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Month: April 2005

Info Chaos or Virtual Card Catalogue?

Info Chaos or Virtual Card Catalogue?

Every time I sit down and sort through my running list of search strings that bring folks to my website, I find myself saying the same things over and over again. From my experience collecting and interpreting search strings, it appears that people do not use Google as a search engine in the traditional sense; they use it as a reference librarian, a trusted friend, a knowledgeable teacher, a salesperson. And more and more I’m starting to wonder if they’re using it as a card catalogue as well. Both human and not human; what are the implications?

To date I have been reading an anarchist streak into search strings I gather; maybe I’ve been wrong to do that. My image of the internet and internet search engines is of a chaotic and dynamic place; there is no order on the internet, and the only way Google finds anything is because it remembers text and has a wonderful ranking algorithm for keyword searches. But have I been wrong to impose my perception of the internet on the people who serendipitously find my website? Can you see the echo of traditional library organizational method in search strings? Do other people see far more order in the void than I imagine they do?

“find out who someone is using xanga name”
A hopeful hacker seeking to out a high school rival, no doubt. I’m fairly certain that it is completely impossible to determine “real life” identity through a username issued by a weblogging platform, but an interesting question to set to Google. What is it you want to do today? I want to humiliate this girl at my school, can you help me?

This is I thin not a keyword search. The language is too complete. I don’t think there’s any chaos in this user’s mind when approaching the internet; only a sense that Google has the answer to most questions, Google knows how to do things. So all we need to do is tell it what we want to do. Google is our gossipy, knowledgeable friend.

“when was Dalton Mcginty born”
Also direct question. If you think about this as a keyword search, it’s a dismal failure. But this string clearly supports my contention that the concept of keyword searching is becoming increasingly foreign for internet users. But did this person imagine that Google would give them a straight reference answer? This is a classic reference question, something any reference librarian could answer with ease.

“should gays not be allowed to teach in public schools”
A moral question set to Google, in all the right words for spoken language barring the question mark. But this isn’t a question anyone would ask at a reference desk; this is a question for a minister, for a political leader, for members of the community, for an activist or a parent. Which is an interesting point. Talking to Google isn’t exactly like talking to a librarian; talking to Google is talking to the internet, which is increasingly a metaphor for the community or society rather than the library. So rather than a reference question, this is a question for the community, for Everyman. Google as spokesperson for society in general. I wonder how they would feel about that.

“Where Park Vespa”
Where can I park a vespa? This user has taken a stab at distilling a question into a set of terms, i.e., trying to talk “computer” to the computer, but has apparently not taken that necessary step away from the question itself and has merely removed a few of the least important words. Google trains us to do that by telling us what words are automatically removed from a search. That function, telling you which words were excluded, seems to be an effective teaching mechanism, a good reminder that Google is a machine, and its results are not veted by a human being. But where is this user on my schema? Partway between asking a question and typing in some keywords.

” pros of keeping a diary”
What are you looking for? It’s strings like this one that make me wonder if I’m being too anarchistic in my general theory that everyone sees the internet as a free-for-all; is it possible that people believe that the internet is hyper-indexed? That there are warehouses full of cataloguers putting pages into firm categories for their benefit? Portal directories like Yahoo! certainly gave that impression, at least years ago when its front page consisted of a set of general categories for us to browse through. Someone was organizing the place. Someone was making sure I could find everything about diaries, pros and cons. Is the directory image of the internet still current?

“xanga that are restricted from schools”
What are we more comfortable with; the hyper-organization that has for years defined the way we interact with information, or the explosive anarchy that reigns on the internet? Does the Google search box give us, as a culture at large, a sense of organization? Is there a category for Xanga, and then a category for restricted Xanga? At this point I realize that seeing only the search terms is not enough. I don’t know what the user was expecting to see; would it be a list of urls as decreed by someone, a web page discussing the xanga pages that schools regularly omit from their viewable pages, or merely a google results page of the profane xanga journals?

Do people believe that Google organizes the internet, or that Google leads us to someone who might have taken a stab at it? Does the internet have a brain? Is that brain the search engine?

“librarian computer person who cares”
Just call out my name…and you know wherever I am…I’ll come running…

“articles by Barbara Amiel”
Is this a proper keyword search, looking for an index page that has the words “articles by Barbara Amiel” on it? Somehow I feel it isn’t. Note the capitalization. To me this is a classic reference question search: “I’m looking for articles by Barbara Amiel”, as if the internet is sorted by type (article) and then by author.

“essay on diary writing”
The perfect support for the Barbara Amiel search, and one I’ve seen a few times before. Search by type (essay) and subject. “by”, “on”, these words are clearly supposed to have meaning to the search. This is like switching the toggle between author and subject searching, moving from one bank of card catalogues to another. Is there something very basic about the way the card catalogue functioned that is found its way so deep inside the psyche of North American culture that people are still constructing queries around its concepts?

“Salman Rushdie censorship suppresses people’s opinions”
So, what’s going on with a string like this? Is it a search for a headline? Salman Rushdie: Censorship Supresses People’s Opinions A bit obvious perhaps, but possible. Where the other strings prior to this one seem to be a search for a thing, people grasping to define the subject of their search, something like this seems like a copy/paste line, looking, for instance, for a news article that the user has quoted but not cited. Otherwise it’s searching for a statement, an opinion, an interpretation of a situation. In some ways this feels like the kind of search you would try in a proprietary database, looking for a title of an article. Is it better to see is as a title search, or a keyword search? Is it an a query for an automated system, or is this the kind of question the card catalogue would have handed just as well?

“disadvantages of living in England”
This could almost be a subject heading, if you squint. England, disadvantages of living in. Is this evidence of an understanding of complete organization, or complete free-for-all on the internet?

