Friday, December 26, 2008

Solving mundane information problems: parking on Boxing Day

Boxing Day is the biggest shopping day of the year in Canada, with many deals to be had. I myself picked up two hardcover books, at a hefty 30% discount. I also went to see a movie today with two relatives and we found ourselves looking for a parking space for nearly thirty minutes.

Spending that kind of time looking for something like a parking space is both frustrating and sad. This is a fairly simple problem that should have been solved quite some time ago. I've seen some places where very simple information systems have been developed for parking garages (e.g. "There are 57 spaces available here") but could we do something better? Maybe order the sections that people park in? Or set up a GIS system that detects whether or not a space is occupied? I'm not an engineer or programmer by education or experience, but I've seen enough systems and tools out there to know that it should be possible.

This idea could be countered by saying that it only delivers value on days of high volume. That said, it could deliver significant time savings and it could play a role in in lowering December stress levels. I would love to do a study in a particularly busy parking area and see if something like this would be worthwhile.

While I'm thinking of mundane information problems, what about shopping in a supermarket? I hate all the irritating wandering I have to do whenever I enter a new shopping market AND the total lack of basic guides (sure, there are labels for each aisle, but what about a guide to the store as a whole?). Ideally, I'd like to be able to use a touch screen (or some other interface) to indicate the types of products I'd like and then simply have a map or route generated for me.

Wandering around discovering things can be fun in a bookstore or a library sometimes, but not in a parking garage or grocery store.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Physicist and Economist: a parable for the Information Profession?

Another PhD student I know (this one does economics) told me an interesting joke (parable?) about her profession recently on expertise. I may not be relating the story perfectly, but I think I have the main points right. In sum, I wonder why people think they are information experts when they have only a weak understanding of how to use a handful of tools.

A physicist who recently won the Nobel Prize decides to set up a table in Central Park to answer questions and help people learn about physics. Many line up to ask and many walk away amazed and enlightened to know more about the field. After a day of answering such questions, he returns to his university and describes his activities to some other professors.

An economist hears the story and decides to go and answer questions as well. The economist has a long line of people come to discuss economic answers. Almsot everybody walked away disgruntled, muttering about how the economist didn't know what s/he is talking about. Everybody has a view on economic matters and so they don't respect the expertise of experts.


Everybody thinks they know how to find information they need through free search engines like Yahoo! or Google. How many people understand how these services work? How listings are managed and arguably manipulated? Is there an understanding of how do different research efforts (e.g. research a candidate's voting record vs. find a shop that sells a given product etc)? How do we build that respect?

There are a few ways of doing this. The classic and possibly best way is to demonstrate our skills and make sure that our results are recognized (i.e. marketing = "Doing good and being recognized for doing it"). I've also heard that librarians have to pass exams to practice in some countries (e.g. the Philippines) - that might be a possibility too.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Process Analysis in Cataloguing: Can't we do this better?

One of the arguments deployed against human editing or cataloguing of the Internet is that would be too expensive and slow. This is also an argument used in many library contexts (generally not archives since those institutions work with mostly unique materials) against original library cataloguing; it is better to simply digitally import catalogue records from a national library or commercial service.

One of the hats I wear at my university involves doing some cataloguing for an academic research project. Out of curiosity, I started to plot how many steps are involved in cataloging a single item into the database. I stopped counting at step 13, but I would say that there are about 20 steps. That's 20 steps PER ITEM; it takes roughly 3-5 minutes per item catalogued. I would say 80-90% of these steps are highly repeatable, perhaps even amenable to automation with a script. One could respond this by saying "Oh we'll just automate everything and fire the cataloging staff." That's not what I'm advocating here. Rather, I am suggesting that one analyze the process and seek to minimize the ineffective or repeatable steps and let staff focus on the more challenging tasks.

That said, there do not seem to be the right mix of incentives to make this happen. Or perhaps there is just a lack of interest in innovation? I wonder if there is a better way of saying, "A lot of this is boring and highly repeatable; can we work with the IT staff to automate parts of this so that we can all be more effective at work?"

Friday, December 12, 2008

Archivaria Issue 66 has been published; great article on archives in fiction/pop culture

I received an email today informing me that the latest issue of Archivaria (issue 66) has been published online. There are a number of interesting articles and I have only just begun reading through. The article that caught my interest immediately was Karen Buckley article, "The Truth is in the Red Files”: An Overview of Archives in Popular Culture."

In the first episode of the new Doctor Who series, it only takes a few sentences summarizing an exhaustive archival search to encapsulate a general sense of the mystery surrounding the Doctor and his place in time, space, and history: “I tracked [the information] down in the Washington Public Archives … if you dig deep enough … this Doctor keeps cropping up all over the place.”

Fantastic. The mysterious nature of the Doctor is one of the many, many reasons I find him such a captivating character.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Information Asymetries and Incentives

On the weekend, I purchased Freakonomics (it reminds me of another recent work of "pop" economics I read in the summer called The Economic Naturalist) and it has already proved a stimulating read. I have long been interested in social science, of working with real data to try to understand society and then go somewhere with that.

One of the opening themes of the book is a concept the authors call "information symmetry"; the common practice that experts/professionals often hold significantly more information than their audiences or lay people. There is some good research that suggests powerfully negative effects to this. The book examines tens of thousands of house sales in the Chicago area and notes that real estate agents selling their own property typically have that property listed on the market longer and typically sell for much better prices than their clients. The question is one of incentives; if a person selling their property raises the price by $10,000 they get all of that, but if you are working on elaborate commission system, you might earn as little as $150 or $200, so it may not seem worth the effort.

Given the non-profit motives (and indeed, aspirations to empower people with information) of many in the information profession, I wonder how the question of incentives play out. As far as experts go, librarians - on a vague and ideological level, anyhow - are committed to eroding our informational advantage in favor of users. This strikes me as good in many ways, but might that explain some other things? Such as why other professionals who sharply control information or manipulate information (e.g. doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, some scientists)?

What makes people come to us? Is it desperation (i.e. information we have cannot be obtained any other way) or something else (preference for filtering)? I do think there is something to be gained from asking the incentive question in a more systematic fashion. What is the effect on incentives if we make services more difficult to use (or conversely, refuse to provide easy methods of access)?

As usual, I don't have well formed ideas on this but I wanted to share some views to provoke further thought.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Nearest Book Meme

Ah, memes. It has been a few years since one of these has come out in the bits of the blogosphere that I keep track of. However, the "Nearest Book Meme" is a fun one. As with some many fun and interesting things, I read it about on Stephen Abram's blog.

"Besides, she told me, she read something once about how aluminum pans cause Alzheimer's - so this would be, medicinally, a wise purchase."
- Michael Beaumier, "Not Included with Display" in The Customer Is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles Edited by Jeff Martin.

Note: I have a stack of three books directly next to me (The Customer is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles; Someone Comes to Town, Some Leaves Town; Dreams From My Father). It is unclear which one is nearest. Given that the first book on that list was on the top of the pile, I guess it should be selected.

* Get the book nearest to you. Right now.
* Go to page 56.
* Find the 5th sentence.
* Write this sentence - either here or on your blog.
* Copy these instructions as commentary of your sentence.
* Don't look for your favorite book or your coolest but really the nearest.

Monday, December 1, 2008

An Alternative to Blaming Google

I'm reading Imre Szeman's article “‘Do No Evil’: Google and Evil as a Political Category" (published in TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies). Google comes under a lot of attack here for its way of implementing its book scanning/search service. From the perspective of a pro-open access, open source graduate student, I would certainly say there are problems...

That said, why is the emphasis always on a sort of quasi-whining? Sure, Google is popular and often good at what it does. Is it the end of search and using information? No. Why can't there be more discussion and work on projects like the Open Content Alliance or the Internet Archive? Instead of complaining about why Google is lacking in some way, is it not more productive to build something better? I presume that most critics simply lack the resources or IT skills to create something like that, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be attempted at all.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Librarians for the Intelligence Service

I meant to write a post a few days ago about an information session I attended about the new facility that the Archives of Ontario is moving to at York University. I will write a few notes and then move onto the main theme of this entry. The new building looks quite inviting and I like the prospect of having areas and facilities to deliver programs to the public. I do very much hope the proposal to provide free (?) wireless Internet access to the research areas comes through - that is a fundamental requirement for an archives and one that is fairly cheap to provide. The move and re-opening at the next institution is scheduled for April 2009 and looks set to happen.

