Friday, January 03, 2014

A Place for Place

There has only been one department in the 375+ year history of Harvard that has ever been dismantled and that was the Geography Department.  Since then many other Geography Departments have been dealt a similar fate including the one at my My Own Place of Work which disappeared some years before I started my employment there. Some of its faculty remain at the university, either exiled to Sociology or Political Science or regrouped as Earth Sciences, depending on which of The Two Cultures they pledged allegiance to.

I have an undergraduate degree in Geography and Environmental Science and as such I sometimes feel that I'm part of an academic diaspora.

So after almost 20 years of librarianship I've made one of my sabbatical goals to ‘re-find my inner geographer.’ My hope is that through my readings I will be able to find and apply some of the theories and tools that geographers use in my own practice.

I think I have already found a good example to use a starting point as I try to explain in this post what sort of ground I'm hoping to explore and how it may apply to librarianship.

It came to me as I was browsing through the most recent issue of Antipode: The Radical Journal of Geography when my eyes immediately fell on an article whose topic was literally close to home. It was an article about migrant worker experiences in “South-Western Ontario”.

I had to download and scan most of the article before I could learn that what was being referred to as ‘South-Western Ontario’ was actually East of where I live. And that’s when I noticed that the official keywords associated with the article (migrant workers; agriculture; labour control; Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program) made no mention of place. And this struck me as a curious practice for a journal dedicated to *geography*.

But I know better to blame the editors of Antipode for this oversight. The journal is on the Wiley publishing platform (which they call the “Wiley Online Library”, huh) which provides a largely standardized reading experience across the disciplines. On one hand, it’s understandable that location isn't a standardized metadata field for academic articles as many papers in many disciplines aren't concerned with a particular place. On the hand, I do think that is telling that the within academia there is  much more care and effort dedicated to clarifying the location of the author rather than that of that of the subject at hand.

(I will, however, blame the editors for using the phrase ‘South-Western Ontario’ when the entire world uses ‘Southwestern Ontario” in reference to these parts. Their choice of spelling means if you search the “Wiley Online Library” for Southwestern Ontario, the article in question does not even show up.)

There is another reason why I'm concerned that the article at hand doesn't have a metadata field to express location and that is this: without a given location, the work cannot be found on a map. And that’s going to increasingly be a problem because the map is increasingly where we will live.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

You may know that Google became the pre-eminent search engine based on the strength of its PageRank algorithm which, unlike its peers at the time, created relevance rankings that takes into account the number of incoming links to that page as a means to establish authority and popularity and make it less immune to spam.

In those heady, early days of the Internet finding news and more from around the world was deliriously easy. Oddly enough one of the challenges of using the Internet back then was that it was hard to find info about the features of your small town. The Internet was wonderfully global but not very good at the local.

But now, in 2014, when I search for the word ‘library’ using Google and I receive my local library system as the first result.

This is because Google is now thought to incorporate 200 some factors in its page ranking.

And one of the most important factors is location.

In fact, I would go so far to say that, just like real estate, the three of the most important factors for search is location, location, location.

It's location because if you search for political information while in Beiing your experience using the Internet is going to be significantly different from that of Berlin because of government enforced filtering and geofencing.

It's location because if you search for Notre Dame in the United States you are probably going to get something related to football rather than a cathedral in Paris.

And it's location because so much of our of information seeking is contextual based. If I'm searching for information about a particular chemical additives while at a drug store, it’s probably because I'm about to make a consumer choice about a particular shampoo and not because I need to know that chemical's melting point.

(An aside: imagine if by the very act of entering a library space, the context of your searches were automatically returned as more scholarly. Imagine if you travelled to different spaces on a campus, your searches results would be factored automatically by the context of a particular scholarly discipline?)

While it’s difficult to imagine navigating a map of research papers, it is much easier to understand and appreciate how a geographical facet could prove useful in other interfaces. For example, if I'm looking for articles about about a whether particular social work practice conforms to a particular provincial law in Canada, then the ability to either pre-select articles from that province or filter articles to a list of results pertaining to that province could prove quite useful.

It's surprising how few of our library interfaces have this ability to limit by region. Summon doesn't. Neither does Primo. But Evergreen does and so does Blacklight.

There are other examples of using maps to discover texts. OCLC has been experimenting with placing books on a map. They were able to do so by geocoding Library of Congress Subject Heading Geographical Subdivisions that they parsed so that they can be found on a map on a desktop or nearby where you are while holding a mobile phone.

And there are many, many projects that seek to place digitized objects on a map, such as the delightful HistoryPin which allows you to find old photos of a particular place but of a different time visible only when when you look through the world through the magical lens of your computer or your mobile phone.

Less common are those projects which seek to make available actual texts (or as we say in the profession the full-text) accessible in particular places outside of the library. One of my favourite of such projects is the work of Peter Rukavina who has placed a Piratebox near a park bench in Charlottetown PEI that makes available a wide variety of texts: works of fiction (yes, about that red-headed girl), a set of city bylaws, and a complete set of community histories from the IslandLives repository.

When you think about embedding the world with a hidden layers of images and text that can only be unlocked if know its secrets, well that sounds to me like a gateway to a whole other world of experience, namely, games, and ARGs or alternative reality games in particular. Artists, museums, and historians have created alternative reality games that merged the physical exploration of place with narratives and as such have created new forms of story writing and storytelling.

Personally, I think its very important that libraries become more aware of the possibilities of in situ searching and discovery in the field and there are many fields worth considering.  Over the holiday break, I bought the Audubon Birding App which acts as field guide, reference work, includes a set of vocal tracks for each bird to help with identification, allows the creation of to store my personal birding life list, and a provides means to report geocoded bird sightings to eBird -- while being half the price of a comparable print work.  We, the people of print have a tendency to dismiss and scoff at talk of the end of the print book, but I don't see any of our reference works on our shelves providing this degree of value to our readers like this app does.

