Let’s Not Call the Whole Thing Off: Coping with Imperfection in the Library World

An old Chinese riddle poses the question: which is stronger, your teeth or your lips? The answer is your lips, because your teeth can be broken or fall out. Any rigid system can be vulnerable due to its inflexibility. Trusting in something to always work a certain way creates a single point of failure. Intermittent reinforcement is a stronger method of behavioral conditioning. A variable schedule is more likely to withstand disruption when deviations to that routine must occur. Many successful diets budget for indulgences or “cheat days.” Pursuing perfection is a worthwhile goal, but only as long as you accept that it’s unrealistic.

We’re wrapping up the conversion of our main library computer system. This is a massive undertaking that only happens once a decade or so. Things work differently in the new enterprise because they need to. There’s updated architecture relating to shared cataloging records, the management of electronic holdings, and the end user interface features an updated search engine. They don’t make them like they used to, or in our case, at least the low bidder doesn’t. A handful of functions present in the old system do not exist in the new one. And some of the updated processes for accomplishing tasks are more cumbersome for librarians and patrons alike.

As a whole, it’s a big improvement, but also a substantial change. Many existing procedures that were created as workarounds due to the legacy software’s limitations need to be reassessed so that we can take full advantage of the incoming program’s capabilities. Due to the amount of transitions necessary, many people’s perspective is focused on critiquing the defects present in the new environment, of which there are several. Our implementation was even delayed due to the vendor’s inability, in my opinion, to meet their contractual obligations.

It’s still important to deal with things pragmatically. While we’re working to stamp out bugs, we must accept that the product evaluation part of the migration has long passed. We likewise need to choose configuration settings based on what usually happens, rather than how things hypothetically might not work in a small fraction of cases. We want to successfully transition users to the new interface, but not entirely placate needs based solely on how things used to be done.

A good example of this philosophy is how the majority of library users, in this day and age, are looking for journal articles on their topic. Why then do some libraries still insist on prominently displaying a local book catalog on their homepage above article search options? Such intransigence to changing user expectations is utterly unwarranted. Much of how things currently work in libraries can be described with an old adage attributed to Lucius Annaeus Seneca: “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare. It is because we do not dare that things are difficult.”

Things can and do and will go wrong with evolving library service models, but that doesn’t mean that new projects aren’t worth trying. After all, people can misshelve books, but that’s hardly an argument to write off the system as non-functional and go back to closed stacks. Catastrophic change is not for the timid, but it’s just as notably why we’re here and not the dinosaurs.

There’s a tradition in Navajo weaving to leave a “spirit outlet” in a rug without fully completing it. This imperfection is created to honor the Spider Woman, who, according to the Navajo creation myth, brought the craft to people. As someone with a typical librarian’s penchant for tidiness and order, this symbolism is a poignant reminder that nothing real is perfect. All too often we seem to get hung up on minutiae or suffer from analysis paralysis instead of moving at the pace of important innovations around our profession. Tied to the concepts of the perpetual beta and continuous change is the realization that deployed systems are not without flaws that we must learn to live with.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
John Hubbard

John Hubbard

Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis