Managing Library Systems with Care

How can we learn to value the work of maintenance?

A woman librarian engaged in system management

The problem with maintenance

Maintenance is typically the largest component of a system’s life cycle (Butt, S.A. et al., 2022), but many factors discourage proactive maintenance in libraries and beyond. These include the drives to “innovate,” launch new products, and demonstrate relevance through the application and response to tech trends. As Meredith Farkas wrote in her blog post on slow librarianship, “[W]hy put effort into maintaining an existing service when no one cares about or recognizes that labor and only values original creations?” (2023). This (dis)incentive structure is not unique to libraries: maintenance issues touch fields as diverse as engineering, economics, and urban planning, among others. As noted by Rachel Mattern, the problem of “fetishized innovation” is pervasive and woven into our broader culture and society” (2018).

In spring 2023, we presented at the library technology conference Code4Lib on the topic of maintenance. This presentation was born out of our collective experiences in an academic library watching our team migrate, upgrade, and repeat. For example, Clara’s first five years on the job saw no less than five different system migrations/major system upgrades. The cycle of migrating and updating often left little time to make improvements outside the scope of the migrations/upgrades themselves. Amid major infrastructure projects and responding to immediate systems needs, maintenance can become a challenge. This led us to wonder: How can we manage systems with care? Is there a way to balance maintenance and innovation? What are the ways to integrate maintenance into our work, helping to improve and keep systems relevant?

What is maintenance?

Maintenance is “all of the work that goes into preserving technical and physical orders” (Russell & Vinsel) or “the activity to keep a software system alive and meet requirements dictated by a customer or environment” (Sharon Christa et al., 2017). We like the second definition, specifically because of its introduction of user requirements. This allows us to conceive of maintenance as more than the work of “keeping the system alive” (or keeping the lights on) but, rather, ensuring the system continues to respond to evolving user needs and stakeholder requirements.

Beyond the initial definitions, other authors have proposed different types of maintenance activities (Butt, S.A. et al., 2022):

  • Corrective Maintenance (e.g., bug fixes)
  • Perfective Maintenance (e.g., improvements, new user requirements)
  • Adaptive Maintenance (e.g., keeping software usable in a changing environment)
  • Preventive (e.g., future-proofing)

These categorizations offer a broader definition of maintenance, one that includes future-proofing and perfective behavior alongside basic improvements/bug fixes and upgrading to maintain usability.

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How can we manage our systems with care?

Start a redefinition: Innovation vs. maintenance

Let’s start by reframing how we think of maintenance. We ourselves have been guilty of conceiving of maintenance in a narrow and restrictive way (i.e., corrective actions such as bug fixes or adaptive actions such as upgrades). This narrow definition leaves out the possibility of innovation through maintenance and creates a dichotomy of maintenance versus innovation.

If we put our users and their needs at the center of our conversations, how can we engage, view, and adapt our current systems to meet those needs? This isn’t to say we need to keep and maintain systems forever, but a cyclical review of user needs against our systems will drive what we prioritize in keeping, maintaining, developing, and (eventually) retiring. Can we reframe our activities such that these possibilities (and their advantages) are clearly communicated to our stakeholders?

Russell and Vinsel (members of the Maintainers movement) posit that, “Maintenance is a rich subject on its own, and one does not need to bash innovation or innovation-speak in order to establish the profound importance of maintenance and maintainers. Moreover, the more closely we examine maintenance practices and routines, the more we see that creativity—and even innovation—is an essential characteristic. In other words, some maintainers can be innovative, and new technologies can play important roles in maintenance regimes” (Russell & Vinsell, 2018) (emphasis added).

What are ways to integrate maintenance into our work?

Here is an inexhaustive and completely subjective, untested set of ideas:

For ourselves:

Making maintenance a first thought

  • Anticipating and expecting maintenance as a part of the year’s activities. Building an annual plan that looks at maintenance first, then reviewing what space is remaining for other activities.
  • Determining how much time we spend on maintenance and what percentage of one’s work goes to maintenance activities. Using that knowledge to design job tasks and annual goals and advocate to our stakeholders.

Letting go

  • Not all systems/technologies need to be maintained. Libraries love to preserve (it’s our mission!), but if we circle back to user needs, do we need all those systems? Are they ALL still meeting a need or are there opportunities to let go?

For our stakeholders:

Translating technical work

  • Communicating the work we do will always be a challenge. However, making technical work comprehensible to outside audiences is critical for demonstrating the value of our efforts and the connection to user satisfaction.
  • Compiling and articulating what maintenance tasks are left uncompleted and the downstream effects of these decisions.

Reviewing our reward systems

  • Determining what gets rewarded and why. Is the library’s incentive structure properly aligned with where we want to go as an organization? These are higher-level conversations, but we challenge you to consider how these conversations can be started.

We don’t presume to have the answers; as noted earlier, the devaluing of maintenance work is bigger than libraries and bigger than technology. However, we believe that starting these conversations, looking at upcoming priorities, and thinking critically about the way forward are the first steps. To echo Meredith Farkas, putting user needs at the center of these conversations will both ensure that we can advocate to nontechnical audiences and that we also don’t cling to maintaining a system that’s no longer relevant. User needs can guide us in our prioritization and annual planning. Once we can articulate the cost of maintenance and the deleterious effects of neglecting it (in a way that’s immediately accessible to nontechnical audiences), we put ourselves in a great position of advocacy and agency.

Will our stakeholders stop wanting new, exciting projects tomorrow? Of course not. Will they immediately comprehend the scale and scope of maintenance? We can’t be sure of that either. We do know, however, that beginning these conversations is the start of the path forward and we are encouraged by the increasing discourse in libraries around these critical issues.


Butt, S.A., Melisa, A.C., Misra, S. (2022). Software Product Maintenance: A Case Study. In: Saeed, K., Dvorský, J. In K. Saeed & J. Dvosrký (Eds), Computer Information Systems and Industrial Management. CISIM 2022. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 13293 (pp. 81-92). Springer.

Christa, S., Madhusudhan, V., Suma, V., & Rao, J. J. (2017). Software maintenance: From the perspective of effort and cost requirement. In S. Satapathy, V. Bhateja, & A. Joshi, A. (Eds),  Proceedings of the International Conference on Data Engineering and Communication Technology. Advances in Intelligent Systems and Computing, 469. Springer (pp. 759-768).

Farkas, M. (2023).  Building a better library tech future with slow librarianship: Is innovation the best direction for library tech. Choice LibTech Insights Blog.

Mattern, S. (2018). Maintenance and care. Places Journal.

Mushet, M. (1984). Life after implementation: Managing system maintenance. Information System Management, 1(2), 55-65.

Russell, A.L., & Vinsel, L. (2018). After innovation, turn to maintenance. Technology and Culture 59(1), 1-25.

Summers, L., Glaeser, E., Wessel, D., Ajami, N., Turner, M., & Wilson, D. (2017). From bridges to education: best bets for public investment. Lecture given at the Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, January, 9.

Tillman, R. (2023). Indispensable, interdependent, and invisible: A qualitative Inquiry into library systems maintenance. College & Research Libraries, 84(1), 121-136.

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