If Second Life is the answer, what was the question?

28 February 2008

The Library 2.0 proponents believe that we should meet our users in whatever spaces they choose to inhabit. As you know, I only partially agree with that notion at the best of times.

But what about when that space is a notorious haven for violence, perversion, pornography and criminal activity?

Australia’s greatest exponent of Second Life in libraries is without a doubt Kathryn Greenhill, Emerging Technologies Specialist at Murdoch University Library, also known by the alias Emerald Dumont. Task 22 of the 23 Things program salutes her passion for virtual worlds by asking us to investigate Second Life and how libraries are using it.

There are a number of influential library bloggers who push for libraries’ involvement in ‘gaming’, not for play but for learning. I’ll be posting on the Swinburne Library Blog in the near future (so stay tuned!) about how Swinburne internet architecture researchers use gaming technologies to measure our CPU usage. But how many true ‘gamers’ amongst our library user population would be involved in gaming for the sake of learning? Call me old-fashioned, but I imagine most of them just want to escape from the realities of work and study life and be entertained. And that’s perfectly fine.

I love the idea that new technologies can help libraries reach users whose access has previously been limited by distance, time and/or disability. Peter Lor’s inspiring plenary at VALA2008 (PDF) pushed us to think of our libraries as politicised spaces. It’s an angle I’ve always been reluctant to accept, as I believe that our role is to provide an information service with as few barriers as possible, not to push a political agenda. Yet arguably, our anti-censorship, pro-freedom stance already places us in direct opposition to any form of government, no matter how (purportedly) democratic.

The notion of librarian as anarchist is so divorced from the popular culture concept of conservative, tweed-and-pearl-wearing shushers to be laughable. Yet anarchy actually much closer to the reality than the stereotype will ever be. Underneath the calm exterior, we librarians like to stir the pot.

IFLA (in the person of Peter Lor) encourages us to bring our politics to work with us. Lor argues that we need to become skilled manipulators of the information economy to ensure that no-one is excluded or left behind. To that end, Africa-specific table of contents service Africa Journals Online has been created to help journals published in the developing world gain international exposure. Similar projects in Nepal, Vietnam and Bangladesh are also underway. Contributions to the PKP support forums indicate that the development of free, open source journal hosting software allows academics from developing countries to disseminate their research both in local and worldwide spheres, free from the usual barriers of cost, distance, language, and cultural imperialist prejudice.

I’d love to think that we could use Second Life in similar ways, but it’s an unrealistic goal. Firstly, there’s a technology barrier that for the moment remains insurmountable. Dana notes that the technical specifications for Second Life require better-than-average graphics cards and fast internet connections — beyond the capabilities of most middle-class Australian households, let alone the unreliable PC access available to users in developing countries. This barrier may go some of the way towards explaining the remarkably low Second Life adoption rates in Australia (again, thanks to Dana for an excellent interpretation of the stats). On the basis of these statistics, librarians’ usual argument for participating actively in Second Life — because our users are there — is at best misguided.

Secondly, while there are no humans in Second Life — only an endless parade of impossibly beautiful avatars — it is nonetheless run by humans, and sadly we seem as incapable of creating a socialist utopia in virtual space as we are on earth. Virtual worlds have sparked considerable media and legal controversy over cases of virtual rape and paedophilia.

If we’re going to coax people out of their comfort zones and into new and exciting places, we need to be sure that they’ll be safe. With the lack of control in Second Life — which is admittedly its defining characteristic and perhaps its greatest benefit in an entertainment context — we can’t make any such promises.

Thus, I’m inclined to disagree with ‘Priceless‘ that Swinburne Library will eventually need to inhabit Second Life, because I’m (thankfully) not the only one in vehement opposition. I support those of my colleagues who think it would be more beneficial to master the real world libraries first, before trying to expand into virtual ones.

I’m afraid that for me, A Librarian’s Guide to Etiquette has the final word on this:

‘Librarians should think twice before joining Second Life in an attempt to connect with patrons. Your patrons don’t want to be friends with you in real life, so it’s not likely that they’ll be interested in hanging out with your avatar.’

Further links:

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We can cast all we like, but we may not catch any fish

28 February 2008

As I’ve mentioned before, I am not the Annoyed Librarian. But as Kathryn Greenhill suggests, every librarian gets annoyed sometimes, and some things annoy us more than others.

