Monday, June 30, 2008

Search is a combination what you know and who you know

In my first years of academic librarianship, it struck me as really odd that I would have faculty call me up and ask me to teach their undergraduate students how to use the library indexes. Some of them would even confess that they really didn't know how to use these tools themselves.

In time, I came to realize two crucial points. First, faculty keep up with their research by regularly reading their personal journal subscriptions and keeping track of what the most important researchers in their field are doing. When they do use library-provided indexes, they tend to search by author and by following citations. Google Scholar recognizes this; when you search for Hamlet you get an article written by D. Hamlet as the first result returned.

The second point is that the process of learning who the key figures are in a particular field is part of the transformation from beginner to expert. The trouble is, our existing indexes are designed for librarians - not for students who are making this transition from undergraduate to graduate.

Rarely are students told that research is a reiterative process and that it is often necessary to perform a number of literature searches for a paper as one discovers gaps in coverage or realizes that there is something worth dwelling into more detail. But as seasoned librarians and educators know, even if you tell them this hard won nugget of wisdom, most students will still just grab the first set of articles that match their topic (which can be quite random especially if the database sorts results by date) and then try to mash these citations into their paper, often the night before its due.

So then how can we point these students to the best articles on a particular topic ?

One solution is to point beginning researches to sources of review articles. At the reference desk, I try to check Annual Reviews whenever I get a student who can't narrow down their research question to anything beyond their topic. You know the ones: "I need articles on anorexia." Another solution would be for us to take matters in our own hands. Here's my idea: we should buy the ten most popular textbooks for undergraduates in a particular domain, like Biology. Then we should make note of all the citations in the texts and add them into a searchable database.

These two examples still rely on the work of editors and experts to select the research that made a difference and to put such work in context. TopCited tools from Scopus and Web of Knowledge have been developed to automatically quantify the value of articles and researchers by the rate and number of times papers have been cited.

I believe that the adoption of social networking software into the academic sphere will eventually provide another means of establishing who are the experts in a particular field and what pieces of writing and research are the ones that have made the most impact. It very well might replace the traditional way we search and research and keep up with our fields.

Reading blogs is a case in point. You read library blogs on a regular basis rather than searching for the word 'library' in Google on a regular basis, don't you?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Boolean NOT

I have been thinking about social software and libraries and I suspect that the result of this thinking might be a rash of posts not unlike a bunch I wrote when I couldn't stop thinking about Wikipedia.

But before I can write about how I think social software may affect search and research, I feel its necessary to clear some cognitive space first. So before proceeding, I want to make something very clear: LIBRARIANS HAVE TO STOP TEACHING BOOLEAN SEARCHING.

I know this is scary stuff for many academic librarians who I suspect would be at a loss of what to teach if you took away their ((ANDs) and (ORs)). But teaching about Boolean logic has become a crutch and its time to throw it away. I would go so far to say that banning the word Boolean is the number one way to improve information literacy practice in libraries.

You see, most people don't use Boolean searching. And they are still healthy, happy, and successful people. Sure, they may not be the most searching in the most efficient way but their searching is still effective. Users want to apply their energies to their results and not to search grammar.

post-search filtering

It is far more efficient to create searching interfaces that try to address these behaviour patterns than try to educate everyone of the masses on "the right way" to search.

We are at a state where the bibliographic databases have become so large that even some of the worst, poorly constructed search terms now bring relevent hits among the debris. Unfortunately, one response I've seen first hand is a library assignment in which the student is forced to use boolean logic by requiring that only 10 hits or less be returned from a search string. Any research assignment does not resemble how a real person conducts research is a poor one, to say the least.

Instead teaching that AND means 'and' and 'OR' means 'or', we should try to teach something beyond the mechanics of search. Instead of teaching about Boolean, we should instruct on the importance of language, on the nature of the publication cycle, and of the research process.

And it goes without saying that we have to get the word Boolean out of our library catalogues.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

If there is no porn in your library catalogue, then its not working

"Based on my Tripod experience, I’d offer the hypothesis that any sufficiently advanced read/write technology will get used for two purposes: pornography and activism. Porn is a weak test for the success of participatory media - it’s like tapping a mike and asking, “Is it on?” If you’re not getting porn in your system, it doesn’t work. Activism is a stronger test - if activists are using your tools, it’s a pretty good indication that your tools are useful and usable." [The Cute Cat Theory Talk at ETech]

Friday, June 20, 2008 Who else is sick of sites hosting research papers that show all their content to Google so it gets indexed, but when people visit, they want you to pay exorbitant fees? Who else is sick of sites hosting research papers that show all their content to Google so it gets indexed, but when people visit, they want you to pay exorbitant fees?