Now onto the main reason I'm posting today. For my 100th post (wow, I can't believe I'm there already), I'd like to look at two recent career options I have learned about. Researching job opportunities is something I generally do and find fulfilling. In this case, I was much interested by two particular opportunities. At CSIS (Canadian Security and Intelligence Service), there is a posting for a Librarian to work in the Intelligence Assessment Branch (salary range: $67,660 to $82,340 per year Canadian) and at the GCHQ (British: Government Communications Head Quarters), there is a posting for an Intelligence Specialist (£24,456 - £27,546). Both of these positions strike me as quite interesting, I must say.

Of the two, I have a better chance of obtaining the British position since it appears to be open to new graduates to a greater degree than the Canadian position. I presume that I would be barred from blogging about librarian work in the intelligence field, but I think other people out there should know that there are opportunities in this field.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Reflecting on the Archivist 2.0 Manifesto

I don't think I've previously commented on the Archivist 2.0 manifesto. The manifesto has 17 points and it is partly inspired by the American Libraries article “A Manifesto for Our Times," by Laura B. Cohen which explored similar issues.

From my perspective, I think there are a few points that are particularly interesting.

I will educate myself about the information culture of my users and look for ways to incorporate what I learn into the services my archives provides.

Researching users has been an interest of mine for quite some time. I would love to get paid (or just have it as one of my major job duties) to do user research and stay informed about new trends in the information culture. Arguably, I make the effort to stay informed anyhow though.

# I will take an experimental approach to change and be willing to make mistakes.

The development of professional standards like RAD or AACR2 encourage a culture of perfection, but I'm fine to leave that behind. I would like to see archives embrace a culture of pilot projects - including allowing staff time to think about new approaches.

# I will not wait until something is perfect before I release it, and I’ll modify it based on user feedback.

This has the vital benefit of bending and reshaping services to meet user needs.

# I will be willing to go where users are, both online and in physical spaces, to practice my profession.

Archivists really need to hear this. But let's be thoughtful too. Does it make sense to establish a presence in the World of Warcraft game? I know that a group of scientists recently held a research meeting in that environment (here's the amusing titled Science article: Slaying Monsters for Science). What about social networking websites like Facebook or MySpace?

# I will create open Web sites that allow users to join with archivists to contribute content in order to enhance their learning experience and provide assistance to their peers.

I want this badly but whenever I've mentioned to people, there seems to be quite a bit of resistance. From those conversations, I think there is a technical solution that addresses everybody's concerns. Make user generated content modular (i.e. you can use it or toggle it off); that way, users who want to use the official, "plain" finding aids or database can still have that

# I will lobby for an open catalog that provides personalized, interactive features that users expect in online information environments.

This strikes me as interesting idea but I think it would be difficult to design. Perhaps archives could ask for help?

# I will encourage professional blogging in my archives.

Yes, yes, and yes. Blogging should remain optional, of course (can you imagine mandatory blogging? Ugh!). The key to this point is only partly about the technology. The best blogs have a real persona powering them and that sense of connection is a great deal of the reason that keeps me coming back to blogs. I can't think of any Canadian institutions where professionals directly blog about their institutions, but last week I read about a senior person blogging at the Federal Reserve (aka the US Central Bank, more or less) in the United States. If that kind of organization has/allows professional blogging, then information organizations should at lest be open (if not outright encouraging) of the notion.

Library and Archives Canada's new survey

Library and Archives Canada has launched a new survey to help them design their future programs. I've already completed the survey but I wanted to blog about it as well

The survey indicates that LAC is looking at creating programs on: Canada's Prime Ministers; Canadian film, music and broadcast shows; Canada's Constitution and founding documents, an exhibition on Sir Winston Churchill, the Rocky Mountains. Further, I like the range of programming experiences that LAC is considering - workshops, lectures, Web content and the like. During the summer, I had the chance to see two exhibits (one on Anne of Green Gables and the other on the Treaty of Paris) which I very much enjoyed.

Of the broad topics described above, I would like to see them all happen though I admit I'm not sure what an exhibit on the Rocky Mountains would be like. It is not a region of the country that I know very well, so it could be enlightening.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Statistics Skills and Software

I'm starting to think that I need to develop some substantial statistics skills. There are a few different reasons for this: I'd like to be able to assess studies I read better, I'd like to be able to do my own studies better (will need to do analysis on some survey results in a few weeks) and I'm getting interested in doing more policy work.

In terms of statistics software, my university provides discounts to purchase Stata and SPSS. A friend of mine doing doctoral work in economics prefers Stata and I am inclined to take her lead on this.

Does anybody reading have any preferences on statistical software or recommendations on how to get a grounding in applied statistical skills?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Demonstrating information skills

It occurs to me that information professionals - at least the ones that I know - need to get better at personally using their information skills. For example, I was recently talking to some fellow graduate students in my program about developing some kind of archive to preserve some of the interesting projects that students create every year. The purpose of such an archive is essentially knowledge management: by sharing experiences, the archive helps students better design and benefit from practicum opportunities. There are several other examples I could refer to, such as managing email (one area where I need to become more systematic).

It occurs to me that this kind of heightened more personal use of information skills could also be helpful in the workplace. Rather than vaguely referring to productivity and the hypothetical value of a well designed intranet system, one could present a narrative of personal success. Something like, "Ah, before I adopted a knowledge management system in my group, most of the gains made by short term staff were being lost and training for new staff took 20 hours. Now training time is down to 5 hours and stress levels in the office are much lower."

Monday, November 17, 2008

Decisions, Decisions...

Both this week and the first week of December, I have to make a decision that's a bit tricky. Specifically, I have to decide between attending a class and attending an event put on by a professional association. I find this quite vexing as I really want to do both and see that both contribute to my career development. I think I may ultimately go for the professional event as the classes meet multiple times and it happens that those particular classes are a bit flexible.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Wikipedia's National Presence?

I'm sure everybody who reads this blog uses Wikipedia a great deal. For the most part, I find it a valuable resource and yes, I have edited a few entries here and there. In some books I've read lately (e.g. Remix by Lawrence Lessig), the point is made that Wikipedia is leaving about $100 million US on the table by not running ads. Arguably, the non-commercial nature of Wikipedia partly explains its great success. Anyhow, I started to think about contributing financially to support the project (something small as I am still a graduate student, but something all the same).

Sadly, I found that there is no chapter of the Wikimedia foundation in Canada. There are some efforts afoot to start such a chapter, but that project has not yet been registered formally as a charity. I'm embarassed to see that such discussion apparently did not formally start until January 2008. In contrast, many other countries founded Wikimedia chapters already: the United States, United Kingdom (Feb 2006), Russia (established May 2008), Austria (Feb 2008), France (Oct 2004), and Germany (June 2004).

The question I have is this: Why has it taken so long for Wikipedia to establish a Canadian presence organizationally?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Information Archiecture

For years, I've looked at O'Reilly books and have always been interested to read them. I was always put off though; the highly technical titles was something of a turn off, even if I always found the covers to be friendly.

Well, about a week ago, I started to take a course in Information Architecture (IA) where the above is one of two text books (the other is Prioritizing Web Usability) that I'm using. Quite apart from the relatively rosy job prospects that this field offers, I am fascinated by this field. The IA field has been defined in a number of different ways, but there is a common focus on making it easy for users to find what they want. I find the field to be a stimulating mix of applied psychology, usability and librarianship.

Part of the course involves doing a critique of an existing website. I wonder how it would be received if I did a critique of a website of a place I'd like to work at? Would it be perceived as helpful or irritating? I suspect the latter...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

On Open Meta-Data & Catalogs: Open Library vs. OCLC

The notion of open source content and data is a no-brainer for me. As far as I'm concerned, public institutions should make their work available to all - such is the mission of most archives and libraries anyhow. Thus, I was happy to learn about The Open Library, which seeks to combine official meta-data (e.g. MARC records) with user-contributed content (seemingly inspired by wiki software, but not as flexible). I'm pleased to see that they're working with the Berkeley iSchool too; three cheers for applied research. I'm proud to note that the Open Library is supported by the Open Content Alliance.

