Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Don't Touch That App!

Academic librarians are starting to figure out that maybe students don't want to be bothered on Facebook. Though a few students at my university have added me, I haven't sought out the Facebook profiles of students I know and work with.

Why? Because part of the point of college is finding and defining your own social space, and personally the last thing I would've wanted were professors or librarians sending me e-mail for no reason, or tracking me down on Usenet. What would any of that have had to do with my classes or my research?

That said, I'm all in favor of libraries finding new ways to promote themselves, or promoting themselves at all for that matter, and certainly online tools have a role to play here. And in recent weeks several librarians have pointed out that a Facebook app could be one great way to go. Open Worldcat jumped on board with this; considering what a great search tool Open Worldcat is turning into (with the potential to be an excellent example of what Read/Write Web calls vertical search), any way it can find to embed itself in already popular, highly-trafficked sites is probably to the good.

It's also useful, and that's a good thing too, since (also according to Read/Write Web) Facebook users are starting to develop app fatigue.

Personally, my app fatigue came pre-loaded. I love my friends, but I've ignored every one of your app promotions on Facebook because by and large, the apps have been neither useful nor fun. If it's neither useful nor fun, then it's just annoying.

There's something in this worth learning for libraries. Yes, of course the library is useful. Yes, of course a library Facebook app would be useful, too, as long as it's well designed and works as intended. But apps have the potential to be as intrusive as other ill-conceived entries into online social networks, so it's important to be judicious in their, well, application.

Personally, I wonder when someone's going to come up with the Facebook equivalent of the cellphone novel; that is, if they haven't already. That's the kind of viral content I could go for, personally.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Friday is Resource Day:

(Subject line inspiration is thanks to the Esoteric Science Resource Center.)

Today's nifty resource is, an example of the kind of interesting and useful mash-up that you can generate on the Web. Sure, all this information is available elsewhere, mainly from governmental websites, but governmental websites are notoriously bad at presenting information in a useful format. Ask any public librarian; public librarians have become the go-to people for help in navigating governmental websites and finding information. Which, yes, is part of their role, but wouldn't it be nice if the tools were well designed? (That said, GovTrack's main data source, THOMAS, is well-designed and easy to use. This could have something to do with it being a Library of Congress project.)

But that's another rant.

Anyway, here's the skinny on GovTrack. It's not exactly citizen journalism, but it is an example of the positive side of the "cult of the amateur" (when, by the way, did being an amateur become a pejorative? It can't all be Andrew Keen's fault, can it?). The creator and maintainer of the site is a graduate student at Penn; in other words, this isn't his job, just his passion. (Passion, by the way, is one of the amateur's great strengths, though it can also be a drawback.)

The cool thing about GovTrack is that it makes it easy to track legislative votes. Want to know what current presidential candidates' voting records look like? You can get that out of THOMAS, but you have to compile the information yourself. GovTrack grabs that data and presents it to you. Want to know how your representatives are voting? You can find out, even if you're not sure who they are. You can find out what bills are on the table, what's being voted on, and send all of this stuff to your RSS aggregator; you don't even need to visit the site (though if you don't, you'll miss some features).

Could THOMAS provide all of this? Sure it could. Chances are, it would like to (the Library of Congress did recently reveal its capacity for hipness with its Flickr photo project, which leverages the Web's ability to aggregate knowledge collectively. Are the people tagging the LoC photos historians, or photography experts? Some of them probably are. Most of them probably are not. But what if you recognize something in an unlabeled photo, something that nobody at the LoC has been able to identify? How else would that information ever have come to be associated with that photo?

The point being, sites and services like GovTrack are examples of people building their own tools for others to use, rather than waiting for them to be built. If there's an upside to Internet culture, then that's it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Wither Reference? Part 2: From Just-in-Case to Just-in-Time

Almost twelve years ago, I moved to Seattle and got a job with a strange little business located south of downtown. They did mail order, but their warehouse stock was tiny even though their catalog was huge. The catalog was only on the Web, even though the local library still offered telnet access to its catalog. There was no storefront, no printed catalog, and the business didn't take phone orders.

That business, of course, was

These days, Amazon sells everything from books to bustiers, and has warehouses located all over the country, not to mention subsidiaries located all over the world. I haven't worked there in eight years, so I have no idea what their warehouse-stocking philosophy is. But in 1996, Jeff Bezos and company were leveraging the incredibly powerful idea of just-in-time delivery. They've made some missteps along the way, but have gotten things right enough that quite a few people have made quite a bit of money off of it.

What does this have to do with reference?

At my university, I do remote-desk hours: set up a laptop in a location outside the library on campus and provide reference service. A lot of libraries have been trying this, with varying degrees of success. So far, the one time I've gotten a lot of traffic was when a professor put my contact information in his syllabus, including my office hours, then gave his students an assignment that was beyond most of their library research skills. The following year, when the course came up again, I did a guest lecture instead covering the same material points. It would be interesting to compare the results on student assignments.

Now, obviously one factor at work here is promotion. But another is this notion of just in time: what you need, when you need it, where you need it. And in an increasingly connected world, "where" doesn't need to be physical.