“Keeping Everyting in the Loop Using Blogs and Wikis To Communicate Inside and Outside of the Library”
Again: title search? The capitalization here becomes a big clue. If it were a subject search or a free keyword search, surely the user would not have typed the capitals. This person is looking for The Serious Thing With a Name. What if people see Google as an OPAC the way it should have been; a database system that catalogued every title, including webpages, articles, and chapter titles?

“Bathroom AND Guelph”
Well, golly gee, an honest-to-goodness Boolean query. Sometimes people seem to forget that they’re talking to a machine, but here we see someone fully aware of the machine-ness of the system, talking to it the way one should in a proper keyword database. More knowledge than is strictly required, as it turns out, but it shows that all those years of bibliographic instruction did in fact go somewhere other than in one ear and out the other.

“blog, story, diary”
My immediate guess at this one is that this is supposed to be a Boolean OR query, though goodness can you imagine the results pages something like that would generate. I’m particularly intrigued by the fact that two of these words are pseudonyms of a sort while the other is something completely different. Still, this kind of search brings me back to the chaos of the keyword search, the internet at large out there, untrammeled and untamed. Words thrown into the void, testing to see what sort of echo will come back.

” diary keeping-a-diary”
Diary, Keeping a Diary. Could have come right out of the DDC schedules, really. I can almost see the scope note. This search is so traditional, so card catalogue, it makes me shiver. I can’t believe I haven’t noticed this kind of trend before. Look at the hyphens; those were user-inputted. This is the farthest thing from a keyword search there is. This person isn’t looking for instances of the term “keeping-a-diary”. This user is guessing that “keeping-a-diary” is some form of sub-classification for “Diary”. This search has actually been parsed; the subject is diary-keeping, and this is how the subject heading should break down, as the user sees it. In this person’s world, the internet is an organized place. Google is just the interface of choice to get to it. Google is just the card catalogue.

I’m not sure where I’ve been lead to through the strings this week. But we know that if people understand the structure of a system, they can more easily construct a query and find exactly what they’re looking for. What does the internet look like? Does it help the libraries if users see the internet through the metaphor of the library?

Virtual Barn Raising

Virtual Barn Raising

Technology, the way people use it, feel about it, relate to it, and digest it is something no one is entirely an expert about just yet. I know there are a series of dissertations in the works on subjects like online community and social networks, but for the moment, academics in a position of authority (like Michael Gorman, president-elect of the ALA, for instance) get cited as the ones who would know best.

I’m not the only one to doubt the existence of “Information Overload”, but in seems that lately a lot of well-heeled folks are entering into the IO fray, preaching the inhumanity of the technological universe created for us by the inhuman, cold internet.

I’m responding to another article on this “smog of data” idea that I’ve already taken issue with. There is this strange cognitive dissonance for me in these criticisms.

I had a friend visiting me yesterday from the UK. Part of our conversation (over extremely fresh and extremely tasty beer at a local pub, may I add) revolved around some of the more lame elements we’ve come across in online communities. Among the many interesting and healthy participtants of the internet conversation, there are people in online communities who don’t want to look too long and hard at their “real lives”, and allow a digital version to take precidence. People at their lowest tend to post more often and more extensively, my friend noted. They are more deeply engaged in the online community, they care more about who’s said what, who thinks what, who is reading their posts and who is just skipping over them. They rush to defend their friends; for the healthy and unhealthy there are real emotional crimes that can be committed in text But some are linked to their keyboard in the way that many of us are linked to our families and friends. There’s something a little bit off about it, a bit lame.

Lame or not, the fact that we can have that conversation at all unveils an interesting phenomenon at work here; people with or without any technological ability can forge a real, deeply personal, deeply emotional connections to other people via technology, because they have managed to translate themselves into the language of the medium.

And by the same token, people learn about others through these kinds of interactions. The act of reading becomes the act of reading the body, hearing the voice. Face to face interaction is only meaningful to us because we have learned the language of the spoken word, the language of bodies. What happens when we swim long enough in these technologies to use them to communicate ourselves, and to accept that communication from others?

[David H. Landers’] main concern is that students have replaced face-to-face contact with instant messaging and e-mail. “They’re not going to have the same quality of interpersonal relations that will help them in a work environment,” he argues. He says colleges should encourage students to get involved in community projects where they see what life is like outside of their high-tech campus bubble.

The internet = no interpersonal relations.
The internet = not real.
The internet = a bubble.
The internet = impersonal, cold.
The internet = the absence of community.

What exactly are we constructing here, and whose reality are we not recognizing? Is it still lame to date someone at a distance, to communicate daily through webcams and voiceover IP rather than face to face? Is it lame if this is how you communicate you’re your friends and family? It happens all the time, and no matter how snooty you want to get about it, you can’t deny the firm reality of those people’s emotions. There are real connections being made over hardware and software. Those are real people skills at work, and it’s only getting easier and easier to do.

“Everything is so fast and also a little bit anonymous” with e-mail, [Arthur G. Zajonc] says. “So you have to pause to reflect on who this person is” that will be reading the message and how they might perceive it.

I realize email etiquette may still be a problem for some segments of the population just coming to the email world recently, but for those of us going on 12 or 15 years using email, and with the understanding that digital communication is just another form of language like any other, the concept of digital anonymity is laughable. Stilted email? This is the mark of a person who doesn’t yet speak the language of this technology. It’s the great big lie: on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog. The reality is that everyone knows you’re a dog, because we’ve got the webcam images, the IPs, the transcripts, and all the typos to prove it.

[Eric Bende argues that getting offline] actually yields more leisure time, and forces people to forge greater bonds with neighbors because of a greater need for cooperation (such as for the occasional barn raising).

The moment I read the term “barn raising” I immediately thought of the open source movement. Why, just today I was reading about how even Microsoft is jumping on the open source idea: invite the community in, let’s see what kind of barn we can raise. Creating solutions collaboratively is the hallmark of internet community; it’s the preferred way to work for most programmers. None of these people exist anonymously, alone out there on the unmapped internet.

