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!

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Research : the only time I don’t advocate contempt for authority

21 January 2008

I had a look at Technorati today. Technorati is a search engine designed to search and rank blog posts, and it works by analysing ‘outgoing’ and ‘incoming’ links, or the links that bloggers make to other blogs, videos and webpages. I found the ‘authority’ ranking system very interesting. It measures how often a single blogger (Person A) has been linked to by other bloggers (Persons B through Z), and since it only records one hit for Person A for each referring blog, rather than multiple hits from the same blog (eg Person B’s blog), it seems to be very accurate.

Given that I work in an area of librarianship that concentrates solely on the culture of scholarly publishing, the notion of ‘authority’ resonates strongly with me. When we help students find the right kinds of resources for their assignments, rather than relying on tenuous Google searches and Wikipedia, we are teaching them about authority.

To researchers, publishing in an authoritative journal or book could make or break their careers. Being able to say that they have published in the most prestigious journals in their discipline (eg The Lancet for medical researchers, and Nature for scientists) could mean the difference between consideration for a fellowship or research project, or spending five more years in the laboratory working as someone else’s dogsbody. Yet it’s not only the name of the journal in which a researcher publishes that indicates the quality of the research output. A crucial factor in a work being considered authoritative is the notion of academic peer review.

There has been much interesting discussion across a variety of disciplines on the idea of blogs as scholarly literature. Walt Crawford opened the discussion in the library sphere by asking not whether library blogs are scholarly, but whether in fact it matters, since they represent ‘the most compelling and worthwhile literature in the library field today’. He acknowledges that we’ve ‘grown to rely on liblogs [sic] as … [our] primary sources for contemporary library issues over the last two or three years.’

Sure, blogs are not a form of scholarly publication. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can start a blog (I did), which is of course why academics sneer at them as a method of dissemination. They generally frown upon user-generated content, because it attacks the very heart of their existence. In the past, only academics published their thoughts, opinions and discoveries. Now everyone can do it, surely the notion of publication is devalued, even defiled?

Yet the mere existence of a service like Technorati indicates the fact that bloggers can, and do, rate their peers according to the quality of their work. The only question is, what sort of content is being rated?

Library blogs may not be a traditional method of scholarly publication, but if the most useful, interesting and important discussions between library professionals around the world are happening on blogs, then library blogs are undeniably a significant form of scholarly communication in our profession. The problem here is not with content, but with definition. Scholarly publication refers to any traditional method of research dissemination, such as journal articles, conference papers and books. The definition of scholarly communication, on the other hand, stretches beyond the limitations of traditional print publication to take into account new forms of Web-based publication, such as open access repositories.

Lorcan Dempsey (ironically) suggests that we may need to redefine our notion of ‘grey literature’ (traditionally newspapers, magazines and ephemeral, non-scholarly material) to take into account the overwhelming presence of ‘brightly colo[u]red and shining’ library blogs, and the comparatively low standard of ‘dull’, ‘dreary’, published library research.

Some of this debate might have gone a little too far. For example, a draft list of new metrics for scholarly authority to help us assess the scholarly status of blog posts includes comparing the:

‘[t]ypes of tags assigned to it, the terms used, the authority of the taggers, [and] the authority of the tagging system.’

The whole value of ‘tagging’ as a concept is that it’s not governed by a controlled vocabulary–indeed, it shouldn’t be governed at all. And even if we take on board some of the other arguments proposed for measuring the quality of a blog post, such as the affiliation of the author or the percentage of the document that has been quoted elsewhere, individual bloggers will be disadvantaged by the inherent biases of the Web.

Technorati rankings are certainly not immune to these problems. Technorati currently indexes over 100 million blogs, but bloggers need to sign up for an account if they want their data harvested. I ran a quick vanity search on ‘libodyssey‘, not expecting to find anything (since I’m not signed up), but in fact I did, and it led me to this:

Libodyssey: A new blog written by one of my fellow 23 things travellers.  This blog has few posts, but is one of the most engagingly written blogs (of any genre) that I read.

When a fellow blogger, whose work really is authoritative, gives me such a charming review, it really encourages me to get a wriggle on and write some more posts. Thanks, Dana!

Update: Those following this discussion may be interested in this Chronicle of Higher Education article.
Further update: I just discovered an international conference devoted to research into changes in grey literature. The mind boggles.