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.

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Does anyone really want to talk to a librarian?

23 January 2008

This might sound like a desperate plea from my dwindling social life, but it’s actually part of a wider professional question: does social software belong in libraries?

I have a Facebook profile. I’ve had it for about 12 months now. It’s a novel idea for me—I didn’t get involved in any of the preceding ventures like Friendster or MySpace—but a friend of mine travelling overseas recommended it … and of course I bowed neatly to peer pressure.

2007 was a big year for Facebook, which began modestly at Harvard University as a means for freshmen to keep track of people they met in classes or dorms. In September 2007, Facebook recorded the third highest hit ranking on the Web, increasing not only in membership but also in user engagement and stealing some of the market share from arch rival MySpace. Facebook actually eclipsed MySpace in the UK, and the startup made steady progress to increase its presence in the rest of Europe in the second half of the year. In the United States, Stanford University began to offer Facebook development classes.

One of my fellow 23 Things bloggers found Facebook a great tool for keeping in touch with old work colleagues and getting to know new ones. I started at Swinburne in November 2006, and while only two of my old colleagues were on Facebook, I agree that it was good to share a little of my personality with my new colleagues to see how well we clicked (if you’ll pardon the pun). However, parading your personal life in front of work colleagues, particularly older and/or supervisory ones, is always going to be fraught with danger. Like Jane suggests, I try to be cautious about how openly I communicate on Facebook for fear of how my silly offhand remarks might be (mis)interpreted.

I don’t think it’s a bad idea for any of us to regard our online presence as though Big Brother (the Orwellian version, not Gretel Killeen … creepy) might be watching us. Dana, who declares that she has had more experience with social software than I, notes that Facebook has the most flexible privacy settings of any on the market. Yet there is no guarantee that this will continue to be the case; the Beacon debacle, which attempted to use profile data to generate targeted ads, confirmed this fear. Tom and Dana both delved sensibly into the topic of privacy early on in the 23 Things program, because they recognised the potential for inexperienced users to divulge too much information about themselves when creating online content. But I’d like to take a different tack.

A recent study from the United States indicated that almost 50 percent of the University of Michigan students surveyed would not want to contact a librarian via Facebook or MySpace for help with research. 14 percent believed it was ‘inappropriate’. One respondent even commented that ‘it’d be weird to contact a librarian that way‘. (That gave me a chuckle; it’s not everyone, after all, who would choose to ‘poke’ a librarian—only about 80,000 ‘poke’ at all).

Libraries have always been reluctant to openly market themselves; perhaps part of the students’ resistance is that, as Doug suggests, libraries appearing in Facebook and MySpace look like advertising. It’s certainly true that library services need to be proactive rather than reactive; the literature talks extensively of our collections moving from a ‘just in case’ to a ‘just in time’ model. But the truth is that these new collections, while not taking up space on the shelves, still require planning. Our staff and students might now have instant access to articles from a vast range of journals across a variety of disciplines, but this is no happy accident. Careful managing, budgeting and negotiation goes into providing such a magnificent suite of online serials.

Similarly, involving libraries in the social software phenomenon will also require careful consideration. We can’t just go out lobbying for users to join our spaces; they’ll feel harassed and resentful, like I do when someone tries to sell me something I don’t want to buy. We need our users to come to us willingly. Libraries have enough trouble appealing to the younger generation, without being accused of attempting to spy on their online lives.

Early last year, I attended a seminar with danah boyd, a leading researcher in the use of social software. Many of the attendees were secondary school teachers wondering, after seeing students post potentially compromising material online, how much it was safe or indeed appropriate to engage with their online activities. danah boyd cautiously recommended that concerned teachers build a simple Facebook or MySpace profile, then sit back and wait for students to add them as friends. She emphasised that teachers should definitely not attempt to ‘friend’ students themselves.

