Wednesday, November 29, 2006


I've been having a nice little streak of what I like to call "job satisfaction days", when I actually feel like I'm in the right place and doing the right thing, instead of compulsively checking the RSS feeds for library jobs and wondering whether I should go back to graduate school for my doctorate. Perhaps it has more to do with the fact that I've never been happier with my writing efforts, just finishing up a successful first attempt at NaNoWriMo, finally getting to the editing phase of the novel I'd been working on for three years, and already several chapters into a third effort as well. But I think it's more than that. I think my hope that this job could be grown into something more has gone from being just that to a genuine possibility, making me excited about the prospect of hanging around here for the forseeable future and seeing what I can make of it. If that isn't satisfaction, I don't know what is!

(Okay, so I still compulsively check the jobline feeds. But that's just because I have a problem...)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Just when you think you've seen it all

How clueless do you have to be to use a Snickers wrapper as a bookmark?

Monday, November 27, 2006

Google and copyright: back to the future?

Recent proposed changes to Australian copyright law have brought an ancient conundrum -- in terms of the World Wide Web -- back to the fore regarding intellectual property rights and search engines. As early as 1996, when Google was still being run out of a garage on the Stanford University campus, the search engine was generating complaints from website owners, who accused Google (née Backrub) of "stealing" their online content.

Insofar as Backrub's approach to indexing the Internet was entirely new, the content owners could be forgiven for their suspicious response. Whereas previous search engines merely used top-level keywords to generate their results, Backrub looked at as many pages on a website that it could get its little spidery appendages on, so when some robot hailing from the Stanford Computer Science Department starting requesting every last blasted scrap of html on the web servers of museums and other early online resources it set off all kinds of warning bells. Fortunately the folks at Stanford and Google were able to head off any legal action by assuring the content producers that their page requests were not an attempt at massive virtual theft but merely a means to an end that would benefit all parties involved.

But fast forward ten years to the present: now that virtually every content producer out there is also an online content producer as well, the stakes are completely different than they were back in 1996. While the gentleman's agreement that Google had with the people whose websites they had copied for the purpose of indexing now is still mutually beneficial, the owners of virtual intellectual property -- riding a wave of a decade of successful lobbying on their own behalf internationally -- are now attempting to renege on their end of the symbiotic bargain, having somehow convinced themselves that they don't need things like Fair Use and Net Neutrality now that the digital age has come into its own.

At the heart of this conflict is the issue of control. Content producers/providers have a vested interest in things like portals and "sticky" websites, whereas increasingly users just want what they were looking for in the first place, thank you very much. This isn't to say that they're not interested in serendipitous finds, but that they would rather make these discoveries through disinterested parties like social networking software and tags rather than via product synergy or payola schemes. This is why MP3's are now the basic unit of music instead of the album, because why pay for the other eleven tracks when all you want is the one you like? By the same token this is why online newspapers and other periodicals vigorously oppose the practice of "deep linking", which takes you straight to the article you want to see rather than forcing you through a front page portal loaded with all the other crap they'd like to look at as well.

Who will ultimately prevail in this tug-of-war? While the content producers have managed to rig the legal table fairly well in their favor, even they are beginning to realize that even if you have the law on your side that doesn't mean the public will fall in line and behave as you wish them to -- something that even the recording industry finally seems to get. Even the most hard-line intellectual property types are starting to understand that when millions of people turn to "illegal" methods for acquiring the information and online commodities they desire this represents a failure of the market to deliver a desirable option, and offers an opportunity for innovation rather than representing a threat to Western Civilization as We Know It™.

In the case of this proposed Australian law, observers are not exaggerating when they say that if enacted it will effectively cripple the Internet as we know it, just as the legal blocking of such efforts of Google Book Search will only hurt authors rather than help them. Despite every effort on the part of the old guard to paint Google as a villain, the public continues to reward the search company for understanding our needs and working to meet them; and though it may be that Google's legal challenges may be far from over, I think at the end of the day it is they that will still be standing.

Thanks to BoingBoing for the original story link!

I don't need no stinkin' IT department*

For some reason the staff printer at the Reading Room Desk hates me. Every time I so much as sneeze the networked printer decides either to unselect itself as my default printer or disappear from the network altogether, prompting me either to call IT or hope that left to its own devices the problem will eventually correct correct itself. I was hoping that these troubles were a function of our former printer, an HP 1200 that was so old by office standards that we were one major malfunction away from a mandatory upgrade, but no sooner did my elation at the arrival of a splufty new HP 1320 peak than I realized that the old printer's animus against me had trickled down to its replacement via some form of digital Aeschylean blood guilt.

