an open source search engine?

Back in May, Google announced that it would be adding a “credibility” factor to the algorithm that ranks its Google News results. “Credibility” would be measured by various factors, including the size of the news outlet’s staff and how long it had existed. As Brian Dominick reported on The NewStandard staff blog, such a system would be devastating for independent and alternative news sources. That got a some people thinking that what the world needed now was an open source alternative to Google. They’ve now officially launched the project, dubbed Openzuka.

If you care about alternative and independent voices having a fair shot in this world (and as a librarian, you certainly should), check this out. And if you’re at all technologically inclined, consider lending a hand–and if you know anyone else who would be interested, please pass it on!

NEW OPEN-SOURCE SEARCH ENGINE PROJECT NEEDS YOUR HELP

Are you afraid of the world’s major internet search resources under a single gatekeeper, or by a small number of gatekeepers?

Are you nonetheless fascinated by the speed, power, and accuracy of current search engines?

Are you intrigued by the prospects of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people around the world contributing their expertise to build a distributed, open-source search engine, without a single gatekeeper, with the speed, power and accuracy of current search engines?

Then get involved in the Openzuka project.

Openzuka is an effort to build an open-source internet search engine–distributed architecture, fully transparent, open source, on a widespread scale with the speed and effectiveness of current commercial search engines like Google and Yahoo.

And we need your help to help us design and build it.

We imagine that the effort will require software developers, hardware specialists, theoreticians, information science experts, and anyone interested in knowledge exchange more generally. But we’ll need lots of contributions from a host of different fields.

If you wish to learn more about the project, and can contribute your expertise, ideas, suggestions, please join our online discussions:

www.openzuka.org

Thanks.

–The Openzuka Team

the anxiety of influence

Of all the jobs I do at the library, the most thrilling and frightening by far are buying and weeding books. I am in charge of all the YA books, which live (except for the nonfiction, which, when it is no longer new, gets interfiled with adult nonfiction) in two long shelves tucked in the back corner of the adult room. They are so hidden that often when I take people to find a book back there, they are surprised to learn that there is a YA section.

Because we don’t place a book order in August, I have now had over a month to fiddle with my September order. It is rare that a day goes by that I don’t take something out, only to put it back in the next day. I can spend a good deal of time worrying about the books, worrying about what kind of service I can possibly be providing to our patrons if I neglect one of them in favor of another, wondering what influence my choices will have on the people who rely on the library. For instance, the other day, courtesy of A Wandering Eyre, I happened upon this piece on the censoring of YA books from Bookslut, which praises Perfect, a novel by Natasha Friend. It was published last year and has been the subject of some controversy, chiefly, it seems, because it is about a girl who has bulimia, and it is quite graphic in its descriptions of how to become bulimic. Of the eight libraries in our system, five own it, but my library is not among them.
Now, I am all for the stocking of banned books, particularly when (as is the case with this one) they have gotten good reviews and they seem to be popular (three of the five copies in the system are out right now, and one was only just returned). I add this book to my order every few days, and then periodically I take it out, not because of the content (although I will admit that I am squeamish about eating disorders) but because, usually, there’s a newer book that I want to buy instead.

After all, the book is available in our system, I tell myself. But it’s not available in our library, says the other little voice in my head, and the other libraries aren’t anywhere near ours. If kids don’t see it here, they’re not likely to find it. But they can find it through the catalog. How the hell are they going to know to look for it in the catalog? It’s not like there are lot of high quality bookstores in Franklin Park, IL (yes, that third one you see on the list is an adult bookstore–actually, there’s another adult bookstore that doesn’t show up here that’s even closer). But I have to make choices, and if I buy this, I can’t buy a new book that might be equally important!

Well. You see how that goes.

The other day, in another fit of anxiety, I decided to do a little quasi-scientific experiment with my book order. I’ve been reading lately about the paucity of books (especially children’s and young adult books) that appeal to males and how this could be part of the reason that guys don’t read. I went through my order and classified each book, to the best of my ability, as appealing more to females, more to males, or equally to both. The results (excluding half a dozen graphic novels, which were requested by a guy but which I really don’t know where to place):

  • everyone–20
  • females–20
  • males–7

Oh dear. (And that, of course, provides another argument for not buying Perfect, which is likely to appeal only to girls).

But if the process of buying books is sometimes fraught, it pales in comparison to the process of weeding them. There are moments when weeding is satisfying. Clearing out beaten up paperbacks by R.L. Stine is a fine feeling. But more often than not, weeding is difficult, frustrating, and sometimes painful. As Rick Roche recently wrote (on both buying and weeding), “I have to accept the reality that I can not perfectly predict which books will be well read and buy the potentially hot books and shift other books to make a little more room.” I hate that.

I also hate it because I was a reader of obscure books when I was a child. At my elementary school, which was filled with the offspring of doctors, lawyers, and professors, there were lengthy waiting lists for every new book that came it. Because I did not want to wait three months to read a book, and because I didn’t know how to get on the waiting list anyway and was too shy to ask, I prowled the stacks to find the oldest, most abandoned books I could. My ideal was to find a book that hadn’t been checked out since before I was born. I read many wonderful books this way–Octagon Magic by Andre Norton and Quest in the Desert by Roy Chapman Andrews and many more. In high school, I found The Lady’s not For Burning, which had not been checked out since 1972. I checked it out nearly once a trimester for the remainder of my time there; recently, I checked the catalog to see if it was still there, and wrote to the librarian, who confirmed said that yes, the last checkouts dated from the early ’90s–my last few years in high school. (Christopher Fry, the author, died only recently. I hadn’t realized he was still alive. I would have written him a letter–the people who help get you through high school deserve to be thanked). Every time I get rid of a book, I can’t help but wonder if the book I’m tossing is one of these, if it’s a book that’s meant to be found by someone at this very library, if it’s somehow going to save even a small portion of a person’s life, and if I am interfering in God’s great plan. This is the sort of thing that can keep you up at night.

The last best word on the subject of keeping odd (albeit, in this case, well-circulating) books in libraries, though, comes from Annie Dillard, in An American Childhood. She writes about growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and visiting the Homewood branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh every week and what she learned from borrowing books there:

The Field Book of Ponds and Streams was a shocker from beginning to end. The greatest shock came at the end. . . . When I checked out The Field Book of Ponds and Streams for the second time, I noticed the book’s card. It was almost full. There were numbers on both sides. My hearty author and I were not alone in the world, after all. With us, and sharing our enthusiasm for dragonfly larvae and single-celled plants, were, apparently, many Negro adults.
Who were these people? Had they, in Pittsburgh’s Homewood section, found ponds? Had they found streams? At home, I read the book again; I studied the drawings; I reread Chapter 3; then I settled in to study the due-date slip. People read this book in every season. Seven or eight people were reading this book every year, even during the war. . . . The people of Homewood, some of whom lived in visible poverty, on crowded streets among burned-out houses–they dreamed of ponds and streams.

I miss the days when you could see the date stamps on your library book. I learned a great deal from them. When I stand now in the aisle, computer printout of circ records in hand, trying to decide what goes and what stays, I can only hope that I am doing justice to the worlds that reside on the shelves. The library is a growing organism, but that means, unless you have unlimited amounts of space, that it is also a dying one.

I win!

My post “The Medium is Not the Message” over on my other blog won “Best Overall” in the EFF Blog-a-thon. You can read the many other fine posts here or here. I’m deeply honored–and humbled–by this. There are so many people out there working at the ground level to bridge the digital divide, rescue and preserve knowledge, fight restrictive DRM, and on and on. I am but a midget amongst giants.

If you’re not familiar with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, go check them out. Along with ALA, they are responsible for the victory over the broadcast flag back in May. They do a lot of good work and a lot of good for libraries, and even if you’re a bricks and mortar fanatic, you have to admit that the world is becoming increasingly digitized. As with any new frontier, many people have an interesting in staking out a claim for themselves. If you care about keeping the digital commons common, you should care about EFF.

Thanks to them again, and thanks to librarian.net for the coverage (and, for that matter, for covering digital rights and libraries in general).

libraries meet MTV

Jessamyn had a great idea the other day–a show called Pimp Your Library:

Pimp My Library would take some ratty old library with an outdated web site, half-busted computers, no good YA room and terrible signage and trick it out to a level suitable for a modern-day information crossroads. Librarians and other staff would be forced to take the day off under the guide of professional development and would be returned to a sparkling new ergonomic and fashionable workplace with accessible standards-compliant web site. We’d still call the library. It can be done. Maybe we’d need to call the show something else though.

And then tonight’s episode of This American Life had a story about the rock band The High Strung and their summer library tour in Michigan.* (Remember those photos Michael Stephens posted the other day?)

Are you ready to rock?

what for and for what?

My mother, Judith Crossett, is a geriatric psychiatrist (or, as we usually put it, she treats old crazy people). She works at the University of Iowa, where she treats patients and also teaches in the medical school. A few weeks ago she was telling me about the first thing she teaches any medical student or resident working with her.

When someone asks you for a competency test, the first thing you ask them is competency for what?

Do they mean is this person competent to choose chocolate or vanilla ice cream? Do they mean competent to drive a car? Do they mean competent to make decisions about being committed to the hospital? These are all very different things, and there is no universal competency test for them.

How does this relate to libraries, you ask? Well, it struck me a little while ago, while reading yet another article bemoaning Wikipedia/Google/the Internet as the end of the world, that for what is exactly the question we need to ask when we’re talking about sources of information. The answer to “Is Wikipedia a good source of information?” is not “Yes” or “No” — it’s “A good source of information for what?”

If you’re looking for information on podcasting, you’re not likely to find a better resource online or in print (where you’ll hardly find anything, except perhaps in the newspaper) than the Wikipedia entry. If you want to know more about DRM, Wikipedia can be an interesting, though sometimes controversial (check out the discussion) source of information. If you’re looking for an analysis of gender roles in A Winter’s Tale, it might not be so helpful.

Let’s consider the movies. What’s a good source of information on the movies? Well, if I want to know what movies are playing near me, I check out the listings on My Yahoo!. If I want to know who was in a certain movie, I look at imdb.com. If I want to know what kinds of reviews a movie was getting when it came out, I head for the subscription databases. And if I want to know about auteur theory, I hit the stacks. All of these are good sources of information for specific purposes.

Another way of looking at this business of “good sources of information” is to think about what Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation and author of a great new book called A Matter of Opinion, calls the “ideology of the center”:

If The Nation has the ideology of the liberal left and National Review has the ideology of the conservative right, then The New York Times, The Washington Post, the newsweeklies, and the networks have the ideology of the center, and it is part of the ideology of the center to deny that it has an ideology.

Navasky also quotes the late, great journalist Jack Newfield:

Among these unspoken, but organic, values are belief in welfare capitalism, God, the West, Puritanism, the Law, the family, property, the two-party system, and perhaps most crucially, the notion that violence is only defensible when employed by the State. I can’t think of any White House correspondent, of network television analyst, who doesn’t share these values. And who at the same time, who doesn’t insist that he is totally objective.

We tend to think of encyclopedias — “real” encyclopedias, those heavy tomes with the gold leaf edges, as good, objective sources of information. But consider a few selections from a list by A.J. Jacobs (who spent a year reading the Britannica and wrote a book about it called The Know-It-All), on how to get into the Encycopaedia Britannica:

1. Get beheaded. This is perhaps the surest path to getting written up. The Britannica loves nothing more than a person — preferably a noble one — who has had his or her neck chopped in two. One of my favorite games involves reading a biographicalsquibb that begins “French revolutionary” and then guessing how many years it takes before he finds himself under the guillotine.

4. Become a botanist. Scandinavian ones seem particularly popular. Also, the study of mosses and peat deposits shouldn’t be underestimated.

