Life is a Mystery

15 February 2011 . Comments Off on The Next Ten Years

The Next Ten Years

My mind has been buried in minutia these past few weeks, working off the details of a few client projects that involve a wonderful descent into the details of CSS and HTML. I must admit it has been fun, but one item did break through my concentration, a posting from the ARL looking for candidates for a new program for “Transforming Research Libraries.”

The past few decades have been an amazing ride, and I’ve been lucky to spot a few trends as they emerged. I remember implementing a cataloging resource site on the 1993 internet in both Gopher and Web protocols, realizing the web was much easier to work with, and sensing it would “win” the net. I remember encoding and listening to my first MP3’s in 1998 and realizing that CD’s were history when Apple brought out iTunes and made “rip, mix, and burn” a simple proposition. But until recently I have not agreed that libraries faced an existential threat. Today, I am beginning to think we will see big changes in the next decade.

I always had the sense that librarians were unafraid of technology. Maybe that comes from working at the MIT Libraries! Still, from scrolls to codex, from chains to card catalogs, from circulation cards to computers, librarians have always been ready to adopt the next appropriate technology. This facility with adapting the best that new technology offers to the job we do kept me confident of the library’s place. The challenge we now face, though, is that the very material we are here to share is evaporating into the ether. Once “books” are no longer, what is our work? And how long do books and journals still have with us?

This is a much longer story than I have time to type tonight, but let me just say that I since I’ve started using the iPad over the past year, I’ve concluded that we don’t have as long as I thought. Reading is really fun on these devices, and I think adoption will skyrocket as the tools get better. On top of that, reading is different on these devices, more interactive, more collaborative. These are things that paper can’t duplicate and they will spell the death of paper, at least in academe. And worst of all for libraries, this medium changes the economic dynamic that makes lending feasible. What happens when the cost of the item becomes less than the cost of circulating it?

So if libraries are to have a role in the future academy, it has to be a new role. In the 1990’s I began talking about “libraries turning inside out.” By that I meant that libraries, which had collected the worlds resources so that a community could make efficient use of them, were now in a position to collect the output of the community so that the world could find it. This is why we created DSpace at MIT. And this is the conclusion of Eli Neiburger’s wonderful “Libraries are Screwed” talk (see the end of part 2).

Libraries turning inside out still feels right to me. This is the heart of the task that will face the ARL’s new Transforming Research Libraries program. This is the heart of the issue facing every academic library large or small. This may even, as Neiburger points out, be the issue facing all libraries. Our job is to apply our skills, those things we have inside us, to serve the constituencies who fund us, those on the outside. If we don’t find a way to do that in the next ten years, then I fear it may be too late.


21 January 2011 . 1 Comment

Excellence in a broken mirror

When I think back to my time at MIT I usually talk about MIT as a place that embodies excellence. Over time I’ve come to realize that excellence is an outcome, a marker, not a goal. You cannot strive to be “excellent” because excellence without a context is meaningless. Excellence is in the mirror broken, in how others see you.

What allowed MIT to be excellent was that it knew its purpose, it had a destination in mind:

The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.

The Institute is committed to generating, disseminating, and preserving knowledge, and to working with others to bring this knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges. MIT is dedicated to providing its students with an education that combines rigorous academic study and the excitement of discovery with the support and intellectual stimulation of a diverse campus community. We seek to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.

It never felt like MIT was trying to be the best, it seemed to become the best by living out its dedication to improving the lot of others. Efforts like OpenCourseWare were not done to position MIT to dominate an online education market, but because they would help MIT faculty communicate with each other and help institutions around the world prepare even better students to come to MIT for further study. Every voice was welcome to contribute and those that offered solid, actionable ideas were invited to greater collaboration and access to decision making. It was an extraordinary environment with its own dark sides but a consistently excellent outcome.

One of my disappointments at the University of Minnesota was its strategic planning effort. After significant effort and input from the whole U community the administration put forward a goal for the institution that amounted to: we won’t just be big, we’ll be good. Here’s how retiring U president Robert Bruininks put it on his home page:

Our vision is to improve lives through the advancement of knowledge, and our strategic goal is aspirational, audacious, and, I believe, achievable: to become one of the top three public research universities in the world, with a deep and abiding cultural commitment to excellence in everything we do, across all our campuses, research and outreach centers, and offices statewide.

