Sunday, December 20, 2009

MPOWs webpage stats and a Hunch about Social Search

One of the last things I did on my last day of work before the Winter Break, was present to my peers a set of statistics that I have collected and pondered about my library's website. If you do any web work in a library setting, you might find it interesting:

I'm also starting to collect some stats about my readers (all two of you) through a widget embedded on this blog that's made available through

I've been playing around with Hunch and I get a kick out of its eerie ability to correctly predict answers to personal questions now that it knows something about me.

But I'm beginning to think that maybe services like Hunch are the future of search now that it appears that Google's PankRank magic is starting to wear off.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

More thoughts about ebooks and online reference collections

My last two posts have been a mash of various conflicting thoughts about organizing and presenting the Materials Formally Known As Reference in an online environment.

What I neglected to say in those posts is make note of what most academic libraries are doing about the situation at the moment. Most academic libraries still hand-select the material that they present as 'reference' and tend to they divide these pages by format. There use boxes or tabs or lists and more frequently, a combination of all of the above).

I know there was more I wanted to write about this but I put off writing and these days if I don't capture my thoughts quickly, my thoughts get indignant and storm off, leaving without a tip.

So please bear with another half-formed idea.

One of the difficult things about the digital library is that each library is really just a collection of various access rights over different databases. The academic library website is really just a bunch of links going to a whole bunch of different search boxes. In fact, almost every collection -- including the catalogue - must be entered through such a search box. It is as if its a magic keyhole. And it makes it difficult to make a sense of a 'whole'.

But what if the library website was more like Wikipedia. Wikipedia gives you the feeling that its a "space." Wikis are like that. A good one is populated. A bad one is empty. And even though Wikipedia is as database driven as the library catalogue, the human-readable names of pages and the ability to make meaningful connections to related pages, gives it more of a feeling of a book than of a 'database'.

What if we had a library website that created and named a web page for every Library of Congress Subject heading (and free floating subdivision). Within this page, there were would be a dynamically generated list of library owned or licensed books that fell under that subject as well as a section that brought back the abstracts and links of articles by a keyword match. Librarians, and hell, maybe even users, could supplement each subject page with relevant materials from the library catalogue or the web.

Currently, most academic library websites have a page for each department on campus and some libraries have expanded this list to each university program. There have been steps created to create a library presence for every course offered on campus. The amount of effort to hand-pick resources for every subject offered in a university is daunting, so why not start considering dynamically selected materials?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

How to represent The Reference Collection - Part Two

I've been playing around with a particular idea for some time now that a university course is, at its core, a reading list with some texts selected by the instructor and some selected by the student (through the exercise of writing an essay). Following this and some other thoughts I had about e-reference materials, I wondered if the library's subject page and/or subject guide page could be managed by bibliographic software, such as Zotero.

There are some glaring problems with this scenario, one being that an index - the primary resource that libraries offer their users - cannot be readily represented and understood as an OpenURL. Unless I am not aware of a workaround, I don't believe there is a way to create a link to my verison of the MLA that can be useful to someone else who may have access to another version of it elsewhere. This is important to this particular mental exercise, because my ultimate goal was to envision a scenario in which an academic library's web pages could effectively be re-used by someone at another institution, albeit with different access rights to the content. (addendum: actually my dream scenario is that a user could add an index to their own personal library in Zotero or whathaveyou) I know - its a crazy goal that's hardly realized with article citations at this point.

So while this train of thought goes off the rails at this point, it did bring me to some further realization.

The software that many libraries use to manage their 'e-resources' can be conceivably be re-purposed. If a librarian hand-selects from a list of indexes, reference sources, and (e)books we tend to call it a subject or research guide. If a professor or librarian creates one for a particular course, its called a 'course page'. And if any library user can create such a page for themselves, its called a "my.library page."

The University of Toronto Libraries is ahead of the curve with cloud computing, which means files and programs live on the Web rather than on our hard drives. Their tool, my.library, provides students, faculty, and staff with personal Web space so they can collect e-journals, citations, Web sites, and other online resources. Users can customize the interface appearance; create folders, headings, and notes; store their search preferences; and receive weekly alerts from publications in their field. The University of Toronto Libraries are also encouraging faculty to use this tool as a way to create online research guides. I imagine the next 2.1 step would be to tap into the “research community” potential, enabling more shared and collaborative features.
  1. Brian S. Mathews, “Looking for What's Next: Is It Time to Start Talking about Library 2.1?,” Journal of Web Librarianship 3, no. 2 (2009): 143,

Eric Lease Morgan developed the mylibrary concept ten years ago and I'm not sure whether UofT's my.library service is based on the original mylibrary code. Despite the richness of its functionality, there aren't many libraries that make use of mylibrary.

I seem to recall Morgan stating his observation that only a minority of library users tend to customize their mylibrary web-experience (I have no idea how many UofT users make use of their mylibrary service). I suspect one reason why there may be low user-uptake to mylibrary is because users aren't particular driven by the need to keep track of more than a couple library indexes, if that. Indeed, one way of interpreting the move to Discovery layers within librarianship is the slow realization that our users are 'article-focused' and not 'index-focused'. While it appears that UofT's mylibrary appears to allow users to add non-indexes and non-ebooks to their accounts, without the ability to re-use or export these citations into a bibliography, its difficult to see UofT's mylibrary used in a capacity other than for generating research guides.

Which brings me to the other trend that runs counter to the mylibrary space: the ubiquitous "learning management systems" such as Blackboard and WebCT on university campuses. These systems are closed-gardens that demand user-privacy for both students and instructors and this expectation has hindered the integration of library resources into these spaces.

OK. So let's recap.

How should we represent "reference works" on a library's web page?

If we use static text for our subject guides (e.g.) we can annotate the description to our heart's content but all link and location maintenance will have to be done by hand, duplicating the work already done to keep the catalogue record up to date. As well, the opportunity to add additional functionality such as sorting by coverage date is passed-up

If we use links to each item's catalogue record, we can take advantage of less duplication of effort for maintenance but users might be frustrated that when a link that they think might take them to the item only takes them to a description of that item or they might get annoyed that they have to find another link within the catalogue record in order to access the item. As well, the library catalogue doesn't lend itself well to selecting and presenting a user-selected collection of items (addendum: especially non-book items like free materials on the web).

While we could create a separate web-database of licensed e-resources, it would have to be built in a way these items could be then be integrated into research guides that can also recommend print and "free" web-resources. Bibliographic software can handle all these resources well with the exception of databases and indexes. MyLibrary software can handle databases and indexes well but may have difficulty with citations and print materials.

I think I'm farther away from clarity than when I started this process. Sigh.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How to represent The Reference Collection online

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? [me in 2006]

So I have been thinking about how to represent both the print and the online Reference Collection on a library website and I'm at the point in which I think writing down the threads of my thoughts might be useful - if only for myself. So...