In my opinion, there’s not enough understanding of this potential future of works that take into account the context of place. Otherwise, why would our institutions force our users to visit the a physical library in order to access a digitalize copy of historical material that we might have already had in our collection but in microfilm?

So, as you can see, there’s a lot of territory for myself to explore during the next 12 months and I think I'm going to start by going madly off in all directions.

I do hope that by the end of this time I will have made a convincing argument to my peers that we have an opportunity here to do better.  I hope that one day the article in question that I started this train of thought - the one about migrant agricultural workers in South-Western Ontario -  should, when and if its included in an in a library maintained institutional repositories, have a filled out location field.

And then perhaps one day, those in the future who will work those fields in South-Western Ontario can discover it where they work.


Anonymous said...

There are lots of good things that can be done with location limiting in search interfaces.

But I think a really interesting thing when you start delving into it is the, well, problematicity of standardized 'regions'. And a good topic for some librarian-geographer thought!

If you start looking at LCSH controlled vocabularies, and/or MARC 043 codes, you can start seeing some of it.

Historical context is one of the main categories of problematicicty, but not the only one.

Is the Russian Federation the same 'place' as the U.S.S.R. -- and what is "Russia"?

Should an article about the U.S.S.R. come up when limiting to "Russia"? Does it matter if it's really _about_ the political entity U.S.S.R., or just about something that happened to take place in Moscow during the 1970s? Uh-oh, what if it took place in Kiev, which was part of the U.S.S.R., but not part of contemporary "Russia" (and may or may not have been part of pre-USSR "Russia" depending on time period!).

How about the "Holy Roman Empire", what, where is that anyway? (Or should it be 'when is that anyway'?)

"Palestine", "Israel", "Occupied Palestinian Territories", "West Bank", "Judea and Sumeria".

Swaziland, is that still a place? Limit by South Sudan, should you find no articles written before 2011? Or 2005? Or should you still find articles about that region?

There are issues other than history too. "Place" is a weird, subjective, contextual concept (as geographers know!). Here's a brief article with some complexities of place from a programmer's point of view:

Anonymous said...

Oh, and you know why Summon and Primo don't have a geographic limit facet, I bet? Because they incorporate records representing journal articles and other non-traditional-catalog content, for which they don't have geographic region metadata.

Traditional MARC records have got this (with varying quality), both from LCSH geo subdivisions, and the MARC21 043 geo code. If all or most of your data is traditional library MARC records, it's not hard to expose this -- although quality and utility may vary. It would be intersting to do a study of how useful this actually is to actual patrons when based on the data we've actually got.

But you can only expose what data you've got, and Summon and Primo including much more than traditional library MARC records, the bulk of their corpus simply doesn't have metadata assignments from geographic controlled vocabulary -- let alone from the _same_ geographic controlled vocab, which you need to have any kind of sense out of it.

Mita said...

bibwild, you raise some great points, including using my favourite example of the Holy Roman Empire (which was neither Holy, Roman, or an Empire).

I'm hoping to read on these very issues and try to determine to what extent adding geographical coordinates can avoid the worst of these problems. Because not only USSR and Russia share the same 'place', but so does CCCP and Россия.

And much thanks for the link - it's a great post!

Catalogablog said...

Field 052 also has place info. There is also place info about the publisher in 008 and 260. Conferences have place info in 111 $c and 711 $c. If you consider colleges and universities as places, then the dissertation field 502 has place information. A MARC record contains plenty of geo-info but not much is done with it.

Anonymous said...

The tricky part is that USSR and Russia do _not_ exactly 'share the same place'.

There are (large) parts of the USSR that are _not_ part of the current Russian Federation, and parts of the 18th century Russian Empire that may be parts of neither (and vice versa all around). They aren't just different names for the same thing, they are different things.

If you are looking for things about the USSR, you are probably only looking for things about the time period the USSR existed, not about a place that happened to be within the boundaries of the USSR (which may have changed throughout the life of the USSR too!) in the 16th century.

Using geo coordinates can be helpful when the 'aboutness' of an item is really a specific _point_ on the map. But that's rare. If the aboutness of the item is 'USSR', or 'Russia', or 'Russian Empire', or 'Russian Federation'.... heck, even if it's a particular city, the boundaries of some cities change drastically throughout history too!

USSR vs CCCP is just a language issue in term used to label a category, and no different than using alternate language labels in any controlled vocabulary, not really too tricky -- the real tricky things with place vocabularies are conceptual about the categorization itself, issues special to places as categories.

Unknown said...

The MARC standard already supports geographic coordinates in MARC 034, but not in the most modern way. Basic bounding box is supported but not complex polygons. The idea is that you use 034 to track the lat/long "footprint" or area of the item covered. No reason why we couldn't extend use of 034 beyond just for maps.

Believe it or not, many map libraries track data in 034, and it wouldn't take much (in a modern API capable system) to do something with that data (e.g. GeoRSS)or to automate / augment metadata creation to auto-populate even more machine readable data (or to add to a more robust custom local 9xx field designed for complex geo coordinates). There are plenty of geo lookup authority sources (e.g online gazetteer, etc.) that could be used to rapidly build machine readable coordinates based upon, say, geographic subject headings, etc.

BTW, for library systems, Evergreen ILS is IMHO the best situated system to do something with MARC 034 and/or other geo-data. But I agree with bibwild, once you get to discovery layer level, key problem is how well you can access geographic aboutness to offer a solution for the entire scope of the search.

Great topic to explore on your sabbatical. Enjoy!

Mita said...

And thank you David and George for pointers within MARC.

When I get to that part of my investigation, I will try to share what I've learned here