Thursday, December 28, 2006

The future is here its just waiting to be introduced

So I was reading this document from the near-future (the January 2007 issue of WIRED magazine to be exact) and the first article is about a new library at Chicago State University that is closed stacks. All book retrieval is done by robot.

My favourite stats from the article:
  • Average time for a robot to retrieve five books: 2.5 minutes
  • Average time for a student to retrieve five books: 2 hours
And then it became oh so readily apparent: academic libraries were going to back to close-stack entities. It just seemed to be the logical conclusion if you consider the following:
  • academic librarians love to buy books and are loath to discard books
  • our present day institutions rarely commission new library buildings
  • Google, Amazon, and other organizations are beginning to scan the out of print books that make up academic library collections and make them available online for browsing
  • consumers are used to having books and DVDs delivered to them
  • the ability to browse the library shelves is largely unappreciated
  • students want quiet places to study
  • people complain about long reference numbers

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Hosting a Party on the web

There's been a lot of talk as of late about social networking software. To my mind, there's been too much attention given to 'software' and scant attention given to the 'social'.

So next time someone you know suggests that the website in question could benefit from a wiki, comments, or a discussion area, make sure you ask them who is going to host the party.

In this interview with .net magazine, Flickr founder Caterina Fake likens building an online community to throwing a party:

According to Caterina: "The most difficult part is not the technology but actually getting the people to behave well." When first starting the community the Flickr team were spending nearly 24 hours online greeting each individual user, introducing them to each other and cultivating the community. "After a certain point you can let go and the community will start to maintain itself, explains Caterina. "People will greet each other and introduce their own practices into the social software. It's always underestimated, but early on you need someone in there everyday who is kind of like the host of the party, who introduces everybody and takes their coat.

I recall those early days of Flickr...Stewart and Caterina were everywhere, commenting on everything. A core group of people followed their example and began to do the same, including Heather Champ, who now manages Flickr's community in an official capacity. Matt did a similar thing with MetaFilter too...he spent a lot of time interacting with people on there, taking their coats, and before long others were pitching in. [kottke]

With all the social software options out there, at least failure is cheaper now.

Back in my day (*ahem*) virtual communities were all the rage. In fact, a corporation that I was working for decided to create its own virtual community for a certain segment of a certain industry because one of the company's VPs had read this book. And after thousands (tens? hundreds?) were spent in developing the site, it was ready to launch.

I was skeptical of the whole enterprise and so I was surprised that after the first day, users were posting questions in the (empty) discussion boards. But no one in the corporation bothered to respond until later in the week. You see, while the VP didn't spare any expense in getting a great outside development team to create the site, he essentially tacked on the content responsibilities to existing employees with already stressed and busy work lives and furthermore, gave them no incentive to participate in *his* project. The site was stillborn.

Like most things, it needed love and attention to survive. And a party atmosphere.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

By sharing we learn what has been lost

Today I felt a little delight and a little disappointment as I tried out some of the newest Refworks features.

I love love love RefGrabIt and the ability to create RSS feeds from RefWorks folders has made me giddy thinking of the possibilities of integrating RSS feeds into our library's website. In my eagerness to create an RSS feed of articles that I can't help but write about on my other blog, I started trolling my library's databases for some past gems. And that's when I noticed that Art Spiegelman's "Drawing Controversy" article was not available online. It's the article that reprints "the danish cartoons". I was horribly worried about this until I realized that at least the Leddy Library still subscribes to the microfilm version of the magazine so present and future researchers will not be shortchanged by the idiosyncrasies of online reprinting rights.

Anyway, this all got me thinking that library consortiums should start designating "library of last resort" status to our collective print serial collections because we can't assume that someone has a copy somewhere. Because sharing responsibility is just as important as sharing resources.

From MemoryBlog

MemoryBlog: "From Michael Ravnitzky, a frequent contributor to The Memory Hole, comes this article on 'the Directorate of Legal Research (DLR), a little known but well-regarded and highly influential research department contained within the Library of Congress.' As with its sibling, the Congressional Research Service, the massive amounts of world-class research being produced by the DLR (almost 2,000 publications in 2004 alone) virtually never make it to the public, despite being funded by taxpayers. "

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Thanks George!

Solvitur ambulando » Blog Archive » Library-in-a-Box: First thoughts: "George Soros and a host of other funders are going to pay smart people around the world to develop free and open source software for libraries, specifically targeted at libraries in the developing world. This is kind of a big deal."

I think its a very big deal indeed!

Friday, November 10, 2006

The people's history of the Marginal Librarian

I found out from Library Juice that my alma mater's publication, the Marginal Librarian has recently published another fine issue of library school goodness.

And I was pleased to see that this issue had a little section on the history of the 'Marginal'. I was there at the beginning and I can say that what is written is correct. Although, it is missing a little 'pre-history'...

Before Andre took upon the task of starting up a student publication for the library school, myself and my seat-mates in the back of the classroom would entertain ourselves during class by producing a little sloppy zine called 'The Marginal Librarian'.

The first issues of the Marginal Librarian

I think I have all but one of the issues. I'll check with one of the other partners in crime to see if she still has the one I'm missing.

Anyway. Keep fighting the power, Marginal!

I like Wikimedia

Hey. If you are ever looking for graphics for your website, library or otherwise, a great source is The Wikimedia Commons.