In an earlier post, I discussed my belief that mandatory installation of internet filters has the potential to irrevocably damage the bond of trust between parent and child. I acknowledge that parents and teachers have a vital role to play in the nurture of children’s values so I can see why they might be concerned about the ease of access to harmful content on the Web. However, teachers expect to maintain some level of privacy from their students outside school hours (I’ve been told that once you become a parent, there is no such thing as privacy, so I’ve left parents out of this debate), and I don’t think it’s unreasonable for students to expect the same courtesy. Students have no right to burst into teachers’ private residences uninvited, so surely teachers have no right to invade students’ online spaces outside school hours and attempt to moderate their behaviour?

It is questionable that librarians are obligated to play any role in the moral development of children. I think our role is chiefly to assist in the pursuit of knowledge (regardless of the perceived morality or immorality of that knowledge) and help break down barriers in access to information. We’re straying into dangerous territory if we try to assume any other kind of moral responsibility.

This puts us in a perilous position in online social environments. We look ridiculous if we try to make friends with students on their own terms, but we’re not interested in attacking their right to say and do what they like in their own online spaces. Librarians may want to use Facebook at a social level, but I don’t see why we should feel obligated to use it at a professional level too. By the same token, if I’m asked to struggle with the terrible interfaces of MySpace for the benefit of my users, I’ll do it, but I have no desire to risk having my intellectual property appropriated by posting my innermost thoughts online in a personal context. Librarians in an online social environment flounder somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea, and I think we’d be better just to swim away.

Alternatively I suppose we could start to desperately flog the profession as: Become a librarian and get paid to play on Facebook!

(‘No Facebook – Blessington St, St Kilda’, from avlxyz’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons License)

Other links:

  • 13 predictions for Facebook in 2008: read these at the end of the year and see how accurate they were, or whether in fact Facebook made it through the year at all
  • Facebook Easter eggs?  Facebook developers hide little bits of entertainment in their code
  • Building a social networking environment at the library: If you insist on getting involved, you should probably read this
  • Facebook and rapport: Some suggestions on how to involve libraries in social networking without compromising professionalism
  • 360Gadget: a Facebook application that allows you to subscribe to RSS feeds, access your POP mail account, search the web and watch YouTube, all from inside Facebook (assuming you want to spend even more time there)

Drum roll for the blogroll …

23 January 2008

It’s high time I gave you a glimpse into the best of my blogroll.

As I already subscribe to more blogs than I can ever possibly read, I didn’t tempt fate by searching Technorati for any more reading material to stash away for retirement. However, I did run a quick search on ‘librarian’, and unexpectedly found this entry, where a blogger who completed an online political ideology quiz notes the similarity of the words ‘libertarian’ and ‘librarian’. I made a brief comment to the effect of their similarity not only being skin deep, however I wouldn’t want anyone to think we’re too libertarian (refer to my earlier post on censorship).

(‘the library of congress : look something up, or just look up’,
from sandcastlematt’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons License)

I’ve supplied a link to subscribe to each of my most influential blogs via RSS, but I realise that it’s not the solution to everything. Some people prefer to read their RSS as email, while others even want to receive their updates via text message.

If, like me, you think RSS makes your life easier and you shudder when you find a frequently-updated website that isn’t using it, help is at hand. Feedity and Dapper allow you to create an RSS feed from any website’s URL. I’m using Feedity at the moment for one of my webcomics. It works perfectly, but Lifehacker suggests that Dapper has more flexibility and customisation options, so I might give that a go in the future.

International library blogs (or ‘the big ones’)

Information Wants to be Free is written by Meredith Farkas from Norwich University Library in the US. As Dana notes, Meredith is famous for her annual surveys of the library blog world (results from the latest one were published in Library Journal), and for being serious, informative and up-to-date. She is one of a series of what might be described as ‘professional library bloggers’.
Subscribe to Information Wants to be Free via RSS.

iLibrarian never fails to be interesting and accessible. It has a strong focus on the use of social software in libraries, and began the year well with this particularly good post on how to build the reader base of your blog.
Subscribe to iLibrarian via RSS
.

The LibrarianInBlack is Sarah Houghton-Jan from the Silicon Valley, a self-confessed ‘goth librarian’. She is particularly interested in the role of technology in the future of libraries. The only downside for me is that she’s very prolific (how can that be a bad thing?) so I struggle a bit to keep up with her posts.
Subscribe to LibrarianInBlack via RSS.

