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.