I'm currently in the process of creating a website for a friend and found the site quite useful. I was in need of images of flags of a number of countries found Wikimedia most useful because it offered images in a vector format which makes for perfect rescaling to get everything just the right size.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The trouble with tagging

Am I the only person who thinks that giving the user the ability to add 'tags' to the library catalogue is a bad idea? This thought isn't completely apropos of nothing. Folks are meeting to discuss the future of the Integrated Library System. I don't want 'tagging' in our future OPAC.

Here's why:

To me, tagging makes best sense in a context where words need to be added in order to be found. Photos (Flickr) and videos (YouTube) are just two instances where tagging makes it easy and rewarding for the user to annotate their own work because otherwise it would be unlikely that the piece would be found at all. But when you are tagging a piece of text that you've written, in essence you are either duplicating the words that you already used in your piece of text, or you are using more generalized words or synonyms of the main ideas in your piece of text. Essentially you are tagging a text with words that you didn't think were important to include in the text in the first place.

Now when we think of tagging in the library context, we are thinking of a user supplementing a text record (created by a professional) to make it more complete and findable. The idea is that, with tagging enabled the library catalogue becomes social entity, being improved upon by the wisdom of the crowds. But unlike projects like Wikipedia, there is no social reward for improving a catalogue through tagging. There's no incentive - no boost to the ego. And then there's the chance for vandalism.

I think my biggest concern about tagging is that there is the understanding that tags never expire. Once a record is tagged for someone's to read list, it will stay there forever. The idea is that every record will accumulate enough "correct" tags that the signal will overcome the noise. But that's not necessarily going to happen [via]. Over time, tags clouds inevitably amount to a collection of very general words and we know, as librarians that searching for generalized words like 'history' create very large and useless search results.

All this criticism aside, I don't want to take away from the work that the University of Pennsylvania Library has done in creating a library catalogue with tags. For one, they've demonstrated that the temptation to 'deface' a library catalogue with junk tags is largely unrealized. Besides, I think they've created a better tagging service than Amazon and there are very few instances when one can say that of our library systems.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Ms. Dewey defeats Google? Hardly.

I asked Ms. Dewey if she was a librarian and judging by her response, she thought the question was quite lewd [via].

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Pro-torture politicians by birth sign

I'd like to bring your attention to this page for two reasons. (It is from the Washington Post and it presents the votes of the 109th Congresss, 2nd Session on Bill HR 6166 aka The Torture Bill)

The first reason why I would like you to see this page is because I want to you to take note who voted for this atrocious bit of legislation and react accordingly.

Then I would like you admire how the page is automatically a summary but allows the user to further delve into the particulars of the information, such vote by the astrological signs of the members of Congress. (Oh Cancer, why do you have to be sooo defensive?) I would cite this as an example of a fundamental way newspaper sites need to change.

If you click on the bill's name, you will be taken to a page with a link to more information about the bill from the Library of Congress. This information has been remastered elsewhere.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ze Show Called Hackfest

I'm late jumping on this bandwagon, but I would like to sing the praises of Ze Frank's The Show videoblog (additional background info).

He's got computer and music skillz. He's humane. He's funny. He has given the best answer to "I'm going to school... what major should I choose?" that I've ever heard [transcript].

Earlier today I was going through some of the more popular shows but I stopped after hearing the brain crack show because, well, it put me in place.

For those of you who won't take my word that its worth watching a videoblog, I'll try to summarize the jist of this show: a reader asks if Ze is running out of ideas. Ze says, yes, he runs out of ideas every day. "If you don't want to run out of ideas the best thing to do is not to execute them.... then they stay in your head forever like brain crack." He then warns us that many folks are addicted to this brain crack . These folks keep their ideas in their brains, forever imagining how great and perfectly executed these ideas will one day become. He tells us that the bummer is that most ideas suck when you do them. When Ze gets and idea - even a bad one - he tries to get it out in the world as soon as possible. And then he breaks into song. Really.

Okay, so I realized then and there that I had an addiction to brain crack. I was hoarding my Hackfest ideas. So, inspired by Ze Frank, here they are. Um, for other people to execute them.

  1. Create two-player game that is not unlike Hotbooks except that its played online only. Or create a one-player game in which certain books in a library are considered horcruxes that need to be identified and neutralized.

  2. Inspired by ASU's Index to Physical, Chemical and Other Property Data, I think we - the libraries of the world - should create a collective index to the best print resources (without online equivalents) in our reference collections. It could be a wiki but it could also be something else.

Now I realize that the fine folks running Hackfest may not need an overabundance of half-baked ideas but dammit, I can't lose the award named after me for another year!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

A collection of thoughts on curating and libraries

My wee little mind was blown this morning as I learned about two particular libraries from the if:book blog: The Prelinger Library and The Reanimation Library. Both are new libraries dedicated to preserving visually rich material for the purposes of repurposing by artists, historians, scholars, writers and other cultural workers.

From the overview and philosophy section of the Reanimation Library:

Of particular interest to the Reanimation Library is the loss of visual information that occurs during the aforementioned process of weeding. Even though text is often accompanied by images, collection development policies generally assign little weight to the graphic dimension of a work, unless that work happens to be graphically driven (i.e. a book on a visual artist, graphic design, or an atlas). Most library collection development policies place priority on acquiring items with current textual information and replacing items where that information is lacking or outdated. This priority, coupled with the continual production of new editions as fields of knowledge evolve, create the growing fossil record of outdated books—a veritable feast for image archaeologists. The Reanimation Library is committed to building a collection of materials that are rich in visual information, regardless of the currency of their textual information. The Library serves as a repository and, more pertinently, an access point for such materials.