Contrast all of those positive developments to the closed nature of what the OCLC is doing. Essentially, the OCLC (a "non profit" organization based in Ohio, USA) provides much of the machine readable data that powers the world's library catalogues. So good, so far. However, the organization has recently revised its policies to limit the re-use of catalogue records in other non-OCLC contexts. The fantastic website, LibraryThing (very useful! I encourage everybody to have a look at this service), has a line by line comparison showing OCLC's policy changes. The changes have been amusing summarized as: This appears to be an engineered, legal virus for our bibliographic ecosystems.

As I understand it, this policy change lets OCLC claim that all data submitted to it is the property of OCLC rather than the property of the original submitting library. Not good! I gather that the organization has changed the policy a bit this month, but the biblioblogosphere is still not pleased.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Employee Reward Systems

For a paper in grad school, I am looking into the concept of employee reward systems. While that is a bit of awkward way to describe it, I find it interesting to think about. In all the places I've worked in, there does not seem to be much of any employee reward system in place. Sometimes there are annual events of various kinds, sure. Anyway, I find it quite stimulating to think about these kinds of management ideas.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Giving my opinions...

This is an interesting kind of day where I will spend a lot of time sharing my opinions. I just finished an inerview on how I experience the Internet, the role of regulation on the Internet and how I experience the system as a Canadian. I'm presenly researching Internet regulaion so this was interesting to think about... In related news, tonight I will be participating in a focus group to help the SLA.

It feels a bit odd to get paid to offer my opinions, but I find it worthwhile. I like supporting research projects and professional associations.

EDIT: To my disappointment, SLA members (at least ME!) were NOT paid for participating at the 3 hour focus group. I think I was misled in this regard and that's what bothers me. The focus group event involved reacting to videos (mostly or entirely by the leadership of the SLA) and riffing on the meaning of worlds like "librarian" and "information." Still disappointed though.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Some brief notes: Google Copyright Settlement, Wireless Spectrum

I've been following two issues lately with some interest, but have not yet learned enough to comment. I gather that Google has recently come to a legal settlement regarding the books it is scanning for inclusion in its Google Book Search system - I have heard that is mostly a good result, in terms of access but need to read more. I've also heard some interesting things about a recent decision (by the Federal Communications Commission in the US?) on changes to the wireless spectrum which has some potential to substantially increase connectivity.

I know that's not much to say, but I just wanted to note my interest and I shall hopefully return to those topics later in a more substantial way.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

New Career Role Model: Michael Stephens & Tame The Web

A few days ago, I discovered Michael Stephens' great blog Tame The Web. He did his doctoral research on, "social software and blogging, including his dissertation “Modeling the Role of Blogging in Librarianship.” Fascinating! I don't know of a single Canadian who has done work on that but maybe I'll be one of the first, a few years from now.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Library and Archives Canada gets on flickr

At long last, Library and Archives Canada has made the leap to use Flickr. I had heard about this project several months ago and I'm happy to see that it has finally launched. The 84 photos available here showing different aspects of Irish-Canadian history. All the content is copied from an earlier online exhibit - the purpose appears to be changing the content to facilitate RW (Read-Write) interaction instead of Read-Only, as Lawrence Lessig would put it.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Notes from a Rare Books Library

I'm conducting some research on the papers of an author I rather like. Part of the papers I'm looking at today involves the reading, books and related themes. Thus, here is a quote of the day:

"Those who can read, see twice as well."
- Menander, 400 BC

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

ALA Midwinter Conference (Denver, 2009)?

I'm wondering about whether or not to attend the mid winter (late January 2009) conference of the American Library Association in Denver, Colorado. Mainly, I was interested because I happened to get a lead on a fairly cheap flight down there. On the other hand, I'll have to give up a week's income to attend (such is the bane of a part time job; if one isn't physically present and working, then no pay...).

I'm curious to know if any readers out there have attended ALA conferences lately. How does the midwinter compare against the "primary" conference held in the summer?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Internet Librarian, Remix

Recently, I came across a mention of the Internet Librarian conference. It looks like a great event and I think I may try to attend next year. It covers all the sorts of things that I am interested in.

A few days ago, I picked up a copy of Lawrence Lessig's latest book, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy.

Some of the arguments and examples I've seen thus far feel recycled from his earlier book Free Culture (full text available via Creative Commons license), but I am finding the work to be very stimulating thus far. The main innovation in this work compared to the earlier one is that Lessig is seeking show not only that the current copyright/intellectual property regime is harmful and counter-innovation but that new business models (and indeed, cultural non-commercial models) can be developed.

The central metaphor that Lessig uses in this book is inspired by the computing world; the notion of Read-Only (RO) and Read-Write (RW). My first encounter with this in computing dates back to 3.5" diskettes where one could simply flip a switch between RO and RW. Anyhow, Lessig argues that most current content industries are heavily invested in RO methods, whereas RW culture offers so much potential for new creativity, and yes, business gains.

I wonder how this metaphor can apply to information institutions however. Most libraries, as I have experienced them, are very much "Read-Only" in their culture. What do I mean by this? Well, the policies and collections of the institution are "broadcast" to users who have little input in how they are designed and few easy avenues of communicating and producing with other users. This is where the future of archives (libraries and museums too!) lies in my estimation - fostering a space where people can come together and colloborate.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Futher experiments in Web 2.0: Wikis and Second Life

I've used Wikipedia for some years, of course but only in the past year or two have I experimented with other uses for wiki software. One of my courses is making use of the Encore system and I set up a wiki for my podcast on Friday using PBwiki; according to the website "250,000 educators" used the system (I wonder if users are defined broadly to include all educational users or if it means just teachers and professors?). I'm finding wiki software to be a useful way to manage colloboration so far and did not find it at all difficult to get started. That said, I find it works best as a supplement to in-person interactions and meetings; it might be more difficult to sustain participation if the project was online only.

On another web 2.0 note, I started using Second Life a few days ago since the SLA was holding a student event there. I find the interface a bit challenging to use compared to similar environments I've used MMORPGs are mainly what I'm comparing Second Life to. Compared to podcasting, blogging, social cataloguing/tagging, the immersive environment presented by Second Life has required the most time to learn. At this stage, I'm not seeing much there to bring me back as a regular user. That said, I am planning to visit it periodically to see what I can make of it.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Thinking about policy and podcasting

On a typical day, I find myself thinking about practical technology matters (how can I get this podcast off the ground?) and policy matters (how can copyright policy be reformed to protect the role of libraries, archives and museums?). I wonder if I can have this same mix of working on policy problems and dealing with practical technology problems in the workplace?

In the process of developing my podcast, I've started to come into some interesting problems that require solutions. I'm trying to figure out what sort of preamble would work in the podcasts. I'm also quite curious to see how the podcasts will be received.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Redefining the dictionary (a TED talk)

Through Stephen Abrams' blog, I came across a fantastic TED talk by Erin McKean (biography, blog) on redefining the dictionary. As somebody quite passionate about dictionaries, I found this to be quite interesting.

One memorable way that McKean describes modern dictionaries as "a Victorian design with a [modern] engine on it." The old pursuit of authority is considered to be unimportant. The video is well worth watching for anybody who is interested in words.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Evaluating impact in the blogosphere

In order to indulge some idle curiousity, I've been searching to see which websites have linked to this humble blog. It is certainly interesting to see; at one point, the blog was mentioned as a rare example of archivist discussing Web 2.0 technology. I plan to do a post later chronicling where this blog has been linked to and how it has been discussed.

This is no exercise in vanity. I am genuinely interested to see to what extent these writings have been of use or inspiration for those in the information community. I am also curious, more generally, about the development of professional networks and why not start by considering my own networks? Can I be more thoughtful about the use of this blog or blogs I may start in the future? Those are some thoughts to ponder.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Podcasting, Globe and Mail Tour

It has been a busy few days for me. On Friday, I had the opportunity to meet the information professionals who staff the Editorial Research department (i.e. special library) of the Globe & Mail newspaper. It was a pleasant experience and interesting to see how this special library supports the organization's activities. I was mildly to surprise to learn that the department has an evening staff of students, but I probably shouldn't be given how the news business works.