5. Get yourself involved in commedia dell’arte. The Britannica’s obsession with the Italian 18th-century comedies borders on the unhealthy. The EB has great enthusiasm for commedia dell’arte actors, whether they happened to play the pretentious but cowardly soldier Capitano, the saucy maid Columbine, or the madcap acrobat Zanni.

8. Design a font. Apparently, coming up with a new typeface is a more impressive feat than I had previously thought. The Britannica especially likes controversial typefaces that are initially dismissed haughtily, only to be revived later and recognized as brilliant, like Baskerville, designed by font hero John Baskerville.

I mean no disrespect to the dead, botanists, Italian comedy, or fonts, but you have to admit, their selection criteria can be a little bit nutty — one might even say subjective — at times.

Lastly (yes, this post will come to an end soon), how could I not give some space to Google and everyone’s favorite anti-Google (and blog) ranter, ALA President Michael Gorman? One of Gorman’s favorite anti-Google tropes has to do with his stand against atomized information. I would tend to agree with him that Google Print is not going to be the best way to read The Education of Henry Adams (although, I must confess, I have not read it in any way myself). But imagine how useful atomized information might have been to my mother (remember her?), back when she was getting her PhD in English (we follow odd career trajectories in my family):

She was doing an edition of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. That meant she had to go through every edition she could find of the book (which does not survive in manuscript) and try to decide whether Twain wanted to write “schoolhouse,” “school-house,” or “school house.” Or whether he meant to describe the blackness of the night or the darkness of the night. Or–well, you get the idea. In the 1970s, this meant sitting around with books and microfilm readers and undergraduate research assistants. One person read aloud; the others followed along in different editions, looking for differences. Now just imagine that all those editions were scanned and searchable. Presto! Results!

There’s no such thing as a “good source of information” or a “good technology”–there are only sources of information and technologies that are good for certain things.

What? You’re still reading? Then check out a few of the many posts that got me thinking about this topic over the past few months:

Thanks to them — and to all the library bloggers out there — who’ve gotten me thinking.

blog-a-thon! (more shameless promotion)

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been having a blog-a-thon for the past couple weeks to celebrate their 15th anniversary and their work on behalf of bloggers.

What does all this have to do with libraries? Well, a few months back, the American Library Association and EFF (among others) successfully challenged the FCC’s broadcast flag mandate. (Essentially, the broadcast flag was a form of digital rights management (DRM) that would have meant that you could only play broadcast-flag- equipped media on approved players [sounds to me a bit like a Coca-Cola licensing agreement, wherein beverages can only be dispensed in approved cups]. For some idea of what it’s like to deal with DRM, check out The Shifted Librarian’s travails.)

EFF has been at the forefront of most, if not all, of the battles for free speech online and for civil liberties in general in the digital world. If you read at all in the biblioblogosphere (aka library blogland), you’ll see them again.

In any case, I wrote up an entry of my own for the Blog-a-thon. If you’re interested, you can read it over at my other blog.

a book, an interview, a web site: lots of blatant promotion

Looking for something to read in the 300s (335.998, to be exact)? You can check out my interview with Fran Hawthorne, author of Inside the FDA: the Business and Politics Behind the Drugs We Take and the Food We Eat.

In other publishing related news, I’m happy to report that Third Coast Press* is moving this very weekend to its new place of virtual residence, LIShost. Expect some fluctuations over the weekend, but thirdcoastpress.com should be up and running smoothly again by early next week–and then (yippee!) we’ll be able to fix up some things on the site and (double yippee!) start adding new content again.

*Third Coast Press was an alternative monthly newspaper published in Chicago from January 2003 through March 2005. It’s now a web site and will, we hope, resurface as a quarterly print publication. The Fran Hawthorne interview was originally scheduled to run in the May issue.

Update on 7/31/05: I just realized that the link at the bottom of the interview was broken. That’s fixed now. Also, one of the images (which is really just a quotation pulled from the interview) doesn’t show up on Internet Explorer or Safari (and Safari, for some reason, messes with my fonts). All the more reason to switch to Firefox, I say! Everything looks dandy there.