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Month: March 2005

Sometimes Paper Trumps the Screen

Sometimes Paper Trumps the Screen

I’ve been reading a lot about ebooks lately. In Japan, they read them on their cellphones. Some folks here on this continent feel that ebooks are the natural replacement for paper books: “Libraries should be looking ahead now and take an e-book future for granted.” [<a href="Teleread] Is the ebook inevitable? Is it desirable?

There are two conversations going on in this ebook debate, and I think they need to be separated. First, we have the academic monograph; this is the sort of thing Google is going to end up digitizing. Would it be useful to have these resources keyword-searchable at our fingertips? While Michael Gorman has expressed his unhappiness at the idea, I think opening up academic monographs to searches deeper than the title page and table of contents is a good thing. I keep thinking of all those collections of papers I kept finding in my Ph.D days whose subject headings didn’t come close to covering the depth and breadth of information held within; digitizing that work can open it up not so much to lazy students who only want to strip a sentence or two out of it, but to earnest and diligent students and scholars who don’t have an expert on hand to direct them to the best in a field, to those hidden treasures nestled in a collection of related by entirely different works. Digitizing academic monographs can help us move beyond the limitations of a tight controlled vocabulary and sometimes awkward categorization. It can make up for the difficulty involved in summarizing a volume of essays in a few short terms. It will assist scholars in reaching out past the boundaries of their own disciplines by linking all academic sources that cite certain names, terms, phrases or ideas; academics are on one hand notoriously boxed into their own literature and their own fields, but are also the first to praise the idea of interdisciplinary work. Disposing of the vendor-imposed divisions between one variety of journal and another, freeing up information for universal searching of academic monographs, allows scholars to independently discover far more resources than they could previously. So I’m not at all opposed to digitizing the academic monograph.

At the same time, I strongly doubt it will disappear from the shelves. It’s wonderful to be able to keyword search through a volume for that phrase you quoted in your dissertation but lost the citation for, but I’m not sure I’d want to read Domination and the Arts of Resistance on my screen. And I’m probably one of the few people you might manage to convince to do so. Much of the time, people are looking for a specific sort of book when they come into the library; the OPAC works very well when you know just what you’re looking for. Say you’re looking for a history book on Catherine de Medici. You search the OPAC, you find Catherine de Medici: A History. You need to read it because you’re writing a paper on her, your professor wrote this book, and you expect to read through most of it. It’s 350 pages long. What would you rather do; download a PDF file of the book, or take the battered library copy and start flipping through it on the bus on the way home?

In some ways I’m still pretty old school. When I’m doing hardcore research I bring those tiny little fat notebooks with me. I keep one open and a pen in hand while I read. I write down everything I think is interesting and every idea I have while I read, with page numbers in the margin. I have a box full of pastel-coloured post-it notes, and I use them to take notes in library books. I write down lines that are important, arguments I’m having with the author, or points that spin off my head while I’m reading. Sometimes I summarize the chapter at the end, linking two post-it notes together. I know many library staff would cringe at my use of post-it notes in books, but I take them all out when I’m done (with page numbers added), and paste them into my notes for posterity. And I’ve never lifted any text off with my gentle adhesive, I promise.

What would make the PDF version of Catherine de Medici: A History more attractive to me: the ability to a) highlight lines or paragraphs, b) “dog ear” particular pages, c) add notes and marginalia to my heart’s content. Essentially, I want to be able to write all over that file in a way that’s difficult with a book. I have little doubt that this will come sooner rather than later, and in that case, I may well prefer the PDF version.

But I don’t need to parse every book I read quite so carefully. Sometimes I just need a page or two of good notes. Sometimes that reading is mostly background, to help me find my thesis and fill out the gaps. I don’t necessarily have to be able to recite chapter and verse. Sometimes I’m just going to sit in the corner and flip through the book for an hour and consider it read. Paper is a very good technology in those respects. In my graduate school days 9 times out of 10 I didn’t even bother to photocopy the class readings. Why photocopy when I can take my 2 hours of reserve time to actually read and digest the content? You have no idea how much money I’ve saved by reading and taking notes rather than making myself a copy.

So I don’t personally see digitization of monographs as a huge threat to the paper monograph. I think we still need them; the digitization might just help us to realize the book is there.

The second half of the ebook conversation is a public library issue. Is the ebook going to overtake the printed book for pleasure reading? Some say yes. However, paperback technology is pretty hard to beat. With a book, I can:

a) drop it in the bathtub and not either kill myself accidentally or ruin it,
b) take it to the beach and not worry about the detrimental effects of sand, salt, sun, children’s feet, or water,
c) not having the screen flickering and dying on me, the hard drive taking a nose dive, or other such technical glitch when I get to a particularly exciting part,
d) take it on the subway and not worry much if I forget and leave it there,
e) take it on a long flight and not worry about running out of battery power,
f) not find myself at a loss if I forget to plug the thing in one night, leaving me without it for a few hours in the morning (I do this with my ipod ALL THE TIME),
g) hold on to it, read it, and flip the pages with one hand,
h) leave it on a table in a restaurant or other public place, go to the bathroom, and return to find it still there,
i) take it camping and not worry about it breaking or running out of power,
j) display it proudly on my bookshelf and brush its spine with my fingers,
k) lend it to friends and family, regardless of their operating system of choice or complete lack thereof (the case of everyone in my family),
l) throw it angrily across the room when it ends in a way I don’t like (not that I’ve ever done this),
m) inscribe it lovingly to a friend and give it as a gift.

And this is not to say that I have no knowledge of the screen readers. I am in fact one myself when it comes to fiction that is nowhere but on the net. In fact, back in the day I wrote fiction for the web myself, upwards for 400,000 words of it (at least). And I know that people will read novel-length fiction on their screens; I’ve got the email to prove it. Very often people will read 100,000 words or more on their screens in a single night. But in the end, we all still prefer our paper books. We like the technical qualities they have, and just because the technology is old doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant.

