asking the right questions, when to be simple, when to be complex

Dan Chudnov has a blog called One Big Library where he talks about the programmming and social issues invovled in helping people build their own libraries, or making library data so that it’s accessible and usable and repurposable by others, or rather everyone else. I like the site because while some of it verges into the “blah blah programming blah blah” realm, he is always thinking about the human side of why our systems work and don’t work. This post about building simple systems and why that’s so darned complicated really helps me get my head around some of the technology hurdles we as a profession are facing in the age of interoperability and openness, assuming we’re even interested in moving in that direction.

If you’re a librarian like me and you take this example and turn it toward your own work to help people build their own libraries, it hits you… it is not simple to build a library of one’s own. And if you’re a librarian like me, you have a ready list of why not:

  • Metadata is complicated
  • People in libraries don’t all use the same items the same way
  • Maybe 20% of the collection is responsible for 80% of the use but that other 80% includes some really important stuff
  • Attempts to use new tools works great for new data but can be exceedingly hard for old stuff. Like, anything predating 1960. Which we have a *lot* of, and which is often *really* important.
  • Did I mention metadata being complicated?
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