30 August 2007

Resignation : Redux

I was a bit passionate the other day, talking about why I'm resigning from the library world. The post stirred a lot of responses, both as comments but also as personal emails and IM's. I feel I need to clarify a few things so that people really understand what I'm trying to say. I realize that far too often I'm being unclear, using sarcasm, dark humor and Norwegian mentality, when really what is needed is clarity.

But first ; thanks! Thank you to all those people who have written me, most of you strangers that feel my pain and share my sentiments. I'm a bit overwhelmed by it all, because, frankly, I thought I was quite alone in this. I knew about a few people in drips and drabs that agrees with some of my views on all things library related, but most of them were also happy to keep up the long, dwindling battle it is to change such a huge culture. I've received mail from people from all around the world, and I feel honored that you took the time to pass on some words of encouragement. It's meant a lot to me.

Secondly, I need to explain why I've taken this resignation path. I've got three little kids (7 years, 4 years and 2 months), a wonderful wife, and a ball-crazy dog. They are the most important things in the world to me, and I will do anything for them, anything to make them happy. And the truth is that I'm not a happy daddy and a father these days. I'm quite an emotional guy, and yes, my work-life does affect my emotions into my private life. I'm becoming more and more grumpy, impatient and depressed. And I've decided that this madness has got to stop.

Anyways, on to more specifics. As with all things, there's always more than one reason for why something happens, and in my case there's specifically two ;
  1. The current open discussion
  2. Internal workings at my own library
Let's have a look at each one ;

The current open discussion

The current open discussion refers to the various online media where librarians and interests talk about all things library related. My participation is mostly in the NGC4LIB mailing-list, a list of amazing and wonderful people. Even the ones that I disagree with the most are actually really nice and smart.

What, exactly, is it that we're talking about? Some days it's hard to understand what the discussions really are all about, because we're really talking about such a broad sweeping domain that's almost as large as all human understanding and its integration with our cultural institutions and ideals. We peck at the corner of MARC, or tickle the notion of what a book is, or poke fun at epistemology, or ... any little thing we can think of. Almost no subject doesn't fit the "library world." So. What are we talking about?

When we indeed dig into the more philosophical side of things we have huge discussions where most people agree. Then we get into the whole design of those ideas, and we split into various interest groups. And then we start talking implementation, and then things really break apart. But all of this is actually ok; it's fine to disagree, to spar with each other, suss it out.

But it's all online. It's all talk. It's not going anywhere. The mailing-list is a collection of dreamers and thinkers, people who'd like to change things but rarely have the opportunity to do so. Sure, there might be dribbles of influence dripping off here to other places, but it's small potatoes compared to what, in my opinion, the library need. And what it needs is serious leadership by people who understand what to do and have got the balls to do it. I think librarians are far to nice to each other to make big decisions that carry any influx of controversy.

I hear stories from the distant past of the library world where those people indeed made those decisions, people who had an impact far outside the library world, and librarians were united to solve some really big problems. Lately, not so much. Lately, not much at all. Lately, it's all about money and resources. Lately, it's all about fear.


Yeah, that word needs a line on its own. Librarians are afraid ; they do not understand what the next thing to hit the library world is going to be, and rightly so. I don't know either. None of us know, really, except that technology will have something to do with it. There's fear in everything I'm involved with, be it a new system, a small application, or - dammit! - just a change of color on a web page. How can we change the system with so many fearsome creatures?

Someone smart recently told me ;
*That* may be the fear that modern technologies (such as those you promote) create in many librarians: being redundant and no longer needed. So, in a sense, you may be feeling what some of your hearers feel, though in a different context.
And he's right, of course, but what many don't realize is that they'll lose their jobs unless we can find new ways to keep them. I understand perfectly well what the library does best ; librarians. I'm not here to make technology replace librarians. I'm trying to find ways to find work for librarians that no one else involved in technology can do as good.

All the way up until today the worlds knowledge and credo were kept through the ages in libraries. No other concept has done more for the human intellectual evolvement than us. And now we stand at the threshold where the foundation of those concepts - the written word on pieces of (mostly) paper - are extremely brittle. There's no point in denying it ; The book is dying as the opus of knowledge. More and more they'll be known as a physical archive interesting mostly to specialists, and will no longer be the keepers of current and / or mainstream knowledge. All of that will be given to computers, databases, websites, companies. Books won't die completely, of course, but they will not be as important. Give it 10, 20 30 years.