Academic research libraries have REFERENCE COLLECTIONS and these collections were often on the first floor of the library for easy reference and they were never circulated in order to ensure that they would always be available. (In some libraries, every single dictionary and encyclopedia was placed in the reference collection, because these were considered REFERENCE BOOKS - but this is another matter.)

In many library catalogues, books in the Reference Collection can be given a "location" of The Reference Collection - First Floor. It is technically possible to add a similar "location" to e-reference books but there are several drawbacks. First, its technically untrue. Secondly, it doesn't allow items to be part of several (reference) collections/locations. Thirdly, while most library catalogues allow one to search against the limit of a particular location, most library catalogues don't allow one to browse the collection by location.

If ebooks aren't represented in the library catalogue, then ebooks are separated from their physical brethren, and cannot be found for one search of 'books' - either directly through the catalogue or indirectly, through an OpenURL search. One way to retrieve lists of reference books that bring back both print and ebooks is through LCSH's Free-Floating Subject Subdivisions. But then you get every dictionary for a particular subject - and no dictionary for the subjects that are related, or just a little more specific or just a bit broader than what you've asked for.

One way of thinking of the reference collection is a the physical manifestation of a bibliography that was hand-picked by a particular author. A bibliography could have links to both ereference and print reference materials and could be as selective or as expansive as the owner would like it to be. A reference collection could be as simple as a list of saved items in a user's "bookbag." Bibliocommons is the only library catalogue interface that I know that allows users to create collections of both library-owned and other books in one collection. Biblicommons users can also create lists of items.

When I stumble upon an item that I want to 'reference' later, I either save it in either delicious or in zotero. At one time, I used to save things in RefShare. The RefShare link goes to a bibliography dedicated to Library Subject Guides - which can also be considered the "Reference Collection" of the online and print hybrid library.

More later I think.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Search v. Browse v. The Fractal Academic Library Website

In my last post, I told you that I have been trying to wrap my brain about accommodating "search-dominant" users. I'm still trying to figure out how to best serve both 'searchers' and 'browsers' for MPOW's new website in the works.

The University of Michigan has done a lot of work in rethinking and redesigning their library web presence. They have essentially distilled the University of Michigan's Libraries website into one toolbar that reads Search, Browse and Help. Search allows the user to dig right into a search or metasearch while Browse takes the user to select a subject and from that selection a dynamically generated page of different types of resources is returned including a "subject guide" to that subject area if one is available. I really think they are on to something here, although I admit that I think the user would be better served if they were taken to the librarian selected materials of the "subject guide" first.

Rather than go into the reasons why I think this, I am going to ask a rhetorical question instead: where do we want our users to start their research? Now I know that most students start their research with Wikipedia or Google and this is why I'm such a huge fan of LibX, but let's just suppose that if we had our druthers, where would we take them to start their search? And the answer is, I think librarians would want to take them a "subject page."

There are a number of libraries that try to take students down this path right from the library's homepage. The libraries of the University of Alberta list general subjects in their left margin under the heading Browse. Other institutions don't use the word 'browse' but like the University of New Brunswick allows users to find 'recommended resources' via Subject and Course Guides.

I have been working on an idea that every library "subject page" should be re-imagined as the front page of a library dedicated to that subject. The goal would be to become a page that you would imagine a student bookmarking for most of their research needs. Right now, if a physics student bookmarked MPOW's Physics Resources page, they have links to most of the things they might need from the library, but there's not a direct link to our library catalogue. U of M's library webpages are close to this vision because now, every page on their library website has a link the library catalogue among their other many resources..

But there is also a third way which hasn't completely manifested itself but I think might show some promise. At Access 2009, Bess Sadler of the University of Virginia Library, spoke about the work of Blacklight, "a faceted discovery tool." What I find most striking about Blacklight is that allows relevancy ranking to be adjusted by librarian suggestion.

When I first saw Bess' presentation, I became curious to see if this meant that a library could have different versions of Blacklight so that a particular discipline or audience could have different items weighed differently so they would get more appropriate results. So I sent an email to Bess and she kindly replied with this,

What you suggest is not only possible but one of our major use cases. We're already doing it at U of Virginia.

Here's the main catalog instance:

And here is our music portal:

The music portal (music view? music lens? We're still struggling with what to call these) is a view on exactly the same information that's available through our main catalog instance, but it's tailored for music scholars. The facets on the left are slightly different; for example, they contain a musical instrument facet and a composition era facet, two facets which our music users identified as crucial but which might not be especially helpful for non-music users of our collections. We also use a slight different relevancy ranking algorithm for our music portal. On our main portal, we assume that an exact match on the title is likely to be the most relevant item (i.e., we give a lot of extra relevancy weight to titles), but in the music view the first thing you type is more likely to be a performer or composer, so we more even distribute relevancy weight between title, author, performer, and composer fields.

We would eventually like to also create portals for our health sciences community, law, art, engineering, and I suspect that once these catch on we'll get many more requests.

This could be a way to bring the "recommended resources" of our "Browse" webpages to our users who only want to "Search".

Thursday, November 05, 2009

No dominant type for search dominant academic library websites

I'm the chair of my library's Web Team and we are currently in the planning stages of migrating our website off of Lotus Notes and into Drupal. We may change our website significantly when we move over or we may not . It hasn't been decided yet.

There is no search box on the current version of MPOW's website. After failing at finding an updated breakdown of "search-dominant" users v.s. "link dominant users", I distracted myself by looking at other academic library websites to how many have one or more search boxes on their home page.

And what struck me was that I there is no consistency out there on the matter.

Out of the 20 libraries I looked at,
  • 7 had no search box at all
  • 6 had multiple search boxes available through tab browsing
  • 3 had multiple search boxes on the same page
  • 2 had a search box for the catalogue and links to other search options
  • 1 had a multiple search boxes available through a drop down menu
  • 1 had one search box for everything
And then, when I looked at those that offered multiple search options, there was no consistency there, either.

The search options were offered for:
  • journal articles, books, subjects
  • library catalogue, journal articles, course reserves, google scholar, library website
  • library catalogue, this site, e-journals, reserves
  • catalogue, article/databases, e-journals, subject guides
  • catalogue, articles, e-jorunals, e-resources
  • catalogue, articles, eresources, reserves
  • catalogue, journal titles, articles, library website

I am now looking for statistics to back up my pre-conception that most of our users come to the library website to find articles and not books.

This research process is generating more questions than answers.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Some months ago, Walt Crawford wrote a blog post that resonated with me. From said post:
You carefully prepare a series of cogent posts, important to the field, that should yield discussion. Nada.

You slap together a trivial comment on the spur of the moment. Whoa Nelly!

After several comments from bloggers indicating the same curiosity, Johnson suggested this (noting that his blog is The Blue Skunk Blog): "The Blue Skunk Rule of Comments: The more trivial the post, the larger the response."

I haven't noticed this phenomenon from my own blog because unlike Walt Crawford or Doug Johnson, my work scarcely receives any comments at all. But I will note that I have many more followers of my pithy personal observations than of the updates to my lengthy blog posts.

But I don't despair. Partly this is because I largely write for my own reasons (that and I'm fundamentally broken) and because I think I know why the reason behind The Blue Skunk Rule...

We don't need any more information in our lives. For every subject upon which you can throw your attention to, there is so much material available that now you also have to choose which point of view you want to go with it. And we don't need any more entertainment in our lives, either. Most people have a backlog of books to read, movies to watch, TV series to catch up on DVD or PVR, and games that they can't wait to play.

So we really don't need a/nother blog to read.

The 'trivial posts' of the microblogging set, are personal - easy to write, easy to read, and - most importantly - easy to respond to. When strangers meet, they talk about the weather. When you meet online, you make talk about Kayne or whatever. And over time, you get to know a little bit about each other...

What people need is something that makes them truly happy and that thing is community.

And that's why its more likely that people are going to choose to give virtual hugs of support to each other than comment on a long thoughtful piece of writing.

Like this one.

Friday, October 23, 2009

I can see why other library websites fail but not my own

As part of my responsibilities at MPOW, I do 1 to 2 hours a week of AskON "chat reference" - a collaborative service that is shared among a number of public, college and academic libraries in Ontario. Its been an illuminating experience and one that I think has really helped my design thinking about library websites.

Before I explain why, let me back up first and tell you that I know some library staff who are terrified at the thought of having to provide reference service to the students of institutions other than their own because they don't think they'll be able to get find the necessary information they need to share to the student.

Now let's unpack this. When librarians are faced with having to use another library's website they become anxious. The librarians are experiencing the same anxiety that our students have when they visit their own library's website.

To ease these fears, the folks at AskON have created a very useful intranet where every library has a profile with detailed service information listed in one long text page. What does this tell us about the usability of our library's websites?

Because of my own anxious experiences of having to, for example, figure out where the ebooks are kept at an academic library that's not my own while someone is waiting, I have found that I have become much more empathic with our online users. I can see with their fresh eyes that perhaps the University of Guelph's Library hours page might be a bit confusing, or that the ebook results from U of T's e-resources database may appear hidden to a student when in fact they are all there if you just click on the ebooks tab. I wish I could see the obvious failings of my own library's website, but its become too familiar to me, so I can't.

(BTW, if the design gaffs on MPOW's website are obvious to you, I would be grateful if you let me know by comment or an email.)

And since you are kind enough to be reading this, I'll let you in on a little secret. In order to better serve the students who use AskON, I have added all the other academic libraries to my personal instance of Google Scholar and it has served me so well. With it, I can usually figure out whether the snippet of a citation I've been given is a chapter of a book or a journal article or the likelihood of finding the full-text of what is being asked for, before I go through the ten or so steps necessary to find an article from the library using the "right way".

I've come to the conclusion that libraries must give up their insistence that using the title of an article is not an acceptable means by which one can search a library's collection.

What next? Ask on!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pre-Designing Your Library Website

While reading A List Apart's article The Myth of Usability Testing, I laughed when I read this somber example of user testing gone wrong:

In one recent case, the project goal was to improve usability for a site’s new users. A card-sorting session—a perfectly appropriate discovery method for planning information architecture changes—revealed that the existing, less-than-ideal terminology used throughout the site should be retained. This happened because the team ran the card-sort with existing site users instead of the new users it aimed to entice.

The reason why I laughed was because it reminded me of this anonymous comment from a blog that wished would post more often, A Librarian's Guide to Etiquette,

Content of committee's final report: Over the last 10 months, we reviewed and tested all the designs for the web site that were offered. Since they didn't look like our current web site, we decided that they would confuse our users, so we voted to retain our 'tried and true' web site design. We will disband the committee after our next meeting, in which we want to constitute a committee to come up with training handouts we can give patrons to show them all the hidden gems on our web site and how to use them. Thank you very much.

So how can libraryland break out of this conundrum? How can we design better websites for users instead of ourselves?

One way forward is to set user-centric behaviour and usability goals that you will strive to meet for the next web redesign. That is, have the web design committee be responsible for an articulation phase that should go before any actual re-designing goes on of a library's website. From the provocatively titled article, Committees Commit, Designers Design:

Practically speaking, a successful collaborative design process has two phases: articulation, in which the needs and wants of all the stakeholders are teased out and common goals agreed upon; and design, in which the designer responds creatively to those goals. This will sound familiar to anyone who has engaged in a long-range planning exercise or participated in a community-driven urban design charrette. First, articulate what you collectively want—then, design a system to make it happen.

A more succinct argument for establishing user-behaviour based requirements comes from a ThinkVitamin web comic [via Influx] where the following exchange plays out:

Brad: [to participants] What would you like to see on the website?
Participants: a stock ticker! pictures from the brochure! sports scores! ponies!
Indi: [to Brad] What is wrong with you?! That was a terrible question!
Brad: I'm sorry, I don't know
Indi: At this stage, you don't want to ask any leading questions. You want to focus more on behaviors not features. A better question may be:
Brad: [to participants] How do you construct / fix stuff?

How do you construct / fix stuff is still a hard question, but at least its a question where you can get tangible answers to build a website around.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Games and Libraries and Social Networks

At the end of my talk on games last week, there was a short discussion about the role of libraries and games. One point I wished I had mentioned during this conversation was that I would like to see libraries try to make their materials available for use and re-use in game space by designers and players alike.

Both game designers and libraries are grappling with the brand new world of social networks. Both fields are learning how to re-focus the work that they do.

Compare these two quotes:

“The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object.” (Infovore: Playing Together: What Games Can Learn from Social Software)


"cultural heritage results from EXCHANGE OF IDEAS about objects - it is not located IN them" (slide 53: Open, social and linked: What do current web trends tell us about the future of digital libraries)

Game on.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The New Jack Librarian on the New Information Literacy

Have you read this article yet? It was published in the September issue of WIRED and its called, curiously enough, Clive Thompson on the New Literacy. In it, Thompson summarizes some of the results of a massive research project that has been analyzing the writing of college students since 2001.

"I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization," she says. For Lunsford, technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.
The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That's because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it.

38%. That's a nice stat to keep in your pocket when some geezer you know starts complaining about how kids these days don't read and write anymore.

Ok. Let's bring on the next sacred cow for the slaughter. Kids today don't know how to learn anymore. From the October 2009 Toronto Life article, Lament for the iGeneration:

Last year, the renowned American neuro­scientist Gary Small argued in his book iBrain that the constant use of new technologies by young people is changing the way the brain assimilates and stores information and processes interactions with other people—evolution of the species at a breakneck pace. “Perhaps not since early man first discovered how to use a tool,” he wrote, “has the human brain been affected so quickly and so dramatically.”

Even spending a few hours a day on-line, he showed, helps strengthen certain neural pathways, while weakening others. In his book, Small cites UCLA studies that showed how using on-line search engines trains the brain to create “shortcuts for acquiring information.” The implication: young brains accustomed to finding information instantly are now less capable of storing it for the long-term—what some might call the definition of learning. The brain is programmed to acquire and store information only on an “as needed” basis.

