Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Visit to three Baltimore libraries

On Monday, September the 2oth, I had the opportunity to visit three Baltimore libraries. I was in town for a publisher's meeting, and they let us out early. So, I figured I would see some of the libraries in the area. I mapped out three. They are pretty much a straight shot up Charles St.

The first library I stopped at was the Enoch Pratt Free Library. I had to walk about 6-7 blocks to get there. What an amazing structure. The main hall was something to behold. There are some pictures posted on their Flickr site, but none of the individual pictures do the entire hall justice. Once you get into the reference areas or in the stacks, it looked like the carpet could use some vacuuming, but that is not such a big deal. The children's area was a little hard to find. One has to weave their way down the stairs to get to the children's area. What an amazing area -- well worth the trip. The fountain is really cool.

The next library is north another 7 blocks north. I walked to the University of Baltimore Langsdale Library. I simply walked in the front door. They did have a security guard on the main level. She never questioned me. Maybe I looked nice. Since I am a science and engineering librarian, I tend to gravitate to the science areas of the stacks. I was a little surprised to find only 3 shelves of astronomy books and only 7 shelves of physics books. Hummm. Now that I look at the departments available in the College of Arts and Sciences, I see that they do not offer much in the way of physics, astronomy or mathematics. That explains it. Had I looked in a different area, I probably would have found lots more books. It is also good to see that their libraries are keeping up by attending conferences. I wish I could have attended this one. I was not able to get free wifi while on campus. I also stopped by their newish student center. I also learned that the U of Baltimore is part of the University of Maryland system. I thought it was private, but it isn't.

The third and last library is another 20 blocks to the north, the Eisenhower Library (of the Sheridan Libraries) at Johns Hopkins University. I took a cab from Penn station. The security guard took my drivers license to make a photocopy before she would let me in. The place was packed. They have resources that I have only heard about and never seen. For example, they have the Science of Synthesis in print in their reference section. They also have quite a bit of LB, but it is hard to tell if they are getting current volumes or not. I did not check to see if they have online access to either of these. There is a reason that JHU is highly ranked in the ARL. They can spend the money on resources such as these. They are also building the new Brody Learning Commons area.

Once I was done visiting the Eisenhower library, I stopped by their book store, which is a Barnes and Noble just off campus. Not very exciting. I thought about getting a lacrosse hat or a t-shirt, but I'm not really Hopkins material. That, and I am not really a lacrosse fan, but I do know that they are known for that sport.

Ate dinner at the neighborhood Subway, and then I headed back to the hotel. Overall, it was a good trip visiting three Baltimore libraries.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Sort of a review of Cognitive Surplus

Finally finished Cognitive Surplus the other day. Took me a little while to read it. I had to renew it twice... I guess I was using my cognitive surplus on other things besides reading that book.

The word library shows up once I think. I can't find it again. Anyway, there are a number of things that Clay Shirky talks about in the book that is pretty relevant to libraries. Such as:
Clay said on page 17:

People want to do something to make the world a better place. They will help when they are invited to. Access to cheap, flexible tools removes many of the barriers to trying new things. You don't need fancy computers to harness cognitive surplus; simple phones are enough.... Once you have figured out how to tap the surplus in a way that people care about, others can replicate your technique, over and over, around the world.
This is what hit me with the Library Camp and Unconference model for meetings and conferences. That is why I helped to organize the STELLA Unconference. We don't always need big organizations like the ALA or SLA or State Library Associations to hold meetings of like-minded (or unlike-minded) librarians anymore. [Note: I am the Chair-Elect of the Sci-Tech Division of SLA, and I still find the SLA conference to be worthwhile.] If anything, a lot of work and discussion can get done over discussion lists and other social networking sites. The difficulty is figuring out how to tap that surplus in a way that people care about. I hope others will continue to replicate the unconference model (very low cost aspects) for other meetings and gatherings.

Page 50:
When publication--the act of making something public--goes from being hard to being virtually effortless, people used to the old system often regard publishing by amateurs as frivolous, as if publishing was an inherently serious activity.... An activity that once seemed inherently valuable turned out to be only accidentally valuable, as a change in the economics revealed.
Open Access publishing is continuing to gain steam. People are starting to realize that it does not take a behemoth to publish high quality articles. I hope that the journal I am involved with, Collaborative Librarianship, fits this description.
Page 98:

No one wants e-mail for itself, any more than anyone wants electricity for itself; rather, we want the things that e-mail enables--news from home, pictures of the kids, discussion, arguments, flirtation, gossip, and all the mess of the human condition.
As a librarian, I need to remember to focus on how the technology can enhance the human condition (and how our students can use the technology to learn stuff and gain knowledge and pass their classes and get good jobs after they graduate, etc.), and not on the technology itself. I have a tendency to do that, I know...
Page 162:

Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur, compared bloggers to monkeys. These complaints, self-interested though they were, echoed more broadly held beliefs. Shared, unmanaged effort might be fine for picnics and bowling leagues, but serious work is done for money, by people who work in proper organizations, with managers directing their work.
Librarians from lots of various organizations can work together just fine without having managerial overhead. The Library Society of the World is a good example. While the LSW may experience some growing pains every once in a while, it is a working example of a group of people that can be organized without the organization.
Page 189:

The communications tools we now have, which a mere decade ago seemed to offer an improvement to the 20th century media landscape, are now seen to be rapidly eroding it instead. A society where everyone has some kind of access to the public sphere is a different kind of society than one where citizens approach media as mere consumers.
I am not quite sure I agree with his "everyone has some kind of access to the public sphere" bit. There is still quite a big problem with the information haves and have nots here in the US, and lots of people in China or Nigeria or Romania have information access problems. But, we are heading towards greater information access for all. In any case, our society is going to see great changes in the way our patrons view the media and publishing in general. The upheaval has just begun.
Page 192:

Users never behave exactly as the designers of the system expect or want them to.
As librarians, we know that this is sooooo true. Patrons never use the databases the way that the computer programmers expected. The patrons try to extract information in ways that are not expected. The patron wants to sort by the first name instead of last? The patron wants to search by the city of publication, and not just the publisher name? The patron wants to get a list of sales by longitude instead of by zipcode or some other geographic data?
Page 194:

It is far better to start with a system that is small and good and work on making it bigger than to start with a system that is large and mediocre and working on making it better.
Another truism in library systems and databases. I'd rather have patrons use a smaller clean database with good indexing and good links than a huge database that has lots of errors, comes back with strange results and leads the patron to dead ends.
Page 196:

If you want different behavior, you have to provide different opportunities.
In other words, the patrons will respond to how the database and the interface is designed. If your catalog is set up so that patrons can tag items, but only after they jump through some hoops to login to the system, then they are not going to use that feature. If a patron has to click three or four times to get to an advanced search screen, they are not going to use that, even if that is what they need to find the kinds of articles they are looking for.
Page 203:

Twitter was created for use on mobile phones, then retooled itself for more web use..... Instead, the imperative is to learn from failure, adapt, and learn again.
This section deals with adaptation. Of course libraries and librarians need to adapt, but I think we could learn from our mistakes faster and adapt a bit quicker. I work in an academic library, and some of the decisions can be made verrrrrrryyyyyyyyyy sloooooooowwwwlllllllyyyyyyyyy. Lots of decisions are made by committee, and if you don't have a consensus on something, it can be death by committee. Sometimes it can be easier to just do something based on your gut feeling and knowledge of something, and if it was the wrong decision, own up to the mistake and admit it. Sometimes, it is easier to ask for forgiveness after the fact, than it is to ask for approval from a group of people to do something before the fact. If you want some examples, let me know.
Page 205:

As a general rule, it is more important to try something new, and work on the problems as they arise, than to figure out a way to do something new without having any problems.
Some librarians can be quite risk averse. They don't want to start a new service or program without figuring out how to solve all of the possible problems ahead of time. How should we respond if someone asks a question like this? What if we get a line of people at the service point? What if the patrons want to use the equipment under water? What if patron doesn't recharge the battery? Well, I say we should just start the service and see how they use it. There is no way we are going to know how people are going to use the service or the equipment until we make it available.
Page 209:

Biases in favor of existing systems is good, as least in periods of technological stability. When someone runs a bookstore, or a newspaper, or a tv station, it's advantageous to have those people think of their work as being critical for society.
This is a section of the book where Clay is arguing that we should have as much chaos as we can stand during this media transition. We are going to see massive change in the culture of information use. Of course, librarians want libraries to exist [and thrive and prosper] because we are critical to the underpinnings of an educated populace, and to a well-oiled and smoothly running society. (Well, relatively smooth running society...) But, journalists see themselves in a similar role, and so do people who work in the telecommunications industry. When people can get news from non-journalists, or communicate with friends on Twitter or Skype or IM, then those industries are going to contract with some of the professionals in those industries crying about the lack of services that the non-professionals provide.

Libraries are going to continue to see contraction because some of the funders and decision makers do not see the value of services and information we provide. We have to do a better job of marketing what we do to more of the higher ups.
Page 210:

People committed to solving a particular problem also commit themselves to maintaining that problem in order to keep their solution viable.
This has huge implications for libraries. The good news is that as the information universe continues to get more complex, we are going to continue to have patrons who need our help in navigating that universe. As new information gets published, we will have to continue to purchase or lease or subscribe to it. We need to keep track of the electronic resources and books we have, and we also have to let our patrons know about all of that stuff and all of the services we provide to our patrons.

But, do we have to worry about doing too good of a job? Can we ever teach them so well, that they will no longer need to ask us how to use information products? Could a search engine do such a good job that it can do a true reference interview? I think computer software will get better, particularly with the semantic web, but I don't think it will be able to have a conversation with the patron. If someone knows what they are looking for, they might be able to get a good answer. What about the patron that needs advice on how to narrow it down? Can a computer respond with--have you tried looking at this problem in a completely different way? The computer might be able to recommend other search terms, but it won't be able to see the facial expression of the students when they are confused or happy, and know how to ask that next question.


Well, that is it for me. Did you read the book?