One of my chief irritants is the fad for podcasting.

I’ve never been able to get enthused about podcasts. For starters, podcasting is not a new technology. Like many of the ‘Web 2.0′ concepts, it’s simply an old idea repackaged and then aggressively marketed. Podcasts are just glorified audio files, and we’ve been listening to those for years.

And then there’s the term itself. It’s frankly woeful. It’s believed to have appeared first in a Guardian article in February 2004, suggested as an alternative to ‘audioblogging’ and formed by condensing the words ‘iPod’ and ‘broadcast’. Yet multimedia search directory ZENcast maintains that it’s actually short for ‘Personal On Demand broadcast’.

Whatever its etymology, ‘podcast’ is ghastly. Since it does away with spaces, it qualifies linguistically as a ‘runtogether‘, but it should never be considered a real word. And it’s not alone. ‘Podcast’ isn’t actually the worst Web 2.0 aberration of the English language — at the moment, I think it’s a tie between ‘vodcast’ and the truly horrible ‘vlogging’.

Libraries seem to be obsessed with podcasts, and I don’t know why. We’re meant to foster equitable access to content, but the use of the proprietary name ‘iPod’ suggests that we’re peddling an expensive Apple product to our users. What about generic mp3 players? Or even no players at all? Since when did libraries prostitute ourselves for a brand name? (Oh, hang on — Thomson, Elsevier, Springer, SirsiDynix — well, I guess I just blew that theory out of the water …)

(‘Katamari Damacy iPod’, from emsef’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence)

Phil Bradley discusses some of the challenges of using podcasts in the library setting in his book How to use Web 2.0 in your library. This is a great all-round book on the rise of emerging technologies in libraries. It’s enthusiastic but not gushy, and Bradley addresses the risk of its content dating quickly by providing an accompanying website. We have a copy of the book in our collection, but I’m afraid you can’t have it at the moment as it’s sitting on my desk.

Bradley argues that podcasts have become universally popular because of their convenience. Users can listen to them on a PC while they’re working, or download them to mp3 players to enjoy at their leisure. I worry that part of the reason libraries have been so quick on the uptake is that yet again, podcasting is considered a cheap option because it can be practised and maintained in-house. The only essential piece of equipment for recording is a microphone, which often comes as part of a PC’s initial package. Add to this one of the best audio manipulation software packages on the market (which just happens to be a free, open source download), and you have a very cheap tool for promoting the library if someone with the necessary technical knowledge is prepared to donate time to the task.

I’m wary of the notion of library budgets driving library services. It’s fine to want to employ our users’ tools to help them access the library, but if we want a half-decent information service we need to maintain a high standard of professionalism. We also need to be prepared to spend money. Many people from overseas find the Australian accent impenetrable; given that our international student numbers are already sizeable, and we’re hoping to lift them to about a third of the student body over the next few years, we need to ensure that we’re not developing services they’ll find utterly inaccessible. There’s a strong argument for hiring professional voiceover artists to read our scripts. After all, we run theatre studies courses here; I bet there are plenty of students who’d jump at the chance for some work experience before they graduate. And on that basis, it wouldn’t cost us an arm and a leg.

There is also the ongoing issue of accessibility. Audio recordings are offensively exclusionary to anyone with a hearing impairment, and they are also less than appealing to students with a limited grasp of the language. All students, regardless of their ability to interpret spoken English, will tell you that listening to a lecture online is not the easiest way to absorb information — it’s too easy to become distracted and disengaged. We need to be careful that the reasons we choose to utilise new technologies are the right ones; many libraries are guilty of desperately clutching at whatever faddish Web 2.0 tools come their way in the hope that users will find their services relevant and fun. We need to be careful that we’re still driving the technology, and that it’s not the other way around.

Of course, there are applicable uses for podcasting in academic libraries. Visitors to the National Gallery of Victoria can hire audio guides to help them make the most of the Gallery’s collection. Why don’t we do the same? As Tony suggested at a forum on international student needs, a walk-around audio orientation is a wonderful tool for students who can’t or don’t want to attend conventional library tours at the start of semester. We keep being told that our ‘net generation’ users have a short attention span and are fond of discovering new things for themselves – well, this is a much more interactive way for them to familiarise themselves with our resources. There are plenty of students who choose to spend their first few weeks on campus socialising, rather than learning about our services. That’s fine, and actually extremely valuable. But we should ensure that we’re ready and waiting for them later in the semester when they need the library, and that we meet them with whatever resource they find helpful and accessible – not just a gimmick.

