Friday, July 28, 2006

To Be Literate is to Possess the Cow of Plenty

I have loved the title of this post since I first picked up S.R. Ranganathan's "Five Laws of Library Science" back in library school in the early 90's. It is the motto of the Madras Library Association that first published Ranganathan's book back in 1931. A good image of it and the seal of the MLA has been scanned by a librarian at the Colorado College Tutt Library.

As a reference librarian, I am embarrassed to say that I am not sure what it means exactly or where the MLA found it (brownie points to the first reader who can provide the answer) but I am sure you get the point. My guess is it is another, far more poetic, way of saying knowledge is power (and I do know that is a derived from Francis Bacon's Meditationes Sacrae.)

Ranganathan was a remarkable man. A mathematician who became India's most famous and influential librarian. He promolgated his five laws in the context of a manual of library service. They are simple yet profound and I have found them to be important guideposts throughout my career.

Books are for use.
Every reader his or her book.
Every book its reader.
Save the time of the reader.
The Library is a growing organism.

The book (especially the 1931 edition) is now difficult to get hold of. I am afraid it is not in any local libraries and unavailable at any of the big online new and used book sellers. Copies are available in Florida State University and the State Library's collections. But I would wait for dLIST's digital version.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Take a look to the left.

I have some links to various online open access journals in the left hand bar and a few things caught my eye this evening.

The first is a whole issue of "First Monday" devoted to papers from their 2006 First Monday Conference on the Open Access (OA) movement. Open Access is already having a major impact upon scholarly communication, and therefore libraries, and this will only grow in the years ahead. Access that is free to the end user via the Internet has great potential for relatively small libraries like the Olin Library. These papers indicate that the potential of OA goes far beyond libraries and U.S. higher education.

The other is an article in the current issue of "Ariadne" on the history and future of search engines by Phil Bradley. His conclusions bring me straight back to a point I seem to never escape from: one role of the library, in partnership with the rest of the faculty, will be to help students understand and think critically about how these commercial search engines relate to the wider information environment and how individuals want to interact with these search engines.

Disaster Plans

As you might imagine, I have a growing list of things I need to find out about when I get the Olin Library. With hurricane season upon us and the library's beautiful location right next to a lake, one thing I am interested in finding out about is what kind of disaster plans exist on campus and in the library.

American Libraries Direct (a newsletter from the American Libraries Association) had a brief item today about D-plan, "a free online program to help institutions write comprehensive disaster plans. dPlan provides an easy-to-use template that allows museums, libraries, archives, and other cultural institutions of all sizes to develop a customized plan" from the Northeast Document Conservation Center.

Fire, flood, earthquakes, negligence, war, theft, pests, mold ... the list of things that can damage or destroy a library seems endless. Two books that give you a good sense of the impact of disaster on libraries and thus on the wider society (and perhaps more interestingly, the impact of societal collapse on libraries) are Matthew Battles' Library: An Unquiet History (not available in Olin unfortunately, but it is in the Winter Park Public Library at 027.009 Bat and in UCF Main Library General Collection at Z721 .B28 2003) and Lionel Casson's Libraries in the Ancient World (available in the Olin library General Collection at Z722.C37 2001)

No plan can cover every eventuality and, to paraphrase Moltke, no plan survives contact with reality. But a thorough disaster plan, that everyone who needs to know is aware of, can save you from a "world of pain", to quote another great strategic thinker.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Where will the next generation Web take libraries?

The OCLC newsletter "NextSpace" has published an interesting piece on how libraries might change with the next generation of Web development, called "Web 2.0: Where will it take libraries?"

Tom Storey overstates his case when he writes that with this next generation of web development, " the Web moves from simply being sites and search engines to a shared network space that drives work, research, education, entertainment and social activities—essentially everything people do." Of course he means everything we do online. Admittedly a big part of my work life and a considerable part of my life, but by no means everything.

Other contributors make thought provoking points though. Here are some quotes.

"We need to focus our efforts not on teaching research skills but on eliminating the barriers that exist between patrons and the information they need, so they can spend as little time as possible wrestling with lousy search interfaces and as much time as possible actually reading and learning. Obviously, we’ll help and educate patrons when we can, and when they want us to, and the more we can integrate our services with local curricula, the better. But if our services can’t be used without training, then it’s the services that need to be fixed—not our patrons. " Rick Anderson.

"This librarian bases all planning and proposals for services, materials and outreach on user needs and wants. User-centered libraries breakdown barriers and allow users access wherever they are: home, work, commuting, school, or at the library. This involves users from the get go in planning and launching services based on their needs. " Michael Stephens.

