open argument 101

I’ll admit it: there’s almost nothing I like more than drama and action on the internet, and the past 24 hours or so have provided plenty.

Yesterday afternoon saw the release of the much-hyped Library 101 video and its attendant website, which was largely, but not exclusively, lauded. Yesterday evening my FriendFeed brought me the white paper on open source ILS systems [pdf] by SirsiDynix VP of Innovation Stephen Abram, which has been largely, but not exclusively, criticized and ridiculed. (ILS, for my non-librarian readers, stands for Integrated Library System — basically the software that runs your public catalog and your backend record-keeping — cataloging, aquisitions, circulation, statistics, the whole works.)

Along with 64 or so other people, I tuned in to the UStream broadcast of the Library 101 presentation yesterday, or at least the video part of it. My connection was a bit shaky, and while the video itself seemed to work fine, I couldn’t hear much of what the presenters were saying. I’ve watched a few things from Internet Librarian this year on UStream, and in general it is pretty great, so my thanks to the folks who set it up. Since then, a couple of people have said to me that they didn’t think it was really that great, or that they didn’t really understand it, or that they had some other reaction that was not entirely positive — and they felt that because their reaction wasn’t entirely positive, they couldn’t say anything. And that made me really, really sad.

I read the white paper last night and participated in some of the early online commentary, and I’ve had several discussions about that with people, too, and today I read Stephen Abram’s blog post on the subject, where he seems to be quite hurt by the pileup of criticism. Reaction has so far not been terribly sympathetic.

Two events, two commentary pileups, two very different tones. Why? We’ve talked in the biblioblogosphere in years past about uncritical me-tooism and how it stifles conversation and shuts down thoughtful, critical voices. We have also seen plenty of trainwrecks: comment threads rife with personal attacks and you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists mentality. (In this particular instance, Abram’s paper has a bit of that quality to me — you use a standard ILS (preferably SirsiDynix’s) or you’re stupid (“Proprietary software has more features. Period. Proprietary software is much more user-friendly.”) — but then it is a piece of marketing material from a for-profit corporation, so to some extent, that’s to be expected.)

But I digress.

I was underwhelmed by the Library 101 video. It was neat to see so many faces in it (although, like Jessamyn, I would have liked to see them in the credits), and it’s clear from the video that Michael Porter and David Lee King care about it deeply and are enthusiastic about libraries and the future to a degree that few of us can manage. The site, although somewhat annoyingly slow to load, has a lot of good resources, and I look forward to reading the essays that people have submitted. I don’t really get pouring that much of one’s time and money and effort into an online video project, but if it gets some librarians to think about their skills and what they need to move into the future, and if its creators had fun doing it and there are people who enjoy watching it, that’s all to the good. Despite what readers of this blog may think, I actually think there’s a great deal more to being a librarian than being tech-savvy, and I’d like to focus more on some of those things, but I know there are a lot of people who still need to hear the tech message, and perhaps this video and its attendent resources will reach some of them.

So maybe you can’t in fact really criticize Library 101. It’s a labor of love and a labor with a message. The message is hard to criticize, and while you can critique the artistry, you have to remember that it’s a couple of guys doing this in their spare time. They’re not out to make money — in fact, from what they’ve said, they have lost money on this thing. I don’t want anyone to feel that they can’t criticize the video, but at the same time, I don’t think there’s much damage done by the pile-up of compliments.

But it is entirely legitimate to criticize Abram’s paper. ILSs are big money, and they are sold largely by for-profit companies and paid for — in the public and state university library worlds — with public money. I am not an expert on open source ILSs, but I think they are an important and worthy development. It’s possible that the flaws Abram cites exist. I could point out a number of flaws that are present in SirsiDynix systems, too. But the existence of flaws is not an argument against development — if anything, it is an argument for it. I value open source projects because they are, to my mind, ideologically aligned with libraries in a way that corporate enterprises never will be. That doesn’t make them perfect; that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think long and hard before adopting any given ILS. But it makes them worthwhile — and worth defending.

using the catalog

Roy Tennant says that “No one in their right mind wants to use a library catalog,” and I must, respectfully, disagree.

I agree that he’s right in some situations — if you just want to look for a mystery or a cookbook and you want go to the library to do so, then no, you probably don’t want to use a library catalog. But not every library user in every library is after a casual browsing experience, and not every user wants to use the library that way.

I know several people who go to the library only to pick up holds they’ve requested. You know how they request those holds? They use the catalog. When I was in college (when I would not have been caught dead consulting a librarian) doing research for a paper, I did not want to tromp all over the library looking for things; I wanted to have a list and go after it. You know how I got that list? I used the catalog (which, helpfully, listed both subjects and sub-subjects–I was a literature geek, so whenever I hit –History and criticism, I knew I was good). Sometimes I want a book but I can’t think of who the author is. You know how I find that information out? I use the catalog. One could, of course, use Amazon these days, but for much of my library-going life, that wasn’t an option.