Blogger’s note:
If you really must listen to a podcast, you may be interested in this interview with Geraldine Brooks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Australian writer, and author of Year of wonders, March and People of the Book. I’ve always found Year of Wonders remarkably similar to a (much older) British children’s book, A parcel of patterns, but then they’re based on the same historical event so I suppose that explains it. After all, there’s no such thing as plagiarism in fiction — only homage.

I found the interview by running an exclusive audio search on the EveryZing search engine. EveryZing has a built-in multimedia player, so users can search for a podcast, click on the result that interests them and listen to the audio directly through the EveryZing website. From the player, users are also given a number of other options, such as downloading the audio, subscribing to the podcast series, copying custom HTML code to a website, or rating the podcast on digg, del.icio.us and other popular website sharing services.


Don’t be scared; I’m just a librarian

27 February 2008

I am amazed at the plethora of potential uses for YouTube, even for those like me who have never created or shared a film. Thanks to the tip from my 23 Things colleague, Sara, I now use YouTube to preview music from new artists so I can decide whether to go to their concerts or buy their albums.

Librarians are big fans of YouTube, so there are plenty of library videos to be found for 23 Things Task 20. Personally, I like this spoof from Library videos – the best of …  blog (thanks times23) about how overdue library books give this librarian the blues:

I have a weakness for the blues, especially when the song includes the desperate plea ‘Don’t be scared; I’m just a librarian’. I haven’t had to use that line yet, but no doubt there will come a time …

Blogger’s note: Incidentally, while librarians may be fans of YouTube, unfortunately the creators of WordPress are not. For those who want to embed videos in WordPress posts, I recommend this YouTube help video; I would have been in trouble without it.


Congratulations : ye have overcome the wiki one*

26 February 2008

Task 19 of the 23 Things program requires me to put a photo of my pet on the library staff wiki. My lilac Burmese cat Lily is already there, in excellent company with 77 other pets:

Lily

I regret that this was quite a difficult task for those who don’t have pets, those who have recently lost their pets, and those who struggle with the wiki software.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the origin of the wiki; my colleague Dana gives an excellent linguistic rundown on her post so I’ll save myself the time. But I think I’ve made it clear in a previous post that I like the idea of wikis as a means of keeping as much of our corporate work accessible, transparent and current as possible.

There are many reasons why wikis are better than intranets in our setting. For starters, intranets tend to be a top-down method of communication where senior levels of management deposit policy documents and statements to trickle down to their underlings. There is usually little or no encouragement for contributions from further down the food chain. That’s not how we want communicate in a library. Libraries are spaces for learning, creativity and collaboration at all levels of scholarship; that should include the library staff.

Secondly, intranets are usually maintained by a single administrator who uses complex HTML and stylesheets to build pages. While our web managers are quite capable of running a system like that, it defeats the purpose of a horizontal communication tool if we have to email them every time we want to make a change. Documents on intranets tend to go out of date very quickly and become redundant when an administrator has to see to other tasks; staff members are unlikely to pay attention to an internal method of communication if it’s perceived to be constantly out-of-date.

Many of my colleagues seem to have found using the staff wiki quite stressful. I agree with Dana that remembering the special wiki markup language is actually very difficult for those schooled in the HTML encoding used in websites; it’s like learning Dutch after learning German — the languages are similar on the surface, but sometimes their similarity is actively misleading.

For me, learning to use our Swinburne Library MediaWiki software has been a process of trial and error (lots of errors and quite a trial at times). I’d never used a wiki before June last year, but I found many of the help manuals on Wikipedia very useful for both basic and more advanced skills.

Library staff will have noticed that it’s particularly difficult to upload documents to a wiki. This is because wikis can’t really compute the concept of a word processed document; the software makes the assumption (whether good or bad) that if you’re adding textual content, you’ll do it in wiki markup. Uploading images is not an easy task, either.

I was disappointed that my idealistic viewpoint on democratic flows of information is hampered by my pedantry. I found it difficult to search for specific pages on the wiki; no matter which keywords I used, I often couldn’t find the page I was looking for. So I made a decision to introduce categories to our wiki, so that it’s easier to browse by topic, unit or campus for pages of interest. Every time someone adds a page to the wiki, the software sends me an email so I can log in to add the page to a category. This might appear a little intrusive, so please let me know what you think in the comments or on my talk page.

