April 28, 2006

Library 2.0, nerds, geeks and long tails

Doing some reading and thinking lately:

  • Coming Together around Library 2.0: A Focus for Discussion and a Call to Arms by Dr. Paul Miller, Technology Evangelist, Talis. D-Lib, v12i4, April 2006. I was really expecting to be seriously annoyed with this article. Anybody with the title Technology Evangelist who works for a self-styled library 2.0 vendor is really going to come at things from a one-dimensional point of view. Right? Well, an interesting couple of bits of the article:
    Many of the library sector's current systems and processes may well be overdue for criticism, especially when viewed through a lens shaped by experience of the lightweight, flexible, intelligent and responsive applications encountered online every day. Our innumerable opaque information silos, our endless authentication challenges, our wilfully different interfaces, and our insistence on attempting to suck everyone and everything into the library building or onto the library site – all of that, we should collectively be prepared to admit, could be better.

    But, importantly, it can be. Behind the self-interested yet flawed business logic that drives the assertion of ownership over something so basic as the humble catalogue record or statement of holdings, behind the pointless competition between vendors over core, common infrastructure components that sees them refusing to cooperate and therefore raises costs for themselves and their customers, behind all that and more lie dedicated armies of highly skilled librarians, large numbers of eminently capable programmers and developers, an almost wholly untapped body of structured data just waiting to be leveraged effectively, an incomparable agglomeration of material culture, and a global population of current and potential information consumers to whom 'the library' continues to shine as a worthwhile and valued concept.
    Somehow this really seems to make sense to me. The vision I see here is that the library should be about it's patrons, not about its own internal structures or about the excentricities and idiocies of the vendors it depends on. Easy to say, sure, but a lot harder to make this vision a reality. But at least if you can articulate the vision, you can start to work towards it.
    To achieve our vision of Library 2.0, in which libraries become ever more relevant as visible and accessible providers of valuable content and context, I strongly believe that many of the models in evidence today require dramatic change. As a domain, we need to break down the unnecessarily strong walls between our silos of information. We need to break down the walls between our systems, and the barriers between the groups working to develop and extend each individual system. We need to develop, nurture, and leverage a true development community across libraries and vendors, and we need to be prepared to share far more than we do today. There are lessons to learn from the world of open source, and there are lessons to learn from the community-nurtured specifications that drive Web innovation far faster than our more traditional standardisation processes tend to manage.
    Again, this is a vision I can live with. What's more interesting is vibe I get from the article. It's not confrontational, not "my way or the highway" it's let's roll up our sleeves and get something done, not because we think it's cool but because it's the right thing to do for our patrons.

  • Libraries and the Long Tail: Some Thoughts about Libraries in a Network Age by Lorcan Dempsey, Vice President, Research, and Chief Strategist, OCLC. D-Lib, v12i4, April 2006. This one's basically about how we should think about our collections as we move forward into the future. How to make them more accessible and more useful to our patrons.
    The historic library model has been physical distribution of materials to multiple locations so that the materials can be close to the point of need (as in the bookstore model). And again, in the network environment, of course, this model changes. Resources do not need to be distributed in advance of need; they can be held in consolidated stores, which, even with replication, do not require the physical buildings we now have. As we move forward, and as more materials are available electronically, we will see more interest in managing the print collection in a less costly way. We can see some of this discussion starting in relation to the mass digitization projects and the heightened interest in off-site storage solutions. In each case, there is a growing interest in being able to make investment choices that maximize impact – based, for example, on a better understanding of what is rare or common within the system as a whole, on what levels of use are made of materials, and so on. In fact, again looking forward some time, it would be good to have management support systems in place that make recommendations for moving to storage or digitization based on patterns of use, distribution across libraries, and an agreed policy framework.

    There are two medium-term questions that are of great interest here. First, what future patterns of storage and delivery are optimal within a system (again, where a system may be a large library system, a state, a consortium, a country)? Think of arranging a system of repositories so that they are adjacent to good transport links for example, collectively contracting with a delivery provider, and having better data intelligence for populating the repositories, based on patterns of use and demand. Second, think of preservation. Currently, we worry about the unknown long-term costs of digital preservation. However, what about the long-term costs of print preservation? I contend that for many libraries they will become unsustainable. If the use of large just-in-case collections declines, if the use of digital resources continues to rise, if mass digitization projects continue, then it becomes increasingly hard to justify the massive expense of maintaining multiple collections – especially where there is growing demand for scarce space. Long-term we may see a shift of cost from print to digital, but this can only be done if the costs of managing print can be reduced, which in turn means some consolidation of print collections.
    Great stuff. What we need to accomplish in our libraries is very simple. Manage the transition of our collections from what they were in the past (mostly print) to what we have now (print and online) to what we would like them to be in the future (as online as we can manage) while not really having any discontinuities in access or taking too many risks with preservation issues. At the same time, we need to make sure we can figure out what to do with mountains of print material that hardly anybody is using, even if our best professional judgement tells us that they should be using it.
    I wrote about the 'long tail' in terms of aggregation of supply and aggregation of demand. In this context, aggregation of supply is about improving discovery and reducing transaction costs. It is about making it much easier to allow a reader to find it and get it, whatever 'it' is. Or, in other words, 'every reader his or her book'. Aggregation of demand is about mobilizing a community of users so that the chances of rendezvous between a resource and an interested user are increased. Or, in other words, 'every book its reader'. Finding better ways to match supply and demand in the open network will 'save the time of the user'.
    Getting our patrons the stuff they need.