Lorcan Dempsey is Vice President and Chief Strategist of OCLC. As an Irish librarian who now lives in the United States, he brings a little variety to a sector dominated by North American librarians (and, of course, women). Lorcan Dempsey’s weblog comfortably marries sensible discussions about new technologies with traditional notions of library scholarship, then peppers it with a healthy dose of good humour.
Subscribe to Lorcan Dempsey’s weblog via RSS.

The Other Librarian is Ryan Deschamps from the Halifax Public Libraries system in Canada. It is not one of the most famous blogs on the scene, but I think it makes an interesting contribution to the genre, including practical advice on how to implement new technologies in public libraries within a limited budget.
Subscribe to The Other Librarian via RSS.

In her post on finding blogs of interest, Dana mentions that we often find new blogs to read through the other blogs we read and enjoy, so I think it’s only fair to mention that I came across Library Revolution through her. Library Revolution is Emily Clasper’s often hilarious take on the realities of working in a library. She is probably most famous for her controversial post on the minimum technological competencies for librarians.
Subscribe to Library Revolution via RSS.

librarian.net is Jessamyn West’s longrunning blog about technology and libraries. She’s something of an icon in library blogging circles, so I’ve included her on the basis of her influence, even though by her own admission she’s not to everyone’s taste. Jessamyn maintains an amazing collection of photos from libraries around the world, including some in Australia.
Subscribe to librarian.net via RSS.

Librarian Avengers is written by Erica Olsen, a user experience designer for Second Life (but please don’t hold that against her!). It’s a mixture of professional and personal musings in a style that’s witty, clever, and at times outright alarming. I’m a big fan of Erica’s historical lolz.
Subscribe to Librarian Avengers via RSS.

Library 2.0 : An Academic’s Perspective is maintained by Laura B. Cohen from University at Albany, State University of New York. It’s particularly interesting because most of the discussions on Library 2.0 (whatever that actually means … more in a later post) centre around public libraries, including the 23 Things program.
Subscribe to Library 2.0 : An Academic’s Perspective via RSS.

Australian library blogs (a small but interesting pool)

You might think I am just returning a favour, but in fact Dana’s user experience blog is one of my absolute favourites. I hadn’t even heard of usability and human-computer interaction before I started this job, but reading this blog makes me feel like an expert in a field that is absolutely essential to the development of any future library services. I don’t know how we ever got on without it.
Subscribe to Dana’s user experience blog via RSS.

Derek’s ALIA Blog is written by my boss, who also shoulders many other responsibilities, including the mantle of Vice President of the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA). This blog reminds me of Lorcan Dempsey’s weblog in its explorations of ethics, librarianship and linguistics. The Word of the Day segment is particularly interesting.
Subscribe to Derek’s ALIA Blog via RSS.

Librarians Matter is the work of Kathryn Greenhill from Murdoch University. It’s probably the foremost Australian library blog, with a strong focus on Murdoch’s use of Second Life in teaching and learning.
Subscribe to Librarians Matter via RSS.

As much as it pains me to say it (since Swinburne has its own Library Blog), Your Library@CSU is the best Australian academic library blog on the market. If the mission of a library blog is to communicate successfully with staff and students, and even to boldly attempt to reach a wider audience beyond the university walls, then this blog is astonishingly successful. I can only hope that this is part of the curriculum for Charles Sturt University’s postgraduate library courses. Some excellent features of this blog include highlights of new acquisitions, feedback about the library website, and the ability to tie current research to library collections.
Subscribe to YourLibrary@CSU via RSS.

Purely for amusement

Working in libraries, particularly in a face-to-face role, it’s vital to maintain a sense of humour. This is aided and abetted by a daily dose of webcomic Unshelved, which chronicles the saga of everyday experiences in a library that feels very familiar.
Subscribe to Unshelved via RSS.

