April 19, 2018

Power Tools

OK, I admit it, I’m a hardware geek. I love hardware of virtually any variety — building, climbing, rafting — you name it. I have a thing for tools that just won’t quit. Plus, I’m quite aware of the importance of gear of many types. As I’ve said in the past, there are three things that can keep you alive in the wilderness: 1) having the right gear, 2) making the right decisions, and 3) luck.

Gear — the right gear — can save your life.

But tools can be more than life-saving, they can be life-enhancing. Take my recent vacation, for example. My iPad is never far away from me, and I used it many times, from choosing and booking restaurants to finding my way in strange cities.

Also, I was parked in a lot in New Orleans when I was approached by a man whose rental car battery had died. He wondered if I had jumper cables. I didn’t, unfortunately, but later it hit me. I had my Leatherman tool (see picture) and with it we could remove my van’s battery, drop it in his car, and get it started. So that’s what we did. Without a tool like that there was nothing I could have done.

Tools in a digital library context often provide similar benefits, although they tend to be different in nature. I would say that a basic tool for any digital librarian is likely a computer running a LAMP stack:

  • L = Linux
  • A = Apache web server
  • M = MySQL
  • P = A “P” programming language such as Perl or Python

With that, there is very little you can’t do. Well, that is, once you install the dependencies of whatever else you’re wanting to run. But you get the idea. It’s a basic platform from which much else is made possible. It’s an essential tool set.

Some of the other digital library tools in my repertoire include:

  • Swish-e – I’ve used this indexing software since the mid-90s, and haven’t seen a reason to change. With it, I’ve set up and maintained a variety of web sites that function as if they are database-supported but in fact are simply flat XML files that are indexed using Swish-e (see, for example, FreeLargePhotos.com).
  • XSLTProc – Sure, there are many options for XML processing out there and I won’t attempt to defend this particular decision except to say that it is easy to use and does what I need it to do (process XSLT stylesheets against specified XML files). Again, it underpins a number of my web sites.
  • Nano – You can stop laughing now. Seriously. Stop laughing. I mean it. Nano is a simple text editor (before it was Pico, which was what the PINE linemode email system used for message editing). I use it to do simple editing tasks in text files and programs on the server. I know it isn’t nearly as cool emacs, or even vi, but hey, it’s what I’m used to.
Tools are power. They give you capabilities you would not have without them. I received another lesson about this while on the same trip where my Leatherman tool came in so handy. I was using that tool to put together a desk I bought for my daughter, and I was just about done when I hit a step where a hammer was required. I didn’t have a hammer, and the Leatherman tool wasn’t up to this particular job. So I went outside and found a suitable rock. After using it to pound in some tacks, I noticed I had chipped off some of the rock on the side I was using and it made it even more suited to the task, as it kept the rock from slipping from the head of the nail. I had created a tool from what I had at hand. Now if that isn’t power I don’t know what is.
Tell me about some of your favorite digital library tools in the comments below. I’m always looking for new tools. Heck, I’m a tool GEEK.
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. Steven Schwengel says:

    There is no shame in loving Nano, paint or notepad in MS Windows for the love of the simplicity each product brings in my humble opinion. :)

    Yep, call me old school too, but when I want to type out a note quickly I’ll go use notepad. The launch time is phenomenally quick and I don’t have excess clutter on the screen of ribbons and abundant number of drop down menus. I may start something in notepad and then finish it up in MS Word for spell check or go all fancy and use bullets or something for a paper based memo with a header. Notepad to me is like having a clean sheet of white paper where I can give the content of whatever I’m typing out at the time laser focus.

    As for Paint. MS Paint has quick load times and can save a screen grab in a format I can use quickly. Usually I don’t need stunning graphics and if I’m doing anything serious at all I’ll move up to MS Publisher or in the rare case GIMP for graphics. Why use a sledge hammer to pound in a small tack when a simple hammer (or leatherman in a pinch) will do?

    As for nano, I too find it a great tool when coding something just a hundred lines long or smaller, but when using nesting or long procedures that are nicely closed out when I need to isolate a block of code — then I’ll use something more in line with that level of complexity. Nano has the benefit of lower overhead and without the detailed or fancy integrated development environment (IDE) with all the bells & whistles (one of those packages, I can’t remember which one, can even run Tetris for ultimate diversion if I remember correctly).