"Without a firm foundation in the mission and goals of the institution, new technologies are not implemented for the sake of coolness and status. " Michael Stephens.

"Libraries should welcome the submission of reviews, assignment of keywords (“tagging”), addition of scholarly commentary, and other forms of user participation. ... Libraries should get much greater mileage out of the metadata they create. For example, if geographic names embedded in the middle of subject headings are mapped to latitude and longitude coordinates, it becomes possible to present users with graphical means of searching by place, new ways of easily asking for materials about nearby places, and hierarchical browsing by place." John Riemer.

" Libraries are not just collections of documents and books, they are conversations, they are convocations of people, ideas, and artifacts in dynamic exchange. Libraries are not merely in communities, they are communities " Wendy Schultz.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The City of Brotherly Love

We are all off to Philly for the weekend. Trying to extract every ounce of pleasure from Pennsylvania before I leave. My son wants to visit the "disturbingly informative" Mutter Museum. I am just looking forward to some good food, good company, and a historically interesting city.

So, no blogging this weekend. The real world beckons!

Network or Internet Neutrality

Congress is considering the issue of "net neutrality" this session (HR 5252 and HR 5273 amongst others.) Despite the slightly Gibsonesque sound of the phrase, this is an issue that we should all be concerned about, or at least aware of.

Net neutrality concerns the rules that govern transmission via the Internet. A good summary and a lot more information can be found at the Center for Democracy & Technology. The CDT is one of the best, and most respected, policy organizations active in the area of technology and public policy. It is well worth consulting on Internet policy and various digital privacy issues.

When you begin to try and fight your way through the thicket of information out there about net neutrality from competing organizations, it can get very confusing very fast. A couple of analogies help. One way to think about net neutrality is to compare the internet to roads. Our system of public roads are neutral. Anyone with a car, gas, and who meets the legal requirements, can travel on any road. If they were not neutral, in the way that some of the pending legislation in Congress proposes, then it would be as though Walmart had an HOV lane that its customers could travel on from home to the local Walmart, but that bypassed the small shops downtown. Of course, the difference between our roads and the Internet is that our roads are largely publicly funded, the Internet is no longer publicly funded.

Another analogy would be to the phone network. Once you have a phone and have paid for service your calls to anyone on the network are all treated equally. There is no difference in sound quality or ease of connection between calls. Again, the system is neutral. If it were not neutral then it would be as though your bank could pay to make sure that your calls to them were clearer and connections easier to make than your calls to your mother.

As you might expect, this policy development process in Congress is shaping up to be a classic battle of industrial interest group politics. In some ways it reminds me of some of the history of Florida's development detailed in Grunwald's book that I mentioned in my 7/16/06 post to this blog. The telecommunication industry and their supporters are proposing the move away from net neutrality because they own the wires etc. upon which the Internet runs and they could make a lot of money by selling tiered access to digital content providers. They say that this revenue will enable them to continue to build the network and to fund innovation. The content providers, user groups, and the software industry tend to oppose the move away from net neutrality because they don't want to pay those increased costs. They could use that money to fund their own innovation in digital content etc. and worry that the telecomms will simply use the extra money as a windfall profit. Of course, the telecomms are also very interested in becoming content providers and one way to look at this is an attempt by those industry players to gain an advantage over their rivals in this field. Thus a classic battle of industrial interest group politics: who gets to pay and who gets to profit?

User groups think they are paying enough already and worry that a tiered system of access will continue a trend towards the consolidation of power on the Internet amongst the wealthiest corporations. Educational and library groups are, of course, both users and content providers, and so have come out for net neutrality and against the proposed legislation. Libraries are concerned that users will be even less likely to begin their research at a library website if that site is slow to load and tough to find because they know that they will not be able to pay for top tier access. They also fear that they will be forced to pay a premium for access to online database vendors (like Proquest, which the Olin Library licenses a number of databases from, or EBSCO) who will pay for top tier access and pass the costs onto their library customers. This tiered access will also have the effect of steering users towards resources with top tier access and away from other resources based on access, not some other measure of utility. Educational institutions are concerned that they too will not be able to afford top tier access and thus traffic to, from, and between research institutions will be hampered. Transferring information between research institutions was the very raison d'etre of the Internet, so they are naturally concerned.
But there is a real issue here that the telecomms are forcing us to consider; who pays for innovation? If we truly think that a for-profit, market driven model will produce the greatest innovation then why shouldn't the for-profit providers of the networks be allowed to profit in new ways from their investment? We could all potentially gain from their innovation. The old monopolistic and highly regulated Ma Bell telephone company or the old power utility companies were very reliable, but not innovative. Is it fair to consign a particular industry to a highly regulated role so that others can profit?

