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Abram on open source: all I can really say

One of the facts in life is that library administrators take the jobs they take (and this is my fourth head-of-the-whatever library job, not to be confused with my various military MFWIC positions) based on many, many things… and the integrated library system they will inherit is rarely if ever one of them. I just don’t know anyone who says, “Someday, if I’m lucky, I’m going to lead a triple-I library.”

(There’s ample room for a joke right there…)

I have inherited a library with great staff, serving a progressive institution committed to many great values, and it happens to be a Sirsi library. In fact, it’s going to be a Sirsi library for a while. A long while. And I’m not going anywhere for a long while, either, because the goals I have for this job require I stay here for at least five to seven years.

Stephen Abram, in his, um, “white paper” on open source,  has put me in a double bind. Unlike open source, where competing vendors can and do arise to offer better services — as is ably proven by the rise of Bywater Solutions and other Koha vendors following the egregious misbehaving of Liblime — as a traditional proprietary-software customer, my choice of vendor is Sirsi or… Sirsi. I can piss them off and undermine this library’s ability to do its job, or I can build and maintain good relations with the many fine people who work there, and by encouraging the best possible support from Sirsi, help  improve our library’s services.

We have a lot of challenges at My Place Of Work. Over half our print collection is still in a card catalog. (Yes. That’s right. And I keep finding warrens stuffed with more uncataloged stuff.)  Our small  mid-1950s facility is crammed to the gills with materials, many of which were selected in a pre-librarian era of this library, and our heavily-used computers  haven’t had a computer “refresh” in about 8 years. Most of the furniture predates even Mad Men (though I do have really cool chairs in my office, which I plan to redo on the cheap in Mod style).

But we have a lot of assets, too. We have great staff, and yes, there aren’t enough of them, but show me the library that has enough staff, and I’ll show you a place I don’t want to work.  We participate (“we” being one amazing librarian) in a marvelous faculty development program that is helping this library better integrate itself into academic activities. We have a pretty good database selection for a library this size, and it will get bigger. We belong to the absolutely fabu SCELC consortium, which has great leadership and great membership and super services.

And we have something that’s hard to explain or define, but it’s the sense that things will prevail. That may be because I am kind of dumb. I remember when I returned to California the LAST time, and the first bit of news I had was “welcome to California, by the way, we’re cutting your budget 40%.” I am stupid enough that I didn’t see this as a cue to fold my tent and go elsewhere, but instead kept improving services (to make a more compelling pitch for funding) and finding alternate revenue streams, where I was allowed to do so.  From what was shared with me after the fact, the project I managed apparently outlived many attempts to kill it.

My stupidity will help me at MPOW as well.  I am happily optimistic that the day I turn in my keys, I will look back and see how far we have come, and that will be a far way indeed.

(Of course we need more staff! I’ll take ‘em! But if I read one more library “strategic plan” that begins by complaining about staffing, I’m going to explode. Don’t start your “plan” by telling me what you don’t have — tell me what you do well, and what you can be!)

Finally, though this facility desperately needs updating in many directions, it is actually a building with great presence and possibility, a building with an Eichleresque feel and presence, very Californian, in a cooly elegant way.  There is absolutely no substitute for “good bones.” Relocate the low/no-use materials, replace the furniture, update the computers, paint the walls, update the lighting, add more outlets (have to love a building without a poured cement slab — we can always wire from underneath!), and redo the floor with something a little more compelling than linoleum… and then, wending downstairs, shampoo, rinse, repeat… being sure to rework the rooms in the “dungeon” into pleasant group study rooms… and adding accessibility throughout… and this would be a most amazing information commons, a gem among gems. A place that can go so much farther in instilling the values that MPOW works so hard to convey.

But that means that we can only slice out so much time for the ILS/Sirsi issues. The ILS is NOT the center of our universe — and should not lure us from more pressing priorities — though it’s an important tool. And that means, I repeat, we must have a cordial working relationship with our ILS vendor, because we need them. We need them to be timely, and accurate, and helpful. We don’t want to be the Least Favored Customer, a position that inevitably starves the library for the thing it needs most from a vendor: responsiveness.

I didn’t think Stephen’s article was well-written, well-researched, well-supported, or worthy of the imprint of a major industry vendor. In fact, I thought it was desperate and silly. But for all the reasons stated above, I’m not going to pick it apart point-by-point, and this will be the last I refer to it publicly. Still, I do wonder if Stephen understood how this document would affect, not Sirsi’s potential customers, but its current customers. It has certainly left its indelible mark on me.

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