The right technology for the right moment, I say. Sometimes, paper trumps the screen.

Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
I picked up Wicked near the beginning of the fall term, so this review is substantially late. I’m not sure where I heard about it; it’s always difficult to remember the preconceptions I had about a book prior to actually reading it. But I heard about it somewhere and was intrigued, though I was never a rabid Oz fan.

In sum, Wicked is a retelling of The Wizard of Oz, but from the point of view of the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West, whom the author, Gregory Maguire names Elphaba. The story begins with Elphaba’s birth, which is shrouded in hints of evil, blood-thirstiness, and the conjunction of faith and witchcraft. But as the story of her life progresses, Elphaba becomes less and less potentially evil and more and more astute critic of the world around her. In the end, she appears to be one of the few truly good people in Oz.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say about it after I finished. I was in a dismal mood that day, I remember that, and somehow the end of it seemed unsatisfying and strange to me. Strange and not strange, since it ended exactly they way it had to. (We’ve all seen the movie at least, even if we haven’t read the books.) This is an elaborate and well-thought-out interpretation of that technicolour story, one that invokes and fights against the ethos of the film at every turn. The echo of that scary, green-skinned lady in the movie (“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!”) haunts the story in a very deliberate and teasing way.

I love fanfiction. I love the idea of it, I love the interaction of the audience with the author’s world. I love the boldness of a reader taking a story and turning it into their own, and I love that the actual details of a universe, complicated as they are to create from nothing, do not, in the end, define any story. Everyone can write essentially the same story with the same characters over and over and have it turn out entirely different every time. In fact, I would say there is a closer relationship between many different stories written by one author than there is between one story written by many authors. As it turns out, it’s what’s behind the story, the words themselves, the metaphors and ideas that makes the thing what it is, not the details, not the names of the characters or even the plot.

So I was more than ready to accept Wicked. And I loved what Maguire did with the Wicked Witch of the West. He says that he did not actually intend to make Elphaba so sympathetic, she just ended up that way. Possibly that’s what makes her such a strong character. And I suppose this is more of a character sketch than a story. Which sounds like a criticism, but it’s not really. We know the story already, we’re not reading this book to find out about the story. We’re reading it to have the wicked witch’s motivations revealed to us. There’s a moment in this book where the film takes over, where you can’t help but see Judy Garland pop up in front of you. Most of the book is a long lead up to the events of the film, and as a reader you feel a bit nervous when the familiar plot and imagery takes over. Suddenly you are reminded that this is a story with a strict timeline, and that you know the sad fate of this green-skinned woman you’ve come to love.

I loved the politics of this book, the complexity Maguire added to an essentially simplistic world. (Not having read them, I can’t speak for the books, which may or may not be simplistic, but it seems clear that Wicked is in fact fanfiction for the film, not the books.) The Wicked Witch of the West is a radical socialist in a fascist world. This might have been heavy-handed if he weren’t writing it in L. Frank Baum’s universe, but, like rap music, Maguire is lifting a riff of discourse when he samples Oz, and everything he adds on top of it works.

The question of racism is central to the book, but it covers some uncommon forms of racism. Elphaba, the green-skinned girl; the talking animals whose civil rights are being slowly eroded until they are entirely gone; the reddish peasants in the muddy borderlands who are considered less than human; the Munchkins marked by their shortness and considered unmarriageable by the snooty Glinda. All dominated by a ruthless and mysterious wizard who arrived from some distant place and demands complete devotion. Again, all this focus on how exteriors don’t make the person might be over the top if it weren’t speaking directly to the film. We do think the wicked witch is evil primarily because of her sickly green skin and the tone of her voice. We do think the talking animals and the tiny Munchkins are funny. Speaking directly to the discourse we were all participants of, the deconstruction works.

I read Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister last night. Maguire set his re-telling of Cinderella in Haarlem at the height of the tulip craze in the Netherlands. Generally I avoid historical fiction because I spent too long studying history, and when I catch a detail that’s out of place I can’t ever quite forgive the author for it. It pushes me out of my suspension of disbelief, never to return. But Maguire clearly did his homework. Key elements of Dutch history emerge in this book; the Flemish artists and their domestic subjects, the impact of the Reformation on daily life, the streetscape of an early modern town, medical practices and the spectre of witchcraft, the importance of dowries and the complex relationship of women to their families, and so forth. While the research is clearly there, it’s relegated to the background and doesn’t interfere with the narrative. This book is exactly like the sort of person I would date; this books is like a woman who is so extremely smart and so well-read that she doesn’t feel any need to prove it to you.

Reading a number of books by one author often leads you to an understanding of the author’s own obessions; with Gregory Maguire, we are constantly considering the significance and consequence of beauty and the lack of it, with a variety of conclusions. Elphaba in Wicked is green-skinned and plain and fights against the idea that this marks her as evil; Glinda, the beautiful witch, looks the part of goodness but fails to live up to expectations. Iris, the narrator of Confessions, is undeniably ugly. One of the most striking moments in the book describes the moment when Iris first sees a portrait of herself that she has been posing for for weeks; the artist didn’t want her to see it, but the artist’s apprentice innocently shows her. She sees it as mockery, as an accusation of her ugliness. The artist and the artist’s apprentice both point out that it is not her, it’s only a version of the composition of her face, without that which makes her her behind it. And the exact same thing is true when the artist paints a parallel portrait of the most beautiful girl in the world, Clara (Cinderella). These musings on beauty and ugliness are compelling, and in this book we are left with the moral that they are both elements of the same human quality, that both are neither evidence of God’s mistakes nor of God’s grace, and that both are a gift and a curse. Neither beauty nor ugliness can ruin or elevate, and neither define a person. But there is a sneaking undertone throughout the story that beauty is in fact a destructive, almost diabolical force; when the artist captures the stunningly beautiful Clara on canvas in what is inevitably his best work, he is ruined by the knowledge that he can never do better than this. Clara’s mother fears that Clara, who will always be preceded in life by this perfect portrait, will never be more beautiful and thus will always be a disappointment. Throughout the book, Iris is looking for an evil imp that her mother says is tailing the family; at points in the story, I felt sure that the imp was actually Clara’s beauty. But in the end, the one with the shard of evil inside her is Iris, not Clara.

