Friday, January 21, 2005

Why I should be a reference librarian

Question: "Do you know where I can find a good online calendar?"


Monday, January 17, 2005

Another Circ Desk blog

Over at Librarian Ire.

Mmm. Disgruntled goodness...


I've now enabled comments here. Be gentle!

Hurrah for technology

Day Four:

Today was the big Technology Showcase, so I dutifully dug the car out of the snow and motored on in hopes of catching a presentation or two. I ended up only going to one - a demonstration of the Ebrary electronic resource, of which Harvard is a recent subscriber - that nonetheless turned out to be a good choice, as not only did I learn about something with immediate practical application at the Circ Desk, but my supervisor just happened to be in attendance as well. So I got points for actually being seen at the conference, a big plus considering I was doing so on paid release time from my job.*

Ebrary is fairly neat. It functions like a portal for your pdf resources, providing a system of organization and the ability to search within the text of the collection just as Amazon now lets you "Search in the Book" (only with Ebrary if your library "owns" a virtual copy of the book, you can read not just a few select pages but the whole damned thing). Looking towards the future, Ebrary wants to then make these internal networks browsable and searchable by other academic institutions and presumably the public at-large, leading eventually to a giant system of pdf content that is easy to manage and interrogate.

Of particular interest was the representative's teaser statement that Ebrary was attempting to secure the rights to make the text of theses and dissertations globally searchable - something that, if true, would be a real achievement. Right now that extremely lucrative (to the tune of $50 per thesis!) business is locked up by UMI/Proquest, and it would be interesting to see what would happen if someone else were to try and muscle in on their territory!

The Ebrary rep was using Standford University as their model client for the display, perhaps a poor choice owing to the fact that the network connection was either slow or kept timing out during the demonstration, an ongoing technical difficulty which greatly undermined the overall effect. But something which did strike me was that apparently Stanford checked its physical holdings against Ebrary's library and found that a third of it overlapped! The implication was that subscribing to Ebrary would therefore be advantageous to Stanford, which makes sense, but it's a fact that could easily be turned around in a Collection Development meeting with library administrators: if Ebrary can provide such a good collection of titles remotely to multiple simultaneous users (a trick pulled off by hosting each page separately), then why bother buying the paper copies in the first place or conserve the overlapping items already owned?

I guess that's always the double-edged sword of digitization and ebooks. Right now it seems that institutions like Stanford and Harvard are simply delighted enough to have the new technology not to start putting the screws to its traditional paper collection. But how long will the honeymoon last, I wonder...

* I also got to mention to my supervisor that the Annual Meeting in Chicago this summer will include a two-day "Meeting Within a Meeting" geared specifically towards library support staff. He said it sounded like a good opportunity for me and promised to help wheedle some money out of Harvard for the registration and travel expenses. Boo-yah!

Sunday, January 16, 2005

"I'm your biggest fan!"

Day Three:

Okay, I admit it. I'm a total geek. I spent the morning wandering around the vendor exhibits looking for companies whose products I've used at the library and telling their amused representatives how awesome I think they are.

I know - sad, isn't it? But at least that way I can make small talk while I raid their booths for free stuff...

Good news! One of the OCLC people told me that they'd be web-streaming their lecture about gaming and technological literacy in a few weeks. We truly live in an age of miracle and wonder.

Tomorrow's the Technology Showcase. Assuming I can dig the car out of the snow early enough in the morning, I'm planning to go and check out all the new and shiny stuff that'll put us all out of work within the next five to ten years. True story: I had stopped by one of the RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) vendor booths yesterday and made a joking comment about how it was going to eliminate my job and all of a sudden the rep I'd been talking to and her two colleagues went into total crisis mode, insisting that RFID was all about "freeing me up to do the more important work" and not about layoffs at the Circulation Desk.

Yikes! Defensive much?

