May 21, 2018

The Importance of the Unforseen Purpose

mobileI first came into contact with the importance of the unforseen purpose as a teenager. For whatever reason I had decided that I wanted to make a mobile or hanging sculpture. At the time, my bedroom where I was going to hang it was about 12’x12′ but with a 12-foot tall ceiling. I decided to make the most of it.

When finished, it extended from near the ceiling to about five feet from the floor. I don’t remember everything I used, but I remember a deer antler, mounted pictures of various sizes, pine cones, and the piece de resistance — a small animal skull. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this was a monster that dwarfed the typical cutesy mobile one finds in the usual Google search. It took up so much of my small room that although it towered above my desk and a bean bag chair, I had to carefully avoid it while moving about the room.

Then we moved to Indiana and built a dome home. That’s when it hit me. I hadn’t made it for my tiny cramped room at all. In the two-story open air of our dome it found its true home, as it filled a large empty space with kinetic art. I just hadn’t known it at the time.

Fast forward to now, and it isn’t a mobile I’m building but technical capability. And the purpose to which I am putting a lot of that technical capability isn’t always in the service of my original purpose. For example, over the last several years I’ve learned to use MapReduce to extract data from the 300 million-plus record database WorldCat. For reasons I don’t need to go into, that entailed me learning the Python programming language.

Little did I know at the time that our Wikipedian in Residence, Max Klein, would introduce me to iPython. iPython is a completely interactive environment where you can write and execute Python code, create visualizations, and even execute system commands while still in the iPython environment. It is astonishing in what you can do with it, and how easy is it is to work with. So astonishing, in fact, that I’ve called it and things like it “the future of computing”.

So when I first began learning Python did I ever imagine what it would lead to? Of course not.

We don’t always know how what we do now will play out in our future, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes the unforseen purpose is the best of all.


Photo courtesy of Ken Lund, Creative Commons License Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

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.