I tend towards the neutrality side of this debate, you might not. In any case, it will impact your life over the next decades. Love them or hate them, the Internet and South Florida, both came to be how they are today through these kind of policy battles. You should keep informed.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Managers -- who needs them?

An article in the business section of the New York Times ("Maybe We Should Leave That Up to the Computer" New York Times 7/18/06 C4, available from Rollins here) got me thinking. Chris Snijders, a Dutch sociologist, thinks that routine managerial decisions are best left to computers and he has the research to prove it, at least to his own satisfaction.

Mr. Snijders studied the decision making of experienced purchasing managers in over 300 corporations and compared the quality of their software and hardware purchasing decisions. His home page gives more details about his findings but basically he found that experienced managers used less data and more of their intuition to guide their decisions and were outperformed by relatively simple computing algorithms.

I like these kind of articles for a couple of reasons. First they can be viewed as just another step in the long de-centering of humankind. Starting with the Copernican revolution which placed the sun instead of the earth at the center of the universe all the way to recent studies of animal behavior that are showing more and more traits that we thought were uniquely human are shared with various other species. It is bracing to be forced to consider what is really unique and important about what, in this case, a manager brings to an organization.

Secondly, and this is where librarians and the wider educational mission of the college comes in, how do we prepare students for a world in which as the NYT article notes, "humans becom[e] increasingly peripheral in making routine decisions, concentrating instead on designing ever better models"? Issues of critical thinking and information literacy, as well a technical capabilities, are key here and I think librarians -- in partnership with the teaching faculty -- need to play a part in preparing students for this new work environment. However, we must also remember that most decisions that we take (whether as managers or not) are not routine. Education (and reading widely and deeply in literature and non-fiction) should help us recognize the difference between the routine and extraordinary and help us act accordingly.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Federated Searching -- fad or future?

A colleague of mine, an instruction librarian in an academic library, is writing an essay on federated searching and asked my opinion of such applications. I know this is something that people at the Olin Library have been considering recently, so I thought you might be interested in my thoughts on this issue.

The University of Pittsburgh Libraries have been using a federated searching application from Webfeat for a couple of years and that is the only application with which I have any experience. Other vendors include the Open Source DBWiz, MetaLib, SirsiDynix's partner MuseGlobal, and Central Search. This is a fast moving field so I am sure there will be others and by the time you read this some of these vendors may have gobbled each other up. Welcome to the wonderful world of library systems software!

When I explain federated searching to library users I usually start by saying, think of it as Google for libraries. An easy way to search multiple databases with one search and get relevant results all in much the same format. The user can quickly and seamlessly move from search to fulltext, avoid doing the same search multiple times, using different search techniques for different databases, and then searching again for the fulltext of the articles they seek. Sounds great right? What could possibly be bad about such software?

Before I tell you my opinion you must realize that I am a librarian. That makes me very different from the vast majority of library users. I think it was Roy Tennant who said, "Librarians like to search. Everyone else likes to find." I have made a career out of understanding how to search for information and how to help others search, and I hope find, what they need. I understand how to search a variety of databases and interfaces. I even read the introductions to reference books. The bottomline is that my opinions about federated searching are probably very different from a normal library user, so take them with a pinch of salt. This is something that I find librarians forget too often.

That being said, I find that federated searching software feels like a scrim in the theater. It makes everything slightly hazy, and softens the definition of the individual information objects I seek. I am left with the feeling that I want to tear the curtain away to get to the real information in the databases below.

Information is complex, in format, content, and in the relationships between information objects. Federated searching makes each piece seem very similar to every other -- the record of a book chapter, a journal article, a video, a government document, etc. All look alike and it takes extra effort to work out what you have retrieved. The implementations of federated searching in libraries usually strive for simplicity and exacerbate this homogenization problem.

The current versions of federated searching cannot cope with the most sophisticated elements of library databases; the niceties of controlled vocabulary, or the tree structure of MeSH. Searching is reduced to relevance and keyword searching, and thus ends up being quite blunt.

I often see the results of these problems at the reference desk. Users come to the desk frustrated that they cannot find what they want after having tried a federated search, or unable to interpret the results of a federated search. I find that the most common solution for these users is to show them how to go directly to the most appropriate database for their information need, where a more directed search quickly retrieves what they want. However, only the most persistent and confident users will come to the reference desk after an unsatisfactory search. Many others will seek help from a friend or colleague, try a very different approach, or just give up. Presumably many others are perfectly happy with the results of their federated search. Librarians must be careful not to draw conclusions about the average library user based on the minority who seek assistance from a reference librarian.

