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.