Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Why networked printers and integrated library systems are the tools of the Devil

Here at the Reading Room Desk we have two staff workstations that share a printer - one through a direct connection, the other a networked connection. In their infinite wisdom IT chose to configure the student workstation (aka the "Chewbacca Seat") directly to the printer, which means that in the morning when I log in I get to flip a coin to see whether my printer settings have changed or not.

Most of the time they have, owing to the fact that I split my day between the public service desk and my office. This wreaks total havoc on my personal profile, and despite all of the best efforts to stabilize the situation the best I can hope for is that at the very least I'll be able to "see" the printers in my network and not have to reinstall them on the network from scratch.

Needless to say this is extremely irritating, especially when I'm working in our Circulation module and generating slips for items to be placed on hold in the room. If I forget to check to see if the Reading Room printer is in fact the default printer - and not "Adobe PDF" or even worse Microsoft "XPS", neither of which I can deselect as options since I don't have adminstrative rights to make the deletions stick - then I have to go back into the item record and reset the hold manually for each slip that failed to print.

This is of course as much a failing of the Circ module as it is our printing situation. Why in the name of Melvil Dewey a simple "Reprint Hold Slip" option doesn't exist in this system is entirely beyond me. But that's the world of Integrated Library Systems for you in a nutshell. Large universities that could easily farm out the task of creating a homegrown client and OPAC to their own Computer Science Departments shell out untold amounts of money for bug-ridden platforms just because everyone else in their peer group is doing it. So instead of an ILS that is responsive to local needs, you end up with a shared system that pleases the lowest common denominator if you're lucky.

A curmudgeonly software engineer friend of mine who was once a Library Ass such as yours truly once demonstrated how the school we were both working at back then could spend half as much for an in-house ILS system than contracting with a third-party vendor. Predictably his opinion was ignored in favor of a system which proved to be an absolute disaster to implement and was abandoned shortly thereafter, but his math still holds true - especially in this radically-decentralized Web 2.0 kind of world we live and work in nowadays.

You would think that Virginia Tech's success in developing the ILLiad management system for Interlibrary Loan would inspire similar innovation on the ILS front, but rather than leveraging their own native engineering talent the big research libraries play it "safe" and commit themselves to products which serve neither their staff nor their patrons. Using the logic of a spouse who marries someone in hopes of being able to effect change from the inside of the relationship, we think that these vendors' imperfect products can be improved from within, forgetting that owing to some pretty major mergers in the ILS world these days even a big-name client is just another customer.

Granted, the profession itself is also to blame here, as it is more convenient to move from job to job if we all use the same ILS systems. This perhaps makes us more complicit than we should be in our choices, not just for library systems but for all of our software needs. Does the siren song of Microsoft Certification blind us to the advantages of homegrown and/or open-source solutions? No doubt there is a break even point between local needs and universal demands, between optimization and convenience, but I think many of the big schools have simply grown a little too lazy in their decision-making processes. We could and more to the point should be driving innovation in these regards, not taking a back seat to what's trendy at the vendor expo at ALA.

(Huh. I'm not sure how this post went from a gripe about networked printers to a full-blown rant about the state of academic libary innovation, but there it is.)

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