I was reminded also of a recent experience I had; a written test of my programming skills. This idea completely floored me, terrified me in fact, and while terrified on one hand I was very surprised and interested in my own response to it on the other. What was I so worried about? I’m confident in my skills. I knew what they expected me to know. The terrifying part was that I had to sit alone in a room and answer technology questions on paper. This is a completely foreign idea to me. I have never in my life created anything for digital consumption by myself. Not the slightest PHP script, hardly more than a handful of pages of HTML. Not a stitch of CSS. When I am working to raise those kinds of barns, I am always side by side with the people who know better, my friends and colleagues, my internet neighbours. And when my hands grow too weak to hoist, they step in to support me. They help me to plan and to enact. When I need someone just to watch me hammer home that last nail, I even turn to my neighbours for that.

It seems to me that part of this conversation about “information overload” is a sense of the inhumanity, of detachment, of anonymity. My experience of the internet is the precise opposite. It is profoundly human, connected, and personal.

Writer Peg Kerr noted that this month marks the three year anniversary of her online journal:

I started this LiveJournal just over three years ago (April 25, 2002). Now I have friends all over the world. I’ve made 1,634 entries, 3,058 comments, and I’ve received 13,142 comments back.

Wow.

You’ve all changed my life in wonderful ways. You made me laugh, gotten me furious, and forced me to think about things. You’ve opened my perspective, comforted me, and joined me in celebrating my joys. It’s been a delight to share your friendship. Thank you!

Language is not human. Like the internet, it is a human-made tool we employ to connect with each other. We learn to manage language through our social interactions. How often to talk and how often to listen; we learn when it’s time to shut our doors and get some sleep, and when we need a long walk. When people struggle with what they are calling “information overload”, it seems to me they are really struggling to make sense of this new language.

Distracted or Bored to Distraction?

Distracted or Bored to Distraction?

More word on wireless in the classroom:

Meziani welcomes the prospect of students challenging him in class with information they find online. But he doesn’t entirely trust students to stay focused. So he wants a bank of screens at his desk or lectern that would show him what is on each of his students’ computers at any moment. He doesn’t know if such a system exists, but he figures it’s possible, and absolutely necessary.
“I want technology with a safety net,” he said.

Good lord, man. This is horrifying. So some students are distracted from the lecture by the tempting presence of the internet; is it a good idea to distract the instructor from their task of delivering ideas and information to the rest of the class by allowing that instructor to spy on those bored students who opt to check their email instead of paying attention? Lose/lose situation.

If students are bringing their own laptops into class, peering at those screens technologically or otherwise is a profound breach of privacy, and is completely unethical. Shall we also install cameras over every student’s shoulder so that instructors can see exactly what sort of notes students are taking when they pull out their notebooks? After all, paper can be used for all kinds of purposes. What if students are writing notes to each other, doodling, making up a grocery list instead of writing down all those pithy ideas emanating from the front of the room?

Since when do faculty have the right to see what sorts of notes students are keeping on their lectures, anyway? Do faculty have the right to confiscate, say, a spiral notebook a student has been writing in through class? Would they grab it from the student, open it to a page they find pertinent, and distribute it to the class?

I’m quick to point out that there are serious issues around adding wireless to the classroom, don’t get me wrong. I know very well that students can easily invite their friends (or parents) to listen in on a lecture through internet telephony, they can record a lecture (or simply an offhand comment) directly to mp3 and make it available online, they can surreptitiously use the university’s virtual reference system to get stellar answers to a question you pose, and so forth. With the constant improvement of bandwidth, client applications and web-based services, these intrusions into the class are only going to become more and more possible. But spying on screens isn’t the answer. These aren’t necessarily things you would even be able to witness happening if you’re haphazardly monitoring a bank of screens.

Universities need clearer classroom policies to reflect the reality of the wireless classroom. There should be firm guidelines in the syllabus about wireless use, about what kinds of activities requires permission and what is okay. (Note: my version of MS word allows me to record snippets of conversation. Would you need to ban Word, or require permission for students to use it?) Instructors need to be knowledgeable about what software can do and what students have access to. How private is the classroom? Can students invite a friend to listen in from a distance if the topic is of particular interest?Would you welcome input from an interested party outside your classroom? What kind of information-keeping is okay to leave those walls? Students can talk about what goes on in your classroom; can they record it and play it back for others? These things are all possible; where do they stop being useful or desireable? I feel strongly about these issues and I would cheer loudly to see them addressed head on.

But alongside these kinds of policies and discussions, instructors need to think about how to keep student attention rather than just trying to remove or lessen distractions like the internet. Wireless access has introduced a new twist to the lecture; the instructor is not the only thing going on in the room anymore. Bored students have other compelling outlets to keep themselves alert.

From the article:

As the class passes the one-hour mark, distraction spreads like a virus and the screens of laptops increasingly betray their owners’ inattention.

So after an hour, students find it hard to pay attention, and seek out additional stimulus. A good answer to this problem is one many of my former professors have adopted; the multiple-break lecture. In Canada, most classes are three hours long. A thoughtful instructor, worried about attention spans, provides two 10-15 minute breaks within those three hours, one break every 45 minutes or so. This way students can get up, chat, get a drink, go to the bathroom, and stretch their legs. Right when the attention span starts to go they get to take a break.

“Sometimes, you end up paying attention,” said Maria Iossa, a junior at MSU. “But sometimes, if it’s just too boring, you say, ‘I’m going to go on[line].”

Is a boring lecture something we can blame on technology? Does taking wireless out of the classroom make a lecture less boring? Would instructors rather have students staring blankly out windows, doodling in their margins, or checking their email? Still a lose/lose situation, isn’t it.

“Basically, it keeps me from falling asleep,” said Petersen, who is in her third and final year, and says her grade-point average is a respectable 3.3.

