Archive for the ‘library’ Category

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New Search Tools (well, new to me)

July 15, 2008

There are exciting things happening in the world of search (thank goodness) that we library people ought to be paying attention to. A search very that is very cool has recently come to my attention. It and others like it are essentially the result of the availability of APIs and the desire to create functional metasearch that is also usuable (previous metasearch tools have been, uh, clunky, and just paste together loads of results). These tools are also very visual in nature.

So, this thing is called PicLens, and I really like this one (it requires Firefox). It has your standard search box, so all of us know enough to type in some terms … easy. Then you get pick what things you are searching (you can search Flickr, Photobucket, Yahoo, Google, etc) and type in some terms (you can also select various categories of news).  The results are, in brief, visually stunning.  A wall of images appears that spans your entire screen and curves around you, as much as a flat screen can curve anyway. You can can travel up and down this wall and zoom in and out … then select something and it zooms right in to the full image (if it’s a movie, it will start playing at this point).

This actually works remarkably well somehow.  I have no problem selecting from images and finding lots of things of interest to me. It didn’t take more than a few minutes of browsing around to find an image from among the hundreds that actually had me in it at a recent concert in Louisville. I thought that this was an interesting phenomenon … I suspect that us humans are really quite good at looking at ridiculous numbers of images and pulling out things that are significant.  Now, when it comes to libraries, this will likely not be the best way to search for, say, scientific articles, but in its current state it could be a fantastic way to display the contents of one’s archival collections to the world (or anything else with a strong visual component). I would much rather browse an archive or museum visually (I mean, that’s what one does when one is actually there), than some type of lifeless keyword search).

Anyway, a cool tool … Piclens … I have it on all of the time now.

And, I was just thinking a little more ….. at least what I call thinking anyway.  Perhaps there is a visual way to search for such things as scientific articles.  I think perhaps rather than the old boring text metatags for articles, authors should start attaching visual metatags.  These could be diagrams, graphs, x-rays, molecular diagrams … anything visual that could then be browsed … don’t tell anyone, this is our secret.

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This will likely confuse you …

May 1, 2008

When I was a young lad, my father discovered that I was a fan of apocalyptic literature and pointed out a novel to me called “Earth Abides”. I read the book many times over the years and have always been fascinated by the depiction of the library in this novel (the author, George Stewart, was a faculty member at Berkeley, and wrote the library into the novel in a way that seems to be making some kind of statement). What has interested me is that the novel was written in 1949, yet it seems to have a message that is quite relevant today.  I’ve never managed to find any reference to any of this in the literature, although the novel is considered to be a classic. (of course, why would most people pay any attention to the presence of a library in a novel?) So, for ages I pecked away at an essay on the topic of the library in Earth Abides and what the heck George Stewart tells us (perhaps inadvertently).  For me, it’s an important topic … however, the essay doesn’t really seem to have a place anywhere in the library literature, and I just can’t be bothered to persist (I have the feeling that nobody but myself and my father (we’ve discussed this topic many times over drinks or meals) could possibly find this interesting).

So, I have put the essay on the internet to potentially be found some day like a message in a bottle by some random search. If it never gets read, I’ll just come back to it in a few years and see if it’s jibberish … so, it’s here.  Obviously, I’m bothering to tell you so I am making a bit of an effort, but that seems like about as little effort as I could possibly take to “publish” this thing. 

Having sent this around to a few places I have received responses that have varied from “I’m going to use this in my class, but it doesn’t fit in our journal” to “perhaps you could submit this as an opinion piece” … neither of these responses inspired me to continue (or to do anything, actually), and, more accurately, they caused me to roll my eyes. I wrote this for me … you can have it if you like.   

