Magazine article American Libraries

Internet Librarian: Options for Adoption

Magazine article American Libraries

Internet Librarian: Options for Adoption

Article excerpt

Online catalogs. Not what I expected to be chatting about in a hip and trendy funeral-parlor-turned-lounge-bar here in Seattle a few weeks ago at the opening reception of the latest version of Microsoft's Search Champs program. (Readers with long memories may recall my prior visit to this MSN Search invitational; AL, Aug. 2005, p. 84.)

I regret I don't recall who I was talking with about this--what can I say, the drinks were good--but it was the sort of animated conversation you can only have with someone who's a dedicated and passionate information person, but not a librarian--a civilian, in other words, who among other things expressed his shock that archivists spent much of their time throwing things away.

Anyway, somehow we got from that outrage to online catalogs, and he unloaded this little stunner on me: If we were to convert our card catalogs to automated systems today, we'd have an entirely different range of technological options open now than we had back in the mid-1960s.

Rather than the green-screen dumb-terminal starting point (there are some of us who remember early efforts with dots at the bottom of the screen simulating the hole for the drawer rod), we could, for example, use high-speed, high-resolution scanners to capture images of the cards.

Boom. Other than making Nicholson Baker deliriously happy, this would have been fascinating. We would have been able to preserve the look and feel of a catalog system that everybody had been comfortable with for generations, easing the transition. Although bandwidth might be problematic, the marginalia and character of those catalogs would have been saved.

Mind you, we also probably would have been out of business by now. Had we waited that long, the world would have long since passed us by. And we were among the first professions to explore the use of computing technology; among the earliest experiments was one using "expendable IBM paper" at the King County (Wash.) Library System in 1951.

When to pounce?

So, tempting and alluring as the prospect of a de novo online library catalog circa 2006 may be, it didn't happen. It does, however, raise the larger and much more important question of when to pounce. When is the right time to adopt or embrace a new technology or format? How long do we wait, and what's the right balance of benefit and opportunity cost in making that decision? …

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