The end is the beginning is the end

2 March 2008

Well, I never said it wasn’t going to take a while. In fact, I’m pretty sure I said I’d be at the back of the fleet, ambling along at my own pace. Many of my fellow travellers crossed the finish line well before Christmas, whereas I only just got around to enjoying my movie tickets. Nevertheless, here I am at Task 23, which asks me to reflect on the 23 Things experience.

I’ll admit, I made some careful decisions about this project at the outset. As one of the younger and most recently qualified staff members, I’m already familiar with many of the tools included in the program. I could easily have elected not to participate, but frankly I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I’m still fresh and enthusiastic enough about my profession to believe ‘I don’t get paid to do this’, ‘I’m not going to get anything out of this’, and my personal favourite, I didn’t get a masters degree to do this will never be valid arguments for non-participation.

In fact, I’ve gained a lot from 23 Things. It has given me the chance to get to know my colleagues better. I tend to be tied to my desk most of the time, so the chance to meet others, even virtually, has been fantastic. I didn’t expect the level of camaraderie that grew across campuses, floors, units and levels, but I think even if that were the only outcome of the program, it would be an excellent one. Writing a blog can be a bit like staring into an abyss; it’s difficult to know what the target audience is, or indeed if anyone is reading the blog at all. So thank you very much to those who left comments on my posts or stopped for a chat. Like most of you, there are times when I wondered if this project really deserved the hours I devoted to it, but your feedback has motivated me to continue when I felt like giving up.

It was a pleasant surprise to discover that several of the tools I hadn’t used before could actually help me manage my online life. LibraryThing will help me keep track of the books I want to read, and share my love of reading with others. While I might not use it directly in a work context, it will certainly make my journey to and from Swinburne much more enjoyable. If someone finally invents a day with more than 24 hours in it, I may even be able to take advantage of the recommended reading other LibraryThing users provide.

A little time between drinks and a change of web browser has helped me to appreciate the storage and sharing capabilities of (though remembering where to put the dots is still a challenge). I was really glad when one of my colleagues found something useful in my shared bookmarks. Ironically it wasn’t one of the many hundreds of library– or institutional repository-related resources I’ve been collecting for over a year, but a chilli chocolate cupcake recipe I hadn’t even meant to share. (Who would have thought it — I’m a person as well as a librarian!) Actually, I also recommend the rose white chocolate mousse and baklava recipe, though that’s a lot of work for a 5cm x 5cm snack.

I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t appreciate the need for authority in research works, but depending on the style of writing needed, its formality, purpose and target audience, I would consider using Technorati as a quick background research tool. While fun blogs like I can has cheezburger will always slip through on the basis of their popularity, the ranking scale of Technorati blogs should act as a basic mark of quality in areas of serious research. Blogs like Information wants to be free have a high Technorati ranking because other blogging librarians have linked to them; this alone points to their reliability. After all, some researchers have discovered that blogging is a good means of disseminating their research quickly and widely before their articles reach the scholarly press. Blogging is also a good means of creating and controlling an online profile — something that most employers will now look for in a candidate.

These are all wonderful outcomes, and in each blog post I’ve discussed the possible applications of these tools to a library setting. Hopefully anyone who enjoyed blogging for 23 Things will consider writing for the Swinburne Library Blog, as I will when I get my life back.

While 23 Things is a resounding success (on buy-in alone) when measured against most staff development programs, unfortunately not everyone has enjoyed the experience. Many of my colleagues evidently found it a trial. I’m not going to link to any of their posts for their own privacy, but I want it to be clear that I’ve read and appreciated them.

As a result, I have some suggestions for why the program almost failed:

  • The time factor: Right back at the launch of the program, someone suggested that the tasks would take fifteen minutes each. Hardly. I’ve been assured by one of the committee members that this was never the case, but several of us remember hearing it so I doubt we all dreamed it. Even people who wrote the bare minimum in their posts (as opposed to my excessively long essays) spent several hours on each task. One of my colleagues noted that staff in customer service areas were made to feel guilty for wasting time if they sat down to complete a 23 Things task. The same colleague observed that on this basis, the only way for many staff to complete the program was to perform the tasks outside work hours. One staff member wrote her final task after her contract ended. I know I lost many weeks at work trying to cram in all the tasks, and since I tried not to let the program interfere too much with my (real) work, that meant sacrificing a lot of time outside work as well.
  • People felt out of their comfort zone and abandoned: Some of the tasks (particularly the wiki task) were very challenging for people with limited technological experience. The digg task left many people wondering how porn, silly videos and other offensive material related to libraries, and they didn’t feel that the 23 Things committee supported them in finding out. A blog post, and an audio recording of someone reading out the blog post, is not terribly helpful when you’re confused. This was felt especially strongly over Christmas, when many of the support staff were on leave.
  • The schedule for tasks was questionable: Why did we set up a blog, then abandon it to play with image generators and other ephemeral tools, then come back later to subscribe to a feed reader? It seems illogical to me. Blog and feed reader tasks should all have been together. Splitting them up over several weeks meant that many of my colleagues wrote off blogging as a pointless method of communication; they thought they had to keep visiting a blog to find out if anything new had been posted. I didn’t feel it was my place to encourage them to skip ahead to discover why this wasn’t the case, but I can understand their frustration.
  • The participation progress chart damaged morale: 23 Things was touted as a ‘self-paced’ program that would stretch on for months to allow full time, part time and part year staff all to have a chance to complete the tasks. This was a relief for those of us who don’t really have a quiet period over the summer, and those who aren’t at work at all. Yet round about the halfway mark, a wiki page cropped up that documented our progress for all to see. It was an invasion of privacy — suddenly everyone knew how well or how poorly we were doing — and for those who were struggling, seeing themselves at the back of the pack was frankly demoralising. One colleague was very disappointed to be ‘cast into the ranks of the “tardies“‘, and I agree that it hurt me at the time too. The star chart meant that people who had actually put some time and effort into the program could see that those who wrote ‘I did the task’ were credited with the same number of points as they were. Next time, keep it private.