If you feel as though the speed at which your library is embracing new technologies is too hectic, then relax and save money on therapy, because two blogs are here to help you. A Librarian’s Guide to Etiquette targets the ‘problem children’ of modern libraries, such as unhealthy obsessions with Second Life or Twitter, and sends them up in a biting style that would make Ambrose Bierce proud. Worth reading for the comments from disgruntled librarians alone …
Subscribe to A Librarian’s Guide to Etiquette via RSS.

Last but not least, the Annoyed Librarian , who really belongs in a class of her own. AL thankfully remains anonymous; she’s bitter and twisted and she wouldn’t get away without a law suit if the establishment knew who she was. AL is indiscriminate in her attacks; she rubs everyone up the wrong way. She’s like the kid in class who was brave enough to say everything that you thought but were too afraid to let out. A great antidote to the mass hysteria about ‘twopointopia’.
Subscribe to Annoyed Librarian via RSS.


The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas*

4 January 2008

I read a thought-provoking post on censorship on Derek’s ALIA Blog this afternoon. I wanted to respond, but the comment I drafted quickly became longer than Derek’s original post. I realise that ideally, all bloggers want comments so they know they’re being read, but I didn’t want to be one of those insensitive commentators who hijack people’s blogs for their own ends. So I’ve moved the discussion over here where any such rants of mine more rightfully belong. But Derek, please consider this a comment on your post!

Derek writes:

‘The Minister [Telecommunications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy] announced that the Government proposed to require all internet service providers to provide “clean feeds” – internet content that is “free of pornography and inappropriate material.” This would be mandatory for all households, schools and libraries.’

I read an article in The Age back in August that I felt completely misrepresented libraries’ attitudes towards internet censorship. Our (admittedly idealistic) belief that information should be freely accessible to all with as few barriers as possible was reduced to this borderline-defamatory (and undeniably inflammatory) remark:

‘Explicit pornography can be viewed in many Victorian public libraries — including the State Library — because some decline to install internet filters on the basis that it imposes overly strict censorship.’

It seems that Derek’s comments as ALIA Vice-President were taken particularly out of context. He stated (perfectly reasonably) that current filtering software is clumsy and often inhibits legitimate research, using the example of breast cancer to indicate how this might be problematic. The Age, however, seems to have translated this to ‘libraries are ambivalent towards protecting children from harmful content, and more worried about complaints from patrons regarding the quality of their net filters’.

Librarians should pride ourselves (and don’t worry, I regularly almost break my arm patting myself on the back) that libraries are one of the last bastions of true democracy. In the United States, librarians would rather go to jail than reveal the borrower records of their patrons. In libraries, we don’t discriminate against people on the basis of their gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, physical or mental capacity, or the colour of their skin. It’s a pity that we don’t always receive the same courtesies in return, but that doesn’t stop us putting our users first. We ask them what they want from our services, and we do our best to accommodate their wishes. Hell, our users said they wanted 24 hour access to the Library, so this year, that’s exactly what they’ve got!

Yet this vitriolic article suggests we librarians should hang our heads in shame. Usually ridiculed in popular culture for our perceived conservatism, librarians are depicted by The Age as sex-crazed, small-L liberals out to warp the minds of little children. One intelligent young woman of my acquaintance was so incensed by The Age‘s article that she wrote a letter to the newspaper criticising it. I wish I’d had the guts to do the same, to defend both my profession and my beliefs, but since I didn’t, I think it’s time I set the record straight.

I am utterly opposed to internet censorship, especially when the government attempts to mandate it. It’s not that I’m likely to be interested in any of the sites that parent groups and government ministers are attempting to block, but in a (so-called) Western democracy we don’t like to think that anything we do is censored (even though deep down, we know it is).

From a purely practical point of view, internet users always find ways to circumvent filters. The prime example of their uselessness is the $80m attempt by the previous government, which managed to defeat an Australian teenager for a grand total of 30 minutes. It made us a laughing stock throughout the world. Knowing this, why do both sides of the political spectrum (if one still believes there’s a difference between federal ALP and Liberal) continue to waste time and money on creating doomed filtering products? Doesn’t our government give us any credit for intelligence?