We all know catalogs could be much, much better. But I’m not ready to throw them away entirely.

tag cloud mania

Jenny Levine imagined a library with tags.  Dave Pattern made one (read more about how).  A year and a half later, I had an idea.

I was playing with Director’s Station and thought, “I wonder if I could do something like that, but with search data.”  I played around and made (with the assistance of tagcrowd.com) a little cloud of search terms.  I wrote about it on Twitter, and today mir_b made a little cloud of authors.

As mir_b notes, it’s a fair amount of work to do something like this, and it’s probably not feasible to do so on a regular basis, but it provides a fascinating glimpse into what patrons are actually entering in our catalog search boxes.  You see a lot of titles entered starting with “the” and a lot of authors (in the keyword search terms I used, at least) entered “first name last name.”  Depending on your point of view, that goes to show that libraries have a lot of teaching to do to get patrons to enter things the right way, or that catalog vendors have a lot of catching up to do to meet what have, by now, become current search standards.  I’ll let you decide.

across the great divide

If you haven’t already done so, take a few minutes of your continuous partial attention over to A biblioblogger visits the local branch library over at See Also. . . .  Really.  Right now.  It’ll be good for you.

I’ve been thinking a great deal in the past few days about what one might call the librarian digital divide: the gap, in Steve’s skit, between the way the biblioblogger talks and sees the world and the way the branch librarian does.  It’s a gap none of us has figured out how to bridge.

Here’s a small list of reminders I’ve been giving myself when talking to folks who may not be quite up to “Ajax del.icio.us OPML Creative Commons radical trust mashup widget!”.  Please add, edit, confront, what have you.

  • some people are going to be put off when I talk about the OPAC just by my use of the word “suck” (which has, at least in the biblioblogger world, attached itself to OPAC in an epithet like way)
  • just because I treat John Blyberg and Casey Bisson (to name just a few) like rock-star household names does not mean that everyone knows who they are
  • not everyone is ready or willing to treat blogs as a reliable and trustworthy resource
  • people who aren’t content creators on the web probably don’t get why I am so insistent that everything should have a permalink

Time for me to go swimming, but there may be more to come–and I’ll be interested to see what others come up with.  Only connect. . . .  (Hey, that’s another of those literary references!  Books!  Yes!)

dream of the children’s materials OPAC

Tomorrow morning I leave, not exactly bright and early, for the WYLD Annual Meeting in Sundance, Wyoming. Sadly, this is not the site of the eponymous film festival, which is actually held in Park City, Utah, but it is near Devil’s Tower, the U.S.’s first national monument, which I probably will not have time to visit.

I will learn various things related to the OPAC, but not, I suspect, why it sucks, or more importantly, what we might do to fix it. Oh well.

At work today I was reminded of another aspect of the suckiness of OPACs, one that I haven’t seen discussed (although please correct me if I am wrong–I read fewer blogs than I might like, and I’m being lazy and not hitting the search engines–bad librarian!”). A patron came in looking for picture books with princesses in them. Now, I know there are children’s librarians out there who can take a request like that, do a little dance through the stacks, and hand you a stack of books a foot thick. I am not one of them. I rely instead on a) asking my colleagues (pages are particularly good at this sort of thing, since they see all the books on a far more regular basis than the rest of us), b) hitting the invaluable A to Zoo: A Subject Guide to Children’s Literature and then going through the tedium of figuring out which books our library actually owns, or c) trying my luck at keyword and subject searches of the catalog. And here, as you might guess, is where we get to the Why OPACs Suck for Children’s Materials bit.

People who have not worked in youth services are often intimidated by the children’s room, which, truth be told, can be quite confusing. There are a lot of catagories: picture books, easy readers, J fiction. Sometimes you also find board books, intermediate books, series books, book kits, and any number of other things separated out. The physical layout is confusing enough: what makes it worse is that almost none of these distinctions are searchable in the catalog. For instance, take today’s patron, who wanted picture books involving princesses. You can try doing a keyword search of the catalog for something like “princesses juvenile fiction,” and you should get a list of children’s books involving princesses that are fiction, but you then have to go through and separate out the picture books from the J fiction, the easy readers, and whatever other catagories may have shown up. If you wanted just nonfiction on princesses, the search string is actually “princesses juvenile literature.” I’m not kidding. That’s a trick I learned from the wonderful ESSL Children’s Literature Blog: in children’s materials (though nowhere else that I can tell), the subject term that indicates nonfiction is literature. Go figure.

In my dream children’s materials OPAC, you wouldn’t have to know arcana like that, though. You’d have a search interface that would give you options: fiction or nonfiction? picture book or easy reader or chapter book? I realize that dream kind of conflicts with the Dream of the Single Search Box, it would, I think, make the lives of library patrons and the jobs of youth services workers much easier. Of course, in my dream world, every library would also come equipped with that mythic children’s librarian, the one who can reel off a list of books on any given topic for a particular age at the drop of a hat. But some days those librarians need a vacation–and the dream children’s materials OPAC would help the rest of us not make muck of their domain.