Wednesday, September 17, 2008

How Green was My Library?

Moving from print to online resources makes a huge amount of sense for a whole host of reasons, from usage to accessibility, but one reason I've always quibbled with is that going online makes better environmental sense.

Does it really? I think the jury's still way out on that. Because while paper manufacture and recycling is at least pretty well understood, the disposal of obsolete electronics--from the computers made available for patrons to access resources, to the servers that enable that access--is a great big ball of ugly (that's a technical term, of course).

Today's Washington Post has an article that is just the latest in a series of recent scathing indictments of how electronic waste is dealt with. The news of note here is that the Government Accountability Office is reporting on all the ways that the EPA is failing to deal with the problem. Much electronic waste--computers, cell phones, and all the other devices increasingly indispensable to daily life--is shipped overseas, where it's disassembled and recycled under appalling conditions.

My personal favorite bit is the note that 43 U.S. recyclers have flat-out lied about how they dispose of electronic waste.

Read the report here.

In other depressing news, the North Pole is ever closer to having no ice.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

News I'm Reading

Any librarian, particularly a public librarian, could have told U.S. airlines that as soon as they started offering in-air wi-fi, they'd have to deal with porn. I wouldn't expect American Airlines flight attendants to be any happier about it than librarians are.

Here's a great example business librarians can use on vetting information: an old story on the Sun-Sentinel website got picked up by Google News as fresh, triggering a massive sell-off of United stock. It occurs to me that a particular piece of metadata--the story's date of publication--would have prevented this, if news articles had such metadata attached and news aggregators such as Google News looked for such metadata as a matter of course. More coverage here and here. (One wonders if any canny investors realized what was happening and scooped up some of the stock on the cheap...)

Speaking of Google...microfilm is a valuable medium for storage and preservation, but using it is a total pain. Now, you might not have to: Google is digitizing newspaper archives, including those stored on microfilm. Some of the same concerns and questions are being raised here as by the Google Books project, but at first blush, this is way cool, and a boon for research involving newspapers.

Something I'd like to read: American Widow, a new graphic-novel memoir by a woman who lost her husband in 9/11. (I'd definitely prefer to read that over some of today's news coverage.)

Speaking of books, The Jewel of Medina has found a new publisher. To be honest, it took longer than I thought it would.

Reference publishers should take note of this analysis of Wikipedia entries showing up on Google search results pages, while they dither about following JSTOR's lead and at least exposing their citations to search engines. I find myself increasingly frustrated by reference publishers. They've got the good information, but it's harder to find and use than it needs to be.

Esquire will publish its 75th anniversary issue with an e-paper cover enabling moving images. Life imitates Harry Potter.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Way to Preserve Knowledge is to Use It.

I know, not exactly a new observation. But I was thinking it again this morning, while reading a historical survey on the topic of homosexuality and civilization (see booklist to the right).

The book's a survey, of course, and a secondary source by definition, but it draws on a lot of primary sources: letters, legislation, Church documents, and especially trial records. One point that comes up over and over again is how many gaps there are in the record, because the primary documents upon which the author must draw to make his case are lost or destroyed. (In the latter case, sometimes deliberately so--and even being able to find out that much is telling.)

At my library, our emphasis is on use. Our budget and our physical facilities are simply too small for us to have the kind of large research collection of, say, the big state university up the road. When I'm weeding the collection, of course I'll keep the classics, as well as the heavily-used materials (not always the same thing, you'll note). And of course the main thing is that the information is available somewhere.

But using recorded knowledge is about more than keeping favorite materials in the library collection. It's also about keeping knowledge as part of the current understanding about the world, its circumstances, and the people in it.

Historians probably think this way all the time, but it's a rather new perspective on the preservation issue for me.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Working the Information Ground

For the past six years, I've seen in autumn by working at Bumbershoot, Seattle's music and arts festival. I manage an information booth, which resembles working a library reference desk more than a little. My standard observation is that it's just like a reference desk, only noisier and with more drunk people (some of my public library colleagues may, at this point, be saying, "Oh? How so?").

It's also busier than most reference desks, these days. An estimated 50,000 people come to Bumbershoot each day; of those, a certain number can be guaranteed to a) not have read any of the website or printed literature beforehand, b) be from outside the area and unfamiliar with the layout of Seattle Center (or be from Seattle and still not know how to find a particular building or stage; Seattle Center's grounds can be confusing to the uninitiated), c) require something that only an information booth can provide (i.e., a Mainstage pass or, this year, a Comedy pass), d) have a complaint that they wish to pass on to the festival's most visible representatives, or e) desirous to know if Elephant Ears are available from any of the food vendors this year.

I'm sure someone from the information science end of my profession has already done a study on this, but Bumbershoot always makes me think of information dissemination, customer service, and how to get a bit of that festival vibe into libraries. To wit:

  • It's a perfect example of teach someone something, then get them to teach it. Every year I wrangle a team of volunteers, anywhere from two to seven at any given time. They get, on average, 5-10 minutes of training, then learn the rest of what they need to know by example (both from yours truly and from each other). It's amazing how well it works, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the pressure cooker that is information booth work.
  • We only wish our reference desks were as busy as Bumbershoot information booths. Part of the reason the booths are so busy is that they're perfectly placed to provide point of need assistance. As we redesign our libraries into information commons, the placement of service points, including reference desks, ought to be done with this in mind.
  • You know what customer service means when you have two people asking you questions simultaneously, plus a radio blaring in your ear, and you must address all three in the next thirty seconds. In that context, the combination of receptivity and assertiveness that superior service requires gets a real workout.
  • The reference interview model exports very well. There are many studies in libraryland of patrons who come to the desk with so little notion of what they're after that they don't even know how to phrase the question; the well-known "information gap". The same thing happens at Bumbershoot. For example, there was the guy who came up to me on Monday afternoon and announced, "I'm confused." Using reference interview techniques, I determined the source of his confusion, helped him resolve it, and sent him on his merry way. My point here is that the reference interview really works, in contexts beyond the library reference desk.
The thing I always come away thinking about, though, is how the booth is no barrier to inquiry. We have tables with our programs, schedule grids, and other paraphenalia. They're just those long folding tables you find in classrooms, meeting rooms, and cafeterias everywhere. People don't hesitate to approach them, because their need outweighs any ambivalence they might have.

Recently there's been a lot of discussion in the library world about making reference desks less intimidating and more receptive. While there's some merit to this discussion (I have an ongoing issue with my own reference desk in this respect) and I'm a big fan of conscientious design of the built environment, it's not the only factor worth considering. I run across a lot of references to bringing customer service principles into the reference environment, as though this were some sort of revolutionary idea. It ought to be par for the course.