In both Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Gregory Maguire fits a complicated and believable backstory behind a well-known tale, and then takes great relish in retelling all the familiar details (including flying monkeys and pumpkin carriages) with the echo of his construction behind them. They are stories, but also commentary, cultural criticism, and philosophy.

Up next for me: Mirror, Mirror and Lost.

Pants of Spee

Pants of Spee

Picking through my stats for the search strings that hit my blog continues to amuse and amaze me. Some of my more recent favourites:

“why am I nervous about everything”
I can just picture this person, which I imagine is a woman, crouching over her computer one evening tapping this frustrated question into Google. There’s something very sad about it, and something strangely hopeful in the process; will Google come up with answer? Google as therapist. An interesting take on the technology.

“critique of library collection abuse”
Please don’t abuse the collection. It’s not very nice.

“who is google emulating”
Possibly my favourite search string of all time. I’m sorry to say that I have yet to answer that question, or even pose that question really, but I’m thrilled to have been included in this person’s results page. I have a sinking feeling that this search was performed by a library school student required to write a paper on the subject or something like that, but in my more optimistic moments I imagine it’s just a kindred spirit out there. Who is Google emulating? Interesting question. My gut instinct is to say the reference desk, but the bigger they get and the more services they add, that becomes less and less clear. And I guess it depends also on what they think of all these crazy search strings they get. I think they are as intrigued by them as I am and that they won’t discourage the confessional style Google-as-question-answerer model people are using, which makes them more like reference librarians than online catalogues. But this may be a post for another day.

“make your page searchable on MSN using bots”
This sort of feels like a spam search string to me. It comes from an MSN search. You can make a website searchable by allowing bots to index it, but then again allowing bots to index your site is the default. Now that I’m looking at it….who needs a bot to make a page searchable? On my computer you just need to hit apple-f to get a search box and then type in your terms in order to search a page. Sheesh. Referrer spam needs to get more sophisticated than this.

“Pants of spee”
Not sure what this one is, but I’m sure I need pants of spee too.

“kids can post their thoughts”
This is a strange search. Clearly this has something to do with the read/write web, but beyond that I have no idea. Blogs? Wikis? Bulletin boards? I can’t exactly parse the thinking that would go behind this kind of search. Was this a line from a bit of promotional material, and the user was trying to locate the service? Anyway, kids can indeed post their thoughts, and a lot of them do it via livejournal.

“librarian entropy”
Since entropy is one of my top ten favourite words, I’m very happy to have been included on this user’s list of results. What do you think librarian entropy is about? We break down slowly over time? I mean, I guess that’s true. The slow decline of librarianship, from Deweyesque heights a hundred years ago to confused scrabbling now? That doesn’t seem fair.

“picture of sleeping librarian”
That sounds like a challenge to me. Let me get a phone with a camera in it and I’ll get you your pictures of sleeping librarians. (Having said that, I will never be invited to anyone’s house ever again.)

“luckiest person in the world”
Getting into the list of hits for this web search is like getting a pithy fortune in a fortune cookie. When you search for the luckiest person in the world, you get me. I feel blessed.

“you shouldn’t become a librarian”
Another interesting thing to type into Google, particularly in light of the “who is Google emulating” string. That would look entirely like the user is telling Google not to become a librarian. Who is the “you” in this scenario, if not Google? Presumably the user was searching for any page that recommends that people not become librarians. Perhaps the user is feeling pressure from friends and family to become a librarian, and is looking for resources with which to defend herself. In that case, I probably know this person and have been pressuring her myself. So many interesting stories behind these strings. Of course, those are interesting stories entirely of my own making, but still.

“easy once you know how to do it ipod”
The ipod is easy even when you don’t know how to do it. But man, that phrase is haunting me. Everything is easy once you know how to do it.

“online virtual horse activities”
What is it with some people and their horse fascination? Leaving aside for the moment the strangeness of that query, honestly, what is it with horses? Leaving aside the people who breed them or own them or train them or whisper to them, whatever, all that stuff. The city girls with mad crushes on horses, that’s what I’m talking about. It’s like a phase girls go through, the horse-loving phase. All those Black Beauty books. All those chap books about girls and their horses. Is this some kind of repressed sexuality thing I’m unaware of? At any rate, I’m not a very good source for online virtual horse activities. I think horses are more of a you-have-to-be-there kind of thing, but what would I know. Clearly I’m not a horse person.

“bob rae current address”
This one sort of scares me. Do you think this user wants to send Bob a gift?

“reading at risk” and “NEA” and “digital libraries”
I’m including this search because of it’s well-articulated search strategy and use of Boolean. Not everyone thinks Google is their therapist.

gorman metadata young males
This one made me laugh. At first it looks like someone looking for items about Michael Gorman, president-elect of the ALA, and the second search term, metadata, just strengthens that assumption, since Michael Gorman is a cataloguer at heart. But then we get “young males”. It’s like this user’s search for library science sources got highjacked by their deep urge for twink smut. (You know that just using the word “twink” means I’m going to have a whole new set of wacky search strings after this.) I’m tempted to add some boolean to this search to highlight how I first saw it: what am I looking for today, oh right: “Gorman metadata OR young males”. Two birds with one stone, why not.

“times span in a library school”
When we were little my sister and I sang this song that she learned somewhere. The last line of it, as I learned it from my sister, was: ” Koliada, Koliada / will walk by on Christmas eve / From my window I’ll be watching / waiting for the kay-cee-a-lee.” We wondered what a kay-cee-a-lee was. Our mother is foreign, so we figured she would know, but no. There were no answers to be had. Until I went to school one day and learned the same song through a songbook. The lyrics are actually: “Koliada, Koliada / will walk by on Christmas eve / From my window I’ll be watching / waiting for the cakes he will leave.” Sometimes a thing sound roughly right, and when you say it no one would ever notice that you’d got it wrong, but when you type it out it becomes so very clear. This story brought to you by the term “times span”.