Truth is, I'm less concerned with RFID decimating the circ staff - let's face it, checking books in and out is menial labor and a recipe for future repetitive stress injury to boot (I enjoy my time at Widener but that has little to do with the scanning and stamping!)- than I am worried about the technology's potential for abuse when it comes to patron privacy. Of course this is a general concern of RFID, and not just something restricted to libraries. Last July's issue of Wired has a fairly good assessment of RFID's promises and pitfalls, and even addresses the lingering fear that it might just be the Mark of the Beast as promised in the Book of Revelation.

Now that's what I should have asked the vendor about!

Saturday, January 15, 2005

It's Midwinter, baby!

Day One Two:

At long last, the ALA Midwinter Meeting is here, and I'm psyched as all getout.

Although I'd planned to drop in on Friday and see what was what, my daughter came down with a fever and I was obliged to stick around the house (she's fine today though!) and miss an interesting-looking symposium offered by OCLC called Gaming and the Significance for Information Literacy Learning.

This being the age of the blog, however, I was already able to get the gist of the meeting from the PLA Blog, which is being updated continuously live from the con by members of the Public Library Association. Nifty!

Today I arrived in Boston around noonish and was immediately overwhelmed by the sea of librarians and exhibits, although I regained my bearings enough to snap up some free library schwag and chew the fat with some of the vendors. I made a beeline for the Economist Intelligence Unit to thank them for putting out their unbeatable series of country profiles and reports, and found out that the CIA World Factbook - the source most reference librarians go to first - actually cribs most of their information from the EIU! They also gave me a complimentary copy of the Economist and a free mousepad. I always wondered why I liked these guys so much. Ever since my days at Dewey Library at MIT, where as the social science, economics, and management library they paid for the extremely expensive full run of the series (and kept them at the Reserve desk, where I just so happened to work!), I've been a fan of the Economist Intelligence Unit and went out of my way to push their resources to my reference classmates.

Then I stumbled upon the booth for CISTI - the Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information - and again I had to offer my gratitude, as CISTI's Urgent Service saved my bacon countless times when I was working for the Countway Library of Medicine as the chief interlibrary borrower. The outstanding performance of CISTI (and the British Library's Document Supply Centre) demonstrate just how good public libraries can be when properly supported and amply funded, and lays bare the ideological insistence upon market-driven, private sector solutions for information science in the 21st Century. Would that American libraries paid closer attention to these institutions!

Next I had a chance to speak with a representative from a Belgian company called Brepolis that is digitizing Latin authors and their works from antiquity to modern times, a remarkably similar endeavor to what my employers at The Greek Institute are doing with Greek. So I got a chance to pick the guy's brain and talk up the Treasury of the Greek Language project to boot! And I thought I'd have nothing to talk about with these vendors...

I took a few hours off from the exhibits to participate in a symposium offered by Simmons' GSLIS for potential library school students who are current undergraduate scholarship recipients through the Mellon Library Recruitment Program. As I myself wouldn't be in a library science program now if not for the gentle yet persistent efforts by former bosses and other concerned librarians, I felt it would be nice to try a little recruitment for the cause. The funny thing is that I've already been doing some on my own, talking up the GSLIS program to coworkers and former classmates. It never occurred to me before that I could be a recruiter in a more official capacity, but having thoroughly enjoyed the session today I wonder if that might not be an avenue to explore further down the line.

With about forty-five minutes to go until the exhibits closed for the night, I returned to the Hynes Convention Center to snatch some preview copies of books from the various publishing houses. I hear even the good stuff goes on sale come Monday, when exhibitors are eager to shed some extra pounds before heading back home. Sounds good to me!

Monday, January 10, 2005

More about reference

Been thinking more about Dilevko and Gottlieb's book and the "conventional" wisdom they're now attempting to overturn - namely, that technological change mandates that librarians become computer people first first and foremost, and to that end library school should de-emphasize traditional subject training in favor of technology courses. I always felt that this was complete and utter bullshit for myriad reasons. Librarians are never going to be as tech-savvy as professional computer engineers, database designers, coders and programmers. And - take a deep breath for this one, my fellow librarians-in-training, this is okay. No one expects librarians to know how to replace the boiler in the basement or rewire the outlets in the reading room. Stripped of its Internet Bubble mystique, IT is just another utility, a means by which information is conveyed in, out, and around the library. While of course we want librarians to be computer literate, expecting an MLS to do the work of a trained engineer is unfair both the librarian - who is now expected to do two jobs for the price of one, and the lesser-paid one at that! - and the techie - who finds his career increasingly deprofessionalized by this insidious sort of outsourcing to people who aren't even close to being qualified to do the job properly.

