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!


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.


Google : not to be trusted with the office*

4 February 2008

As directed by 23 Things task 14, I had a bit of a play with Google Docs this afternoon.

I’ve never really felt the need to use a web-based office suite before; the two places I am most likely to use a word processor, at work and at home, I have access to Microsoft Office. And while it’s hardly perfect (and very expensive if you’re a Mac user … which I used to be), it’s the standard and no-one seems to have written anything good enough to replace it yet (I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds OpenOffice a chore).

A recent US study of 600 PC users found that 73 percent of the respondents had never heard of Google Docs, and 94 percent had never tried a web-based productivity suite at all. I wasn’t surprised that so few people had used an online word processor; there are many perfectly valid reasons for refraining. Along with those who see no place in their lives for an online suite, there are also those (understandably) concerned with the overwhelming problem of privacy when storing anything online, especially with Google (Dana discusses this far more eloquently than I could). As Adam Ostrow at Mashable notes, companies will be reluctant to allow their private business to be shared on Google Docs until their doubts over who owns and has access to posted content can be assuaged.

I was, however, surprised that so few of the people surveyed had heard of Google Docs. Perhaps it is because there are a number of rival online office suites available, most notably Zoho, ThinkFree and now Buzzword (a new flash-based Adobe product). MakeUseOf.com is not alone in preferring Zoho to all the others. Interestingly, the results of a Lifehacker user poll suggest that users sometimes swing towards Google Docs because they already having a Google account, even though Zoho provides a number of extra features.

While I’m sure it adequately serves its purpose, personally I’m uninspired by Google Docs — it doesn’t seem to offer me anything new. Sure, it allows me to edit documents in HTML or WYSIWYG mode, but so do WordPress and Blogger. I was interested to see that at least one person is writing a book in Google Docs, but since my best writing ideas usually come when I’m not in front of my computer, that’s not a valid reason for me to convert from Microsoft to Google (a bit like the choice between Liberal and ALP these days …)

That said, I really like the Google spreadsheet function. I’ve never enjoyed using Excel as much as the rudimentary spreadsheet bundled in AppleWorks on my old iBook. One of my chief complaints with Excel is that I believe a frequently-used function like Sort should have a keyboard shortcut, as it did in AppleWorks (sadly discontinued), or at least not be part of a multi-step process. I was pleased to see that Google’s spreadsheet remedies this problem — users  simply click on a horizontal bar above the second row to sort in chronological or reverse chronological order.

The Google charts are quite attractive too (these are some metrics statistics I’ve been monitoring for a little while now):

Number of Swinburne pubs chart

There may not be as many formatting choices as there are in Excel, but the results are neat, precise and professional. Given the quality of the spreadsheeting software, I’m hardly surprised that Google Docs spreadsheets have proved slightly more popular than the word processor. And why not, when they can help you improve your (chess) game?

Despite its potential usefulness to Swinburne Library staff, the presentation feature recently added to Google’s online office suite is not covered in the 23 Things tasks. I had a look at it anyway. Users can create an entirely new presentation or upload slides from an existing (Microsoft) Powerpoint file. It’s easy to publish presentations online (although these are naturally hosted by Google and therefore subject to those eternal questions about privacy) or to embed them in a blog as a slideshow — again, provided one uses Blogger and not WordPress. Since I unfortunately can’t show you here, for help publishing a Google presentation on your website, I recommend consulting this post from trusty technology advice blog Lifehacker.

Further reading

* ‘Anybody who wants the presidency so much that he’ll spend two years organizing and campaigning for it is not to be trusted with the office.
David Broder.


To map out a course of action requires courage*

1 February 2008

I have a confession to make. I have absolutely no sense of direction. I’ve always known this; my family has always known this. In the past I preferred that no-one else knew, but I think it’s time to ‘fess up.

This is probably the worst example so far of my utter incompetence:

Where we should have gone: Moonee Ponds to Richmond
Where we went: Moonee Ponds to Richmond, via Brunswick

I’ve also been from Kew to Hawthorn before, via Balwyn. It’s even more embarrassing when I’m the only native Melburnian in the car, and it’s actually one of my companions from New Zealand who realises we’re going the wrong way.

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

There’s not a lot I can do about my problem. Like most faults, apparently it’s genetic and I inherited it from my grandmother. But I always make sure I plan my trips in advance. And, most importantly, I always take a map.

In the past, I used streetdirectory.com.au, which is wonderful because it utilises the Melways maps that most Melburnians find instantly recognisable, as well as showing detailed public transport routes. The alternative, whereis.com, generates a pretty crude map, and even gets the capitalisation of my suburb wrong. However, both whereis.com and streetdirectory.com.au require users to buy their maps to embed in a website. And why should we do that when we have Google to help us get from here to there?

Google Maps is still fine-tuning the detail on its Australian maps, but it promises a great service. Google Maps users can now use custom icons to mark important spots on their maps. Using the MyMap feature, US and Canadian users can add a ‘mapplet’ to overlay customisable weather data on their maps. Google provides prepared code for users to cut and paste to their websites; as a consequence, many commercial, educational and personal websites now incorporate Google Maps. Libraries such as the Moraine Valley Community College Library embed  maps in their websites to guide students and staff to local places of interest.

You’ll have noticed that despite the relative ease of embedding maps, there are none in this post. Unfortunately, WordPress can’t interpret the code used to display Google Maps in (Google) Blogger, and the plugins available to remedy this problem only work with hosted WordPress.org blogs, not WordPress.com blogs. Disappointing, and another strike against WordPress, but the cynical might argue that it’s another way that Google makes sure its products dominate the market.

A fellow 23 Things blogger lavishes praise on Google Maps for mobile, explaining how he could help some lost people by looking up the address they sought on his mobile phone. As for me, I have really lousy eyesight, and I’d rather not attempt to discern anything on a tiny, fingerprint-smudged screen, especially not a detailed map. I know it’s a retrograde notion, but there are some things that are just better in print.

Of course, Google is famous for recycling content (to put it as nicely as possible), and Google Maps certainly follows this mantra. While it’s useful to know that Google Maps can display Google Books, YouTube and Flickr content on maps, I would be caught very much offguard if it were my content being recycled. As an example, following my post on Technorati, I ran a quick Google search on ‘libodyssey’ to see if I’d become an overnight sensation. Of course I hadn’t, but you could have knocked me down with a feather when I found my Flickr photos in the top-ranked results, where they’re being used by a travel site to promote the Apollo Bay region! It’s important to note that there is nothing illegal afoot here; I licensed all my public photos under a Creative Commons Licence and certainly didn’t exclude commercial usage. I should in fact be flattered, but I was nonetheless surprised. Those who claim to be privacy conscious should be aware that nothing is ever simple with Google; Amazon’s Kindle reader may use Google Maps to tell you where you are, but if it can share that data with you, it can share it with other people, too.

(‘Anagram Transport Map’, from woowoowoo’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence)

Beware of this map; it could lead you up the garden path.

* ‘Whatever you do, you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to the end, requires some of the same courage which a soldier needs.
Ralph Waldo Emerson.


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.