While the U had a perfectly fine mission, all energy focussed around this new goal: “Become one of the Top Three Public Research Universities in the World.” I always wondered, top three at what? Indeed, energy was spent trying to determine by what metric we’d measure our success. Instead of focussing on being great, the U needed to find its reason for being at all, its calling, and live that out fully.

Lately I’ve had reason to look closely at Carleton College, a small college in the area. Its mission is quite different than MIT’s, but equally clear: to provide an exceptional undergraduate liberal arts education; to prepare students to lead lives of learning that are broadly rewarding, professionally satisfying, and of service to humanity; to be a collaborative community that encourages curiosity and intellectual adventure of the highest quality. Yes, Carleton also wants to be the best at what it does, but it puts what it does front and center in the minds of faculty, students, and staff, not the aspiration to be number one. Guess what, Carleton has a reputation for excellence.

This topic came to mind again today through another context altogether. This week Steve Jobs stepped away from Apple for another medical leave, so many have been dwelling on what makes Apple successful and whether that success can be sustained without Steve. I think it can, as long as Steve has succeeded in driving his dedication to thinking ahead of users, delivering quality, and always valuing simplicity and beauty in design into the Apple culture. Under Steve, Apple has never put market share first, though they’ve been happy to enjoy huge shares in some new markets. As a reader of the Daily Dish puts it:

Apple reaches for greatness without apology. Market share and profitability are important only as outcomes. They are not its purpose, which is to achieve the “insanely great.” It is as if they are on an ongoing Grail quest. …

Yeah, it’s just some metal, plastic and silicon. And, yes, Apple makes a lot of money. But those two observations miss completely the point of Apple. It’s about inspiration, hope and an embrace of the future and humanity’s place within it.

What are we each called to do? We can’t just focus on being our best, we have to live our lives in a context, we have to be part of something to find a life that is “broadly rewarding, professionally satisfying, and of service to humanity.”

This week we lost someone who knew how to do this. Take a few moments to look at the life led by Sargent Shriver, the people he touched, the things he believed in. He advised Yalies in 1994 to break mirrors. “Shatter the glass. In our society that is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other. Learn more about the face of your neighbor and less about your own.”


26 February 2010 . Comments Off on Code4Lib 2010

Code4Lib 2010

I just spent a wonderful week in Asheville, NC, attending Code4Lib 2010. Code4Lib is an energetic community of library hackers who communicate all year round via IRC, email, and other media, but like to also meet annually to grab some face time with each other and share a bit of play in the process. What struck me most about the meeting was how well Code4Lib lives up to its ethos of “no spectators.” It was a meeting that demanded real participation, not simple proximity. I wrote a report about this first look at Code4Lib, take a look if you want to know more.


4 June 2009 . Comments Off on In awe: substance

In awe: substance

Somewhere in 2007, when I was not yet blogging again, I began to articulate my hopes for an Obama presidency. One foundation on which my hope for change rested was the simple symbolism of his name and skin color. I wanted to be able to hold his image before the world as a concrete demonstration that the US was changing course. He hardly had to do more than exist, I imagined, to make the world a better place.

Today that vision became real, and so much more. Barack Obama not only exists, he invites, engages, and challenges the world. He calls us all to be better than we have been. His speech in Cairo makes me feel like we are not in Kansas anymore (so to speak). We have entered a new era.

Without leadership painting a vision of the world we want it is very hard to act together toward a constructive end. Obama is laying that vision out, and the world he envisions is a world I want to live in. It is a world I want to work to create. I doubt I am alone. I think we are in the presence of true leadership.

All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort — a sustained effort — to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.

It’s easier to start wars than to end them. It’s easier to blame others than to look inward. It’s easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There’s one rule that lies at the heart of every religion — that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. (Applause.) This truth transcends nations and peoples — a belief that isn’t new; that isn’t black or white or brown; that isn’t Christian or Muslim or Jew. It’s a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the hearts of billions around the world. It’s a faith in other people, and it’s what brought me here today.

We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written.


4 June 2009 . Comments Off on In awe: form

In awe: form

The White House of Barack Obama is demonstrating its clear grasp of the twenty-first century. They understand the communication modes available to them in a way that our government has never understood to date. And they are skilled in pulling out all the stops to support their agenda.

