Travel, or how I broaden my mind

27 March 2008

There are many reasons why it would be easy for me to hate my journey to and fro work.

(‘Late…again’, from alistair_35’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence)

For starters, as the crow flies I’m less than 30 minutes away from Swinburne, but it takes me almost an hour to get here. Arguably that’s my fault for not having a car or a licence to drive it (whichever order is appropriate), but cars are pollution factories and I have a conscience.

And why would anyone drive when the train stops right in the middle of the campus?

For good reason, as I’ve discovered. Whenever I hear people in other states whinge about their public transport systems, I’m tempted to lose my cool. Since Connex took over the Melbourne train system early this decade, we’ve developed new terms to describe inefficiency. My train was 25 minutes late last night and I missed the first third of the performance I was trying to attend. Of course, Connex apologised for any inconvenience caused, as they did when they cancelled my train again this morning and I stood on the platform for 22 minutes in the cold. Such a sincere, heartfelt recorded message always makes me feel better about being late for appointments.

Last week Connex gave out free sample boxes of cereal, as if to say: ‘sorry for making you late for work again — have breakfast on us’. Which is fine, but I’d rather they spent the money on improving the system (completely aside from the fact that I don’t like Special K). Food and trains don’t mix; I was entirely unreceptive this morning to a woman who thought I should enjoy having her children crawl all over me and rub their potato chip-coated fingers into my work clothes.

To make matters worse, I’m housesitting at the moment in an unfamiliar geographic location with a lovely dog, an affectionate cat and a pool. Melburnian readers of this blog will have noticed that we’ve rediscovered a forgotten concept called ‘rain’ this week. This morning, I woke up to find that the pool water was level with the surrounding tiles and there’s more rain forecast. By the time I get home, I think the dog will be teaching the cat to swim and the house will have floated away.

Such is life. Luckily, there’s one significant benefit to a long and painful train journey — it helps me catch up on my reading.

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A grasshopper leaped from his leg, and other book memes

20 February 2008

While we’re on the topic of books, which I’m always more than happy to discuss, I’m going to stray a little from 23 Things with a book meme I found through Ruminations.

A meme, for those who don’t know, is defined as:

‘Any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.’ (Wiktionary definition)

This is a very fuzzy explanation, and could just as easily apply to pretty much any other word in the English language, but in a blogging context, we tend to think of ‘memes’ as concepts that are readily repeated, even echoed, across the blogging world. An example would be the day that library bloggers all over the world confessed to being the Annoyed Librarian.

(‘I am the Annoyed Librarian’, from heidigoseek’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence)

 

Rules for this book meme:
1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages)
2. Open the book to page 123
3. Find the fifth sentence
4. Post the next three sentences
5. Tag five people

I don’t know about tagging anyone (I haven’t done that since the playground), but here is my response:

‘Duke University and Georgia State University took their Google Scholar guides a step further by integrating the Scholar search box directly into their sites. Duke includes some caveats up front — the by-now familiar disclaimers that Scholar searches a subset of scholarly literature, that the materials are not always scholarly, and that some material is only indexed in library databases. But then the Duke guide proceeds with detailed information on how to search Scholar, how to read Scholar’s results, how to use Duke’s citation linker from the Scholar interface, and how to use Open WorldCat results through Scholar.’

(From Miller, W., & Pellen, R. M. (2006). Libraries and Google. Binghamton, NY, USA: Haworth Information Press).

Now, wouldn’t that exercise have been a whole lot more interesting if I’d reached into my drawer and pulled out the book I wish I were reading:

‘His dust still floated over the road. A grasshopper leaped from his leg.
“‘Mr Tinsley?”‘

(From Proulx, A. (1999). Close range : Wyoming stories. New York, NY: Scribner).


A legacy to those who are yet unborn*

15 February 2008

In their recent book Libraries and Google, Miller and Pellen (2005) remind us that:

‘not so long ago Google did not even exist’ (p 1).

Why do they need to emphasise this point? Is it because we never think about Google, and therefore have to be reminded of its existence? Hardly. On the contrary, it has become almost impossible for us to live through the day without Google. I should keep statistics on how often in the course of my daily duties I hit Ctrl+K (keyboard shortcut for the search bar in Firefox) and type in a word or phrase. When I’m creating records for the Swinburne Research Bank, there’s a good chance it’s over 200 times a day — and that’s only when I can’t find the information elsewhere.

Actually, I just searched Google then to find a page of browser shortcuts. A quick finger flick, and I barely even noticed I did it, but nonetheless it happened. For me, blogging is a bit like research; I make a claim, either reasonable or outrageous, and then I have to find someone else’s words to substantiate it. We humans are sadly afflicted by the herd mentality; we don’t often believe in our own validity until someone else confirms it.

Many librarians reject this notion; they consider themselves to be shepherds rather than sheep, guiding the unthinking herds towards greener pastures in the pursuit of more (brain) food. Brandishing bibliographic databases, scholarly resources and centuries of tradition, their crook can be a heavy one. Such an superior attitude unfortunately alienates many potential library users.