Books will not be as important.

Then why are we still obsessing with books? Why are we cramming other media into a meta data format designed for books? Why aren't we seriously creating relationships between our books and the media? Why are we even still thinking in terms of books? I'll tell you why ; because we got so damn many of them, stacks and stacks of them, and if we don't promote our books, then what are we? What are we without books?

The current open discussion is not going to have an impact on any of these questions. Sure, the topic pop up from time to time, only to be throttled back into that section of all human discourse called "reality", which is a synonym with "can't." And in short, I'm out of breath. I've said what I can say, several times over, and I feel I'm getting on some people's nerves. Some people don't like me to be vocal, not to be so darn passionate about the well-being of human culture and evolvement. "You don't follow protocol." I say things I shouldn't say, certainly things that implies great change. But you can only burn the fire for so long. And my fire is going out.

I've been told many times over that if I want change I've got to do it in my own time, and show people to have them go along with it, that you cannot ask permission to do radical things ; you must do, and then ask forgiveness if you totally screw up. And hey, I believe in that. I've been doing that for a long time. I've been showing off prototypes, discussions, ideas, technology and concepts, all the while watching the rest of the world rush past the library decision makers. The library need so bad to be innovative, but we simply haven't got a culture for it. And so, the groins of human knowledge will be passed from libraries to others. "
Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status." [Laurence J. Peter]

I've enjoyed the mailing-list hugely. Even those I've disagreed with, and sometimes had a skit with, I respect highly. I've never been offended or abused (I don't get offended or abused easily), so rest easy all of you ; it has been a great ride.

Internal workings at my own library

Yes, there's always that. I've been unhappy with things here before, and things are not that different now. In short, the workings here are simply a miniature of the library world problems ; people are too stuck in the status quo to realize it's wishful thinking. 20 years ago you could often hear the phrase "Do you know where the nearest phone is?"

A bit more specific to me is the fact that I'm caught between the sheets of bureaucracy ; My library is a Australian federal library, and federal legislation says you can only hire Australian citizens, and I'm not. (Actually, the same legislation do offer exceptions to this rule, but the library is unwilling to do that. Maybe if I was someone important they might have seen it differently, though, but it is strange given that Canberra has a huge problem finding qualified workers little less specialists, even importing people from abroad. Hmm. Sounds like someone doesn't like me, doesn't it? :) And no, I can't be one either as it requires be to give up my Norwegian citizenship because Norway won't allow dual citizenship, even though my kids can. And no, I'm not ready quit being a Norwegian quite yet.

And so it is ; my work is on a temporary contract basis, which means I have no path to go within the library. I'm temporary fluff, hired to do a job which certainly hasn't got the word "innovate" in it. I'm stuck in a spot where I can't move, talking to people who don't always agree with me.

So my take on all of this is in fact as simple as "I don't fit in." Even if people find what I say to be right, I'm unfortunately one of those who's got little patience for bureaucracy and process management and friggin' PRINCE2 project methodology (!!!) and tons of documenting all the things you haven't done. I just don't work well this way, and so I think the problem really is with me. I used to be a senior consultant, creating truly large-scale systems in small integrated teams, being agile, professional, stable, fast, wham, bang! Man did I have fun, and boy did we create good stuff. Doesn't sound like the library you know, does it?

I'll be around

Yeah, I'll hang around the mailing-lists for a little while. I'm still in love with the library ideals and concepts. I still love books. And maps. And old pictures. And just surfing the catalog. Or snooping in the newspaper reels. Or finding a microfilm, wondering what's on it, what it means, and who did it. Even subject headings and its contextual meaning. I love catalogers. And I love librarians. I just don't love what we're collectively doing with the concept of "library."

I need to bask in technology, finding links between it and the culture we live in, making semantic models which aids anyone who cares about knowledge. Not sure I know where I'll find it, but I'm open to anything. I wish you all the best, I truly, truly do.

P.S. I'm currently looking to Sydney for exciting work, and possibly a move to the north shores of Wollongong where my wife is from [Kiama]. I'm excited about this. I miss the sea, the fresh air, the bustle of culture, organic growth, sub-tropical climate, and green things like trees, grass and bushes.