This is beautiful, mad genius.

Libraries, like the academic library where I am employed, must weed their Reference collections in order to give these collections meaning as a Reference Collection is defined as useful works that one refers to frequently. But if one saves the visually rich detritus of the Reference Collection and then turns this material into a collection unto itself, then these useless works become a unique collection that gains value through a new community.

I was so captivated by the idea of these libraries that over the course of the day I kept thinking about libraries and collections. When does a collection of books become more valuable than when its part of a larger library or works? Are libraries just troves of unprocessed ore? Should we think of libraries in terms of collections of items instead of concentrating on the individual items themselves?

Library exhibitions blur the line between the library and the museum. When you select items from a large collection and display them to demonstrate an idea that brings them all together, it begins sounds to me like you are curating an museum.

What's the difference between a library and a museum anyway? Well coincidently, also today Richard Akerman posted this succinct comparison:
library = community access to reusable stuff
museum = community access to unique stuff
archive = nobody/privileged access to important stuff
He also makes this important point: "'Reusable stuff' is practically the definition of online content".

The Tate Museum offers a very limited means to "curate" your own museum. Perhaps libraries should allow users to create their own online "collections" from our holdings. We could even hold contests for the best collections. To me, this would be more egalitarian than the book collecting contests that are held annually at three dozen libraries, including Cornell and Michigan State University, that culminate in the Collegiate Book-Collecting Championship.

Both The Prelinger Library and The Reanimation Library chose to be libraries of physical books as opposed to dedicating efforts to digitize their collected works. They still have faith in browsing and papery goodness. Libraries don't have to be completely re-purposed.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Special Librarian theme song

I didn't go to any conferences when I was attending library school but some of my classmates did. Over the summer, one such classmate went to a Special Library Association conference (this was in 1995 I think) and she showed off the swag she acquired on her adventure to some of us. My eyes fell on a cassette that was in the pile and I, being curious and brazen, asked if I could have it. Jealous of her hoard, she would only let me borrow the cassette. So I dutifully took it home and gave it a listen. On the cassette was a song.

I dubbed a copy of its contents, and returned the casette to her the next day. If I had bothered to write down the song's title or who peformed the piece, I must have misplaced it (this was before I was granted my degree, mind you). Ten years later, I digitized some of my mixed tapes.

And so, for your listening pleasure: The Special Librarian Theme Song !
[link expires in 7 days or 100 downloads.. which ever comes first]

Monday, September 04, 2006

The library as hand gestures

Have you ever stumbled upon something that is so obvious and yet strikes you as a deeply profound secret truth? That's what I felt when I read this passage from Worlds of Reference some days ago:

Human beings have presumably, since time immemorial, used their fingers for pointing and listing, two primary modes of referring and organizing... Although the languages we have used in the last two or three millennia do not date back directly to Cro-Magnon times, it is still worthwhile noting that we use the term 'index' for both the pointing finger and a list of a certain kind that also figuratively points...

It got me thinking.

The library can broken down into two activities: organizing (technical services) and referring (reader services).

I visit a website and its homepage is called index.html. As I move my mouse, the pointer on the screen turns from an arrow to a hand with an outstretched index finger.

You can use your index finger to point out something to someone. Or you can bring it to your lips and make a shushing noise.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Recommendations with Reservations

A copy of To Kill A Mockingbird has been sitting on my bedside table for the whole summer and its largely been untouched. I don't really want to read it. But I am determined to plow through the thing since every book recommendation engine I have ever tried has pushed this book on me. In retailation, I dissed Suggestica this morning.

I have been thinking about book recommendation systems lately. Because these systems are created by those who are trying to sell you books, they are designed to push books that you may want to read. If you like a particular book, the system will suggest other books by the same author or in the same genre. This gets boring pretty quick. While I am occasionally paralyzed by choice when it comes to my next reading selection, I already know what I like to read. What I want a system that will tell me what I should read.

Sometimes we should be reading books that challenge the ideas and personal beliefs that we hold dear. Sometimes we should be reading books on topics that don't interest us much. Sometimes we should be reading books because they will help us understand other books. And sometimes we should be reading works because our professor has assigned them for us to read.

Here's a Library 2.0 (shudder - I can't believe I just typed that phrase) application I would like to see. I would like to see an application that injests the rss feed of every university professor's class readings and keeps track of the popularity of each citation. This ranking information would then be fed back into library applications like the library catalogue or periodical databases and would tell the reader: you should read this.

Monday, August 28, 2006

My fly pentop computer

So some weeks ago, I went to Toys R Us with the intent of buying the baby some blocks. Baby got blocks. I got Fly.

my fly

My spontaneous purchase surprised myself as I'm not usually one for electronic gadgets. I don't own a laptop or PDA and my ancient cell phone is a hand-me-down. But ever since I read about the Fly Pentop computer in WIRED Magazine, I wanted one mightily. I think I was captivated by the notion of a portable organizer that was easy to use and inherently fun. I justified the cost by telling myself that I was acting on behalf of my profession as I investigated the social ramifications of infusing computing technology into paper and pen.

And so, this review.

First off, the Flypen will not become my PDA of choice as you can only associate three words with each scheduled event. This makes it an appropriate reminding tool for students (PRACTICE MATH EXAM) but not grown ups who live in the land of acronymed sub-committees (UCRPLM PRESENTATION REVIEW). And since the Flypen is designed for students in grades 6 through 8, I'm hardly in a position to complain. So I will try to review the system keeping its official mandate in mind.

