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Month: April 2006

Subjective Organization and Serendipity

Subjective Organization and Serendipity

I was barely listening to the radio just now; I was mostly just putting away my laundry and thinking about what an amazing week it’s been and what’s going to happen tomorrow when my brother-in-law and my nephew come to pick me up for the holiday. But there is a fellow talking on the radio, and my ears picked up when I heard this:

“One day the books will all be arranged based on mathematics,” he said. “Another day, it will be based on current events.”

Not knowing what this show was actually about, I immediately thought of a library, about Dewey and the Library of Congress. Can you imagine if we could rearrange our collections with the snap of a finger, and did so regularly based on particular themes? No more objective classification scheme; a different order every week. Imagine what sources would start rubbing shoulders if you could do something like that! What a unique perspective you would get every week! Imagine the serendipity; toss the disciplines up in the air and let the subjects define themselves in different ways, multiple ways. Human feeling encoded into the stacks; the multiplicity of opinions and possiblities all made flesh before our eyes, shifting and changing as they always must.

Turns out he was talking about a bookstore in Montreal with a great front window. Well, that’s okay. I got my piece of a dream out of it anyway.

Web 2.0 catches up with Reader’s Advisory

Web 2.0 catches up with Reader’s Advisory

The (possible) future of reader’s advisory: Story Code.

“What am I going to read today?”

A familiar question to most readers, because it is a struggle choosing what to read next.

Well, StoryCode is here to help.

StoryCode.com is a unique source of inspiring book recommendations and a great way to find the next book to read. And its power comes from the collaborative passion of readers.

It was only a matter of time ebfore someone used social networking software and complex tagging to do something like this. I’m sorry the library world didn’t do it first. (Check it out: there isn’t a single librarian among them.)

The Man who Mistook his Wife for an Email Address

The Man who Mistook his Wife for an Email Address

In keeping with my current fixation on metaphors, I present to you our current bugbear, and my pet peeve of the moment: wacky email addresses. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a lot of universities have this same problem; students arriving on our doorsteps already married to a goofy email address, and not feeling any particular need for another (official) one. I’m talking about cuddly_girl1988 and hotstufflolxxox and kiss_my_grits7953@hotmail.com. This is the email address all their friends and loved ones know; so it’s the one they keep on using as students.

It seems to me that email addresses feel akin to phone numbers to people; this is the place at which you can be contacted, it is a set of characters completely without meaning, and you should avoid changing it at all costs to avoid confusion or loss of contact. Sometimes I wonder if an email is also akin to a personal name; you only change it in the case of something truly life-changing, like a witness protection program, an adoption and (maybe) a marriage. No matter how stupid it is (see Peaches Geldof about that one), you don’t change your name on a whim. It’s yours. Having to change it would be a fundamental shift that would throw your whole world into chaos, and no matter how important a change it was, someone would always call you but your former moniker, just because they’re so used to it.

Institutionally, students’ unwillingnes to use their school email accounts is a problem because the probability of these addresses getting typed in wrong the first time is so high. One little typo in sparklyp00_g0dd455@hotmail.com results in a lot of errors when we need to send a student something important. It means a lot of password resets when they use these accounts with courseware. Every student’s institutional email address is generated by the system, and thus, it’s far more likely to be correct the first time. We have elaborate password schemes to (try to) ensure that the right person gets the right email. We care about privacy. We care about sensitive information staying controlled. Those are the official reasons for encouraging the use of institutional email.

What I don’t understand is why more students don’t jump at the chance to have an institutional email address. These folks worked hard to get into school; isn’t this email address a mark of that success? You have arrived; you are one of the elite pack. It’s like getting stamped with a particular kind of honour or authority; me @ this great and glorious insitution! ph34r my mad academic skillz! I’m a smrtypants! Yet, it seems like the majority of students don’t bother to ever activate their school email accounts. They stick with babygirl976xox@hotmai.com instead.