So here we see that even good students are using wireless access as a distraction, to keep themselves sitting up in classes. Does this wireless experiment actually show us anything new, or is it just highlighting a problem that’s been there all along? Do we need to reconsider the presence of wireless in the classroom, or reconsider the structure of the lecture format? What would you rather see; distracted or bored to distraction? Surely there is a better way.

The Smog of Data

The Smog of Data

I’ve been a bit baffled by some articles I’ve seen lately about this concept of information overload. Like this one, The Smog of Data, from the Chronicle of Higher Education. The general premise of the article is that because we have things like email and IM, the internet, the “library without walls” if you will, we are “losing the time and ability for contemplative thought”. If contemplative thought is the cornerstone of academics, and if current technology challenges our ability to engage in contemplative thought, then unplugging is critical for academics. Right?

I find this argument specious. If you let an academic loose in the Library of Congress, couldn’t she make the same argument? She was so lost in the miles of information spread out around her that she lost the ability to think contemplatively. There was simply too much information around her. She was drawn to leafing through completely irrelevant books and managed to completely avoid the ones that would further her career. How can you blame her? The books were right there.

People blame technology for the strangest things. Sure, if you want to be distracted from something, technology is a great way to be distracted. You can launch your IM program (or three or four, if you’re like me) and chat with your friends instead of thinking deep thoughts. You can open up your browser and check out baseball scores instead of reading a good book. You can post to message boards about some inane topic, download bit torrents of your favourite tv show, check out the newspaper headlines. You can jump to attention the moment you hear that friendly sound that means you have new email. Set your cellphone to ring and vibrate so you’ll know the moment anyone wants to talk to you. You can completely detach yourself from the process of higher thinking by focusing on the technology around you.

Who’s at fault here, technology, or you?

The last time I wanted to get completely detached from higher thinking, I got myself a puppy. Up at dawn for walks, up and down the stairs every couple of hours to encourage house training, playing with toys, walks at lunch, dinner, and in the evening. I read about dogs, thought about dogs, tried my hand at training; I shopped for doggy things. I met all the other people with dogs, made playdates, talked about dogs. Should I blame my dog for my vacation from higher thinking?

Technology doesn’t prevent us from doing anything. If we feel pressure to respond to email or to be on IM or to keep track of every minute change in the news or in our professions, that’s a sociological issue, not a technological issue. Why are we feeling that pressure? Is this the fault of the unrealistic expectations of the people around us? Are these are our own expectations of ourselves? Does playing with email and IM make us feel that we’re doing something useful when we’re actually not? Isn’t this often just a matter of being lazy and wanting to blame something other than themselves for our lack of advancement?

I’m critical of this line of thinking because I know that technology has the capacity foster contemplative thought more often than it restricts it. Take, for instance, this weblog. Because I keep this journal I am constantly looking for something to prod me into deeper contemplative thought. I rarely read anything without the idea that I may find something in it that I want to write about it. I read, I think, I consider, and then I write. In the writing I often circle around my own ideas, sometimes feeling that I came to the right conclusion, and sometimes feeling that I found the hole in the argument that convinces me otherwise. With this weblog I have a venue to express the ideas I encounter and the thoughts I have about them. Having that venue encourages me to create those thoughts in the first place. Being connected trains my brain to have something to add to the conversation.

So people feel distracted by email. In my experience, most people understand that you can’t expect someone to answer an email immediately. You have no idea what someone’s day is like; possibly they’re in meetings today, or have the day off, or are sick. I don’t know many people who wait around their inbox for an immediate response from someone to email they’ve just sent. Email is one of the least immediate technological media we have.

IM gets the finger next. Instant messaging has got to be the culprit; how can anyone be contemplative with an IM program open and running? With people’s chat windows popping up every few minutes asking questions? My goodness, our lives are so interrupted, how can we get any good thinking done?

Social constructivism 101: knowledge is best built in groups. How is it that academics can have a conversation about contemplative thought, about higher learning, without interrogating what they imagine that thinking has to look like? Since when does the best thinking happen when you’re alone?

We like this poetic image of the bearded, pipe-smoking gentleman in his hunting clothes wandering on the moor, basking in the damp countryside and thinking deep thoughts, but is this entirely realistic? Why is scholarly process envisioned this way?

What instant messaging has the capacity to provide is an instant seminar; when I really want to hash out an idea, I bounce it off my fellow techno-inspired academics. What idea is not the better one for having been hammered out between two (or more) intelligent people? Why is the process of communicating ideas so entirely separate from the process of generating them?

In sum: if you find you are too distracted by media to get any thinking done, unplug yourself and stop blaming technology for your inactivity. You always have that option. But please don’t presume that those of us who prefer to remain plugged in are somehow less capable of contemplation than you are. Some of us are built by the sum of our communications, pushed to further and deeper thought by interaction with others.

The “smog of data” for some is the sweet smell of inspiration to others.

How Real People are Finally Being Heard

How Real People are Finally Being Heard

I picked up this white paper called Trust “MeDIA”: How Real People are Finally Being Heard. It’s on blogging, a how-to and explanation of the blogosphere “for marketers and company stakeholders”. So I’ve just been reading through the paper, and meanwhile in the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about the relationship between blogging as it’s generally happening and how that process relates to the concept of information literacy. From the white paper:

[Mazda] launched a blog featuring three 30-second spots for its Mazda 3, apparently assuming that no one would figure out that the blogs—purported to be authored by anonymous bloggers who “found” incredible videos to share— were sponsored by Mazda’s ad agency and that the videos were hosted by an expensive Web-hosting service. That the videos featured Mazda logos only added skepticism to the bloggers’ already skeptical views, causing Rick E. Bruner of Business Blog Consulting to comment on his own blog: “Marketers, please, please get the point: blogs are about building trust, not spinning it.”

