Discovery Requires Trial and Error

“Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.”
 — Homer Simpson (The Simpsons, Burns’ Heir, S05E18)

We have multi-function printers in the library. To scan something, you have to use the machine, which saves the file to a network location, then get on a nearby computer, connect to a mapped drive, and retrieve your document from a shared folder. The copiers also have the ability to connect to a mail server and send scans as an attachment. However, that functionality is disabled because, and this is an exact quote from the Print & Copy Services division, “we were worried people would send death threats.” No word on why the outgoing postal mailboxes in the union haven’t been welded shut yet, based on the same rationale.

There’s a great parable of a famished donkey, standing between a bale of hay and a bucket of water, who starves itself to death because it cannot decide which one to consume first. Analysis paralysis, the fear of change, and the suspicion that something might go wrong, are big problems. If you keep waiting for perfect conditions, you’ll never get anything accomplished. We need to be a little more realistic and not use potential dangers as an excuse for inaction — and accept the risk factors involved with being an early adopter of what may either turn out to be a passing fad or the next big thing.

When libraries first launched virtual reference services, an inordinate amount of time was spent discussing the need for procedures and responses to abusive chat messages. Some librarians went so far as to create fake names for use in chatrooms over fears of being stalked. Those concerns were ridiculously overblown compared to the minuscule percent of actual situations involving problem patrons online. See also, “Wikipedia can be wrong, so never use it.”

With new library websites and other interfaces, I’ve seen wholly unsubstantiated “concerns” over accessibility and usability drive far too many development decisions. It’s one thing to be worried that a significant number of blind users, or a large percentage of patrons, express their difficulty and confusions with new systems. But without that, everyone has differing aesthetic opinions, and focusing on relatively inconsequential design elements is not a good use of time. Especially these days, facts need to be louder than opinions.

An impending update to our discovery layer introduces a user-generated tagging feature by making it enabled out of the box in a new interface. Unsurprisingly, this has generated multiple messages on the customer discussion list asking how to turn it off. The reasoning appears to be that it is, in theory, susceptible to abuse, and must therefore not be enabled. For example, “some of my colleagues are concerned that people will use offensive words or maliciously tag library materials as being of very poor quality when they’re not.” I’m also wondering if any catalogers view tagging by non-librarians as an affront to their profession.

Folksonomies made a big splash around a decade ago, but they still remain a potentially useful additional access point for people to find what may be like items, course and group reading lists, and similar titles others have marked. Yes, it is conceivably open to misuse, just as, in a relatively small number of cases, the peer-reviewed indicator can be wrong, the citation formatting feature can be inaccurate, the link resolver can produce malformed addresses. But that’s not a particularly strong reason for shutting them down. As for evidence of abuse, the only actual data points offered up so far are these:

  • “We have had a local installation of Primo since 2009 and haven’t had any issues with either tags or reviews being added inappropriately.”
  • “We have had tags/comments activated in Primo since 2008 … we have not needed to delete any posts.”

The most secure computer is one that’s turned off. And the safest place for a boat is in a harbor, after all, yet that’s not what it’s made for. Demanding new features be deactivated before even giving them a chance seems a drastic reaction to the addition of what may become either a useful feature or needless clutter. The only way to know is to trust in patrons and give it a shot. The first time I heard about our discovery layer (Primo), by the way, was at a conference presentation over six years ago. One of the slides included a guiding principle:

“We should not spend time on theoretical decisions affecting hypothetical situations”
 — Implementing Primo at the University of Iowa Libraries, Brian Thompson & Sue Julich, Ex Libris Users of North America (ELUNA) Meeting, 2011–05–13

This maxim encapsulates so many of the pitfalls our profession succumbs to when dealing with nitpicking and counterfactual conditionals. We could do so much more if we weren’t by default pessimistic about new situations. In recent years, libraries have failed to adapt in many spectacular ways. There’s probably more services in the Google product graveyard than we’ve even tried launching during the same time. The future should be a call to action, not complacency. Put another way, do you really want your legacy to be that you’re remembered for bickering about font colors?

Further Reading

Check out my other posts for related commentary.