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.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


I chose Art, the 14th card of the Book of Thoth tarot deck, as my inaugural image. Aleister Crowley intended it to represent the alchemist at work, carefully and deliberately blending together the various components to produce a vastly improved end result.

A similarly carefully crafted blend of various web tools can transform your library's internet presence. Today an ever increasing number of people begin their information searches on the web (I use internet and web synonymously but I am aware that they are, technically, different). The vast majority of libraries have a very lean web presence beyond their OPAC. Using your website, you can direct patrons to a host of ways that they can interact with and become emotionally invested in your product, the public library. It will also allow you to provide service to where the customer is.

A great deal of my beginning assumptions are based on a presentation given at the Library of Virginia by George Needham, VP of Member Services @ OCLC. The slides and notes are available from Slideshare. He talked about a semi-comic "Extinction Timeline" created by a couple of groups, What's Next and Future Exploration Network. This time line has libraries going extinct in about 10 years. Needham went on to say,
"If we are going extinct in 11 years, here’s why. It won’t be due to some evil cabal of censors and budget cutters, it will be because we’ve allowed the love to drift into apathy. And as we well know, the opposite of love isn’t hate---it’s apathy."
If you asked the average Joe-on-the-street, he would say that, "yeah, libraries are great." If you asked him where he would go first to look for answers, it would not be the library. Research has shown that people begin looking for answers on their own, only rarely do they think to go to the library (documentation forthcoming). As for material, OCLC's study Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources does not really bode well either. Of American respondents, 27% (the largest group) said they go to a library not even once a year.

We have very poor brand loyalty. In my current system, the county administrator suggested that we may have to put the new library on hold for awhile and no one even squeaked. We do have the info, and the trained staff, and many expensive databases. You can't beat the price. What's the problem? The problem is our old M.O. no longer functions. People want drive through 24/7. We expect them to sit down for five courses and only between 5 and 8. We are not Barnes & Borders but we can learn from them. We are not Googlepedia but they, too, have much to teach us.