I had blissfully forgotten that I had left my printer situation unresolved when I abandoned the office last Wednesday at 5, unwilling to saddle the IT department with yet another call from our unit before the extended holiday weekend (we're already on the frequent flier list thanks to our Bookeye overhead scanner, a totally awesome piece of technology that nevertheless needs lots of care and attention due to almost constant use when the library is open). Opening up the room this morning I recalled when I tried to print something that I'd punted the issue, and was just about to reach for the phone when I had a sudden flash of inspiration. Hadn't the IT guy shown me how to figure out how to configure a networked printer before? The details were fuzzy but I sat down and tried to remember exactly what he'd done, and lo and behold, after only a few errors I cranked out a test page and did a little victory dance for the bleary-eyed Reading Room regulars.

Score one for the information professional!

* Yes, I do.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Wow, that's lazy

It's bad enough that I don't take the stairs when I'm in the Stacks on a book page unless I'm headed in the same direction as gravity, but I have no idea why I occasionally press the automatic door opener on my way out of Pusey 2 back into D-Level of Widener. Not only doesn't it save me any time, but I almost always grow impatient with it and force it all the way open manually anyway. Sooooo lazy:
Homer: You guys work on the movie?
Teamster: You sayin' we're not working?
Homer: Oh, I always wanted to be a Teamster. So lazy and surly...
mind if I relax next to you?

(From "Radioactive Man", Simpsons episode 130, originally aired September 24, 1995)

Thursday, November 09, 2006

One Year Later

(Originally posted to NEXGENLIB on Google Groups)

Question: So if you have the option between a paraprofessional position in the library you would kill to work in, versus a professional position in a library you would like to work in, would it be better to choose the professional one even though it's not in the type of library you want?

I have wrestled with this very same question for the past year or so, so I hope you don't mind if I share my experience in trying to find an answer. I've been working as a library assistant since 1998 (and for three years before that as well, from 1992-1995, with a break in between jobs to go back to school in order to finish my BA), so when I finally took the plunge and went to library school I assumed that the first thing I'd do upon graduation would be to leave my current parapro gig and land an entry-level librarian position.

But no sooner did my final semester approach than a job opened up several grades above me in the department I was working in. Yes, in relative terms it represented one heck of a raise, an opportunity to get some management experience, and work with rare library materials and visiting scholars from all over the world -- and at what I consider to be one of my "dream libraries", no less -- but it was still a paraprofessional position. What to do?

On the one hand, I thought of the numerous reasons not to apply for the job: not only would I be working for less pay and with fewer responsibilities than a professional librarian, but I would be taking a perfectly good parapro position off the market for someone else, with no guarantee of making the transition from library assistant to librarian no matter how many years I clocked within the system. And darn it, didn't I deserve a professional job? Hadn't I just finished my MLS after years of thinking about it and several difficult semesters finally doing it?

But then I thought about the reasons *to* apply: while the pay and responsibilities were less than I had hoped for as an entry-level professional, I would be making a full-time salary that added up to more money than I'd ever brought home in my entire life (at the time I was working a half-time but benefitted position and making up the shortfall in pay by teaching adult ed and staying home with my daughter a couple days a week rather than pay extra for a full week of childcare), and for the first time in my career as a library employee would be directly responsible for managing a crew of roughly a dozen staff members, work-study students, and temps. And although it was true that I knew all too well that "getting a foot in the door" didn't count for nearly as much as it used to in academic libraries, it seemed silly to pass up an opportunity to stay just because it didn't give me the title I wanted.

The ethical dimension of the question was not so easily resolved, however. Wasn't I contributing to the watering-down of the profession by "settling" for a parapro job whose duties and responsibilities read very similarly to that of many of the entry-level librarian positions I was scoping out elsewhere in the region? Moreover, at the same time didn't my entrance into the applicant pool for non-professional library work unfairly raise the bar of qualification for other would-be parapro job seekers? And hadn't I *sworn* to myself many times before that I didn't want to contribute to either of these problems upon graduation and instead take the high road, however far that might take me from my ideal library in the short or medium (or possibly even long) term?

Did I mention that we really, really needed the money at the time, though?