In the second place, there is the rate of technological change itself. Even assuming a two-year turnaround at most library schools, any "technology" skills learned are going to be on the threshhold of obsolescence when the LIS students graduate and start looking for a job, whereas traditional broad-based training in library science should serve them well for their entire career. If I learned anything from my time at M.I.T., it's that technology can always be learned on the job - upon graduation, my friends were all being snapped up as computer programmers and HTML gurus regardless of what they had majored in at the Institute and irrespective of what programming languages they knew (or whether or not they had any experience coding whatsoever!). Do we really want to waste valuable credit-hours imparting ephemeral skills better learned during employee orientation and training? Unless the goal of library school is now to turn out half-assed computer programmers, in which case I'm just barking up the wrong tree.

But I think it's incumbent upon future librarians to ask themselves: what am I bringing to the table that's unique and irreplaceable? Because it's sure as hell not the technological skill set. Any teenager growing up today could school even the best-trained "information professional" on technical merits. Being computer literate may still confer some sort of status in the library workplace, but in less than a generation the techie skills being oversold in LIS programs right now will be common knowledge to kids (like my daughter) raised with a computer from birth. In the long term any survival strategy for our profession that relies upon mere technique will doom us to obsolescence - witness the erosion of library reference by the almighty Google. Librarians have to dig deep into their profession and find what makes us special, the ineffable essence of librarianship that cannot as of yet be replicated by centralized call centers or artificial intelligence. That is what we must draw out and hone in library school - if we must have technology courses there as well, let them at least be ancillary to this greater task and not overshadow it entirely as it now threatens to do.

And if we cannot locate that something special, well then perhaps we are doomed after all.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Who knew?

Catholic University's School of Library and Information Science offers a joint program leading to an MLS and an MA in Greek and Latin. No fair! In fact their SLIS offers quite a few MLS/MA combinations, including Law, History, Biology, Musicology, English, and Religious Studies. Of course I was limited by geography to Simmons, the only library school in the state and one of a handful in New England, but I'm pleasantly surprised to see that many institutions recognize the value of a joint degree and the specialized subject training such a course of study can provide.

This idea is explored at length in Reading and the Reference Librarian, by Juris Dilevko and Lisa Gottlieb, a book I picked up over the holidays to linger over in my free time. The authors are of course primarily concerned with the broader picture of how librarians who actively and voraciously read both on and off the job tend to offer better reference services than those who don't in leaps and bounds.

However, they also discuss the relationship between academic reference librarians and the faculty and students whom they serve, finding (not surprisingly) that in order to thrive in a university settings reference librarians must acquire as much subject knowledge - formal or informal - as possible. The ideal is for the academic reference librarian to be a scholar in his or her own right, a colleague of the faculty who takes an active interest in recent developments, academic research, and publication in the fields the library serves.

To this end, joint graduate programs such as those at Catholic University and my own at Simmons are perfect training for academia. The idea of becoming a scholar/librarian has always been for me a large part of the allure of library school, but I'm glad to read that perhaps for the very first time in my life I'm on the cutting edge of a trend and not a few steps behind it!

Armchairs: The Hidden Menace

"May I speak to the person in charge here?"

I look up from my keyboard - it's one of our regulars, a scholar from the former Soviet Bloc with a tendency towards crankiness. This can't be good.

"That would be me."

"Good," she replies, her lips pursed in contained outrage. "I was just in the Periodicals Reading Room, where the library bought these big leather armchairs. Honestly, I don't know why there should be armchairs in a library!"

