ALA 2007 – Time Odyssey: Visions of Reference and User Services

This was the RUSA President’s Program. The panel was made up of:

Genevieve Bell – Director of User Experience at Intel and an anthropologist

Lee Rainie – Director, Pew Internet & American Life Project

Allen Renear – Professor of Library and Information Science at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Wendy Schultz – Director of Infinite Futures and Fellow of the World Futures Studies Federation

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, was moderator and asked some questions of them at the end.

The year is 2017. Each panelist was asked to speak about what they think libraries will look like then. More specifically, what reference service will look like.

Genevieve Bell went first. She asserted that talking about the future of technology is often just a way to avoid discussing the present.

She thinks we’re currently seeing a return to some aspects of the Victorian-era private libraries – people are accumulating more and more personal media. DVDs, CDs, digital movies or music, books, etc. Traditional library roles are being taken over a bit thanks to this. But, meanwhile paper is not going anywhere anytime soon – we seem to like it too much.

While these roles are taken over, libraries are shifting to a new one: having a center of gravity, as a location. Physically visiting a library to get a card is often considered a rite of passage, and libraries more and more run activities for the community. In Australian, there are even popular sessions on how to organize your home collection with Dewey! I admit I probably wouldn’t sign up for that one, but to each his own 🙂 Libraries are also becoming central information distribution points, as with tax forms.

Another role as a place is to provide a place for people to be together. People want to be where others are when learning.

Lee Rainie mentioned that while in the past everyone got 15 minutes of fame, today everyone is famous to 15 people.

He foresees the development of an ‘internet of things’ – physical objects will share data among themselves to make our lives easier. These objects are known as ‘spimes’, a term coined by author Bruce Sterling. Every object will carry information about itself – reviews built in to the chair you’re sitting on, for example.

Lee also thinks the most interesting battles between now and 2017 will be in the regulatory bodies like the FCC – they have the power to shape a lot of the coming landscape. Copyright, trademarks, etc. are all huge issues. The band The White Stripes has stopped improvising at live shows because they can’t copyright a song fast enough before a fan has a recording posted online.

So, why does he think libraries will still be around in 2017? Nobody knows how to handle information needs better, or how to manage that information. We understand the importance of standards, teach about info literacy, defend freedom of speech, guide conversations about new policies, etc.

Allen Renear says XML will be “the tunnels under Disneyland” for all we do – providing a sort of universal backbone.

By 2017 we won’t look for articles to read in the sciences – that very ideal will be laughable. Due to the ongoing explosion of the sheer amount of information available, it will be impossible to read everything relevant to a topic. Instead, we’ll see the development of ‘literature mining’- I didn’t get down the details of this concept, but it involves indirect use of many articles at the same time. Users will spend time in the “Scholarly Search Environment trance” – developing queries, tracking references, judging, comparing terms, all subconsciously. This prediction seems pretty accurate to me – I slip into a minor form of that state myself when doing research even today. I can’t always outline for anyone the exact steps I took to synthesize information during a search – in the end it feels almost like proceeding on hunches. Allen admits that this sort of horizontal use of literature will be practical, but hard work with lots of questions.

Wendy Schultz opened with a more practical reason why the reference desk will still be around in 2017: “Universities are really bad at getting rid of furniture.”

She also brought up the idea that libraries will act as a social hub in the future more so than they currently do.

Constant environmental scans will be crucial to spot change coming – find that patient zero who grasps onto an idea first, sort of like epidemiology. All aspects of the environment must be taken into account: Society, politics, economics, discovery, etc. We need to cultivate an immersion in that sea of information. We’ll break items down into their component pieces and then recombine them into new results.

Unfortunately, the session ran out of time so most of the discussion was cut at the end. Steven Bell did note that it is crucial for libraries to stay abreast of new changes in order to ensure the future is one where we are still relevant – it won’t happen automatically.

ALA 2007 – Ambient Findability

My writeups have been a bit delayed, mostly due to traveling complications. But, back to the grindstone:

I missed the start of Peter Morville’s talk on “Ambient Findability: Librarians, Libraries, and the Internet of Things”, but here’s what I did get. His whole presentation is online here:

Important questions to ask when designing a website:

  1. Can users find our website?
  2. Can users find their way around our website?
  3. Can users find information despite our website?

