Six impossible things before breakfast.

A library science student's perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Digital Communication for Scholars and Students

From a publishing and communication standpoint, technology is created and used primarily to achieve products faster and more efficiently, but they are still the same end products which we have had for centuries. Word processing software, for example, makes it possible to edit text, adjust fonts and margins, and annotate documents, but typically the final result of such work is a static, printed hard copy.

It will be interesting to see if we will get to a point where our digital files never leave their initial digital state. For scholarly writing this could mean the end of print journals and the evolution of a world of scholarly publication that lives entirely in digital form, in electronic journals or institutional repositories. For academic work, the solution could be courses with no "print" requirements, where readings, assignment submission, and maybe even forms of class discussion are handled through online websites built for these purposes, such as Sakai or Black Board. (I have one class like this this semester.)

John Leggett and Frank Shipman wrote an article in 2004 titled "Directions for Hypertext Research: Exploring the Design Space for Interactive Scholarly Communication." A lot of change happens in seven years, so I feel like some of what Leggett and Shipman propose is a bit outdated, but they make some good predictions about the intersections of scholarship and advances in communication. They feel that instead of moving forward and using technology to create new forms of artifacts and materials,
"we are restructuring old media or media that have undergone a point-to point conversion from the physical world to the digital world... Currently, we seem consumed with this point-to-point translation from the static physical world to a part of the digital world which is also static. Our scientific communication, our scholarly factual storytelling, remains almost entirely in the static physical world even though our research may be carried out entirely in the interactive digital world."
I think that it's an interesting idea that scholars tend to use digital and online resources for research and the early stages of projects and papers (maybe initial idea exchange or some form of peer consultation or review), but then the benefits of digital environments are not taken advantage of when it comes to the end result of all their hard work. People are very comfortable with written products as we know them today, so I think it will take a pretty big step for us to reach the climax of the digital "revolution."

Leggett, J.J. and Shipman, F.M. III (2004). Directions for hypertext research: exploring the design space for interactive scholarly communication. HT'04, August 9-13, 2004, Santa Cruz, CA.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Performance Piece

Today I spent some time reading about archives and recordkeeping. In one article, author Thomas Mallon explored the value of a collection of checks saved by his father and the surprising insights he gained into the life of his father from this study. Mallon argues that in some ways physical records from daily life, such as these canceled checks, are almost more valuable to researchers and historians than items like journals, because something like a check provides more than just a record of what happened, the check itself was a transaction and an untainted piece of a former life.

Mallon goes on to explain that, "letters and diaries are supposed to be the preserved written instruments by which the dead are revealed to posterity, but each of these is a formal communication, and any written communication, from even the least self-conscious soul, is a performance... Even the most private diarists are always conscious of an eventual, albeit anonymous, audience."

This is something I've always been vaguely aware of when I'm writing; regardless of whether what I'm writing a paper that is intended to be read (and read by a very specific audience), or the beginnings of a story, or an entry in a totally unknown, unread blog, or even just the scrap of an idea jotted down on the back of a receipt. It's hard--virtually impossible--to imagine writing something that no one would ever, ever read. And it's inevitable that awareness of this someday future audience would change and possibly distort the way we write and even the very facts or account that we are writing about.

Mallon, T. "Memories Held in Check: Pursuing a Lifetime of My Father's Expenditures." Harper's Magazine. October 1993. (75-82)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Misinformation Explosion

We hear the term "information explosion" a good deal these days. Mostly it is in the context of illustrating dramatic increases in scholarly publication and the amount of research and data in general that is being churned out today. This information explosion is certainly one of the defining aspects of the "Information Age" itself, and in most cases the attitude taken seems to be straightforward: the more information, the better.

Today I came across a variant of the term for the first time in an article on authors and scholarly publishing by David Nicholas (et al.). The article quotes an unnamed scholar who comments on the current situation in the publishing world. He or she says that the information explosion is "perhaps better labeled the ‘misinformation’ explosion," and the author feels that with the increase of quantity we have seen a decrease in the quality of scientific works. The result is that researchers wind up wasting time and energy combing through articles that turn out to be worthless, whether due to the issue of duplicate material being produced all too often or simply poor quality of writing and ideas. The quoted author feels that in part the blame lies with publishing companies who are more interested in turning a profit than forwarding scientific knowledge.

