A Brief Trip into Technology Planning, Brought to You By Meebo

The Day That Meebo Died

Today is the day that many librarians running reference services dreaded – Meebo discontinuing most of their products (with the exception of the Meebo Bar). Even though Meebo (or parts of it) will still live on in various Google products, that still doesn’t help those libraries who have build services and applications around a product that has been around for a while (Meebo was established in 2005).

If Meebo was any indication, even established, long running technology services can go away without much advanced notice. What is a library to do with incorporating third party applications, then? There is no way to ensure that all the services and applications that you use at your library will still be in existence for any length of time. Change is about the only constant in technology and it is up to us who deal with technology to plan for that change.

How to avoid backing your library into a corner with no escape route in sight

The worst has happened – the application you’re using is no longer being supported. Or, in a more positive light,  there’s a new alternative out there that performs better than the application your library is currently using at the moment.  The scenarios above have different priorities; migration due to discontinuation of support will probably happen on a faster timeline than upgrading to a better application. Overall, you should be prepared to survive without your current 3rd party applications with minimal amount of content loss and service disruption. For this post I’ll be focusing on third party application support and availability. Disruptions due to natural disasters, like fire, flooding, or, in Grinnell’s case, tornadoes, is equally important, but will not be covered at length in this post.

Competition (or lack there of)

When news broke that Google purchased Meebo, most weren’t sure about what would be next for the chat service. Soon afterwards, Meebo gave a month’s notice about the discontinuation of most of their products. Fortunately, alternative chat services were plentiful. Our library, for example, subscribes to LibraryH3lp, but we were using Meebo Messenger as well as the MeeboMe widget for some course pages to supplement LibraryH3lp’s services. After the announcement, our library quickly switched the messenger with Pidgin, and are working on replacing the Meebo widgets with LibraryH3lp’s widgets.

Having a diverse, healthy pool of different applications to choose from for a particular service is a good place to be when the application you use is no longer supported. Migrations are never fun, but consider the alternative. If you’re using a service or application that does not have readily available alternatives, how will your services be affected when that application is no longer supported?

The last question wasn’t rhetorical. If your answer is looking at a major service disruption, especially to services that are deemed by your library as mission-critical, then you’re putting yourself and the library in a precarious position. The same goes if the alternatives out there require a different technical skill set from your library staff. Applications that require a more advanced technical skill set will require more training and run the heightened risk of staff rejection if the required skill level is set too high.

Data wants to be backed up

Where’s your data right now? Can you export it out of the application? Do you even know if you can export your data or not? If not, then you’re setting yourself up for a preventable emergency. Exporting functionality and backups are especially important for services that are living outside of your direct control, like a hosted service. While most hosted services have backup servers to prevent loss of customer data, you should still have the ability to export your data and store it outside of the application. It’s best practice and gives you the peace of mind that you do not have to recreate years’ worth of work to restore data lost due to vendor error or lack of export functionality.

Another product that is widely used by academic libraries, LibGuides, provides a backup feature where you can export your guides in XML or individual guides in HTML. It will take some work for formatting and posting the data if needed, but the important thing is that you have your data and you can either host it locally in case of emergencies or harvest the content when the time comes to move on to another application.

Some technology service audit questions

Here are some general questions to start you down the path of evaluating where your library currently stands with third party applications you rely on for providing specific library services. Don’t worry if you find yourself not as prepared as you want to be. It’s better to start now than when you learn that another application you use will be shutting down.

  • What third party applications does your library currently use to provide library services?
  • Are there other comparable services/applications available?
    • What training resources are available for alternative applications?
    • What technical skills do these applications require? Are they compatible with the technical skills found with the majority of library staff?
  • Which applications are used for mission-critical library services?
  • Can you export your data and/or settings from the application?
    • If so, how often is the data being exported?
    • Where is the backup file stored? Locally? Remotely?
  • What is the plan if the application…
    • …is no longer supported?
    • …goes offline due to a service disruption?
      • …for a couple of hours?
      • …longer than a day?
      • …during finals week/first week of the semester/midterms (high pressure/high stakes times for library users)?

While there are many potential landmines when using third party applications for library services, these applications overall help expand and provide user services in various ways. Instead of becoming a technological recluse and shunning outside applications, use these applications wisely and make sure that your library has a plan in place.

Disruptive Educational Models and Open Education

Eating Your Own Dog Food

One of the most memorable experiences I had as a library student was becoming a patron of my own library. As on online library school student* I usually worked either in my office at pre-approved times, or at home. However, depending on the assignment, sometimes I worked out at the reference area public access computers. It nearly drove me mad, for a very simple reason – this was in the day before optical mouse devices, and the trackballs on our mice were incredibly sticky and jerky, despite regular cleaning routines. It was so bad I wondered how students could stand to work on our workstations, and how it made them feel about the library in general, since there is nothing like a solid hour or so of constantly repeated, albeit small, irritations to make a person develop indelible negative feelings towards a particular environment.

