Search for the answer, not the question

I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts, but I try to make time every week to fit in This Week in Google. Leo Laporte, Jeff Jarvis and Gina Trapani always have interesting takes on wide-ranging web issues (the show’s scope often wanders quite a bit broader than the title implies).

Last week they had on Andy Carvin as a guest. Andy works for NPR, and has been curating a fascinating and informative collection of resources on the current Mid-East unrest via twitter. Andy talks a lot about just how he curates this list: how he’s built his network, verified sources, all the standard marks of good journalism. At one point discussion moves toward just how Andy searches for information on ‘happening now’ breaking news style events on twitter. Essentially, he puts himself in the mindset of the tweeter present at the event – what are the standard ways people react to extraordinary situations? He searches for phrases like (pardon my French) “Holy shit” or other expletives in conjunction with topical keywords. Looking for witnesses to the Japan earthquake, he had success with phrases like “What the hell was that?”.

This is exactly how I taught my INLS 501 students to search Google last semester, and likely will again this fall: Assume the answer to your question is out there, and think about how the answer might have been written. This is especially when dealing with factual questions of a slightly oddball nature. Here’s the example I used in class:

I remember a real reference question from when I was young. I wasn’t the asker, but must have been waiting in line behind whoever was: “How many windows are there in the White House?”

In the time before Google, I remember the librarian tracking down photos of the White House from each side and helping the patron count them up. (I’m not sure why this stuck with me – maybe the extraordinary level of service?)

Today I would run this Google search: “there are * windows in the White House”, or variations on that phrase. Putting the sentence in quotes returns only that exact phrase. Using the * inside the quotes means I’ll get the exact phrase with any word or number standing in for the wildcard instead. In this case, I see a few sites that tell me there’s 147 windows. I still have to evaluate the quality of those sources, of course, and maybe try variations on the phrase like “the White House has * windows” to cross check. But that’s still a lot easier than counting from photos 🙂

I just envisioned the answer as I’d write it, and let the search engine fill in the blanks. Of course there’s countless other possible searches to get to this kind of answer, but this is still my favorite method.

Back to my original rambling – Andy Carvin is a very smart man, and you should give that episode of twig a listen. There’s tons of stuff that’s likely of interest to information science-minded folks covered within.

2011 Mover & Shaker award

Yesterday the 2011 list of Library Journal’s Movers & Shakers was announced, and I’m an honoree! Together with my coworker Emily King, we were recognized for our work on UNC’s first campus-wide Alternate Reality Game last year (among other projects).

I’m extremely honored and equally humbled by this. Thank you to all who nominated us! But this award wasn’t given in a vacuum – I wouldn’t have accomplished much of anything without the support of all my amazing co-workers and contacts.

Seeing myself listed alongside so many amazing libraryland folks is very surreal. And that doesn’t even cover previous years’ honorees – many of whom I consider mentors and idols.

Fellow honoree Bobbi Newman did a great job of compiling links to all of this year’s Movers & Shakers.

Upcoming presentation: Computers in Libraries 2011

I’m very excited to be presenting briefly at Computers in Libraries in DC next week! Come see me at 4:30 on Monday, 3/21. I’m not quite sure where I’ll be, but I’m part of the Cybertour series of quick presentations. Here’s my slides in advance, though they probably make more sense if you hear my talking that goes with them:

Libraries as techshops

I respect the people at Make Magazine quite a bit. I may not always be skilled enough to replicate their impressive DIY instructions, but they make me want to improve those skills and tend to have unique perspectives on fixing problems.

So when one of their writers speculates at length about the future of public libraries, I stop and listen.

That piece provides an interesting option – can libraries be retooled as public-access techshops? We’re lucky enough to have a techshop locally here in the Triangle. The basic idea is that members have access to a large variety of tools, from hammers on up to laser cutters and 3d printers. I’ve toured the space before, and it completely makes me want to build things. I have a 2 month membership credit waiting to be used, and what keeps stopping me is that I simply can’t decide what to work on. Too many options!

I don’t know if converting public libraries to the techshop (or similar) model is viable – I’m especially concerned as to whether a tax base would support a library concept that doesn’t involve books – but this article makes me wish I worked in a public library so I could find out.

[As a side note, the concept makes excellent further reading to go with Eli Neiburger’s recent “Libraries are screwed” talks (1,2). ]

An ode to Ninite

I recently purchased a new laptop. I got it all set up – programs installed, files transferred, etc.

My shiny new laptop’s hard drive died, almost immediately after I was done tweaking things.

I had to repeat the whole procedure.

Carbonite’s (mostly) painless file transferring aside, Ninite was the most helpful tool in this potentially frustrating process. Ninite bundles popular programs into one .exe install file. So with just a few clicks I installed Chrome, Firefox, Skype, iTunes, Hulu, VLC, Spotify, Flash, Paint.Net, Picasa, Dropbox, Steam, Google Earth, Defraggler, Revo, Winrar, even Python and Eclipse! All with virtually no intervention on my part beyond launching one install. And this is just a small subset of the programs Ninite can handle! I’m pretty sure it saved me at least an hour of running installs, not to mention trying to remember all the oddball programs I needed to get set up.

But here’s my favorite part: Ninite skips all the bloat that usually comes with these programs. No spyware, no browser toolbars, no annoyances!

I’m sounding suspiciously like a paid ad, so I’ll stop raving now. If you ever have to set up a new PC, give Ninite a try.

Take ebrary’s survey… please.

Last week I ran across a link (via Paul Pival) to ebrary’s current survey about the future of their platform. If you have any experience with ebrary, you’re likely as frustrated with their UI and limitations as I am. So you should go take it. I’ll wait.

Good, you’re back! When I first saw this survey I was very excited. Ebrary as it stands right now is an awful user experience and interface, to the point that I often order a print copy of a book for work instead of an ebrary copy. And while I’m excited that they want to improve, even this survey itself shows how far they have to go: it uses terminology (“tethered systems”) that I’ve never encountered in this context before, and honestly the whole thing doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. One question seems to imply that mobile apps can be used on desktop machines. If such a major provider of academic library ebooks thinks that’s true… well they genuinely need our help.

So take the survey, if you haven’t already. It sounds like they’re at least considering some sort of offline reading ability, which is a step in the right direction and should be encouraged.