To be fair, I think the ethics are more complicated than that. While libraries have indeed enjoyed a long period during which there has been a somewhat strict delineation between professional and non-professional positions, it wasn't always that way, and perhaps we should view the modern trend towards deprofessionalization as an inevitable correction in the always-fluid relationship between labor and management. We are by no means the only professionals for whom times are currently less than ideal, so perhaps the changing realities of the library are less a function of choices such as mine and more a reflection of the early 21st century American workplace -- more public service, more flexibility with one's job definition, more ambiguity overall.

So I took the job -- and promptly freaked out for the next few months. What had I done? How could I have so little faith in my own abilities? Was I dooming myself to a life or paraprofessional hell? And pity my poor wife, who got to feel both frustrated at my own turmoil and guilty that we as a family had put ourselves in a financial position whereby we had little choice but to take the proverbial bird in the hand rather than hope for the two in the bush! I told my boss that I was actively looking for work as an entry-level professional (I'm lucky that he understood my situation and didn't begrudge me one bit) and blanketed the Northeast Corridor with applications, even getting a callback or two along the way. Still, nothing materialized that made it worth my while to leave, so I just kept looking for jobs and feeling sorry for myself.

But as time went on, you know what? I started to realize that the job I currently had, while not professional in name, certainly had the potential to be a lot more than I had originally made it out to be. As I worked my way through an entire academic year, I began to feel more attuned to the rhythms of the library's workflow, and more specifically I started to appreciate what role I had played in not only making my department function not just smoothly but better than I had originally found it. I began to reflect on the faces I'd seen over the year, the research I had assisted, the problems I had solved, and the knowledge I had acquired along the way. And I realized only then that after almost twelve months of pining for my big chance to make myself as a librarian, I had already done exactly that, title or no title.

We'll see what happens next...

Kind of a long and rambling post, I know. But I guess the long story made short is: if the alternative to taking a parapro job is not working in a library at all, then you should by all means choose the option that will allow you to make money doing something that you are passionate about. Whatever the ethics of the situation, your education and skills will serve you well on the job, and perhaps open up opportunities in the workplace that may not have otherwise been available -- for example, I have recently given a couple of talks to various departments in my library about the Google Book Search service, as I had taken a course in library school which had focused on Google's digitization efforts and fashioned myself into something of a guru on the subject.

To make the short story even shorter: do it. Because life is too short not to be working in a library, in whatever capacity.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Flying solo

I've yet to find work-study coverage for Wednesday mornings, which has thus far been the most difficult shift to schedule during the week. It's funny -- you have morning people and you have evening people, you have weekend people and you have the Monday people, but I have yet to see someone who is a genuine Wednesday Person. Sure, it's "Hump Day", but that's just an attempt to sugar-coat a day which has no redeeming values whatsoever. Those of us in the 9-to-5 workforce are obliged to show up on Wednesdays like any other day, but those who do shift work have no such incentive to be here.

Fortunately this desk can be manned by one individual, although visiting researchers can make it so that that solitary desk worker doesn't get a moment to sit down and catch his breath or even blog (Dewey forbid!). It does make the day go by in a blink of the eye, however. All you have to do is stay hydrated, keep smiling, and blog when no one's asking for their stuff.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

It melts in your hands

Yick. I love old books, but I hate when their bindings crumble into black or red powder that is a pain in the ass to wash off your hands (or out of your shirt!)...

Feeling my age

This is another one of those situations that they never prepare you for in library school: I'm at the Circ Desk downstairs when a gaggle of young female students (all wearing matching t-shirts, no less) come running in my general direction. The leader has a piece of paper clutched in her hands that she pushes at me with a cryptic explanation...

"We're not allowed to look this up on the computer. Can you help us?"

Hmm. I glance down at the paper, which appears to be a checklist of short-answer questions -- the kind that don't generally appear on college exams.

"It's a scavenger hunt." The ladies giggle. "We need the answer to this question here."

I read the indicated question and immediately turn a bright shade of red (or, more appropriately, crimson) -- it asks the scavengees to locate a book about the time-honored act of sexual relations in the library stacks. The book they're supposed to find is none other than Michael Griffith's Bibliophilia, a book that I've actually checked out from Widener myself and read, but right then and there I'm drawing a complete blank. It's bad enough that I'm now twice the age of the average freshman, so the prospect of even beginning to find an answer to this question just feels like twenty different kinds of wrong.