And thus, my latest metaphor: your institutional email is your interview suit. Your church outfit. Your best dress. The clothes you put on when you want to be taken seriously, make an impression, get a job. Institutional email gives you a degree of authority before you even open your mouth. Imagine a room where you need a certain amount of intelligence to get in; your institutional email address is like flashing your sterling transcript at someone, who then taps the bouncer on the shoulder and tells him to make way for you. it’s like saying,hey, I’m an adult, I got into a university, listen to what I have to say! I’m not just some joker. I belong. Not only that, but because this account can only be set up by an administrator, your addressee know for sure who you are; you’re the one with the name in the “from” line. Undebatable. (Though of course there are exceptions…but they are that. Exceptions.) Anyone can get a hotmail account; not everyone has an the right to an institutional email address. It’s a useful priviledge of membership.

Sure, you don’t want to wear your best clothes all the time. Your friends aren’t impressed by them; they know you and don’t care what you’re wearing. They just want to hear what you have to say. Your hotmail email is like your ripped jeans and your favourite t-shirt with the stubborn stain down the front that still doesn’t stop you from wearing it. But do you want to wear that outfit to a job interview? Do you want you thesis adviser or a graduate admissions committee to see you in it? Your b4llybutt0npi4rc4d@hotmail.com might be kicky in some circles, but it’s not really the way you want your instructor to think of you, is it?

I can understand people liking the idea of having just one email to check, but I highly recommend two email addresses for everyone. You should have one for your “professional” activities (that includes your student work and communication), and one for your personal life. Have you ever been in a situation where you need to grab a document from your email in order to do a presentation? Have you ever had to do it from a computer that’s projected onto a screen, in front of a roomful of students and your instructor? Do you really want all your personal email displayed to these people? Do you really want to log in as sweet_piece_of_a55@yahoo.com in a situation like that?

Having two email addresses also means you can shut off school or work. When I need a break, I don’t check my work email on the weekends. Because I have two accounts, I can still check my personal email, and keep in touch with friends and family, without having to get dragged back into work (or school). Doesn’t everyone need a break now and then? Let the school account collect the “work” for you, and keep your personal email for everything else. It’s like having an office, and an office phone; you don’t want it ringing in your face when you’re at home watching a movie.

On the flip side, I’d strongly caution everyone from using work email (or school email) to do anything personal. It doesn’t happen often, but there’s always a possibility that an administrator may at some point be given the authority to go through that email. It belongs to the school/office, after all; that’s in the fine print. Don’t say anything in work/school email that would make you blanch if you knew your boss/instructor/administrator might see it. This is why I think everyone should have two email accounts; we always need a secondary channel. We need to be able to be a little bit off the record sometimes, though committing something to “paper” (even digitally) comes with its risks.

So keep funkycupoflove@hotmail.com. Check it often! But don’t email your instructors from there. It doesn’t look good, and it just means you have to hear back about school stuff when you’re in fun mode. Activate that school account! That way, we all win!

Tulips

Tulips


Tulips

There are two things I promised myself when I had a decently-paying job; lots of vegetables regularly (good food is tough to get when you’re watching every penny!) and cut flowers. Not every day, but once in a while. Tulips are my favourites, and yellow is my favourite colour.

10 Ways to Lose your Best People

10 Ways to Lose your Best People

The meme of the moment: how to lose your “techie” librarians, started by Michael Stephens. I read through the posts by my esteemed colleagues Sherri, Dorothea (my evil twin!), Jessamyn, Karen, and Sarah, among others. Fascinating reading. These lists are a combination of a variety of things; good experiences turned inside out, bad experiences (personal and merely observed) laid bare, intreprations of the attitude of the profession as a whole, through the professional literature, certain high profile kerfuffles in librarianship (and their fallout), and the culminative impression we get from reading the daily stories from tech librarians around the world though the librarian blogosphere. I am reminded of how very lucky I am to work where I work, with the people I’m surrounded by. Reading through all those posts, and by writing my own list of what would turn me away, it’s clear that it’s all in the attitude. Have I mentioned lately how much I love my job?

10 Attitudes That Would Make this “techie” Librarian High-Tail it Out of Your Library:

10. The rule is, if you get your hands dirty, it’s not a professional task. In spite of the fact that writing code doesn’t actually get your hands dirty, it does in a virtual sense, so it’s best to consider those librarians less than entirely professional.

9. Remember that as long as you have a librarian nearby who works with computers in some form, you don’t need to actually learn how to do anything with them yourself. Surely this person has been hired simply to alleviate that pressure from you. Just ask them to do whatever petty tasks you have hovering around you. It’s sort of like having your own secretary, really.