I do like the ability to search multiple databases simultaneously and to quickly see which databases might reward further searching when a federated search system tells me how many hits I get for a search in each database. Selecting a database to search has always been a mysterious task for novice library users and anything that helps them with this task is to be
welcomed. I also see that my criticisms make me sound like the experienced Dialog searchers in the generation of librarians just before my own. I would listen to their war stories of finely tuned, cost-effective searches in arcane databases and their grumblings about the younger generation of wasteful searchers and secretly think that their expertise had be superseded. Perhaps, like them, I am just getting old and curmudgeonly.

One final point, I am not convinced that federated searching will not turn out to be a transitional technology, like CD-ROM jukeboxes, more an expression of a temporary limitation in the technology available in libraries than a transformational technology that fundamentally alters how people interact with information.

Still the technology bears watching and the answer for libraries probably lies in implementing such search capabilities while maintaining access to individual databases and continuing to do what we have always done, work with users individually and in groups to help them understand the many ways to search for and find information.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Michael Grunwald's "The Swamp."

Continuing with the weekend theme, here is a book I have been recommending to friends recently: Michael Grunwald's "The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise" from Simon & Schuster (2006.) It is available in the Olin Library at call number F317 .E9 G78 2006. It is about the fight to first develop the Everglades, and later to protect them. Along the way Grunwald provides a lot of Florida history for a newbie like me. He also makes clear that development in the United States (and I am sure we are not unique in this) has proceed more often on the basis of greed, hubris, and a cozy relationship between political and economic power than manifest destiny, the invisible operation of market forces, or reasonable stewardship of our environment.

I came away from the book not knowing whether to lament how much of Florida's natural environment has be degraded and destroyed or to be heartened by how much has been saved. As someone who grew up in a country that had pretty much banished wilderness before the United States even came into existence, I am always astonished by the environmental richness that remains in this country.

I can't wait to explore.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Running, Geographic Information, and the Power of the Collective.

It's the weekend, so let's have something less serious. I took up running in 2003 and even though that is rather late in life I have really caught the bug. This is me with my son after Pittsburgh's Great Race in 2004.

As many runners will tell you (usually ad nauseam if you let them) it can be very relaxing and a cheap and easy way to get and stay fit. I started running because cycling wasn't enough of a workout. I was about to visit Wuhan, China for a second time and needed a convenient way to exercise in a foreign land. I am looking forward to running in Winter Park, though I am guessing that I will forego my Pittsburgh lunchtime runs and instead run in the early morning. If there are any runners out there who are looking for a partner, let me know (8.5 minute pace, 27 miles per week.)

One of the best sources for new running routes is America's Running Routes from the US Track & Field Association. Finding a reasonable route to run in a new place used to be very hit and miss, maybe you could ask the Concierge at your hotel, or be lucky enough that Runner's World would feature your destination in On The Road. The USTAF site changes that. America's Running Routes is also a good example of the convergence of two digital information trends: geographic information and collective development of resources. Sorry, I couldn't resist bringing this back to libraries and the information economy!

At the consumer end of geographic information systems (GIS) we are seeing things like Mapquest, Google Maps and Earth, and cell phones with GPS ("With a Cell Phone as my Guide" New York Times 6/28/06 C1 go here for access from Rollins) that enable users to link spatial information to other types of information and services in realtime. In the academy GIS is having a major impact not only in the disciplines one might expect, like geography and geology, but throughout the social sciences, archeology, the health sciences, and beyond.

A well known example of the collective development of resources is Wikipedia an encyclopedia that has been written, edited, and constantly re-edited, by those who visit the site. Another example is the open source software movement that seeks to harness the collective wisdom of the group and open access to, in this case, software without added licensing costs.

The USTAF application brings both of these trends together. Users are able to create (by marking routes on maps or satellite images of an area provided by Google Maps), describe, and share their own running routes, which is valuable to them because they can see how long the route is (if they don't already know) and gain prestige by adding good routes. Other users can rate and review existing routes. Each route, rating, and review adds value to the database as a whole, which becomes far more than the sum of its parts by harnessing the power of the collective. As of this date there are over 49,000 routes, up from 30,000 at the start of June. There are 25 in Winter Park alone. Rather than relying on the experts at Runner's World to develop, evaluate, and publish routes, interested individuals create and evaluate routes themselves and are able to do so at a much faster rate.

Actually, this is nothing new in the world of information. What is a scholarly journal if not a collection of individual articles selected, written, edited, and critiqued by a community of scholars that are far more valuable as a collection that as individual articles?

