Bibs & Blather Perspective
On Charting New Courses
Interesting times, interesting times. Both in the fortune-cookie sense and in more positive ways.
Time for some personal commentary—about what’s happened over the past year and before, the new courses I’m charting and how that affects Cites & Insights and Walt at random.
I believe in directions more than goals, but one silly goal I’d had was to be able to claim six decades in library automation. Not sixty years, but six decades—a goal that can be achieved in as few as 42 years.
Making that goal required staying in that field for another three years, until 2010. I planned to retire in late 2011, when I turn 66 years old and am eligible for full Social Security benefits. Since I started working as a two-thirds-time to full-time systems analyst, designer, programmer in 1968, that would make six decades: The 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, and 10s.
As National Lampoon put it in Deteriorata, “Whether you can hear it or not, the Universe is laughing behind your back.” It was a silly goal in the first place and one I didn’t go out of my way to reach. Five decades—and 39 years—make a pretty good first career, particularly in a field changing as rapidly as library automation.
It was a good run. I won’t say every year was an unalloyed delight, but most years were worthwhile. I wasn’t part of the first generation of library automators, the real pioneers. I think I can reasonably claim to be part of the second generation. To some extent, I fell into it accidentally, but I found I was good at systems design and implementation—and that I loved libraries. Some years I managed a small group or a project; most years I didn’t.
A few highlights from those five decades:
Ø 1968: Designing and building the first automated circulation system at UC Berkeley’s Doe Library, using unit record equipment (keypunches, collator, sorter) and a call number keypunching system that could properly interfile the five call number systems Doe used in those days. I had an edge: I’d been paging and reshelving books in those five systems for years. My two greatest triumphs were programming the IBM 188 Collator (using jumpers and a punch board) before the collator actually arrived and having the program work, and a few months later when our IBM rep brought in some regional hotshots to visit the installation and one of the experts informed me that an IBM 188 Collator wasn’t capable of doing what we were doing.
Ø Very early 1970s: Writing various library-related programs—first in COBOL, then in IBM BAL (assembly language), finally in PL/I once PL/I Optimizer was available. (Why did that matter? IBM System/360 mainframes weren’t all that powerful by contemporary standards. According to one comparison I’ve seen, a midrange Intel Core 2 dual-core CPU, the level you might find in a $600 desktop or $750 notebook, has twenty thousand times the raw computing power of an IBM System/370-158—and the System 360/65 we used was less powerful than that. Contemporary PCs and Macs probably “waste” more than 90% of their raw computing power on operating system, user interface, and inefficient program language overhead; that’s one reason modern PCs are worth using. In 1972, and for that matter in 1982, you learned to conserve every computing cycle you could if you wanted to run large-scale production systems. I do not miss that aspect of those days, or submitting boxes of punched cards for once-a-day compilations on a remote computer.)
Ø Early 1970s: Designing and programming the “Key System” used to produce the Serials Key Word Index—print (and later microfiche) keyword indexes for Berkeley’s vast serials holdings. The first full-scale index appeared in 1973. Notably, that system used MARC format records as input—yes, MARC II was already around. The same software was used for a Stanford union list of serials in October 1975, for lists at UC’s San Francisco and Santa Barbara campuses, and for a combined UC Union List of Serials on fiche in 1976.
Ø 1976: My first formal publication—and my only publication under my legal name (Walter C. Crawford): “Building a serials key word index,” Journal of Library Automation 9:1 (March 1976), pp. 34-47. Refereed and all.
Ø Mid to late 1970s: Designing and implementing a 24-hour timesharing data entry system used to check in serials at UC Berkeley—on a three-terminal system running on a Datapoint “minicomputer.” The Datapoint was probably the first computer using the 8088 instruction set (not with an Intel CPU—supposedly, the 8088 wasn’t fast enough). It came with a fairly sophisticated operating system and ARC, a token-ring network system that was eventually swamped by Ethernet. The Datapoint central unit had a mighty 10MB disk cartridge. Once a week, data had to be transferred from that disk to a tape so it could be sent to the mainframe. I mention this for a slightly peripheral reason: It’s how I met my wife, without whom most of this—and particularly my professional career—would have been unlikely.
