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.

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There’s nothing (ig)noble in being superior to your fellow men (or women)

24 October 2007

You may have noticed that Doris Lessing won the £765,000 Nobel Prize for Literature a couple of weeks ago. According to the exchange rate this morning, the prize is worth $A1.76m. That’s phenomenal; Australian writers think they’ve hit the jackpot if they win the $42,000 Miles Franklin. However, it is worth noting that the Nobel Prize is a lifetime achievement award, unlike the £50,000 ($A115.432) Man Booker, which hinges on the success of a single publication.

I’ve never read a Doris Lessing work, but I admire her for being the oldest person ever to win the Prize (she’s 88) and only the eleventh woman to win in its 106-year history. She’s also won 16 other major international awards for works on topics as broad as communism, psychology, science fiction and Sufism (mystical Islam). I also admire her for her remarkable acceptance speech. Unlike Gwyneth Paltrow’s tearful Oscar script, or Günter Grass’s ‘Writers have always spat in the soup of the high and mighty’, this is what Doris Lessing said to reporters:

‘I can’t say I’m overwhelmed with surprise. I’m 88 years old and they can’t give the Nobel to someone who’s dead, so I think they were probably thinking they’d probably better give it to me now before I’ve popped off … I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I’m delighted to win them all. It’s a royal flush.’ (here and here)

I think she’s a bit of fun. She even has a MySpace profile.

In other prize news, Walt Crawford’s Cites and insights (PDF) drew my attention to an Australian librarian who has won the 2007 Ig Nobel Prize for Literature. The Ig Nobel Prize rewards (or shames) research that ‘first make[s] people laugh, and then make[s] them think’ (here). Glenda Browne was recognised for her article in ‘The definite article: acknowledging ‘The’ in index entries’, which appeared in The Indexer. Crawford notes that her work addresses a ‘legitimate’ concern, particularly in the case of online collections using sorting algorithms, but I can see that it might have limited appeal. For those who are interested, you can find the article here (PDF). For those who prefer a rollicking good read, I recommend the Thursday Next chronicles.

Further information
Past Nobel Prize acceptance speeches
Glenda Browne’s acceptance speech
A definite article on the definite article, The Guardian, 01 August 2006.


Engaging with Social Media in Museums

18 October 2007

I apologise for being a bit slack with my posts lately. I’ll try to make up for it with this report from an event I attended at Swinburne yesterday with Dana.

The Engaging with Social Media in Museums seminar was run by the Swinburne Institute for Social Research, which investigates subjects as diverse as social policy, media, youth, gender, housing, citizenship, immigration and public administration.

The Presenter
Dr Angelina Russo
Queensland University of Technology and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Creative Industries and Innovation

Dr Russo and her colleague Jerry Watkins will both be jointly appointed to the Swinburne Faculty of Design and the Institute for Social Research in early 2008, where they will begin work on a new ARC Linkage Project designed to:

1. Investigate innovative connections to social media networks by museums, through digital content, multimedia design and communication strategies
2. Advance creative engagement between museums and learners, information searchers and content creators
3. Lead debate within museums through reference to design, audience evaluation and cultural communication

The Project
New Literacy, New Audiences and runs in partnership with Museum Victoria, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, the Australian Museum and the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum at the Smithsonian in the United States. The project looks into how social media can be used to facilitate cultural participation. Its main goal is to see user-generated content presented alongside more authoritative content in a way that suggests ordinary people have something worthwhile to contribute to their own cultural heritage. The project’s researchers want to challenge the notion that the plethora of user-generated content available on the web devalues the authoritative content produced by established educational and cultural institutions. For more information on this argument, you might like to have a look at Andrew Keen’s controversial text The cult of the amateur: how today’s internet is killing our culture.

Social Media and Scholarly Research
The question was raised:
are cultural institutions losing ground to Web 2.0?
* The top 5 educational and reference sites in the US are not scholarly resources (Wikipedia, Answers.com, Dictionary.com, Yahoo! Answers)
* Google Scholar is Number 6
* Google Book Search is Number 7
* No educational institutions appear until Number 9

Web 2.0 Tools have Strategic Purposes
Through the 23 Things Project, we’re learning how to use Web 2.0 tools. Some of these have proved useful, and some (like Digg) relatively worthless. Some tools are appropriate for the library context, while others may be more useful for sharing personal anecdotes with family and friends. Most importantly, we’ve seen that we need to remain aware of when is appropriate to use them, and not try to replace perfectly effective channels of communication with Web 2.0 tools just for their novelty value.