It all sounds very dire, but from my limited understanding of cognition this just sounds like a very hyperbolic description of students forming a habit. And habits - with effort and inclination - can be changed.

Many librarians say things like "students don't know how to search". Not only is that statement insulting, it's simply not true. Just like writing, these days people search several orders of magnitude more than any other previous generation.

On Monday morning, I'm going to be in front of a class of about twenty first and second year students enrolled in a Composition course. In it, I'm going to try something that was inspired by a workshop I attended some years ago. I'm planning to try to solicit from the students what they think are the differences between "Google searching" and research in an academic setting.

While brain-storming making up my own list, I think I came up with a beautiful way to describe the differences. From Wikipedia's summary of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

Schwartz relates the ideas of psychologist Herbert Simon from the 1950s to the psychological stress which faces most consumers today. He notes some important distinctions between, what Simon termed, maximizers and satisficers. A maximizer is like a perfectionist, someone who needs to be assured that their every purchase or decision was the best that could be made. The way a maximizer knows for certain is to consider all the alternatives they can imagine. This creates a psychologically daunting task, which can become even more daunting as the number of options increases. The alternative to maximizing is to be a satisficer. A satisficer has criteria and standards, but a satisficer is not worried about the possibility that there might be something better.

Most people are satisficers when they search for their everyday needs. But academic research is searching like a maximizer. What I particularly like about this comparison is that it recognizes that research is a psychologically daunting task which I believe, makes breaking ingrained search habits even more difficult.

But rest assured, I think the kids are all right.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Should we use stories or games to teach Information Literacy?

One of my favourite articles in the library literature (*snicker*) is Jeff Purdue's wonderfully written Stories, Not Information: Transforming Information Literacy:

What does it mean to want to replace information with stories? Drawing upon (Walter) Benjamin's insights, I would suggest that we need to present IL and research as paths of discovery that must be self-generated. Look at the reference interview, during which librarians act as guides. Although there are situations when we simply want to give patrons "information," typically we engage the patron with questions: "What are you trying to find? What is your purpose? How have you gone about searching so far?" Or, in storytelling terms, "Where have you come from? And where are you going?"

And so, let's tell stories. Here's one I learned from Robert Graves's I, Claudius that was recently re-told by Dorothea Salo (her comments are in italics):

It seems, then, that we may as well abandon all hope of finding it, unless perhaps… why, there's Sulpicius! He'll know if anyone does. Good morning, Sulpicius. I want you to do a favour for Asinius Pollio and myself. There's a book we want to look at, a commentary by a Greek called Polemocles on Polybius's Military Tactics. I seem to remember coming across it here once, but the catalogue does not mention it and the librarians here are perfectly useless...

Sulpicius gnawed his beard for awhile and then said: "You've got the name wrong. Polemocrates was the name and he wasn't a Greek, in spite of his name, but a Jew. Fifteen years ago I remember seeing it on that top shelf, the fourth from the window, right at the back, and the title tag had just 'A Dissertation on Tactics' on it. Let me get it for you. I don't expect it's been moved since then."

So let's recap. Livy had the author and author's ethnicity (and possibly language) wrong, and he couldn't remember the title—but boy, he sure as heck expected the catalogue and the librarians to turn up his book—er, scroll—anyway!

Any reference librarian will tell you that this sort of reference request happens all the time. Graves absolutely nailed it with this anecdote.

I've been thinking about games and how, perhaps, they might be applied to teach concepts used in Information Literacy. The game format that immediately came to mind was of a quest-type adventure in which the player must venture out of the library to find the necessary information to track down a type of Holy Grail. But in the absence of a helpful librarian (or Sulpicius) , it is the player that must go out into the game space and try to find out which part of her citation she has that is true and which parts need to be corrected by some sort of digging around and asking of questions.

Granted, it would only be a game that would be fun for librarians.

The other reason why I won't be pursuing this line of thinking for a library-game is that such a game is inherently celebrating the barriers to knowledge. But we are looking for the Holy Grail not because it is a goal unto itself but because we are on such a quest to cure the king and heal the land. The game - like the mechanics of search - is a distraction from the real work at hand.

Let's end this post with another story. This one is from Jeff Purdue,

Let me tell you a story. Recently, I directed an independent study with a student who was conducting a research project in an attempt to formulate a theoretical response to a series of advertisements by which she felt personally affected. She worked hard, and by the end of the quarter had gotten a handle on some pretty sophisticated material, like Gramsci, Stuart Hall, Barthes, and Althusser. She really made those ideas her own; she transformed them. Although she was able to work in an original way with the authors mentioned above, the finished paper struck a carefully neutral tone: she seemed disconnected from it all. This bothered me because I remember the enthusiasm with which she approached the research for this project, so I asked her about it. I said: These advertisements made you angry. When we first talked about this project, you made it clear what your personal stake in it was: Where did the emotion go? Her reply: I thought that that's what I'm supposed to do. And she's right; much academic writing tends to avoid emotion, but good academic writing knows when to put a little passion in—it can be a very powerful tool. There is a place for righteous anger. But more importantly, staying connected with the emotion that made you undertake a research project is a way of staying connected with yourself and what you hold most important.

Librarians need to remind ourselves that these are the connections we need to reinforce, whether through stories or through games.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Changing the rules of the game for fun and learning

While I have no plans to take a sabbatical and dedicate the time to developing library games, I have been thinking about how libraries, games, and learning might intersect. I've reserved judgment on the matter as I do my research, but my gut feeling is that we, as a profession, have been looking at the matter too - for lack of a better word - literally.

In order to widen the perspective of the possibilities, please imagine a game in which you can spend a turn changing the rules of the game or to add new rules to the game. Players are allowed to be as silly or as serious as they'd like about the rules. What could you possibly learn from all this?

Well, Nomic is such a game and it was designed to allows players to explore the ideas of self-amendment which can also be found in law and governance.

I can't see a direct correlation with this game and libraries (although self-governance is a continual challenge in any library) but there is an indirect one. Nomic was designed by Peter Suber who is a senior research professor of philosophy at Earlham College and,

the open access project director at Public Knowledge, a senior researcher at SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition), and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center and Office for Scholarly Communication. He is also a member of the Advisory Boards at the Wikimedia Foundation, the Open Knowledge Foundation, and other organizations devoted to open access and an information commons [Wikipedia].

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Why won't these students play our game?

A couple years ago, researchers at the School of information of the University of Michigan developed a game called The Defense of Hidgeon: The Plague Years. The game was designed to help students learn about library research.

And you may be asking yourself at this moment, Will Undergraduate Students Play Games to Learn How to Conduct Library Research? And the short answer is, no.

The game's monetary prizes were an incentive to only a handful of teams to play the game. Only after the instructor offered the half-grade increase did most teams play the game. Students told us directly that the instructor's incentive motivated them to play the game.

This poor response is especially damning when you keep in mind that this experiment was performed with students enrolled in an undergraduate course entitled “Introduction to Information Studies”.