8. You can’t trust people who know more about technology than you do. Second guess them at every turn. Don’t trust their estimations of timelines; they always take more time than they need. If something is effortless to use, it was probably effortless to build as well. Don’t let a tech librarian bully you. You may have no idea how that application works, but you still know best.

7. Things that are “fun” are not educationally valuable. Keep that in mind at all times. Students shouldn’t read email from their friends at a public terminal, and they sure as heck shouldn’t be using IM to communicate with anyone. No one of any worth communicates in short bits like that. Libraries are places for silence, deep thinking, and serious learning. That is all.

6. This should be your mantra: traditional librarians are the “high-concept” people. The thinkers, the movers, the real planners. Traditional librarianship is where the direction for the profession is going to come from. Technology librarians are more “low-concept”, more how-to and technical; they’re your support staff. They basically act out the big plans of the others. It’s sometimes politically incorrect to say this outloud, but don’t imagine that anyone thinks otherwise.

5. Blogs are stupid. “Blog people” are even stupider. What’s a wiki? Why should I care? It’s best to approach all new applications not only with skepticism, but with active distrust and scorn.

4. Tech librarians cannot take on leadership roles. It’s like this: every person has a finite amount of ability. If you have someone at your workplace who’s pretty good with computers, that ability naturally reduces their ability in the “social skills” column. Tech librarians don’t know how to manage, inspire, or strategize. If your tech librarian also likes either a) Star Trek, b) Battlestar Gallactica, or c) Douglas Adams, what you’ve got on your hands is a geek. Geeks are not cool, no matter what pop culture tells you. Geeks are team players, they’re support people. They have their place, but that place is not leading committees, participating in high-level strategic planning, or out in public, representing the library.

3. The (physical) collection is our most important asset. Everything else is a frill. Remind tech librarians of this regularly. The moment this “computers” fad has passed, she will be out of a job.

2. Don’t be supportive of your tech librarian’s goals. When an opportunity comes up for them to apply for funding to help them do something they’ve spent years wanting to do, don’t support that. Don’t proof-read, discuss, pass on, or otherwise support that funding request. After all, we all have our goals; pie-in-the-sky dreams about an application that might possibly (if we’re lucky) be useful to the community at large isn’t really the business of the library. Focus on more concrete projects.

1. If something happens to go well, don’t congratulate your tech librarian. Don’t tell her that you’re glad she’s around. Geeks don’t have the same social needs as other people; just nod and move on to the next project.

Metaphors we live/work by

Metaphors we live/work by

I’ve been reading George Lakoff’s Metaphors we live by in the last few days. I’ve been meaning to thumb through this book ever since my last term in library school when I took a course in Information Visualization and my instructor recommended it to me. I picked it up then and leafed through it, but I had so many ideas in my head at the time that I could barely fit any more in there.

You know how you get those special goggles on whenever you’re reading something really good, something really ground-breaking, and suddenly everything you see relates to it? That’s where I am with metaphor right now, and it’s because of the Lakoff book.

The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we thinks what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.

Since starting seriously working with faculty and students at the library, either in explaining how a piece of software might be useful to them or helping them to use the stuff they’re required to, I find myself dropping the term “metaphor” into almost every other conversation I have. And yes, people do indeed look at me funny when I do it, but I persist. I find it helpful.

My current motto is this: if you know what a piece of software thinks it is, you have a better sense of what you can probably use it for, and how to go about using it. You know where to look and what to expect from it. If an application thinks it’s a book, you know you can open it and find chapters inside it. There’s probably an index at the end and a table of contents at the beginning. A good metaphor lets the user understand what affordances an application has; it gives them the rules and a sense of a starting place. Since lots of software has the beginnings of a metaphor, or one that isn’t well expressed, sometimes most of the battle in getting faculty and students to feel at home with a given application is to introduce them to that metaphor more directly. I swear by this one; comparing mediawiki to genesis (name it and it appears!) is an actually helpful way of describing the fact that you need to name and link to a new page before it will appear. People can mock me all they want; talking about metaphors lets me see that dawning realization on people’s faces faster than anything else, so I’m sticking to it.