Friday, July 14, 2006

Happy Bastille Day

As a republican Englishman, this is always one of my favorite days, along with January 30th.

The Library Catalog

Many librarians, not to mention library users, have been unhappy with the online public access catalog, or OPAC, since the inception of such systems in the 1970's and 80's. Steve Bell, in a recent post on ACRLog, questions whether users are unhappy with OPAC, but I think he mistakes users' low expectations of OPAC functionality for satisfaction.

The explosion of web-based systems aimed at consumers (think, e-bay, or Google and their easy to use and powerful search interfaces) has led to a recent intensification of the debate, at least amongst librarians, about the future of the OPAC. Practical changes in system design and functionality arising from this debate will come from the commercial vendors of such systems and their competitors in the software industry. For a quick intro to this debate take a look at Roy Tennent's Digital Libraries column in the 6/15/06 issue of Library Journal (go here to access it via Rollins.) For a more in-depth, and controversial, treatment read the Calhoun Report.

These changes will be driven by the demands of large libraries. Frankly, college's like Rollins don't have the market power to make much impact at this level, but we do have a great opportunity to take advantages of the changes that do come along. Rollins' Olin Library catalog runs on a system supplied by the SirsiDynix corporation. As SirsiDynix responds to the demands of librarians, library users, and their competitors, we need to be ready to implement those enhancements that better meet the needs of our users (a recent report from the University of California system recommended things like "provide direct access to an item; provide recommender features; offer alternatives for failed searches, such as with spelling errors; and find new ways to navigate large sets of search results." (as reported in Library Journal 2/15/06 p16.)

As a smaller and more nimble institution we also need to be ready to consider radical changes that meet the needs of our users in very different ways. If we are to be ready we need to keep up with the debate concerning the the future of the OPAC, but more importantly, constantly listening to our users and this is where Steve Bell and I agree.

So tell me, what do you think of our Olin Library catalog?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Robert Pinsky's Library Scene

I heard Pinsky read at the American Library Association conference mentioned in my 7/12/06 post and asked him about his poem "Library Scene." If you don't know it, you can find it in "The Figured Wheel" which is unfortunately not owned by the Olin Library (perhaps we can change that), Winter Park Public Library, or the University of Central Florida Libraries, but can be purchased on Amazon.

This has been an important poem for me for quite a while. As a librarian I have often used it, particularly the last two lines.

Because you are somehow someone that they need:
They come to you and you tell them how you read.

To make the point that librarians should not just provide access to information but we should be models of passionate readers for our users.

Most recently I quoted it during my interview at Rollins. I argued that we need, as Stanley Wilder of the University of Rochester noted (Chronicle of Higher Education 1/7/05, from Rollins you can find his article in Single Journals, Off campus access through OneLog for Windows), to move beyond information literacy to model the activities of scholarly reading and writing that are discipline specific and so much more nuanced and complex than the rather mechanistic tasks of information literacy. In a world in which information is going to be so readily available librarians and faculty need to help students and show them how to move beyond information to knowledge and understanding.

The college library, with committed personnel, embedded in small institutions, working closely and individually with faculty and students, is uniquely well placed to play this role and I contend that this can become one of the great selling points of a liberal arts education: students are not set adrift in a sea of information, but become part of a community of scholars seeking knowledge.

In a wonderful case of synchronicity, Pinsky said that the poem is inspired by the story a colleague of his at Wellesley College in the 1970's, Patricia Myers Spacks. As Pinsky remembers the story, she grew up in Deland, less than forty miles north of Winter Park. As a girl she read all the books in the town library and was given a budget to buy more and act as the town librarian. Each week she would read the New York Times Book Review and order books she felt like reading.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The golden rule

On my way to the ALA Conference in New Orleans I read the latest issue of Wired (a great way to keep up, by the way, and get beyond librarianship even if the magazine's gee wizz factor is sometimes too high.)
I was struck by Larry Brilliant's quote from Eric Schmidt,

“If you are kind to everybody, then you will make good decisions because people will give you good information, and if you are truthful to everybody, they will be truthful to you.”

It has a Chauncey Gardiner feel to it, but it really makes a lot of sense. I have had lots of opportunities to see managers and leaders in action in libraries and beyond. One of the hardest problems an organization leader faces is getting accurate and timely information from the people you work with. People tend to try and "game the system" and tell you what they think you want to hear, or what they think will get them what they want. Honest and open communication, and transparent, collaborative decision making is the key here. As with most things it comes down to consistent application of the golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.