Though I heard it in a much different context once, I like to apply something from religion to the world of libraries (don’t worry). Preparing the congregation for a “radical change,” a senior pastor told his flock: “There’s a difference between ‘tradition’ and ‘traditionalism’.” Tradition is what we do all the time and for some good reason. Traditionalism is what we do all the time but we can no longer recall the reason. I think libraries excel at traditionalism, and I have been giving quite a bit of thought to the processes we use to perpetuate it.
In the first two posts in this series, I have attacked services and policies, both of which are strongly supported by the traditionalism of system migration. I find it insanely ironic that after long RFP and shopping processes to improve our lot, the first step in migrating from one system to another is to ensure that the new system works just like the old one did (the other irony is that the first post-migration step is to beatify the old system that was once so hated).
More often than not, a libary system vendor will send a consultant onsite with a big spreadsheet and a large group (mostly librarians, of course) will sit around and cram old policies into that new spreadsheet. Rarely would the vendor propose a standard list of item types, languages, or circulation policies. No, each library is unique, just as each libraries patrons are unique. Right then.
Next, the catalogers and IT professionals debate indexing rules. We don’t want to have to re-index this database any time in the next 5-10 years, so let’s make these decisions stick (thankfully, a new generation of online catalogs is already tipping this cow). Once we’ve determined all the stuff that will hold us for the next decade and replicated all of the traditional policies, it’s time for the ‘data fretting’ to start.
“What do you mean I can’t migrate Acquisitions Code #1 from my old system to the new one? If code #1 equals ‘a’ then I know that it was purchased from that special fund created by Professor Styckndamud in 1962! Someone might ask for a report on that fund!” Granted, we do indeed use some of these data (some more often than MARC data, which flows to and fro between systems like it was designed for data transfer instead of public display…oh, wait…).
So we load the data, and we load it again, and again, and again. Rarely do we ask ourselves how much we need those data. Take it from someone who has done two coast-to-coast moves, and just completed my 6th house move in a dozen years…asking “do I really need this” is a useful exercise. We like to think that because it is data, it’s intangible nature makes it’s movement and storage simple, but even data has a cost that often far exceeds its value.
I’m not suggesting that changing systems should be as easy as flipping a switch. I am suggesting, however, that it should be more akin to profiling online services than building a system from scratch. We’re in the mood for change these days, it seems. New systems are the at the beginning of change. New interfaces are at the other end of the change. Let’s play both sides against the middle and see what we can do about changing the way we change.