"Umm." I certainly didn't see that one coming.

"Well I was in there like I said, and there is this... couple... in the room with their jackets and coats all over the place and she was on top of the other one like it's their own living room or something."


"Can you go over there and tell them to cut it out?"

"Excuse me?"

"You're the person in charge, aren't you?"

"For the Circulation Desk. I don't have any authority over there."

"But can't you just tell them to behave themselves?"

"Isn't there someone at the desk over there?"

"Yes," she sniffs dismissively. "But he just laughed at me."

Now I'm laughing at her. I'm reasonably sure that however offensive a public display of affection, it's not against library policy to sit on someone's lap, and I'm sure as hell not going over there to play the role of vice squad like the character in Michael Griffith's Bibliophilia.

I mean, if they were making out or something, and there was some heavy petting involved, there might be grounds to go over and say something. Or at least sneak a peek. But in the hierarchy of library crimes, seat-sharing seems fairly tame. So it's hard not to laugh.

My Russian vigilante is not amused, however.

"Well, I think it's shameful. I'll go say something myself, if you won't."

"Have at it, lady," I think to myself.

She turns to go accost the young lovers, but leaves me with her parting shot:

"This is why they shouldn't have armchairs in the library!"

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Have MLS, will travel?

Posted yesterday to the Archives and Archivists' LISTSERV:

"I have a requirement for a Historian to deploy to IRAQ for ninety (90)
days, return to Fort Stewart and compile and present the information
acquired while in IRAQ. The contract will be for one year with an
option period.

This contractor employee will accompany and be embedded with the 3rd ID
on the battlefield, and be provided room and board with the units. This
individual must have immunizations, be able to pass a medical readiness
physical and also deployment training. They must be ready to deploy
sometime within the week of 17 Jan. They must also know how to operate
a video camera, voice recorder and laptop computer."

I wonder, though - does the 3rd ID provide a flak jacket, or is this a strictly BYOBA (Bring Your Own Body Armor) gig?

Monday, January 03, 2005

Salon out-funnies The Onion

Man I almost freaked out when I first read this:

Just weeks after announcing ambitious plans to digitize millions of books from five major libraries, Google burns down its electronic Alexandria before even really starting it.

The problem isn't the anticipated copyright headaches. It's the readers -- or lack thereof.

"When news of our plans broke, we were flooded with e-mails from college students begging us to make more term papers available, not books," says a Google executive who asked not to be named. "The kids told us that they have plenty of access to books on paper that they don't read. What they really need is someone to do the reading, thinking and writing for them."

Convinced that absolutely no one wants to read most of the tomes they'd just begun digitizing, Google decides to divert the tens of millions designated for the book project into hiring underemployed Ph.D.'s to build up the world's biggest virtual term-paper library.

Way to keep us hypersensitive librarians on our toes!

Holy crap!

The past semester at Simmons was a real meat-grinder, keeping me from blogging about the experience even. Well, fear not: The Library Ass has returned, if only to inform you that he is now 37.5% librarian (and 33% archivist), and pending the final grade in my Historical Methods seminar 16.7% historian as well.

That's significantly less Ass, all around!

Today I'm engaged in a little bit of cross-training, learning the ropes of the Phillips Reading Room, where our noncirculating materials are accessed by the Harvard community and outsiders deemed worthy enough of the honor of using Widener's collection (okay it's actually quite easy to get at our books, provided that you come with a letter from a librarian or professor attesting to the fact that what you're looking for is only available here!). Considering that the books here don't actually go anywhere, the PRR is a surprisingly complicated place nonetheless, owing mostly to the fact there are various states of noncirculation depending on the state of the material, its size or volume, and the identity and intentions of the person using it. This is all a far cry from Circulation, where our motto is: "Just tell me where to stamp."

I've also been reminded that white shirts do not mix well with old books, especially those in various stages of surrender to red rot. Less than three hours handling the materials here at the PRR and I might as well have picked a food-spattered dirty shirt out of the hamper this morning...