27 August 2007


Just a few points of late ;
  • Thanks for the comments and mails about my mental resignation of the library world. I actually didn't think you cared, because, seriously, I never even went to library school, so who am I?
  • I've started work on a new testing tool that intuitively blends into web applications, and integrates against a slew of issue trackers. Got support for JIRA right now, a few more baking in devel. Will write more later, and I'll simply GPL3 the whole thing. (Anybody need an agile development and testing freak? :)
  • I've sadly killed off my last Topic Maps framework ; I've been using FreeBase (beta) lately, and it does indeed everything I wanted to do, only better. And, I really don't have the time anymore for all these non-profit-but-fun projects, which I'll miss greatly.
I think that's it, at least for a small roundup. There's some big changes afoot in my life, and I'll try to document them as things move along. Right now, though, I'm trying to figure out the next paycheck. (And did I mention that most recruiting companies are brain-dead? How can these guys stay in business? I suspect a rant on this issue coming up very soon.)

22 August 2007


Dear library world. After several years tinkering in the library world one thing has become terribly clear to me; I shouldn't be in it. It's taken a while to see it, because, frankly, I never wanted to see the truth, believing so strongly that I was doing the right thing, helping the good cause, and being in love with good ol' library values. But it's there, glaring me in the face ; I don't belong here.

Premise : The library world is a) dying, and b) not flexible enough to survive.

Most people in the library world will strongly disagree with a) and normally disagree with b), and of course that would be the case ; most people there live in something that's obviously not dead yet, and the lot of them have survived for many years. Heck, the library profession and philosophy have survived plenty of paradigm shifts in society, have undergone many transformations to adopt, and still are being talked about and used by many. "Alex, you're just simply wrong."

"Libraries don't do politics"

First, let's look at what the library world is currently doing about Digital Rights Management. Right. Not a lot, apart from lots of talking about what we should do about it. In fact, it's one of those areas which is shady at best ; we don't know where we stand, don't know how vocal we should be, leaving the copyright owners to dictate the direction of this beast. Why is DRM even mentioned here, and as the first point? I'll get back to that one. To see why, let's move on.

Second, to whom does the "keeper of knowledge" fall to? Traditionally, the educational institutions and their respective libraries. But as the digital age allows anyone to be their own library, with commercial success as part of that dogma, the traditional keepers of knowledge are losing foothold to others who are better resourced, have more money and think more progressively about users needs. As Amazon and Google Books alone give libraries a kick in the shin and LibraryThing gives them a serious groin punch, are we to expect these and other organizations to do any worse in the future? Hardly. And what are we doing about it? We're currently throwing Lucene (or similar) at the problem and hope that will fix it. Laughable.

Third, what is a book these days? I know, I know, it's those paper things that we've got stacks of (pun intended), and as much as traditionally these things have carried great weight (and not just as paperweight) and possibly meant more to human development through time than almost anything else, I can't help feeling that as keepers of knowledge they are failing. Let's talk about knowledge ; it's what we know, right? Not what we knew, nor that which we will know. It's what we know right now. Sure, knowing what we knew is also important, but not as important as what we know. This is the actual fallacy of stacks and their contents ; they are finite, stuck in time, their context diluted and judged less important as time go by. Metadata that stays stuck in time and diluted is no better than the item that is stuck in time and diluted. So what are we doing about it? Aha, thought so; not a lot, no scrutinizing the metadata, no semantic time analysis, no semantic modeling, no user-centered extensions, no structural relationships, no organized effort in bringing the schemas together. If the library world would like to make sure that context stays high then that itself would save them, but they're not.

Fourth, how fast are we? Hehehe, not only are most libraries public and hence part of the public service regatta, the time-to-become-a-librarian is long, their focus of high-end technologies is low, most library structures are not very competitive (this has advantages too, mind you, but not in the speed-department), often founded on traditional governance and management models, and traditionally not into development of technology (so low skills, low drive and low self-esteem in that area ; not saying those skills aren't already there, but they're not plentiful, not well-supported, and usually a lone ranger type per library).

Whining, are we?

Just a tad, but not because I haven't been able to make a difference or because I'm not being listened to. In a lot of ways I've contributed quite a bit, just like other geeky library friends around the globe have created a tiny white powdery icing-layer on a really big fat chocolate mud cake. Although you know what the kids want.

I'm a bit sad, though. Sad that I've not been clear enough about what I think we need do, and I've failed to stake out a clear direction to go in. I'm sad that I haven't found the time to do those things necessary to convince people through example, being bogged down in routine and maintenance. I'm also sad that my opinions are too strong and hence dismissed by many just because of that passion; maybe I should be less vocal, less passionate? And lastly I'm sad that I'm willing to give up on something that I truly love.

