Sunday, 12 June 2011

Sustainable Technology

What is sustainable technology? Sustainable technology can mean two things.

1. Technology (hardware and software) that makes a minimal impact on the environment.

2. Technology that is useful, flexible and designed for long term use.

I’m going to focus on the second definition, identifying technology that just works for libraries.

1. Simplicity

Simplicity is deceptive. Identifying a simple solution in the technology marketplace requires an understanding of how the complex systems work. In libraries we have an advantage. We already use a massively complicated information system daily.

So, when evaluating technology for your library, the first question should be: Does this work seamlessly with our ILS?

If you’re evaluating a new ILS: Does this work seamlessly with our existing hardware/software/procedures?

Here’s a small example: USB Barcode scanners.

When you plug a USB barcode scanner into a computer with a modern operating system, it just works. You can scan barcodes into an Excel spreadsheet. You can scan barcodes into your ILS simply by opening the client program and selecting the appropriate barcode box in the checkout form.

If your library is considering something that would replace a USB barcode scanner (say RFID), does the new system do what the old one did? If it doesn’t, get an exhaustive explanation as to why the new system would be better.

Your existing policies, procedures and technology can also benefit from a hefty dose of simplicity. Ask: Is there a simpler way to do this procedure? If there is, do an experiment. Simple procedures, simple policies and simple technology with clear instructions are always a better choice.

As Librarians, we are the experts in what works for our library. We need to challenge our vendors and our own expectations about ‘the way things work’

2. Standards

Librarians have an advantage when thinking about standards. We have been using and developing standards since the first libraries collected scrolls and clay tablets. Currently, we use MARC as our standard interchange format for library metadata. The rest of the world is catching up to our understanding of standards, and they are doing a lot of things right.

Web standards are one area that libraries and librarians need to pay a lot of attention to when making technology purchases. Web standards define how information is presented on the web. Devices, browsers and screen sizes are proliferating, and a strict adherence to web standards will solve many (but not all) of your compatibility problems with future form factors and browsers.

So, when the rep is demonstrating the new CMS that will drive your website, flip on over to the W3C validator and present them with the list of violations of web standards.

When you are selecting your new ILS, does the OPAC load on a iPad? That was one of my unpleasant experiences as a Systems Librarian. The OPAC in question used a complex session-based architecture that simply would not load on Mobile Safari.

Web standards like HTML, CSS and Javascript provide you with a website that works like a MARC record. The MARC record can display an authority record, a patron record, a bibliographic record or an item record. You can display that record in MARC, Long or Short records in your OPAC.

With a standards-compliant website built on CSS, HTML and Javascript you can change the entire layout, look, and feel of the site quickly and easily. You can even target different versions of the website to different browsers and screen sizes. You can move and display content in the ways that you want to.

A second point to think about standards is in your hardware and OS choices. Many of us choose Microsoft products by default. They offer wide compatibility, a stable platform and our IT departments support them. However, we should keep in mind that running client software is not the only choice for the administration of the ILS.

All of the functions performed by client software can be done using a web-based interface. Koha is the best current example of this.

Think about an entirely web-based, standards-compliant software product. Any browser can be used to access it, on any device, which can perform any function from circulation to self-check to systems administration.

When a new device like the iPad comes out, and your library director sends that dreaded email, “Can we use the new iGizmo 3GS?”, that’s when buying standards-compliant, simple products pays off.

3. Staff

The final key to sustainable technology projects is staff.

Do you have the staff with the right expertise to fix things in-house?

Be aware of your capabilities. If you don’t understand what you are hearing from IT, ask questions until you do understand. If there are limitations to what your organization can support, try to stay within those for on-site software, or go with hosted solutions. Part of being aware of your capabilities means writing them down. A master list of what your organizational IT can support will be invaluable when negotiating services and agreements internally and with external vendors.

Plan to transfer knowledge and record decisions made about technology systems. This starts with getting clear project reference documents from vendors. Policies and planning departments should create documents, on paper, a wiki or a knowledge bank, that record modifications to systems.

Planning and people require policies. These need to be recorded in some way.

People also need time to adjust to new systems. Training and capacity building are needed, but also need to be highly directed. Skills on proprietary ILS systems do transfer to other systems, but training on open standards like HTML, CSS, Javascript and open platforms like the MIT Mobile Web, Drupal, Joomla and Wordpress offer substantially more options for the library and for library staff.

Planning technology purchases that account for simplicity, standards and staff will give you a solid foundation to build library systems that don’t just work at the moment. A standards-based, simple system with enough support will be able to adapt to future needs that we can’t anticipate yet.

- Brett Williams

Brett is the Systems Librarian for the College of the North Atlantic - Qatar. He blogs at and can be found on Twitter @brettlwilliams


  1. Great post Brett, completely agree on many points especially "We need to challenge our vendors and our own expectations about ‘the way things work.’" I'm sure we have all experienced workplaces in which we wish the decision makers had thought about some of these factors a bit more before committing to yet another system that just isn't quite right.

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