security, and other tasks that involve a very high level of skill and training. These activities happen mostly behind the scenes, often with little visibility or appreciation by the librarians or patrons who use the systems. It's only when things go wrong that all the hard work of maintaining local systems becomes apparent. This work oriented to lowerlevel infrastructure mostly goes away as libraries implement new platforms, providing the opportunity to redirect these highly valued technical experts to tasks with a more direct and visible impact to the library and its users.

It may be tempting to view these new systems as a way to outsource technology involvement. For those organizations with little or no in-house technical support, they provide a full set of capabilities able to meet the expectations of most libraries with little local intervention. The provider hosts the platform and delivers a set of implementation and operational services. Some libraries will find vendor-provided services meet their needs in the areas addressed, allowing them to channel resources to other areas (such as nontechnical operational units) or to focus their technical resources on repositories and services outside the scope of the primary platform.

The rationale and business case for implementing new web-based platforms generally includes spending less money on maintaining local infrastructure and relying more on hosted services. The budget model often factors in savings for technical support personnel in addition to local hardware and software components. But any technology strategy that does not allocate at least a minimal level of technical administration and supervision places the library in a weak strategic position. I encourage libraries opting to shift to hosted systems to maintain a proactive role in their broader technology infrastructure, striking a balance between vendor-provided services and those performed internally.

The move to web-based services does not necessarily mean that libraries should draw down their capacity for technology support and development. If libraries go too far in the reduction of in-house technology expertise, they become entirely dependent on external service providers and may diminish their capacity to deliver expected services. At a minimum, it's essential to provide informed oversight of vendor-provided systems. Beyond these minimal levels, many libraries will benefit by investing additional resources to extend these systems to create services to meet additional local needs and to implement and manage processes to efficiently exchange data and services with other systems in the organization's environment. The extent to which libraries invest in technical resources in support of web-based hosted systems depends on the complexity of the organization's environment and its requirements and expectations for those systems.

Democratization of Technical Involvement

Programming does not necessarily have to be entirely delegated to dedicated systems or IT personnel. Individuals from many different parts of a library may be interested in hacking the systems they work with to address areas of concern. Today's tools and technologies reduce many complex aspects to enable a wider range of library personnel to write scripts, work with data in a variety of XML formats, or perform even deeper analyses of the data that flows in and out of library systems. Lowering the threshold of complexity in the mechanics of programming environments enables a broader range of individuals to participate in the creative process.

Systems and technology personnel will be able to use their programming chops, often with more visible results than their work with the previous generation of applications. Nontechnical staffers can also contribute. Learning to code has become a growing interest in the library profession. I see this movement as a positive democratization of technology management and support that brings in many new talents and perspectives.

I believe that participation in technology should be open and welcoming to all. I appreciate any movement toward greater involvement of newer professionals-regardless of gender or other demographics-and among different levels of technical training and areas of specialization. Diversity isn't an ideal, but a mandate. Libraries benefit from the contributions of talented individuals interested in learning new skills and willing to tackle some aspect of technology.

Let's not allow the transition to webbased and hosted platforms to result in a passive approach that leaves external providers in full control of a library's technical environment. On the contrary, refocusing the creative efforts on those working with technology to higher-level services strengthens the library's position. Hacks, mashups, and other informal tech creations supplement the more intensive programming projects as libraries work toward the best technology infrastructure to serve their communities. This more broad-based and open approach toward technology involvement has the potential to empower libraries to take more control over their data and systems.

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Publication Year:2015
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 35 Number 6
Issue:Jul/Aug 2015
Page(s):25-27
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
ISBN:1041-7915
Record Number:21146
Last Update:2016-06-13 15:53:15
Date Created:2015-11-11 08:22:41