All I can do is shuffle, stutter, and pray for an unannounced fire drill when one of the student desk workers takes pity on me and deftly handles the question for me. Thank God! As the young women check the item off their list and continue their scavenger hunt elsewhere, I thank the student employee, who laughs off my sheepish grin and my still-flushed face with her characteristic good humor. This helps me feel infinitesimally less mortified, but nevertheless...

Geez, I'm getting old.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

We don't judge you here

...okay maybe just a little.

The only time I ever see library patrons get sheepish here is when they come to pick up material that is pop-culture in nature, be it the Complete Far Side folio edition, season two of Felicity, or the latest graphic novel to grace our ever-burgeoning collection. It's interesting. We have an entire library's worth of Nazi ephemera and other equally repugnant (if invaluable from a research perspective) items which people check out and use without so much as batting an eye, but the same patrons will invariably make whatever lame apologies they can if the item waiting on the Hold Shelf for them is a comic book or television series on DVD.

It's okay. This is the 21st century. Even at Harvard, we're allowed to watch Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Really!

Interesting find

From a bookplate pasted onto the front inside cover of volume 3 of Travels through the United States of North America, the country of the Iroquois, and Upper Canada, in the years 1795, 1796, and 1797; by the Duke de La Rochefoucault Liancourt (London, R. Phillips, 1800):

Rules of the Boston Library Society.

Not more than one folio, two quartos, or three of smaller size, shall be taken out at the same time; and for each set that is not returned in five weeks, a fine at the rate of three shillings per set, for each week, as long as it is detained.

If any book or books are abused or lost, the same to be replaced by a similar volume or volumes, or the current price for the same to be paid. The delinquent, in such case, will have his privilege suspended till this rule is complied with.

The Library to be open every Thursday and Saturday in the afternoon, from 3 to 5 in Winter, and from 3 to 6 in Summer.

If a subscriber lends a book, his privilege shall be suspended one year.

That one dollar be paid by each subscriber at the annual meeting in March, or when he first takes any book from the Library after the March meeting in every year; and the Librarian, in no case, deliver any Book to any person a second time, without the said assessment's being paid.

That all Books be returned to the Library on or before the 15th of February, in order for inspection by the annual Committee; -- and that delinquents be subject to a fine of one dollar for each set not to be returned.

A number of very valuable books are deposited, which may be examined without being removed from the Library-Room.

Having never heard of this Boston Library Society, I did a Google Search and found the following historical blurb in a finding aid of the Society's archives currently residing at the Boston Athenaeum:

The Boston Library Society (1792-1939) was the earliest proprietary library in the Boston area. It provided residents of Boston with access to the works of American authors, as well as to the classics and to European literature. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Boston Library Society began to lose its proprietors and subscribers to the Boston Public Library. The reduction in its membership made it difficult for the Society to expand its collection and maintain its library. In 1939 the proprietors were forced to close the doors of the Boston Library Society and agreed to operate under the auspices of the Boston Athenaeum. The Boston Library Society Archives consist of records, preserved by the Society and acquired by the Boston Athenaeum, that document the activity of nearly every division of library operations. They occupy a storage space of about thirty linear feet.

Very cool! Two observations about the aforementioned rules:

1. The provision against lending a library volume to a third party is interesting. So I guess file-sharing has always been frowned upon...

2. I particularly like the use of the term 'delinquent' to denote library patrons with overdue or missing materials. Can we bring that back perhaps?

But back to the book itself -- it's a thing of beauty! Each volume of the set includes fold-out maps of North America circa 1800 which are treasures in and of themselves. How amazing that I get to peek at these items for the first time before anyone else in the library, and often for the first time in decades. I wonder how these books came to be in Widener's collection? A search through the Boston Athenaeum's catalog shows that they have a copy of the 2-volume first edition (printed in 1799) in its Rare Book Room, so perhaps when the Athenaeum inherited the Boston Library Society's collection they didn't feel that they needed the 2nd edition as well.

Who knows? Perhaps the Athenaeum never owned this book at all, but it found its way from the BLS collection to Harvard by another route entirely. Perhaps some 'delinquent' borrowed it, never returned it, and later donated to the Widener Library long after the Boston Library Society had ceased to exist. That's a lot of speculation from a bookplate, and I'm sure someone here at Harvard is in a much better position to answer this question than I am, but it's an interesting way to pass the time this morning nonetheless...