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philosophizing

Last week I was reading Dorothea Salo’s posting about OCLC’s report on library branding, and it got me to thinking about this a bit.

In particular, I thought about her comment:

I would want to trial-balloon a “Deep Web” play in my next survey, if I were OCLC. I would want to know how many people have heard of the Deep Web, what they think is in it, whether they think information useful to them is in it, whether they would access it through their libraries if they could. This moves away from free-vs.-paid and toward exclusive-vs.-nonexclusive. People like the idea of being privileged. If the library is a place that privileges them, I think they’ll go for it. Special-collections and archives get a boost in this campaign, too; access to rare or unique information is the ultimate in privilege.

I see a tension here. While many push for an “information wants to be free” model, this would, inherently, devalue the role of the organization that makes it free. In fact, to take her quote even farther, this is especially true of special collections and archives.

Allow me to explain.

Users aren’t particularly discriminatory as to where they get their information. Our students or faculty don’t really care if the article or research they are looking at comes to them courtesy of Georgia Tech or if it was found in Citeseer. They are more likely to say they found something in “Google Scholar” vs. the actual institutional repository for the school they are actually getting it from. The more open the information is, the less exclusive our collection becomes and the less leverage and value we hold (at least conforming to our traditional model).

With special collections, this is especially true. Special collections are “special” because they are “unique”. Libraries spend a lot of money curating these collections. Historically, this has enjoyed a fairly good ROI because it distinguishes the library (and therefore, larger institution) as something “special” itself. These materials are exclusive to that particular institution and give value to the collection.

However, there is pressure to digitize and publish these collections. If all of these collections are digitized and published, we have a bunch of silos strewn about the internet requiring the user know about find them to use them. Since it is a lot of work to digitize and mark up these collections, there’s not a terribly good return for the effort.

In an effort to improve findability, the collections need to be aggregated with other similar collections to increase their exposure. However, the result of this is improved awareness and accessibility, but at the same time it dilutes exclusiveness and branding. Whoever provides the aggregation/discovery service gets the benefit of the content, so some of the content providers (inherently) must lose.

So, what does this mean? It should not prevent us from making our collections more open and accessible. That runs counter to our mission. However, we need to start thinking of ways to generate value when our information is free. There are plenty of ways of doing that, such as tailoring services that aggregates the “free” information for our communities, or building systems that can use the information in unique and specialized ways.

There is a large cultural shift that needs to take place to realize this future, however. We still place a lot of emphasis (way too much, really) on the size and uniqueness of our collections. With a world of information available (or a lot of it, at any rate), it’s not so much an issue of how many books you have in your building, but how you are able harness all the good data and present it in useful and meaningful ways. There aren’t easy metrics to this. ARL just can’t count book spines and annual budget. Serious consideration needs to be paid to what and how a library is utilizing the collection outside their walls.

I woke up at 4:30 this morning.

One could easily write this off to a variety of stresses: an article I have no business writing; a conference I have no business helping organize; a huge project that I am having problems getting started on; a house that I apparently haven’t sunk enough money in to move into yet; a house that I can’t drag far enough away from the railroad tracks to sell; the usual burden that is “the holidays”… sure one could try to pin it on any of those.

But I woke up thinking about (meaning that I was dreaming about) something I read recently from Richard Wallis on Panlibus, Talis’ ‘blog:

Well yes, the current generation of ILS systems were not built with Web Services everywhere. To put it bluntly, who will pay the salaries of the developers who are going to develop these services for you to consume?

Strange thing to dream about, I know. However, when I think about this one quote, it pisses me off to no end. The University System of Georgia pays Endeavor over $500,000 a year for the privilege of running an ILS that they haven’t invested any innovation in years. Granted, we are 35 libraries, so it’s not like we’re all paying that ransom, but, on the flip side, we’re probably also getting a discount for the very fact that we are so large.

Then, to think we are but a percentage of Endeavor’s total customer base…

WHERE IS THAT MONEY GOING, RICHARD?

Of course, I realize that Talis is in no way related to Endeavor, but I cannot imagine their pricing is so radically different that their coffers have no shillings to pay for developers.

Besides, they must already have developers, right? Maybe you need hire developers with vision.

So, to this argument, I call bullshit.

The other thing that struck me (again, apparently in my dream) is the apologetic tone I see quite frequently (recent example here, lots of others floating about) that shifts the blame of our stagnant, crappy Integrated Library Systems to us, the customers instead to our vendors. The argument goes that we, the libraries, have asked for the wrong things for the ILS and the poor vendors (poor, poor vendors) had their hands tied, literally tied, trying to keep up with our demands to be able to incorporate any sort of innovation in the last 15-20 years. Besides, they’d say, if they came up with something different, libraries might not want the change.