In short, the Flypen is an educational toy and as such, it is a slave to two masters. No one can serve two masters well, and when it comes down to it, the Flypen does a better job serving education as opposed to serving up fun. That is, certain kinds of fun.

One of the most mind-blowing tricks you can do with your Flypen is to draw a keyboard on some Flypaper and then "play" the piano (you tap the pen onto the drawn keys and the pen makes the appropriate sound). You can also draw a little drum set and play/record buttons and compose a little ditty. But making music is the only form of "unstructured play" that the current Flypen system provides. Most of the fun is provided in the form of games embedded in Flypaper that you have to buy.

I have only been able to play the Fly Games that came with my initial start up package and so I haven't been able to try some of the more intriguing ones. I've played the geography games, the matching games, hangman, and the quizes. Some of the quizes reminded me of the Invisible Ink travel activity books sold along highways (and they were just as disappointing). But the quizes that were simple personality tests really impressed me -- not because of any insights into my character -- but because the ability to embed the answer key in the paper means that there is no opportunity to cheat and the results take no calculation on your part.

So its not surprising that the ability to practice math, spelling, and even tests from standardized textbooks is the real strength of the Flypen system. I can see how the Flypen system could inject both instant and helpful feedback into rote learning and I think a child struggling with a subject could appreciate its infinately patient, non-human help. And if I was a student learning Spanish, I know I would love the pen's ability to identify words written in English and announce and spell its translation, since I learn best by writing things down. Whether Leapfrog will develop what I really would like - "Fly Through French" - I suspect depends on whether the Flypen franchise will, ahem, fly.

One of the things that I have learned from thinking about the Flypen is that having an amazing technology, unto itself, is not enough to become a successful product. The potential of pentop computing and smart paper is so massive and yet its unlikely to be realized because the technological change is *too* great. We have invested thousands of years into "normal" pen and paper and that's a lot of cultural inertia. Educational software may be the best way for this technology to get a toe-hold into our world. That's the strength of the promise of potentially better marks at school... which is pretty scary when you think about it.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Hotbooks - turning the library into a game space

From kottke I found out about the The Come Out and Play Festival - a "festival dedicated to street games. It is three days of play, talks, and celebration, all focused on new types of games and play." I want to go out and play but I'm housebound at the moment. So instead I can only read about the festival on the web...

Its being held in New York City and on September 23rd there's a game afoot in the New York Public Library called Hotbooks. From the "Come out and play" description:
Libraries are dying spaces. Hot Books is a game designed to bring life back into libraries by forcing players to explore, discover and share the deserted and unexplored spaces that make up a library.

Hot Books is a game where players “attach” books to each other. The game play of Hot Books takes place over the internet. Each player starts by creating a profile for himself. Other players then attach book titles to that profile and gain a point. If a player wants to detach a book from his profile, he has to go to the library and find a specific word in that book, which allows him to detach the book. Once the player detaches the book, he can attach it to any other player.

The game augments the library into a social space –where books are re-imagined into social markers that creates a new experience of exploring a library.
The game was designed by Nick Reid for a game design class at UC Berkeley and the game The game was inspired by the unused, lost and forgotten book(s?) in UC Berkeley's Doe Library. My favourite part from the original description of the game is this:
The critical moment of the game occurs when the real world and digital space no longer coincide, which happens when a book is lost in the library. This creates an impossible situation for the player, since the player must be able to find the book in order to obtain the key to detach it. If the player cannot find the book, then the play of passing the books stops. This critical moment, and the dilemma it present when the player cannot find the book, illustrates the fragility of the physical world of books.
Recently I've noticed a number of these events where a public space is turned into field of play. Why today on Boing Boing I learned that there will be an "alternate reality game" set in Toronto called Waking City -- "a kind of city-wide ongoing scavenger-hunt and puzzle where clues and collaboration come over the net".

And evidently, for more details, one must attend an information session being held at The Lillian H Smith Library.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Is the Internet making my newspaper dummer?

I haven't read Chirs Anderson's The Long Tail yet and so I don't know whether he would apply long tail dynamics to newspapers. But I did read a recent article on Slate (How the New York Times Makes Local Papers Dumber) that suggests that there are other forces at work that tend to concentrate subscriptions to the biggest newspapers at the expense of local papers:

Never mind Times print expansion for a moment. What about the great Web incursion, which is looting educated readers from local newspapers everywhere? The Web editions of the Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Time, CNN, the Guardian, and many other news sites appeal to the same demographic that defects to the Times.

Speaking of which, have you seen the digital version of The Guardian? If not, you should try out the demo because I defy you to find a more beautiful and useable interface to an online newspaper. By the way, at $20 per month, it is $10 cheaper than cost for home delivery of the The Globe and Mail, which, I must say, I am beginning to find boring.

Monday, August 14, 2006

How I found Ambient Finadability

We are said to live in "The Information Age". But unlike say, "The Bronze Age" when Bronze was valuable, its not information that's valuable. Its attention. Your time (which has always been finite) is now considered a precious resource.

So I was almost immediately disappointed by this passage from the preface of Peter Morville'’s Ambient Findability:

So, what's this book about? That's a tough one. I could tell you it's about information interaction at the crossroads of mobile computing and the Internet, or claim it opens a window onto the singular cultural revolution of our time... But I won't. Instead, I'll ask you to read it, for aboutness lies in the eye of the beholder.