Ø 1980s: I specified and then built (programmed and wrote the JCL for) the batch processing and product batch generation system that supported RLIN II, RLG’s online technical processing system. Lots of other programming and analysis on projects too numerous to mention. Extensive investigation of the online catalog literature and developments in the 1980s.
Ø 1990s: Most notably designing and helping implement Eureka—first a command-oriented system using standard 80-column by 24-line terminals over RLG’s dedicated network, later a web system using typical web user interface standards over the internet. Lots of session log analysis and failure analysis, leading to my proudest moment during the command-oriented version: the “Do What I Mean” improvements, a series of changes that reduced apparent user error from some 7% of all commands to less than 0.5%. Lots more session log analysis of the web version, leading to nothing quite as dramatic but helping guide an ongoing series of improvements: There’s nothing new about “perpetual beta” in the sense of software that’s updated on a continuing basis.
Ø 2000s: Lots of refinements and a variety of related projects, culminating in the winding down of RLG services. OpenURL, various new standards movement, Unicode support (RLG was a founding member of the Unicode Consortium)…and, in an odd turn of events, final years spent back where I began: Producing customer reports in an entirely new environment.
That’s a skeletal set of highlights. I’ve forgotten a lot more than I’ve remembered. It’s likely (almost certain) that all the systems I designed and all the code I wrote have gone by the wayside. That’s what you expect in the automation game. It was a good run overall. It’s over, and that’s OK.
My five decades as a systems analyst, designer and programmer aren’t what I’m generally known for. I’m much better known for a parallel course—professional activity in LITA and ALA and as a writer and speaker. That course (much better documented in my CV, since that’s how CVs work) began as an offshoot of my day job, but it deserves its own sketch.
Maybe it was natural. I worked on the high school newspaper in my senior year (and on a short-lived but professionally-done independent paper the year before that) as features editor and columnist. I edited and mostly wrote the house newspaper for the co-op I lived in during part of my college years. My BA is in Rhetoric. Heck, I even wrote a book-length manuscript (on press treatment of the Free Speech Movement) without the aid of word processing software. (Never published and the manuscript’s long since disappeared, but while doing the research I did build a permanent dislike of traditional roll microfilm readers, particularly used for newspapers on microfilm.)
ALA involvement? You can probably blame Susan K. Martin for that and you can certainly credit her for getting me to publish within the profession. She was head of the UC Berkeley Library Systems Office (and my boss), but also editor of JOLA in 1976. She encouraged me to write that article.
As far as I’m concerned, that parallel career continues. Now nearly all of my income-earning activities relate directly to writing and editing. My CV is readily available, but it’s as dry a read as any other CV. A few notes on the arcs of my professional (non-day-job) career might be amusing:
Ø 1975-1979: Joined ALA. Sat in on meetings of the Technical Standards for Library Automation Committee (TESLA) of ALA’s Information Science and Automation Division (ISAD), predecessor of LITA. Appointed to TESLA in 1978. Elsewhere, I was involved with the local ASIS (now ASIS&T) chapter and served on the National Conference Steering Committee in 1976, when the conference was held hereabouts. For various reasons, I left ASIS soon thereafter and can claim no significant role in that association. Speeches? One, part of a two-person sketch within a TESLA program at ALA in 1979. Other articles? One—essentially a transcript of that speech.
Ø 1980-1984: Chaired TESLA in 1980-81. Served as an RLG liaison to ALA’s interdivisional Machine-Readable Bibliographic Information Committee (MARBI, the MARC people) throughout the period (and until 1987). Helped found and chaired the Programmer/Analysts Discussion Group (which never really worked in its original intent). Served on a LITA/Gaylord Award committee. Wrote a feature book review in Library Hi Tech, four formal articles for ITAL and Library Trends, five reports and informal columns—and in 1984, three “Common Sense Personal Computing” articles in Library Hi Tech that started a five-year run (before morphing into other titles). No speeches. Oh yes, one other little thing: Around 1982, after spending too much time on the phone explaining MARC to people (as Product Batch manager at RLG) and seeing one library school’s somewhat erroneous MARC syllabus, I tried to convince the experts at LC to write a proper book about MARC. When they didn’t, I did—and, after two years of adventure with two publishers and loads of revisions, my first published book appeared in 1984, MARC for Library Use: Understanding the USMARC Formats.