Here's why I'm giving up, though; I'm tired, so tired, of fighting for the survival of something that possibly don't have the fitness to live. The Thylacine (or, Tasmanian Tiger) was a beautiful animal, respected and feared, until about 1930 when it was pronounced extinct. It's not that the Thylacine didn't deserve to survive, but its time had come. And that's sad as well. I can say that its time had come and that I'm sad about it at the same time, but it wasn't fit enough (in an evolutionary sense) to survive. And maybe the library is a Thylacine.

Every time I see a glimmer of hope or a flash of something exciting going on in the library world, it usually fast fades into a charades of politics and committee-shuffle. I'm too impatient for this, and I seriously think the world is, too ; it will race past us as we decide on who's going to chair what committee, who'll take notes, and how we're reporting progress to what group. Also since these glimmers of hope usually is attached to specific people more than institutions or organizations, whenever that person goes or moves, so does the glimmer. Again, because we're not traditionally in the business of technical development, we're so fragile. I'm fragile. I feel I've shattered a few times too many.

And seriously, the library see no gain by being rad. Sure, we will do what we need to do to support what we do, but we won't do more. And by not doing more, you're not doing what needs to be done.

And hence, I've decided to move on. There's no need for me to explain that all the things I see wrong with the library world don't suit me, and hey, I'm not ruling out that the library world is just fine and dandy and will get by just great. But we're not compatible, that's all. It's a bit like an old couple that after many years of staying together because that's what you do, they get to a point of realization that splitting up just seems a good thing to do, and both knows everything will be just fine.

I have no idea what to do next, though. All I know is that I'm starving.

Update : Just a note that this isn't a formal resignation as much as a personal one. I haven't formally quit. Yet.

Update 2 : Here's a follow-up on this post.

8 August 2007

UX, IA, UCD : Huh?

For as long as I can remember I've been immersed in the User Experience (UX), Information Architecture (IA) and User-centered Design (UCD) genres, long before I knew what they were called and what they embraced. To me, it was just doing what I always do, naturally, instinctively. The last few years I've joined the professional circles of these genres to sort of get up to speed, see what I've missed, help out where I can, and of course, promote myself and the genre in question in all professional things that I do.

But the more I learn about everything and all, the more I'm coming back to the beginning, back to where it all starts ; mental models of a problem space. Being a very creative person, one of those who love to fix things, love to sort problems out, mental models of problem spaces isn't something I have to do ; it's something that's always there. I don't have to visually try to understand problems ; they're there as a default, so I jump straight into solving whatever problem there is.

Well, big mistake ; that's not how the world works. No, the world wants to know that you indeed have got the problem space sorted out before you do anything, and you have to prove this through a small ton of documentation, convincing and bickering. The reason for this is that worlds modus operandi is the waterfall method, or in agile circles, we talk about chaining ; one thing needs to happen after another thing, and due to people's time schedules these things always have various degrees of gaps between when one task end and another start. They also need to start after someone has read a document they understand and agree with. Hmm.

To me, it's always been about fixing something small, check that it's okay, and continue until the problem is fixed to the point of some satisfaction or success. This is agile methodology in a nutshell ; never embark on blind-date thinking you know exactly what she looks like, how the evening will go, and how lucky you'll get. You need to take each step at a time, evaluate, make small plans to what to do next, and reiterate until some satisfaction or success.

The UX / IA / UCD disciplines to me always looked like agile development with a user-interface focus to me. It was never meant to be a big bang, big documentation, big plan type of thing. If nothing else, usability testing always tell us that big bang is big waste of time and resources. Yet, the more I walk in these circles the more documentation, meetings and justification I see. What's up with that? Is it that the initial small group of people have been flooded with a large group of not-so-smart people? Or are we succumbing to the business-need for paper stability? Or is it a lack of trust? Should we - indeed - sell better trust in order to do a better job?

Anyway, I'm slowly backing out of this whole debacle ; I'm so very, very tired of fighting the good cause. Being good in any of these things require the person to have great knowledge across many fields, and an instinctive feel for design, and I simply can't write a novel every time I come to some conclusion about some arbitrary nugget of wisdom. Consultants and contractors must struggle with this all the time ; justifying their wisdom based on their knowledge rooted in experience and education. Surely there's a better way. Perhaps, better customers?