Credibility and findability are interlinked as concepts – whatever links show up as the top Google results, users tend to trust as being authoritative. I’d never thought about this before, but it makes a lot of sense – I know that mindset is how I react when doing casual searches.

Then, there are also long tail searches. Peter once worked on a redesign of Most of their traffic came from search engines linking in to their central page that directs users to info on different types of cancer. After the redesign, all of those individually linked pages show up more prominently in search results – getting the user to the page they want faster, even if that distributes the stats among lots of pages. Our goal is to make information accessible, not just make a website. Search engine optimization is absolutely crucial.

The CSA search interface was greatly simplified in the recent past. This was done to ease choices for students and professors, and not intimidate them so much. But, what if the student or professor doesn’t know the database exists in the first place? Sites such as have put the metadata for a number of journal articles online, in the hopes that they’ll show up in Google searches and then be able to link a user to the article via their local library. A good idea! Unfortunately, the Google results for this metadata are in “Google Hell” – so low on the list that they might as well not exist.

Web designers need to remember that we’re designing the legacy systems of tomorrow – learn from the past, design for the future.

The definition of ambient findability is being able to find anything at any time. This is unattainable, but an ideal we should strive for.

“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”. There are simply too many options out there for readers to assimilate them all. So, we need to be more findable – a pull model instead of pushing content out.

Meanwhile, there are small steps into making information ambient via alternate interfaces. Peter mentioned the “ambient pinwheel” – it sits on your desk and spins faster as more e-mails accumulate in your inbox.

“Bigger needles need to be put in the haystacks” – I like this metaphor a lot.

The internet turned everyone into a librarian – at least as far as paying attention to metadata creation. Tagging is a prime example. We should bring the new and the old together.

Peter closed with a story about three stonecutters working on the same project. When asked what they were doing, one replied: “Making a living.” The second said “The best job I can”. The third said “I’m building a cathedral”. Try to keep that broad, grand view when designing any kind of information architecture.

ALA 2007 – LITA Top Tech Trends

I am utterly exhausted tonight – somehow I forgot how much walking a big conference like this can involve. So, here’s my raw notes with very little elaboration. A very worthwhile session though! I know I missed writing down a lot of good points, but LITA should be posting the full session as a podcast somewhere soon. The speakers were:

John Blyberg

Karen Coombs

Roy Tennant

Marshall Breeding

Walt Crawford

Joan Frye Williams

I’ll label who said what with their initials whenever possible.

MB: Library automation is an important area.
Consolidation, investment by venture capital, etc. all bring major changes and heightened distrust by customers.
Open Source is another trend – there are now legitimately considerable ILS options that are open source. Meanwhile, where do new companies that provide support for open source products fit in?
There is a new focus on updating front end interfaces to match user expectations.

JB: Back ends need to be shored up to support new front ends, due to a ripple effect of those changes causing more stress on the existing structure.
RFID sorters and storage options’ privacy issues are illusory – they’re really just barcodes, nobody can resolve what book it refers to without direct back end database access.
There’s a new desire to uncouple the OPAC from the ILS and make everything more modular

WC: RFID can have privacy concerns if patrons’ cards are chipped too
JFW: This is trying to use logic on a political issue. We’re the only institution with an application for RFID chips that won’t sue protesters, so we are their prime targets when they’re really fighting against Walmart and that sort.
MB: What about backwards compatibility issues with future generations of RFID chips and readers?

KC: The end user as content contributor is a growing trend – this has implications for the archives of local history, etc.
-Where are today’s equivalent of WWII letters written to families at home? It’s all electronic and ephemeral.
-Libraries should try to capture some of this kind of thing
-Ex) Australia’s Picture Australia Project – partnership with Flickr. Users submit pictures to a Flickr group, some are chosen for inclusion in the archive project.
Audio and Video are what users now want, and we need a way to deliver access digitally.
The line between desktop and web apps is being obliterated – where will future software reside?