First we had a user considering that search box on their favourite search engine as a kind of therapist; now it’s a shoulder to cry on. There there. It will be okay. Can I get you some Kleenex? Do you want a snuggle?

“woman break up lines”
Patron: “Hi there, I was wondering if you could help me…”
Reference librarian: “Certainly!”
Patron: “I’m trying to break up with my boyfriend. What exactly should I say?”
Reference librarian: “….Pardon?”
Patron: “I need some lines I can use, you know, to dump him gently but firmly. Can you help me?”

One day, when I’m visiting a foreign country (probably the US), I will simply have to enter as many public libraries as possible and ask some of the fantastic questions I have gleaned from my search string analysis. Actually, since my friend Emily so loathes going into libraries with me because I embarrass her by talking to all the staff, I will have to do this when I’m in the UK visiting her.

“how can I get superglue off something”
This query construction is indicative of that pre-calculated state I have discussed before; this user has not really considered how to get the best results from Google. He just has a question, and he’s going to type it on in to that blank box and see what happens. In a reference interview, the obvious response to this question would be “off what?”

“black face people dishes”
And on the other end of the spectrum….a query so parsed down to its minimal components that I’m not sure I understand it. Dishes that are the faces of black people? I mean, whatever turns your crank, I guess.

And here we have, I suspect, someone trying to parse a Harvard diploma much like my own, which is entirely in Latin. Yes, I know, friend. It looks fake because it doesn’t say “Harvard”. It says “Harvardiana”, like some mock Harvard located in rural Indiana. But it’s real, I swear.

I have a cyst on my back how do I get rid of it”
Beautiful non-boolean, non-keyword construction. I get lots of hits about cysts because I once very wisely posted an entry entitled “How to get rid of a ganglion cyst”, so now I get every Tom, Dick and Harriet comes looking to me for advice. But check out that query construction. This is so verbal it jumps off the screen. Can’t you just hear the user saying it? There’s no boundary here between the user’s question and the internet. Much like Google-as-therapist, here we have Google-as-next-door-neighbour. I know there’s lots of research underway about the social networks people turn to for health information; apparently Google is like that knowledgeable lady at work with six kids who’s seen it all. Just turn to her and ask.

“fear of fish, icthyophobia”
And on the other side of the tracks, the careful library user, who knows that the comma is a significant part of a subject heading.

I’m not entirely sure where my study of search strings is going, but I feel that I’m making progress toward some goal or other. Don’t you feel more enlightened?

From NO! to YES!: The Slow Implementation of Interactive Web Applications

From NO! to YES!: The Slow Implementation of Interactive Web Applications

Via Weblogg-ed News: A high school Principal in Vermont has blogging sites banned from school computers, because blogging is not an educational use of computers. Not only is he banning the use of the software in the schools; he’s encouraging parents to check browser histories and caches to make sure kids aren’t blogging from home, either.

There are, of course, lots of words I could write in outrage about an educator declaring extracurricular writing, reading, and HTML coding not educational, particularly when those activities are being undertaken by those in that difficult-to-motivate 14-18 year old range, but most of those words are self-evident. For the moment, what interests me more is the trend this ban on blogs illustrates.

One of the librarians I worked with last summer gave me a snippet of insight into the history of technology and its integration while we were sitting behind the reference desk, surveying the 200+ computer terminals splayed out in front of us.

“When we first brought these in,” he said, “we debated about whether or not to allow students to access email from them.”

No access to email from the library computers! Can you imagine? What this conversation helped me see was that this is the path of all interactive web media. Initially email was not really understood as an aid to education; it was just that fancy thing students had been using to gossip with each other. The distinction between things that are fun and things that are useful was almost so complete that email nearly got squeezed out that library. If there’s a possibility of using an application for something other than a strictly sober purpose, off with its head!

Of course now I don’t think anyone would question the validity of email-checking to the academic enterprise. Email is a student’s connection to classmates, instructors, TAs, and very often to the university administration as well. It is a collaborative communication tool that has become essential. Email is a portal to listservs and search results; it’s the destination for requested PDF files and OPAC-generated information. But its becoming clear to me that when new technologies and web applications get into the public consciousness, the first reaction of authority is to write them off as frivolous nonsense that will only taking away from good behaviour, good learning, and good values rather than representing a possible new direction.

At the moment the battle about to be fought is the case for instant messaging. I’ve seen many university terminals with big warning signs above them that say “If you download MSN or AIM to this terminal, you are a vandal and we will lop off your hands.” Or something to that effect, I may be paraphrasing slightly. There is always the fear of viruses on a network, after all. But the underlying message is often that instant messaging is for giggly preteens, it’s general use is for idle chatter in l33t (netspeak), and that sort of silliness will simply not be tolerated in an academic setting. It’s not educational. Regardless of the fact that instant messaging is one of the best collaborative tools around. Regardless of the fact that virtual reference is merely a web version of an MSN or AIM client (but one that costs the library a yearly sum). My suspicion is that at some point in the near future we will see regular school-sanctioned IM clients installed on all university terminals, and an IM handle issued to every student, faculty, and staff member. There will be a time (soon) when these things are simply taken for granted, like email.

I once worked summers for a woman who told me that her first reaction to any new idea was to say no. And it was a definitive no, with a full argument defending it and even an angry undertone to top the whole thing off. I discovered this the hard way when she confronted me about mistakes I had made. I told her some of the problems with the job I had, why those of us in that position felt isolated and abandoned, why our default reaction was to try blunder through by ourselves instead of reaching out and getting help. It came out of a place of panic, embarrassment about my own mistakes; feeling all was lost anyway, I even detailed what relatively simple organizational changes could be introduced to make my job better and us all less likely to make the sorts of mistakes I made. I was sixteen years old at the time. My boss got angier and angier as I spoke, and finally said, “that’s never going to happen.” I thought my summer job was lost. But the next summer she not only hired me back; she implemented all my ideas. “I had to think about it for a while,” she told me. “But you were right.” That was her management style: explosive no, followed by contrite implementation. I worked there for seven more years.

