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I was particularly interested in a term I came across in a blog post on innovation on the Nesta blog the other week. Innovation in the public sector: Is risk aversion a cause or a symptom? The blog post talks about Organisation Debt and Organisational Physics and is a really interesting take on why large organisations can struggle with innovation. It’s well worth a read. It starts with referencing the concept of ‘technical debt‘ described in the blog post as “… where quick fixes and shortcuts begin to accumulate over time and eventually, unless properly fixed, can damage operations.” It’s a term that tends to be related to software development but it started me thinking about how a concept of ‘technical debt’ might be relevant to the library world.
If we expand the technical debt concept to the library sector I’d suggest that you could look at at least three areas where that concept might have some resonance: library systems, library practices and maybe a third one around library ‘culture’ – potentially a combination of collections, services and something of the ‘tradition’ of what a library might be.
Our systems are a complex and complicated mix. Library management systems, E-resources management systems, discovery, openURL resolvers, link resolvers, PC booking systems etc etc It can be ten years or more between libraries changing their LMS and although, with Library Services Platforms, we are seeing some consolidation of systems into a single product, there is still a job to do of integrating legacy systems into the mix. For me the biggest area of ‘technical debt’ comes in our approach to linking and websites. Libraries typically spend significant effort in making links persistent, in coping with the transition from one web environment to the other by redirecting URLs. It’s not uncommon to have redirection processes in place to cope with direct links to content in previous websites and trying to connect users directly to replacement websites. Yet on the open web ‘link rot‘ is a simple fact of life. Trying to manage these legacy links is a significant technical debt that libraries carry I’d suggest.
I think you could point to several aspects of library practices that could fall under the category of technical debt but I’d suggest the primary one is in our library catalogue and cataloguing practices. Our practices change across the years but overall the quality of our older records are often lower than what we’d want to see. Yet we typically carry those records across from system to system. We try to improve them or clean them up, but frequently it’s hard to justify the resource being spent in ‘re-cataloguing’ or ‘retrospective cataloguing’. Newer approaches making use of collective knowledge bases and linking holdings to records has some impact on our ability to update our records, but the quality of some of the records in knowledge bases can sometimes also not be up to the level that libraries would like.
You could also describe some other aspects of the library world as showing the symptoms of technical debt. Our physical collections of print resources, increasingly unmanaged and often unused as constrained resources are directed to higher priorities, and more attention is spent on building online collections of ebooks for example. You even, potentially see a common thread with the whole concept of a ‘library’ – the popular view of a library as a place of books means that while libraries develop new services they often struggle to change their image to include the new world.