Minimal Computing in Libraries: Introduction

[The following paper was delivered at the DLF 2016 Forum in Milwaukee as the introduction to the “Minimal Computing in Libraries: Case Studies and the Case” panel]

Content management systems like Wordpress, Drupal, Omeka and even OJS have had a huge impact in digital scholarship. Before those tools emerged, building a website was actually kind of tough. Even if you managed to get access to a webserver, you had to have a little tech know-how to get something online … and to make it look good was a special challenge.

The rise of the CMS changed most of that and the advent of hosted versions of CMSs changed all of that. No server, no problem. No HTML/CSS skills, no problem. And across the world wide web, millions of websites bloomed …

By and large this has been wonderful. The ease with which you can go from an idea to a project has significantly lowered the barrier of entry for scholars who want to take advantage of the web as a platform for scholarly communication.

However, as we also know, there are no free lunches and the costs of depending on these technologies can be both hidden and steep.

Let’s start with free, hosted solutions like wordpress.com. While this is an invaluable tool for some situations, no one would recommend using it for work that needs to be tightly controlled, institutionally branded and preserved for the long term.

This is why many libraries host their own instances of these tools. Of course the decision to adopt these tools has never been made lightly and I bet there are more than a handful of you in this room who have been on either side of those negotiations. The argument adopted by the digital scholarship librarians and others on the public services side was that these tools would allow them to help users get up and running on a project quickly and that it was better, from a preservation perspective, to have most people using the same tool and to have the library (or even the school’s central IT office) controlling the sites from the beginning.

On the other side of the meeting table would be sysadmins, the developers and their bosses who were thinking about all the dependencies and the plugins and the themes and all the potential for incompatibility. It’s not that these things are impossible to manage but they do take time … time that might be needed to work on the ILS or the repository.

And, of course, everyone was right. It is better to have a good, in-house answer to users who want to build a digital project because, if you don’t, you might get the reputation as the place where project ideas go to die. And anyway, some people won’t take no for answer. They’ll get someone else to build their project, go win a bunch of awards for it and then bring it back to the library because now it needs to be taken care of forever. At the same time, the IT office is not being lazy when they push back about getting involved with this kind of work. It is time consuming and the maintenance and security costs are ongoing and somewhat unpredictable. I – and others in my role – did not always appreciate the magnitude of what we were asking from the sys admins.

So what we want to talk about today is a kind of third way and it’s called minimal computing. I’m going to brag a little and say that I predicted this back in probably 2006. I was using WordPress for the first time and I joked to the person next to me that one day hipsters would rediscover raw HTML and CSS and build artisanal static websites. So, DLF, I’d like for you to meet those hipsters.

While simple static websites is where I have personally engaged with minimal computing, the concept is not limited to web development. Alex Gil, one of our panelists, has written that his engagement with minimal computing hinges on the question “What do we need?” From this perspective - which is the perspective of this panel - a minimal computing approach can speak to web development but also hardware and design.

While it is a simple question, “what do need?,” in some ways it marks a departure from what has become business as usual in digital scholarship. From my perspective, it seems that the conversation about digital scholarship has been dominated by a narrative about innovation. However, I’ve also been sensing a counter narrative emphasizing maintenance and care. This is not only an emerging trend but, in some ways, a reaction against all this talk about innovation.

There are many reasons why you might want to consider minimal computing solutions in your work. Going back to the example of static websites, because there are basically no dependencies, the websites are almost maintenance free. No plugins to update, no PHP to worry about and no proliferating SQL databases taking up space and hiding a bunch of garbage. It might also make it easier to expose your collections as data so that they can be remixed, repurposed and data mined.

If all of that makes you feel selfish about minimal computing, there are also some altruistic reasons to embrace this technology. I enjoy pretty good access to technology as do most people who work in research institutions. However, the way I use the internet is not how everyone on the planet experiences the internet … and honestly, it’s now how everyone in my neighborhood uses the internet. Doing our work with a variety of users in mind is an important part of our commitment to access.

As you’ve probably gathered, i’m excited about the possibilities of minimal computing. However, there are a few issues to keep in mind. First, while “minimal computing” may be small in terms of design and server space, It is not necessarily minimal from a labor perspective. What makes a lot of our unsustainable tools so attractive is that lowered the barriers to creating digital projects. If we raise them again, there will be those who will be at least temporarily left out and it probably won’t be wealthy institutions.

Furthermore, there is a temptation when talking about minimal computing to separate “content” from “platform” and “design” as if the these things were ontologically distinct. One of the great promises of digital scholarship has been that we would have new, exciting ways to share work, tell stories and engage audiences. The platforms are part of how we have done that, they are parts of the stories we tell and our choices about them are meaningful. It should be noted that this problem is not exclusive to minimal computing but I simply want to point out that it has not gone away either.