I don't intend to write up a formal response to this particular article but I do want to use it to introduce some ideas that, if applied in this case, may have improved the results considerably.

The first set of ideas are concerned with external and internal motivators and this 20 minute TED Talk by Dan Pink is a wonderful introduction to the subject. Even though Pink grounds his talk in the world of management, librarians and other teachers can learn much from what the research demonstrates about the effectiveness of different types of motivators and when they should be applied. After watching this presentation, I now question the utility of offering prize money for playing learning games.

I believe that those who worked on "The Defense of Hidgeon" did so because they thought that introducing concepts through a game could provide additional motivation for students to learn. I haven't played the game myself, but from their description, it doesn't sound so much as a game but as a simulation or a training exercise. A simulation is not a game.

And a game is supposed to be fun.

I hope that the next article I read about games and libraries cites A Theory of Fun for Game Design.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Recommended links from Libraryland

While I was away from vacation, I found that there was a slew of interesting things from libraryland that I wanted to mention and pass on. Here are some of those things:

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

IDEO's free Human-Centered Design Toolkit

You know, I felt just a touch self-conscious about my last post which suggested that we should look deep into ourselves to recognize our desires as a means to look forward to our possible technological futures.

But it appears that I might be in good company with this approach. I smiled to myself as I read this passage from the Introduction to The Human-Centered Design Toolkit (pdf):

The 3 Lenses of Human-Centered Design

Human-Centered Design (HCD) is a process and a set of techniques used to create new solutions for the world. When we say solutions, we mean products, services, environments, organizations, and modes of interaction. The reason this process is called “human-centered” is because it starts with the people we are designing for.

The starting point of the HCD process is to examine the needs, dreams, and behaviors of the people we want to affect with our solutions. We seek to listen to and understand what they want. We call this the Desirability lens. It is the lens through which we view the world through the entire design process.

Once we have identified the universe of what is Desirable, we begin to view our solutions through the lenses of Feasibility and Viability.

The Human-Centered Design Toolkit was developed by design firm IDEO in conjunction with International Development Enterprises (IDE), Heifer International, ICRW, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and was created to inspire new solutions to difficult challenges within communities of need.

Our technological desires are forecast in fiction

I can't seem to get my LibraryThing widget to render properly with this template, so I'm just going to have to tell you that I'm reading a remarkable book called Killing Monsters: why children NEED fantasy, super-heroes, and make-believe violence. There are so many passages that I want share with out but I'm going to start out with just one:

What draws a child to any fantasy is its emotional power. No six-year old seizes a toy or TV show because he thinks it will improve him or feels it validates his taste or opinions. That's why Isaac Bashevis Singer said that "children are the only honest readers." Every toy marketer knows that no advertising will induce a child to want something that doesn't match up with the fantasies he already has. A little girl who already yearns for the power of glamour and the chamleonsque versatility of dress-up may have her fantasies focused and intensified by a Barbie commercial. But not even a thousand viewings of that commercial will make her macho brother want a Barbie. Either children connect with a fantasy at the profoundest emotional levels or they quickly toss it aside.

There are two reasons I wrote out this quote. First, I wanted to showcase what rare combination of common sense and emotional understanding that Gerard Jones brings to the subjects of children, violence, gender, media and desire.

And secondly, I want to borrow this idea that many of our decisions are made because they, often unconsciously, connect with an underlying desire or fantasy. For example, I would suggest that many people over the course of history has held the dream of a single, portable book being able to express the entire sum of the world's knowledge. Before it became manifest as Wikipedia, it existed and was expressed as the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

So in order to understand the future of our technology, perhaps we should read a little fantasy first. I personally hope that Jakob Nielsen is right and that In the Future, We'll All Be Harry Potter.

And now its time for my audacious prediction: I predict that in the future that our laptops will develop and evolve to become our dæmons/familiars.

I'm also writing at

Not sure why I didn't mention this sooner, but I have been making the occasional contribution to the collective blog, which is dedicated to emerging technologies.

I've written two posts there:
- What we can learn from Nike’s Persuasive Technology &
- My new fave search engine is Zotero

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The library is a macroscope

I am a non-designer who wants to bring better design into the library. Nurses have designed better environments for themselves and their patients. We can do likewise.

So that's why I think you should watch this video of a presentation called Scope by Matt Webb from the most recent Reboot conference [Boing boing]. Matt Webb isn't a Designer but he is part of a four person company that does design work.

He begins his talk with some of the definitions of design that he has collected, including:

"Design is the conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order".
"Design is not about problem solving. Design is about cultural invention".
"The designer of today re-establishes the long-lost contact between art and the public."

If the parallels between our work and the work of designers isn't yet clear at this point, then please watch the first five minutes of Webb's talk in which he introduces these ideas in context.

Oh yes, and around the 8 minute mark, Webb introduces the concept of the macroscope. "Designers -- in order to see things really big, like culture, need macroscopes."

The library is a macroscope of recorded human knowledge. And it needs to become a better one to help the reader make sense and make use of the recorded knowledge in their culture. And we need to design better library space for as Beth Jefferson has said, as paraphrased by Rochelle Mazar,

We, also, are less about our content than about the medium in which we can present them. Our devices are buildings; while “the library without walls” meme has been going around for a while, the reality is that people still need space, and our spaces are popular as spaces to work, think, be and be seen. At the very least. When we move into things like ubiquitous interfaces, maybe our space becomes the medium, the device.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Using Wikipedia for Collection Development

Most students start their research work with a visit to Wikipedia.

Knowing this, doesn't it make sense that your library have copies of the works mentioned in the Wikipedia's lists of references and their further readings sections of the subjects that you know they are writing assignments about?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

End of Indexes

I believe in Clay Shirky's "Law" : the social software most likely to succeed has “a brutally simple mental model … that’s shared by all users” [Michael Nielson].

I'm going to suggest that, for the average person, the mental model of the library is "free learning materials that I can use because I belong to a particular place or group".

I'm still working through the ramifications if I'm right about our users' collective mindset. Here's one particular consequence I'm giving serious consideration: libraries shouldn't provide indexes anymore. In libraryland lingo, its fulltext or bust and we let discovery happen at the network level.

Friday, June 26, 2009

How much more can be we bear from The Harvard Business Review

This morning I learned from The Distant Librarian that The Harvard Business Review has been"requesting payments of as much as £15k pa from several UK academic business libraries simply for the privilege of making persistent links to HBR articles on reading lists and VLEs."

Let's unpack this astonishing bit of news.

One of the reasons why MPOW subscribed to EBSCO's Business Source Complete was that the product had exclusive access to the Harvard Business Review. This practice of obtaining exclusive access to key titles ultimately places libraries at a disadvantage as they have to spend money on a number of largely redundant databases in order to have access to core titles. And yet, for this privilege, EBSCO has not protected libraries from the pressure tactics of HBRB and have clearly complied with their shakedown for cash. Want to know how the HBR justifies this 'cost recovery'? There is a clause in EBSCO subscribers contracts which states that access to articles within the product is for ‘individual, private study’ rather than for teaching purposes.

