Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Two tales of friends and their information needs

I saw two friends trying to find information today, but only one was open to letting me help. The first person was trying to find material for her English courses and I pointed her toward the MLA International Bibliography as a good starting point and showed some of the search functions. She was much surprised at such tools and appeared to be pleased with this lead.

In this case, the advice provided was partly accepted since the conversation took place in the context of academic work and it involved using a library database. Advice from an information professional context is welcome in an educational context using educational research tools.

In the other case, a friend was looking for some recreational information (music, to be precise) she had previously accessed. When I noticed that she was searching Google with no apparent success, I asked what she was up to. I said, "Ah, you're looking for information - that is my speciality, actually..." She then responded, "Well, it's not information; it's ." It was clear that advice was not wanted. She did eventually find what she wanted but only after much searching around and much frustration.

Advising people in research when they are using a familiar tool like a commercial search engine is a much more challenging "sell". People often find what they want through such means, even though such tools are often manipulated through SEO techniques. It might also be important that the second interaction took place in a leisure or recreational context.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Persistence of Archaic Conventions on the Web

I work as a volunteer editor at a journal based at my university. This position has reminded me just how much a piece of writing can improve when it goes through multiple rounds of editing by different people. And it has reminded me of how much I intensely dislike copy-editing. It just doesn't engage me, but that isn't the point of this post.

The journal is entirely online, with each article available in both plain HTML and in PDF. The publishing platform we use is the Open Journal System. Where things get interesting is the transition (or rather, the painful lack thereof) between pieces of writing created for print and those created for the Web. In most cases, submissions to the journal started their life as assignments for classes. There's certainly nothing wrong with that. I presume that all authors created their articles on computers and then, since academia is backwards, printed a copy to be submitted to their instructor. When the submissions come to us, we take print conventions and apply it to the Web.

I have learned a few things about the differences one should keep in mind when writing for the Web. One important rule should be to actually use hyperlinks, as you can see in the previous paragraph. In this case, you don't have to wonder what the Open Journal System is when I refer to it or waste time searching for it or asking around, you simply click the link and you find out what it is all about. Thus, I am driven a bit mad by the use of traditional footnotes and endnotes in the digital environment. Those particular modes of citation have no place in the digital environment.

I am reminded of very early printed books (c.1450-1500) where printers and others actively sought to re-create the conventions of manuscript books in print since they presumed that this is what people wanted. However by following this, they failed to take advantage of the technology's new advantages and fail to acknowledge the ways in which print was actually different from manuscript.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Association responses to the recession

I belong to a number of professional associations to stay informed of developments in the field, network with others and foster my own sense of professional identity. One interesting development I've noticed lately has been the way in which these associations have reacted to the recession. Only one group - the Special Libraries Association - has taken concrete steps to directly help its members (creating a new low income membership option & providing new free professional development resources).

In contrast, the Canadian Library Association has only responded by asking its members to comment regarding possible federal stimulus spending. Even this appeal was oddly delivered though. Members were encouraged to suggest individual projects to the Department of Finance. I wonder if anything will come of this? In my mind, I found it difficult to suggest such projects as I think expanded light rail transit in my city and higher post-secondary education spending is arguably needed more.

As far as know, no archival association or group has put together any response to the recession. Are archivists in a position to help people in this situation?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Qatar still hiring librarians...

Wow... Qatar is still hiring librarians quite consistently; I've seen listings this week on job boards in Canada and the UK for staff to go there, mainly at post-secondary institutions. I have no particular interest in living there (visiting, perhaps...) but I wonder why they are so keen to have Anglo librarian staff?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Clay Shirky on Information Scarcity

Yesterday, I discovered CBC's new Radio/podcast series called Spark, mainly focused on technology and Internet issues. The first episode I listened to was an interview with Clay Shirky. Shirky is a telecommunications scholar who is seen as something of guru on the effects of the Internet.

During the interview, one particular quote struck me. The fundamental idea of it is not new, but it does frame it in a memorable fashion. When asked about the economic effects of Internet fueled collaboration, he responded, "For any business where scarcity of information was the principle selling point, that business is in trouble." He went on to illustrate that point by arguing that the average price of stock photo has decreased 99% due to free services like flickr (which apparently has 1 billion photos online).

If one changes "business" to organization, then the application to universities (and indeed, much formal education) and archives should be clear. It is certainly true that vast stores of information are locked in archives and other special collections and can only be accessed with difficulty, but I wonder if users will continue to remain motivated to jump through all those hoops. Certain kinds of researchers who have a professional requirement to use that kind of research resource - historians, some graduate students, some lawyers - will likely continue, but what about the occasional, 'amateur' user? One archival argument might be that archives are fundamentally concerned with long term memory and that makes them distinctive compared to social web tools.

The competitive edge may lie in fostering community, the approach taken by many public libraries. Sure, you can get books at Amazon, Chapters/Indigo or Borders, but it isn't the same as being in a public place with others. Architecturally, most archives aren't set up to enable this kind of community easily. Perhaps the answer lies in developing more services to enrich the information in our archives? I'm not sure what that would be, but it is something to think about.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Recession

I haven't written here about the recession yet, even though it hit the US in December 2007 and Canada sometime later. Thus far, it hasn't affected me or anyone I know professionally in anyway. While I certainly don't expect this blessed isolation from economic forces to last much longer (I will be graduating this year...), that may not continue.

I've recently come across several newspaper articles (e.g. a recent Boston Globe article) and blog postings about the positive role that libraries can play in the current economic climate. For example, a typical bit of thrift advice encourages people to use their public library for entertainment rather than going out to movies or buying books or music. I think libraries have a great role to play at all times, but especially when people are in need of some support.

Can archives make any kind of economic case like this though? I've never seen any argument that pointed to the economic value of archives. I wonder if somebody out there has made that point.