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 blessed LibraryThing it is …*

26 November 2007

I’ve already talked at length about the constant preoccupation of our profession with image, so rest assured that I’m not going to do it again (at least not in this post). Instead, I’m going to discuss the one love that binds us all together … the one word that gives our profession (and place) its name … the objects with which users will always associate us …

Books.

Despite all (misguided) attempts to portray librarians as sexy young things obsessed with the web and social networking (shudder), I think it’s pretty safe to say that most librarians remain lovers of reading. Derek mentioned to me once that a young librarian of his acquaintance isn’t particularly interested in books; that’s the only reason I hesitate to say ‘all’ librarians love reading. To be honest, I can’t understand people who aren’t passionate about books. Taking pleasure in reading is reflective of a thirst for knowledge. My own thirst for knowledge shapes a list of books I want to read in the future that is comprehensive enough to provide fruitful entertainment for my retirement (expected to be a minimum of 40 years away).

For some time now, I’ve pondered the use of LibraryThing for maintaining my reading wishlist, instead of Excel. I see that the 23 Things LibraryThing task requires me to add ‘books I own or books I have read’ to my LibraryThing account, but I’m going to rebel. After all, this program is about making technology work for me, right? My LibraryThing ‘bookshelf’ (I don’t like that metaphor; I already have enough books to fill a whole house so a single bookshelf seems pretty paltry) is populated not with books I have read, but with books I’d like to read, some of which I own, most of which I don’t. I have a list of over 700 books at home but at the moment I’m at work, so these are just a sample. Many of them are recommendations I’ve garnered from my other 23 Things colleagues’ bookshelves, while others come from the plethora of good book review blogs I subscribe to daily.

The best of these book review blogs is definitely Blogging for a Good Book, which contains a daily title recommendation from the Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, United States. They ran a theme on apocalyptic novels last week, but the content varies and even includes some films and audio books. You can subscribe to the blog in a feed reader (as I do), or visit the site directly and use subject tags like graphic novel, magic realism or literary fiction to find a good read. Blogging for a Good Book is a wonderful resource both for blog readers around the world, and the Williamsburg Library as an institution. It provides an inspiring book club-like atmosphere for daily subscribers to encourage reading, discussion and debate, but it also acts as a showcase for the Library’s collection by providing links to each book’s entry in the catalogue.

(‘Books’, from Matt Carman’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence)

I’m quite happy with LibraryThing as a personal tool; it allows me to quickly search for a book and add it to my bookshelf with a single click. It also provides an interesting feature called ‘tagmashing’, which allows me to conduct a search on more than one tag term and combine it with another similar or even completely different term(s), which makes for some interesting results. An example from iLibrarian shows what happens when you mash fiction, horror and vampires and exclude books by Anne Rice. Here’s another one I’ve garnered from things sitting on my desk: red + time travel (my red mouse mat and the book I’m reading, in case you wondered if there’s a portal to other worlds right here …).

There are certainly downsides to LibraryThing, like the 200 book limit on a free account, which will prove to be a real problem for me down the track as I start to upload my whole wishlist. However, I think it’s an improvement on my previous not-particularly-friendly Excel spreadsheet system. It’s worth mentioning that I also trialled the Facebook application iRead for this purpose, but while I like that it places a picture of books I’m reading in my Facebook profile, because of privacy restrictions I can’t share my collection with people I haven’t added as friends. I suppose I should point out that I’m happy to discuss books with complete strangers, but not my personal life (excepting obviously that post about Sinead O’Connor).

I’m not sure about the use of LibraryThing as a substitute for an OPAC (online library catalogue), but as you can see, Los Gatos Public Library is putting LibraryThing for Libraries to good use, providing additional functions such as tagging and book recommendations within a traditional catalogue entry structure. Many librarians don’t like tagging (or other user-generated content, for that matter); they’re worried about a deterioration in the quality of keywords, and about users introducing spelling errors, swearing and vandalism to the taxonomy. These are valid concerns, but not reason enough to abandon the idea of user tagging altogether. Library of Congress subject headings, a controlled vocabulary that looks like this: Commerce — Australia — Social aspects — 1900-1945, are frequently not particularly self explanatory. At a time when users are becoming increasingly proficient at using keywords to expand or narrow their Google searches, we should be making an effort to adapt our tools to match new trends in information-seeking behaviour.

Other good book review blogs:

  • Paper Cuts
  • BOOK reMARKS
  • * ‘A blessed thing it is for any man or woman to have a friend, one human soul whom we can trust utterly, who knows the best and worst of us, and who loves us in spite of all our faults.’ – Charles Kingsley
    Blogger’s note: only books and pets will ever fit this category. Kingsley’s a dreamer.