What does this episode tell us about about the value of these databases? I think - to simply put it - HBR thinks that they have no value. Print copies of The Harvard Business Review has more value that that title buried within EBSCO. BTW, this is not the first time The Harvard Business Review has used heavy handed tactics to extract more money from readers. Harvard monitors class enrollment vs. actual student orders [of printed HBR case studies] and notifies the instructor if there are discrepancies.

So what can we do? Well, in 2001 Nature Publishing Group established a 3-month embargo of their journal content from online site licences to libraries as a means to protect its individual subscription base. In response, many ivy-league universities cancelled their subscriptions in protest and shortly thereafter, Nature rescinded the embargo:

In a letter to Nature officials, including Philip LoFaso, vice president of the Nature Publishing Group, Harvard University librarian Sidney Verba called Nature's previous license terms a "major diminution" of Nature's value and stated that faculty needs at Harvard would simply not be met "by subscribing to such an inferior version of what might be supplied.

Clearly there is a major diminution in this case as well. Let's hope that libraries - including and especially Harvard - recognize this and act upon it.

Bibliocommons Knowledge

For those of you who are, like myself, following the work of Bibliocommons, I bring to your attention that Knowledge Ontario has recently announced that they will be shortly approaching libraries in Ontario with the opportunity to implement the Bibliocommons interface as part of an early adopters program.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What is a browser? - UPDATED

Quick! Somebody ask 50 students if they know what a browser is!

Do you think more than 8% will know? Because that's the percentage of New Yorkers in Times Square knew in a short survey by Google. [waxy]


I posted the above in the early morning because I thought that this shocking statistic would suggest that libraries have to seriously rethink what we call our online products and services.

But the more I thought about it, the more got to thinking that 8% has got to be a bogus number. If Firefox has a 22% market share then more than 8% of the general population knows enough about web browsers to download the program and use it instead of Internet Explorer.

The larger point that I believe the video was trying to make was that the web experience is the same as the search engine experience. And now Google Chrome, of which the video is actually about, now makes a lot more sense to me.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

My Computers For Young People Story

When I was twelve years old my mother signed me up for a short course called "Computers For Young People" that was hosted at the local community college. The course was taught by a neighbour of mine named Eric who might have been four or six years older than I was at the time.

Somewhere in a banker's box upstairs I have the faded dot-matrix printout of the very first computer program that I ever wrote from that class. It went went something like this:

10 PRINT "You are walking through the woods when suddenly you see a monster!"
20 PRINT "He is big and hairy and his name is Eric!"
30 INPUT "He asks you 'What is 3 + 7 ? ' ", N
40 IF N=10 THEN PRINT "The monster growls disappointingly and walks away."
50 IF N<>=10 THE PRINT "The monster gobbles you up and then burps."
60 END

Today I learned from WIRED Magazine that Eric Veach is the software engineer and technical leader at Google who was behind the design and development of Google's AdWords and AdSense programs.

And in 1983 I made him laugh.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Three Little Ideas from Knowledge Ontario's Ideas Forum

I am so impressed with the Knowledge Ontario Ideas Forum that I was able to watch and listen in on this morning. #ko-idea

It takes a lot of courage to bring together so many people to try to tackle the "big ideas" of teaching, libraries, and technology and I think the fact that the forum generated a small number of recurring themes is both a testament to the skill of the event's moderators and organizers as well an indication that there are some fault lines in our professional thinking that we have to work through together.

Here's are some of these themes as I heard them:

Scrutinizing the mashup
There was a general consensus that we have to expand our traditional viewpoint of text-based literacy in order to to encompass wider literacies (Ha! My text editor refuses to consider literacies as a correctly spelled word! The battle rages on!) and now ubiquitous new media. But while gathering multiple sources of information is easy, the slow scrutiny and analysis (and the encouragement of such scrutiny and analysis) of that information remains as difficult as ever.

Creativity as a solution
Encouraging creativity was put forward as an answer to a number of questions during the morning's conversations. Q: How to address the fear that online collaboration is seen as cheating? A: Assess students on using knowledge instead. Q. How should we act now that we are no longer in a information scarce environment? A: Reframe our work as key problems that we need to solve.

Questioning Authority
At one point in the morning, someone in the audience stood up and said (roughly), "Ten years ago we told people that the person who is successful is the one who can find the best information the fastest" and went on to suggest that this idea is still relevant today. Other librarians during the morning also suggested that our 'value add' as librarians is that we help find 'quality information' for our users. But there were also librarians who stood up to say that now joining recognized experts are passionate collectors with their own formidable experience and with a value we should learn to recognize. Another person suggested that in the future our users won't expect librarians to find good information for us but that it will be our job to provide it. The notion of peer-helping came up a couple of times. And in the clearest expression of what I was thinking myself, a speaker came forward and said that the notion that the goal of finding authoritative information is dragging us down.

I haven't yet investigated what the break-out groups at the KO ideas forum has come up with. Will check it out tonight!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Urban Sprawl is an Enemy to Reading

I've had Jane Jacobs on the brain for a little while now and maybe that's the reason why, as I was staring out of my living room window onto the street, I made a strange connection between New Urbanism and reading.

It might have been my reading of the Kindle's imminant launch in Canada that got me thinking that just maybe if I lived in Toronto and had a lengthy daily commute that I would consider buying a tablet ebook device, so I could read blogs, magazines and the newspaper on the TTC.

The importance of shrinking a newspaper down to a size that is readable on public transit should not be underestimated. It has long been this way...

Aldus Manutius introduced many innovations into the world of printing. Aldus' desire to economically produce beautiful books of the classics led to the invention of the italic. Combined with the octavo page, cost of printing was reduced, making such books affordable to the public, a service especially welcomed by travelling scholars.

Ok, that last quote is a bit of a stretch even by my flimsy standards, but there is definitely a relationship between where you live in and how you use media technology.

When you live in the suburbs, you use a cell phone for 'emergencies.' When you live in the city, you use a cell phone to decide which offensively-named restaurant to try out for lunch.

When you live in a densely populated area, you can find out that your friends are in another bar and wander over. In the suburbs you find that by the time you get there, they've already moved on.

Radio survives because its a medium of choice of commuting, non-reading, drivers. Drivers can also choose to listen to podcasts but for those taking the subway, radio is not an option.

A student that has walked to the library without a backpack is not going to borrow any more than a couple books.

If you can fit a library in a Kindle, perhaps the library will one day walk to you...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I support McMaster librarians

I just wrote a short and polite letter to both the President and Provost of McMaster University expressing my concern regarding two librarians who were recently appointed to key strategic positions shortly before being dismissed as 'redundancies' (pdf).