  • Geeks and Nerds Battle for the Soul of Librarianship by Rory Litwin. Not sure if I agree with everything here. Litwin basically sets up a dichotomy between nice nerds and evil geeks. The character traits he assigns nerds:
    • Reads a lot: philosophy, serious literature, science, history, academic subjects
    • Unusually excited, passionate, worried and/or earnest about intellectual matters that most people find boring or irrelevant
    • Got straight A’s in school
    • Not interested in popular culture, except possibly in a truly anthropological sense
    • Prone to injuries associated with excessive or intense reading

    versus those he assigns to geeks:
    • Very techie
    • Identifies with science
    • Into science fiction, fantasy, and/or cyberpunk literature
    • Possibly into live action role playing games
    • Possibly into BDSM
    • Possibly into graphic novels/manga, etc.
    • Knows how to program a computer and does it often
    • Has a blog
    • Interested in popular culture
    • May or may not have done well in school

    would lead one to believe that he's going to come down pretty hard on poor unsuspecting geeks. It's obvious he's a nerd and is quite skeptical (even outright dismissive and hostile) about geeks and geekiness, but I think his stance is ultimately more balanced than it might seem.
    So the important thing, in this situation, is to know where you stand: to know which side you’re on and who your friends are. If you feel like you’re not sure if you’re a geek or a nerd, because maybe you have some of the characteristics of each group, you should begin asking yourself what knowledge and skills are really most essential to librarianship, and what is being done as well or better by other people?
    So, the ultimate issue is what do we think is the best path to follow for the best interests of our patrons. Not just the patrons we think are the youngest or the coolest (ie. the most like us ;-), but all of them. It's easy to say all the answers are technological; it's also easy to call the geeks names and dismiss technological solutions out of hand. The message is to preserve our core professional values and to think long and hard about how to maintain the best level of services and the widest, most accessible collections in the way the best serves the needs of our communities. Easy to say, hard to do.

    If you're going to read only one of these three, this is the one. It's challenging and genuinely provocative. The tone is quite disdainful and bitter and even a bit ugly and made me (a geek with nerdy tendencies) a bit uneasy; I hope it made a lot of nerds with geeky tendencies uneasy too. Words like "battle" and "enemy" are't comfortable and that's ok. A good counterpoint to the more utopian challenges set out in the first two articles.

Friday Fun

60 Seconds with...

Sharice Collins of IOP informs us on PAMNET that PAM colleague Stella Ota is profiled as part of the 60 seconds with... Q&A segment on their web page. IOP has a series that mostly profiles librarians, publishing people and educators and a much larger series that profiles authors from various of their journals. Some of the librarians profiled in the past include the biblioblogosphere's own Randy Reichardt (STLQ).

April 26, 2006

Turmoil has engulfed the Scientific Enterprise

Tangled Bank Episode LII has a Star Wars theme this time around.

Algorithmization of the Sciences

A few interesting articles from the latest Communications of the ACM (v49i5)

  • Beyond the algorithmization of the sciences by Thomas A. Easton. "Algorithmic thinking is transforming both the descriptive sciences and the humanities, bringing them all closer to the mathematical core of computer science." In other words, it's computational everything these days.
  • Discovery of knowledge flow in science by Hai Zhuge.
    Recognizing and understanding knowledge flow between scientists is valuable for science. Discovering, managing, and utilizing such knowledge are advanced services of the e-science knowledge grid environment.
    Stop Presses! Computer Scientist invents citation databases! Oh, sorry, I guess that's been done already. Interesting how you can write and article like this without mentioning Web of Science, Scopus, Citeseer or Google Scholar. I hate to be dismissive of what is really a very interesting article, but this is a perfect example of a scholar who really should have visited the library somewhere along the way.
  • Is information systems a reference discipline? by Pairin Katerattanakul, Bernard Han, Alan Rea. Again this idea of computational everything. The study basically looks at citations to some core IS journals (Communications of the ACM, European Journal of Information Systems, Information Systems Journal, Information Systems Research, Information & Management, and MIS Quarterly) in non-IS fields.
    This study employs citation analysis to examine the contributions of IS knowledge—where and how often it is cited. Results from this study provide strong evidence that the IS discipline has become a reference discipline for others. That is, IS research published in IS journals is frequently cited by other disciplines, even those fields that previously served as reference disciplines for IS (such as computer science, management, and organization science). The frequent citations made from other disciplines to IS research also suggest that IS research contributes to advancing the body of scientific knowledge—as the intended purpose of publications in academic journals is to impart knowledge to others, furthering the advancement of scientific achievements.
    Interestingly enough, these guys knew to use the Social Science & Science Citation Indexes.

April 24, 2006


Some blogs I've added to my bloglines list recently:

Further suggestions always welcome, especially for good engineering blogs which I seem to be lacking.

