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Technology is not always the answer

I volunteer at the library. I put in 2-4 hours a week at the Special Services division. One of the primary missions of the Division (which consists of one part time employee and a bevy of volunteers) is to find books that homebound patrons would like and deliver the tomes to them. Of course, one wants to make sure that the same senior doesn’t get the same title twice.

The library has a large java based app (probably backed up by a mainframe) that keeps track of all the books. What’s checked out, what’s in transit, and most importantly, who owes fines. But it doesn’t keep records on what patrons have checked out (don’t tell the Feds).

What Special Services does is keep a stack of catalog cards (the old cards that I used to use to look up books on the Russian Revolution or beet production reports for school), and on the blank back of these cards, records the author and date and book title that have been picked for this particular person. These cards are all banded together and kept in a cabinet, filed under the patron’s last name.

This is a database, right? Just not a computerized one. The first day I volunteered, they showed me the system. Being the computer geek, I immediately thought of ways to computerize this database (with PDAs as the client and a java app talking to a database and delivering information to those PDAs). But, there are reasons to stick with the current system.

1. It’s cheap. The cards are being reused and the time of the volunteers is free as well. Not to be discounted in a time where branch libraries have to close one day a week to save funds. A new system would probably
cost thousands of dollars in hardware alone (even if it was built by volunteers with free software), because it would have to be mobile.

2. Mobility is built into the system. When I have to go pick the books for Mrs. Smith for this week, I can take an entire pack of cards out with me, and make sure that the mysteries I pick aren’t ones she’s read before. This is the primary purpose of the database, and it works very well.

3. The very low tech nature of this solution is a selling point. Many many folks are intimidated by new technologies. But darn near everyone is comfortable with pen and paper. There’s a very low barrier to entry. I didn’t have any trouble picking up the system in an hour, and neither has any of the other volunteers.

Not every process is amenable to being computerized. This experience has driven home the old saying–when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Even if it’s not.