It’s pretty safe to say that libraries don’t do technology. Sure, some libraries do technology, but those that do technology in a structured, sustainable way are few and far between — the rest to bodging and temporary measures to be replaced at some point in an unknown, but presumably not-too-distant future. Libraries’ resources are tied up in other things and technology simply isn’t part of the agenda — the core values of providing information and service are largely covered by acquisition of technology. Unless you want to work with acquisition and strategic planning around technology — as a library technologist, you’re a bit stuck. And if you have radical ideas, you’re doing to want to acquire equally radical solutions…and that’s an issue.
Service centres sometimes do technology, other times they just do implementation — or even simple consortial acquisition. The strategic plan of service centres has to be realistic in the eyes of the executive and are formulated around extremely conservative safe bets. Even in cases where development is radical, the outcome is generally oddly dependent on conservative choices — keeping certain parts of the architecture locked to existing workflows and thereby inadvertently extending the lifespan of inadequate systems. This kind of conservative approach maybe is necessary, for non-technological reasons; but consequently service centres are also blighted by far slower, procedural progress than most radical library technologists want to see.
Library systems vendors do technology. You could probably argue that library vendors and service centres are a good place to look, but from where the majority of people like myself are standing, the interesting place to be at a library systems vendor is in product R&D. It doesn’t seem to be the case that work in R&D is available to non-company people. I’m going to make a very brave stand here and say that this is a problem. The echo chambers need new blood. Sometimes, maybe the business plan too — but I suspect the compelling argument for money people in either respect is lacking because, well, libraries are still interested in the product that they’ve been selling for the last decade. I understand this. But it makes one less place for the radical ideas you want to promote.
It’s obvious that these places don’t need staff with too-radical ideas; that’s fair enough, they have a job to do. But, what to do? I know of two solutions: become a consultant (like myself) or start a library services company.
Magnus Enger did the latter — Libriotech — providing services that are a radical departure from anything offered in Scandinavia previously — his radical approach shouldn’t be ignored because, as a library technologist, he’s doing something very right. What’s very radical about Magnus? He up-ended the status quo and created a livelihood for himself at the same time as providing the kind of very ethical support for libraries that I really admire.
Why don’t we all start similar enterprises? I have a few ideas for services that I think would be popular in the academic library domain — but it’s finding a model for providing these in the total absence of business acumen that is the problem. I guess systems vendors positions are safe — for now.