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The right technology: no-tech, low-tech, or high-tech

Computers in Libraries [October 2003]

Breeding, Marshall.

Copyright (c) 2003 Information Today

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Abstract: Breeding discusses the importance of considering the right technology as a solution to problems encountered by the systems librarian. He cites that technology is not always the answer to all problems, and that less is usually better and simplicity wins over complexity.


I've spent my professional career in libraries applying technology. Finding the right technology for the task at hand has been the mainstay of my work life.

Most who know me would consider me something of a technophile. I make my living with technology and a big part of my official responsibilities involves keeping abreast of the latest developments in the library automation arena and the broader computer scene. Plus I get to do technology. I get my hands dirty working under the hood-implementing and integrating applications, designing systems, even building them from scratch. When I'm not doing technology, I'm writing or speaking about it.

The point is, I'm not anti-technology by almost anybody's consideration. Yet, I've learned over the years that technology is not the answer to all problems. There are at least some times when tasks can be accomplished efficiently without automation. Technology cannot solve issues of personnel, personality, or organizational inefficiency. While applications abound for facilitating communication-e-mail, list processors, blogs, etc.-they cannot force individuals to communicate if they aren't inclined to. So when presented with a problem, I'm sure to thoroughly consider nontechnical issues before rushing out to pick hardware and software.

Once I conclude that I need some sort of technology to solve a problem or advance a project, I find it best to start with a simple approach and work toward more complex solutions if the need arises. In some cases, I find that a basic application will suffice, though there will be times that only a large and complex integrated system will meet all the needs and requirements.

One of my main guideposts in approaching problems involves using the least and the simplest technology that solves the problem completely. While it may seem ironic to a certain extent, I work on the principle that when it comes to technology, less is usually better and simplicity wins over complexity.

No-Tech Can Still Work

A couple of personal notes provide a metaphor for that approach. One of my regular chores at home is cutting the grass. While my yard isn't huge, it isn't tiny either. Yet, I cut it with a non-motorized push mower-remember the kind your grandfather used? First of all, it gets the job done, and in about the same amount of time as the gas-powered alternatives. It doesn't break down, uses no gas, doesn't pollute, and provides me with a bit of physical exercise. I chuckled to myself a few weeks ago as I watched a neighbor struggling to navigate an enormous riding mower to cut a lawn much smaller than mine.

I might also mention that in our household, we don't use an automatic dishwasher, I own very few power tools, and we don't own a television. On the other hand, we do have six computers, an Ethernet network, and high-speed Internet access.

These anecdotes illustrate my belief that sometimes low-tech serves better than high-tech and that one can be selective about which technologies to adopt.

Low-Tech Has Its Place

Finding the right technical tools for library automation tasks can benefit from the same kind of parsimonious approach. An overly complex bundle of hardware and software can fail if it overreaches the task at hand and exceeds the ability of the humans involved to operate and support it.

My ideal technology is "lean and mean." I'm always on the lookout for applications that perform a task in the simplest possible way.

In today's computer environment it's virtually impossible to find fast, trim, and efficient software. Rather, most of what's available might be characterized as "bloat-ware." Years of "feature creep" have resulted in applications that have rich functionality but lack elegance and efficiency. Fortunately, each generation of computer hardware blazes past its predecessor in speed and power, making even the most inefficient and bloated software run with reasonable performance. Today, a typical desktop PC offers more raw computing power than the fastest supercomputers could a few years ago. It seems incredible that all that computing power is consumed by word processors, spreadsheets, and Solitaire. While the processing power available to us has increased exponentially, the practical work accomplished seems to be relatively flat.

One library example comes to mind when thinking about times when a non-technical solution prevailed. I worked with a school library a few years ago that was reviewing its general operations and automation efforts. Among other issues, staff members were concerned with students stealing books. While they weren't able to quantify the theft rate, the perception was that it was too high. They wanted advice on how to implement a theft-detection system.

As I analyzed the issue, my attention focused more on the need for better service at the circulation desk. While the library had an automated circulation system, it was a fairly antiquated one that wasn't efficient. But in my opinion, the biggest problems were that the circulation desk was located away from the main flow of traffic and that it wasn't consistently staffed. In other words, it was quite inconvenient to go through the trouble to check out books legitimately.

My advice was for that library to relocate the circulation desk and to make staff always available. It needed to be easy to check out materials legitimately so that students wouldn't be tempted to sneak them out. I was also concerned that the library promote a positive image. Implementing a theft-detection system without improving service might elicit a tone of distrust of the students and might only inspire them to find ways to defeat the system.

Secondarily, the library could migrate to a more modern automated circulation system to help it provide more efficient service and to get a better assessment of its inventory of books and measure the theft rate. Should the library find unacceptable theft rates after it made its circulation service more convenient and efficient, then implementing a theft-detection technology might be warranted.

For this library, at first blush it was tempting to posit a technical solution when the underlying issues had more to do with the staffing and the physical layout of the facility. Technology, in this case, was a minor issue.

Choose the Good High-Tech

However, I don't want to put myself out of a job as a technologist. Fortunately, there are plenty of times where a situation calls for a high-tech solution. It's hard to imagine very many libraries, for example, that could do without an ILS to computerize their routine operations. State-of-the-art computer networks find great use in libraries-especially as they increasingly rely on electronic content in the form of text, images, sound, and video.

I end up spending most of my time designing, creating, and implementing computer systems based on fairly high-end technology. With my specialty in systems that deal with images and video, I get to work with fast servers, large-scale storage systems, and complex database applications. Yet, my firm belief that systems should be as simple as possible helps me develop applications in such a way that keeps them from becoming unwieldy and overly complex. I yearn to be successful in that.

I hope I've made my point that it's important to consider the whole range of options when seeking solutions to a problem or implementation avenues for a project. For those of us who specialize in technology, it's tempting to assume that some set of hardware and software will make things better. Just keep in mind all the possibilities, including those that don't involve technology, before rushing to a high-tech approach. Remember that there are times when a push mower makes a lot more sense than a riding mower.

Publication Year:2003
Type of Material:Article
LanguageEnglish
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 23 Number 9
Issue:October 2003
Page(s):28
Publisher:Information Today
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
ISBN:1041-7915
Permalink: http://librarytechnology.org/ltg-displaytext.pl?RC=10646
Record Number:10646
Last Update:2012-12-29 14:06:47
Date Created:0000-00-00 00:00:00