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.

A new purpose for RSS

I used to host at Dear Diary. Great service, provided for free. But now I host my own blog (thanks to the good folks at Movable Type and Dion (thanks for the tip, Dion), and I have total control over posting. I did use a simple CGI blog tool for a while, but Movable Type is quite feature rich. It generates RSS feeds from postings automatically.

I’m not sure what RSS really stands for, but it’s simple in concept. It’s an XML standard for making site content changes known to the world. It’s basically like those ‘what’s new’ announcements that appear on websites, but automatically generated and usually automatically picked up and formatted for human consumption (or aggregated). It takes over some of the functionality of those ‘sign me up to be notified of changes to this site’ email lists because, if you point your aggregator at a website’s RSS feed, you’ll be automatically
notified when there are changes–no need to clutter up your inbox. It also subsumes some of the functionality of bookmarks, because, again, you pull data you need, rather than having to visit the sites to see if content has changed.

I used to go out and check 4-5 pundits websites (Joel On Software, DaveNet, SkippingDotNet, and a few others) oh, once a week. I’d visit the sites to see if they’d put up any new articles, which I’d then read. Now, however, I rolled my own RSS aggregator, which outputs a nice listing of changes to some of those websites. It is nice to be informed of new postings, but the downside is that I hardly visit the sites that don’t provide RSS feeds.

I was chatting with some friends after seeing an author speak at a book signing at the Boulder Book Store (Neal Stephenson, promoting Quick Silver. It has pirates!). I was complaining because I am sure there are plenty of free and low cost events out there that I miss because I’m not aware of them. I thought it would be great to have a web site that aggregated all those events for a particular locality into one page that I could visit. ‘Hey, it’s Friday and the CU astronomy department is letting folks look through their telescopes!’ This would be a huge undertaking, however, if one had to screen scrape the ‘New Events’ pages of each interesting organization. If, however, they all made their schedule available as RSS, it would be trivial.

The question is, what do the organizations gain? Increased visibility. If it’s a book signing, the purpose is to draw folks in so they buy books. If it’s a library event, then the more folks one draws, the more the library is being used. If it’s the Boulder Theater, then the more people come to an event, the more beer they can sell.

Think of it as a automated version of the “What’s Happening” section of your daily paper. Wouldn’t that be sweet!

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