I feel like this is what keeps happening with collaborative technologies. The first blush response of many people in positions of authority is to see them as silly or frivolous and to say no to them. They put up barriers and try to write them off, describe them in derogative terms, frame them as potentially dangerous or distracting.

Banning blogging at this point in time looks more ridiculous than threatening, however. Blogging is not secretive, is it is not quiet banging away on a keyboard and compromising yourself in some scary way. Blogging is generally public, visible to all including teachers and parents. Blogging writing, reading, paying attention. It is communicating with friends and with the world. Perhaps the vehement “NO” is just a prelude to the joyful “YES” we can anticipate from the educational world. With some strong, visionary leadership, we can hope for it.

The Logic of Search Strings

The Logic of Search Strings

Though it’s been a while since I last posted any, I’m still keeping an eye on my search strings. The longer I do this the more what I think I’m looking for changes. Now, rather than being amused by the sorts of things that Google (among other search engines) thinks I’m an expert on, I’m more interested in what the search strings say tell us about what people think a search engine does.

1. The direct Question
The direct question strings shows that a great number of people using the internet are under the impression that a search box itself is asking a question: what is it you want to know? What is your question for the magic eight ball internet? You can tell these kinds of users by the way they frame their search; it’s as if they believe someone living and breathing is going to see the question, understand it, and give them an answer. Generally speaking these search strings contain extra words, like “the”, “on”, “into”, and so forth.

getting into library school
thunder sounds to download for students
articles on how to win a friend
peer review articles on masturbation
blog page by
photos with mastectomy

I think these strings are interesting to note. They are not wrong. Google understands what they mean. There’s just a level of search construction that librarians expect everyone to walk through that’s just not happening for these people. Is it hurting them? probably not. Is it wrong to think of the search box as a place to ask a question? I don’t think it is. But understanding that this may be the best and easiest way to come to grips with the internet may help librarians take a step closer to helping users find what they’re looking for.

2. Keywords, Boolean, and Traditional Searching
Some internet users still understand the way things used to be done; they build their searches based on keywords, they refer to people last, first name. These strings indicate that some users have taken a step closer to understanding how the search engine actually works, but sometimes their model is too much based on a controlled vocabulary OPAC rather than a free-association keyword algorithm they’re actually confronting.

trudeau, maggie
reference librarian versus google
young men plastic surgery
librarian first day
livejournal locking posts
new jersey bar exam blogs
faculty status difference academic status librarians
myopic world
history of library science
beta hormones blood levels
classification web comments

I think these are completely reasonable searches; given the way Google (or MSN, or Dogpile, or any other engine) functions, these terms will get users close to what they’re looking for if not exactly what they want. Short phrases, no superfluous words; these people may have noted Google’s attempts to correct people’s search strategies and have lopped off extra bits. If their search starts with a question, for instance, “Where can I find out more about how livejournal locked posts work?” These users have boiled it down to a few key words and dumped those into the search box instead. While librarians have spent eons trying to get students to understand their topic in terms of controlled vocabulary subject headings, perhaps we should instead focus on getting them to this level, to reducing a question into a set of terms likely to illicit the kind of results they want to see. For instance, “faculty status” and “academic status” are very specific terms, that, linked together, would narrow down documents to what the user is looking for; adding “librarian” helps to narrow that search down even further. Maybe this is the kind of information literacy training we should be going for?

3. The inexplicable

What have you learned about evaluations from doing the reading this week and working on these essays Anthing that you can brin

Every so often I get search strings like this. I’m not sure what to make of them. Sometimes it seems as though someone has just accidentally pasted something into the wrong window, which admitedly is completely fascinating for me. These little glimpses into people’s lives; sometimes it’s bits of text, like this one appears to be. Other times its chunks of an IM conversation or lines from an essay. There is something to be said for running searches like that; I used to find plagiarized essays doing that for a faculty member back in my Carleton days. But so far I haven’t seen anything that looks like a plagiarism check. If these searches are accidents, why does anyone ever get beyond the results page? Why click on a site and see where it went? Is this some kind of google game, drop in a random line of text and see what comes up? I’m intrigued in any case.

Ten Reasons why Blogging Might be Good for You

Ten Reasons why Blogging Might be Good for You

This summer I posted about Sun Microsystems, their encouragement of employee blogging, and about their blogging policy; Sun is clearly a forward-thinker in this regard and I think they’re policy is sound and should be imitated. I posted about them both before and after a hail of news stories from all directions about bloggers who had been fired for what they had written on their blogs. In an attempt to stymie all this interest in the downsides of keeping a blog, Sun employee Tim Bray has written ten reasons why blogging is good for your career.

1. You have to get noticed to get promoted.

I will certainly not disagree with this statement; however, I fail to see how it has any relationship to blogging. If you are depending on your employer discovering you and your ideas through random Google searches, that promotion might be a long time coming.

2. You have to get noticed to get hired.

I agree here too. Again, the relationship between blogging and getting a job is somewhat tenuous. If you’re like me and put your blog on your CV, you’re forging that relationship as best you can. I think owning webspace and using it for learning and communicating purposes is a good thing and something you should highlight if you do it, but again, if you’re depending on your blog to get someone to offer you a job, I hope you have a fat trust fund to sit on.

3. It really impresses people when you say “Oh, I’ve written about that, just google for XXX and I’m on the top page” or “Oh, just google my name.”

It does? I would suggest that bragging about your Google rank instead of engaging a person in conversation is the opposite of impressive. If someone starts in on a topic you’ve written about on your blog, that means you’re entering into territory you’ve considered and have ideas about; rather than directing people to google you, which is such a smarmy-ass thing to do, why not just relate your ideas? If they’re good ideas, and you can discuss them with intelligence and thoughtfulness, that would be far more impressive than merely brushing someone off and sending them to Google.