What went wrong? Pete Blackshaw, CMO of Intelliseek, shares his opinion: “….Mazda totally ignored the importance of ‘transparency.’ Corporate blogs are OK, but they must be as such, because if bloggers are anything at all, they’re savvy, inherently skeptical, defensive of their medium and able to sniff out imposters quickly. And once they do, they let everyone else know. [pg. 13]

Far be it from me to suggest that a technology or web application alone can instill the values of information literacy in a person, but there’s clearly something about the culture of blogging that librarians and educators need to get on side with. Librarians are trying to hard to explain to students that they need to be critical of the documents they’re reading; they need to question the purpose of the document, determine who the publisher is, the writer, the bias.

Look at what’s going on here in the Mazda example: individuals are encountering sources on the web, examining them critically, talking about them, determining the most basic elements of who, what, where and why, exposing issues when there’s something fishy about them, and bringing other people into a conversation about them. They are making news by being critical of the documents they encounter. Isn’t that the sort of culture and community we want to see built in classrooms? Isn’t that exactly the kind of critical thinking and document interrogation librarians have been trying to explain in those endless info lit sessions?

Blogging software alone does not create that kind of engagement, but it was built to support it. And fortunately for us the technology continues to improve its simplicity and transparency, and continues to add more venues of communication between content creators and content consumers.

Giving every reader a voice, a venue, and forum to receive and engage with commentary; that’s what blogs are being designed to do. Isn’t that just what educators should be aiming towards as well?

Hodgepodge

Hodgepodge

Today I am physically, emotionally, and intellectually exhausted. I didn’t think I would be able to post anything today for lack of any ability to string words together, but a few bits of information in the blogosphere today prompt me to talk about them. So, a hodgepodge random of bits:

It’s good to be plump. Good news for those of us who are carrying a little extra weight; it appears that our risk of death is less than those who are at a supposed optimum weight. So obesity remains a not great thing, but a few extra pounds? Cushioning. Just like I always thought.

From the “here we go again” file: Texas decides that gay and bisexual people can’t be foster parents. “It is our responsibility to make sure that we protect our most vulnerable children and I don’t think we are doing that if we allow a foster parent that is homosexual or bisexual.” Good to see we’ve all got our priorities straight. No pun intended.

Unrelated note: I am completely fascinated by every little piece of journalism dedicated to Pope Benedict. Every animated news header and every paragraph of news and interpretation has had 100% of my attention.

A new way to spend our time: the RPG wiki. You and your friends go letter by letter through the alphabet defining things of your choice, pretending to be historians of an era that doesn’t exist. I could get into this.

Preparing for the election. The sponsorship scandal is confusing, complicated, and the details will take months to expose and sort through. How anyone is even slightly surprised about it I have no idea. But I will never, ever forgive the Liberals if their behaviour provokes a premature election and the prime ministership of a certain Stephen Harper. I will blame them for that.

Another unrelated note: an unknown visitor ran a search for ‘panties’ on my blog. I find this disturbing. I prefer the term underpants.

Ipods and education. I have found myself talking about ipods in the classroom lately, and I have to say, I’m not convinced they should be there. Everyone’s talking about their amazing ability to record lectures and interviews, but no one seems to mention the fact that ipods are not actually designed to record. They need an extra piece, called an italk, in order to record anything. Wouldn’t it be cheaper just to give students a tape recorder and a walkman? How about burning lectures to a cd and handing those out? How about streaming audio content for students, or, to be even more hi-tech, set up a system where students can offer up their own content for streaming? What is so educational about the portability of an ipod? Or is this all a big marketing ploy to get students to come to their schools? I love my ipod, don’t get me wrong. I would be loath to ever exist without one. But I’m still not sold on the educational angle here, folks.

Librarian in black may be the first to convince me that there’s something useful in this hot new plugin, Jybe. Jybe enables co-browsing, something that makes me a little nervous. But since this sort of co-browsing seems to be more co- than the forced browsing model some v-ref software companies put forward, I can maybe get down with Jybe. Collaborative web browsing might be interesting.Distant Librarian is still reporting issues with the software, however. I’ll have to try it out to see.

My Favourite Search Strings

My Favourite Search Strings

“are engineers to rigid to be good managers”
The only concession this user made was to remove the question mark. A classic undeconstructed question typed into Google. I love these kinds of search strings because they underscore exactly why the world needs librarians. People don’t think about the process of searching for information; they know what they need and they know who probably has a record of the answer, somewhere. How to get from point A to point B is clearly a mystery.

“how to stimulate motive in learning language”
Another question typed straight in. This is not the kind of search that Google is particularly good at yet. This user needs to use a proprietary database storing social science data, and should probably be getting a hand from their local academic librarian. I say this because of the term “stimulate motive”. Doesn’t that sound like they’re looking for an academic text? Anyone else would have said something like “how to make kids want to learn languages”. So here we have specialist language going into a popular keyword database. I don’t know that I want to know what kinds of results you get when you type the word ‘stimulate’ into Google. Google is like a 13 year old boy that way, it giggles at all the words that might possibly be dirty.

“the version of childhood disneyworld constructs”
Interesting, eh? So the question this search is answering is what do you need information on? A search like this might be more useful than it appears to have been, since I’ve never written on this subject but this user was directed at me. Typing this phrase, in quotations, into Google would at least let you know if the phrase has been used by anyone who’s been archived. If someone used it, that would probably be useful to you. But if the user is actually looking to examine what version of childhood Disneyworld is constructing, the probably need to look at some primary sources. Look at the literature around Disneyworld, and the corporate information that comes with it. Note the use of “the” and “of”; technologies like Google have removed the necessity of distilling a query down to key terms. I think this kind of query is a good lesson for librarians. Using the technologies we have, we can allow users to type in this kind of query and give them what they’re looking for. If we automatically wildcarded words like “constructs” to “construction, construct, constructing”, dropped “the” and “of”, and added “childhood” and “Disneyworld”, that search would probably be extremely productive. If we can get the technology to do the grunt work of parsing down these kinds of queries into legitimate keyword searches, we would really be providing a good search engine.