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Tomorrow we will not be allowed to weed books until they are digitized

About two dozen faculty members and students, clutching signs that read “Don’t Gut the Library” and “Keep our books on campus,” picketed the administration building at Ohio State University yesterday, The Columbus Dispatch and the Associated Press reported. The protesters were upset over the culling of printed materials—275,000 books and other works, they said—from the university’s libraries between 2005 and 2008. Another 55,000 items have been discarded in the past four months, according to the picketers.
“What people here are concerned about is the idea of a research collection, much of which will never be digitalized,” John Burnham, a professor of history and one of the protesters, told The Chronicle in an e-mail message. He said that researchers in disciplines like African studies “are particularly concerned” that the materials they work with will not be available in digital form [Chronicle of Higher Education].

Consider this news item a warning. I predict that we will shortly reach a time in which it will no longer be acceptable for books to be discarded without being scanned into digital format first.

On a related note, whenever I start getting depressed about the news about the Kindle, or the Google Books settlement or how the Canadian Library Association sold off the rights to a massive Canadian historical newspaper collection to a private company who in turn sold it to Google, I try to turn my grief into something positive and start improving a page in The Open Library.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Aggregators are Aggrevators

I alluded in my previous post that I hold some negative feelings towards -- what we call in libraryland -- aggregators. Aggregators are databases of articles from many sources that are compiled and maintained by a third party - most often by a for-profit company. Instead of subscribing to individual magazine and journal titles, most libraries save considerable time, effort and money by subscribing to subject and interdisciplinary databases from such companies as Proquest and Ebsco.

I've complained about these "full-text indexes" before. Here's a short of list of their offenses:

  1. many libraries subscribe too many of them and the overwhelming number of choices hurts our users' ability to decide what they should use

  2. many of these databases are filled with titles of dubious quality and are never read. In a study of interdisciplinary database use in 14 undergraduate institutions, "4% of titles accounted for half of downloads, and these were largely popular titles; articles in 40% of full text journals were not downloaded even once"

  3. articles designated as fulltext are frequently missing crucial elements such as charts and illustrations or are missing altogether for reasons unexplained

  4. most faculty do not use aggregators in their own research. (Many librarians are guilty of implying otherwise to students)

  5. most students have come to the university with hours of positive experience using the Internet for research and consequently our arguments for using closed-gardens databases fall on deaf ears

  6. the majority of our students will never have access to these databases once they leave school

  7. Most journals' table of contents can now be found online

But the most troubling aspect of libraries who are depending on collection access through corporate third parties is by doing so it negates our ability to say that we are preserving our collection for future generations with any confidence. Just ask run through this scenario in your mind: what if Google buys Proquest and carries out what they tried to do with Paper of Record?

With so many drawbacks to aggregators, its worth asking ourselves why do most libraries outsource their serials collection work to them.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Library design failure persists because they are seen as a teaching opportunities

Even in the current difficult environment, however, institutional repositories and their managers can find plenty of work to do, given realistic goals, support from colleagues and administrators, and software that serves real needs rather than hopeful ideologies

[my italics, Dorothea Salo, Introduction: Innkeeper at the Roach Motel].

I've come to the conclusion that the main reason why many librarians are hostile towards the ideas that fall under the blanket of Library 2.0, is that user-centred design frequently runs counter to many of the unsaid ideologies of librarianship.

Last week Dorothea asked out-loud, "Why should we go through so much effort and agony to teach undergraduate students to use library-provided subscription databases when the vast majority of them will never again have access to those databases once they graduate?" And the responses she received caused her lament,

Do I think librarian affection for proprietary databases might play a role in general librarian disaffection for open access? And might that have been one of my ulterior motives for asking the question? Why, yes and yes again. Days it sucks so much to be a repository-rat, I can’t begin to tell you.

I have lots of thoughts about proprietary databases (-) and open access (+) but I'll leave them for another day. Instead, I would like to share with you what I think might be the unsaid librarianship ideology that may be at work in some of the responses to Dorothea's question:

Learning how to do use the library is an inherent part of the university curriculum.

Related to this first principle, many design failures of the library system are perceived as teaching opportunities for librarians and are thus reluctuantly changed.

I came to this idea when I was thinking about applying design thinking to improving the poor experience I had in creating a list of books that I wanted to borrow from two libraries and experiencing a significant number of books that were not on the shelf in both instances.

Librarians forget that the Library of Congress Classficiation system was designed for closed-stack libraries and wasn't intended for the end-user.

My personal philosophy is that the library should be designed to be, as reasonably possible, an unmediated experience. In the same spirit of teaching a man to fish, why should we commit ourselves to perpetually teaching each one of our users how use the library when we could spend our efforts continually tweaking the design of libraries so that they are inherently usable?

I think that the conflict between user-centred thinking and library-ideology thinking is the one of the reasons why suggestions to improve the library experience (the process of simplying by shifting the difficult steps to the library istead of burdening the reader with all the functionality) are frequently met with consternation and the response that to do so is to "dumb down" the library.

The work of the library user is to read - not to learn how to use the library.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Who is the biggest enemy of learning?

My daughter just passed her first birthday and so its not surprising that I am very fond of Neil Gaiman's benediction for a Blueberry Girl which he wrote for his God-daughter.

One line in this poem struck me in particular: "Remind her that Fortune is blind." This is a sentiment not often expressed in our "you can do anything if you believe in yourself" culture. To know an alternative to this current notion that modern man has somehow wrest himself from fate is one of the reasons why Professor Donald Kagan of Yale thinks we would do well to study the ancient Greeks.

Last week I listened to Dr. Kagan's lecture to entertain myself as I was doing the dishes. There are no slides to see - just 33 minutes of a man talking from a stage. It reminded me of my own university days when a course meant you were given dry facts from a textbook and fluid thought professed from your professor and somehow you had to weave them together into something you could remember for your midterm.

Now that I work at a university, I know that this "sage on a stage" teaching style is frowned upon as it has been largely discredited for being largely ineffectual for memory retention in most students. Instead, faculty are encouraged to engage their students in the classroom and online using a myriad of techniques and technologies. Anything goes - except for reading a lecture to your students. It is as if the new slogan is "The biggest enemy of learning is a talking teacher."

And yet something doesn't sit right with me about this development.

While I acknowledge that the lecture is not suitable for all ages or contexts, I don't want to see the lecture become completely banished from the university. We still need it. Sometimes, intertwining complex ideas need to be unwound in a slow and deliberate manner. Five lectures over five days can change your worldview forever. A keynote speech is essentially a lecture and if you've heard a good keynote (or my personal example: Rick Salutin's talk at WILU 2007) you know that it sits with you and moves you in a completely different way than a "presentation" does.

There is nothing wrong with a teacher talking as long as that teacher is telling a compelling story.

The stories told by the ancient Greeks are so compelling that we still tell them. When I was in university, one of my favourite indulgences was to go to the local comic book shop and buy Neil Gaiman's The Sandman - a series in where ancient myths take both modern and timeless forms.

And then, I would get back to the lectures.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How to reduce the number of missing books on my library lists

We all look at problems from different distances. For me, I tend to look at library things from the network level (far away) or at the user level (close up, but not too close up) and then I try to fit the two perspectives together.