The scholar concludes by commenting: "I would rather see a fewer number of journals which publish more substantial and important papers than a plethora of journals which publish poor quality work." This seriously calls into question the beneficial nature of the information explosion which we find ourselves in the middle of today. Is the author simply longing for a simpler, easier time, or can too much information really be a bad thing? Like almost any question (especially in grad. school), I don't think this one has any one specific right answer.

Nicholas, D., Jamali M., H. R., Huntington, P., and Rowlands, I. (2005). In their very own words: authors and scholarly journal publishing. Learned Publishing, 18:212-220.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

World Kitty

I was quite proud of myself today. I needed to look something up (and it wasn't even for school) and verify the author of a rather uncommon book with a source I knew I could count on for accuracy. While not quite the very first thing I thought of, one of the first places I thought to look was WorldCat. Good job future librarian!

P.S. As a long-time cat lover and owner, I've always liked WorldCat's name =)

Hocus Pocus

Despite my enthusiasm for the digital realm, one of the reasons I want to become a librarian is quite simple.

I love books.

So I think I might include as part of this blog, comments or reviews of the books I am reading.

I just finished Kurt Vonnegut's Hocus Pocus. I didn't really know anything about it before I started reading; just that it had been sitting on my bookcase for probably more than a year. I finally got around to opening it last week. In high school, tenth grade I think, I read Cat's Cradle, so I wasn't a stranger to Vonnegut's dark humor and fondness for the depressing. The story of Hocus Pocus is about a man named Eugene Debs Hartke who serves in Vietnam and afterwards becomes a teacher at a small college in Scipio, New York, before going on to teach in a prison, then serve as warden of a prison, and finally be committed to prison himself. One of the most interesting things about the book is the style of narration; Vonnegut begins by introducing the protagonist as the author, while labeling himself as the "editor." The story, he tells us, was written down on many small scraps of paper, which he has put together in the order in which they were labeled. The book itself is very choppy, mirroring this idea that it was composed in sections over time and on whatever bit of paper the narrator could find.

Eugene Hartke's life is a sad one, between Vietnam and the violence that follows a mass prison break-out, he sees a lot of horrible crime that people commit against each other. But he manages to find much humor in dark times, and he is a refreshingly human narrator. He periodically records the stories and advice of those whose lives have come into contact with his own. In one such moment he recalls his grandfather's opinion "that profanity and obscenity entitle people who don't want unpleasant information to close their ears and eyes to you." Hartke/Vonnegut uphold this tenet throughout the book, and I think it really is worth thinking about. The difference between what sort of language people consider "acceptable" seems to be very generational today, and Vonnegut's message here is probably one the youth of today could stand to hear and, if possible, consider.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Brave New (Digital) World

In a reading on the selection and evaluation of reference sources, the author (Linda Smith) quoted Michael Buckland's concern about one aspect of our libraries' increasing digital collections: unlike "old fashioned" shelves of shiny, official-looking reference tomes, digital reference sources have the distinct disadvantage of being invisible. How does it affect users when they cannot "see" the collection? And what sorts of digital guides will need to be invented to take the place of a librarian's careful arrangement of a physical reference section?

I think that this is going to be a big issue for libraries in the coming years. Today on our campus, when you walk into most of the libraries you see a computer long before you ever get to the books. In fact, some of the library layouts could have you wandering around for ages wondering "where are the books?" If our reference collections are moving to a digital format (and it's very likely that this will be not only cost-effective, but also most efficient and useful from a research perspective) we will have to figure out how to help users navigate these new electronic waters. I believe that with the complexity of search options and the capability of nearly endless storage, virtual reference collections are going to bring tremendous advantages, but because of their "invisible" nature, if we don't find a way to show people where they are, users have a much lower chance of finding a digital collection on their own than they would a glossy, leather-bound reference book section of indexes and encyclopedias.

So what will the road signs to our digital collections look like? A large part of it will be clarifying library websites to indicate where virtual references can be located and how to search specific queries once you get there. But what about the individual who comes into the library looking for that shiny reference book? Should they find a sign on the empty shelf telling them to go look it up on the computer? A lot of articles being written today by library and information science professionals address the need for fairly drastic change in librarians' job descriptions. People soon will no longer need a reference librarian for the majority of the tasks and services that were probably 90% of their jobs during the last decades. But that doesn't mean they won't still need reference librarians. They will need librarians to guide them through the use of virtual reference collections that will be exponentially larger than the library's physical reference section ever was. And many of the traditional roles of librarians (such as selecting and evaluating resources) will still be just as important, they will just take place in new formats and within new technologies.