“the way things work and search strings”
I enjoy the Boolean attempt here. Also, here is someone else looking at search strings. Compadre!

“heart of a just society” site
The likelihood of Google turning up something that’s not a website is increasingly likely, it’s true. But I still enjoy the addition of the word “site” here. This user is interested in a particular form or genre, not just in the topic.

“My View on Beauty and Ugliness”
A paper by A. Lazy Student (please give me an great mark). I particularly enjoyed the capitalization.

“marylandbluecrab”
My space bar is broken! I think this is an interesting search, since it’s probably the most fruitless on the internet. Spaces matter, friends! I’m actually sort of curious about whether or not someone thought this was the right way to conduct a search.

“assassin coursework personal and imaginative writing”
The fact that there might be assassin coursework that involves creative writing made this a search string to remember.

“essay on diary writing”
This fits into the what are you looking for today genre of Google string. Actually, this might be a bit of a theme on these recent search strings; form coming into the query. We don’t just want some article or ideas about diary writing, we want an essay on diary writing. Entirely dependent on the word “essay” coming to the document itself, which strikes me as unlikely. I sometimes use the name of a form for finding something, as a way to narrow a search: for instance, “instructional technology” and “blog”. Blogs often have the world blog on them somewhere, so that generally gets me what I’m looking for. But I think this search is a little less thought out than that. I’d like an essay on diary writing, please.

“giants stand on my shoulders”
Now this is a humble person.

“Michael Gunn a 21 year old English student”
This is interesting. This is someone looking for a very specific news story, and what an interesting way to do it. They’re looking for this story about a UK university student who was stripped of his degree for his rampant plagiarism throughout his academic career. Michael Gunn, a 21-year-old English student, told the Times Higher: “I hold my hands up. I did plagiarise. I never dreamt it was a problem.” What a great way to find the story, no? Type in a line that comes from it, and see how many times it comes up. Genius, really. I quoted the story, that’s how it got to me.

“catsuits quebec
Anyone interested in catsuits in Quebec has got my attention, that’s all I’m saying.

“at the NIH meeting funny hilarious exciting humourous joke taunt tantrum”
Interesting how people come to understand the idea of thesauri in searching, isn’t it?

“RESEARCH DONE IN CROCHETTING”
This is like interpretive dancing; I prefer to present my research through crocheting. Captials courtesy of the original search string.

“pedogogue explain”
Two words. Now, we accept that we need to seek out good search terms when doing keyword searches; is that what happened here? Did someone simply request that Google explain the term “pedagogue”? Or are they searching for something on the web that contains, let’s say, the sentence “Let me explain to you what a pedagogue is”? Not enough words to make a judgment, really.

“how does google organize information”
Another classic What do you want to know answer. Interesting how that happens, isn’t it? Missing the question mark, but otherwise, a straight up reference question, the same way you would ask a real live in the flesh person.

“is keeping a diary a good idea”
A question that has a yes or no answer, even! These are the kinds of questions people won’t ask a librarian. Inching into the personal, the ethical, the kind of knowledge we’re supposed to gain just by growing up in the world. Is it a good idea? I’m not sure I answered this question. How would you answer it?

Can the Stacks Save Us?

Can the Stacks Save Us?

An interesting anti-technophile rant from Chuck, a systems librarian in Kansas City, titled Primitivist OR Luddite AND Librarian:

How about this innovation: libraries should be tools for social change, especially when it comes to fighting ignorance and illiteracy. Most people in this country (the USA) aren’t intellectually curious. More and more of them are becoming functionally illiterate. Making motherfucking RSS feeds and XML metedata available in your public library aren’t going to educate the majority of your neighbors who think that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. New techonology innovations are a fucking waste of time if your patrons can’t find Pakistan or Venezuela on a map.

I understand where he’s coming from. It must be extremely difficult for a socialist person to live in the heart of the United States right now; information literacy takes on all sorts of new dimensions when you think about it in light of the realities of citizenship. The statistics show us that someone has managed to bamboozle the majority of Americans into believing things that aren’t true. How can anyone consider things like podcasts and RSS newsfeeds when basic literacy and misinformation are becoming an increasing problem in middle America?

But are books going to save them? If you throw out the technology, go back to the card catalogue, bring the books forward into those spaces they once vacated in order to add more computers, how are you moving closer to literacy or information literacy? How is that priority, the printed page, more useful to the mission of targeting and eradicating misinformation? How are the stacks going to change the world?

This rant isn’t about technology at all, though it’s been billed as such. This isn’t even about books, strangely enough. This is about the idea of that librarians should be educators, a highly contested role that many librarians refuse to embrace. From Chuck’s Addendum:

I’m of the opinion that libraries exist to serve a diferent purpose, which include things such as literacy, teaching critical thinking skills, promoting big picture understanding through reading, and providing the printed resources necessary for the survival of a healthy society.

While I am on the side of that supports the idea of librarians as educators, I must ask the obvious question: what makes librarians think they’re qualified to teach?

In my experience, most librarians don’t know the first thing about pedagogical theory or practice. Librarians have not been to teacher’s college (generally). While instruction is an element of reference service, librarians are not teachers. If this is something we have decided is crucial to the enterprise, we need to re-evaluate how we educate librarians. We should be studying pedagogy. We should be practice teaching. We should be engaged in the global conversations about teaching and learning with the experts in the field. Which part of library school education tells us anything about critical thinking skills and how to impart them to others? I learned how to catalogue in DDC and LC, how to provide reference service, how to make sense of statistics, some basic computer skills. I learned a bit about management and strategic planning, legal issues, and so forth. Where was the class on even defining critical thinking let alone teaching it?