The other problem I discovered with wikis is that attempting to navigate around them can lead users into a bit of an abyss. It’s especially difficult to go backwards. You can click the Main Page link on the left-hand side panel to return to the homepage, but if you’ve come across a page purely by chance you’ll struggle to ever find it again. My response to this problem is to add breadcrumbs to each wiki page in the hope that it’s easier to feel my way around. On our Online Services and Strategies pages, I’ve also added a section for related links at the base of each page to help users find more information or return to an area of interest. If you’d like to do this to your own pages, please feel free. I think it’s a handy trick. Again, please let me know what you think in the comments.

*’ I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked one.’ (1 John 2:13)


Library 2.0, or why I’m not running off to join the cult just yet

26 February 2008

I’ve been particularly interested in reading everyone’s posts on Library 2.0. Like any radical movement, Library 2.0 has its sceptics and its fanatics. There is a very lively Ning community, a large bibliography on the subject by librarians who can’t get enough of it, and there’s absolutely no chance you’ll attend a library conference this year without having to sit through at least one cringeworthy session on Library 2.0 and the mission to make libraries cool.

Yet the question remains: how radical is Library 2.0 really?

Let’s start with definitions. A quick review of the literature suggests that the boundaries are very broad, and very poorly defined.

Back in December 2005, Sarah Houghton-Jan had this cheerful opinion:

‘Library 2.0 simply means making your library’s space (virtual and physical) more interactive, collaborative, and driven by community needs …  The basic drive is to get people back into the library by making the library relevant to what they want and need in their daily lives … to make the library a destination and not an afterthought.’

But by January 2006, she was starting to sound a bit jaded:

‘Perhaps Library 2.0 is just one of many perpetual regularly scheduled library-world wake up calls to re-focus on the users and what they want.’

The same year, Meredith Farkas declared herself a 2.0 sceptic:

‘Library 2.0 and Web 2.0 don’t exist. Web 2.0 is hype. Library 2.0 is just a bunch of very good ideas that have been squished into a box with a trendy label slapped on it.’

This remark put her at loggerheads with the fanatics, or ‘twopointopians‘, as the Annoyed Librarian pointedly describes them. There is a tendency for discussions on Library 2.0 to become very heated; whether or not ‘twopointopians’ are the ‘earnest, humorless librarians’ the Annoyed Librarian suggests, they nevertheless condemn anyone who doesn’t agree with their perspective as out of touch, afraid of change, and worse still — professionally negligent.

I don’t consider this a valid description of Meredith Farkas, who has (quite literally) written the book on social software in libraries. She is hardly averse to change, or to the role that technology might play in the libraries of the future. She recognises that many libraries have fallen behind:

‘There are plenty of libraries that never do surveys and that never ask their patrons what they think or if they’re happy. Some people have been teaching the same things in their information literacy classes for years, in spite of the fact that students aren’t using the same tools to do their research anymore.’

Michael Stephens’ popular library blog Tame the Web sits squarely at the other end of the spectrum — in the pro-Library 2.0 camp. Stephens looks at how several pro-Library 2.0 writers define the concept, and compares their assumptions with Wikipedia’s definition of Library 2.0. From the snapshot of the Wikipedia entry Stephens provides, we could just as easily be reading about Web 2.0, since the definitions are almost identical:

  • Beta is forever
  • A disruptive idea
  • Harness the long tail

What Meredith Farkas and other sceptics recognise, but the Library 2.0 champions don’t see, is that one of the biggest stumbling blocks for Library 2.0 is just that — the fuzzy term. An increasing number of library bloggers are beginning to repudiate the title ‘Library 2.0’ because they feel it has been hijacked, or ‘co-opted‘, by overzealous librarians and vendors:

‘the term Library 2.0 has been co-opted by a growing group of libraries, librarians, and particularly vendors to push an agenda of “change” that deflects attention from some very real issues and concerns without really changing anything … We’re blindly casting about for a panacea and it’s making us look like fools.’ (blyberg.net)

I would argue that the tag ‘2.0’ has always been meaningless rhetoric, no matter to which subject it is applied. Tim Berners-Lee, the originator of the Web, loathes the term Web 2.0, describing it as ‘a piece of jargon‘ so meaningless that ‘nobody even knows what it means‘. He argues that if Web 2.0 means user-generated content like blogs and wikis, then it still means ‘people to people‘, which is ‘what the Web was supposed to be all along‘.