I’m sorry that this all sounds so negative, but for the sake of any future programs I’ve chosen to be very honest. This blog is a product of 23 Things, and for me it is both the best outcome and the ultimate test. Can I keep it going? It has been a great forum for me to spell out my thoughts  on information and the future of libraries, and to invite other professional colleagues to comment or debate with me. Most of my traffic so far has come through the 23 Things website, but my WordPress statistics indicate that I’ve had at least one click from an Australian blog register I joined several weeks ago. Plus now that there is actually some content on this blog, I’m going to take the plunge and join the Libraries Interact Australian library blogroll.

And perhaps I might expand my audience even further now, since I just discovered that I’ve had Google indexing turned off for the last six months (which might explain why no-one can find me … least of all me).

Best of luck, everyone!


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?


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.

Google is not the enemy … ignorance is

29 January 2008

I’ve made this claim before and I stand by it:
Google is not the enemy … rather, an overbearing friend.

Yet sometimes I wonder if I’m a lone wolf crying into the night. A rather dogged media and communications professor in the UK has been attacking Google and Wikipedia, describing them as ‘white bread for young minds’, and claiming that ‘easy access to information has dulled students’ sense of curiosity’.

I have a tendency to take things far too much to heart. So as I read this Times article, I felt like Tara Brabazon’s argument came across as a personal attack. In criticising streamlined access to information, she struck a bayonet through the heart of what it means to be a librarian. Everything we do, either on the Web or through our physical collections, is designed to help patrons gain access to material that might otherwise have been restricted by cost, time, geography, and/or access to PCs. In fact, we exist to facilitate eas(ier) access to information.

Professor Brabazon argues that academics ‘can no longer assume that students arrive at university, knowing what to read and knowing what standards are required of the material that they do read.’ My question is this: did they ever? Undergraduates are called ‘freshmen’ in the US for a very good reason — they’re fresh from school, naive, and ill-prepared for the mind broadening and liver damage that comes hand in hand with higher education.

The Professor claims that reliance on the Web in university education has ‘the effect of “flattening expertise”’, as ‘every piece of information … [is] given the same credibility by users.’ I dispute this. If we’re really using social software as much as the proponents tell us, who wouldn’t be able tell the difference between a frivolous MySpace page and a reputable peer-reviewed journal? And if university students can’t tell the difference between scholarly information and a global-edit encyclopaedia, surely both academics and librarians have a responsibility to step in and assist?

Yet Professor Brabazon doesn’t see it this way. Despite her attachment to print material (she believes universities prefer digital formats because they’re a ‘cheap’ option … ’nuff said), Brabazon thinks libraries are ‘in decline’. (I challenge her, and anyone else with this attitude, to visit this building between 12pm and 4am in the lead-up to exams and still retain that viewpoint). Instead of mentorship and advice, Brabazon believes the solution to students’ apparent struggle with authority in their resources is to ban them from using Google and Wikipedia at all in their first year of study. How, I wonder, is she going to police that out of hours?

(‘Wikipedian protestor’, from xkcd.

One of the commentators on The Times article responded to Professor Brabazon’s opinion with this very reasonable argument: ‘If your [sic] at university then you hopefully have a mind so if students decided just to use wikipedia then that is there [sic] fault and I hope it would show up in the marks.’ Unfortunately, as you see, the commentator in question struggles with correct grammar, punctuation, gender agreement and capitalisation, which sadly devalues his argument when speaking out against academic snobbery. He, of course, is not alone. This response is along the same lines but a little more polished.