What (successful) technology company has ever relied on RFPs for their innovation? Are Google’s hands tied until some customer says, “Hey, can you make a web based ‘maps’ site? You know what we need? A new way to do threaded email.”? How about Intel? Microsoft?

No. These companies realize that they need to innovate to survive. To stagnate or half-ass is the kiss of death. See Novell. For a more dramatic example, see Apple.

No, it’s time we stop taking it like abused spouses from our vendors. You know, maybe we did overcook the porkchop and maybe we do open our mouths too much, but that’s no reason to have a black eye. If a handful of the better funded libraries were to help found something like the Apache Foundation for library software, our abusive husbands might find treat as partners rather than punching bags. I think I might know a good place to look for talent.

(In truth, our rottweiler woke me up, but the dream still stands).

I really, really hate this Library 2.0 meme for a couple of reasons.

1) All of our problems will not, in fact, be solved with AJAX and web interfaces

2) In fact many of our problems cannot be solved by technology at all (try doing interesting and meaningful and different work with the current body of MARC records out there and see what I mean)

3) This quest for 2.0 would be better served if “2.0” was a milestone on the journey to “Library 4.5” — I mean, come on folks, let’s get back into innovating.

4) I think it trivializes some actually exciting and useful work that I fear will continue to fly under the radar because it’s not “Web 2.0” enough.

Maybe hype is necessary to rally the troops, but I really wish vision would get more attention.

I’ll have to keep this rather short, since the hotel wireless network is being flaky (as usual) (in fact I am having to write this while standing in the bathroom — oddly the best wireless reception in my room).

Again, the conference organizers have proven why this is the only professional event I schedule in my year. I’ll comment on the earlier days a little later, but while day 3 is still rather fresh in my mind (as fresh as my poor, oversaturated mind can be), I’d like to touch on a few things.

1) Listen to every word Lorcan says, always. It blows my mind what an amazing asset he is to our community and how there are people (in my library) who have no idea who he is. His presentation this morning has completely energized me to kick it up a notch in getting our library more into our (and other) user’s “LifeFlow”.

2) Art and Peter proved that WAG needs no “G”. I’ve been working with Art on this WebDav/OPAC project for months (thanks to SUDOC, as he pointed out), and I never, ever would have dreamed of the things these two are coming up with. Cocoon is, evidentally, a very magical beast and the potential of storing these “trails” could have huge implications on the collaborative research environment that we are trying to create at Georgia Tech. Being able to chart the path of scholarship would make it easier to get to the giant to stand upon his shoulders.

3) Internet communication is lousy when trying to develop a new spec. Despite being there at the beginning (and being a very loud proponent of COinS), I could not wrap my head around the use cases for COinS-PMH. Oh, Dan tried to “learn me”, but it really took his presentation today to “get it”. I definitely “get it” now, and expect to see COinS-PMH all over Tech.

4) Hackfest is the greatest invention ever. And I honestly couldn’t imagine it working properly at any other conference (sorry, LITA).

5) This is why I’m applying to enroll in the Master’s program for Human-Computer Interaction at Tech. This, coupled with the previous two presentations (Art/Peter’s, Dan’s)… Holy crap. The world would be so different.

6)
The U.S. is screwed. We have sold our souls, culture and future to corporate interests and I’m not sure how we can fix it. As Peter remarked to me, hopefully Cliff Lynch’s vision of a world where everything is digitized except the intellectual output after 1920 will light a fire under us. I fear at that point it may be too late, however. It looks like Canada’s future might be a bit brighter. Even if it isn’t, I’ll get fired up by the revolutionary rhetoric, any day.

Wow, I love this place.

SRW/U is to Yngwie J. Malmsteen as OpenSearch is to Keith Richards.

Yngwie Malmsteen is technically superior, however aesthetically unlistenable (unimplementable, in the case of SRW/U).

Keith Richards is sloppy, unsophisticated and writes timeless melodies that resonate with the masses (OpenSearch is sloppy, unsophisticated — while time will tell if OpenSearch becomes “timeless” [seems doubtful, honestly], but there are certainly a lot of OpenSearch targets).

Mike Taylor wrote a very insightful reaction to Dan’s worklog posting (and incredibly objective, given his investment and relationship to SRW/U). And he’s right.

And I’m right. Unless SRW/U can capture some of the mojo that OpenSearch has, it might as well be Yngwie J. Malmsteen.

I just caught the end of Dark City. I love this movie, despite its cheesiness, and I think it speak volumes of you, as a nerd, as to where you stand on this flick.

In general, I see the computer geek community as comprised of two camps: the slashdot community, made up of the engineering (and engineering aspirant) type; efficiency, economy, practicality rule above aesthetics. Things that kick ass are valued more than objects of elegance. Principle carries more weight than pragmatism.

Then there is the other group. This is a nerd set that values form, as well as function. Perfection gives way to pragmatism. Strong coding skills aren’t necessary (they help, of course), because “rules” are an “impediment to creativity”. “Innovation” is the watchword above “propriety”. Thankfully, I would place a vast majority of #code4lib in this arena.

“Thankfully”, for two reasons:

  • It shows hope for the library development community
  • I hang out there all day, and I tend to dislike the former group

Another way to look at this schism is “The Matrix” vs. “Dark City”. Both movies are based on the same premise: Cartesian logic. They both center around thinking things that cannot be certain that anything exists besides themselves. The difference is that one is a kick ass blockbuster smash and the other is a low budget cult classic.

You can enjoy both movies (I certainly do), but if you laugh more at “I know kung-fu” than seeing the wires attached to Rupert Sewell as he fights with the bad guy who looks like Reducto from “Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law“, you squarely fall in the innovator more than engineer camp. What is your Keanu tolerance? It says a lot.

Although I’m not sure why, the world does need both “The Matrix” and “Dark City” fans. They serve different purposes.

But when you’re recruiting a geek, it’s good to know what you’re getting. Try “The Matrix” vs. “Dark City” question and evaluate from there.

Despite our waning patronage (both physically and virtually), librarians never cease their criticism of the barbarism of the unwashed masses for not adopting their love of rich metadata.

“Dumbing down the catalog”
“I don’t think it’s too much to ask a student to learn what the library catalog is”
“Thousands of hits”
“Did A9 even bother to look at SRW/U?”

Let’s take the first (widely used) statement. A system that is able to take a natural language query and present to the user a list that contains many of the things they are looking for early in the result set is not dumb. Hemingway, Ernest is dumb. Not understanding what I, the user, mean when I type “Ernest Hemingway” is dumb. This standard is applied to librarians, why not the catalog? A librarian doesn’t explicitly require the patron to know they’re looking for before they will help them with a reference question, but we expect them to form a perfect boolean query to isolate that rare manuscript (acquired in 1963 and widely unheard of) that would be the “perfect compliment to their term paper”.

Number two: I don’t expect a student to learn how to use a sliderule, either. It’s not necessary for them to know what double clutching is. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they never have seen a typewriter’s correction ribbon. Technology makes awkward systems obsolete.

In regards to the “thousands of hits” meme (which Alane Wilson argued against quite convincingly), how many hits would a user get if all of our databases were searched simultaneously? What if they are getting a sufficiently smaller set of results, but it’s because they’re looking in the wrong place? I am seldomly unhappy with my Google results as a starting place.

Should A9 have? Does SRW/U really make any sense whatsoever to 95% of the world outside of libraries? Why doesn’t the SRW/U crowd try to work with the OpenSearch community? Why? Because we say ours is better, so the other shouldn’t be trifled with. To be clear, it’s possible to layer OpenSearch on top of SRU; Georgia Tech does it. Is one superior to the other? SRW/U is certainly more sophisticated. Despite what you will read to the contrary, however, OpenSearch is much, much easier to implement. If you know the metadata schema of the SRW/U server, simple SRU clients are possible, but, like Z39.50 before it, there are no constraints on what you might get from an SRW/U server. OpenSearch, while limited and limiting (for certain), has a somewhat different purpose than SRW/U. SRW/U is a protocol for searching for and retrieving metadata. OpenSearch is a spec for searching for and retrieving search results. This may sound redundant, but there is a nuanced difference. No matter the OpenSearch source, the results will always look the same, so it is very simple to integrate into a display (yet not so simple to actually do anything else with the result). While SRW/U is definitely more versatile, transforming your results to OpenSearch has its advantages. But this is a hard sell to the library world, because the “metadata isn’t rich enough”.

It’s time we stopped scorning and ignoring the outside world, because they are doing fine without us. Aaron Krowne notes that a huge amount of scholarly content is freely available, further making our position in society weaker, making it all the more important that we co-opt popular culture, rather than ridicule it. Our standards are great… now let’s see how they can interface with the real world.