Ø 1985-1989: Most significant for my new position (in 2007, that is): The first four of nine years as editor of the LITA Newsletter, transforming the publication in the process. Also the first of three years as founding editor of Information Standards Quarterly for NISO, the National Information Standards Organization. I also spent two years as a LITA member of MARBI, the first two years of a three-year term on the LITA Board of Directors, another year on the LITA/Gaylord Awards committee—and the first four of 15 years on the Library Hi Tech editorial board. I shouldn’t forget the first of 11 years on the editorial board for Public-Access Computer Systems Review, an early refereed electronic-only journal. I wrote more than 50 editorials, columns and articles (including the first year of “Trailing Edge” in Library Hi Tech, which continued for a decade). Ten speeches, all between 1987 and 1989. My most productive period for books: Six books in all. By the end of the 1980s, I believe I had an established reputation as a writer and editor in several areas of librarianship and technology.
Ø 1990-1994: The peak of my ALA activity, including the remaining years of LITA Newsletter (and ISQ—but that wasn’t ALA), serving as LITA VP/President/Past President and serving on an odd short-lived “Free MARC” committee. Also served on the ONLINE editorial board and began contributing articles and (later) columns there. More articles, columns and editorials (more than 70); more speeches (two dozen); fewer books (four).
Ø 1995-1999: Very little ALA/LITA activity: LITA Nominations Committee (twice), LITA/Library Hi Tech Award committee, the first of six years as a LITA Top Technology Trends “trendspotter.” On the other hand, this was my big “awards period”: The LITA/Library Hi Tech Award, the ALCTS/Blackwell Scholarship Award (shared), the Gale Group ONLINE Excellence in Information Authorship Award. “Trailing Edge Notes” began in Library Hi Tech News in 1995, starting a “monthly” contribution that changed to “Crawford’s Corner” later and continues to this day as Cites & Insights. I started reviewing title CD-ROMs on a regular basis for CD-ROM Professional (1995-1996) and Database (1997-2000, but the magazine’s title changed to EContent in 1999) and took over “PC Monitor” in ONLINE in 1999 (continuing it through the end of 2006, when the editor and I agreed it had run its course). I think it was around this time that I started maintaining a spreadsheet with deadlines and daily expectations, figuring that if I missed one deadline, the whole complex would come tumbling down. I missed one deadline between 1979 and 2007, and that was with plenty of warning. In all, more than 125 articles and columns (counting each “Trailing Edge Notes” as a single publication, just as I count this Cites & Insights as one publication). Also the peak of my speaking activity (just under 50). Only two books, but they were Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness & Reality and Being Analog: Creating Tomorrow’s Libraries.
Ø 2000-2004: Nothing except Trendspotters for LITA or ALA. A few years in Marquis’ Who’s Who in America. “CD-ROM Corner” ended in EContent and “disContent” began (started in 2001, still going strong). “Crawford’s Corner” ended—and Cites & Insights began. Following a series of American Libraries articles that began in 1999, I had “The Crawford Files” as a column from 2002 through 2004. Along with a fair number of miscellaneous publications, that amounted to just over 180 articles and columns—almost certainly the peak of my published writing (in item count, maybe not word count). For a couple of years, I was doing three magazine columns (two monthly) in addition to Cites & Insights and assorted other stuff, plus a full-time job. I’m not sure how I managed, to be perfectly honest. Thirty-odd speeches. One book.
Ø 2005-2007: Leveling off and shifting gears. No LITA activity except a guest appearance among the Trendspotters. “disContent” went to alternate issues in EContent. The publication count should total 90, which at 30 per year is almost back down to (roughly) 1995-1999 levels, albeit with generally longer publications. Walt at random started, but I count that as one line in my CV. One speech a year of late. Two self-published books.
Those are the arcs in my other career. ALA activity peaked in the early 1990s. Speaking peaked in the late 1990s, with a relatively brief burst of high activity. Book writing peaked in the late 1980s. Setting aside editorials, I started doing a lot of short-form published writing in the late 1990s and peaked in the first years of the new century, but it’s only been a slight decline since then. I’ve been writing roughly a quarter million words per year (not including blogs) for several years now. Then there’s editing, where I had a good run for almost a decade, gave it a rest, and now look forward to doing it again in an entirely different medium.