JB: There’s no push to the semantic web (or web 3.0) yet.
KC: Bad HTML inhibits this
RT: If the semantic web really gets going, we’ll know hell has frozen over
MB: 3.0 can mean true information apps built from the ground up, not today’s wraps around legacy systems. This is a long way off.
WC: Users mostly don’t want to do the XML and such that the semantic web requires

RT: Trend of demise of the catalog – new tools unify access to a wide variety of information. Kill off the term OPAC.
Software as a service – get it out of local server rooms and onto central storage with the vendor – this eliminates upgrade issues.
Intense marketplace uncertainty aids a push towards open source systems.
Where do indexers fit in when someone like Google goes directly to the publishers and full text?
Eventually, an ILS will be used mostly for back room maintenance, not front end

WC: Privacy still matters – do patrons want us to be Amazon, do they understand the potential for government data mining of user records?
-The Slow library movement: Locality is vital, think before acting, and use open source only where open source really genuinely works (NOTE: Please see Walt’s comment below about this bit)
-The role of the public library in telling the community’s stories is changing due to the availability of publishing online.

MB: ILSes need to handle more formats than just MARC data
WC: For all the complaining about MARC, a session about it at 8am the other day was overflowing out the door. There’s obviously still interest.

JFW: End user focused technology is being used as a replacement, not a real change (I think I missed writing something down here, this note doesn’t make much sense to me now)
-Where we are currently tactical, we need to be strategic – don’t congratulate ourselves too early.
-We’re holding ourselves back by being afraid of irrelevance, which is self-fulfilling
-We have a reluctance to be involved more directly in the development cycle

JB: Direct visits to library websites will drop as mashups of library data are on the rise and used directly instead, but the site will still be necessary.

KC: Users’ interaction with information is changing, and we are responding. This is where much of the current environment of change comes from.

ALA 2007 – Harnessing the Hive: Social Networks & Libraries

This talk was broken up into three pieces – one each by Matthew Bejune (Assistant Professor of Library Science at Purdue University Libraries), Meredith Farkas (‘Queen of Wikis’ and Distance learning librarian at Norwich University), and Tim Spalding (founder of LibraryThing).

Matthew opened with a summary of his research into wiki use in libraries. The results will appear more formally in the 9/07 issue of ITAL. For his purposes, library wikis can be classified in one of four groups:

1. Collaboration between libraries
2. Collaboration between library staff (internal)
3. Collaboration between staff and patrons
4. Collaboration between patrons

Groups one and two combined make up about 76% of all library wiki use.

Some highlighted examples included the SJCPL subject guide wiki, the USC Aiken Gregg-Graniteville Library’s site (using a wiki as a full CMS), OCLC’s Wikid, and The Biz Wiki from Ohio University.

As we move forward with Wikis, Matthew highlighted some questions to keep in mind:

Why aren’t we more in category 3 or 4?

How might we enable patrons to build or modify a library’s information?

How will libraries next use wikis?

His own wiki ( has many more details.

Meredith took the stage next. Her presentation is available online at

She stressed the need for knowledge management. All organizations need it to collect and maintain just how to do a task and share areas of expertise. Many libraries’ systems for this purpose are too informal right now. For example, scraps of paper with notes left at the reference desk can very easily disappear. A blog might work, but the reverse chronological listing makes it hard to locate an item in the long run.

Meredith also talked about user tagging as used in Ann Arbor District Library’s catalog – these tags are more familiar to users than the LCSH system. But, tagging needs a critical mass of tags applied to items to be of much use in making recommendations. Hennepin County’s catalog lets users create lists like on Amazon, and leave comments in the catalog. Worldcat is going to allow these lists too.

A great example of a community-focused wiki that Meredith showed is the RocWiki – a big guide to the city of Rochester, NY. (near where I grew up, incidentally) Users have asked and answered each others’ questions in discussion areas of the wiki. While this one isn’t run by a library, why couldn’t a library build something like this as a community service? It would enhance reference service too.

The Biz Wiki was brought up again, as an example of drawing on faculty expertise and what students have picked up.

But a Wiki is not an easy solution. It takes time to get buy-in, run training for staff, and then integrate it into an existing workflow. Also, I got a big kick out of this library wiki tech troubleshooting page.

Later, in Q&A Meredith mentioned that some moderation by authority is necessary for online communities. But it has to be done carefully to maintain a grassroots feel.

Tim Spalding’s presentation was jaw dropping. I’ve played with LibraryThing before, but only a little bit. I had no idea of how deep its current functionality goes. LibraryThing is now the second largest library catalog type system in the world.

It relies on “social cataloging” and the idea that knowledge is a conversation. A catalog itself is not a conversation, but is a tool to get you to it. LCSH helps start this process, but then users need to ascend.