Classically, librarians help link up individuals with the information they are looking for; the job of library staff is to find and provide sources for people so that they can do their own thinking. We don’t interpret their questions for them, we don’t proofread their papers, we don’t even criticize the basic ideas they bring to their information search. If someone comes into a library wanting to write an article denying the holocaust, the job of the librarian is to help them do that with whatever sources they can find. The sources are supposed to do the educating, not us. The goal of the objective library, the objective catalogue, the objective librarian, is still very much current.

What is the relationship between the public library and instruction? When I finished up library school, I suggested that instructional method and pedagogical theory should be more prominently placed in the core curriculum, but one of the administrators told me it was unnecessary for public librarians. They have no instructional role. I tried to argue with her, but she was (and still is) an important member of the faculty. I mean, what do I know, it was my exit interview. Clearly my experience was pretty limited. Who am I to say she’s wrong?

The people who can and are making themselves useful in an instructional context are the academic librarians. The higher up you get on the educational ladder the less instructional training anyone has had, so librarians can burst into that sacred classroom with some legitimacy. At least if they’ve done a bit of reading on the subject. Since undergraduate students are largely hung out to dry on the subject how to interrogate the information they find themselves swimming in, academic librarians can offer a welcome and needed helping hand. They can become an integral support service for instructional faculty, introducing pedagogical ideas, taking care of instructional software, troubleshooting, training, and providing general assistance. They can be on the lookout for new and interesting innovations that might help improve the teaching/learning experience. Librarians can be the filter; we can do the legwork and offer up the solutions to the teaching faculty. We can help train TAs. We are already part of the institution as a service. Inching into instruction comes almost naturally.

Where exactly does this leave public librarians? Is there a place in the traditional classroom for a librarian, one who is not paid by the school board, one who has not had the training required of everyone else involved in the education of the community’s children? On the basis of insurance alone I suspect they are left out in the cold. Their role in formal education is restricted to helping students find books on frogs for their report.

But what if we think about pedagogy in a larger sense, in a lifelong learning sense. What if the library is in fact an educator, not necessarily for the ones officially being educated, but for the rest of the community? How can the library as an institution fight against misinformation?

And this is where Chuck both has and loses his argument. On one hand: librarians are (according to him) too dazzled by the shiny new toys that web applications are bringing us, and are spending too much time trying to play with them in a way that looks institutionally significant when they should be fighting the demons of misinformation. On the other hand: maybe those librarians are seeing something you aren’t, and are using those dazzling new toys in the fight against ignorance? Increasing the presence of librarians in the world in every way, including every digital way, can only help in that end goal. What if the public library takes its educational role as seriously as Chuck does and decides to become an alternative news outlet, using the technologies available to piece together something to shake up the status quo? What if technology (like those darn RSS feeds) are a way to bring together and present alternative opinions and perspectives, together with a space for members of the community to add content, ask questions, interact and question the information around them?

While in some ways I feel as though Chuck is pointing a finger precisely at people like me, I sympathize with him. But it’s not the webmasters and the programmers and the RSS-pushers that are the problem. If librarians need to have their core values and goals readjusted, then more power to him for trying to initiate that conversation. But blaming technology is not the answer. Possibly revisiting library curriculum is.

The Read/Write Classroom

The Read/Write Classroom

There is so much going on in the blogosphere right now I barely know where to begin. The inspiration of the day comes from Ann Althouse, law school professor in Madison, Wisconsin.

We got going on the subject of how maybe we should outright encourage the students to IM, including sending tips and cues to a student who is engaged in Socratic dialogue with the lawprof. What’s wrong with students pooling their expertise on the fly? The student doing the speaking is not rendered passive. He or she will still have to read the messages quickly and integrate them with existing knowledge. It could be lively and energizing. The students who aren’t chosen to speak will have some way to express themselves, which might help them listen to the student who is speaking, and a spirit of community and collaboration might take hold. Am I wrong?

One of the elements of instructional technology that has intrigued and baffled me over the last two years is the fairly thoughtless inplementation of wifi into classrooms I’ve seen around me. I say thoughtless because in my experience wireless access is entering classrooms without discussion with instructors, and most instructors I’ve encountered have not considered how wireless internet access is impacting the walls of the classroom and their authority and autonomy as the experts in the room. We wanted to build a library without walls; did instructors and administrators consider what would happen when that library turned out to extend inside the walls of classroom?

It may sound as if I think this is a bad thing; that’s not true. I think it’s a wonderful thing, a revolutionary thing. Every student in class (since more and more of them are turning up with wireless-enabled laptops) will soon be sitting in a sea of information, even while listening to a well-planned lecture. They have the OED, in all it’s 60-odd volumes, at their fingertips. They can peruse the wikipedia to get a definition of a term you are bandying around in class. They can scan over electronic resources and look up journal articles as you cite them. You can ask the class a question and get back an answer constructed by a reference librarian on the other side of the country, accessed through a well-publicized virtual reference service. And finally, as Ann Althouse points out, you can grill one particular student and end up getting an answer that was collaboratively constructed by all the students in class, linked through a IM system. The world is no longer exactly as it appears, if it ever was.

I’m excited to read about instructors taking note that IM exists and that students are using it; I’m even more excited that instructors are thinking about finding ways to use it to educational advantage. Technology like this is changing the shape of the classroom. Where students have been largely restricted in their information-gathering and gossiping during class time, technology is breaking down all the barriers, there is virtually nothing students can’t do while sitting in class. This isn’t a bad thing.

With access to the internet in all its forms, students are no longer passive receptacles in class, completely at the mercy of the expert at the front of the room. They have the capcity to be participants. Whether they are going to be participants in a secret place of their own making or of one the instructor is trying to construct is going to depend on the how this reality has worked through the brain of the instructor.

