Don’t be scared; I’m just a librarian

27 February 2008

I am amazed at the plethora of potential uses for YouTube, even for those like me who have never created or shared a film. Thanks to the tip from my 23 Things colleague, Sara, I now use YouTube to preview music from new artists so I can decide whether to go to their concerts or buy their albums.

Librarians are big fans of YouTube, so there are plenty of library videos to be found for 23 Things Task 20. Personally, I like this spoof from Library videos – the best of …  blog (thanks times23) about how overdue library books give this librarian the blues:

I have a weakness for the blues, especially when the song includes the desperate plea ‘Don’t be scared; I’m just a librarian’. I haven’t had to use that line yet, but no doubt there will come a time …

Blogger’s note: Incidentally, while librarians may be fans of YouTube, unfortunately the creators of WordPress are not. For those who want to embed videos in WordPress posts, I recommend this YouTube help video; I would have been in trouble without it.

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Library 2.0, or why I’m not running off to join the cult just yet

26 February 2008

I’ve been particularly interested in reading everyone’s posts on Library 2.0. Like any radical movement, Library 2.0 has its sceptics and its fanatics. There is a very lively Ning community, a large bibliography on the subject by librarians who can’t get enough of it, and there’s absolutely no chance you’ll attend a library conference this year without having to sit through at least one cringeworthy session on Library 2.0 and the mission to make libraries cool.

Yet the question remains: how radical is Library 2.0 really?

Let’s start with definitions. A quick review of the literature suggests that the boundaries are very broad, and very poorly defined.

Back in December 2005, Sarah Houghton-Jan had this cheerful opinion:

‘Library 2.0 simply means making your library’s space (virtual and physical) more interactive, collaborative, and driven by community needs …  The basic drive is to get people back into the library by making the library relevant to what they want and need in their daily lives … to make the library a destination and not an afterthought.’

But by January 2006, she was starting to sound a bit jaded:

‘Perhaps Library 2.0 is just one of many perpetual regularly scheduled library-world wake up calls to re-focus on the users and what they want.’

The same year, Meredith Farkas declared herself a 2.0 sceptic:

‘Library 2.0 and Web 2.0 don’t exist. Web 2.0 is hype. Library 2.0 is just a bunch of very good ideas that have been squished into a box with a trendy label slapped on it.’

This remark put her at loggerheads with the fanatics, or ‘twopointopians‘, as the Annoyed Librarian pointedly describes them. There is a tendency for discussions on Library 2.0 to become very heated; whether or not ‘twopointopians’ are the ‘earnest, humorless librarians’ the Annoyed Librarian suggests, they nevertheless condemn anyone who doesn’t agree with their perspective as out of touch, afraid of change, and worse still — professionally negligent.

I don’t consider this a valid description of Meredith Farkas, who has (quite literally) written the book on social software in libraries. She is hardly averse to change, or to the role that technology might play in the libraries of the future. She recognises that many libraries have fallen behind:

‘There are plenty of libraries that never do surveys and that never ask their patrons what they think or if they’re happy. Some people have been teaching the same things in their information literacy classes for years, in spite of the fact that students aren’t using the same tools to do their research anymore.’

Michael Stephens’ popular library blog Tame the Web sits squarely at the other end of the spectrum — in the pro-Library 2.0 camp. Stephens looks at how several pro-Library 2.0 writers define the concept, and compares their assumptions with Wikipedia’s definition of Library 2.0. From the snapshot of the Wikipedia entry Stephens provides, we could just as easily be reading about Web 2.0, since the definitions are almost identical:

  • Beta is forever
  • A disruptive idea
  • Harness the long tail

What Meredith Farkas and other sceptics recognise, but the Library 2.0 champions don’t see, is that one of the biggest stumbling blocks for Library 2.0 is just that — the fuzzy term. An increasing number of library bloggers are beginning to repudiate the title ‘Library 2.0’ because they feel it has been hijacked, or ‘co-opted‘, by overzealous librarians and vendors:

‘the term Library 2.0 has been co-opted by a growing group of libraries, librarians, and particularly vendors to push an agenda of “change” that deflects attention from some very real issues and concerns without really changing anything … We’re blindly casting about for a panacea and it’s making us look like fools.’ (blyberg.net)

I would argue that the tag ‘2.0’ has always been meaningless rhetoric, no matter to which subject it is applied. Tim Berners-Lee, the originator of the Web, loathes the term Web 2.0, describing it as ‘a piece of jargon‘ so meaningless that ‘nobody even knows what it means‘. He argues that if Web 2.0 means user-generated content like blogs and wikis, then it still means ‘people to people‘, which is ‘what the Web was supposed to be all along‘.