Personally, I never ask anyone to google me, or even to read my blog. Not that I discourage it, but my workplace and professional communication doesn’t hinge it. People are busy. I don’t expect anyone to keep up with my long rants and random digressions. My blog is no secret, but relying on an audience is never a great idea. In terms of the workplace, no one should need to read your blog to know what you think. Be more proactive than that. Open up your mouth.

4. No matter how great you are, your career depends on communicating. The way to get better at anything, including communication, is by practicing. Blogging is good pracice.

What blogging is not: talking, giving a presentation, or sitting in on a meeting and offering opinions. Blogging is, at its best, writing. If you write long dissertations on your subjects of interest, that is certainly good practice at both constructing an argument or an idea and at writing. So on that score I agree. Writing well is an incredibly important skill. But is blogging practice in professional or even personal communication? Not so much.

Bloggers are better-informed than non-bloggers. Knowing more is a career advantage.

I honestly fail to see why bloggers would be better informed. Just because you have a blog doesn’t mean you read anything substantial (and Michael Gorman obviously believes it means that we don’t!). Having a blog doesn’t mean you have an RSS reader, or a subscription to the New York Times. Some bloggers are link hounds, constantly scouring the net for things to post about, and some people just like to write about issues (including the status of their houseplants, the length of their toenails, or the policies of the ALA). While these two elements are common among bloggers, they are often not found in the same blog. But that doesn’t mean that non-bloggers do neither of these things. Some of the best-informed people I know are non-bloggers. Just because they don’t keep a blog doesn’t mean they don’t read the paper, or follow their profession, communicate ideas in the workplace, or live an unexamined life.

Being “better informed” is a misleading description; better informed about what? Bloggers are often creatures of the internet, but they may not be on top of all the right issues in terms of the workplace. There is nothing inherent in the process of keeping a weblog that would make a person more or less informed than their peers.

6. Knowing more means you’re more likely to hear about interesting jobs coming open.

What I think is most interesting about this list of 10 reasons is how it constructs the idea of knowledge and its relationship to the internet. Obviously I’m a big fan of the net and all things associated with it, but come on. Just because you know how to post to your blog doesn’t mean that your mind is at one with Matrix. Why would a blogger be any more likely to scan the job post boards or the careers section of the paper? I know the girl who posts the jobs to the job board at the library school where I just graduated; she doesn’t have a blog, but she’s way more in the know about interesting jobs than I am.

7. Networking is good for your career. Blogging is a good way to meet people.

Networking is a great thing. But just posting links or even posting ideas to the internet on your own personal blog is not a good way to meet people. Interacting with others by reading their blogs and leaving comments, sending email about their ideas, striking up conversations over IM, joining a listserv and participating in conversations, getting involved in a wider community; those are good ways to meet people online, and none of them are dependent on you having a blog of your own. Communicating is not just setting up a soap box.

8. If you’re an engineer, blogging puts you in intimate contact with a worse-is-better 80/20 success story. Understanding this mode of technology adoption can only help you.

I’m not an engineer, and I’m not sure what this “worse-is-better” idea is about. But I agree that understanding web applications and trying them out is only a good idea.

9. If you’re in marketing, you’ll need to understand how its rules are changing as a result of the current whirlwind, which nobody does, but bloggers are at least somewhat less baffled.

I’m not sure that this follows at all either. I don’t know anything about marketing, but I read an article in the paper a couple of weeks ago about how product placement in films and tv shows is becoming more important than commercials. This morning I drank an entire pot of President’s Choiceâ„¢ English Breakfast tea. Does that count?

10. It’s a lot harder to fire someone who has a public voice, because it will be noticed.

Everyone has a public voice. People still get fired every day. I’m not sure a blog is any kind of protection against getting fired, but it might help you get embroiled in a very public law suit if you try to use your public voice to discredit your employer.

I actually do think blogging can good for your career, but not for these reasons.

Ten Reasons why Blogging Might be Good for You (and possibly for your Career):

1. Keeping a blog means you generally end up learning a little HTML, a little CSS, a little web design, and a little about web interactivity (i.e. comments, RSS, etc.). These are good things to know, and might come in handy.

2. Writing is a good skill. Blogs are generally text, and any bit of practice writing is a good thing for you professionally as well as personally.

3. Keeping a blog might make you more likely to read blogs or keep up with what’s new via the internet. This may or may not prompt you to think about things you would not have thought about otherwise. Even a slight chance of prompting new thinking is a good thing.

4. Blogging can help you sort out your ideas, build on them, and come up with new ones. This is also true of keeping a paper journal. However, if anyone happens to have read your blog and given you some feedback, your ideas might have been honed and changed in the process.

5. You can put a well-designed, well-constructed blog on your resume.

6. Your supervisor, potential employer, instructor, or other important person might one day come across your blog, read a few posts, and think that you are an interesting/intelligent person who deserves more attention/money. Or they think you need to work on your spelling. Or that you should break up with your girlfriend.

7. Having a blog and using your real name means that you will have a least one real result on Google when someone searches for your name. It may never be the first option, particularly if your name is John Smith or something similarly common.

8. Blogging software is just content management software; understanding ways to manage information may come in handy professionally. Or not.

9. You’ll always have an archive of ideas at your fingertips. That is, if you consistently blog about your ideas.

10. Your exes can follow your life from a distance without calling you in a drunken stupor to find out what you’re up to.

What Librarians can learn from Bookstores

What Librarians can learn from Bookstores

I have spent the last week or so working for my brother-in-law at the bookstore he manages. I’m helping him do inventory, something he has to do every year with the help of a few extra hired hands, but this year he only has me to do his bookly bidding. Doing bookstore inventory, from the perspective of a hired minion like myself, involves taking a barcode reader to every book in a section. And then moving on to another section. Lather, rinse, repeat.