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The death of the library (again)

March 18, 2008

Yes, the same old refrain … the library will be no more.  I haven’t said that seriously (yet) simply because the alternatives have never quite been good enough.  Another step toward making this a reality has quietly been taken, however, and it’s only a matter of time.  I was listening to discussion of the Amazon Kindle today and realized that this was an important step.  The Kindle is Amazon’s e-book reader, and that will cause lots of library people to snort and talk about how they’ve already been down that road and nobody wants those things.  Of course, that road was traveled in typical library fashion … the first e-book readers were announced, everyone said “oh, this is the replacement for the book”, some libraries bought a bunch, nobody cared, the e-book was declared a failure. This is the equivalent of taking the very first television, announcing that this technology would change everything, setting up big box stores with walls of the primitive devices, and when  people didn’t flood in (because they had no idea what to do with the things  and there was no content), announcing that the TV was a failure.

The Kindle, however, does some important things.  First it takes some steps in making reading a natural process with relatively ink-on-paper like viewing and reasonable ease of use.  It also (and this is cool), will read any of those books to you in audio format, which is becoming more popular among people who want to hear something interesting while doing something else and people who just like books in audio form. That’s not all, though … the Kindle also connects directly to Amazon so that you can get a book anytime that you think of one.  What they did right with this is that Amazon takes care of all of the wireless part for you … you don’t need to do anything, the Kindle just connects and gets what you want (via the 3G cell phone network).  That connects you to a lot of material and you can pretty much get whatever you want for a few dollars.  As someone said today, “it would be great if absolutely every title was available this way”, and that’s when it struck me.  If absolutely everything was available that way, I think I’d want one.  Not only that, but I certainly wouldn’t be making many trips to the library if I could get whatever, wherever, whenever, and had the database of Amazon there with ratings recommendations, etc.

So, it’s another step closer … I can’t even get one of these things yet for use in Canada, but it certainly is the right idea.  I think that I’d use a Kindle like crazy, being the type that just loves to accumulate information.  Right now, I am controlled by having to get to the used book store, or consider shipping and time-lag when ordering online. I can’t visit Amazon without finding ten things that I want … this would take down all of the barriers …

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Confirmation

June 6, 2007

I was speaking with a History prof the other day and he said one of those things that makes me happy.  We were discussing the availability of articles online (and the open access publishing business), and he made the comment that Google had revived a number of his old articles.  Seems that these articles had pretty much run their course as far as being used through the conventional indexes, but with the advent of google searching for such things (I assume that google scholar was working for him), people were once again findging his work.  His only regret was that the titles of his old stuff didn’t have very google-friendly titles. It is always amazing to hear such comments from the very people who claim that the Internet, and new modes of research, mostly reveal how much crap is out there.

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Quick one …

May 10, 2007

Doing a bit of reading about the changing roles of librarians, a phrase leaped out at me:

“Insurmountable opportunities”

Has everyone but me been using this regularly?   I may very well have missed something here, but I think this phrase should come up repeatedly to replace such words as “synergies” … I truly do not mean to be cynical here.  This phrase says quite a bit about where we are, where we hope to be, and our perceptions of our place in the world of information.

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A few things brewing …

April 25, 2007

Went to a library event called “Digital Odyssey” last week to hear a number of people speak. I was quite interested in just hearing what the relatively new Chief from MacMaster had to say, and that was quite interesting. (on a completely different topic … to write this I just switched over to my Powerbook from a PC … the keyboard on this thing is beautiful after the PC … it just feels so perfect!) Anyway, I went in thinking about a recent webby application I’d become interested in, and a number of topics merged. There was one talk on putting web 2.0 features into a library catalogue and something about it was really rubbing me the wrong way … it was good work, but there was just something wrong. It struck me that this project, by implementing rating systems, comments, and such was focusing too much on the discreet end points of searching. i.e. – they were collecting searches, and they were collecting the items (and reactions to them) at the other end. This is all fine and good, but I’ve been focusing lately a lot on the idea that research is not just entering a search and receiving results. It’s also more than just matching like people with like results and preferences. Research, in fact, is a process, and it’s a complex and often social process. The bit that’s missing in this focus on search beginnings and endings, is the “trail” that takes up the middle, and the trail is extremely important to the person seeking information.
I’ve thought about this quite a bit and discussed it with scholars. The most obvious manifestation of the trail is following citations. Once a person reaches a certain point in their education, they realize that the endnotes and bibliography of any article can be almost as important as the content. These elements of a paper show you who is an influence on the author, and how the author has constructed his or her argument. Many times I have followed citations and created a “trail”, and I know that my research is nearly complete when I begin to see the same sources being mentioned repeatedly … at that point I begin to feel like I have a grip on the community of people working on this topic and that I have “covered the ground”. The trail can also certainly be a social circle of actual people, and I suspect that people utilize these trails without even realizing that they are utilizing a technique (you know that the guy down the street has had some great work done on his house, so you ask him about the process of getting renovations done, he tells you to contact so and so, etc).