Today at 5am (our time) Obama gave a speech in Cairo. The White House webcast the speech live for anyone who wanted to wake up and watch it. Then promptly posted it on YouTube. They also used SMS to text the speech to folks who signed up to get it via cellphone. They posted the transcript.

And it didn’t stop with the speech. Here is a complementary video that was posted on YouTube today, a video profiling some muslims working in the federal government, painting a picture of the diversity of our nation. To see this kind of quality coordinated with this sort of event is stunning.

And, may I say, a bit scary? These folks are so good at what they do, what happens when what they do no longer serves the nation’s interest? We’ll have to cross that bridge when we get there. For now I am simply in awe.

11 May 2009 . Comments Off on OPE is going going, OPE is overflowing

OPE is going going, OPE is overflowing

We used to sing a song about the OPA in Essex, CT, with Chet Bowles and crew. The OPA team that gathered there were once the young troupers of the FDR administration, and long past its heyday they remember those glory days of fighting off the Great Depression.

President Obama has just changed the White House public liaison into the Office of Public Engagement (what a nice name). This is an effort to bring the public voice into the White House, and the briefing book they have created is a nice example of how that may work. I especially like that “Get the Insurance Companies out the Health Care” is the second recommendation in the health care section.

Most encouraging to me, though, are the faces. Take a moment to flip through the staff pages of the OPE. You’ll get a glimpse of what this administration looks like once you get past the big names. Young, diverse, excited. They look fired up and ready to go!


6 May 2009 . Comments Off on 70.3 Miles to Africa

70.3 Miles to Africa

Marika Viragh has created a wonderful “Race to Africa” project for her senior year in high school. She hopes to attract support for kids at the Ubumwe Community Center in Rwanda. She’s collecting shoes and dollars. Consider it.

I’m also impressed with the webhost she’s found for her site. Squarespace looks a bit like an iWeb that could actually work: solid hosting with the sugar of interesting design.

29 April 2009 . Comments Off on Coping with shrinking budgets

Coping with shrinking budgets

I am “lucky” enough not to be housed in an institutional setting these days. Institutions are going through painful responses to shrinking resources and I’m sure the leadership of institutions everywhere are suffering sleepless nights as they try to find a humane course through these rapids. I was very impressed, today, when I stumbled on the site the MIT Libraries has created to help its community understand the impact of budget cuts. It is not easy to share information about reductions in service or challenges of budget planning without whining. I wish more institutions would be this up-front about the course they have chosen and the impact of changes. Communicating clearly is leadership. Other examples can be found at some of the other ARL institutions communicating about budget impact.

13 April 2009 . Comments Off on rev=”canonical”


Let me be the first to say that rev=”canonical” is not the savior of the internet or even the solution to persistent URLs. But it is an interesting concept and something like this may well be a great way to notify systems of the persistent URL associated with a particular resource, especially if we go to the trouble to create short persistent URLs. Keep an eye on it.

5 March 2009 . Comments Off on Feel the love

Feel the love

Where the Bush Administration set out to demoralize and destroy, the Obama Administration is hard at work encouraging and building. I believe the real goal of Cheney and the Bush gang was to destroy the federal government. Everything from the mess at Justice to the hiring of mercenary soldiers makes sense in this framework. They really wanted the government to be so dysfunctional that no future administration could effectively subordinate “business” power in the future. Business first. Government out of the way.

Today the Christian Science Monitor covers the excitement of workers in federal agencies about the visits Michelle Obama is making as she settles into Washington. It seems some are surprised that Michelle is experiencing such a positive reception. I am not surprised at all, having heard Michelle a couple times myself. I know what she is giving them: Love. Mom-in-chief indeed. Michelle is telling them that the work they do is critical, that their president appreciates their dedication, that the change ahead includes a large dose of respect for what government, and these workers, can do. This crowd is so thirsty for affirmation, they are soaking it up and returning it tenfold. Look at the handsigns in this picture from the Monitor.


Hand on heart, that’s a real pledge of allegiance for you. And the response, pure love. Know hope.

Eric Celeste / Saint Paul, Minnesota / 651.323.2009 /