No wonder so many people gravitate towards Google. It appears less aggressive, it requires no intermediary and it moves at users’ own pace — to all intents and purposes, Google is the perfect shepherd.

(‘Del’, from marj_k’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence)

Librarians’ tendency towards academic snobbery makes many users look upon us not as benevolent shepherds, but as a pack of middle-aged, bespectacled sheepdogs snapping at their heels and barking endlessly about scholarly traditions. In an age where the constant availability of the Web encourages us to cut out the middle man, this puts librarians in a dangerous position. It’s no surprise, then, that many librarians consider teaming with Google to help build Google Book Search a betrayal of their loyalties.

As per Task 15, I had a little play with Google Books, but I decided in advance that I’d be unlikely to use the service very often. If I’m searching for details on a book for personal reasons, I use the Books iRead application on Facebook, or since I signed up for Task 8, LibraryThing. If I’m running a search on a book for work purposes (ie to create a metadata record), I need more detailed information than Google can give me, and this is best found through Libraries Australia, the online national bibliographic database hosted by the National Library of Australia in Canberra. When I’m searching for research by Swinburne authors on the history of Victoria’s premiers, the chances are that I’ll be looking for a text published here in Australia.

Since Google Books has no Australian library partners, even with the vast collections that have already been digitised, such as the New York Public Library and Harvard University Library, there is little hope of me finding specific local works in Google Books. Right?

Wrong.

I searched for ten books, all containing Australian content and most published here, and I found every one. Sure, there was only brief bibliographic information, and I couldn’t preview chapters from all of the books, but they were indisputably there, and all I had to enter to find them was the title of the work and sometimes an author name. Many of the citations I receive to create records for Swinburne Research Bank are sketchy, with only one author name and the (frequently incorrect) title of the work. The capacity for Google Books to provide useful information on Australian content is good news indeed for me — Google can, in fact, help me with my work. I’ve caught myself out being a librarian snob.

Many young school leavers about to embark on university careers are reluctant to use books as resources, and this is partly because of the absence of a keyword search. The attempt by Google Books to remedy this problem — that is, to help users find printed texts through keyword searches — is admirable, but leads, as Dana laments, to the loss of valued serendipity. I agree with this sentiment; I went downstairs yesterday to pick up a book, and found an even better one sitting on the shelf right next to it. How could that have happened if I’d never visited the library?

This is an inevitable shortcoming in an online book search, and we’ll have to live with it for a while. At the moment, the closest we have to online serendipitous browsing is the user recommendations on social sites like LibraryThing and Google Reader. Google Books’ MyLibrary function still has a long way to go, although it does have some great features like book clip embedding and popular passages. And for once, these even work in WordPress:

Obe Advancing Ill met by moonlight proud Titania

from The comedy of a midsummer night’s dream, by William Shakespeare

It is understandable that many librarians are suspicious of — or even openly hostile towards — Google. As long as Google remains the first port of call for simple ready reference questions, there will always be a fear that the search giant threatens the future of our profession. Yet I’m a new librarian, with potentially another 40-odd years in the workforce, and I’m not worried at all. I maintain that there will always be plenty of scope for a librarian’s professional skills, even if this may not necessarily be in the traditional context. We need to remember our expertise and our mission — to help our users gain access to as much useful information as possible — and to bear in mind that if anything, the expansion of the internet makes our role more crucial than ever. Assuming that Google can’t help us or our users in our quests for knowledge is naive. To put it into perspective, even with enforced legal deposit laws in Australia, Libraries Australia still only houses 42 million records, while the University of California alone can contribute 34 million items to Google Books. By ignoring the powerhouse that is Google, who are we serving — our users or ourselves?

Miller and Pellen (2005) are resigned to the inevitability of Google, and distinguish between two groups, those librarians who ‘hate or fear‘ Google, and those who ‘love it and embrace it‘ (p 1). I’m not sure it’s quite so black and white as that. I admit to using Google search and some Google tools every day, but that doesn’t blind me to their limitations. As research tools used independently and in isolation of other (more reputable) resources, their inability to assess and evaluate content makes them dangerous. But then, our prized bibliographic databases are beginning to index blogs and other grey literature, which begs the question: in the hands of an inexperienced user, are databases really so much better than Google?

So what next? I don’t support Tara Brabazon’s notion that we should ‘ban’ students from using Google and Wikipedia — anyone who experienced a single sex education knows that banning something only makes it more desirable. Nor am I (obviously) going to advocate that we abandon millennia of knowledge and let the culture of amateurship prevail. That way, danger and the dark ages lie.

Google Books is far from perfect. As this tongue-in-cheek post from TechCrunch notes, the scanning is not always of particularly good quality, and Campus Technology argues that the product is nowhere near ready for general use. However, when there’s a growing tendency for students to only seek fast, easy web-based access to information, surely there is some value in a service that provides online access to books, the original information container? The majority of books go through at least some editorial process, even to the level of peer review. We worry about the inability of inexperienced users to evaluate resources, but sitting around lamenting the rise and rise of Google and Wikipedia isn’t going to help. We need to be proactive, and one of the ways we can do this is to encourage our users to delve into books. And if this happens online, with the assistance of a keyword search, so be it.

