Skip to content

Not-Hot Technologies, Missing Nouns, and Shibboleth

I’m of a philosophical turn today–perhaps because I just published the last newsletter for MPOW produced on my watch. The lunch cowbell rang, and a blog entry seemed more sustaining than any lengthy meal (meaning I shoved cottage cheese on Rye Krisp in my mouth and went back to the machine).

Next week I’m going to Metro Net in Michigan to give a talk about Top Tech Trends in Libraries: What’s Hot and What’s Not. I feel as if I have a good grasp on the “hot” (or as Michael Stephens writes it, HOT!!!)–though note that in a separate post, I’ll ask you folks, as well. But I have less of a grasp on the Not, and I am having basic vocabulary problems with a sub-category of Not.

Technologies that are Not Hot fall into two categories: the dead, and the–well, I hate to use premature, because that sounds almost grisly. I need a good word (I’ll take a neologism, as long as it doesn’t begin with “LIS”) that captures the technology that is still far too nascent for anyone but the most experimental of early adopters. Any suggestions?

To complicate matters, sometimes “hot” is used as a synonym for “fun, easy to understand, implement, and use, and in the moment.” I’m not objecting to that usage of the word “hot”–the hot factor is pretty important from the delivery end of library services, and how things feel within the user experience is crucial–but restricting “hot” to that definition limits our understanding of important new technologies by skewing it to fairly well-evolved products.

After all, on the hot/not continuum (which I guess should be not/hot/not, to follow the curve), whether a technology is “hot” depends on where you’re sitting. I remember feeling my socks roll up and down as I sat through Siderean training back in September and saw some amazing possibilities for enhancing MPOW. Without a wee smattering of MySQL and RDF and a good understanding of search, I wouldn’t have felt that frisson. Someone with more technical skills than I have might have latched on to something even more fine-grained and felt exactly what I felt–which was a spark of excitement equivalent to the end-user experiencing a new feature in Flickr.

So I’d like to provide a second definition for the term “hot”: that which is or soon will be extremely important to improving library services. This isn’t in conflict with the first definition, but it’s also not dependent on it.

It”s an important distinction, because I can think of a number of technologies that are “hot” in the second sense but fail miserably in the first for no other reason than they are simply too subtle, arcane, hard to understand, or emerging–though emerging in a good way. I write that with some frustration because now I realize there are even nuances to the idea of “emerging”: that which is too raw, new, and untested to be bothered with by most people, and that which is worth investing effort into even if it will be a while before significant outcomes trot our way. (Note that I am dodging the question of how you know that.)

Take Shibboleth. Compared to a product such as Flickr–look, Mom: I’m uploading every picture from my trip and sharing them with several billion of my closest friends!–it’s difficult to work up passion for a product with this description:

“Shibboleth is standards-based, open source middleware software which provides Web Single SignOn (SSO) across or within organizational boundaries. It allows sites to make informed authorization decisions for individual access of protected online resources in a privacy-preserving manner.”

If, while reading that description, the populist/generalist in me just glazed over with boredom, the geek in me kicked up her heels in a can-can. The complexity of authentication processes is one of the most frustrating barriers between our users and the online services we provide.

Single sign-ons for our gaggles of databases–with aggressive privacy protection measures, no less–is so very very 2.0/next-gen/down-with-barriers-up-with-the-users. I’m sure it is a technology that in itself, or “from the school of Shibboleth,” will show up integrated in library services used by many types of libraries. But Shibboleth is also a technology that at this stage, if you are not involved in a Shibboleth implementation or in its direct development, is admittedly hard to call “hot” in the populist sense of the word.

Everyone knows you don’t read the manuals written by the publisher–they’re too close to the product. So I went off in search of the knock-’em-over-the-head Powerpoint that would give me some terms I could use to describe Shibboleth to public library directors–but alas, I’m still looking.

I had mixed emotions about Wikipedia’s dreadfully unhelpful entry on Shibboleth: sly joy that it merely parroted the Biblish found on the Shibboleth site itself, and sorrow that it did not explain Shibboleth in terms comprehensible to mere mortals (which in this context would mean anyone not intimately involved in a Shibboleth implementation).

This article from Ariadne leads with a good explanation and also offers a useful phrase, “trust management.” Non-geeks can easily skip the installation narrative and jump to the conclusion, which helps explain why Shibboleth is not quite a household word: “the only remaining impediment for institutions regarding Shibboleth is the difficulty of installing it.” Word up is that it’s very difficult but not impossible to implement; I’ll know more about this soon enough.

In the end, hot depends on what burner you’re sitting on, but every burner in LibraryLand is alit right now. If you aren’t feeling the heat, you aren’t in the kitchen.

Posted on this day, other years: