Monday, August 3, 2009

The Tower

The sixteenth trump of the tarot, the Tower, is a symbol for abrupt and unexpected change. That is a good image to illustrate this summer in a number of ways. Firstly, due to the economic down turn, my family and I had to move. New city, new school, new house, new state. I'll spare you the sordid details.
Much more apropos, however, OCLC announced this spring that they are going to be expanding their services to include many of the functions traditionally handled by a library automation software package. The sorta thing sold by companies like SirsiDynix, Innovative Interfaces, ExLibris and a couple of others. OCLC's product is using the cloud model. Basically, the library would only need a fast internet connection and OCLC would handle the software and record maintenance. The software that you, the library, would use to do collection development, inventory management, and various patron services would all exist off site. They provide you with the code you need to embed a search box on your page. I can understand the appeal that this would have for many systems, especially smaller systems. I assume that the library in question would no longer need to own and maintain a physical server or the software packages on said server. My last system had no end of expense and headaches derived from that process (updating, patching, migrating, diagnosing issues, etc.) In the June, 2009 podcast of the Library 2.0 Gang, the mood was somewhat split. Many of the guests took a wait-and-see position, but a few took a more open position, saying that it was a good nudge to the big LIS providers to innovate. I guess I should also note that OCLC's Machiavellian grab, a.k.a. changes to the Policy for Use and Transfer of WorldCat® Records, cast a dark shadow over the discussion. The folks over at the Thingology, LibraryThing's blog have a very good update/discussion on this topic.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


I tried and tried to find some sort of occult, hermetic, or alchemical tie-in for this months topic but I just couldn't manage it. Here is a nice image. A giant hand lighting a candle. Nice and occult but not especially relevant. Enjoy.

This month, I have really been thinking about service and how that applies to our field. Libraries, especially public libraries are a service industry. We often get our heads stuck up in the philosophical clouds of librarianship. Sure we provide a unique service. Sure we are one of the only sources of unbiased information (unless you are asking about libraries). Sure we are an asset to the community, serving all sectors equally. We provide secure access to information that is accessible to all. Yes, that stuff is nice and true but at the end of the day, if we provide crappy service, we will have fewer customers and much less brand loyalty.

Libraries are a brand. On the whole we are well thought of. In the 2005 Perceptions study from OCLC, 79% of respondents ranked libraries "favorably" or "very favorably" when asked to "indicate how you would rate each source/place with respect to the information available." That's 2% ahead of bookstores: Barnes & Noble, B. Dalton, Borders. Before your head gets too big let me tell you that faceless search engines beat us by nearly 10 %.

Here is a test that many of you may actually get to run. If your funding agency were to discuss cutting your funding, how many of your users would protest? How many would go to the meetings and speak? How many would work a petition drive or make phone calls? How many would shrug and go on with their day?

Every customer you work with on a daily basis is a voter or a paying student. When it comes down to it, they are your boss. If you take care of them, they will take care of you.

If you need a little more convincing read Seth Godin's blog post, Looking for Yes. He compares his experience at his local Post Office and at a Fedex store. He says that the people at the Post Office always hassle him about his package as though they are trying to find a reason NOT to serve him. On the other hand, the people at the Fedex store are always doing everything they can to help him.

Here is an example from my actual library. Someone in our neighborhood hosts foreign exchange students. Once a quarter or so, we get a group of teenagers who speak very poor English come in to use the computers. They are often told, rather flatly, that they can't get a card because they don't have an ID with their current address. What should happen is that the library staff person should try to find out what they want from us and try to make that happen. The majority of the time, they just want to e-mail home. We offer a computer use card (no check-out privileges) with any ID. That is the difference between a clock puncher doing their job and engaged customer service.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Following the footsteps

Atalanta Fugiens emblem number 42 shows us the Alchemist. He is attempting to follow the footsteps of nature though the obstacles be many and difficult. The moral of this allegory is that by using the right tools and with careful perseverance, he may succeed in the Art. I would like to suggest that today's library customer is in a similar situation.

In the June 2008 podcast from the Library 2.0 Gang, available here, it was discussed how most of the OPACs widely in use were built for librarians not for the end user. The guest was Taco Ekkel, the Director of Development and Medialab Solutions, the company behind Aquabrowser. In discussing Medialab Solutions' decision to target libraries with their search tool, he had this to say:

But all these vendors were focused on products for librarians and libraries internally. So they had ILSs, library systems, that worked pretty well for staff and for [inaudible] in terms of cataloging and back office integration and things related to circulation, of course. And these systems also offered front ends for library patrons to use. Now what we noticed as we went in was that the usability for most of these front ends, called OPACs in this arena, weren't as usable to end users as the examples we had seen outside the library world.

If I may paraphrase, the OPAC sucks. Other search tools are much better at producing decent results relevant to what the customer's search. [As an aside, databases are worse. The librarians and vendors who rend their garments and lament that patrons insist on consulting Google instead of a researched and reputable database should at least consider this] Our poor customers are faced with a fairly steep challenge every time they attempt to find material on their own. Firstly, the OPAC is often opaque. "Do I search by subjects or keywords?" There is often times no help if they are not using correct spelling. If they wish to search for something very specific, it gets even more complicated. I helped a customer yesterday try to find picture books about time. My system uses an OPAC from Innovative (not Encore). I had to search by call number (E for Easy) then filter those results with the subject heading Clocks and Watches -- Stories, then filter by location to find what I had at my branch. I have a Master's Degree in Library Science with an emphasis on reference. Most of my customers do not.

We can do better.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Dies Natalis Solis Invicti

I am often amused by the symbols and the history of those symbols that surrounds us daily. Take New Years, for example. The symbols that are often used are an old man and a baby. On the surface of it, this is the old year giving way to the new. The old man is usually shown with a sickle and an hour glass, suggesting that he is the god Saturn, whose celebration was December 17-December 23. New Years takes place one week after Christmas, where Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, the new born king. This time of year is frequently referred to as the Season of Light.

All of this can be traced to the winter solstice and a possible pagan rite where by the consort of the goddess dies (or is murdered) and a new consort is selected. This is a pre-literate rite and can only be suggested by cultural carry overs. For more information, one should check out The Chalice and the Blade, When God Was a Women, and Robert Graves' work The Greek Myths. It goes something like this. The sun has become weaker and weaker since the summer solstice and, one might believe, be close to death. The ancient pagan rite suggested that the sun was a god (and consort to the goddess) and does, in fact, die. After a period of mourning, a young, new consort is selected (or, possibly, the old consort is reborn) and the light of the sun begins to strengthen. Disaster is averted.

All of this is to say that I'm going to take a couple of weeks off to enjoy the Winter Solstice, Saturnalia, the birthday of Sol Invictus, Yule, Christmas, New Years, whatever. I'll see you next year.

Monday, December 8, 2008


There is an expression, the walled garden, that is applicable to the way libraries (and other online content providers) viewed their services. It was a special place that could only be reached via certain routes and portals. Libraries are not the only culprits here. Database providers and publishers are (were?) locked into this way of thinking. The deliberate obstacles created to maintain these gardens discourage users and send them elsewhere. Today's young netizens expect things to play reasonably well together. They wish to be able to grab whatever from where ever. For example, a person could quite easily, have pictures on Flickr, videos on Youtube, documents at Google Docs, links on Delicious, and updates on Twitter and tie it all together with a Facebook page. The garden walls are coming down because that's what people want and there are companies that are making money by being welcoming and cooperative

Having said all of that, I would like to point out two examples this change being embraced. The first is Yahoo Pipes. This is an amazing tool that allows users to take information available from the internet at large and reprocess it. In my first experiment with this tool, I took RSS news feeds from four different sources (Yahoo!, Google, ALA, and Library Journal), filtered their collective articles for the words library, librarian, libraries in either the title or description and then sorted those results by date. The output is viewable here. This simple exercise barely scratches the surface of what this tool is capable of. Check out the tutorial.

My second example is an initiative from the folks over at Wright State University in Ohio. They have announced that they are looking to implement a "comprehensive discovery layer" to access the total collections of all OhioLINK systems. What this means to the rest of us is that they would like to create a way to search, from a single starting point, books and other media as well as databases and other special collections. Imagine typing in your search and getting books from multiple systems as well as images, maps, newspaper and magazine articles, and database entries and all presented in a coherent, single list. Well, that is the plan at least according to the people over at Disrputive Library Technology Jester. That would be pretty awesome.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


Hermes, or Mercury as the Romans called him, was the fleet footed messenger of the gods, the crosser of boundaries, as well as the god of commerce and information. I think his appearance in this post is apt.

Here is an example of how the old library self-image is working to our detriment. Say I want information on Giordano Bruno. I am a card holder for three local systems. I tried this experiment at the two public libraries.

At Chesterfield County Public Library:
1)open browser
2)type in library website
3)click databases
4)click on Biography Resource Center
[click back because I forgot to go to the proxy authentication]
4)click on the authentication link
it seems that the proxy server is down, dead end

At Henrico County Public Library
1)open browser
2)type in library website
3)click databases
4)click authentication link for Biography Resource Center
5)type in barcode and submit
6)type giordano bruno
7)chose from results

The internet
1)open browser
3)type giordano bruno and submit

If I did not already know the URL for Wikipedia, It happens to be the first hit on a Google search.

The lesson here is this: The valuable and expensive resources that the library makes available are not easy to use. The internet is laughably easy to use. Don't like anecdotal evidence? Again let me refer you to the 2005 Perceptions study from OCLC. People were asked to choose between Search Engines or Libraries over a range of categories. As you look at these numbers, think about this quote from George Needham's speech at the Library of Virginia (see Art, December 2 below for more on this).
It strikes me that these are the attributes that most people would consider to be the most important these days in our time-challenged world. Think about this when you are driving home tonight: if you need a loaf of bread or a quart of milk, are you going to stop at the very best, finest, most trustworthy supermarket in your county, or are you going to stop at the one where you don’t need to make a left turn?

Here are the results:
AttributesLibrariesSearch Engines
Trustworthy/credible sources60%40%
Accurate, quality information56%44%
Reliable/always available28%72%
Easy to use15%85%

Thursday, December 4, 2008


My thesis is this: Way back in the day, the library was the safe place where a community's collective investment in knowledge was stored, archived, and protected. It was a time when information was scarce. The books in this photo where chained to the shelf to protect them from theft.

That time is gone.

We are drowning in information now. We have too much information. Libraries are no longer the end point of pilgrimage. I believe that we still have a role in this new environment, but we have to give up that old idea. We are no longer the guardians of the horde. It is time to strike out and discover our new role.