Libraries are software. Our collections and services are delivered primarily via software. Most of our users' experience of the library occurs online and through software regardless of whether the user is physically present in the library. The choices we make in the development, selection, and implementation of this software are not incidental to our delivery of content and services. Rather, they define the limits of our content and services. We can only be as good as our software.
In the past twenty years, libraries have altered their collection strategies in the face of a growing user preference for digital content. Of course, we haven't simply been acquiring digital content that neatly replaces our existing print materials. The content we license comes wrapped in software developed and maintained by third parties in which our users conduct an increasing amount of their research.
Meanwhile, our users' expectations for discovery have been irrevocably changed by Google, Amazon, and other commercial sites that have spent millions on algorithms and metadata to ensure the flattest possible learning curve for their users. Libraries have attempted to meet these new expectations with yet more software in the form of discovery systems.
Because the library has become software, it is no longer viable for our services to exist separately from our software. Our best opportunities for intervention, for reference, and for instruction are within our software. Our users succeed every day in information seeking online, as they shop, listen to music, register for courses, and interact through social media. In none of these cases do our users expect that services vital to the endeavor exist outside of the software in front of them. Rather, the software is the service.
Contrast this with many of our attempts to integrate services with software. Chat widgets, e-mail reference, and online instruction modules are not any better integrated into the software of the library than are their place-based counterparts. They sit next to our software. They are not intrinsic to it.
What is intrinsic to software are the layout, the search algorithms, the display and labeling of metadata, and all the nuances of software that we use every day inside and outside the library sphere to navigate and determine what information is useful and important. These and other aspects of software, what we call user experience, are the true public services of the library today.
Our expertise, our service ethic, and our values remain our greatest strengths. But for us to have the impact we seek in the lives of our users, we must encode our services and our values in the software we provide. Our experts in reference and instruction must be a part of software development. Selection must take a critical view of the software that envelops any content we license. We must recognize that quality metadata properly indexed is crucial to users’ research success. Protection of privacy must extend far beyond print circulation records and into third-party systems. We must face the fact that when we relinquish control over the software we provide, we effectively relinquish control of our most visible and effective public services.
Most importantly, all library staff must understand that our software is our library, and is everyone’s responsibility. This does not mean that all library staff need learn to develop software themselves. But all must understand that software is critical to our mission, and most must be conversant with the software development process, and should be able to evaluate the quality and performance of software in use. Not every employee at Microsoft or Google is a developer. But they all understand that they are in the software business. As are we.
Cody Hanson (@codyh), September 2015
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.