Starting from Scratch


Posted On Jul 8 2008 by

Carl Sagan once said: “If you wish to make an apple pie truly from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

I’ve been taken lately with all the efforts in library land to build things from scratch, as if there is no starting point, no viability–either technically or philosophically–from which to begin.  Ironically, the “2.0” true believers seem to be talking as if they are reinventing the universe more than moving libraries from version 1.0 to version 2.0.  It’s pretty hard (though not impossible) to move to v.2 when the first step is to throw away everything from v.1.

Where do I stand?  I think one must make a really, really good case for starting over.

  • When I am done building this thing, how will it distinguish itself from the thing that I replaced?
  • How do those distinctions shift the market, shift perceptions, shift total cost of ownership, or make life better for users of the thing?
  • Has starting from scratch created benefit for those who don’t or will it require others to start from scratch as well?
  • Assuming that starting over will take longer and cost more (this can be a big assumption that one should question), what won’t get done because I am recreating functionality or services that already exist?

I have never (really…never) met a software developer who didn’t want to start from scratch, so I have some experience here.  I fear starting from scratch because I think that if you rebuild things from the ground up, you wind up with something that looks exactly the same.  I think Karen Schneider applied this theory to organizations, namely the ALA, and  I believe it.  It’s probably true of other large organizations.  And how many times have we seen outsiders approach the library industry only to reverse-engineer the things that we have been doing for decades (the problem, of course, is sitting on the sidelines saying “we’ve been doing that for decades!”).

So are  you starting from scratch on anything?  In the end, I think most folks are simply making apple pies from different recipes–open source ILS, classification schemes, faceted catalogs, RDA.  Who’s going to invent the universe?

Last Updated on: July 15th, 2016 at 7:38 pm, by Andrew K. Pace


Written by Andrew K. Pace


3 responses to “Starting from Scratch

  1. Could you give some actual samples of what you consider projects that are emerging “from scratch”? I just ask because most projects I am aware of tend to have a couple of factors that are not completely from scratch:

    1) They draw on platforms and standards pretty well establish. Platforms like Apache, Jabber, Lucene, Solr, existing MARC parsers, etc.

    2) They use people from “inside the industry”, that is librarians or people who have been involved in library and automation.

    3) There’s a lot of cooperation going on. See the collaboration between VuFind and Blacklight for an example.

    Sorry, I usually like your posts, but I’m at a lost about who you are trying to hint at.

    Yes, starting from scratch is a really bad idea. But honestly, so is trying to build of some of the current systems in libraries. They’re just too inflexible, although it is starting to look that that is changing. I’ve noticed several vendors that are starting to come out with much more customizable products which hopefully means the threat of real competition is having an effect.

  2. Remember the movie Peggy Sue Got Married? She had the opportunity to undo the biggest mistake in her life and ended do the same thing all over again. I remember when she asked her 70-something Grandfather what he’d do differently if he could live his life over again. “Take better care of my teeth” was his answer. There’s more wisdom there than meets the eye….

  3. Yes. Again and again and again, it really feels like many people in the library 2.0 crowd are reinventing the wheel and don’t even have the historical context to know it.

    The computer is a new and marvelous tool, but what we’re trying to do with it is not really that different. The social software is a lovely tool, but we still want to achieve many of the same things that we always wanted to achieve.

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