31 July 2009
The other day I was in my beloved local coffeehouse, looking for something to read while I drank my iced coffee. Alas, I had already read nearly all of the options, so I picked up the only one I hadn’t, Lola.
Its tagline is “Boston’s New Best Friend”; its website title refers to it as a guide to fashion, shopping, and events. So let’s just say I’m not in its target market, and have rarely read it.
Flipping through it — the Love and Sex issue, as it happened — I noticed that a column on the brain chemistry of love was written by…the Boston Globe’s health columnist. Huh. And then there was a spread of seen-on-the-street fashion photos snapped by…someone who does an identical column in the Globe Sunday magazine. Neat gig, I think, if you can recycle that material and get paid for it twice. And then the reader letter in the advice column made me think, have I not read this exact same letter in the Globe magazine’s advice column…? At which point I became awfully suspicious and flipped to the front matter to look for some kind of statement of responsibility. And there it was, all teensy among the fine print — Lola’s an offshoot of the Globe.
It doesn’t look like the Globe. It’s very quiet about its affiliation; the size, layout, look and feel are very different. It’s a free magazine targeted at a tiny slice of the Globe’s potential audience – which repackages content the Globe has already paid for — in a format where it can attract an entirely new set of advertisers who can count on a much more defined demographic. (I guarantee you that cable companies do not advertise in the regular Globe by saying you can save money on cable, spend more on shoes. Pretty cute pair of shoes in that ad, though, gotta say. Impractical. Red. Not something that screams “paper of record”.)
Very clever, I think, very clever, Boston Globe. As answers go to the “future of newspapers” question, this one is sneaky. Leaves me wondering if — in some sort of place you would probably never find me, like a cigar store or gym or something — there is some Manly Man Executive magazine, with anonymously but slicky repackaged Globe business and sports content and low-key, modernist styling. It’s a franchise idea that keeps on giving, and most people would never see how often you’d exploited it.
Which got me to wondering, is there an analogous proposition for libraries? Libraries aren’t generally about collecting ad revenue ;), but they do face questions of what the future looks like and how to retain audience, and they do face tight budget constraints. Are there core services libraries can simply repackage (rather than expensively reinvent) to appeal to broader demographics? What would that even look like? The libraries which are exploiting Web 2.0 stuff (and, for the record, I hate that buzzword, even as I love the stuff) are making overtures in that direction, but of course there’s only certain populations you’re going to reach in that space, and web 2.0 tends to involve a lot of service invention and reinvention (as well it should, but again, the cost).
21 July 2009
The always fascinating David Weinberger blogs on transparency vs. objectivity. Worth reading the whole thing — the argument gets deeper as it goes along. But here’s the part where I really started thinking:
Transparency prospers in a linked medium, for you can literally see the connections between the final draft’s claims and the ideas that informed it. Paper, on the other hand, sucks at links. You can look up the footnote, but that’s an expensive, time-consuming activity more likely to result in failure than success. So, during the Age of Paper, we got used to the idea that authority comes in the form of a stop sign: You’ve reached a source whose reliability requires no further inquiry.
Hence — to move the opening sentences from that paragraph to the close:
We thought that that was how knowledge works, but it turns out that it’s really just how paper works.
Of course just about anyone nerdy enough to chase footnotes knows that appeal to authority is a fallacy, but he’s got a point there: when it’s hard to do, you’re more likely to rely on the authority of the source, to seek out authorities who are trustworthy (or who have a cultural aura of trustworthiness clinging to them, like his newspaper example — at least for certain newspapers), and to have an intellectual edifice that depends on your ability to, well, trust without verifying. Blogs let wacky opinionated perspectives proliferate, but linking and searching substantially lower the cost of verifying, so objectivity’s role and importance decrease.
(The searching is key, though — link ecologies can, I expect, be navelgazing, and they often do a poor job of getting beyond our love of confirmation bias…)
So where’s the library connection? Libraries have historically been, I think, edifices built on objectivity. We’re the neutral observer. We’re the place you can trust, full of the sources you can trust. Authoritative knowledge! Come and get some.
I come across a lot of articles in my class readings written by librarians who are clearly getting the thrashing heebie-jeebies from this transition away from objectivity (and also, as it happens, comprehensiveness). Tagging, from faceless wild-west Internet crazies, versus sober and structured subject headings, assigned by trained experts? Wikipedia…(same argument)? And I admit, when I was teaching, it was frustrating to see my students head straight for Google when we went to our beautiful library with its excellent collection…
…but it wasn’t because they were going to Google over books; it was because they were going to Google without having developed the sophisticated cognitive apparatus you need when you can’t just trust a source. They didn’t have tools for evaluating the reliability of sites, nor even for situating their content within a broader body of knowledge they could have used to do that evaluation. Appeal to authority is lame, logically speaking, but it’s a good starting place while you work on appeals to your own intuition.
Anyway, that’s a digression. The point is, libraries have, I think, bought heavily into this culture of objectivity — historically, culturally, even architecturally. Many librarians relish their roles as gatekeepers, want the catalog and metadata that give you brilliantly precise searching if only you will master idiosyncratic syntax — and then bemoan users’ tendency to flock to an unadorned search box and keyword-search without a delimiter in sight — something they can do by themselves and, increasingly, anywhere.
I don’t think a lot of librarians, or libraries, know how to position themselves in this shift. So, ideas? What’s the role of a cultural institution, a neoclassical edifice, a, dare I say, neutral authority in a world of omnipresent always-on kudzu-like explosions of transparent information? Can the question even be answered with that set of adjectives and nouns? If not, how do they change?
12 July 2009
The part I’ve been munching through: apparently it’s really, really hard for libraries to keep track of their electronic serials and database usage. If you want to know which of the things you’re subscribed to are actually getting used and how (and what it’s costing you), strap yourself in for a long ride, because ILSes don’t have rich enough functionality to harvest that information for you. Some people buy additional systems on top to help, but even those require a lot of work if you want to extract useful data.
There are some good reasons for this. Libraries frequently subscribe to databases or journals as bundles (and may be required to do so by the publisher), and the usage codes may not disaggregate resources within the bundle. Libraries may subscribe as part of consortia, but need to extract data for their individual institution.
Still, though. This seems like a pretty obvious thing to want to do — keep track of your actual use! So why do the tools not support it? I welcome ideas from people who actually know something (which is not me!), but in the meantime, I’ll brainstorm some possibilities…
- It’s a genuinely hard technical problem. (And there are a lot of problems that need to be solved here — not just capturing the data, from subscription systems that apparently don’t natively provide it, but organizing it into a database that answers users’ questions, has a usable front end, and spits out data in formats useful for budgeters and other decisionmakers. That’s not one system — that’s multiple interacting systems, possibly produced by different organizations — and potentially problems that have to be re-solved for every database vendor and ILS combination. OK, it’s even harder than I realized when I started this bullet point and was just thinking about algorithms.)
- Libraries don’t prioritize recordkeeping and review of their serials and databases enough to exert pressure (market, social, cultural) on companies to develop this feature.
- ILSes offer a tremendous number of features; while libraries might want better serials tracking, they care more about those other features, so it’s those things that ILSes are competing on. (Although this doesn’t answer why an ILS that does well on those things, *and* on serials, doesn’t emerge and stomp on its competitors. But maybe it’s too hard (algorithmically or monetarily) to do that.)
- This is a place where the culture clash between librarians and programmers is showing; maybe they just aren’t talking to one another enough for the user needs to become apparent. Again, you’d think this would be a place where the company (or open source project) that does do a good user needs analysis to eat its competition — and there are niches where librarians and programmers overlap — but all too often they don’t seem to even have a common vocabulary.
8 July 2009
The Economist‘s obituaries are always worth reading. The June 27-July 3 one, on Ralf Dahrendorf (as usual with these obits, someone fascinating I’d never heard of before), had a few sentences that struck me:
“He was in prison and in solitary, sent there for being part of a schoolboys’ anti-Hitler society. He was not yet 16. Determined to demonstrate his free spirit somehow, he tore a piece of brown paper out of his mattress and wrote down, with a blunt pencil he had cadged from a guard, all the Latin words he could remember. In the preservation of liberty, he wrote later, ‘We have the weapons we need, our minds.'”
I’m sure some of my former students would disagree that Latin vocabulary is a metonym for freedom, but the most powerful forces in human history have always been ideas.
4 July 2009
So I was watching the new Star Trek movie and… (bear with me here).
At the end of the movie, offstage, we’ve got 10000 Vulcans on some colony, bereft of their planet, trying to rebuild their culture. And what’s one of the first things they’re going to do? Re-establish libraries. And hand out research grants to anyone who wants to fly around the galaxy combing libraries and archives and museums for vestiges of Vulcan culture. (Because, come on. Even the ten thousand Vulcans remaining are sure to be ludicrously wealthy, due to their skills with Science, and the Banking System of the Future has to be massively distributed, or it’d be incompatible with widespread spaceflight. They’ve still got access to their cash.)
So why (I think to myself) do they not sit at their awesome future computers, with their faster-than-light internet and digital libraries, rather than handing out all these research grants to people, going on long trips to interact with physical objects?
Well, they do that too, of course. But the future — while it may boldly go where no one has gone before, having toppled racial and species barriers — has probably not toppled bureaucracy, and funding shortages, and backlogs. Museums which have five copies of something have only gotten around to digitizing (or uploading) one, because they have more pressing things to do than be comprehensive, and it’s probably one of the other four that has some marginalia of suddenly crucial importance. Or they’ve digitized (and uploaded) all five, but it’s in some cruddy format that’s hard to search, like today’s jpgs of pages of text, or utterly obsolete. Or they had enough cheap interns from Starfleet Library School to get everything online in whatever the cutting-edge format is, but their indexing systems can’t keep up. Or weren’t designed for the kind of queries that a nearly-extinct civilization on a sudden cultural heritage binge is going to generate. (Because, seriously, what are those? I can’t even imagine.)
Doubtless I’m projecting the present too much into the future here. Maybe the future has robots that digitize everything for you, and seamlessly cross-platform file types, and automatic indexing so perfect that unicorns and rainbows pour forth from the servers.
And yet…I doubt it. I doubt that even the Gene Roddenberry utopia is free from everyday logistical constraints.
And even if it is, in the present, those everyday logistical constraints are hard. And indexing is desperately hard, and even more desperately underappreciated. You can’t connect people with information if you don’t have findability, per the Peter Morville book whence my tagline comes. And one of the best tools for bridging that findability gap is between our ears. (Even if they aren’t pointy.)