Friday, January 16, 2009

Jason Griffey's Top 5

This is actually from December, but check out Jason Griffey's TechSource post on the top 5 most influential technologies of 2008.

As I said there, it interests me that three of the five are devices--hardware.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Thoughts on Source Evaluation: Acknowledge Popularity

I've been reading a lot lately on evaluating information, especially Web sources. Much of the literature on evaluating Web sources predates the level of sophistication and richness of content we're seeing now: open-access journals, government reports, newspapers, Google's Life magazine image archive, and so on. But one article I skimmed again recently discusses why popularity and relevance, which seem to be (so far as outsiders can determine) two of the major criteria in Google's ranking algorithm, aren't valid for evaluating an information source.

Tell an undergraduate student this and watch the confusion crawl across his/her face. I also happen to think that it's not necessarily true.

What's really going on here is that there are two parts of evaluation. One is, "Is this good information?" The other is, "Should I use it?"

There are scenarios where one might have a valid use for information that one knows is of poor quality, after all. But that's not really my point.

My point is that while popularity is not a good sole indicator of quality, it's worth considering because first of all, it probably put that search result on the first page for you, and secondly, one would do well to think about why so many people are looking for, clicking on, and linking to this think.

Might even be because the information in it is good.

The real criticism here, I think, is of popularity as an authority indicator. A few months ago I came across an article in the computer science literature, from the late 1990s or early 2000s, that suggested exactly this as a search engine algorithm.


Wouldn't that be an interesting idea to get students to unpack?

It's times like these that I wish I had entire semesters, instead of maybe one hour over the course of four years, to get this stuff across.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Arresting Image

Like a lot of librarians and writers (I happen to be both), I have a habit of privileging text over image. Partly it's upbringing, partly it's preference; however vivid and absorbing an image, I'm habitually more drawn to text, both for information and for entertainment.

In the past month, though, I've twice been pointed to the Boston Globe's The Big Picture. As MediaShift puts it, the Big Picture is "a large-format photo-blog" that "has created a way to display powerful images in a user-friendly manner". Simply put, it does this by making the images really, really large, and captioning them. The result is beyond attention-getting; it's far more absorbing than the images that typically accompany online newspaper stories, which often seem to be stuck in as an afterthought, or a way to balance the page layout. (Some of these, to be fair, link to larger pop-up versions of themselves--the Big Picture's images are still larger, though.)

This week I'm thinking a lot about the presentation of information, as my library website is about to go through a minor bit of redesign. We won't be changing the site architecture, but we will be doing some aesthetic rearranging. A few months back I asked, here and elsewhere, for examples of library websites that showed particularly good design. The response was mostly resounding silence. Library websites tend to be ugly, for the same reason that a lot of online newspaper sites are just the print version ported to the Web, often to a visually cluttered result: we're not used to thinking about how to make what we offer appealing to the eye in this medium. Larger monitors help; I read online a lot more since I got my 17-inch Macbook. But you can't count on that, not with mobile technologies taking off the way they are.

Now that I've been in the library field a few years, I'm thinking seriously about what aspects of the field interest me, since there's not enough time to try or do everything even in this little disciplinary slice of the world. We pay a lot of lip service to the necessity of good online service, especially usability, but rarely talk about what that means in terms of aesthetics and presentation. The Big Picture shows why these things are important.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A timely essay on Wikipedia

I'm in the reading/musing/planning stages of an article that pertains to Wikipedia. Actually, it's about cognitive authority and how Wikipedia pertains to that. I think. As I often tell student researchers, your topic has a way of trying to morph on you when you're doing your lit search.

So there's this article on Alley Insider, appropriately titled Who the Hell Writes Wikipedia, Anyway?, and although it's not a robust study of the subject, it's worth looking at simply for raising the question in a way that suggests that there's an answer. A lot of faculty (with complete justification, I emphasize) disallow Wikipedia because anyone can contribute, but we don't spend a whole lot of time talking about what that means and why it can be problem, especially since for a lot of needs (not necessarily those of the classroom or the assignment), Wikipedia is just good enough.

The ongoing core argument about Wikipedia continues in the comments, which are more interesting than comments on news stories typically are, in my experience. This is in part because a lot of the commenters are Wikipedia contributors--often disaffected former contributors. Which means that they, like most sources, should be read critically, of course.