I'm also making steady progress in publishing my first podcast. On Friday, I recorded the lecture and I've also put together some basic RSS to describe it. It is so invigorating to learn a new technology like this. I also very much enjoy the prospect of sharing content through podcasting technology. I hope this project will be continued by others when I graduate.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Devising a Conference Strategy

I am often told about the great merits of attending professional conferences. Having never attended one myself, I can't write from experience. However, it seems like these events are beneficial in several ways ranging from learning about the newest techniques and tools, networking, job hunting as well as a bit of tourism. However, unlike some others, if I attend confernces in 2009, I will be paying for these entirely out of my own resources. As a graduate student in the field, it is difficut to get funding for these sorts of things.

Here's what I'm looking at attending next year:

Association of Canadian Archivists Annual Conference - to be held in Calgary, Alberta (May 14-May 17)

Canadian Library Association Conference - to be held in Montreal, Quebec (May 29-June 1)

Special Library Association Conference - to be held in Washington D.C. (June 14-17)

I would estimate that attending each of these would probably cost me around $1300-$1500, which is a fortune as a student. I wonder if there is some better way to decide which ones offer the best value or "return on investment." It is something that is difficult to decide, certainly.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Text is said to be linear; or musing on Web 2.0

Many of you have probably already seen this great YouTube video that explains Web 2.0. I watched it last year in a class and again last week in class. According to the counter on YouTube, it has been viewed 6.5 million times and rightly so. It explains how XML, social websites and more change how the Internet works. Another video that covers some of the same ground is Information R/evolution; it focuses more overtly on how information organization is evolving.

I've just been thinking if there are some new ways of getting archivists to make greater use of Web 2.0 tools. Sure, there are archivists blogging here and there and some make use of social software, but adoption is still too slow. Canada is estimated to have somewhere over a thousand archivists, but how many are making use of these tools?

I wonder if Web 2.0 could contribute to problems like these:

- post a list of undescribed or unprocessed materials online and encourage users to comment, vote and discuss on what their priorities are

- let archivists share ratings and reviews of archival software systems, products and other services (rather than relying on email listservs as is the current custom)

- encourage users to submit their stories of what they think about their archives; I wouldn't want it to be a corny testimonial but something along those lines. One could start with a list of academic works that mention a given archives (that's public information that should be better organized and brought to light)

- build in tagging functionality to archival databases as well as permalinks, so that users can share what they find easily (it is a bit sad that this even needs to be suggested...)

- bring users into the description process in some fashion (comments on descriptions perhaps?)


I wonder if the historical/preservation perspective of archivists plays a role in slowing the embrace of new technology? Maybe I'm simply missing out on the archival innovation but that's my impression from where I sit.

Building a Professional Presence

Recently, I've been thinking that I need to work more on my professional presence. This thinking has been sparked by a few recent events. Recently, I met a librarian who had emigrated to Canada from France (she noticed I was reading The Accidental Systems Librarian by Rachel Singer Gordon and struck up a conversation. After we parted ways, I thought it might have been interesting to keep in touch but I didn't have a business card. In addition to that, I recently read one of Stephen Abram's articles where he wrote, in part,

Either way, it's time to again find our voice as professionals. Anonymity just isn't working for us. Professionalism requires that we learn how to present ourselves, promote ourselves and be where our market of users can discover us, and be impressed that we are the sharks in the tank of the emerging information and knowledge economy. Our reputation will play out in the social Web space as much as anywhere else. We need to get good at this.

- Stephen Abrams, Time to Step Out of the Box and Start Promoting Ourselves, Information Outlook

To that end, I think I need to do at least two things:

- Create a professional website (I know some things, but I wonder if it might be better to pay a company like LIS Host to design it for me?)

- Create business cards (but what do I put on it? "Graduate Student"? How can I describe my varied interests?)

I very much welcome any suggestions that others might have on this subject. I am looking at attending several conferences in 2009 and it would be great to establish these things in advance so that I can connect with others more effectively.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Joys of a Colloborative Environment

I am tremendously enjoying my studies this year - there is such excitement in the air, so many new projects in progress. In addition to my stimulating courses, I also have a research project underway with a fellow student and I am in the progress of developing a podcast series. I am especially interested in the latter; Canadian universities (Canada, generally actually) have been sadly slow in getting into podcasting... I am reminded of the old adage about Canadian stars; we wouldn't accept you unless you make it big in America first. It seems like something like that might be true for the information services sector when it comes to technology; budget problems and a culture of risk aversion often put the brakes on innovation.

That all said, I'm pleased at the progress of both my own projects and some of the great things that other people are starting up.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Career Introspection

As part of own of my assignments, I have to discuss my career goals. It has been a while since I have thought about this substantially. At my part time job at the University, I am frequently asked what I study and what my career plans are - it is a bit frustrating to constantly give open-ended answers. On the one hand, I'm interested in investigating new career possibilities as they present themselves. On the other hand, I wonder if this lack of a specific goal indicates that I lack focus. At the moment, I tend to think that remaining open to new career prospects is a good thing.

In trying to answer this question, do you know what occurred to me first? The fact that I've just barely tolerated most of the jobs I've ever heard. Whether it was shelving books in a public library back in high school, working my current tech support job at the University, and sadly, this is also true of the archival positions I've worked in. I've often felt either painfully bored by my duties or that the specific tasks I was doing were a poor match for my interests and skills. I've managed to keep going by focusing on duty and the vague prospect that this is a temporary "paying one's dues" sort of situation.1 This assignment has made me realize that this kind of attitude may not be wise.

Like many people, I could talk at great length about what I dislike about work but ultimately that is not helpful in trying to decide a path. What can I say on the positive side of the career interest ledger? I can think of activities that I enjoy and have ability at, certainly. Conducting research (mostly humanities in the past, but I have a growing interest in social science these days) has always been a great delight. I enjoy teaching and working with others on stimulating projects. I need autonomy in my work to follow my own interests - I'm not a bloody cog. Thus far, the only career that matches these interests so far is "university professor," but sadly, the employment prospects in that field are quite poor.

I'd like to have a career (and indeed, lifestyle) of the sort that Richard Florida has described in his books (esp. The Rise of the Creative Class), but I don't know how to go from my dissatisfied present to a happier future... I'm very much enjoying the classes I'm taking this semester (an interesting blend of management, history, policy development and educational theory/technology); perhaps I should pose the following question to my professors: "I love studying this - how can I translate this into a well paying career?"

1. Incidentally, this notion of "due paying" doesn't make a lot of sense in the professional context. This phrase makes some sense if one is aspiring to join a skilled trade as a unionized member. But does it make sense here? If it does make sense in this field, where is the dividing line between "do this uninspiring task to get experience" and "this is a waste of your talents, but do it anyway for a few years; that's the tradition here and we're not going to rethink it."

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Drifting from archives

In my courses this year, I am not taking a single course about archives. This is not entirely by choice since the university has elected to schedule courses in such a way that forces my hand in ways that I don't like. When I listed off all my courses to a fellow archives student I'm friends with, it felt sad to admit that I wasn't taking anything abour archives.

That's not to say that I no longer find archives interesting or worthwhile, but I suppose I'm getting new interests. I'm now in more than one professional association as well. I remain interested in matters archival but I'm branching out into other things.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Rethinking our purpose - reflections on reference inspired by Stephen Abrams

I've been reading one of Stephen Abram's articles today and, as usual, it is inspiring and thought provoking.

I think there is a historical transformation underway here that is still not being met by the profession in far far too many places. In the founding days of librarians and archivists in the late nineteenth century, these people held all the cards. I am reminded of that famous quote from the Matrix: "We have survived by hiding from them, by running from them. But they are the gatekeepers. They are guarding all the doors, they are holding all the keys which means that sooner or later, someone is going to have to fight them." One could almost imagine this as inspiration for Google's famous mission statement: "Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." In a way, that mission is in direct competition with information professionals and in some ways, these kinds of companies are killing us.

The fact is that we hold fewer cards than ever before. That's not entirely a bad thing since learning in a variety of ways is good, but that doesn't make us irrelevant. Parts of this older mission remain relevant today though such as stimulating self-directed education and providing democratic access to information. However, the old assumptions that motivated so much of the traditions in this field - e.g. that users can only get what they want from our institutions - are no longer valid. Given the social and cultural assumptions that underpin the 19th century view of librarianship have changed so much, it only makes sense to reimagine our purpose.

Abrams makes many stimulating suggestions about new directions we could take, but I think there is a more general way to state the matter. We need to think the service provided rather than the object provided which has been the focus of the work in the past. Part of this may only be solved by marketing - more people have to be shown the value of mediated access to information. There is a lot of garbage information in the world - we'll help people find the good stuff.

I certainly recommend reading the article and considering some of its points.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

What's happening at LAC

It's my last day at LAC tomorrow and I'm keen to get back to classes. Before I wrap up my time there, I thought I'd blog about some interesting things I read about in LAC's magazine called ACCESS. One of the interesting projects mentioned is something called "The Canada Project." The purpose of this project is still a bit fuzzy but I get the impression it has the goal of bringing a huge volume of Canadian content online. The project is a national effort involving LAC, the University of Waterloo, the Library and Archives of Quebec, the Open Text Corporation and so on. There was an announcement about the Canada Project back in December 2007, but I still can't find anything substantial about it.

Moving on, let's look at some of LAC's statistics. These are simple, descriptive statistics but I think they are useful in tracking patterns and in focusing discussion. Much better than vague examples certainly...

Here's the numbers for LAC in 2007:
Acquisitions include 23 terabytes of electronic records (I wonder how much of that is non-government?), 73,000 Canadian publications, and apparently more than 600,000 images digitized. According to this, around 47,000 reference inquiries were answered.

The website statistics are presented elsewhere in the brochure-cum-magazine part of the publication shows what's happened from 2004 to 2007. Average number of visits per day was around 46,000 in 2006 and 2007. Likewise, there was 17 million visits in 2006 and 2007. I wish there was more detailed data on the website. Specifically, I wonder about the geographic origin of visitors to the website. I also wonder about how the website is being discovered.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Classes Soon, End of The Summer

The summer is coming to an end here and I confess I'm looking forward to classes starting again. I'm feeling good these days and thinking up ideas for presentations at conferences in 2009. At the same time, I'm a bit sad to see the end of my work term. It has been interesting learning about how the federal government works, but it hasn't been, ah, inspiring in every respect. It has been a good experience to work at a large institution though as it is such a contrast to the small places where I have worked. It is refreshing to see that people who specialize to a high degree (e.g. in film or military records) can actually dedicate themselves to that.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Everybody needs cataloguing; a LCBO story

Yesterday, I was looking to buy some wine at the LCBO and I asked the staff how the wine was organized. They first said the obvious; it was done by origin (e.g. Canada, France, Italy etc) and that VQA status was another factor. I found this lacking. I asked if the wines were sorted within each of these categories - they seemed confused by my question. Gah!

In my question, I suggested a simple classification scheme (alphabetical by vinter name, then sub-organized by wine name) and they seemed confused. I wish a librarian or some body had organized it properly, according to a meaningful standard. I was looking for a particular type and wasted 10 minutes looking around for it. Wine, just like books, needs both intellectual control (place of origin, in this case) and physical control (tell me how to find bottles on the shelf).

That's Ontario for you. I wonder if wine is better organized elsewhere in Canada or abroad?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Save The Time of the User

During my studies in library school (that term hardly covers it, but I'm trying to use commonly recognized terminology), I was introduced to S. R. Ranganathan who famously articulated five guiding principles of library science back in 1931.

Today, I felt as though the fourth law ("Save the Time of the User") was not being honoured. I don't work with the public in my present position (except for those rare occasions where they somehow call my office line directly and then I help them with great energy), but I am still concerned with the user experience. As a rule, libraries and archives should not set up obstacles to users and yet that seems to be happening. I suggested that a current problem - which could cause significant delays for users - be put online. We may not know when or how this Big Problem will be solved, but we can at least let people know about the nature of the problem. Then they can determine how it affects them - only then can they make an informed judgement on how to use their time. This suggestion was denied and the reasons were not terribly good.

I'm starting to think more about whether there is any kind of coherent philosophy that can hold together the information profession. Public service may have worked, but that leaves out all the private sector people...

Monday, August 18, 2008

The administrative cost of access restrictions

This post is largely concerned with thinking about archival management. As with many posts here, it is a speculative thought experiment. In essence, I am probing the question of whether restraints should be put on what sort of restrictions ("tax" is a better word, actually) that donors impose on their materials. Every additional restriction imposed on a fond raises administration costs and serves to partially frustrate one of the primary goals of archives, providing access to information. In support of the thesis that archives should consider requiring financial donations to accompany donation of materials, I am going to reference the National Trust in the United Kingdom and the accounting concept of total cost of ownership (TCO). Should archives actually require financial donations as a matter of policy? Probably not, but I think it might be economically useful to signal to donors that their requests are not all the same.

How did I get thinking about these issues? Well, a big part of it is that I am simply curious and like to think about issues like this. However, it was also partly inspired by something I'm doing at work. Essentially, I am fixing the metadata of a large organization that has placed a wide variety of restrictions (usually chronological; x file opens on y date) on its materials. It is fairly labour intensive to administer such restrictions and I wonder if this is necessarily the most productive use of the organization's resources.

In technology and computing management, there is an interesting notion called the total cost of ownership (TC0) which seeks to make a more complete estimate of the costs involved in owning something. According to Wikipedia, this notion become popular in the late 1980s but has longer routes. To take a simple example, the cost of acquiring a desktop computer is far more than the cost to buy the system itself. You need to include the cost of support (either in-house or contracted), the cost of software, the cost of the electricity, the cost of space, e-waste and perhaps some appreciation of how that purchase will affect other costs. Lately, I have been thinking that this concept may apply to archives.

There is some precedent for non-commercial organizations to make requests like this. The National Trust is an English organization that cares for both lands and built heritage, the latter often including the country homes of the aristocracy. Following the Second World War, many aristocrats were no longer able to maintain these large estates in light of taxes and the declining income of agricultural lands. As a result, some donated their estates to the National Trust for a tax benefit. It soon became apparent that this was not sustainable as the Trust was incurring substantial costs to keep these properties in good repair. As a result, the organization began to decline such donations unless they were accompanied by a financial endowment to help with the administration costs they produce. As a result, the National Trust is better able to care for the responsibilities in its care and preserve them for future generations to enjoy.

To be fair, I have not heard of any library or archives ever doing anything like this, but perhaps they should. The "suggested donation" could scale with the size and complexity of the donation. Ultimately, I don't think any archives will do this but it does serve as an interesting way to raise the issue.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Branching out from blogging?

It has recently been suggested to me that I should consider trying to publish in archival or information publications. I have thought a bit about this recently and the prospect interests me. I think it is valuable to be capable of writing both long term (articles, books etc) and short form pieces and potentially, a more traditional forum might be helpful. In terms of archival publications, I'm not sure how difficult it would be to get into journals and items of that nature.

No matter where I end up professionally, I do hope to keep active in research and writing. I would like to combine research oriented writing and shorter journalism style resources. One potential problem that occurs to me is trying to find a way to make that ambition fit with work. I don't want to be in a position where all such writing has to be done on my own time, outside of the office, if I can avoid it.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Trying to understand under-funding: Toronto Public Library vs Library and Archives Canada

Ask almost anybody in the archives or library sector if they need more funding and the answer will be yes. One could argue that this is simply professional self-interest, but I find that to be an inadaquete answer. I think most people in the field genuinely think that greater financial resources would help them provide greater services to the public and that all of society would benefit. I wonder if there is some reasonable level that both laypeople and professionals could agree to? Obviously no government is going to agree to spend all of its funds on the cultural sector and zero spending generally isn't regarded as an option either. One way to get this conversation started might be to look at per capita funding which can provide some relative information.

Note: Service area is meant to denote the organization's primary or legislated georgraphical service area, although certainly there will be users from outside that area.