Dr Russo and her team believe the following Web 2.0 tools might best fit each purpose:

Conversation Blogs, podcasts, vodcasts
Customisation Tags, bookmarks
Content Sharing Online audio, video, photo sharing
Co-creation Bespoke tools

Conversation
We’ve seen through the 23 Things Project that blogging and commenting on others’ blogs can be a great way to spark discussion, as it allows readers to communicate both with the blog author and with other readers. The ARC Project is looking at this process with a view to how we can align scholarly content (blog posts from subject authorities) with user-generated content (comments left by users).

Dr Russo used this entry from the Sydney Observatory Blog as an example of how this might be beneficial in an educational context. In the post, a circulating email hoax about the planet Mars brushing too close to Earth is debunked by a leading Sydney Observatory astronomer. The 137 comments from users show how they responded favourably to the trustworthy information, and to each other. The same blog provides an example of how user-generated content might be presented alongside content created by a subject authority without emphasising the barrier between the two. Some of these photos of a lunar eclipse were taken by professional astronomers, while others were contributed by amateur star gazers who took photos on their handheld digital cameras and mobile phones. As all images appear together in the blog post, neither style is presented as more ‘valuable’ than the other.

Customisation
Dr Russo used the Powerhouse Museum’s OPAC 2.0 Collection as an example of how user customisation might help develop a collection. According to Dr Russo, approximately 3% of a museum’s collection is on permanent display, leaving 97% rarely or never accessible to the public. To bridge this gap, the Powerhouse Museum has digitised their collection records and provided online access to most of their collection. The Museum published the OPAC 2.0 Collection without consulting curators, allowing them to assess the records after they were uploaded. A similar project at the Smithsonian where the curators were consulted first has failed to get off the ground. This example from the Powerhouse’s collection shows how users can add keywords to an object to help create a folksonomy. These user-generated subject keywords are designed to operate in conjunction with the more traditional museum collection taxonomy (see the numbered record list). Only 4% of users initially tagged items, but 50% of later hits came from these tags. This introduces the idea of a passive audience (the 96% who chose not to add tags) versus the active cultural participants who contributed to the database and helped other users find the content later.

Content Sharing
Museum Victoria ran the Biggest Family Album in Australia Project in 2004 to collect historical photos of everyday people doing everyday things. This was a unique opportunity for members of the community to contribute a piece of their own identity to the cultural record. Some of these photos were later digitised and made available online (here’s a charming example).

Co-creation
The example used was the Victoria and Albert Museum’s family history collection, which allows users to create a space for storing photos and ephemera related to their families. Arguably, a similar example is the Facebook Developers platform, which allows backyard programmers to create Facebook applications to share with their friends and the wider Facebook community.

More Information
If you’d like more information on this project, the blog is designed to keep project partners in touch with the community and each other, and to facilitate discussion. You can also read more about the grant or have a look at the plans for a workshop and conference in late February 2008.


Locked in a war of WordPress

11 September 2007

This is not the first time I’ve published. It’s not even my first experience with a blog. I’ve written a collaborative blog with friends, I’m a ‘regular correspondent’ on Derek’s ALIA Blog, I’m about to start writing for the Swinburne Library Blog, and I even want to add to the huge number of library professional blogs everyone wants to read but no-one has time for … least of all me.

This is probably testament to my obsession with seeing my own words in print. You might ask, what did every ego maniac do for a sense of fulfillment before it became so easy to publish online? The answer: we wrote to the Green Guide, which is entirely soulless and unromantic in online form, hence the need for some other kind of online forum.

This is my first experience with WordPress. In the past, I’ve always used Blogger, but I thought I’d use Swinburne 23 Things as an opportunity to present a more sophisticated-looking WordPress blog. Many people are sceptical of Blogger because it is now owned by Google, and any monopoly that so successfully manages to push everyone else out of the market must be worthy of scorn … Librarians in particular have a love/hate relationship with Google; yes, it has simplified the search mindset (why look it up in a reputable source when you can just Google it?), but a single search engine, however wealthy and powerful it might be, cannot put librarians out of a job. Instead of fighting Google, we should take advantage of the simplicity it has brought to the Web. And my advice to you is that this extends to Blogger. Use it.

WordPress may look pretty, but it allows next to no customisation. Users can’t edit the stylesheet underneath their blogs unless they pay for a CSS upgrade. Blogger, on the other hand, is extremely customisable. Users can have as little or as much involvement in the design layout of their blogs as they choose. This blog post even suggests that Blogger is just as good for professional blogs as personal ones. And what’s the point of a free blog if you can’t make it your own? Tim Berners-Lee never intended us to pay for the Web, especially for a tool that allows users both to read and edit the Web at the same time (part of his original design specifications for a Web browser).

I’m a bit of a Tim Berners-Lee fan. The only money he ever makes out of the Web is from the sale of his books. That means he makes a lot less from realising his utopian knowledge-sharing dream (the Web), which some conservatives consider the ultimate vehicle for committing crime, than this man makes from his consecutive jail terms.