September 22, 2017

The Great Plateau

plateauI had what you might call an unusual early adulthood. Whereas most young adults march off to college and garner the degree that will define their life, I dropped out of high school at the 8th grade, attended an alternative high school (read dope-smoking, although I passed at the time) for two years, then dropped out entirely. The story is long, but I helped to build two dome homes in Indiana, built and slept in a treehouse through an Indiana winter, and returned to California where I had been mostly raised, two weeks after I turned 18, with not much more than bus fare and a duffle bag.

From there I built my own life, on my own terms, which meant (oddly enough, although there are reasons if you cared to ask) a job at the local community college library in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and a life in the outdoors, which had always beckoned.

This is all background for the point I want to make. In the end, I paused before seriously attending college for about seven years. I dabbled in courses, I learned to run rivers and many other things. And that made all of the difference.

In the end, what made the difference was the timing. Had I entered college when I should have (in 1975), that would have been too early for the computer revolution. As it was, I entered college exactly with the computer revolution. I remember writing my first software program just as I was getting serious about pursuing my college education in the early 1980s, on a Commodore PET computer. My fate was sealed, and I didn’t even realize it.

Later, at Humboldt State University where I majored in Geography and minored in Computer Science, I wrote programs in FORTRAN to process rainfall data for my Geography professor. From there, I jumped on every single computer and network opportunity there was to be had.

I was an early and enthusiastic adopter (and proselytizer in the various organizations where I found work) for the Macintosh computer. I still was, when I joined OCLC seven years ago and broke the Microsoft stranglehold that still existed.

I was an operator of an early automated circulation system (CLSI) at Humboldt State. And not long after that, I co-wrote the first book about the Internet aimed at librarians.

So I am here to tell you, that after a career of being on the cutting edge, the cutting edge doesn’t seem so cutting anymore. We seem to have reached, in libraries and I would argue in society more generally, a technical plateau. We might see innovation around the edges, but there is nothing I can point to that is truly transformative like the Internet was.

This is not necessarily a problem. In fact, systemic, major change can be downright painful. Believe me, I lived it in trying to make others understand how transformative it would be when few actually wanted to hear it. But for someone like me who counted his salad days as finding and pursuing the next truly transformative technology, this feels like a desert. Well, call it a plateau.

A long straight stretch without much struggle, or altitude gain, or major benefit. It is what it is. But you will have to forgive me if I regret the days when massive change was obvious, and surprising, and massively enabling.

Photo of the Tonto Plateau, Grand Canyon National Park, by Roy Tennant,

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. Thought-provoking and revealing, Roy! Love that you use this photo of the Tonto Plateau as your icon. Perhaps in life, as in canyon geomorphology, plateaus are useful and necessary things (especially on the long hike upward). Thanks for sharing this story.

  2. Jean Armour Polly says:

    I agree with you, Roy.

  3. I too agree. (Hi, Jean!)

    The amount of innovation and exploration taking place in libraries has plateaued. We realized that our library catalogs were not meeting people’s needs. So we dumped the data, mixed it with some outside content, indexed it using mostly modern technology, and called it a “discovery system”. This does not go nearly far enough. It is too generic and not nearly as proactive as it could be. Take a look at any library, and you often see rows of tables with computers. Somewhere nearby are scanners. This is a modern version of the medieval scriptorium. What are we doing to enable to the use, interpretation, and understanding of texts as opposed to merely providing access or transforming them? Instead of figuring out how to collect and index the scholarly literature from the ‘Net, libraries license this content for a fee. Instead of just saying “no” to 7% increases in annual subscription fees, we cut off our noses to spite our faces; we sacrifice the creation of broad and deep collections. If we were to pool our resources, then we could resolve some of this problem.

    I think this plateau is the result of a number of things: the bust of the dot-com boom, the subsequent “economic downturn” of 2008, and inability to truly measure the effectiveness of libraries, and the generally speaking non-euntreprenurual characteristics of the library profession.

  4. Great story, Roy.. never knew your early story and path to libraries and computers/technology. I agree with Eric too — we’re not on any revolutionary curve right now, except an ongoing “digital” one. If it moves, digitize it. I wonder if we could get into that thoughtful side of our resources if we gave our patrons or users a supported platform –blogs for our community. Library offers publishing, etc. Maybe a new wave to ride. But, in general, it’s not a high-water tech innovation time; 1980-2010 was probably a peak era, IMHO.
    DrWeb aka Michael McCulley

  5. Jackie Dooley says:

    Have I ever thanked you for breaking the Microsoft stranglehold at OCLC? Well, if not, or even if so, thank you!! Praise the gods that you started your tenure a year before I did. :)