On Code and Libraries

Doesn't this look sciency?
Original image by Mister Wind-up Bird on flickr.

OK, so hopefully all of you that stop by here from time to time are functionally literate1. I hazard a guess that most of my regular readers2 are informationally literate, even if you don’t really know or care what that is. Heck, if called to testify before a Congressional hearing I might not even be able to explain it in full. But to hit the high points, most of you know how to evaluate your sources. Most of you probably understand where to start a search for information and follow a trail to satisfactory results. You can read words, yes, but you also know how to find and interpret information.

Blah, blah, blah. What’s the point? My ilk, librarians, have always been in the business of information. And thus, of information literacy. It has long been the purview of librarians to be experts at navigating, finding and conveying information. With the advent of a networked world it has become increasingly more important3 for us to teach people how to do what we do. Teach a man to fish, and all that.

This is the modern paradox. It has never been easier to access information. As a result, finding the right information and putting it to use has become an increasingly complex problem.  Note, that I don’t think using information has become prohibitively difficult – just that ways of collecting, using and interpreting data have changed. With so much information on computers and the ability to manipulate, transmit and aggregate it in so many ways there needs to be a way to wrangle all of this good stuff. And that way is computer code – PHP, Java, Ruby, Python and any number of public APIs4.

So far, all of this is great. We have lots of data, we have lots of ways to manipulate it, and there are lots of people who can do this. Anytime you post a story from CNN to Twitter, or share your Facebook feed through your phone or track swine flu on Google Maps you’re using harnessing code to manage or manipulate data. Moreover, you are doing this transparently – you don’t have to understand the code to use it.

But someone does. Code has always been a way libraries have wrangled data. Specifically through the use  MARC records5. MARC is transparent – you can use a library catalog without knowing what the 005 field means, or why the author information goes in subfield b. But it is not especially extensible. That is to say, you probably won’t be using Google Maps to find available copies of new best sellers in close proximity to where you happen to be.

The proliferation of data/information has requires a move to more flexible – cross platform – code. And  this, think some, is a make or break issue for libraries. We can make websites, we can promote programs but how do we make information about our physical holdings available outside of proprietary closed systems that read MARC data?

How do we make sure we call attention to all of the quality information we house without being passed over in favor of easy information? That is the crux of information literacy – finding good information efficiently. The more efficient the method the less likely quality of information matters.

This brings me to my final point6, the increasing role that code plays in the life of an information professional. There are numerous library projects out there trying to integrate physical holdings with online data. These include things like the Social Opac, the Extensible Catalog and Library Thing for Libraries.  More and more it seems that to do my job I not only need information literacy but technological literacy. In order to harness these technologies I need to understand at least a little of what’s going on under the hood.

Flexible code is the ubiquitous, unseen force behind almost all networked interaction these days. The proliferation of code is both an opportunity and a challenge. We have the tools to set data free in more ways than ever. But librarians are faced with a steep learning curve and the potential need for drastic adaptation of their job descriptions. I didn’t set out to become a computer programmer, but how much of what we do depends on that particular skill set? Can we just outsource this to the specialists – or a new type of sub-specialist within the profession? Finally, how do we adapt our code to the new Internet reality? It’s almost as if we have to create and release our own API for developers, hobbyists and professionals to manipulate our data. The questions are how do we do it, and can we do it in time?

1 But what do I know, you could just be here for the pretty pictures.
2 Whom I think I can count on about 1 1/2 hands.
3 Not that it was ever unimportant…
4 Application Programming Interface.
5 MARC: MAchine Readable Code
6 If you’re still even reading, thanks for humoring me.


One Response to “On Code and Libraries”

  1. Ceramic Straightening Iron Says:

    omputer programmer, but how much of what we do depends on that particular skill set? Can we just outsource this to the specialists – or a new type of sub-specialist within the profession? Finally, how do we adapt our code to the new Internet reality? It’s almost as if we have to create and release our own API for developers, hobbyists and professionals to manipulate our data. The questions are how do we do it, and can we do it in time?

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