Friday, February 29, 2008

Friday is Resource Day

An interesting experiment came to my attention last year, and this week we finally get a glimpse of the Encyclopedia of Life. Even if you're not interested in, or working in, biological or life sciences, this new online encyclopedia is worth a look, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, for those who get hives at the mere mention of Wiki-anything, EoL is an example of an online, digitally native, free to use encyclopedia with authoritative content creators, the lack of which seems to be a lot of people's chief issue with Wikipedia and its ilk. (One could quibble about that, but that would require an in-depth exploration of what we mean by "authoritative", which is too long for a blog post.)

Secondly, it shows, rather subtly, how an online encyclopedia must be different from a print one. Ease of access is only one of its advantages over too much of its digital competition; the design here was very clearly born in the digital realm, instead of being transferred there from the print. Jared Spool or Peter Morville could probably expound at length on the design principles involved here, but I'll just put it this way: it looks good, it feels good, it's easy to use without succumbing to the temptation to resemble Google (has anyone else taken a look at EBSCO's to-launch-this-summer interface yet?).

Thirdly, it's fun to explore, a characteristic it shares with Wikipedia. Although it's only populated a few branches on the tree of life (a pity, as I really wanted to read about African stink ants), it leverages that existing taxonomic structure really well--and its searching is flexible, enabling use by novices and experts alike.

This is one to watch.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Slate Discovers the Ultimate Library Question

Ross Dawson says that libraries will be extinct by 2019, but Slate isn't so sure that it agrees. I'm not so sure that I do, either, and not just because I'd like to have a job in 2019 (though, to be fair, I don't expect it to look much like my job today). Slate's slideshow of newer libraries includes the Seattle Public Library's downtown branch, a place that I sometimes love and sometimes hate. At the very least, though, it's an interesting experiment. And the question of what is a library in the digital age is an interesting one, though so far most commentators seem to be finding new ways of asking the question, rather than proposing answers.

One possible answer came from the students at my university recently. Several of them have campaigned for longer building hours, which surprised a few people--if you can work from anywhere, why come to the library?

Answer: in the library, you can tell people to be quiet--and they will. Our library isn't silent, particularly on the first floor where the group study happens, but there are nooks upstairs where you can work for hours undisturbed by so much as a footstep or a human whisper. And ours is not a large library.

We live in an increasingly noisy world, and a lot of the time we bring it with us: I'll never forget the day back in 1996 when I was hiking on Hurricane Ridge and passed someone plugged into a portable CD player (today, of course, it would be an iPod). That's his prerogative, of course; since it wasn't a boom box I can't disapprove too much.

But there are very few places you can go nowadays where people can be together, yet be quiet. Churches (and other religious houses), libraries, and not much else. It's still acceptable to insist on quiet in the library in our culture, and I worry about eroding that acceptability in the name of being all things to everyone. We shouldn't be all things to everyone. We should be what we are, and what we will be.

So what is a library to be? One possible answer: a quiet, yet communal, place to work.

What else is a library to be?

Another open access experiment

Harvard's new open access initiative has made a lot of waves, but InsideHigherEd reports today on another, smaller scale, but in some ways more interesting initiative, this one out of Indiana University.

What makes this one of particular interest to libraries is that the Indiana library is providing the publishing platform.

This makes eminent sense, for two reasons: libraries increasingly have the technological infrastructure to support a venture like this (look at the volume and variety of online services we provide already: what's one more?), and it cuts out the expensive and unsustainable middleman from the provision of serial content. Why pay a university press when you can serve it yourself, and partner fruitfully with faculty into the bargain?

It does remain to be seen how cost-effective this will be: a big unanswered question is whether open access scholarship really saves money or just shifts the burden of cost around. That's difficult to predict without trying it out, though.

One question that has often lurked in my mind when thinking about the role of libraries in scholarship, now and in the future, is whether or how libraries could play a role in the publication process. Indiana hasn't just been thinking along those lines, they've done something about it. More power to 'em and let's see what happens.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Oh, Amazon.

So can libraries loan a Kindle, or not?

The Magic 8-Ball seems to still be saying, "Answer unclear, try again later."

It's a little surprising to me that Amazon didn't see this one coming, to be honest. But, since apparently they didn't, it also doesn't surprise me that they aren't sure what to do about it. (I worked for Amazon from mid-1996 until early 2000.) My guess is that they don't want to say no to what could, after all, be a huge market (imagine how many public libraries might jump on board once the green light is given for real!), but Sparta PL is, after all, violating the terms of use of the device.

This gets at the heart of the ongoing debate also taking place in other areas of the entertainment industry, most notably music and movies. The format content is in shouldn't change what you can do with it--or should it? Do libraries have to stick with printed books, or with comparatively unwieldy digital library services (I love NetLibrary, but forget trying to use it to read a novel)? Or wait for a reading device as cool as the Kindle apparently is, with equally cool use rights?

The Magic 8-Ball says: Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Speculations on the Inside of Google Book Search

...via Campus Technology.

The main implication seems to be, let's get the bulk volume first, and worry about details of quality later. I can't entirely quarrel with that; a lot of what's already available through Google Book Search is already good enough for a lot of purposes, and increasingly, "good enough" is, well, good enough.

What remains to be seen is what will happen once the project with UC reaches its numbers goal. Will quality control then come into play? Or will the project just sort of exist, as seems increasingly to be the case with Google Scholar?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Inspiration Solicitation: Web-Based Tutorials

What's your favorite interactive, Web-based tutorial? Need not be library-related. Comment with a link.