That was the first warning sign. If the author can't be assed to give you a good reason to spend some time with his thoughts, then why should you? I was also off-put by the matter of citing the Internet as the "signular" cultural revolution (umm... 9/11 anyone?). I bristle at technology inspired hubris.

But I did preserver and read this book because I was captivated by the book's tagline: What We Find Changes Who We Become (which is way sexier than the line that I use when teaching about online searching, What you ask for is what you get so be careful what you ask for). And it should also be said that I gave the book a chance because of Morville's reputation. Peter is considered as a "founding father of information architecture" and he is a librarian to boot.

So I read this 179 page book. The only part of the book that addresses the promise of the tagline can be found on page 169:

Which brings us to graffitti theory, my corollary to both memory-prediction and broken windows, which suggests that all information that flows through our senses continuously and unconsciously shapes our memories, beliefs, predictions, decisions and behaviors. We are born with instinct, but in matters of intuition, we are lifetime learners. Information is data that makes a difference, literally. It changes our minds, physically.

Peter is not a cognitive scientist. I'm not either, but that's not going to stop me from saying that this is flat out wrong. From what I learned from Daniel Gilbert, we don't perceive everything and we don't remember everything. The only way Peter's theory works is by circular logic: if we define information as something that changes us, then all information changes us.

So what is the aboutness of this book? I'd describe it as a buffet table of stories from the disciplines of computer science, linguistics, urban planning, library science, graphic design and others, done in the name of Information Architecture... err sorry, Ambient Findability. Search engines, information literacy, web page navigation, maps, ants, city design, the semantic web, are invoked in this book. It's a quick tour, written for the business man as opposed to the academic, the is writing light and lively, and one is sure to find at least a couple items that will amuse (my fave: Info-overload harms concentration more than marijuana).

But, on the downside, I found the whole exercise very gimmicky. Morville litters the book with interesting excerpts from books popular in the blogosphere. That's fine but sometimes, like when he summarized stories from Freakonomics and The Tipping Point, they feel like diversions from the topic at hand. And the irrational exuberance for all things Internet frequently made me cringe. Nowhere does the cultural-name dropping and techno-cheerleading gets as painfully silly as this passage:

We hear this same rebel yell in the ancient markets of the cluetrain manifesto, the mobile thumb tribes of smart mobs, and the disruptive technologies of peer-to-peer. We embrace the hidden power of social networks and the emergent wisdom of crowds. We are small pieces loosely joined in persistent disequilibrium, gloriously and gladly out of control.

What I couldn't find in this book was the reason that brought all the stories and examples together. I couldn't find an argument being made or a point of view being advocated. I got the feeling that Morville was taking Williams Gibson's "The future is here. Its just not evenly distributed yet" as a guideline to structuring his book.

I found this book a waste of time.

Friday, August 04, 2006

13 Ways of Looking at Wikipedia, Encyclopedias and Libraries

There! I did it. I managed to untangle my confused thoughts and feelings on Wikipedia, libraries and encyclopedias into digestible parts.

13 Ways of Looking at Wikipedia, Encyclopedias and Libraries:
  1. A standing army is waiting for orders
  2. Wikipedia is to Britannica as American Idol is to the Juilliard School
  3. The Song of the Darnedest Stuff
  4. Because Britannica Doesn't Recognize You
  5. Do mere mortals buy encyclopedias?
  6. Are there encyclopedias that scholars use?
  7. Encyclopedias down the rabbit hole
  8. The closest reference book on the digital shelf
  9. There is no point not having a point of view
  10. Many hands make crappy work
  11. One search box to unite them all
  12. Wikipedia is War
  13. Why do we keep buying print encyclopedias?

No more for a while. I promise.

Why do we keep buying print encyclopedias?

From 1996 to 2006, there were 285 encyclopedia entries that were cited in Web of Science. During that same time period, the Leddy Library of the University of Windsor (where I am employed) acquired 580 encyclopedias.

Some of these encyclopedias include: "Blackwell encyclopedic dictionary of human resource management", "Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers", "Contemporary youth culture : an international encyclopedia", "Encyclopedia of ageism", "Encyclopedia of Arab women filmmakers", "Encyclopedia of fire", "Encyclopedia of local history", "Encyclopedia of relationships across the lifespan"... (Wot? No "Encyclopedia of the Enyclopedia"?)

I have to admit, I am dubious of the value of these works. It's not that that I doubt their scholarship. I just have a hard time imagining that the perceived value of these works are so great that they would draw a student in their dorm room to walk across campus and into the library in order to look at them. Not when Wikipedia is a click away.

I'm not saying that the print encyclopedia is dead or, by proxy, the library's reference collection is dead. It just smells bad.

There is valuable material in our reference collection and if we really want to make the material available we are going to have to put some effort into showcasing it. What I envision is an online index to the table of contents of our print reference collection. This revelation came to me after I had stumbled upon the ASU's Index to Physical, Chemical and Other Property Data which is simply magnificent.

Since so many libraries have similar contents in their reference collections, I imagine that it would be best if only own such index would be created and maintained any librarian interested. Library holdings information would automatically appear by means of a COinS Dialtone.

And it goes, almost without saying, that the platform would be a Wiki.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Wikipedia is War

Its not enough to make a contribution to Wikipedia on a topic that you care about. If you really care about your subject you are going to have watch over your pages, ever-vigilant.

