Reflections

Three years ago I wrote this in the essay that accompanied my application to be admitted to the MLS program:

"Becoming a librarian represents the convergence of all of these separate threads of my life. I've always believed that knowledge is never wasted, but what formerly seemed to be a series of disconnected adventures in higher learning finally all make sense now—librarians are interested in everything. […] I bring to the program, and to the profession, my lifetime of experience as a professional engineer, amateur librarian, and non-practicing lawyer. As a professional reference librarian, I will have a larger voice in decisions that will affect the ease with which our patrons and citizens access information, and the quality of that information."

All those threads of my life have come together during the past three years, and more threads have been added—database designer, instruction designer, video producer, researcher, website designer/programmer, and digital librarian. I've had to stretch myself to write—an activity which, except for letters to the editor, has never come easily for me. I've learned a lot of new acronyms—METS, MODS, XML, REST, FRBR—that all seem to be related to cataloging. I've been mystified along with everyone else as to why any randomly chosen library's OPAC search function is at least 10 years behind what Amazon and Google are capable of, and why no library holdings ever turn up in a Google Search unless the book was scanned in the Google Book Search project. I've seen the Amazon Kindle and the Sony eBook start to catch on, and I've worried that I may have missed the window of opportunity and that the brick-and-mortar library is on the verge of becoming extinct.

I think the most pressing issue that libraries, especially public libraries, need to address is the usability of the catalog. I am referring not only to the "user-friendliness" of our OPACs, but also to the "discoverability" of our data by general purpose search engines such as Google and Yahoo. In several classes we discussed the "Deep Web," that vast repository of Web content that is hidden within databases; ironically, it is our own holdings data that is too often hidden from sight. Furthermore, to search most of our proprietary OPACs requires our users to learn some of the jargon used by professional librarians, and when our users do finally succeed in getting a non-empty results list, the display is often hard to decipher without knowing more of our technical terms. The short-term solution is a re-design of our OPACs—insofar as it is within our ability to modify them—and several rounds of usability testing with actual patrons. The long-term solution is open source ILSs which will give us all the control we need over internal representations of our data and its external presentation to the Web.

Before starting the MLS program, I was a software engineer for over 25 years, designing, developing, and testing software for system- and mission-critical systems. Often I was also the liasion between the customer and the development team, tasked with finding out what the customer really wanted, as opposed to what they asked for (a skill which translates well to the Reference interview). The transition from the card catalog to the OPAC was trivial compared to the changes that are yet to come. With my background and my M.L.S. education, I am well-prepared for a role in guiding public libraries into the beginning of a transition that will be as revolutionary as the invention of writing.