My parents didn’t often monitor what I read or watched on TV as a child. They taught me to judge for myself – if I saw something I wasn’t comfortable with, I looked away. Many would be horrified by this policy (especially as we had SBS!), but I still believe most of the harmful content on TV and the Web comes from news and current affairs bulletins. I am not a parent (important disclaimer), but I am a daughter, and I know what I value(d) most about my relationship with my parents, both then and now, is trust. The first thing parents lose when they start surreptitiously monitoring their children’s internet usage is that very valued commodity. Without trust and respect, any attempts to shape a child’s morality are ineffective, and frankly hypocritical.

Is it so far-fetched to think that a better use of time and resources is presenting children with a cleaner world, rather than attempting to hide them from the reality of the one we’ve made? Politicians who endorse warfare and commit troops to fight on one hand, cannot with integrity make grand plans to shield children from internet violence on the other. And while advertisements like the extremely degrading Nando’s pole-dancing mother commercial are allowed to remain on television, despite over 300 complaints to the Advertising Standards Board, because it is ‘extremely popular with our target audience, the great majority of whom understand and appreciate Nando’s irreverent sense of humour’, the government has no credibility whatsoever when it argues for compulsory filters to ‘protect children’. It’s a joke.

* ‘Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.’
A. Whitney Griswold, past president of Yale University.

Blogger’s note: Griswold was a smart man.


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.


    What’s wrong with being a librarian?

    14 November 2007

    I’ve never come across a profession so completely fixated on its own image as that of librarianship. Even now, for me choosing the word ‘librarianship’ is contentious and marked with a delicious hint of danger; I’m meant to call it ‘information services’ or ‘information management’ or ‘online content provision’ or something equally wanky. Yet I can’t get the image out of my head, from the first episode of the ABC‘s new comedy series The Librarians, of the fresh new paint on the window of the building, ‘Middleton Interactive Learning Centre’, and bluetacked underneath, a handwritten sign with a single, instantly-recognisable word … library.

    Of course, for anyone who’s ever visited Swinburne Library at Hawthorn, the facade of the Middleton building may have given you another (more institutionalised) chuckle …

    (‘Library of Swinburne University’, from WilLiao’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a restricted Creative Commons License)

    Accountants, historically plagued by the tag of ‘boring servant to the bourgeoisie’, are likely to be just as worried about their image in the media and in the hearts and minds of the people as librarians. But at least they’ve done something about it; those CPA adventurer ads are fantastic! What have librarians done about our situation? Prior to the series screening, there was mass panic about the effect The Librarians might have on our reputation, so much so that our professional association started a blog about the possible fallout. For God’s sake; the series is not even really about libraries; the library is just a convenient setting for a more extensive critique of the public service and the pervasive prejudice of middle Australia.

    Why were we worried? Is it because we librarians are dogged by the unfortunate stereotype of the unfashionably dressed, bespectacled, book-reading middle-aged female pedant with a penchant for telling people to be quiet? This is slightly better than another emerging film-derived stereotype … that of the dominatrix librarian (I strongly advise against running a Google search on that one …).

    The Librarians is just comedy. This has been my stance from the beginning. Of course, as anyone who has been watching the series will know, the only downside to my argument is that it’s not particularly funny comedy. Not like the wonderful British comedy The IT Crowd, aimed at our unfortunate colleagues in the IT department …

    Has The Librarians adversely impacted the image of librarians in popular culture? So far, I would say not. Frances O’Brien, head librarian, is a petty, vindictive, hysterical, small-minded, hypocritical witch, but I think most of the audience will have met people like her before (particularly if they’ve worked in the public service). I don’t think the 1 million plus people who watched the first episode of the series will immediately associate her behaviour with that of librarians. The notion that people are so easily manipulated that a single TV series can change the way they view libraries is typical of the academic superiority many people resent in librarians.

    Ultimately, library patrons are going to take us as they find us. That means that if we want it so badly, it’s our responsibility to change how we’re viewed, not the ABC’s.