Some of the comments are quite entertaining:

When did "not getting something for free" become a problem?
When people starting trying to trick users into reading their reports.
If it's not open and free, google wouldn't index it. If google doesn't index it, nobody finds it. Therefore, if somebody found it in google, by definition it should be open and free.

Also interesting is that the discussion immediately proceeds into the realm of IP spoofing and cloaking. Check your library for holdings? Nah - pretend to be Googlebot to get a free pass!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

My definition of a boombatic library blog

I’ve also heard librarians discussing the same concept in the library community. In library-related articles, blog posts, and presentations I’ve attended and/or read this past year, the presenters/writers have been saying that Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 are all about starting conversations, building community, and telling our stories. But the writer/presenter tends to skip over what I think is the most important part - they never explain how to do it. [David Lee King]

David Lee King makes the case that a library (blog) should invite participation or, if possible, be actionable. While I find this ambition admirable, I don't entire agree with it. I subscribe to the "you use a library, you don't make friends with it" school of library twotopianism.

This is my suggestion on how to do it: use your library (blog) to connect readers with readings. Or, more generally, make every post a connection between your library and the world they live in.

Here are the specifics. First, think about how your readers decide what book or article to read next. Chances are, they don't use your library or its OPAC to decide what to read. Your readers rely on the recommendations of their friends and/or from their reading of newspapers, magazines, journals and even blogs.

So, as you read your magazines or your local or national newspaper, online or otherwise, make note of the books, government reports, and scientific papers mentioned and see if its available through your library. Heck, you can do the same for books that you've head mentioned on the radio. Even if the government report scientific paper you read about is free online, your readers will appreciate the direct link to it as it will save *them* the aggravation of having to navigate the Statistics Canada website, for example.

The benefits of such blogging is multifold. Not only does it help the reader, this regular reading helps the librarian in keeping up with the world. Checking to see if you have the books that are currently being reviewed in the press is a great way to measure how successful your library's approval plan is working (or not). Furthermore, the librarian gains a stronger understanding of their strengths of the library's collection through what I'd like to call, curiousity-based collection development.

Here's an example of it: some months ago I was curious if the library at MPOW had The Pillars of the Earth, a recent book recommended by Oprah. At the time, when I checked what readers had said about the book on Amazon, it told me that folks who bought that book also were interested in Cathedral: The story of its construction by David Macaulay. Following that link, I learned that this was the same man responsible for The Way Things Work (which we had in our library's education collection) and The New Way Things Work (which we did not).

I'm not enirely that fond of the notion that the library blog is a tool of conversation between a library and its users - at least, not in the sense of how The Cluetrain Manifesto uses it. Reading is the real conversation.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Server on a stick

Occasionally, I feel bad that my computer skills have large stagnated.

My excuse, which I would use to comfort myself, was that I didn't have ready access to a server and thus, no ready access to advanced computer languages or advanced applications.

Now, this wasn't much of an excuse: there are web hosting companies that provide access to languages such as PHP and I know computer folks who are generous with their help. But still - access to a server would require effort. And as long as there was that barrier of effort required, I had my excuse for my ignorance.

That is, until I realized that not only can you run applications like WorkPress and Django on a USB stick.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Librarianship and journalism - are they connected?

2008jun10. The 35 articles of impeachment introduced by Dennis Kucinich yesterday. Not covered by NYT FOX CBS ABC CBS CNN etc mmm big MSM luv you bet

Anyone who watches The Colbert Report knows that the MSM is both high comedy and high tragedy. The Daily Show is a daily reminder that 'the news' is just directed attention to events construed by a small group of editors. One could say that it has always been this way. Unless news outlets realize that investigative journalism is their critical function, their days of printing money may be over.

I am interested in libraries, blogging, the media, and open government and I think I've thought of one instance where they all intersect. We clearly cannot trust MSM to bring attention to the day's important events and discoveries. That is why it is essential that an archive of the raw material of news - the press releases, the government reports, the committee agendas and minutes, the legislature, the video feeds, the full-text of budgets - should be made available to all for word-of-mouth reporting.

And just like the news media, the library's critical function of being a subsidized source of organized information is also being eroded by the Internet. It used to be that if you wanted to find a newspaper older than a couple of days, you had to go to your public library to get it. We could do worse that provide our citizens with the information that they can't get from the MSM.