I’ve heard the same thing from colleagues that have started graduate programs here at my university; they are shocked at how hard it can be to be a student in the library, even with insider knowledge, and it can be demoralizing (and galvanizing) to watch classmates and even instructors dismiss library services and resources with “too confusing” or “learning curve too steep” as they ruthlessly practice least-effort satisficing for their information needs.

In information technology circles, the concept of having to use your own platforms/services is known as “eating your own dog food” or “dogfooding.” While there are pitfalls to relying too heavily on it as an assessment tool (we all have insider knowledge about libraries, software, and resources that can smooth the process for us), it is an eye-opening exercise, especially to listen to our users be brutally frank about what we offer — or don’t.

DIY Universities and Open Education

I am suggesting something related but complementary to dogfooding — sampling the models and platforms of a burgeoning movement that has the potential to be a disruptive force in higher education. DIY U and the coming transformation of education are all the rage (pun intended) these days, as prestigious universities and professors, Edupunks, loose collaboratives, and start-ups participate in collaborative free online offerings through various platforms and with different aims: CourseraKhan AcademyP2PUMIT OpenCourseWareUdacityNYU Open Education, and many more. This is a call to action for us as librarians. Instead of endlessly debating what this might mean, or where it might be going, and this movement’s possible effect on academic libraries, I suggest actually signing up for a course and experiencing it first-hand.

For library technologists facing the brave new world of higher education in the 21st century, there are three major advantages to taking a class in one of the new experimental DIY universities. We get to experience new platforms, delivery mechanisms, and modes of teaching, some of which may be applicable to the work of the academic library. In addition, many of the courses offered are technical courses that are directly applicable to our daily work. Thirdly, it allows us as academic participants to personally assess the often intemperate and hyperbolic language on both sides of the debate: “can’t possibly be as good as institutional campus-based face-to-face EVER” versus “This changes everything, FOREVER.” How many faculty on your campuses do you think have actually taken an online class, especially in one of these open educational initiatives? This is an opportunity to become an informed voice in any local campus debates and conversations. These conversations and debates will involve our core services, whether faculty and administrators realize it or  not.

It will also encourage some future-oriented thinking about where libraries could fit into this changing educational landscape. One of the more interesting possible effects in these collaborative,  open-to-all ventures is the necessity of using free or open access high quality resources. Where will that put the library? What does that mean for instructional resources hidden behind a particular institution’s authentication wall? Academic libraries and services have been tied to a particular institution — what happens when those affiliations blur and change extremely rapidly? There are all sorts of implications for faculty, students, libraries, vendors, and open access/open educational resources platforms. As a thought exercise, take a look at these seven predictions for the future of technology-enabled universities from JISC’s Head of Innovation, Sarah Porter. Which ones DON’T involve libraries? As a profession, let’s get out on the bleeding edge and investigate the developing models.

I just signed up for “Model Thinking” through Coursera. Taught by Professor Scott E. Page from the Center for the Study of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan, the course will cover modeling information to make sense of trends, social movements, behaviors, because “evidence shows that people who think with models consistently outperform those who don’t. And, moreover people who think with lots of models outperform people who use only one.” That sounds applicable to making decisions about e-books, collection development, workflow redesign, and changing models of higher education, et cetera.

Some Suggestions:

  • Coursera offers clusters of courses in Society, Networks, and Information (Model Thinking, Gamification, Social Networking Analysis, among others) and Computer Science (Algorithims, Compilers, Game Theory, etc.). If you have a music library or handle streaming media in your library, what about Listening to World Music? If you are curious about humanities subjects that have depended on traditional library materials in the past, try A History of the World since 1300 or Greek and Roman Mythology.
  • Udacity offers Building a Search Engine, Design of Computer Programs, and Programming a Robotic Car (automate a bookmobile?).
  • Set up your own peer class with P2PU, or take Become a Citizen Scientist, Curating Content, or Programming with the Twitter API.
  • If you are in the New York City area and can attend an in-person workshop, General Assembly offers Storytelling Skills, Programming Fundamentals for Non-Programmers, and Dodging the Dangers of Copyright Law (taught by participants in Yale Law School’s Information Society Project) as part of a menu of  tech and tech-business related workshops. These have fees ranging from $15 to $30.
  • Before I take my Model Thinking class, I’m planning to brush up my algebra at Khan Academy.
  • Try the archived lectures at Harvard’s “Building Mobile Applications“, hosted in their institutional repository.
  • Health Sciences Librarian? What about Information Technology in the Health Care System of the Future from MIT OpenCourseWare?


* Full disclosure: I am a proud graduate of University of Illinois’ LEEP (5.0) MSLIS program, and I also have another master’s degree done the old fashioned way, and I am an enthusiastic supporter of online education done correctly.