After spending a few days with the bar code reader and watching what’s going on around me in a bustling and successful bookstore, I’ve decided that all librarians should regularly spend some time in the profit sector of the book world. As soon as profit gets involved, the whole concept of good service clarifies itself into the stunningly obvious.

At library school alma mater, several faculty have spent years researching the level of service offered by reference desks at public libraries in the province. The process of gathering information for that study involves sending out fresh-faced first term library students to a public library and having them state one simple request, with no clarification: “I’m looking for a good book to read.” The research measures how far along the classic reference interview a patron actually gets. The results are not very stellar.

When I first learned about the reference interview it sounded ridiculously basic. I mean, yes yes, listen to the patron’s question, ask an open-ended question, ask a closed-ended question, make sure you mention that if they have any more questions they shouldn’t hesitate to come see you. It seemed like straight up common sense to me. I thought they might as well have called this thing “how to have a conversation 101”. But on the ground running I can see why the common sense is important to underscore.

We get so caught up in our jobs, in the minutae of this and that, how much time we have and how much we have to do, how intimately we understand our own service and expect it to be crystal clear to everyone else, we forget how much courage it takes to show up at a desk in the first place. How intimidating it can be to open your mouth and ask a dumb question. How embarrassed people are if their first question is misunderstood, and how unlikely they are to clarify. How people generally understand the education of a librarian; my favourite quote: “My mother tells me I have to go to trade school if I flunk out of university. Maybe I’ll become a librarian.” The patrons basic expectation is that the reference staff will give it a half-hearted try if they have the inclination or the time and that they will be reasonably nice about it; since that’s the basic expectation, that’s often all reference staff do.

In the bookstore, the ultimate goal is always obvious. Have a question? Looking for a book? Can’t remember the author or the title? At the bookstore where I’m doing inventory, the staff jump to show you around and smile the whole time. They will help you remember the title of that book, or will talk about the content of it with you, or will offer to order anything out of Books in Print if you want it. Of course they’re polite. Of course they walk you over to where the book should be and make sure it’s what you want. They want you to buy it. They want you to be so happy with your experience that when you want another book, you won’t even consider going anywhere else.

Profit motive aside, in the end we essentially have the same motive, booksellers and librarians. I want to lead you to the book/resource that fills your needs exactly, and I want you to be so thrilled with it that you want to take it home with you. My brother-in-law wants to end up making a profit out of it, and I guess the “profit” of the library just isn’t so tangible. There’s no fire under a reference librarian’s behind to get them off their chair, to really listen to the patron and find out exactly what they want, and get creative about finding resources and make sure that patron walks away with something of use in his or her hands. If it’s not part of the corporate culture to bend over backwards for a patron, the reference staff isn’t going to see the point. The patrons are getting more than they expected anyway, aren’t they? The books are already free, that should be enough, right? There’s no profit involved; why do more work?

My co-op supervisor Jennifer was always pushing the idea of looking at the business sector for hints and directions, and from this angle I can see her point. In the bookstore they really care if you can read the signs and if the place is attractive. They care about cultivating a sense of space, an atmosphere. There is a clear profit-driven reason to make the place somewhere people want to hang out, and so the interior decorator comes in, the place gets a makeover every few years. That equals bodies in the bookstore, more visibility, and that means profit. It makes me sad that people so often need that golden dollar sign hanging over a thing in order to bother trying to make it worthwhile.

And then there are the things that happened at the bookstore that reminded me I was very much not in a library. At one point a woman came by looking for a book about blogs. She bought a book eventually, but not before telling me all about her blog and the issues she’s having, and getting some suggestions from me that were completely outside of the content of the books that were in stock. It would have been a very successful reference interview, but in the bookstore I felt guilty for the time it took. I’m not there to “chat” with customers, no matter how helpful I am. There was no more profit involved because of my detailed explanation about social networks and RSS readers; the book was bought in any case.

And then yesterday there was a fellow in the café having trouble with the wireless, and they sent for my brother-in-law, the local fix-it guy knows-what-to-do person. He told me to get my ibook and go see if the wireless signal was working from there or if the guy was sitting in a dead spot. The wireless was working fine; it turned out that the guy had never used wireless with that computer before, so he probably didn’t have it enabled, if he in fact had a wireless card at all. It was a windows machine.

“I’ll see who can help you with enabling wireless on windows,” I said, and scampered off. And then I realized; no one can help him enable his wireless. This is a bookstore. Not a library. They provide wireless, not technical assistance. Wireless does not equal sales; bums in seats, while a great thing at the library no matter what, does not equal sales in the bookstore. If the guy sits in the café taking up a valuable seat and just orders coffee after coffee, that’s a net loss. Someone could have sat there and ordered a more profitable lunch. Making a place attractive enough to want to linger in is a good thing, but giving them something other than buying books to wile away their time doing is not a good thing.

So in some ways I’m sorry that we don’t have a profit motive in the library; if we could pin a dollar value to ourselves, perhaps we would be clearer about why our services are so important, and why we need to keep our level of service and enthusiasm consistently high. Why we should be offering more than the patron expects and letting expectations (and levels of trust and usage statistics) rise. But on the flip side, our non-profit status means we are freed from picking a good information need from a bad one; one that will lead us to more profit versus one that’s just a drain on the system.

A couple of weeks every few years in a bookstore for every librarian; I think that would be revealing and inspiring. One of our goals should be to become everything an excellent bookstore is, with just as much excitement, enthusiasm, friendliness, helpfulness, and customer support. Librarians are lucky enough to have the option of going one step further and letting people leave their wallets at home.

To-do list: Start Revolution

To-do list: Start Revolution

To jump back on an old hobby horse: I read an interesting post at this morning on federated searching versus Google Scholar:

So, why is Google able to do this, and do it in a relatively short time span, while libraries haven’t? An arguement could be made that Google has a greater amount of resources at its disposal, and because it is Google, can work out agreements with database providers which allow for the harvesting of their metadata (and full text) for the purpose of providing search results (but at this time, not the full-text directly). Most likely, there is at least some truth to this arguement. But I don’t believe all of the credit goes to Google; a lot of the credit also goes to the Library community for being passive in its approach towards information providers. We now rent our information instead of buying it; we subscribe to journals and databases without assurance that, if we eventually cancel a subscription, we will retain access to the information for the years to which we duly paid. We accept these terms, and because we do, our technology and our services are limited by them.