People are sick of 2.0. Wikipedia earmarked the article on Library 2.0 for deletion in late 2006, claiming it was a neologism without substance. The entry was only saved by aggressive lobbying on the part of heavyweights like Jessamyn West, David Lee King, Karen G. Schneider, Bill Drew, Walt Crawford and the term’s originator, Michael Casey.

When we’re discussing a push towards involving users in decisions about the future of their own libraries, applying version numbers to successive waves of theory is patently ridiculous. It places an uneven focus on technology, which already sits on a pedestal in the eyes of twopointopians. Novelties such as gaming and social networking software can’t solve the crisis in the relationship between library and user. While we can’t hope to provide better services to our users without better technology, it is only the means to the end, and not the end itself.

Amanda at Data Obsessed believes that:

‘the important part of it [Library 2.0] is not the shiny technologies but the intention behind their implementation … those intentions are classic ones — perhaps those provided by Ranganathan.’

If you’re a librarian, it’s likely you’ve heard of Ranganathan, the early 20th century Indian librarian who wrote the seminal text Five laws of library science.

His laws are simple:

  1. Books are for use (so every library user should be able to access them)
  2. Every reader his or her book (every library should cater to a wide range of books for a wide range of users)
  3. Every book its reader (even the most unusual book in the collection will find a reader)
  4. Save the time of the reader (make searching for a book as quick and painless a process as possible)
  5. The library is a growing organism (if the library doesn’t grow and change, it will fail to meet its users’ needs)

Can we apply these rules to our libraries? Indeed, does Library 2.0 apply these rules to our libraries?

Back in 2004, Alireza Noruzi (correctly) wondered if Ranganathan’s laws could be related to the Web:

  1. Web resources are for use
  2. Every user his or her web resource
  3. Every web resource its user
  4. Save the time of the user
  5. The Web is a growing organism

Yes, technology can help us to achieve all five of Ranganathan’s goals. We can house larger quantities of digital material than we ever could with print, which allows us to cater to more users — those who can’t come into the library in person, those with a disability and those who speak languages other than English. We can use RSS feeds and social bookmarking sites to provide desirable content to our users, allowing them to pick and choose what suits them. If they desire it, we can even visit them in the online spaces they choose to inhabit. Best of all, we can use blogs to open up a two-way dialogue with our users, and to build communities of practice with others in the profession.

But there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered. What else do we need, aside from technology, to make this happen? Is Library 2.0 really a new release, or just a bug fix? What, if any, are the new features packaged in Library 2.0? And indeed, is the term ‘Library 2.0′ the only problem? If we just find a new name to describe the movement, will we be able to get on with combating the growing crisis in libraries?

Perhaps not. Meredith Farkas, who among other professions is a trained therapist, maintains that catch-all terms are misleading. Lumping everything that’s wrong with libraries under the heading Library 1.0 disguises the roots of the problem, and therefore prevents us from finding a cure. ‘Why do people like to squish things into these neat little boxes as if the world was meant to be that way?‘ she rues. ‘Web 2.0. Library 2.0. I don’t like labels and I don’t like boxes.’

Farkas argues that by continuing to squabble over the scope of Library 2.0, we are ‘focusing on the wrong things.’ She thinks we should ‘be more concrete‘ in the way we describe change to libraries, librarians and users. She maintains that the concept of Library 2.0 ‘seems a lot more pie-in-the-sky than teaching a group of librarians what a blog is, why it’s a good thing for libraries, and how they can start one.’

Of course, Farkas is right — not just that we should do away with the label of Library 2.0, but that we are wasting time thinking about it. The only reason we exist — the only reason we have ever existed — is to fulfil the information needs of our users. These needs might be explicit or implied, immediate or long-term, and the users we serve may be known to us or anonymous, but ultimately they are the only motivation for our existence. And if we’re not concentrating on serving them, whatever excuse we give, we’re failing.
A selection of perspectives on Library 2.0:


Will del.icio.us be Delicious in the years of maturity?