The language around the internet has lately shifted from terms like “information highway” to titles like “the participation age” and “the read/write web”. The access students have when we put wifi into classrooms means that students have the power to contribute in ways that were impossible before. If the internet is in fact a library without walls, it’s not just the stacks, much as the library itself is not just stacks. It’s the reference staff, the subject librarians available to discuss your assignment. It’s your fellow students trying to accomplish the same thing you are. It’s the group work areas and big tables where you can sit down with your friends and hash out the project, the corridors where you can sit and chat on your cell phone. It’s the bathroom walls covered with graffiti and the scrap paper where you can jot down an idea. The internet is no longer a read-only space. It’s also a playground, a place for experimentation, a way to communicate. It’s noun, adjective, and verb.

And with the introduction of the internet to the classroom proper, students are no longer in a wholly passive position in the classroom either. This is the read/write classroom, too. With access to so much information, and to so many people, and to each other, students can now speak up with some authority. Instructors can be fact-checked on the fly. Information can come spilling out of the students in ways that would have relied on unlikely preparation in a non-wireless environment. Students can conduct mini-interviews with anyone in the world to report something interesting and new to their classmates. There are two ways to cope with this radical change; shut it down, or anticipate and use it. Force the laptops to close, or call on students to fact-check and report to the class. Put students back in a passive receptacle mode, or allow them to participate in the information delivery that occurs inside the classroom. Feel intimidated, or allow students to feel empowered.

In Defense of Teens

In Defense of Teens

A rant from Will R. at weblogg-ed, inspired by an article out of Wichita called “On Xanga, students make their life an open blog”:

Show me how kids using Xanga are blogging. I’m sure there must be some students actually employing all of the information gathering, critical thinking, linking, and annotative writing skills that Weblogs bring to the equation. Find ONE. (Caution: Potentially profane content ahead.) Is this blogging? Or this? Or this?

I just spent fifteen minutes clicking through about 20 Xanga sites and I CAN’T FIND ANY BLOGGING GOING ON! Is it me?

Like most conversations around weblogs, this one is asking yet again the perennial question: what is a weblog? And more specifically, how can we make weblogs more what we want them to be? How can we keep boring content out, and keep everyone fresh, interesting, and intelligent? How can we keep boring, bouncy teens away from our precious software?

I understand that Will is ranting here. But where the rant is directed is the problem. You can unleash a publishing platform on the world, but you don’t get to tell people how they have to use it. Teens are creative, energetic, dyanamic people, and if anyone can find alternative uses for a piece of software, it’s them. Is there any blogging going on at Xanga? Given that blogging involves adding content to a website on a regular basis and arranging that content in a chronological fashion, with a time and date stamp and a name, often using software to facilitate its publication and syndication, yes indeed. There is blogging going on at Xanga.

This rant is coming from a place of frustration. Will wants weblogs to be accepted as academic venues. As useful to the educational enterprise. And he feels that all these kids using this technology to talk about unimportant crap are clogging up Google and getting in the way of people truly seeing the wonder that is the weblog.

From one of Will’s non-blog blogs:

To be in love is merely to be in a state of perpetual anesthesia…. Our lives are shaped by those who love us and those who refuse to love us. Iv been laying here all night listening to my heart and trying to explain why sometimes I catch myself wondering what might have been, and yes I do think about you every now and then. How can it be that 2 people can go from being eachothers everything to absolutely nothing? And why do we always love the ones that hurt us, and hurt the ones that love us?

Do you think you can identify learning when you see it? Can you identify quality in a blog post? Who exactly are you to say? What sort of social network are you coming from when you come down so hard on these social networks? How can you champion student participation on one hand and then rant so derogatorily about those same people using technology to communicate on the other, to work out the truth and the lies about their lives? What’s important to them isn’t important to you. What’s important to them often isn’t important to me either, but these blogs shouldn’t be interpreted as a black mark on the educational use of blogging. What does it tell us that teenagers are prepared to sit down at a computer at regular intervals throughout the day and compose some chunk of text about their lives? That they are using text to work through the same issues we all work through at some point or other?

“Write a little every day.” That’s what they tell writers. They don’t say, “write something good every day.” They don’t say “write something pedagogically useful every day”. Teens are using the resources available to them to do what’s important to them; they are creating and strengthening their social networks. Social networks are of primary importance to teens. It’s well-established a developmental stage. Do they need to learn how to communicate with their peers? Yes, they do. Is this something that works it’s way on to the curriculum? Of course not. That’s something students use high school to do in spite of being requested repeatedly to stop. Teens communicating with each other is not a bad thing. Teens experiencing their lives and writing about it is also not a bad thing. Just because we’re adults and think it looks childish, useless and immature doesn’t mean they should stop doing it. It doesn’t mean they don’t need to do it, either. It doesn’t mean they aren’t learning.

If anything, the mass use of blogs by teens, and their highly-nuanced use of blog comment functions, is a great big selling point for blogs in an educational context. Is this a technology familiar to kids? Yes, it is. They know how to use it, they know it’s potential, and they know how to build and foster community through it. We can start dictating what kind of content we want to see when those blogs are classroom dedicated. When we give them categories to shunt academic content into. Should they stop using blogs to talk about the great party they went to and all the neat people they met? No. Exploring the world and learning to communicate with it is just as important if not more important and learning to think critically about Pride and Prejudice.

I’m profoundly uncomfortable with the snobbery around these topics. Dissing software because teens use it to talk about themselves to each other is not fair. Teens are all about discovering themselves; how can you possibly bring anything useful to the table as an adult if you didn’t go through a period and working out who you are as a teen? Without learning how to have friends, how to deal with conflict, how to distinguish good chatter from hurtful gossip?

Let them play with the software. Let them form their social networks, deconstruct them, destroy them, and start over. Let them work out their issues and get comfortable with the technology. The shift to blogging for curricular purpose can come later.