Web 2.0, techies, and the lure of creativity, from Yuba County Library

[Welcome Loren MccRory, our latest Guest Blogger! --sarah]
Today I was thinking about tech support and the "off the shelf" vs. "programming" dilemma that comes up from time to time in strategic planning brainstorming sessions with IT staff.
I’ve noted that there is a strong impetus to want to program, and less interest in implementing something "off the shelf" even if it is obviously the more cost effective means of achieving the desired end. This led me to considering the difference in motivation between library administrators and techies (especially techies that are not directly employed by the library but rather by a larger governmental IT department such as the county in our case).
The motivation to do something creative is strong in all of us, and unfortunately, few get a chance to actualize their creative ideas. For librarians it’s often in the application, but for techies it’s in the design, or programming. I’m not a neuroscientist (obviously, or I would be making a lot more money!), but there is interesting information out there about our left brain versus right brain preponderance that might help us garner a bit of insight into why we have a hard time convincing our techies to consider the creative potential of an application.
It seems to me that the interactive potential in Web 2.0 is one area where computer techs can let their creative right brains flourish at the library.
Has this angle worked for anyone? Please share some of your experiences in enticing your techies to incorporate Web 2.0.
Loren MccRory, Director
Yuba County Library
Marysville, CA


I can understand the desire to express creativity by whipping up a program from scratch, as opposed to just implementing an off-the-shelf program someone else has created! I feel their pain!! The thing I really like about the Web 2.0 applications, though, is that they combine the best of both worlds. They are already coded, off-the-shelf (so to speak) applications that can be used as is, but most of them also offer an API that lets coders take them and use them in ways their creators never intended. That's not even mentioning the creative potential in mashups!

Thanks for your feedback Robin. I agree that mashups are an on-the-shelf/but off way to approach creative applications. In fact, earlier this morning I sent a copy of the registration info for http://www.mashupcamp.com to our county IT liaison in hopes that he will be able to attend since I can't go myself and also because he could go at a fraction of the cost as a developer! It's March 17-20th this year in Mountain View CA (Silicon Valley) for any one out there who might be interested. (I hope our county IT will agree to send the library liaison. I think between the two of us we could really come up with something new and exciting to add to our web pages.)

Mashups have been on TechSoup's mind lately... if you're interested in the power of mashups, creativity, and the power of people getting together to share ideas and expertise, check out NetSquared's latest effort, the N2Y3 Mashup Challenge. (scroll down to "There are Three Parts to the Challenge" section to learn more about the project.)

NetSquared is a project of TechSoup, just like the MaintainIT Project. While this particular Mashup Challenge may not be relevant to your library, Loren, it may spark some ideas on how mashups can invigorate and create change in communities.

(plus, it's just fun to see what cool projects people dream up!)

Hi Robin,

Thanks so much for your comment. You're so right about the ease in using the "already coded, off-the-shelf applications," especially in libraries. I love seeing libraries use a Wordpress blog as their web site. Librarians and staff who were struggling with inflexible html-based sites can now create a web presence that is classy, usable, and relatively easy to learn.

Laura Crossett, a contributor to the MaintainIT Project from the Meeteetse branch library in Wyoming was recently bestowed kudos from Meredith Farkas for designing and building her library's Wordpress web site. I was super excited to see the results of the site Laura was crafting the last time we spoke with her. What a great example of an "off the shelf" site!

I agree with the previous posters that it's better for IT staff to work on plugins and mashups than to build new software from the ground up. However, I'd careful about the plugins and mashups too. If your developer creates a really cool extension and then leaves the organization, you might have a hard time maintaining the code. For example, whenever Wordpress releases a major upgrade, every plugin developer has to go back and make sure their plugin is compatible with the new version of the core software. I've seen lots of plugins that don't work with the latest versions of Wordpress. That's not the end of the world in most cases and there are ways to mitigate this problem:

1. Document, document, document -- if anyone in your organization writes their own program or customizes existing software, they need to carefully write down everything they've done. Also, they need to put lots of explanatory comments inside the code itself.
2. Is the functionality that they're creating related to a core, critical library function or is it something more minor. If your patrons get hooked on a mashup or extension, and your developer leaves, you'll have to pay someone else to maintain the code. Also, don't let them tweak the core software (e.g. the main Wordpress code) because that's harder to maintain than a extension or a plugin.
3. Give your developers some time to work on open source projects that are library related. For instance, encourage them to become part of the community that's helping to develop Koha or Evergreen, and let them do this during work hours. Anything they do will be vetted by the wider community of developers, and more importantly, they aren't tinkering with your library's software. OSS4lib is a great place to start. Also, there's a list of open source library projects at Sourceforge.
4. Create a community around your plugin. This is hard to do, but if your plugin is super-popular, other folks might take on the work of keeping it up-to-date. Or your plugin could get rolled into the core software.
5. Some software companies and communities are better about maintaining backwards compatibility. For instance, I haven't heard any stories about Google mashups and widgets that suddenly stop working because of a change to the core software, but then again, I'm not a developer, so take this with a grain of salt.

I'm not trying to discourage creativity, but I agree with everyone else here that it should be channeled and focused. I've seen first hand what happens when a small or mid-sized organization writes its own software, and in my experience it hasn't worked out that well.