25 February 2008

I’ve talked about why it pays staff who move around a lot to make as much content as possible available online. I’ve recommended shifting frequently-used documents to email, or a staff wiki or intranet. But what about all those wonderful webpages we bookmark each day and squirrel away in our browsers’ bookmarks folder? How can we access these from elsewhere?

The long and short of it is that we can’t. But we can submit them to an online service accessible with an internet connection from anywhere in the world.

There are several web-based bookmarking services (also known as ‘social bookmarking‘ sites) that allow me to upload my favourite pages to a website for my own use or to share with others. The beauty of this is that I can then take my bookmarks with me wherever I go — home, work or anywhere else with an internet connection — the perfect solution to the problem of finding a great site for research and being in the wrong place to bookmark it at the time.

I’ve never really gelled with del.icio.us, the most popular of these services. I’m not sure why; the concept itself is brilliant. I think maybe it’s something to do with never remembering where to put those confusing dots. Thankfully they’ll be removed in version 2.0.

(‘Coffee cream bunny rabbit bookmark’, from Amigurumi’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence)

I joined del.icio.us when I first started at Swinburne. Back in those days I was using Internet Explorer, and I found the process of adding tags pretty convoluted. Like most users, I am only going to use new software if it doesn’t make my existing workflows more complicated. So not surprisingly, I quickly gave up on del.icio.us.

I also tried Jumptags, one of its newer rivals (not owned by Yahoo). While it looked pretty, I was frustrated that it logged me out of the service every time I left the site (even if I visited the site more than once during a single browser session). I was also concerned about test sites I wanted to bookmark for easy access but not share publicly; I wasn’t sure how Jumptags would manage these. Finally, like del.icio.us for Internet Explorer, as there was no easy way to add a page to Jumptags without having to stop work and open a new browser tab, I continued to use Ctrl + D to save a link, then export it to Jumptags later. While synchronising my browser-based bookmarks and my Jumptags bookmarks was a relatively easy process, I needed to remember to synchronise every afternoon. Not much chance of that. Again, I gave up.

What about other services? CiteULike and Connotea are popular among researchers, but as they’re designed primarily to help academics share scholarly works, images and other resources with their colleagues for export to bibliographic software, they have a completely different agenda and target audience from del.icio.us. Others like Faves, Reddit, StumbleUpon, and the truly awful Digg, return to the idea of a ‘social’ service by allowing users to ‘rate’ the bookmarks added by other users. None of them appears to completely satisfy my needs.

I acknowledge that my current system isn’t working. Even with my bookmarks neatly filed in folders, it’s hard to find anything and even harder to deduplicate. So now that I’m a Firefox devotee (and running out of time for the 23 Things program), I thought I’d give del.icio.us another shot. There’s only one hitch; I’m using Firefox 3 Beta 3 at the moment, and the del.icio.us toolbar isn’t compatible with this version yet. Damn.

I think you can probably learn a lot about me from my bookmarks. Feel free to let me know what conclusions you draw in the comments!

More links:

Blogger’s note: Amazingly, the title of this blog post relates to physics:
‘I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity.’ – Albert Einstein


Build your house, then call me home(page)

21 February 2008

Our lives are increasingly mobile. For example, I wrote this post (and many of the previous ones) on the train. It’s not nearly as exciting as it sounds; I don’t have a laptop, a PDA or a web-enabled phone. I’m not even typing bestsellers with my thumbs like the famous Japanese cell phone authors.

No, I’ve gone truly retrograde. I’m writing my posts in pen on paper.

And I love it.

But what about those of us who want to use technology in more than one place? People without laptops, or people who travel?

This time last week I was in New Zealand, having a fantastic holiday and generally steering clear of the Web for the sake of rest, eyestrain, and my unfortunate tendency to read work email while I’m on vacation. But one thing I could have done from an airport kiosk or internet cafe was upload my holiday snaps to Flickr, Picasa, Facebook or any number of image-sharing websites. Why? Because all of these services are web-based, so they can follow (or haunt) me everywhere.

As I’m a really long way behind in the 23 Things schedule, some of my colleagues are beginning to post their final comments on the program. A particularly interesting point made by several bloggers was that many staff use more than one PC, sometimes even on multiple campuses. Naturally this makes the idea of a permanent desktop very appealing.

The 23 Things tasks reflect the trend towards ‘going mobile’. We’ve looked at Google Docs, for example, which offers a free hosting and editing service for office documents, and Flickr, a centralised space for storing images. But how can we take our desktops with us?

