3 June 2010

customer service: all hail the Nordstrom shoe department

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 11:28 am by Andromeda

Peter Bromberg wrote about being an agent for the customer rather than a gatekeeper (a topic sure to make me gleeful as the gatekeeper model drives me batty), and this reminded me I had meant to post on one of my favorite things: the wonder that is the Nordstrom shoe department.

As I have mentioned before, my feet are a problem to shop for. “What’s your shoe size?” is a question I cannot, in fact, answer in two words (and the two words that are closest are a size most places don’t carry anyway). So shoe shopping has always filled me with trepidation and angst, except at Nordstrom, where I recently bought a pair of shoes, which I suppose I will show off at ALA Annual.

What works about Nordstrom?

  • Collection development. They actually stock my size (or things that substitute for it). They stock it in a variety of styles. It is one of the only places I have tried shoes on in twenty years, because it is one of the only places I can.
  • When I explained my complex size to the salesman, there were two things he didn’t do: tell me I was doomed, or uncritically bring out everything in an 8.5AA. He expressed concern about the complexity of my need, but optimism about the process of meeting it. And he brought out one shoe, which he used to calibrate my foot and his mental sizing models, so that he understood what I actually needed, with more nuance than what I’d stated.

(Yes, I was squeeing about the secret reference interview going on here.)

This was striking to me chiefly because I am one of those people who gets really annoyed if I ask for help and I’m supplied with something I didn’t ask for. I tend to feel like I wasn’t listened to, and that the other party thinks I’m stupid or incompetent. But shoe guy, by doing a good enough reference interview that he could abstract the principles guiding my shoe needs, was able to supply good candidates — not all of which met my stated needs, but all of which were reasonable approximations of my actual needs.

Of course all the good reference interviewing in the world won’t solve the problem that the set of dress flats that I can wear is barely distinguishable from the empty set, but good service means I feel happy about the process rather than discouraged that I didn’t (maybe can’t) get what I really want, and also I’m gleeful that I’m wearing an awesome pair of sandals…

1 May 2010

shoe shopping, the long tail, and libraries

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 9:39 am by Andromeda

I hate shoe shopping.

I know — this is grounds for eviction from my gender. But if you’d once gone into every shoe store in your hometown, asked if they’d sold your size, and they all said “no”, you’d hate shoe shopping too.

(I wear an 8.5AA, and basically no one sells — or manufactures — narrows. Note that I say I wear a AA, not that I am one, because in fact my left foot is a AAA or a AAAA, and my right is an AAAA in the heel but an A through the toes, because I have six of them. AA — which you note is the correct size for me nowhere — is my compromise. I was in my twenties before I realized it was possible to own dress shoes that did not make my feet bleed. Like I said, you’d hate shoe shopping too.)

Long story short: thank goodness for the internet. Maybe it’s not worth it for shoe stores, except specialty stores in major metro areas (thank goodness also for Nordstrom) to stock my size, but on the internet I can shop by my size and never have to see all those adorable shoes I will never be able to wear.

Funny thing, though: I was talking to @Zappos_Service yesterday and they mentioned that narrows tended to go out of stock as soon as they got them. Wait, what?

All this time I assumed that no one stocked my size because no one wears it, so there wasn’t an economic case for it. But apparently there is more demand for narrow shoes than vendors can meet and somehow the invisible hand is failing to make money off of this. Whuh?

I think what we have here is a problem of perception. When I talk to people who don’t wear narrow shoes (particularly people with wide feet) they don’t realize I have a problem finding shoes. They assume stores carry my size, and that finding narrows is easier than finding wides (demonstrably untrue). People, including shoe salespeople, will tell me that this brand runs narrow as if that is useful (it isn’t; please stop saying that).

So wait, how did my cranky rant have to do with libraries again? I mean, under normal circumstances I think of, e.g., Amazon as having a huge advantage over libraries on the long-tail front, for all that WorldCat and ILL and consortial borrowing help with that.

Eric Hellman posited recently that a library is a collection organized for the benefit of its community. And it’s that spirit that’s generally lacking in my shoe-shopping travails. The profit motive should be enough…but it’s not, if people misunderstand the nature of the problem. If they think that stocking 8.5Bs that “run narrow” will result in sales to the narrow-footed among us, they will merrily stock them as their AA and AAA and AAAA widths fly off the shelves, unnoticed. What’s needed is some sort of conversation, where I can say, so yeah, I have these mutant feet, how can we work together to clarify assumptions? to bend the rules for me? And it’s that kind of conversation that, ideally, libraries — human intermediaries — are well-suited to provide.

In other words, the internet works great for you if you’re in the long tail of stuff that gets made. If you’re in the longer tail of stuff that doesn’t — if you need some sort of DIY, bespoke, creative solution — libraries can, at their best, make that work.

Library sherpas are great and all, but maybe I’d rather library MacGyvers.

13 August 2009

Create Your Own Economy (part I?)

