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Doing Something Well

We’ve all heard the phrase “victims of their own success.” An instruction program takes off and suddenly librarians run ragged trying to meet the demand. A web app gets so popular it crumbles under the weight of it’s adoring fans. A person becomes known as Someone Who Gets Things Done Well and suddenly ends up on every committee known to man. These things happen all the time, and they usually throw the person or service into a state of frantic instability followed by an uncertain period where it looks like they won’t be able to escape with their good name intact.

A fair number have seen this happen with Twitter lately. Things got so unstable that finally, last week, a bunch of librarians fled to FriendFeed. I don’t often post about this kind of site, mainly because I’m really not in the market for more followers, but last week this whole saga got me to thinking about what it was we liked about Twitter, what it is that I don’t like about FriendFeed, and how this resonates with similar sagas I’m witnessing elsewhere in my life (namely, the Impending Moodle Bloat, and the Continuing Adventure of the Library Catalog).

Since nobody needs to know everything I think about Twitter and FriendFeed, here’s the key difference as they apply to my needs and my preferences. Twitter does a small set of functions and (when it’s functioning properly) does them well. It concentrates on reverse-chronological order, brevity (which forces a certain kind of creativity), and makes its other features slave to those two governing laws. FriendFeed is intended to aggregate stuff and allow conversations to spring up around that stuff. If I wanted, I could share all my bookmarks and photos and blogs and twitter stream and, and, and… basically anything with a feed and a few things without feeds. It’s kind of like the Facebook of microblogging. You can add all kinds of things to it and it does it’s best to present all that stuff in a way that makes sense. And for me, this overabundance of features diluted the site’s effectiveness (though I know others who love it). It ended up eating up more of my time than I wanted (even after I “hid” pretty much everything that people added to their lifestreams) because I had no good way to mentally mark a conversation as “read” since there might be new comments on it, and while I was reading things the screen might reorganize itself so I’d have to go back and figure out what was new and what was old all over again. Non-static reverse chronological order takes more mental energy than I would have thought.

Well, all of this reminded me of some of the worries I have for Moodle. As people come up with all kinds of new things that it could do and new ways to feed information into and out of it and new roles it could fill, will it lose focus enough to hamper its ability to do core functions well? What are it’s core functions, anyway? As it moves from being a “course” management system to a “learning” management system, will it go through Twitter-ish frantic instability?

And, of course, when I think of systems that try to do too many things and therefore fail to do any one thing well, I immediately think of library catalogs and the ILSs of which they are a part.

So after I’d convinced myself that every application should strive to do one thing or a small set of things, and do those things really well, I realized it’s not that simple. The tricky bit is that not everyone’s workflow and preferences are the same. So how do you build a system with mass appeal that only does a few things?

And since I have no answers for these questions, I’ll leave you to answer them for me while I ponder the temptation to do all things for all people after learning that you do one thing really well.

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  1. librarygoon librarygoon

    Very well written! I find myself nodding my head to the vast majority of the points you made. I was wondering if you could extend the being good at just a couple of things concept to librarians in general? There seems to be much talk these days about librarians needing to know many things that where not traditionally in their perview. Do all librarians really need to know how to design a website or build a database in MYSQL? Again I enjoyed the post. Thanks.

  2. Iris Iris

    Thanks, goon. And you make a very good point. I *don’t* think that everyone needs to know everything. I still haven’t written about a very interesting morning we had a Carleton where each librarian did some instruction show-and-tell, and all the rest of us watched and marveled at how incredible it is that with the amount of work we do together and the amount of talking we do, we still don’t know vast amounts about supporting our co-workers’ subject areas. And we think this is a strength.

    The problem is, I don’t think that we’ve yet figured out exactly what the base-line Everybody-Needs-To-Know-This skills are. Without this bit nailed down, the tendency is to try to cover everything “just in case.” (Or, in the case of many LIS schools, cover what they’ve covered before because that seemed to work last time…)

    Thanks for this comment. It really got me thinking!

  3. Steven Kaye Steven Kaye

    goon: They may not need the technical skills, but I’d argue they should know how to evaluate providers of those skills or whether something is needed (a Second Life presence, a website redesign, what have you). Which might require some surface knowledge.

  4. Iris Iris

    Steven, I think you’re both right. I don’t think it’s important that every librarian know how to build an application, but I *do* think it’s important that we all have a sense of what’s involved in such a task, what’s possible, and what’s not possible. And just as you say, we also need to know how to think strategically about what we use and why.

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