Since I’ve said it a few times, I thought I would get it down in print before it got taken out of context or worse. “Interoperability is the biggest lie in automation today.” The word is thrown around as easily and meaninglessly as “friend.” Interoperable is, at best, an adjective for standards-based systems, and at worst, a hack to cover up the fact that different systems are not at all meant to speak to one another. The former case is so rare as to make it the exception; the latter case is perpetual job security for systems people.
: ability of a system (as a weapons system) to work with or use the parts or equipment of another system
I’m not sure why Webster’s chose weapons when online systems would have made a good example; perhaps they wanted to emphasize the interoperability of pieces and parts, though computer hardware would have done okay for that. In fact, hardware interoperability is much less of a lie than software interoperability. Systems folk are much more used to after-market memory, cables, etc. We’re spoiled now by the (nearly) Universal Serial Bus. But the time is not so distant that we should have forgotten that hardware used to be as proprietary as most software.
Why am I so worked up about this? Well, first of all, I care about standards, and interoperability without standards is more often than not an end-run around them. Second, unlike loose use of the word “friend,” interoperability can cost time and money. It’s the same reason I object to the oft-overused “automagically.” In my experience, there’s no magic in IT—just lots of hard work. The more we describe it as magic, the less respect there is for hard work.
So what? Well, I’ve been advocating breaking systems apart for some time now. The dis-integrated library system is reality—the classic ILS, link resolving, metasearch, ERM, patron self-service, digital asset management, CRM (e.g. PeopleSoft, Banner), “next-gen” catalog interfaces. Would you believe someone who told you they had a Shangri La where all these pieces interoperate? I’m generally skeptical in thinking that any two of them can. Sometimes a little skepticism can be healthy.
[This post originally appeared as part of American Libraries’ Hectic Pace Blog and is archived here.]