Last night I read an article for a meeting this morning, and while it was full of lots of interesting things, what kept popping out at me over and over was the fact that the author was saddled with a complete absence of metaphor when it came to digital collections. He talked about mainframes and electronically encoded data and access points and networks, all of which was 100% correct. But it failed entirely to convey any affordances to the user. It hit me once again; librarianship has failed to come up with useful metaphors for these things. We haven’t found a way to put the idea of what these things think they are into the users’ heads, and so the affordances available to them are clear as mud.

Sometimes I think we’re so keen to be seen as tech savvy that we forget our backgrounds; so many librarians come from a humanities background that I feel certain we can solve this one. Metaphor isn’t just for poetry. Metaphor is the user interface for our services, the verbal interface that helps build a scaffold in the heads of our users. “Database” doesn’t help; that’s a meaningless term. My blog is a database. Google is a database. Mainframes and access points are real and true, but how can we get across to users what they really have access to? The library without walls needs some structure. We need those metaphorical stacks!

Long Live the Fangirl!

Long Live the Fangirl!

Dorothea hits all the right notes as she talks about blogging while employed, and also something else I never thought I’d see: apparently she’s been accused of being too fangirly. So, there’s two important points I want to touch on; blogging and having a job, and this idea of the perils of fangirlism (shall we say).

Blogging while employed isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. First, there’s the question; how much of your job do you want to put on your blog? My employer has been extremely supportive of me keeping a blog (we have academic freedom and all that), and my co-workers let me know when they think I’ve said something interesting. My blog has been a great learning experience for me over the years, and it’s a good archive of the things I’ve felt passionate enough about to tap out some words about. On that score, it’s a little bit like an extension of my research interests, and for my purposes that’s very helpful. After almost a year on the job, I’m less conflicted about what to say, and more challenged by finding the time to say it. What’s happened to me is this: the energy I have about my profession is going into my day job; the energy I have to write on a daily basis is going into my manuscript. That leaves precious little for this space some days. I feel, however, that this is a temporary blip; I put some effort into a redesign recently, and I that’s prompted me to take the time to throw some words on its crisp new pages.

Where do those words come from? Enthusiasm. No one sits down in their spare time to write about something they don’t feel something about. Enthusiasm is what keeps us going, it’s what keeps us interesting and interested. What, we should take the enthusiasm out, but keep the daily grind in?

I applaud Dorothea’s call to take the starch out of librarian blogging. This is the same conversation we’ve been having since the whole “there are no academic librarians blogging” fiasco from the summer. It seems some folks want our personal blogs to be 100% professional. (“Professional”, as Dorothea would have it.) Let’s not fall into this trap. We don’t owe the world a purely professional blog on our own time. What makes our profession is the people; our personalities, our aspirations, our goals and dreams. Those things are going to shine through. And I think that’s a good thing. If you want wholly professional posts from us, just grab the feeds from those categories, bub. Let us keep the personal in the loop here.

And about this idea of fangirling. I think Dorothea and I are on exactly the same track about this one. You have to have the space to be jubiliant about other people. It’s mission critical. Family Man Librarian appears to have been looking for “subjective” reports from the Computers in Libraries conference, and encountered Dorothea’s joy at meeting other librarians instead. (Note to the profession: subjectivity is dead, and blogs are not newspapers.) Is fangirling a problem?

You know, if you do it when you mean it, and not when you’re a) trying to get something, b) trying to rub elbows with “famous” people, c) doing it because you feel you should, I think it’s exactly the right thing. And if it’s not, my modus operandi has to change, because my entire world is shaped around when and where I feel the need to fangirl.

Last summer, we had a guest speaker come up from the downtown campus to speak to us about a web project that was about start going live. I had never heard of this speaker before, and in fact didn’t catch his name at the beginning of the talk, but I was so spellbound throughout that I absolutely had to corner him after the fact and gush at him about what he was saying, and how much I agreed, and how inspired I was by his words. That single conversation has lead to a chain of events I could never have strung together back then; showing enthusiasm, real, true, honest enthusiasm, is one way to develop lasting professional and personal connections. In sum: fangirling can be good for the profession, your institution and your career.

Long live the fangirl!