On “broken” systems

I get annoyed when I read library blogs that say things like “users shouldn’t have to see this” or “this is a completely broken and useless system”. That may in fact be true, but this is usually followed by “is this really the message we want to be sending?” rather than some sort of reasoning about why the system might have been developed that way, and what potential improvements might be. Systems are generally not perfect, including natural ones (see: natural selection and evolution). Lack of perfection in a system of human devising does not, in my opinion, indicate malice. It indicates humanity. Things also take time. Even if you have lots of money, you might develop something that doesn’t work that well for most people (for instance, Google Wave, though I used it), and after time you decide that it’s not worth using any more, or that it needs to be adapted. No matter how much you test something, reality will probably work a little differently. That’s ok. If a vendor doesn’t make a perfect product the first time out, are we fools for purchasing it anyway? It depends. Is there a better way to do something that we are not doing because it would be inconvenient to switch? That might be foolish if we wait so long that switching is impossible. But if the service generally works, and there isn’t a much better way to do it, then working with the vendor to ask for critical improvements is probably going to be more productive. Open source products have the added advantage that you can, in theory, fix the problems yourself. My feeling with those is that if I don’t know how to fix the problem, then I better limit my complaining about it, as usually a little research will show that people are already thinking about it but the problem isn’t trivial.

In any event, library jeremiads may release tension in the blogger, but as far as I know, that’s about it. They also lend credence to the idea that most library users aren’t very capable. “Don’t Make Me Think” isn’t saying “don’t let me ever use my intellectual abilities”, just “make it obvious how I start using this thing”. But that’s getting started on another thing entirely. In my experience, many people, if given half a chance, will be able to figure out how to use something and use it well. So it’s true that downloading electronic books from the library takes a few steps. If you have a mobile device and reliable wireless internet, it actually needn’t take that many steps and becomes about as easy as downloading books from Amazon or the iTunes store. If you don’t have those things, all of them will become about the same amount of work. And once you have items from those places, you still have licensing issues and DRM issues.

On the other hand, I also get annoyed when I read blogs that are all sweetness and light and full of buzzwords. In that case I wonder if people aren’t being critical enough. Or sometimes they seem to indicate that some new system or theory is a panacea. There are no panaceas, in medicine or in reality, so that’s out right there. They can be helpful, or they might improve one area. “Raising awareness” of an issue tends to lead to facile considerations of issues, and reminds me of my extracurricular activities in college which led to a lot of spouting of pseudoscience with only a few grains of truth. Later on I could see where I was right and where I was wrong, but when immersed in it and lacking critical awareness I said some dumb stuff.

And, in a related note, let’s not get Oprah involved in “saving” libraries. That’s another thing touted in some quarters as another library panacea, but how could it possibly help? She could mention on her show that libraries are important and show clips of heartwarming scenes of kids learning to read. Ok, great, awareness has been raised. Now the citizenry go to the polls. Do they vote for money for the library? That’s where I’m not convinced. Nor, give what else Oprah gives time to am I sure it would help the cause of critical thinking and an informed populace that (at least should be) the basic goals for libraries.