I realized this after reading a short but amusing interview with Bearcat - an individual who has dedicated considerable time adding and editing Wikipedia entries about the CBC. My favourite part was this:
There was an American editor who first popped up during the CBC labour dispute last year. He didn't know very much about the CBC, but seemed to have heard on NPR that there was a labour dispute, and this somehow inspired him to make a complete muck of CBC articles on Wikipedia. First he *removed* the program schedules from the articles, and then asked us why the articles didn't provide detail on CBC's programming. Then he started writing articles himself on CBC programs that didn't have articles yet; naturally, given his lack of knowledge, they mostly consisted of vague equivocations like "Music and Company is a program on CBC Radio Two that probably plays classical music."

He also tried more than once to propagate the theory that Toronto'’s CFMX (Classical 96) should take over CBC Radio Two, which he did mainly by changing the call signs of CBC stations to make it appear as though his fantasy takeover had *already* happened...

Wikipedia, needless to say, can be a real education in human psychology at times.
Its a recurring theme to my readings on Wikipedia. You must have patience, persistence and...
You have to be able to suffer a lot of foolishness to work on Wikipedia. You really do. And for most people who were brought up in academic discourse, the way people behave just isn'’t acceptable. But you have to balance that against the efficiency of producing the largest encyclopedia in human history over the course of five years.

When
the truth goes to whoever has the last edit, the editing will never end.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

One search box to unite them all

When academic libraries first made their research journals available to their campus community via the web, they did so by listing them alphabetically on a webpage. When these lists grew too long, libraries responded by acquiring software that managed these resources, breaking down the journals into subjects and allowing to search the titles using one search box.

When academic libraries first made their periodical indexes available to their campus community via the web, they did so by listing them alphabetically on a webpage. When these lists of indexes grew too long, libraries responded by breaking down the links into lists of indexes by subject. When those lists started becoming longer and more intimidating, libraries started offering federated search, which allows the user to search multiple indexes -- and their online journal collection -- all at once using one search box.

Academic libraries are now making their encyclopedias available to their campus community via the web. Most libraries list them alphabetically on a webpage while others make them available through subject specific lists. Access to the entire contents of a library's encyclopedias via the one search box seems inevitable to me.

At this stage there are some companies that offer access to a number of reference tools at once. Oxford Reference Online provides access to over 100 general and specialized dictionaries - all published by Oxford Press. Xrefer also offers general and specialized dictionaries and other research tools from a number of publishers, but not including Oxford Press.

I can't help but think that there will be, one day, a new -- for lack of a better word -- space where libraries will dump all their factual information from the encyclopedias and other resources that they have in their collections, that their users can then search and cross-reference. And yet, I realize that the notion sounds fanciful and downright goofy.

In the future, will libraries grow their own Wikipedias?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Many hands make crappy work

What makes the story of the genesis of Wikipedia so delightful to those who distrust the experts of the world, is that the web-based "encyclopedia of the people" succeeded after its its founder gave up on Nupedia - the web-based "encyclopedia of experts", which had failed miserably. Why did it fail? Well, it's simple. "Nupedia wanted scholars to volunteer content for free".

And yet, its not so simple. Scholars give their work away for free most of the time. Its just that they tend to give their work to more established publishing houses or to a scholarly society that publishes research. When a scholar has their work reviewed, the reviewers tend to look at the quality of publications that accepted the work done more so than the actual quality of the work itself. So its no wonder to me why a start up like Nupedia had trouble getting submissions.

When it comes to Wikipedia, its hard for some folks not to bring up the notion of common people outsmarting the experts a la Wisdom of Crowds even though Wikipedia doesn't fulfill Surowiecki's four conditions of a "wise crowd". Its largely unsaid, but Wikipedia is thought to improve by means of a strange evolution-like process...

1. Anyone, irrespective of expertise in or even familiarity with the topic, can submit an article and it will be published.

2. Anyone, irrespective of expertise in or even familiarity with the topic, can edit that article, and the modifications will stand until further modified.

Then comes the crucial and entirely faith-based step:

3. Some unspecified quasi-Darwinian process will assure that those writings and editings by contributors of greatest expertise will survive; articles will eventually reach a steady state that corresponds to the highest degree of accuracy.


But in fact, the opposite occurs as noted by some of the stewards of Wikipedia:

DR: What about the 'collective intelligence' or 'collective wisdom' argument: That given enough authors, the quality of an article will generally improve? Does this hold true for Wikipedia?

EB: No, it does not. The best articles are typically written by a single or a few authors with expertise in the topic. In this respect, Wikipedia is not different from classical encyclopedias.

KN: Elian is right. Also, most of the short articles remain short and of rather poor content.

Jason Scott also backs this idea:

Wikipedia has what's called a "feature article". When an article achieves a certain level of quality, it is then put up as a featured article. There is actually a list on Wikipedia of articles that have been demoted from featured. Literally dozens of articles that once they hit featured status, they start to slowly actually degrade in quality, to the point that they lose their featured quality status and just become regular old articles again.
The transcript of Jason's presentation, The Great Failure of Wikipedia, does a masterful job of pulling back the curtain of the Wizard's Kingdom so all can see what actually goes on behind the scenes. It become evident that it is likely that Wikipedia will eat itself.