I certainly intend to reach five decades as a writer, since that only takes three more years. Six decades? We’ll see: that’s a long way off. As for speaking, that’s not up to me.
This year has been interesting. On the home front, we’ve gone a while without a vacation and too long without a cruise, in both cases because of an elderly cat (now deceased) who required more care than a pet sitter could reasonably handle. Issues with our work lives didn’t help a lot either.
If you’ve been reading Walt at random, you’ve seen some of what’s been going on. Or maybe you haven’t. As I go through this year’s posts, there are only a few that deal with state of mind—and several dealing with what I might be doing after September 30, 2007. I covered that specific issue in the November 2007 Bibs & Blather, with the press release for my new part-time contract with PALINET.
I took two weeks between positions. Maybe the break should have been longer, but it was long enough. It would have been awkward to take longer: PALINET’s Annual Conference was October 29-30, and if I hadn’t started by October 15, I wouldn’t have been in a position to discuss the future of the PALINET Leadership Network at that conference. Still, after booking flights for the conference and dealing with contracts at the start of the month, I ignored PALINET for two weeks.
Similarly, after signing final papers, I ignored RLG and OCLC after September 30—and by October 7, that career was pretty much gone from my mind. What I recounted above in “Not Quite Six Decades” is more than I thought I’d have to say, and that’s just over 1,000 words covering 39 years. For that first week, I relaxed, did some pleasure reading, slept in a little later and worked on Cites & Insights and the academic library blog project. I went back to Mountain View Public Library—on a weekday!—and started checking out books again.
I decided I couldn’t afford to become sedentary, easier to do when you’re working at home. I started thinking about that before October 1, buying a cheap pedometer, seeing how much more walking I needed to do for the five-mile-a-day goal (or 10,000 steps) and setting out to do at least that much walking. The first couple days at home, I also used the pedometer to see how much less walking I was doing than at the office. Turns out it’s not a big difference: Figure 4,000 steps instead of 5,000, or half a mile less. So, in addition to my daily 1.5 miles (average) on the treadmill (at a slope ranging from four to 6.5 degrees), I needed to average at least 1.5 miles walking every weekday.
The longer walks are working. I hope to keep it up indefinitely. Got a bill to pay? I hand-carry the envelope to the post office, three quarters of a mile from home. Need lunch? Most days, I’ll buy a sandwich at Safeway, buy a sandwich at Subway, eat at China Café, or maybe eat at Milan—all in the same neighborhood mall as the post office. Or maybe I’ll go further afield: I’ve done two mile walks (each way) some days because it was a nice day and felt right.
Will I manage that when it’s rainy? I hope so, but that’s hard to say. There aren’t all that many rainy days in Mountain View. Yes, I’m still doing the treadmill, sweating to the old movies. With luck, the combination will keep my weight down and my health up.
The added medium-length walks that aren’t on the treadmill do something else worthwhile. Those walks are ideal for contemplation or “non-thinking,” taking in the sights and sounds. I tend not to focus on the afternoon’s writing or the next day’s work. I tend to relax, to look inside, to…well, I don’t want to get too Left Coast on you. Let’s just say long walks did a lot to clear my head the first week of October and set the stage for serious focus after another week had gone by. It wasn’t hard to break free from a five-decade career—not hard at all.
I started working on the PALINET Leadership Network on October 15. By the end of that first week, I had a detailed timeline running through to the formal introduction at ALA Midwinter 2008. By the end of the second, I had a set of possibilities and plans, I’d reviewed all the content on the beta site and noted what I want to change, I’d gotten reasonably familiar with the wiki software—and I had the chance to discuss plans with people at PALINET and half of the advisory group for the network.
The plans and schedule are fairly ambitious for half-time work. I’m starting to extend those plans out past Midwinter. It’s challenging and exciting, drawing on what I’ve done professionally but also requiring new ideas and attitudes. I’m sure I’ll be blogging about it, probably at Walt at Random, and I imagine some echoes will creep into Cites & Insights. I already think I know a few things:
Ø When it comes to leadership, there’s a lot more I don’t know than there is that I do know. When I look at the range of issues around library leadership, leadership in general and various kinds of leadership, I recognize that I care about a lot of areas where I don’t know enough to comment intelligently. That’s good. It means I can do a good job as managing editor and assure people I won’t be interfering with their ideas. If I feel strongly about an essay on the PALINET Leadership Network, there’s always the Talk page. My opinions don’t belong on other writers’ content pages. I was always able to make that distinction while doing the LITA Newsletter and Information Standards Quarterly—and back then there were no Talk pages.