The users do an amazing amount of cataloging work for librarything, probably without even realizing it. They combine multiple editions into one authority listing, write extensive author pages (making sure to clear copyright for any pictures of them), etc. By letting users apply tags of their own design, the resulting system is a bit more natural than LCSH – ‘cooking’ instead of ‘cookery’, for example. There are also tags for genres like chick lit and cyberpunk, which LCSH doesn’t cover. And even if LCSH were to add headings for these areas, there’s no guarantee that past written books would be classified with it retroactively.

Of course, tagging isn’t perfect. What if someone labeled The Diary of Anne Frank with an antisemitic tag? Well, it hasn’t really happened. But relatively useless and infrequently used tags for the book like “in belgium” or “historyish” can be ignored when only popular tags are shown. This relies on a critical mass of tags though, enough that the oddities can be declared mere statistical blips and ignored. Any new tagging system has this hurdle to overcome.

LibraryThing has some cool new functionality coming soon, including the ability to combine and subtract tags. For example, users will be able to search for books with the tags WWII and France, but without the tag Fiction. Also, the mass of tags that LibraryThing has accumulated will soon be made available to libraries (for a fee) for use in their catalog. Tim says it’ll work with any OPAC! Danbury Library is the first to take advantage of it. He’d also like to apply LibraryThing’s methodologies to articles soon. I think I’m going to give LibraryThing a more in depth look when I get home…

ALA 2007 – Google Book Project update

I only caught a little of this session due to a conflict with other events I wanted to be at. Google’s Adam Smith opened with a walkthrough of the website. He noted that Google has agreements with roughly 40,000 publishers to scan their books that are still under copyright. I hadn’t heard that anywhere before. Records with metadata have been added for non-scanned books too, like Harry Potter.

Representatives of each of the first five schools to join the scanning project were also on hand. I didn’t get to hear them all, but most noted that their efforts started with off site collections that in storage to minimize impact on the main collection. Harvard is including all bound volumes, not just books. Michigan scans fragile items in house and lets the outside scanners handle the rest. Interestingly, they keep their own copies of the scan in addition to what they pass on to Google. They plan to build their own interface to search the local copies – I’d be really interested to see the final result and compare the functionality of each.

ALA 2007 – The Ultimate Debate: Do Libraries Innovate?

IMG_1625Moderated by Andrew Pace, this session was in the format of a Q&A/debate among the panelists: Stephen Abram, Joseph Janes, and Karen Schneider.

Lots of fascinating things here – I don’t think I got it all down on paper, but I left with a lot of new thoughts on my mind. One major point that all three agreed on is that the profession should not be so afraid to take risks. If something fails, so what? We tried. Learn from it and apply that knowledge to something else. And innovation does not necessarily have to be on vast scales – something small can be just as important and ultimately build to something larger.

The central question was the titular ‘Do Libraries Innovate?’

While each panelist phrased it a bit differently, all seemed to agree that while individuals in libraries are innovating, the institutional support is very often lacking. New ideas are squelched with negative criticism even before they have a chance to succeed or fail on their own. A prime example of this was Maricopa County Library’s experiment with ditching Dewey in one branch. Even before their doors opened, the criticism had reached thunderstorm levels. But, the patrons seem to love it.

So what are the marks of an innovative library?

Abram: Having a tough hide is necessary, the process should be shared so others can learn from it, and don’t be afraid to be a follower of a new idea.

Janes: Don’t be afraid to fail. Example of why not: Even when Apple’s Lisa computer failed, that ultimately led to the Macintosh. Development is more important than Research (in tech areas at least) – get out there and experiment.

Schneider: Be willing to re-evaluate the definition of success. Example: Flickr started as some sort of gaming site, then shifted to photography when it became apparent that users wanted that aspect of their functionality above all others.

Discussion also repeatedly came back to the “culture of victimization” that permeates the profession. Why do we focus so much on the disasters, instead of celebrating successes? Yes, a few libraries had to close due to budget cuts recently. But meanwhile, overall funding increased nationwide. The closings are what we give headlines to. Janes mentioned that maybe we ultimately feel dispensable and don’t give ourselves enough credit.

I didn’t note who said this, but the quote “Change happens from those who show up” stuck with me. Innovation is impossible without someone willing to try. Libraries won’t innovate themselves.

