Find a problem, not a solution

In a recent committee meeting, we were trying to focus our many, many ideas about possible technology implementations down to the things that we can feasibly do in the next two years, and specifically down to the things that we need to be doing in the next two years. One of my colleagues summed it up nicely: “We know that it’d be a great project, but we need to know what problem we’re trying to solve by doing it.”

Libraries just don’t have the resources to implement everything that rolls at us as “the next big thing” — we have to pick and choose, and one easy way to start choosing is by only picking the things that solve existing problems. (And by existing problem I mean the things that users and staff complain about, but I also mean the things that are gaps in our services and that we’ve identified as needs but not been able to meet.) I believe that you don’t pick your database technology because the campus computing services can provide that software package, but instead evaluate the software package against the needs of your project. At MPOW we recently went from discussing how to approach a proposed retrospective cataloging project that would link to files stored in our nascent institutional repository to, instead, discussing how we might host a streaming media project. We completely changed our approach, our output, and our plan, all because we took two steps back, said, “wait, we know we like using the IR, but what’re we trying to fix, here?” and refocused our energies where they could do the most good — not on implementing technology, but on implementing a solution that involves the right technology.

I believe in that idea so strongly that it makes my stomach drop when I read things like this recent post from Michael Sauers. A library, victim of break-ins by teenagers using library computers to look at pornography, has its internet access revoked by the city council, and so installs filtering software to solve the problem. The problem was break-ins; the solution was filters? No, no, no! Nowhere in this article is there mention of what they did to ameliorate the problem of security at the library… but they’ve implemented a ‘solution’.

Libraries and librarians can always jump on the Next Big Thing — virtual reference, metasearching, IM, Second Life, web 2.0 principles, tagging, folksonomies, libraries in Facebook — but I just wish that we all made our leap into the technology abyss with a sense of what we hope to accomplish by that leap. If we’re not careful and aware about what we’re doing, we’ll end up doing retrocon when we needed streaming, and stopping break-ins by installing filters.


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