November 29, 2020

Lipstick on a Pig 2.0

In the past I've quoted my esteemed colleague at the North Carolina State University Library, Andrew Pace, calling minor library catalog improvements "lipstick on a pig." Sure, the pig may look a little bit better, but it's still a pig.

The point of this is not to merely insult library catalogs, but to identify that in focusing on gloss instead of substance is to miss the real point. Our systems are more broken than that.

Just today something else brought that analogy to mind. David Walker of the California State University central office posted a criticism of the "Library 2.0" meme on Web4Lib. I think it touches on such an important issue and he describes it so well that I will quote the message in its entirety:

I think the largest barrier we face in implementing the ideas of 'Library 2.0' is that libraries have never really solved the fundamental problem from the days of 'Library 1.0' — namely, integration.

Getting your data out to other places and allowing people to contribute data back is all well and good. I'm all for it.

But if your Library is offering RSS feeds and tagging and other social features among a half-dozen vendor-developed systems and hundreds of remotely hosted databases — none of which know anything about each other or even operate in the same way — then we've greatly diminished the utility of these features. Who wants to go hunting around for RSS feeds or tagging records in a dozen different library systems? Would it not be better to have all of that in one system?

I think Library / Learning Management System integration is probably the most important thing academic libraries should be working on. But, again, before we do that, we need to get all of our library systems integrated together, otherwise we just end up recreating the distributed, disconnected mess of the library in a new space.

"Library 2.0" is, as far as I can tell, also about opening systems up, and I think that is ultimately what is going to drive the integration I'm talking about. The problem, though, is that a lot of our vendors are now rushing to add tagging and RSS feeds and other features to their current systems, and not focusing on developing good APIs. How many ILS systems and aggregator sites are still only accessible via Z39.50?

The Library community is driving this by focusing on social features before focusing on integration. Layering Web 2.0 over a fragmented, disconnected systems architecture perpetuates our problems. Let's focus on integration first, demanding that our vendors create good, open APIs. That will make everything else we want to do much, much easier — even the old fashioned things of "Library 1.0".

So yes, blogs, wikis, tagging, and all the apparent accoutrement of “Library 2.0” have their place. But so long as our core systems for providing information to our clientele are fundamentally flawed, it’s all just lipstick on a pig.

Roy Tennant About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant is a Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research. He is the owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib electronic discussions, and the creator and editor of Current Cites, a current awareness newsletter published every month since 1990. His books include "Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anne Grodzins Lipow" (2008), "Managing the Digital Library" (2004), "XML in Libraries" (2002), "Practical HTML: A Self-Paced Tutorial" (1996), and "Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook" (1993). Roy wrote a monthly column on digital libraries for Library Journal for a decade and has written numerous articles in other professional journals. In 2003, he received the American Library Association's LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Excellence in Communication for Continuing Education. Follow him on Twitter @rtennant.


  1. Michelle Boule says:

    This makes me wonder if we are wasting our time. What I mean is that we are spending so much time creating cool, useful 2.0 tools and integrating things in our website, but we still have all these programs (catalogs) that do not work. Would we be better served trying to improve the stuff we need (catalogs) to work better? Only later turning to the 2.0 tools? Can we do both at the same time?

    I think we can do both, but I do not think very many people are.

  2. Hockey Librarian says:

    I think that this isn’t a question of one or the other. We’re dying to put some lipstick on our pig to help the students that we have now. If some sort of add-on software ala Aquabrowser is the answer, and it has some nifty social tools to get the students interested, all the better.

    Another way of looking at it, when someone breaks a bone and in providing first aid you splint it with a tree branch and some torn rags, you don’t quit there. After that you get the individual to a hospital for a full examination and fix. At the moment many of us are in the woods with our catalog (perhaps other services) and having to use some 2.0 splints.

    We’re still looking at ways to make the whole library experience better. From a strictly catalog view this is an examination of everything from the tools to the larger questions of how we interact with other libraries.

  3. Ryan Deschamps says:

    David Delong ( wrote this on my blog once:

    “When you outsource the development of a particular technology system, you usually give away all the knowledge about how that system was designed and built, which may be critical for future maintenance and updating.”

    Sound familiar? That’s not to say that outsourcing the catalogue interface during the “automation” days was ultimately a bad thing, but us librarians failed to understand that AACR2 and subject classification was not enough to maintain a forward-looking service.

    Even so, I think there are exciting times ahead for library catalogues. Pushed on by folks like yourself, I see librarians are moving to fix systems one way or another. This is a positive for the library world, however long we have had to wait.

  4. K.G. Schneider says:

    Roy, as pertinent as these comments are, I was surprised you didn’t go on to talk about the recent RDA-DC agreement and what that could mean for LMS integration. Then again, perhaps you’re being courteous and leaving that discussion to me. ;-)

  5. Kathryn Greenhill says:

    I do think some of us are focussing on the “frilly bits” of Library2.0 instead of the core issues of “save the time of the reader”.

    Given the circumstances, this is not necessarily a Bad Thing. It’s much easier for many of us to create a library blog that makes a more human voice for our libraries than shift either monolithic management or monlithic ILMS to change.

    I have no control over the catalogue or buying decisions, but I can show my staff and users new attitudes and new tools that come with Web2.0 by smaller “proof of concept” projects. More participation, more user focus, easier to use tools in other areas.

    These don’t solve the heart of what is very wrong in our library information management, but maybe they can be a catalyst to help other librarians/our users look at these problems differently and demand change.

  6. Jenny Levine says:

    I have to agree with the commenters that I don’t think it’s either/or, and in fact I’ve been stymied by the assumption it must be that way. Card catalogs weren’t perfect, but we didn’t focus the entire staff’s energies on making them more “usable” and then wait for that to happen before implementing OPACs. Any library that is devoting all of its staff to just one piece of the pie (whether it’s usability, collection development, reference, cataloging, or 2.0 tools) has bigger problems than poor usability or frilly 2.0 add-ons. Staff such as Kathryn should be encouraged to do exactly what she is doing while others such as David should do what he is doing. I don’t understand deriding either’s efforts (not that I think Roy is doing that).

  7. Jenny Levine says:

    Oops – I meant to note that I don’t think David is deriding L2, either. It’s those who label it a “bandwagon,” “cult,” etc. whom I don’t understand.