* ‘Books are the legacies that a great genius leaves to mankind, which are delivered down from generation to generation as presents to the posterity of those who are yet unborn.
Joseph Addison

Further reading:

Update: I’m so glad this wasn’t a class assignment, because I failed. Here’s the text I referenced:

Miller, W., & Pellen, R. M. (2006). Introduction : libraries and their interrelationships with Google. Libraries and Google. Binghamton, NY, USA: Haworth Information Press.


A blessed LibraryThing it is …*

26 November 2007

I’ve already talked at length about the constant preoccupation of our profession with image, so rest assured that I’m not going to do it again (at least not in this post). Instead, I’m going to discuss the one love that binds us all together … the one word that gives our profession (and place) its name … the objects with which users will always associate us …

Books.

Despite all (misguided) attempts to portray librarians as sexy young things obsessed with the web and social networking (shudder), I think it’s pretty safe to say that most librarians remain lovers of reading. Derek mentioned to me once that a young librarian of his acquaintance isn’t particularly interested in books; that’s the only reason I hesitate to say ‘all’ librarians love reading. To be honest, I can’t understand people who aren’t passionate about books. Taking pleasure in reading is reflective of a thirst for knowledge. My own thirst for knowledge shapes a list of books I want to read in the future that is comprehensive enough to provide fruitful entertainment for my retirement (expected to be a minimum of 40 years away).

For some time now, I’ve pondered the use of LibraryThing for maintaining my reading wishlist, instead of Excel. I see that the 23 Things LibraryThing task requires me to add ‘books I own or books I have read’ to my LibraryThing account, but I’m going to rebel. After all, this program is about making technology work for me, right? My LibraryThing ‘bookshelf’ (I don’t like that metaphor; I already have enough books to fill a whole house so a single bookshelf seems pretty paltry) is populated not with books I have read, but with books I’d like to read, some of which I own, most of which I don’t. I have a list of over 700 books at home but at the moment I’m at work, so these are just a sample. Many of them are recommendations I’ve garnered from my other 23 Things colleagues’ bookshelves, while others come from the plethora of good book review blogs I subscribe to daily.

The best of these book review blogs is definitely Blogging for a Good Book, which contains a daily title recommendation from the Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, United States. They ran a theme on apocalyptic novels last week, but the content varies and even includes some films and audio books. You can subscribe to the blog in a feed reader (as I do), or visit the site directly and use subject tags like graphic novel, magic realism or literary fiction to find a good read. Blogging for a Good Book is a wonderful resource both for blog readers around the world, and the Williamsburg Library as an institution. It provides an inspiring book club-like atmosphere for daily subscribers to encourage reading, discussion and debate, but it also acts as a showcase for the Library’s collection by providing links to each book’s entry in the catalogue.

(‘Books’, from Matt Carman’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence)

I’m quite happy with LibraryThing as a personal tool; it allows me to quickly search for a book and add it to my bookshelf with a single click. It also provides an interesting feature called ‘tagmashing’, which allows me to conduct a search on more than one tag term and combine it with another similar or even completely different term(s), which makes for some interesting results. An example from iLibrarian shows what happens when you mash fiction, horror and vampires and exclude books by Anne Rice. Here’s another one I’ve garnered from things sitting on my desk: red + time travel (my red mouse mat and the book I’m reading, in case you wondered if there’s a portal to other worlds right here …).

There are certainly downsides to LibraryThing, like the 200 book limit on a free account, which will prove to be a real problem for me down the track as I start to upload my whole wishlist. However, I think it’s an improvement on my previous not-particularly-friendly Excel spreadsheet system. It’s worth mentioning that I also trialled the Facebook application iRead for this purpose, but while I like that it places a picture of books I’m reading in my Facebook profile, because of privacy restrictions I can’t share my collection with people I haven’t added as friends. I suppose I should point out that I’m happy to discuss books with complete strangers, but not my personal life (excepting obviously that post about Sinead O’Connor).

I’m not sure about the use of LibraryThing as a substitute for an OPAC (online library catalogue), but as you can see, Los Gatos Public Library is putting LibraryThing for Libraries to good use, providing additional functions such as tagging and book recommendations within a traditional catalogue entry structure. Many librarians don’t like tagging (or other user-generated content, for that matter); they’re worried about a deterioration in the quality of keywords, and about users introducing spelling errors, swearing and vandalism to the taxonomy. These are valid concerns, but not reason enough to abandon the idea of user tagging altogether. Library of Congress subject headings, a controlled vocabulary that looks like this: Commerce — Australia — Social aspects — 1900-1945, are frequently not particularly self explanatory. At a time when users are becoming increasingly proficient at using keywords to expand or narrow their Google searches, we should be making an effort to adapt our tools to match new trends in information-seeking behaviour.

Other good book review blogs:

  • Paper Cuts
  • BOOK reMARKS
  • * ‘A blessed thing it is for any man or woman to have a friend, one human soul whom we can trust utterly, who knows the best and worst of us, and who loves us in spite of all our faults.’ – Charles Kingsley
    Blogger’s note: only books and pets will ever fit this category. Kingsley’s a dreamer.