Even though I blather on about grandiose big-picture library ideas in this blog, my library thoughts are also consumed by the minutia of the library experience. For example, it still grates me that its so very hard to create a simple 'shopping list' of titles, call numbers, and floor numbers (!) from the library catalogue that I can print out at home to take with me to the library.

My other complaint I have is that (at least at the libraries that I have recently visited) there is a disturbing number of books on my home-made cobbled book list that should be on the shelf but can't be found. What's particularly troubling, is that I haven't even bothered to approach library staff to fill out the requisite 'Item Missing' forms, and I'm a librarian. Just imagine what percentage of our users take this extra and effort to fix a problem that won't help them with their own immediate needs.

So here's my wish.

I would like a library catalogue to effortlessly let the user create a list of items for retrieval from the library shelves (this will come in handy in the future when our libraries become closed-stacks again, but that topic is another post). AND on this list, I would like a checkbox beside each item that reads something along the lines of "couldn't find this on the shelf". Now the user can check off the items she couldn't find and drop off the list at the front desk (with or without a contact email address for follow-up) and the cycle of missing books on the shelf is closer to closing.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Wisdom is knowing when to break the rules

Barry Schwartz's TED lecture "The real crisis? We stopped being wise " to libraryland for a couple reasons. The first reason is actually minor: Schwarz deftly illustrates how ill-framed incentives can backfire and actually demotivate individuals (library administrators, please take note).

The second and real reason why I think lecture is worth viewing is to listen to Schwartz tell two compelling stories why we have to give individuals the leeway to break from rules, scripts, and standardized operating procedures of their work when one sees an opportunity to act, shall we say, humanely.

The talk reminded me of a recent New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell called Most Likely to Succeed: How do we hire when we can't tell who's right for the job? While it begins with football, the core of the article is about what makes a good teacher and why its so important:

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year's worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half's worth of material. That difference amounts to a year's worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a "bad" school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You'd have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you'd get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

I won't spoil the piece's ending by giving away the quality that has been identified as what separates good teachers from bad, but I will say that this quality can only be exercised in an environment when teachers are able to deviate from the curriculum in order to better teach their students. (This This American Life episode also comes to the same conclusion.)

Schwarz, if memory serves, ends his talk with a very small story teaching and how, in the pursuit of consistency we have lost the opportunity to excel and, more tragically, to act with kindness and wisdom.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Takes a community to raise a library. It takes a library to raise a community

If the Darien Statements on the Library and Librarians were specifically meant as a volley back to the The Taiga 4 Provocative Statements, then I think they are a brilliant response to the fear-mongering that is trying to be passed off as leadership.

If otherwise, well, to be honest, I'm not that crazy about the Darien Statements. But that's okay. Those aren't my statements on The (One Big?) Library and Librarians. Its theirs.

But I do want to start a thought of mine from their statement on the purpose of the library. "The purpose of The Library is to preserve the integrity of civilization."

Now saving civilization might be a good idea but I would leave that job up to superheroes and those working towards nuclear nonproliferation. I haven't properly worked out my own idea of The Library's purpose but if I did, it would definitely contain these two words: share and community.

Share is the most important word. We don't sell the stuff we collect. We share it.

And when I use the word community I mean, a group of people with a common interest. So that could be a group of graduate students in a lab or a small town.

I've been thinking about communities and small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens quite a bit lately. Sometimes its been in a library context but more often than not its been more about local politics and the environment. And recently, I've been re-visiting this paraphrased thought of one of my heroes, teacher Vivian Gussin Paley:

the "work" of school is not to learn the numbers and letters as quickly as possible, but to learn to come together and build a community.

Now that's certainly wasn't the purpose of the schools that I attended or have worked for. But what if it was? How would we do things differently? It just goes to show how its not a bad idea to go back and rethink what's the purpose of what you're doing.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Discovery is not the problem that needs to be solved

I admire Eric Lease Morgan's ability to distill ideas into words. In his latest musing, he writes about Next-Generation catalogs and begins with asking this key question: To what degree is it an inventory list or a finding aide?

Next generation catalogues are also called discovery layers and on this matter, I would like to quote my favourite passage of the piece

"Discovery" is not the problem that needs to be solved. People can find more information than they have ever been able to find before. We are still drinking from the proverbial fire hose. What is needed are tools to enable people to use, to integrate, to exploit, to understand the things they find.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Branches of Branches of The One Big Library

Well it took just over three years, but I can now say with much conviction that I am a believer of One Big Library. (It just goes to show you that I'm not that swift but I am persistent.)

One Big Library is the notion that "there are many different kinds of libraries (public, academic, school, national, medical, special) but really there's just One Big Library with branches all over the world". Unlike the phrase "Library 2.0", the idea of One Big Library (and its credo "help people build their own libraries") lends itself as a means to understand where we are and in what direction we should be heading. As one commenter put it, the phrase is pregnant with possibilities.

One Big Library is a useful directive that has taken my thinking well beyond the obvious mandate of helping our users get the books and articles they need onto their netbooks.

It happened when I was thinking about branch libraries and I thought of my own experiences with them. I attended McGill's Graduate School of Library & Information Science back in the day when they not only had the word Library in their name but when they even had their very own library to support the school. But that was for a few short months until McGill decided to cut costs and integrate the school's library collection into the larger Humanities and Social Sciences Library.

After leaving McGill, I was lucky enough to find employment at the Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library. Some time after a short summer contract in its systems department, I worked part time in the library's periodical department. Some of the librarians I worked with spoke wistfully of a time when Reference Library was organized by subject - sciences, humanities, social sciences, business - and each discipline had their own periodical section, book collection, and reference staff who only answered questions in that discipline. But in order to cut costs, most of these specialized sections became absorbed into one collection that was reorganized by format: books in one area and periodicals in another.

Lesson learned? Separate branches mean redundancy in staffing and, frequently duplication in library materials. A library is only a growing organism if its regularly fed. Otherwise, its going to be absorbed by another library.

But this lesson only applies to physical libraries. These constraints largely don't matter in the digital realm.

For example, I work at the Leddy Library which collections for all subjects taught at The University of Windsor, except for Law which is served by its own library. While the physical collection is separated by format (books in the main building, serials in the west building), the digital Leddy Library is additionally organized by subject. Some of these subject pages feature links to indexes, key reference works, important journals in the field, contact information for the librarian subject specialist -- subject pages are starting to resemble a digital branch library for that subject.

Other libraries, such as The University of Rochester, are using an even finer degree of granularity : they are organizing their digital library resources by individual course. One course = one library.

Let's break it down even further. What if we could dynamically present our users with a subset of library resources - books, reference works, articles, journals, bibliographies, literature reviews - for every subject query that they ask of us? Isn't that what we really want a "discovery layer" to do for us? To create an instant library of potential resources for our users?

When I first considered Dan Chudnov's introduction to One Big Library, I had difficulty reconciling it with pre-Internet librarianship. But, three years later, I then realized that the digital realm not only makes One Big Library possible, it makes it inevitable.