Anyway … trails. As I mentioned some posts ago, this fellow Vannevar Bush undertsood the importance of trails way back in 1945 when he speculated about information technology. I think that we have gone through a period in digital information use that has lost the utility of the trail to a certain degree, as we each do discreet searches, find some stuff, and then exit Google or whatever, our search history more or less lost forever. The current library catalogue most definitely has no memory, and does nothing to tie together all of the bazillion people who use it … and there’s a lot of information being lost there. Remembering their searches, their results, and their ratings would be something, but to remember their “trails”, and the networks that they create as they move through information would really be something.

There is actually at least one product attempting to put the idea of “trails” into use. the folks at trailfire get the concept and are trying to create a tool to allow one to keep track of trails. They are in the early stages, but it’s quite interesting. They offer a tool that allow you to mark and annotate websites as you search for information and to save these collections as “trails”, and to share them with others (just as Vannevar Bush envisioned). It almost works, and the ability to save collections of websites in clusters with annotations is useful in itself. The “trail” thing isn’t quite there, though, as most of the examples seem to be just collections of un-connected sites … the potential is there, perhaps as they develop this thing it will develop some true power.

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Divergence

April 18, 2007

We’ve been at an interesting point for a while now, in terms of having many (many) paths to take as far as the services we offer, and technologies that we employ. Around here, there seems to be a sudden surge of interest in technologies, with many people joining Facebook and a flurry of enthusiasm for Second Life. I’ve always been an “early adopter” and I have also played with these things and done some thinking about their use for libraries or education in general. At this moment, however, there seems to be a real possibility of simply freezing while being faced with the number of available options. I’m sure that I’m not alone in feeling that there are so many things to do these days with technology that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to simply absorb all of the various information flows coming at me. I listen to tech podcasts while walking to and from work, and watch Diggnation while I’m doing the dishes … I carve out time to write these rambling blog posts. One thing that strikes me about all of this. One thing that I’ve been thinking about is how very different some of these technologies are that we are choosing between. In particular, it interests me that “young people” (as we like to call them) choose technologies that are both extremely hi-tech and extremely lo-tech, and use them both. Lo-tech to me is text-messaging which is being used heavily … hi-tech would be the games that they are playing on the latest thing, be it Wii, X-Box, or Playstation. (this is not unlike the fact that many people now watch video on giant hi-def screens at home or in bars, and also watch video on tiny little iPod screens depending on their situation). So, it’s not so simple when trying to decide how to reach people, to say “our users like hi-tech … see how they play these games?”, or “our users are fine with lo-tech, punching out little text-messages on tiny little keypads”. Clearly, (and not really that surprisingly), they like both depending on where they are and what they’re doing. Part of our problem though comes when we want to communicate with these people … do we set up text-messaging, or do we create a giant billboard in Second Life. For certain purposes, one will work, and one will be a flop (or perhaps neither will have any impact).

So, as is so often the case, I have a very simple message. It is not only important to know what our users like to use … it is also important to know why they use technologies, or quite simply, how they behave. It is not simply the case that if we build it, they will come. It may very well be the case that nobody will see your email or nobody will play your game if it is built outside of the context that makes sense to people. Fact is, it is necessary to live inside of these communities and adopt the technologies, not just to observe and then send a message from your planet to theirs in the hope that they will take notice.