Sometimes I think the most interesting thing about Wikipedia is that it has created this debate, one that honestly I think is overdue.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

News, blogs, and community

I live in Seattle. My city--hell, my entire region--has been in the news a lot lately. Snow and ice! Buses dangling over the interstate! Torrential downpours! All major roadways closed! (They are, too--right now, the only way to get out of western Washington is to fly.)

Yet for all the news coverage, the kind of local, community news--is that major arterial out of my neighborhood closed? Is there a hardware store anywhere in West Seattle that still has snow shovels? When is Public Utilities going to get around to collecting trash again, anyway?--that people find most useful during even minor crises was frustratingly hard to get ahold of. City news channels got some of it, but they cover the entire city. Two major sources of frustration--city utilities and transportation--were either impossible to reach, even by phone, or were unable to provide useful information.

Enter the West Seattle Blog. It came to prominence during a previous bout of wild weather--a massive windstorm two years ago that knocked out power to some parts of the city grid for over a week--but I'd been following it for awhile because I happen to live in West Seattle and, to be honest, had found the community newspaper rather lacking.

The blog has a number of cool features and interesting characteristics, but the most intriguing thing about it, which is key to its success, is that it's run by a couple of traditional-media veterans who encourage and capitalize on active community participation. Would the site be quite so popular if the 2006 windstorm hadn't happened? Probably not. But it's an excellent example of a virtual community serving a geographic or physical one, and as such, it has a number of characteristics that libraries would do well to emulate.

It's also an object lesson for traditional media: namely, to dismiss it because it's hosted on a blogging platform (which some sources that traditionally communicate with newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations have done) is to miss the point and miss the boat. It's a handy demonstration of how a blog CAN be a perfect community news and communication venue. Other community resources, libraries included, would do well to take heed.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Design on my mind

Last fall, a group of students in a market research class did a research project for our reference department. It was the sort of thing that we'd wanted to do for awhile, but lacked the wherewithal: surveying literature and students to gauge perceptions and get ideas and recommendations regarding our service. One advantage to being at a university is that you have all this brainpower at your disposal--not just the (considerable) faculty brainpower, but the students too, to whom you can provide opportunities for class projects and learning.

Anyway, among the recommendations--several of which we are implementing--was a redesign of the library website. I was a little tempted to skip this one at first, since we just did a redesign a couple of years ago: it was my first major project after starting here.

But I have to admit that while our library website is pretty good from an organizational and IA perspective, the design is, well, less visually interesting than it could be. And as I started looking at other library websites to get some ideas, I saw that for all we talk about the importance of making our Web presence engaging, easy to use, maybe even (dare I say it?) a little bit fun, most library websites--not to put too fine a point on it--suck.

I've never been a Web designer and have only a smattering of development experience, but I've been on the Web since 1995 and to be honest, most websites suck. Why is this so hard to get right?

Well, for one thing, there are a lot of different elements that go into making a good website. As librarians, we're really good at organizing information--that is, after all, a cornerstone of our profession--but most of us are not designers and we have an ongoing problem with presentation, which also manifests in our instructional settings and the physical layout of our buildings. A library doesn't have to look like a nightclub, and our websites need to resemble neither Google nor Facebook. But in addition to being well organized and functional, they should also be well designed.

This isn't only or even principally about aesthetics. I've seen some beautiful websites whose designs are entirely unsuitable for libraries--but I've also seen some exemplifying principles that library websites would do well to emulate. CSS Zen Garden provides plenty of examples of both, and is especially useful because it shows how many different ways you can display the same content. Some of those displays would work very well with the kind of content libraries provide.

So for the next while I'm going to be thinking about design. In a way, it's easier this time around because I know that the underlying organization of my library's website is solid, which wasn't necessarily the case before. It's also worth thinking about design as distinct from (though obviously necessarily related to) content, information architecture, technological feasibility, and implementation.

If you're contemplating a similar project, the best suggestion I can make at this point is to look beyond other library websites. Most of them suck, and most of them suck in the same ways, for a reason.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Happy new year?

I came back to work today to the news that EBSCO is launching an integrated search service sometime this year.

...anybody NOT see that one coming?