Ø Right now, I find the new situation is using more than half my “thought time,” and that’s likely to be true for some time to come—probably at least until we have a steady flow of new content and a number of successful ways to get people involved. I’ll be working on balance continually, but it’s going to take time to work out properly.
Ø At the same time, I have reduced my overall commitment to the field. I’m not willing to spend 60 to 65 hours a week on “this stuff” any more. I want time to read for pleasure, time to go on walks, time to take vacations (we’re signed up for a two-week cruise in late spring—it’s a start!), time for extra sleep. Time to take back some of the chores my wife mostly handled during the year she was a part-time contract worker and I was full time. Even time to think about where (on the Pacific Rim) we want to live for the next couple of decades, since work isn’t keeping us in Mountain View and I can do PALINET stuff from anywhere with broadband service and a nearby airport.
Ø I’ve started a new ONLINE column. That six-times-a-year column will sometimes start with material from Cites & Insights, but it’s still another commitment.
Ø There’s a possible wildcard that could change things even more, but I’m not worrying about that until (unless) it happens.
All of which has implications for Cites & Insights.
First, a few notes about what Volume 7 looks like as compared to original projections. I said “no fewer than 12 and no more than 15 issues.” That’s easy: 13 real issues is as close to 12 as I’ve ever been. (Cites on a Plane doesn’t count, since it was truly ephemeral.) “Aim for issue lengths between 16 and 30 pages.” If you don’t count Cites on a Plane 2: This Time It’s for Keeps, my aim was true—but “16” is a joke. Not including this issue, which should be 22 pages, I count one issue at 22 pages, two at 24, six at 26, one at 28, and one at 30.
My guess is that Cites & Insights will be very haphazard in January 2008 and a little haphazard for the first half of 2008. It may get less focus than it deserves for a month or three. That definitely means no special pre-Midwinter issue, ephemeral or otherwise: Buy one of my books instead! It probably means I’ll stick with one issue per month for most (if not all) of the year, and consider the possibility of one two-month combined issue. It may mean slightly shorter issues but I’ll stick with “16 to 30 pages [except for special issues],” anticipating a range of 20 to 26 pages.
My other guess is that most of you won’t notice any difference. At least that’s my hope. If I’m right, things will firm up in the second half of the year. My goal is to have a better publication than in previous years. (That’s always my goal.)
Shortly after writing this (the first essay I’ve written for the issue, in early November 2007), I plan to go through the folders of source material for Cites & Insights, recycling quite a bit of the material. I can’t cover it all. I never could. There’s no reason to try. I’ll also think about the areas where I feel I currently add value, focusing more on those.
That sort of reevaluation makes sense periodically when you continue to acquire new interests. If I wanted to be the guru of Topic X, I’d focus entirely on Topic X, bending other topics to relate somehow to X—but I’ve never been the guru of any topic.
This isn’t new. Consider:
Ø MARC for Library Use was an important book and I spent years working on the MARC formats—but I don’t write about MARC anymore and don’t read much about it either.
Ø I paid a lot of attention to technical standards a couple of decades ago, writing a book (in two editions) and some articles and starting a newsletter for NISO—but, oddly enough, I was never one of RLG’s active participants on standards committees. I haven’t paid much attention to the standards process for quite a while.
Ø I still love typography and wrote a book about desktop publishing…but I haven’t used software labeled as desktop publishing software since I gave up on Corel Ventura early this century. I can’t imagine doing a book on “desktop layout using Word”—but, sooner or later, I might do that special issue of C&I with some comments about basic “desktop” typography. You know: The one that was supposed to happen in July 2006. Maybe July 2008?
Ø I wrote or cowrote four books about online catalogs—another area I’ve generally ignored for roughly a decade.
Ø Some people still think Cites & Insights is primarily about personal computing. It’s not.
