Unique is a Strong Word
I promised a follow-up on the RMG session at ALA, but rather
than give a blow-by-blow account (done nicely by Leonard Kniffel already), I
thought I would single out one part of the conversation.
I am a lover of language, though I am often careless myself. I bite my tongue at grammatical errors or poor language usage. But I am bothered more by the use of words that violates the spirit but not the law of vocabulary and grammar. Repeated superlatives annoy me. More than one exclamation point per page should never survive editing. Given the word's roots in crucifixion, I cringe at the loose usage of "excruciating" to describe the most trivial personal trial.
So that is why I was dismayed to hear one of the library automation CEOs on Rob McGee's RMG panel describe each of his customers as "unique." It is this kind of thinking, I believe, that could be detrimental to true innovation in libraries.
I'm not suggesting that libraries are not unique--a mixture of staff, skills, collections, geography, and patrons makes for a distinctive offering. But remember, the panel was talking about re-inventing the integrated library system. Is a circulation transaction unique? Is the act of buying a book unique? Is each catalog record unique (or more likely, does it need to be)?
This is, of course, a shared problem. Locally installed systems with infinite configurability tempt libraries to strive for uniqueness where they shouldn't and cause vendors to create more and more incremental (and expensive) changes to commodity systems that support the least distinctive workflows in library management.
eBay or Amazon do what they can to create unique experiences for customers, but once we click that "purchase" button, we are all a credit card number and address. Imagine the custom offerings libraries could be making if the focus shifted from configuring and explaining what should be industrialized processes to the things that make them truly unique.