I'm excited about the library science revolution that I'm hopefully going to get to play a part in. I think there is a lot of opportunity for change and improvement today. And I guess the other side to this post is that I really, really hope that when I graduate in two years, I'll still be able to find a job.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

First Week

Technically I've finished my first week of library science school! Though I have one class yet to visit so things still feel a little incomplete... but I wound up dropping one class that I already went to once, so I guess it kind of evens out?

What I'm immediately most struck by is how completely different all my classes are. Which is great! Library science is definitely an interdisciplinary field, and my courses this semester reflect just how many different aspects go into the study of information. In a theory-based class we spend the period talking about information science pioneers and trying to get to the base of questions like how information and library science is defined and what its purpose should be in the world today. In reference we visited the graduate library on campus and discussed problems within the modern library and tentative solutions to those problems. And I already have the feeling that I'm going to learn a lot from my final class of the day. Ironically this is the course that I really didn't want to take, but "Information Tools" is going to provide me with the foundation to turn my studies into real world applications.

So overall I'm very happy with my life as an MSLS grad student right now, I'm not buried under a pile of reading (yet..) or struggling with a Master's thesis (oh dear). I'm looking forward another week of classes, and especially the first day of my fourth course: archives!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Users like me

As I'm reading articles and studies about libraries and information services, I'm beginning to feel that I'm still more like the "users" in the articles than the librarians and information professionals. The way I look at library resources and think about catalogs and databases is still from the standpoint of a patron, rather than the librarian I hope to someday be.

Though that said, I just read through the "ALA Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers," and for the first time am feeling like the several years of lamentable customer service jobs I have accrued might actually prove useful. I'm not sure that a career in reference is exactly what I want to pursue, but I definitely feel a connection to it because of my many experiences (both good and bad) with greeting people that come through the door or walk up to the front desk and wondering (sometimes apprehensively) what in the world they are going to ask me this time.

Human whimsy

In a short essay entitled "Practical Website Improvement Face-Off" by Darlene Fichter and Jeff Wisniewski, several librarians came up with recommendations for helpful changes to library websites. Their suggestions were voted on and the winning improvement advice was to "be human, be whimsical." I know I tend to write in a rather wordy, vague style, so with this blog I will try to practice conciseness, as well as creating a bit of personality and, when possible, humor.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Back to School

As a first year MSLS student on my very first day of classes, I felt quite a bit like Alice, going through the looking-glass and finding herself in a world that is utterly unlike the one she just left, a place that seems strange, compelling, and even sometimes impossible.

In every room I entered I encountered foreign jargon, concepts, theories, and applications. Terms like "meta-discipline" or "biblio-metric techniques," career paths leading to positions such as "knowledge manager" or "information architect." And I imagine myself as Alice with the backwards looking-glass book, before she realizes the key to understanding the message in front of her--holding the book up to a glass so that she can read its reflection.

The first article I read for one of my courses contained a passage which touched on this feeling of disconnect with my new field. The author, Marcia J. Bates, writes of the challenges initially faced by students: "at first it feels alien to think about a resource in terms of the features that matter to the organization and retrieval of it, rather than in terms of mastering its content."* Generally liberal arts and science majors alike are trained to learn by studying and absorbing a resource's content. In a MSLS program, students must alter their perspective. Bates refers to this perspective switch as a new "lens through with information scientists see their world."* To Bates, the gradual understanding a student reaches and the change in the way they think about materials and information is a difficult, but essential, "transformation" for future librarians and information professionals.

Hopefully I will find my own glass soon, to help me make sense of the fascinating classes I am signed up for this semester and find my way through this diverse and ever-evolving field. Though I can't help but remember that even when Alice was able to translate the poem in the looking-glass book, the end result was far from enlightenment.
"'It seems very pretty,' she said when she had finished it, 'but it's rather hard to understand!' (You see she didn't like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn't make it out at all.) 'Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas--only I don't exactly know what they are!'" --Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

*(Bates, M. J. (1999). The Invisible Substrate of Information Science, Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50 (12), 1043-1050.)