This is an interesting question, and one that makes librarians very uncomfortable; why was Google able to come up with a search engine that worked, being completely (as far as I know) devoid of any librarians on their team? Why are the efforts of librarians largely ignored by the technorati while a group of young guys in California were able to change the world? There’s a seething whisper coming out of librarianship when it comes to Google and Google Scholar and the grand digitization project: it should have been us. Those interlopers, they were just kids and they turned our world upside down. Why could they do this when we could not?

I think I have at least a short answer for this. And this circles back to the Gorman affair, of course. Librarians as a group have not attracted enough of the paradigm-shifters of the technological world. When someone, like that 19 year old guy who started Google, thinks about building something to harness the power of the internet, they don’t come out of a library science background, nor do they (generally) consider librarianship as a career path. (What tech-savvy person would read the recent words of the ALA’s president-elect and think that Librarianship was the right fit?) People with the ideas and the knowledge to do the things we wish we were doing are coming out of other, more profitable and more technically-focused fields. At this point, it isn’t enough to understand the life of information, or to know the difference between the universe of knowledge and the bibliographic universe or the intricacies of AACR2. You need to understand the technology and what it’s capable of.

There is nothing as inspiring as really understanding how something works. An architect who understands the principles of construction will be more adept at twisting and bending those principles to create something new and interesting. Knowing what’s possible is a springboard to creating meaningful and useful change. Google Scholar was surely created because one of the Google staff saw that the metadata allowed for searches to be modified by type in just such a way to produce results useful for academics; did we know that was possible? Did it even occur to us? Why should it have; we’re not experts on the internet. We like to pride ourselves on being experts on organizing and ranking information sources, but we (for the most part) wouldn’t know an algorithm if it zipped to our homes and organized our underwear drawers for us. In order to deconstruct, we need to at least understand the construction.

Librarians did a very brave thing at one time. Librarians sought to organize information with the understanding that Google was impossible and would never exist. Librarians tried to create order and reason where there was only a morass of paper and ink. Without their efforts we would have been stuck looking at an idiosyncratic pile of looseleaf. If there is no order, there can be no searching or finding. But that’s no longer the case.

Librarians are like communists; they assume the best in people, they presume that any thinking person would rather learn the controlled vocabulary than get 20 extra (useless) hits. Google came in and did the opposite. Google presumes that most people are stupid and allows them to be.

“rogers high speed internet is a piece of shit”

“search the web for erotic stories”

“need ideas visual presentation film monster”

“Alice Walker feminist view on By the light of my father’s smile”

Would Melvil Dewey have ever considered building a classification and retrieval system that allowed users to plug in searches like these?

Not to say that Dewey’s ideas were wrong. Organizing information by subject is a good idea, and if anyone doubts that they should talk to someone who runs a bookstore. As soon as there’s a profit motive, you get to see what really works and what doesn’t when it hits the floor running. Putting things with like things means that users can find more of what they’re looking for (and buy more). Browsability is important. Librarians are good at organizing physical information (ie, books). It appears that we’ve struggled to move out of the card catalogue.

I spent a lot of time in cataloguing class talking about how digital information is actually no different from non-digital information. Whenever something new comes along everyone wants to separate it out; I have written several papers on the topic of digital exceptionalism and how it’s the plague of librarianship. But now I must offer a somewhat altered thesis. A change has happened; the world is not made up of information we can line up on a shelf. A card catalogue is not a search engine, and neither is a library OPAC.

From the

So, what should we do? We should seek to emulate what Google is doing; not necessarily try to emulate Google Scholar (though we could and have done worse), but seek to work out agreements where we are allowed a copy of the data to which we are providing access. If the folks at Google can work out terms which were acceptable to content providers, I’m sure libraries can as well. Maybe, just maybe, if librarians, who are quite good at organizing and working with indexed information, could start to play with the databases, indexes, and metadata provided by our major information vendors, then perhaps we can start to explore new access tools which are users actually want to adopt and use. Otherwise, instead of being second (after google) in the information search food chain our users consume, we may start to drop to third (after Google Scholar), or worse…

Librarians feel threatened by Google. As a new librarian, I’m not as invested in the way things were, so it’s easy for me to point fingers. But I don’t think emulating Google is the right move. After all, Google already exists. Being a cheap knock-off isn’t going to help anyone. I think we need to reconsider our role.

We missed the digital information organization boat. We are not going to be the kings of catagorization in this universe. But what we can do is get to know the technology, and see where we can contribute in ways that Google can’t. We can work with Google to get the end result that we want.

Mistake #1: when we started creating metadata, we stopped at the monograph level. This is exactly the problem that the Google digitization project is trying to fix, and exactly the reason why we have to rent information. If we had entered every journal article, every essay in a collection, every segment of every book into our catalogue, we wouldn’t need to buy some for-profit publisher’s wares. We should have added journal titles to our catalogue. You should have been able to do an author search and get a citation for every damn piece of writing that person has created, be it a book, a book chapter, a conference paper, a book review, a letter to the editor, or a journal article. But our catalogues don’t work that way, so Google Scholar will always be better.

Unless we offer to do something Google can’t do. And when we do it, we do it for free. We do it for the good of our patrons and of patrons world wide. We do it because everyone should have access to information. Don’t compete with Google; you’ll never win. Technology is not where our competence is.

Who created a bibliographic universe where salaried academics who write, edit, and peer review for free need to have their work bought back from for-profit publishers in order to assign it to their students? We did.

If we can fix that, we’d be an equal partner with Google, not a competitor. They come up with the interface and the algorithm, we make sure it has good content. A match made in heaven.

To-do list: start revolution.