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 5:08 pm by Andromeda

I’ve just started reading Tyler Cowen’s new book, Create Your Own Economy. (That is to say, I’ve just finished Chapter 1.) I should preface this by saying that Cowen is one of my great intellectual crushes and his blog, Marginal Revolution, has taught me a lot and strongly influenced my thinking on some matters (as well as introducing me to one of my other great intellectual crushes, Sudhir Venkatesh). And I say all of these complimentary things because I’m going to spend the rest of the post cranky.

Chapter 1, roughly speaking, is about two things: the information explosion in modern society, including the tools that both generate and help us manage it; and the autism spectrum as a frame for helping Cowen understand his own thinking, and all of us better manage that information explosion in our own lives.

Now, I’m fascinated by the autism spectrum. I will download/read anything I come across with Temple Grandin in it, I’m fascinated by the way non-normative minds both illuminate the norm and broaden the meaning of humanity, and reports (particularly self-reports) from that spectrum tend to be the most personally gripping of all dispatches from non-normative terrain. But I can’t stand the way geekdom, a few years back, flocked to the spectrum — or, rather, the metaphor of the spectrum — for self-understanding. There’s a reason the DSM includes differential diagnoses, and therapy, outside (and perhaps neutral) observers. The faddishness of self-diagnosis, the appropriation of the metaphor as an explanation (or perhaps excuse) for oneself without the actual diagnostic process and its consequences, the cherry-picking of personally useful or (dare I say) sexy elements of a descriptive sketch on a web site without taking into account the full picture…right. Drives me crazy. For all that it’s a fascinating spectrum and, even, sometimes, a great metaphor.

And then (page 9!) I hit the word “catalog”.

Librarians have a passionate conversation going on the nature and meaning and management of information overload. Part of this passion surrounds the idea of cataloguing. And one of the key things here is — a lot of librarians get apoplectic about the lack of cataloguing online (in the very services Cowen refers to — Flickr, del.icio.us, iTunes, among others. Cataloguing’s a technical term, a technical idea in librarianship. It involves high (often very exacting) standards for metadata which facilitate precise and comprehensive searches. (Which are, really, often neither as precise nor as comprehensive as some librarians would like to think, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.)

Cowen sees a world of technical tools helping us to manage information overload…I see a world of tools which, don’t get me wrong, I spend a ton of time on and am madly in love with, but which create as many problems as they solve in that. I can get freakishly excited about crowdsourcing and folksonomies and what-have-you, but they also have very serious flaws with regard to some of the problems that cataloguing, in the librarianship sense, aims to solve. The tools we have now are very nascent. Our ability to organize information with them is in some ways very limited. (Why does my iPod have three different genres with names like “Electronica/Dance”, except differently punctuated? Did the geeks at the wedding I was just at get around to creating a hashtag for their photo uploads of the event — and if not, how will I find out what happened after I left, and even if so, how many sites is it scattered across, and how many photos will I miss because they missed the message? Why does my task management software not freaking integrate with my calendar?)

The fact that I can even ask these questions is, don’t get me wrong, pretty cool. This sort of participatory, decentralized information culture is going to lead us in all sorts of great directions, even though few to none of them will, I expect, resemble cataloguing (and somewhere in the dusty corners of librarianship, people will be shaking their fists at the sky about this). But Cowen’s view of what is going on in information tools is so very, very different from a lot of the views I encountered in my Information Organization class.

And that’s the other thing that made it hard to read this chapter — hard because some little bat of an idea was beating its wings against the cage of the book, wanting to argue and break and go off some other way. It’s one of the major difficulties I had in 415 in reverse. In 415, I read librarians’ conversations on these themes, and they had so little in common with conversations, on the same topics, that I’ve seen socially, in the worlds of computer geeks and online communities; I kept ranting at the papers I was reading, when they’d say something was obviously impossible but I could point to real-world examples, when they’d make statements with fundamentally different assumptions than those I’m used to seeing and take them as absolute truth. And here, I read Cowen’s piece of the conversation, and it has so little in common with what librarians have to say. “Libraries” appears precisely once in the index (page 43!). A brief scan of the index suggests that none of the philosophies and technical contributions of librarianship make an appearance in this book at all — and Cowen has a tremendously wide-ranging intellect and is a heavy user of his local libraries. Among non-librarians, he seems one of the most likely to really know things about library ideas.

I kept having the feeling in 415 that if librarians and non-librarians are having separate conversations about information tools, culture, philosophy — and if non-librarians are the ones out there generating and using the tools, with or without the theories, in a flawed but fecund creative explosion — then librarians, convening slow committees to generate precise tools — will be obsolete and never even notice. Cowen’s book, thus far, does not bode well for this.

How do we bridge those divided networks? How do we bring some of those conversations, and conversationalists, into a common sphere?

21 July 2009

objectivity vs. transparency

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 4:34 pm by Andromeda

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?

4 July 2009

why even the future needs librarians

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 7:59 pm by Andromeda

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.)