It’s obvious that this article struck a chord with me, even though I should have been able to laugh it off. Academics are incredibly intelligent people, well beyond the scope of the rest of us, yet some, like Professor Brabazon, clearly lack common sense. And there’s a certain irony, too, not only in the existence of a Luddite ‘media and communications’ professor, but also in the fact that the professor’s negativity alienates a large chunk of her potential audience. Librarians rigorously encourage students to look beyond Google and Wikipedia for valuable resources. Yet the Professor’s unfortunate manner means these normally mild mannered people have taken offence. I hope I speak for other librarians when I say that the solution to this omnipresent problem is not to ban Google, but to make it work for us by repackaging the kind of scholarly content we want our users to find, and letting Google index it. If librarians and academics are dissatisfied with the content provided by Wikipedia, the easiest solution is not to ban it, or to ignore it and whine about students using poor quality resources, but to fix inaccurate information ourselves. All anyone needs is a login.

Oh, and on a final (random) note, if you believe everything you see on current affairs shows (and sadly, too many people do), then you’ll know that all the food we eat is full of growth hormones, which clearly make us smarter. Especially chicken … and white bread.

Research : the only time I don’t advocate contempt for authority

21 January 2008

I had a look at Technorati today. Technorati is a search engine designed to search and rank blog posts, and it works by analysing ‘outgoing’ and ‘incoming’ links, or the links that bloggers make to other blogs, videos and webpages. I found the ‘authority’ ranking system very interesting. It measures how often a single blogger (Person A) has been linked to by other bloggers (Persons B through Z), and since it only records one hit for Person A for each referring blog, rather than multiple hits from the same blog (eg Person B’s blog), it seems to be very accurate.

Given that I work in an area of librarianship that concentrates solely on the culture of scholarly publishing, the notion of ‘authority’ resonates strongly with me. When we help students find the right kinds of resources for their assignments, rather than relying on tenuous Google searches and Wikipedia, we are teaching them about authority.

To researchers, publishing in an authoritative journal or book could make or break their careers. Being able to say that they have published in the most prestigious journals in their discipline (eg The Lancet for medical researchers, and Nature for scientists) could mean the difference between consideration for a fellowship or research project, or spending five more years in the laboratory working as someone else’s dogsbody. Yet it’s not only the name of the journal in which a researcher publishes that indicates the quality of the research output. A crucial factor in a work being considered authoritative is the notion of academic peer review.

There has been much interesting discussion across a variety of disciplines on the idea of blogs as scholarly literature. Walt Crawford opened the discussion in the library sphere by asking not whether library blogs are scholarly, but whether in fact it matters, since they represent ‘the most compelling and worthwhile literature in the library field today’. He acknowledges that we’ve ‘grown to rely on liblogs [sic] as … [our] primary sources for contemporary library issues over the last two or three years.’

Sure, blogs are not a form of scholarly publication. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can start a blog (I did), which is of course why academics sneer at them as a method of dissemination. They generally frown upon user-generated content, because it attacks the very heart of their existence. In the past, only academics published their thoughts, opinions and discoveries. Now everyone can do it, surely the notion of publication is devalued, even defiled?

Yet the mere existence of a service like Technorati indicates the fact that bloggers can, and do, rate their peers according to the quality of their work. The only question is, what sort of content is being rated?

Library blogs may not be a traditional method of scholarly publication, but if the most useful, interesting and important discussions between library professionals around the world are happening on blogs, then library blogs are undeniably a significant form of scholarly communication in our profession. The problem here is not with content, but with definition. Scholarly publication refers to any traditional method of research dissemination, such as journal articles, conference papers and books. The definition of scholarly communication, on the other hand, stretches beyond the limitations of traditional print publication to take into account new forms of Web-based publication, such as open access repositories.

Lorcan Dempsey (ironically) suggests that we may need to redefine our notion of ‘grey literature’ (traditionally newspapers, magazines and ephemeral, non-scholarly material) to take into account the overwhelming presence of ‘brightly colo[u]red and shining’ library blogs, and the comparatively low standard of ‘dull’, ‘dreary’, published library research.

Some of this debate might have gone a little too far. For example, a draft list of new metrics for scholarly authority to help us assess the scholarly status of blog posts includes comparing the:

‘[t]ypes of tags assigned to it, the terms used, the authority of the taggers, [and] the authority of the tagging system.’

The whole value of ‘tagging’ as a concept is that it’s not governed by a controlled vocabulary–indeed, it shouldn’t be governed at all. And even if we take on board some of the other arguments proposed for measuring the quality of a blog post, such as the affiliation of the author or the percentage of the document that has been quoted elsewhere, individual bloggers will be disadvantaged by the inherent biases of the Web.

Technorati rankings are certainly not immune to these problems. Technorati currently indexes over 100 million blogs, but bloggers need to sign up for an account if they want their data harvested. I ran a quick vanity search on ‘libodyssey‘, not expecting to find anything (since I’m not signed up), but in fact I did, and it led me to this:

Libodyssey: A new blog written by one of my fellow 23 things travellers.  This blog has few posts, but is one of the most engagingly written blogs (of any genre) that I read.

When a fellow blogger, whose work really is authoritative, gives me such a charming review, it really encourages me to get a wriggle on and write some more posts. Thanks, Dana!

Update: Those following this discussion may be interested in this Chronicle of Higher Education article.
Further update: I just discovered an international conference devoted to research into changes in grey literature. The mind boggles.