What I find so telling is that editorial access to Wikipedia is granted to those who have spent the most time working within Wikipedia in good standing. That these unseen folks have the final say on what goes on the pages within Wikipedia as opposed to actual experts who know each field doesn't sit well with me. Wikipedia is not "anti-credentialist" - it just doesn't recognized any credentials outside of Wikipedia.

Universities are in the business of awarding credentials to those who prove that they deserve them. It wouldn't surprise me if they make another attempt at Nupedia.

Monday, July 31, 2006

There is no point not having a point of view

On February 3, 2005 I had a conversation with Bob that touched on the topic of plagiarism. Bob said something that I had not heard elsewhere on the matter. He thought that the real reason why most students were guilty of plagiarism was because they thought a paper was just a collection of facts and ideas that are collated into a logical order. There is no "self" in the papers that they wrote. An essay is a "third person" affair. Is it any wonder that writing papers are seen by students as a chore? Its just another form of raking leaves.

When I was in first year university I didn't know that there were schools of thought within disciplines. I didn't know that research journals were bloodied battlefields that determined what knowledge and status. It took a mandatory social science course that I took in my second or third year that exposed me to the soft human underbelly of what I thought was straightforward and objective science.

So of course I think Wikipedia's Neutral Point of View policy is laughable. I don't think we can be neutral - its biologically impossible for us to do so. We can't help but judge what is before us. Furthermore, what we think affects what we perceive which, in turn, affects what we think (Stumbling on Happiness does a great job of a quick job of summarizing the science of this. Literary theory, never quick, is also relevant here but I don't touch the stuff myself.)

When we decide not to take a stance and decide to "teach the controversy" instead, we lose something. When teachers are forced to partake in academic crossdressing and present Evolution and Big Coincidence, Global Warming and Within Parameters Warming, Armenian Genocide and a Big Misunderstanding - all side by side, with equal billing - well, more than the truth is lost. Meaning is lost. Lives are lost.

Let's throw our students into the battlefield of ideas as soon as possible.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The closest reference book on the digital shelf

A couple years ago, I was in front of a class of first year, visual arts students in a computer lab in the library where I worked. I was reviewing their answers to the library assignment that the students had been working on for the last 20 minutes. I had worked on the assignment with their professor who was, at the time, sitting in the back of the class. I mention this fact for a reason. Even though the students were in a library, using library computers that displayed the library's website, and even though the students knew that they were there for a library assignment (and while being in the presence of their professor), almost the entire class answered the question "give a definition of pointillism" by using dictionary.com.

I have to admit that the first time this happened, I blanched a bit. But I did feel somewhat better when I realized that I was being treated with the privilege of their honesty. This was how they did research.

I then introduced some of the general and subject dictionaries that were online and offered by the library and as I did so the professor did a wonderful job explaining why the definitions in these dictionaries were of much better in quality and, by the way, had the sort of detail and quality that she was expecting from their upcoming paper. Her presence and her participation made all the difference in this class. The students got to hear an expert explain why they should use expert tools as they worked to become experts themselves.

Without instruction, students won't know the differences between Webster dictionaries and Merriam Webster dictionaries. Most of them won't know the difference between the Cambridge English Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary. There's not much brand consciousness in dictionaries and brand consciousness is everything in this modern world.

This is why to most folks there are really only three encyclopedias: Britannica, Wikipedia and Encarta.

Wait. Sorry. I forgot the highest ranked encyclopedia in Google: encyclopedia.com

Friday, July 28, 2006

Encyclopedias down the rabbit hole

Have you tried to look for encyclopedias on your local library's website? If not, try it. I'll wait here.

Time passes.

If you can't find a page that lists the encyclopedias on your library's website, it could be due to the fact that no such page exists. It could be that you are searching the website of a library that expects you to search the library's catalogue for what you want. They have decided that they are not able to create and maintain a static website or second database of their online resources because that would require a duplication of effort. Too bad that library catalogues, or what we like to call in the library biz as OPACs... well, too bad that OPACs suck.

Another reason why you may be having difficulty finding encyclopedias in your library's website is because the encyclopedias are nestled snuggly in a section called something like "databases", "indexes", "e-resources", "find articles" or "research tools". After stumbling down this rabbit hole, you then have to search for what you want or browse an a-z list of titles in order to find something that you recognize as an encyclopedia.

Some libraries may also offer a "Reference" or Quick Facts section. Paradoxically, this section will frequently only offer encyclopedias that are freely available on the web. If you want to find the encyclopedias that your library has spent good money on, well, you have to get back to the homepage and find the right rabbit hole. Still other libraries will create annotated lists of useful encyclopedias and even break these down by subject. But these lists will be under a heading like "Subject Guide" or "Research Guide". So if a user has a question about hydrophobia, they are supposed to go to the biology section of the library's database collection (or Biology Research Guide) and search for an approprate research tool to use.

But our user knows what she wants to use. She wants to use an encyclopedia.

I think one of the reasons why its so hard to find encyclopedias on library's websites is because we don't organize our online material by format. I have only stumbled upon one library's website that provides searching by format on the front page and that is the University of Alberta. (Encyclopedias are listed after clicking on the Reference and Quick Facts link but these are free encyclopedias that can be found on the web. The encyclopedias that are paid by the library are to be found in their database of databases. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and the Leddy Library (where I work) took up their example and created a link to encyclopedias under a link called Journal Articles and Research Tools by Subject. We are guilty of not including some of the encyclopedias that can be found in our Research Guides).