This is important because the library as place is coming uncoupled from the library as a resource base. This turns the physical library into a place that serves multiple needs: the information commons at work. Which varies from campus to campus, but at my university, the library is the preferred study space for many students. It's comparatively quiet, even with the inevitable noise from the computer area on the first floor; it's open late (though not late enough, they tell us); and they can access online library resources as easily there as anywhere. More easily, perhaps; the library has wireless, though it's increasingly clear that it doesn't have enough power outlets to serve the demand from student laptops.

The reference desk is a quintessential just-in-case service, and the profession knows this. From Steven Bell's writings on the subject to the open discussion at Midwinter 2007, librarians are considering the idea that the reference desk is outmoded in our brave new just-in-time, wirelessly wired, increasingly connected world.

Is it?

I'm not convinced that anyone really knows the answer to that question, though we're all trying out alternatives to see what works. Chat reference, IM, giving out your cellphone number, remote-location reference, reference by appointment, and the rest: a lot of them are attempts to bring just-in-time into a traditionally just-in-case scenario. On the other hand, the librarian at the reference desk is there at the right time and in the right place for students who are working in the library and need reference assistance. And there are still quite a few of them.

What does just-in-time reference service look like? Is it a change in service, or a change in attitude?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Neither are fish the best authority on water.

(Subject line a paraphrase from Jane Yolen's Sister Light, Sister Dark, a book I highly recommend.)

While we were away at Midwinter, the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) revealed what librarians already know: the "Google generation", that is, people who grew up using the Web, is a myth. That's the conclusion of a new report, "Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future" (available as a PDF download from the JISC website; at 35 pages, it's not a super-quick read but is downright brief compared to many reports I've seen) that highlights one of the downsides of convenient information retrieval: a kind of blindness to less convenient but more worthwhile information, coupled with a lack of application of critical evaluation.

It makes sense, if you think about it. The television is one of the most ubiquitous information-based media out there, but channel-surfing doesn't make you an expert on current events. Neither does only watching one channel, or only getting your news from the TV. Plenty of people have cell phones now, but having a phone doesn't make you an expert on the art of conversation. Far from it, if some of the phone conversations I've overheard recently are any indication. (You may not care that you're chatting in an airport bathroom, but does whoever you're talking to really want to listen to the inevitable ambient sounds?)

But I digress.

Like I said in this article last year, when retrieval gets easier, other things become harder. Google (increasingly a convenient shorthand for Internet search engines) is the great decontextualizer, and that's a problem: it conveys and reinforces the notion that if it can't find it, it doesn't exist—even though it's impossible to know for sure how much of the Web Google indexes. The size of a search engine's index isn't the best measure of its quality (perhaps not a measure of its quality at all), but it can lead a person to wonder what they might be missing.

The thing is, students don't wonder what they're missing, because the Internet gives them so much. And, increasingly, so much of it is good quality—or at least good enough. Part of our job as librarians, and also part of faculty's jobs as teachers, is to demonstrate why "good enough" isn't good enough: to show students the benefit of researching comprehensively, using more than one resource, and developing their evaluative skills so they can see the gaps in what Google finds.

For some people, at least, the bloom is off: usage of Google Scholar is down 32% for 2007! The question is, how much are people (including, of course, students) using plain ol' Google for their research needs?

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Wither Reference? Part 1: In a Wiki World, What's a Reference Book Worth?

We're not exactly taking machetes to the reference collection in my library, but we definitely are thinning the herd, as it were.

What we're finding, simply put, is that while students use and love online journal articles and, increasingly, electronic books (shortly after we highlighted our NetLibrary collection, I got two reference queries about how to get e-books specifically), the reference collection is mostly gathering dust.

This problem isn't unique to us, by any stretch. But when you're out of shelf space and have a ten-year-old encyclopedia in front of you that's only been used once since you bought it, you have to ask yourself: do we have to keep this?

There's a disciplinary angle here. Currently I'm weeding the business reference collection, and business is a discipline where currency is important--not money, though that's important too, but the timeliness of the material. I also work in the sciences, which has the same emphasis on currency, and in nursing, where accreditation requirements have led to tossing a great deal of old material. In music, in contrast, keeping those old materials might be the only way of researching something ancient and/or obscure. We once received a call from a faculty member at another university because we were the only library in the country with a copy of a particular score. Stuff like that is why I get up in the morning.

Reference books, though, don't go through Interlibrary Loan; not only because they're, well, reference, but because the information needed tends to brook few delays like that required to get an ILL book to a patron. Which in turn explains the growing reliance on Google and Wikipedia, to cite the two best-known examples. I'm not sure why the convenience of these tools is so often decried in the library community; yes, people should make sure that the information they're getting is good, but shouldn't the resources that contain that good information make themselves more accessible? I used to maintain a personal subscription to Britannica Online, because--get this--it was more convenient than going downtown to use the print encyclopedia in the library. I think I gave up when they neglected to send me a renewal notice, and I had to inquire (and wait a few days for a response) to find out why it wasn't working. Perhaps they've improved.

The need for the kind of information that usually gets classed as "reference" isn't going away; the massive volume of ready-reference-style searches on free Web search engines is evidence enough of that.

The need for reference books, though? That's an open question.