How can we compete with the private sector for both hiring and for the users’ attention?

Janes: We should get over the idea of requiring an MLS to be useful in a library. Experts of all backgrounds have a role to play.

Schneider: For that matter, why do we make systems librarians do shifts on the reference desk? Shouldn’t their time be spent where they are most useful?

What about the role associations like ALA play in innovation? Abram noted that ALA often serves as a sandbox – new things are experimented with there, then rolled back into individual libraries. But on the downside, recent discussion on the Ning Library 2.0 site beats any of ALA’s 2.0 efforts. Janes says we have to revitalize ALA from within, not start over from scratch. We need the advantages of scale that organizations like ALA and OCLC have. No libraries have that same critical mass to initiate a profession-wide change.

Another point that came up often is just how long it takes for new ideas, after being proven successful, to spread to other institutions. The diffusion rate is painfully slow, so even when a great innovation comes along it is often not adopted by all.

What are the panelists’ visions for library innovation?
(I didn’t note who said what here)
-Share our experiences
-Learn to brag
-Cultivate a culture of acceptance for risk and failure, be more merit-driven
-Find what the end users want, then do it
-Learn to think broadly, don’t get paralyzed by really far out concepts
-Work to change where libraries fall in national priorities
-Set up reciprocal mentoring among generations to draw on each’s strengths

These are only a few of the major points from the discussion. There was no way I could write fast enough to keep up with them all 🙂

Facebook application – a first try

Over the last couple days I’ve cobbled together a Facebook application that searches the UAH book catalog:

You can add it to your profile here. To give credit where it’s due, this is very heavily based on the code from UIUC’s similar application.

Having code to work from, the process was pretty straightforward. I did hit some speed bumps though. The largest was that once finished, the app didn’t show up on anybody else’s profile once added. It was fine on mine, but not on anybody else’s! I’m still not entirely sure how I fixed that one, but it seems to be working now.

I also ran across one issue that really bugs me: Facebook’s cache refresh time. They appear to be caching my application, so the recent design changes I made won’t show up yet. This cache seems to last an inordinately long time (more than 24 hours), especially when the app is in active development like mine is. I’d like to see changes reflected immediately to make sure I haven’t broken anything. A method to force a refresh would be much appreciated. (Maybe such a thing exists already, but I couldn’t find any mention of it in the developers’ forums)

As it is, once you add this to your profile the app will look rather suspiciously like UIUC’s for the time being… until the cache refreshes and my aesthetic design changes kick in.

This is just an early early application, but I wanted to see what is possible. Learning a new API is never simple, and I am barely scratching the surface here.

E-Info Global 2007

I am very, very pleased to point out that the website for the E-Info Global Symposium 2007 is live!

Last year’s inaugural symposium went amazingly well, and this year promises to be even better – Stephen Abram is our Conference Chair! His welcome message is here. And as with last year’s, our goal is to keep the event very affordable – registration was $99 last time, and we’re aiming for something similar again. Stephen and Jane Dysart are working on pulling together a group of speakers, and I’ll be sure to point out more info as it becomes available. But in the meantime, save the date:
December 6th and 7th, 2007

I’m really excited about this 🙂

200 miles down…


Today was a big deal for me: I hit 200 miles of cumulative running distance! The Nike+iPod pedometer kit has been a huge motivator for me, and takes all the annoyance out of stat tracking. I just sync the ipod with my computer after each run, and the stats are added!

I got the kit the day after Thanksgiving – just about seven months ago. An average of .96 miles per day, 25,595 calories burned, and I took 90 seconds off my overall average for a mile in the process – not too shabby. When I started, I set a goal to run 200 miles by my birthday. I met that objective with 29.5 hours to spare.

Prior to getting this kit, I was a sporadic runner at best. I couldn’t make it a half mile without wanting to keel over. Now I’m in the best shape of my life and routinely run over two miles at a go. Sometimes all you need is an upticking counter to follow.

Attending ALA Annual

I’ve forgotten to mention it, but I’ll be at ALA in DC later this month. If anybody wants to meet up, drop me a line. Or just look for the guy hanging around the Lexis/Nexis booth, desperately hoping to pick up any and all tidbits of training. Or if I’m not there, check the Guitar Hero setup in the ALA Pavilion 🙂