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 del.icio.us (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!


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