Firstly, we need to extract as much data as possible from internal network drives and make it available online. In the case of Swinburne Library staff, confidential information can be added to the staff wiki, since this is protected by password. The added advantage here is that a wiki is a collaborative tool; you might find your colleagues respond to your work with helpful comments and additions. Swinburne staff should also never underestimate the power of their email inboxes. Email is hardly the best content management service, especially given its relatively poor search abilities. However, since our email client can be accessed remotely, at least it’s always available.

Of course, this doesn’t solve everything. Swinburne 23 Things Task 16 encourages us to try iGoogle, a customised Web start page that can be accessed anywhere users have an internet connection.

iGoogle is certainly very visually versatile. Users can choose from a directory of over 150 themes, or even design their own using XML. I chose the ready-made City Scape theme, which changes gradually during the day to reflect the sun’s position in the sky. iGoogle, like many of the other Google products, makes use of ‘gadgets’ (called ‘widgets’ in Blogger) to add external content to pages. Like Facebook’s applications, many of these are created by weekend developers. As suggested when I activated the software, I added the Wikipedia, Gmail, Google Reader and ToDo gadgets.

Although it’s easy to search Wikipedia in Firefox (I just type ‘wp’ then the search query in the address bar), the ability to search Wikipedia from a portable desktop is useful when chasing PCs or using Internet Explorer. The option to preview my latest emails and feeds through iGoogle is also very handy. I don’t use my Gmail account very often (mainly just for Blogger comment alerts and Facebook ‘bacn‘) so I often forget to check for new emails. And with the number of unread feeds in my Google Reader rapidly approaching 1500 (again), it can be daunting even to take a peek at my aggregator. Much better just to be presented with a few new feeds each time I refresh my homepage.

Since I like the way iGoogle works, I may consider using it more regularly in the future, and I’ll definitely explore the gadget directory in more detail. However, for those who like the concept of a web-based desktop but aren’t inspired by Google’s offering, there are plenty of alternatives. Like all Web 2.0 products, their continued existence is subject to the fickleness of the web-using public — the safety of Google and any of its services lies in monstrous size and wealth. I am always hesitant to save my data to little-known Web 2.0 services without a backup, since they are frequently here today and gone tomorrow.

With that dire warning out of the way, here are some rival start pages I investigated:

PageOnce is designed for users with a number of web email and social networking accounts. It feeds all new email or friend update data into one start page, negating the need to remember a multitude of passwords. However, I think it’s important to bear privacy and security in mind; iGoogle only recycles data through the Gmail and Google Reader gadgets that is already available from my Google account. How much new information would I have to provide PageOnce for the same functionality?

Pageflakes is one of iGoogle’s most successful competitors. It has the ability to accomodate a wider audience than a personalised webpage like iGoogle. As an example, Dublin City Public Libraries use a customised Pageflakes page as the default homepage on all public access PCs. Unfortunately the page is very cluttered and ugly, and I worry about such heavy reliance on Web 2.0 tools. As Andrew Finegan notes, public libraries deserve to be ‘free but not cheap’.

As you can see from the comparison links below, many people favour Netvibes. Like Pageflakes, it was able to pinpoint my location (albeit Canberra, but close enough) and provide me with a demo page containing geographically-relevant modules like Herald Sun news and local weather. However like Pageflakes, the layout is messy and overcrowded; iGoogle’s sparse layout, in keeping with other Google products, definitely counts in its favour.

Despite iGoogle’s rapid rise in popularity in 2007, MyYahoo! is still the most popular start page by miles, but while it has the benefit of using the same login details as Flickr, it suffers from a strong UK bias. Let’s just say I wouldn’t use it.

Symbaloo is different from the other start pages I viewed because it uses a customisable array of symbols to represent frequently-used websites and services. Unlike iGoogle, which federates a number of services into a single space, Symbaloo acts as a launching pad for the Web. I think it’s one to watch, but it’s still in beta outside the United States.

Smplr has generated some interest in the online press, mostly because it’s unusual and much prettier than most of the start pages on the market. However, it requires users to learn a whole new language of codes to navigate the Web — something users are perfectly capable of doing without Simplr. Such a complicated process for a service that is meant to make users’ lives easier seems truly oxymoronic.

Further information:

Compare startpages: