25 January 2010

what Google ethnography and research oncology have in common

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 9:20 pm by Andromeda

Here, we have an ethnographer talking about why (outside of academic/elite contexts) Google is not widely adopted in China. (A variety of reasons: the Google name is hard to pronounce and spell in Chinese and there is not a widely accepted, Google-promoted canonical form; many, many users have their primary internet access through mobile technologies and are accustomed to an instant-messenger/Facebook-like paradigm, not an email/browser paradigm; Google is identified with a set of western values appealing to elites, but not appealing to the majority of the population, particularly in the presence of a heavily marketed, nativist alternative; Google hasn’t done a good job of outreach and market positioning vis-a-vis these difficulties.)

And here, we have an oncologist blogging about how he doesn’t (any longer) need to use particular library services, and ways proactive and tech-savvy librarians could insert themselves into his workflow, helping him while raising their profile. The thing I really liked about this post is that it’s an outside perspective on what the information workflow looks like — I think it’s too easy to just see our own parts of a workflow (and there’s a lot of information workflow in a library), but the library-external parts are where the new opportunities for relevance are. It’s a good reminder of the importance of having good relationships with your patrons and seeing things from their perspective, seeing where the needs are instead of hypothesizing about what they might be.

I read this article first, closed the tab, read a dozen more tabs (oh, eventful week, how you have destroyed my tab-reading flow), got to the one about China, and thought, hey, this is the same thing. Here, too, Google has its set of habits and expectations, and is finding itself irrelevant in a population which has a very non-complementary set of habits and expectations.

I’m looking forward to being a liaison between the library and…some outside, whatever it is. Seeing that outside’s perspective. Is this some sick, twisted aspiration — will it all just be herding cats? Still. There are reasons for the tagline Across Divided Networks.

10 January 2010

google autocomplete tells us the true nature of libraries?

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 4:53 pm by Andromeda

A librarian plays with Google’s autocomplete feature. Hilarity ensues.

(FWIW, if I type “andromeda is”, it autocompletes to “andromeda israel”. If I type “andromeda is “, it has no suggestions at all. Apparently I’m…nothing?)

14 December 2009

Google Translate

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 6:48 pm by Andromeda

In the continuing saga of our information overlords, they’ve come out with Google Translate. As a former Latin teacher, I mostly love and partly dislike this system:

+ The on-the-fly translation is pretty sweet. In particular I love seeing how it recalibrates its concept of whole phrases as it gets new input — something I would have liked to have shown my students as a good practice.

+ It supports a bunch of languages and lets you choose any pair of them for initial & target (including some helpful options for non-Latin scripts and Romanization).

– Latin is not among the languages it supports, which limits my ability to probe it.

-/+ Using a language I know less well but can hack at lower levels (Spanish), I can see there are definite (and unsurprising) weaknesses, especially as sentences get longer (and presumably as grammar gets more complex, although once that happens my ability to translate the Spanish is also hampered). So minus, it doesn’t work as well, but plus, it still won’t be supplanting anyone’s language-homework-doing any time soon ;).

-/+ It uses statistical patterns derived from really big corpora (as we might expect of Google), not computational rules. On the one hand, my inner linguistics nerd is sorta sad. On the other hand, it’s awesomely googly (and more pragmatic/scalable, I’m sure).

However! The library angle I was getting at here is that you can search web sites in other languages. Enter terms in the language you know, and it’ll translate and search. Looks like it will only search one language at a time, and I don’t know how it deals with ambiguous terms, and I’m sure the quality degrades with phrase searches, but this does increase our ability to find all relevant information on a query, and I’m sure the tools will improve with time.

12 October 2009

discovery interfaces in the Chronicle

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , at 8:16 pm by Andromeda

Chronicle of Higher Ed article on discovery layers in library catalogs. Doesn’t say much I haven’t already seen (although if you have no idea what I mean by “discovery layers” do read it; it’s a good overview). I did like this bit, though:

“It’s sort of our answer to, Why it is you need a library when you have Google?” said Ms. Gibbons [vice provost and dean of the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries]. “What this is going to do is show how much you’ve been missing.”

Positioning libraries to stay relevant is, of course, a major obsession these days, and I liked how she phrased it — not exactly as “let’s present ourselves in ways that are familiar to the users” (although I do think that matters), but “by presenting ourselves in ways that are familiar to the users, we can better showcase ways that we are already awesome.”

Comments section is kind of disheartening. I shouldn’t be surprised that the demographic that reads the Chronicle is the demographic that is conversant with old-school catalog searching ;), but so many of the comments read as “fix the user, not the catalog” and…that just never works. Even if the user is uneducated about, e.g., subject headings (and let me tell you, one semester of library school showed me it is amazing how undereducated you can be about catalogs after even a humanities MA), even if the existing technology works really well once you put in the time to learn it — fixing users just never works.

It would make me sad if discovery layers made it impossible to do the sort of precise, controlled searching library nerds get good at, but another of the lessons of Google (or, for that matter, of any number of intimidating databases) is that your clean searchbox doesn’t mean you can’t have that functionality. But if you say to users “you can’t even play until you’ve spent a couple hours learning how” — well, just like my last post — that means there will be a lot of users you never get at all.

Make it easy. Or, at least: make the first hit free.

19 September 2009

out-of-print books

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 9:08 pm by Andromeda

Google has rights to a gazillion out-of-print books, people freak in expected manners, Globe article here.

One of the things that came up in my library automation class is the place of database aggregators in the marketplace. There are lots of databases out there, and it’s not realistic for every library to negotiate contracts separately with every database it might want, so you get these organizations with the clout and capacity to negotiate these bulk deals and resell them to libraries, who then only have to (and only get to) negotiate with one vendor.

The case of out-of-print books seem similar: many of the people and institutions who might be interested in having access to some of them don’t have the know-how, time, money, etc. to negotiate those rights. So one of the few organizations that does have the ability to do so on a grand scale, does so — and immediately you fall into problems of monopoly.

Which raises the question of whether there’s anyone who actually *can* get those orphan books to the light of day, some entity living in a narrow slice between practicality and regulation.