Library and Archives Canada
Service area: Canada
Service population: 33 million (according to StatsCan
Annual budget (2006-2007): 175 million (source
Per Capita: $5.30 per person (approximately)

Toronto Public Library
Service area: Toronto
Service Population: 2.4 million (Source)
Annual budget: (Annual Public Report 2007 171 million
Per Capita Spending: $71.25 per person (approximately)

Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management
Service Area: Nova Scotia
Service Population: 0.93 million (a href="">source
Annual budget: 2.2 million
Per Capita Spending: $2.36 per person (approximately)

Interesting to think about that. One could critique the very rough analysis I did above on any number of grounds (e.g. archives and libraries serve different populations, the data come from different years etc) but it does provide a very rough way to attempt to compare these kinds of organizations. I've met people who consider LAC to be very under resourced and the above comparison would lend some weight to that guess. This kind of thought experiment is also part of an effort to understand administration to a greater degree and to support advocacy.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Search: How Google and its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture

A few days ago, I found a copy of The Search: How Google and its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture by John Battelle. The book was published in 2005 (only a year after Google went public), so I suppose you could say that it is dated in some respects. That said, I am still finding it very interesting.

One thing so far that strikes me as a bit sad is that searching is something that information professionals know a lot about but everything they know seems to be left out of the picture. Instead, computer science academics and technology people have seized the problem and made some good progress toward solving it.

Yet again, I also wish that there was some organization or centre that studied Canadian Internet habits the way that the Pew Center does in America. I can't tell you how many times I've read some interesting American study or survey and have wondered if its observations would hold true in Canada.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

European vs. North American Archives: The New World Wins

Somebody I know recently returned from doing historical research in a number of British and French archives and libraries. As I am very much interested in European history (as well as archives and libraries generally), I found this interesting to hear about. However, to my disappointment, these institutions are very restrictive to the point of silliness. In order to access some materials, the person referred to above (who is a PhD student in history) had to present letters of recommendation from their doctoral supervisors, go through interviews* and other obstacles in order to access the materials which date from roughly about 1640 to 1800.

As I listened to these travails of research, I couldn't help but contrast it with my experience of research in North America. Archivists and librarians make it so easy and welcoming here. The whole point of these institutions is to connect people with information and I think barriers to access should be as few as possible. The Library of Congress gave me a library card simply on request and it was great. My impression is that most Canadian libraries and archives are likewise open and welcoming to users.

I suppose one could argue that European archives have more fragile materials that are much used and they need to ration access. I could grant this, but there is a relatively simple solution - providing reference copies. Even so, I got the impression that the staff were being overprotective. As far as I'm concerned, North American archives are better to their users. It pains me to admit that since I tend to admire many aspects of European culture but that's what the evidence indicates so far.

Based on this evidence (and I am certainly curious to know of counter-examples), it seems that North American archives and libraries are more open, more accomodating and perhaps even more democratic than those in Europe. I would like to hope that any interested person could, on request, ask to see the papers of Sir John A. MacDonald (Canada's first Prime Minister) and there would be none of thise nonsense about letters and interviews. I shudder to imagine the difficulties one would have in trying to do the same in Europe.

*On the other hand, collecting this sort of information would make it so much easier to understand one's users...

Friday, August 1, 2008

On Not Adding Value, Digital Copyright

While I strive to stay upbeat at my workplace, it is hard to escape the notion that I am adding relatively little value. I can think of others things I could do in the organization that would be better, but I'm stuck in this relatively junior position that fails to take much advantage of my skills and education. One benefit to this situation is that it is encouraging to think more about my skills and what I could do. I think information professionals (archivists, librarians etc) still need to work on overcoming the custodial view (e.g. that librarians are just those who protect/keep an eye on collections) that some have of the profession.

I have also been thinking about copyright again. While I certainly hope that the new proposed Canadian copyright law doesn't emulate American mistakes (e.g. DCMA; for more extensive discussion and critique, see the blog of University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist), I wonder if existing law covers the following problem. Take an item that is public domain and then digitize it and make it available online. Let's also say that the digital surrogate of the item is available in a number of formats, is available in high detail or resolution and has good metadata. Does the organization/person that performs that digitization process earn any copyright or intellectual property rights on the item that was public domain in its original, non-digital form? If so, this could have interesting implications for archives (and libraries, for that matter). I wonder if anybody has considered these questions. It certainly seems relevant to Google's Book scanning project or other efforts of that kind.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) Wants Your Opinions

Now that it has become public knowledge, I think I'll blog a bit about LAC's efforts at greater public consultation. As you may know, there was a big controversy about a year ago when LAC cut back on reading room hours (including limiting the evenings) in September 2007. Many researchers, including historians, were angry since many make trips to Ottawa to do research and seek to make the most of their visit by logging as much time as they can in the reading room. LAC officials stated that funds were being moved to some sort of digital archive effort. This explanation was not viewed as satisfactory by many and thus, the Public Consultations and Services Advisory Board was formed.

So much for the background. Earlier this month, LAC published a DISCUSSION PAPER ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE SERVICE STRATEGY BY LAC SERVICES BRANCH to provide a frame for public comments. As one might expect, there is a long boilerplate on the document which speaks somewhat vaguely of the challenges faced. While the document notes that LAC has received considerable positive feedback, I find criticism to be more illuminating:

During 2007-08, the overwhelming majority of comments collected on the comment cards were compliments on the service clients received from LAC staff. The most frequent complaints concerned delays in receiving purchased copies or answers to reference inquiries, and reduced onsite hours. Among suggestions for improvement were requests for more interpretation or research of individual military personnel records, better user orientation, confirmation of orders/inquiries sent using forms on the LAC website, availability of electronic copies of items for purchase, and improvement in consultation room facilities.


LAC does not attract an audience sufficiently representative of the Canadian population, especially with respect to visible minorities, and needs to do more in this area. While LAC is doing better with visible minority youth, gaps exist in other age cohorts. Similarly, LAC needs to improve its effectiveness in attracting francophone users to its services. LAC is pleased to note that it does appear to be reaching aboriginal audiences and users.

There is some interesting material to consider. I wish there was some more analysis that explained the differences in users. I think advertising could be improved. How many people know of the Canadian Genealogy Centre, for example? LAC's involvement in a recent TV program involving genealogy was a good first step, but they need to go further. Of the various programs discussed in the document, having more original materials made available in digital form would be my priority.

You can send your comments to LAC by post and by email:


Services Branch
Library and Archives Canada
395 Wellington Street, Room 211
Ottawa, ON K1A 0N4

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Information Professional - musings on becoming a generalist

I've been thinking to develop my IT skills more recently. I can do all the easy Web 2.0 things (I had my first blog more than five years ago, for example) at this point and I want to go beyond that. I'd like to be able to do some basic programming using mySQL and perhaps Java. I would also like to learn more about Web design. I'm still thinking about the best way to achieve this goal. I may look at taking courses at a nearby university or perhaps through a professional organization?

I wonder what other skills I should aim to develop further to become an information professional? I aspire to be flexible, to understand not only archives, but libraries and information management more generally. While the academic environment is very entiving to me in many ways, I'm not sure that I can obtain a position in that sector. I'm trying to think about the right way to mix some specialist skills and knowledge with more general abilities.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Linux Conference

I noticed quite a few people wearing t-shirts and ID cards for a Linux Conference happening in Ottawa today. Somehow, I wish I was part of that movement and conferences like that.

I'm experimenting with learning more about Linux but I'm finding it a steep learning curve. I used to edit config.sys and autoexec.bat files in MS-DOS (ah, the early 1990s) but it has been a long time since I've used anything that involves a command line.

I noticed that there were no comments or advice when I discussed freelance or independent work. I am interested in knowing if any readers out there have anything to share.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A good day at LAC: good presentations and swag

It was a good day at LAC today. I finally met people from different parts of the organization, which was quite illuminating. There were different presentations and the staff presenting kindly took questions. Though I was curious to ask quite a few questions, I restrained myself. Most of the other students at the event were very quiet.

What did I learn at the event? For example, there was an interesting presentation about the institution's Mass Digitization Program which has much potential. There was also some good indications about LAC becoming more responsive to the views of Canadians. I wonder about the mechanism of that though. How does a big federal institution interact with the general public? I don't want to suggest that it can't happen, but I do wonder about how that can happen. There are also a number of promising departments that I wouldn't mind working in at some point should the opportunity come up.