People are sick of 2.0. Wikipedia earmarked the article on Library 2.0 for deletion in late 2006, claiming it was a neologism without substance. The entry was only saved by aggressive lobbying on the part of heavyweights like Jessamyn West, David Lee King, Karen G. Schneider, Bill Drew, Walt Crawford and the term’s originator, Michael Casey.

When we’re discussing a push towards involving users in decisions about the future of their own libraries, applying version numbers to successive waves of theory is patently ridiculous. It places an uneven focus on technology, which already sits on a pedestal in the eyes of twopointopians. Novelties such as gaming and social networking software can’t solve the crisis in the relationship between library and user. While we can’t hope to provide better services to our users without better technology, it is only the means to the end, and not the end itself.

Amanda at Data Obsessed believes that:

‘the important part of it [Library 2.0] is not the shiny technologies but the intention behind their implementation … those intentions are classic ones — perhaps those provided by Ranganathan.’

If you’re a librarian, it’s likely you’ve heard of Ranganathan, the early 20th century Indian librarian who wrote the seminal text Five laws of library science.

His laws are simple:

  1. Books are for use (so every library user should be able to access them)
  2. Every reader his or her book (every library should cater to a wide range of books for a wide range of users)
  3. Every book its reader (even the most unusual book in the collection will find a reader)
  4. Save the time of the reader (make searching for a book as quick and painless a process as possible)
  5. The library is a growing organism (if the library doesn’t grow and change, it will fail to meet its users’ needs)

Can we apply these rules to our libraries? Indeed, does Library 2.0 apply these rules to our libraries?

Back in 2004, Alireza Noruzi (correctly) wondered if Ranganathan’s laws could be related to the Web:

  1. Web resources are for use
  2. Every user his or her web resource
  3. Every web resource its user
  4. Save the time of the user
  5. The Web is a growing organism

Yes, technology can help us to achieve all five of Ranganathan’s goals. We can house larger quantities of digital material than we ever could with print, which allows us to cater to more users — those who can’t come into the library in person, those with a disability and those who speak languages other than English. We can use RSS feeds and social bookmarking sites to provide desirable content to our users, allowing them to pick and choose what suits them. If they desire it, we can even visit them in the online spaces they choose to inhabit. Best of all, we can use blogs to open up a two-way dialogue with our users, and to build communities of practice with others in the profession.

But there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered. What else do we need, aside from technology, to make this happen? Is Library 2.0 really a new release, or just a bug fix? What, if any, are the new features packaged in Library 2.0? And indeed, is the term ‘Library 2.0′ the only problem? If we just find a new name to describe the movement, will we be able to get on with combating the growing crisis in libraries?

Perhaps not. Meredith Farkas, who among other professions is a trained therapist, maintains that catch-all terms are misleading. Lumping everything that’s wrong with libraries under the heading Library 1.0 disguises the roots of the problem, and therefore prevents us from finding a cure. ‘Why do people like to squish things into these neat little boxes as if the world was meant to be that way?‘ she rues. ‘Web 2.0. Library 2.0. I don’t like labels and I don’t like boxes.’

Farkas argues that by continuing to squabble over the scope of Library 2.0, we are ‘focusing on the wrong things.’ She thinks we should ‘be more concrete‘ in the way we describe change to libraries, librarians and users. She maintains that the concept of Library 2.0 ‘seems a lot more pie-in-the-sky than teaching a group of librarians what a blog is, why it’s a good thing for libraries, and how they can start one.’

Of course, Farkas is right — not just that we should do away with the label of Library 2.0, but that we are wasting time thinking about it. The only reason we exist — the only reason we have ever existed — is to fulfil the information needs of our users. These needs might be explicit or implied, immediate or long-term, and the users we serve may be known to us or anonymous, but ultimately they are the only motivation for our existence. And if we’re not concentrating on serving them, whatever excuse we give, we’re failing.
A selection of perspectives on Library 2.0:


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.


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)

Sleeping and snoring in libraries

18 January 2008

I saw a quote today:

‘Learning sleeps and snores in libraries, but wisdom is everywhere, wide awake, on tiptoe.’ (Josh Billings)

Who hasn’t seen this at least once in their lives:

(‘Library visitor’, from umjanedoan’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons License)

We’ll need to work hard to dispel the myth that libraries are dead. Can we turn this on its head? Let’s try ‘libraries are coming to our users at their point of need, rather than expecting them to come to us, and that’s why wisdom is everywhere’.

Any comments?