So what’s falling by the wayside now? I need to go through that paper and see where I can add value.
[Later:] It might make sense to add a few notes to this essay as I’m going through the folders recycling source material. So far, I’m not tossing as much stuff as I’d like, but here’s what I’m seeing:
Ø I had a bunch of stuff in the Net Media folder about folksonomy and tagging and whether the web’s good or bad for writers. Except for a few radicals, I believe the whole “folksonomy” discussion is settling down to nuances: Accepting that we need both professional cataloging and indexing and more casual methods, possibly including the “wisdom of the crowds.” Recycle. Whether the web’s good or bad for writers? “Yes” is the only plausible answer. Recycle.
Ø Loads of stuff commenting on either Everything is Miscellaneous or The Cult of the Amateur. Hot stuff, both within liblogs and elsewhere. I was saving both in a separate folder until I read the books. Just not going to happen. For Weinberger’s book, see the bullet just above this one. For Keen’s diatribe…life is too short. Recycle.
Ø While Library Access to Scholarship remains overstuffed, I’ve winnowed out material on academic libraries acting as publishers. Not because I don’t think it’s important (I do) or because I’m against it (I’m for it and also think public libraries should be doing more to tell the stories of their communities), but because it’s out of scope for this ejournal.
Ø Copyright? I have four folders but I’m back to lumping everything together. Something needs to give. I’m not sure what.
Ø Going through the mound of stuff for Trends & Quick Takes, I find I have little desire at this point to discuss Second Life, the FCC’s new attempts to stomp out violent television, strange videos about students, efforts to regulate search engines…
Ø Then there’s Making it Work. Lately, I’ve gotten very selective about what I print to save—but I still have more than a 2” stack of paper here. Given that it’s now clear that I don’t have time for a separate Making it Work publication for at least the next six months or so, that’s too much. I’m scrapping source documents about MARC, online catalogs, Five Weeks, gaming in libraries, the future of the reference desk and other topics—all worthwhile but too much to even consider in the short term.
No fancy conclusions here. Just some of my thoughts at a juncture of sorts. A few notes in other areas:
Ø I’d say Walt at random could be erratic in the near future—but Walt at random has always been erratic. It may have more PLN-related stuff. It might return to some old themes; it might go in new directions. It could even disappear for weeks at a time—just like most other liblogs.
Ø I plan to start trimming my Bloglines subscription list so I can keep up with things—and that’s going to be difficult. At the same time, I’ll be starting another Bloglines list on a different account, specifically subscribing to blogs that deal with library leadership and some interesting leadership blogs from outside the library community. When that account is reasonably well populated, I expect to make the account name public; the “blogroll” of sorts will be one aspect of the PALINET Leadership Network.
Ø While my first experiment in publish-on-demand self-publishing has done well enough not to be a failure (but not yet well enough to be a success), Public Library Blogs: 252 Examples is off to a rocky start. Much as I support ILL, I was a little troubled to hear that libraries were attempting to borrow the book from other libraries at a point that fewer than two dozen copies had sold. It’s still early—but after twelve weeks (and a nice mention in AL Direct), the book has yet to sell four dozen copies. I’ll probably still do the academic library equivalent since most of the research is done—but I find that I have less and less energy to devote to finishing that research, given how far I am from earning even minimum wage for the time spent on the public library book. Future Cites & Insights books may be affected by this experience. I believe Public Library Blogs: 252 Examples could be worth much more than $29.50 to a few thousand public libraries. So far, nobody’s said otherwise—but then, so far, nobody’s said much of anything. I can certainly understand why risks of this sort don’t happen, or why books with specifically useful appeal in the library field sometimes carry such high prices. But, as I say, it’s still early…
If I sound discouraged here, I’m not (except for Public Library Blogs: 252 Examples). I’m enthusiastic about the new situation. I think the PALINET people are great. I believe decisions are going the right way. I think we’re going to produce something worthwhile. (Can you get your hands on it if you’re not in a PALINET library? With luck, I’ll have an announcement next issue…or watch Walt at random.) I’m excited, challenged, up—but I’m also being realistic about energy and where it’s applied.
Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services, http://www.ybp.com.
Opinions herein may not represent those of PALINET or YBP Library Services.
Comments should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2007 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.
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