To top it all off, there was also some LAC swag. I got some stationary, pens, and a nice black shoulder bag. I really like library, archive and museum swag. Getting it for free was a nice plus, which I appreciate.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Overtime denied, the independent option is considered

I wish I could work overtime (or just more hours paid at the standard rate) as I have rather high expenses* coming due soon and unproductive, unpaid "free time" available. I wish I could work as a consultant or something on the side, but that doesn't seem like an option in the archives field.

The current situation makes make my hitherto passing interest in the Association of Independent Information Professionals into something more concrete. On its face, that independent option does attract me in some respects but I haven't seen any data on what exactly it involves or how much it pays (or how much income it can reliably generate). I suspect that it works something like freelance writing or acting with a minority of big winners and vast numbers of people getting by, paying the bills with other work. That said, I would be more than happy to be proven wrong on this point.

*My university just posted the fees I have to pay - it is around $8,000 (about $350 higher than last year).

Monday, July 14, 2008

An interesting week ahead, Web 2.0: for leisure or work?

This is going to be a satisfying and exciting work week for me. I'll get to visit some places that one does not normally get to see, which mostly involve indulging my interest in Canadian history. It is going to be good.

I know one ought to be critical of notions of Library 2.0 and whether Web 2.0 practices will make life better, but the benefits are often very clear to me. One thing that needs to be considered is whether some of these activities are for work hours or not. Some of the best blogs, podcasts and other Internet content I enjoy and learn from is done by people as a hobby of sorts. It is something I think about and don't yet have full answers about.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Interesting developments afoot

Work has become more interesting of late, involving some new duties. I'm very pleased at this development. It is the sort of thing that will take several months to be completed, but I like what's happening. It is giving me some good ideas so far.

In other news, I've recently been listening to podcasts from the SirsiDynix Institute. These events are free to listen to and have covered a variety of interesting subjects of interest to information professionals. While it is true that a majority are concerned with technology (which is great and which I enjoy listening to!), there are other subjects covered as well.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Innovation and government (or large organizations generally)

This post considers a sensitive subject, that of innovation and government. Innovation may conjure images of Silicon Valley, engineers building satellites and things of that nature. In the main, that is not what I am thinking about here. I think information professionals including archivists and librarians can do some of that though working with software developers, engineers and the like. What I have more in mind is taking existing technologies and bring that into government.

Whether that be exploring uses of Web 2.0 or being more willing to experiment with new practices, it appears that such practices are discouraged in government, or perhaps large organizations generally. In some ways, government resistance is easy to understand. The set of incentives that public servants live by condition them to reduce risk, be careful with image and so forth. This tendency combines with a certain tendency of librarians - the aspiration toward perfection - in an unhelpful mix. The contrast between the playful and innovative spirit embodied in some in the field like Stephen Abrams (link to his blog), then again he is Vice President of Sirsi Dynix, so one should not be surprised that he focuses on innovation.

On some level, it just feels frustrating to see all the great innovation happening in the United States and not seeing anything like that in Canada. Canadian libraries and archives are getting there but the spirit of caution is making things move slowly. Such is my perception, at least. I would be delighted to learn of counter-examples.

Monday, July 7, 2008


It has come to my attention that some people at my workplace (which employs hundreds of people) know of this blog. I've only heard this indirectly and so I'm not sure how to react. I gather that blogging about work is a new and strange thing. It would be great if there was some more LAC blogging, official and unofficial. Alas, there are is institutional resistance to such practices.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


The post on the public service articles is still in progress, hopefully I can finish it off this weekend. A few days ago, some emails came in at my work account and it looks like a) there will be some fun events coming up and b) I might have a mentor to talk to. It is distressing to think that my day-to-day work tasks at the Small Religious Archive last summer were actually much more stimulating than my present job. I am basically a clerk, who uses a computer all day. I can almost feel my skills losing their edge...

That said, it is going to be great to talk to somebody who is interested in talking to me about professional concerns. This job has made the Accidental Archivist contemplate switch to a different career. Maybe there is hope yet on this path. Other people I know working the library/archives/information sector this summer in Ottawa have more interesting work, so maybe there is hope still.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Civil Service Post Coming Soon

There have been several interesting civil service articles in the Canadian media this week and I hope to comment on them in a few days. Futher, next week is National Public Service week in Canada but I wonder how many people outside Ottawa are aware of it? I don"t know of any specific events relating to the week - I have only seen a few posters and banners around the office and Ottawa thus far.

Monday, June 2, 2008

What I learned at work today

The Emperor of Japan made a state visit to Canada in 1953. There are records relating to this visit at Library and Archives Canada.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Student Guide to Getting a Job with the Federal Government

Note: This post refers to student positions with the Government of Canada. It is only one person's perspective and it is by no means "official," but I hope this will help to illuminate the process.

When I started thinking that I wanted to get a summer position with the federal government (more specifically Library and Archives Canada) back in September of last year, it was difficult to find information. Sure, there is the offiicial information that describes the programs on government websites, but there was nothing I could find about the nuts and bolts of the process. I am writing this post to remedy that and hopefully be of assistance to others in the future. I imagine it will be of greatest interest to graduate students interested in getting summer jobs with the federal government, though undergraduates, law and other university students use a similar process.

As far as I am aware, there are two ways of getting a federal summer job. The first is through a university arranged co-op placement - this option is only possible if your institution has a co-op program in place and you are registered in it. My university did not offer that option, so I had to look into FSWEP (Federal Student Work Experience Program). The rest of this post will be structured as a FAQ.

What are the basic requirements to participate in FSWEP?
For this, I will have to refer to to the government's website. In essence, you need to be a Canadian citizen (non-citizens can apply, but citizens get preference), must be a current student and must be returning to university study in the fall.

How does the application work?
You fill in a profile at the Public Service Commission of Canada website, check off that you want to be included in the "FSWEP Inventory." That's it. It is a bit odd since you have to submit a general application - there is no way to customize it for a particular position. The online application should take maybe 1/2 hour or so to complete.

When do people get hired for summer jobs under FSWEP?
A handful of people I know got hired in February. I was offered a position in April. My impression is that most job offers are made in April and May.

How are you contacted for interviews?
For me, it was a mixutre of phone calls and emails. It is critically important that you double and triple check your contact information on the form.

How do the interviews work?
I had two phone interviews with different departments. Both were approximately twenty minutes long and it was a conference call. In one case, there were four people on the other end, in another, there were two.

How much are FSWEP employees paid?
It depends on your degree level. Law and doctoral students get paid the most. You can find the pay ranges on the Treasury Board of Canada website. For the present year, the range for Master's students is $16-$20 per hour and most people work full time (37.5 hours / week). Your monthly income would therefore be somewhere between $1500 to $2000 per month, which is fairly good for a student position.

What are my chances of getting hired?
In the library science and archives field, there are about 50-70 students hired each summer by various parts of the federal government. I had the experience of working in two archives before applying, but others from my program were hired without any experience at all. Try to obtain any practical experince you can by the time you apply.

What about bilingualism?
For my particular position, it could be English or French. For others (esp. those dealing with the public), being bi-lingual is more important. While being bilingual will certainly give you an edge in general, it is certainly possible to be hired if you only know one of Canada's official languages.

That about covers everything I wish I knew before I applied. I would be happy to field further questions about the process and would certainly invite comments from others who have gone through it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


It has been a few weeks since I started work at Library and Archives Canada. It is getting difficult to remain motivated about it. My particular job is just not very interesting. I don't even get to encounter researchers or users in any way, except when they somehow call me directly (this happened a few days ago).

Thus, I think I am going to re-read Douglas Coupland's novel, "Microserfs."

Before I close, I have started to draft a post of advice to students interested in working for the federal government. I know my position is nothing terribly interesting, but other people I know in the capital have good positions. I want to write that post because the whole federal government hiring process is sadly cloaked in mystery. At least, that was my impression as an applicant.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Missing university already: or, a note from a Metadata Wrangler

I've worked for over a week now and it is difficult to remain enthused about my particular role at LAC. The workplace itself has some good qualities, including a cubicle with big, great windows. My department supports archivists, so it is not professional work per se. That said, I am appreciating how technical services works.