Librarians have underestimated the public's desire to have an online encyclopedia that is always at the ready. Will we react to the public's enthusiam for Wikipedia and make encyclopedias easier to find? Or will we wait (and wait) until our library catalogues marry content management systems and give birth to more useful library websites?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Are there encyclopedias that scholars use?

Are there any encyclopedias that currently hold a important position in the understanding of a particular discipline of scholarship? The best way to answer that question would be to ask scholars directly about the matter. Another way to try to ascertain an answer is to see if scholars are citing encyclopedias in their published research.

Using ISI's Web of Science "Cited Reference Search", I searched for the term encyclopedia* to find the papers that had an encyclopedia mentioned in their bibliographies.

There are three indexes within Web of Science. The index that is the smallest - that being, covers the fewest number of journals is the "Arts & Humanities Citation Index". The index covers 1149 journals and for the period of 1996 to 2006, there are only 48 papers encyclopedias entries that are that are cited in a bibliography. Most encyclopedias in this list are only cited once and there is no encyclopedia that is cited repeatedly.

The "Social Sciences Citation Index" covers 1917 journals and from 1996 to 2006, there are 123 works encyclopedias entries that have been cited in a bibliography. Most of the encyclopedia entries are only cited once but there are a handful of exceptions when an entry is cited a couple times. There was only one encyclopedia that was cited frequently (24 times) and that was Encyclopedia Britannica.

Not surprisingly, the Science Citation Index (Expanded) is the largest index within Web of Science. It covers 6543 journals and from 1996 to 2006, 114 papers encyclopedia entries were cited in a bibliography. Unlike the other two indexes, there are encyclopedias whose entries are cited quite heavily. By far, the most heavily cited encyclopedia was "The Encyclopedia of Plant Physiology" with many entries cited over 50 times. The next encyclopedic work with similar impact is "The Encyclopedia of Polymer Science and Engineering".

Now one could make the argument that I have set up this test for encyclopedias to fail from the start as encyclopedias aren't meant to communicate important ideas among scholars. You could say that encyclopedias exist to provide an important reference to students and are meant for their use.

Incidentally, from the years 1996 to 2006, there have been 12 papers in Web of Science that cite Wikipedia.

Do mere mortals buy encyclopedias?

Other than libraries, who buys encyclopedias? And what encyclopedias do they buy?

The bestselling encyclopedia at Amazon is Encyclopedia Prehistorica Dinosaurs: The Definitive Pop-Up. Barnes and Noble has a similar motley top ten encyclopedias. The first general history encyclopedia that pops up on both booksellers' lists is The Kingfisher History Encyclopedia. I had never heard of it before.

The most catalogued encyclopedia on LibraryThing is Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. No university library in Ontario carries this encyclopedia. My local library doesn't have it either.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Because Britannica Doesn't Recognize You

When a University of Windsor student, at home in front of the family computer, accesses Britannica.com she will not get the full text of most articles because Britannica costs $12 a month. Britannica does not inform her that she can have full access to its all content through her university library. So the student must know that she has to visit the website of her university library and see if she can find a link to Britannica. She will be authorized to use Britannica using the library's link to Britannica.com once she is authenicated, that being - she must enter her PIN number on her library card before she can get to the site.

When the same student is on campus, she does not have to type in her library card PIN number because Britannica.com recognizes the IP address of the library compter she is using and it lets her see all of its content. She mostly likely doesn't even notice that that there are varying level of access and that her her access was paid by the University. She will assume that the Encyclopedia Britannica is free and can't understand the site doesn't seem to work when she's using her home computer.

Some librarians see this as a "branding issue" but its really an authentication problem.

The Song of the Darnedest Stuff

Can you remember those first articles gushing about the Internet? How you could find just the strangest things there? Then came the articles waxing poetic about Google and how it could find the darnedest things. And now there are articles singing the praises of Wikipedia.

Its the same song. There are just slight variations.

Remember when the Internet was primarily filled with "homepages" of enthusiasts who documented their various arcane interests? During these early days, there were times when you wanted to link to someone's work but their other interests on the site were embarassing. Other problems: you never knew if the page was going to disappear the next day, change URLs, or freeze in time and never be updated again. Sometimes a site becomes uncomfortably political in nature.

Better to link to Wikipedia. You can find the darnedest stuff there!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Wikipedia is to Britannica as American Idol is to the Juilliard School

The latest issue of the New Yorker has a taken a little snapshot of Wikipedia (link will expire eventually) and wonders whether Wikipedia can sustain its battle against the experts. While Wikipedia is compared to Britannica several times in the article, no attention is given to the fact that Wikipedia is free and Britannica costs $11.95 a month ("Save $1,251.60 off the print Encyclopedia Britannica!"). Of course, many people have free online access to Britannica through their local library but they just don't know it.

From my understanding, public libraries are reluctant to advertise their online wares like Britannica for a couple reasons. First, they have limited marketing budgets. And secondly, even if the library could afford a city-wide campaign promoting their online databases, they choose not to because the access to such products are done on a per user basis. This means that while you are able to make three users happy at a given time, you can potentially create a lot of unhappy experiences for the rest of the people who are unable to access the same advertised database.

I work at a university library and have found that the vendors of databases are often able to temporarily waive access restrictions when a librarian wants to teach a class and demonstrate their product. It has been a while since I've worked in a public library so I don't know whether these same vendors would be willing to similarly waive access restrictions for the length of time of a marketing campaign. I would hope so because we can hardly blame the public for using Wikipedia when they don't even know that they have other choices.