In contrast to other places, I don't actually work with archival materials here. I have not seen any actual archival materials - I spend my days fighting with uncooperative bits of metadata. There was a brief and sad debate today about how these systems serve two different goals; internal use (e.g. to track workflow, to monitor the collection, and so on) and user use (i.e. retrieval, general research). I see no intrinsic conflict between these goals, but if there is a circumstance where one had to make one a priority, then I would always advocate for the user.

I don't know if the following makes me a statistical outlier in the field, but I think all services (espcially those that can be accessed by users) in archives should always have the user in mind. Do user research, ask them what they want, and try to match that, as much as is feasible. I wonder if professionals in this field sometimes get preoccupied with other concerns.

About a month after finishing my last paper, I find myself missing university. The challenge of it, the discussion of (generally) interesting issues and the great promise that it offers. I live in hope that I might become the kind of professional who writes interesting books such as Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles (rare books librarian at Harvard), a volume I recently picked up at an Ottawa used bookshop, or The commerce of cartography : making and marketing maps in eighteenth-century France and England by Mary Sponberg Pedley.

Flood at Library and Archives Canada

Want a good way of testing your disaster recovery planning? A flood! As the CBC reported, "A broken water pipe flooded the main building of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa early Tuesday morning, closing the building and causing a small amount of damage to some books." You can read the whole story whose headline (Flood shuts Canada's national archives) says it all.

I do find it interesting that the CBC uses the phrase, national archives. In terms of institutional age, the national archives goes back to the 1870s whereas Canada only acquired a national library in the middle of the twentieth century. Even more interesting is that the article only refers to books being damaged, not archival materials per se.

That said, it could have been so much worse. One has only to think of the terrible library flood damage that occurred in Florence in 1966.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Library and Archives Canada - an arranged and uneasy marriage?

As far as I am aware, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is the only national institution that combines the functions of libraries and archives. The merger of Canada's National Library and Archives in 2004 into LAC is still a work in progress. Staff still identify as working on the "library" side or the "archives" side. Such identification is difficult to change as it is based on professional education, many years of experience and, as far as I have seen, rather different ways of approaching users and information. This division is also reflected, to some degree, in the internal structure of the organization. It is possible that this division will melt away as a new generation of staff work there but I doubt it somehow. As long as LAC is the institutional outlier on this (i..e. most libraries are still stand-alone libraries, many archives are only archives etc), this new world of the "knowledge institution" may not be introduced.

Yet, if you read statements about LAC by its senior leadership, annual reports and the like, you wil encounter a different vision. This view sees to leave behind the above divisions as relics and as inappropriate to the needs and expectations of the Internet era. As Ian Wilson (of LAC) put it, the ability to master search is now more important than the mastery of specific information. That is to say, knowing Canada's first prime minister is less important than knowing where to find that out. This is not to say that specific knowledge is without value - the professions provide a clear example of where it is important to actually know things, for example. However, placing a greater priority on search over knowlege might have interesting implications for libraries, archives and related instiitutions.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Dream Come True: Library and Archives Canada

Several months ago, I was asked about my professional goals in an archives class. Some students articulated an interest in specific media or had not yet come up with such ideas. I was always keen to work at Library and Archives Canada.

Well, that is going to happen! I begin a summer position at LAC next week and I am quite excited. No longer will I be languishing in a basement archives, an institutional after thought. I would very much like to blog about what it is like to work there, but I may not be able to. The staff there are (rightly) very concerned with security, but hopefully I can share some general impressions. As much as reference work interests me, that is not what I will be doing this summer.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

On archival research

Archival research is a special case of the general messiness of life.
- Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988): 619

Ah, I like that.

This Saturday has been a long day of doing research and writing as well. I'm preparing a study proposal (not doing the actual study though - the proposal itself is an assignment) on studying users of archival search engines on the Web. I have managed to maintain my interest in the subject in face of the pressure of strict deadlines... It helps that I can also cheer myself up with the great summer archival position I was offered a few days ago.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Several interesting studies on archives

Over the past few weeks, I have been introduced to a variety of new studies that strike me as incredibly fascinating. The academic crunch that is late March does not permit me to list them all let alone comment.

I will try to mention a few very interesting items that I have recently discovered. Today, I learned about this fascinating forum done by the OCLC: Digitization matters: Breaking through the barriers—scaling up digitization of special collections (and the summary essay that goes with it). This forum and essay argue that digitization has to be done and in high VOLUME. If this means compromising on an obsession with standards, then so be it. I like this idea but archives especially (libraries, as usual, are way ahead of archives) need to heed the message. There are still quite a few Archives' websites that simply provide contact information and a photo or two may have been impressive for 1994.

There is also
a British study that I should like to comment on. It does not directly concern archives but its analysis of information seeking behavior is of relevance to our field. Of the various sections, I thought the study on student information behavior to be of greatest interest.

The final item of today's post is something that I would love to see more of; research into users of archives. AX-SNet (Archival eXcellence in Information Seeking Studies Network) is a model that has good potential. It apparently grew out of a British project to understand users of archives better, particularly online users. The project's bibliography is a good starting point for anyone interested in pursuing research in this field.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A graduate degree to shelve books?

Some people misunderstand what information professionals do and that can be frustrating. For many people, "information professional" is an opaque term that quickly collapses into "librarian" which collapses into "item check-out clerk." A friend recently joked, partly seriously, that my university has rendered librarians obsolete by having automatic check-out machines and investing in tens of thousands e-resources. Part of the work of correcting this impression has to start with showing that research can be more complex than punching some text into Google or Wikipedia. Both of those resources are certainly very useful but they have certain limits one needs to be aware of (e.g. Google results can be manipulated for marketing reasons).

I have been thinking of ways to correct this impression. Allowing it to persist can have a definite impact on libraries and archives; why fund such lowly clerks well? Outreach needs to be seen as crucial. Reference services can always be better. The archival preoccupation with authenticity, preservation, and the like are certainly necessary but I think we have something to learn from the more user-centred approach that librarians often take.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

March Madness and Biographer Archivists

The big crunch of getting assignments done of various kinds is well upon everybody at my Faculty. Happily, the stress of this is somewhat mitigated by the stress of job interviews for summer employment. I'm hoping to obtain work in Ottawa this summer and that is looking increasingly likely.

This morning's class raised an interesting possibility for me. The class was concerned with the subject of authority control. It was mentioned that there is a kind of archival work that essentially involves composing short biographies. That strikes me as highly appealing. It would be great if I could have a position where contributions to publications such as the Canadian Dictionary of Biography were encouraged.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

How We Talk About Archives

When archivists are talking to each other, there is much delight in old documents, in history and the heritage they are trying to preserve. Or to paraphrase from one of my professors, we're interested in "the neat old stuff." This direct access to documents from a different time creates a special frission of excitement, of a type that maybe only historians can understand. This is part of the answer of why archivists archive, at least for me.

This excitement and passion is usually sublimated when archivsts are talking to other people. These other people could be a government agency (who fund archives) or perhaps somebody who politely asked about your profession. In this case, a whole different presentation is offered. There is much focus on democratic accountability (which is certainly a good thing), helping organizations become "litigation ready," and how archives (or records management) can generally improve the efficiency of an organization.

I get the sense that the reasons expressed in the first paragraph are what drive many archivists but there is a sense that we can't tell that to other people. Why? My guess would be that the history argument comes across as asking people to indulge us in our geeky interests whereas the latter clearly shows benefits to others.

Has anybody else encountered this?

Monday, January 28, 2008

Library and Archives Canada hopes

Two representatives from Library and Archives Canada (the merged National Library and Archives of Canada) came to visit my university today. It was the first time in quite a long while that I felt inspired by the possibilities of an archival career. They spoke about getting employed at LAC, the nature of the work (a bit) and some other interesting subjects. They were also kind enough to visit my one of my Archives classes and speak about LAC's Web digitization projects and some other subjects.

It was also very gratifying to actually have a chance to ask questions from somebody who works there. Thus far, my only interaction with the institution has been via its website.