April 20, 2006

Principles of effective research

The other day I stumbled on the essay Principles of Effective Research (also postscript) by theoretical physicist Michael A. Neilson.

Now, it's not about "keep your lab equipement organized" or "do a proper literature search using xyz research databases" or anything like that. It's more a personal analysis of the kinds of internalized habits and attitudes an effective researcher will have.

The fundamental principles of effective research are extremely similar to those for effectiveness in any other part of life. Although the principles are common sense, that doesn't mean they're common practice, nor does it mean that they're easy to internalize. Personally, I find it a constant battle to act in accord with these principles, a battle requiring ongoing reflection, rediscovery and renewed commitment.

Neilson then goes on to explain what some of those principles actually are:

  • Integrating research into the rest of your life
  • Principles of personal behaviour: proactivity, vision, and discipline

The next section is on Self-Development and Creativity in research and the balance that the effective researcher needs to find between the routine and the creative.
People who concentrate mostly on self-development usually make early exits from their research careers. They may be brilliant and knowledgeable, but they fail to realize their responsibility to make a contribution to the wider community. The academic system usually ensures that this failure is recognized, and they consequently have great difficulty getting jobs...

There are a lot of incentives for people to concentrate on creative research to the exclusion of self-development. Throughout one's research career, but particularly early on, there are many advantages to publishing lots of papers. Within limits, this is a good thing, especially for young researchers: it brings you into the community of researchers; it gives you the opportunity to learn how to write well, and give good presentations; it can help keep you motivated. I believe all researchers should publish at least a few papers each year, essentially as an obligation to the research and wider community; they should make some contribution, even if only a small one, on a relatively unimportant topic.

However, some people end up obsessed with writing as many papers as possible, as quickly as possible. While the short-term rewards of this are attractive (jobs, grants, reputation and prizes), the long-term costs are significant. In particular, it can lead to stagnation, and plateauing as a researcher. To achieve one's full potential requires a balancing act: making a significant and regular enough research contribution to enable oneself to get and keep good jobs, while continuing to develop one's talents, constantly renewing and replenishing oneself. In particular, once one has achieved a certain amount of job security (a long-term or permanent job) it may make sense to shift the balance so that self-development takes on a larger role.

There's much more along these lines. The final section is in many ways the most interesting as Neilson explores the differences between Problem-Solvers and Problem-Creators, but I'll leave that for you to explore.

What's the message here for us? Most of all, our patrons are trying to be effective researchers. It struck me that Neilson's essay doesn't mention the library once and only peripherally mentions reading the research literature. What then is our role in facilitating effective research? I guess it's basically getting out of the way, being invisible, providing our patrons with seemless, easy solutions that make what they're doing in the lab (or in the field, etc.) their primary concern rather than putting up roadblocks between them and the information they need to do their work. To internalize that finding information isn't their real work, for them research happens in the lab, in the field, on the blackboard and, increasingly, coded up in data and programs.

When Neilson does mention the literature, it's in the context of making sure to read fewer, more important papers carefully rather than scanning a larger number of papers. Maybe this is our role -- to provide tools to filter, organize and prioritize.

Is there a danger to being too invisible, to doing our jobs too well? A good question for which I have no answer except that the faster way to oblivion is to not do our jobs well.via Computational Complexity.

April 18, 2006

Here and there

A lot of interesting stuff out there.

  • Results are in from the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest. Take a look at the standings -- Eastern European and Chinese schools dominated. MIT was the only North American school to break the top 10. Canadian schools did well, with Alberta, Waterloo and UBC all finishing in the top 20. Update: The contest results have been slashdotted again, this time in reference to the deline in American CS skills. Update: forgot to note that the initial post was via Slashdot.
  • A video of a long interview with Richard Feynman. I haven't watched all of it yet, but it looks very good. via Pharyngula.
  • The Science Wars Are Over, Long Live the Science Wars! An idea that's been percolating out there in the science blogosphere -- how to combat the anti-science zealots who use the same language as legitimate social studies of science scholarship to promote socially destructive ideas, like the denial of global warming. Mooney also points to what must have been a very interesting conference: Who Owns Knowledge? A Symposium on Science and Technology in the Global Circuit.
  • A long and interesting post at Science and Politics about science blogging. It defines science blogging and touches on a bunch of different areas of blogging and gives good examples of them all. Some of the categories: news, humour, book reviews, science journalism, politics & science, religion & science, environmental, nature, carnivals, science education, philosophy & sociology of science and others. Lots to discover here, I think I'll be returning to this post regularly for a while to explore new blogs. Disclaimer: this humble blog is refered to as "unique" in an addendum to the post.
  • What Students Say About The Library And Research. Surprising, to say the least.

April 17, 2006

Call for Topics: Computer Science Roundtable at SLA Baltimore Conference

From Christine Whitaker from STS-L:

The Sci Tech Division is hosting the Computer Science Roundtable this year in Baltimore. The session is scheduled for Wednesday morning from 7:30am-9:00am

To ensure that we have an interesting and invigorating session, please suggest "hot" topics, "problem" topics, up-and-coming technologies, or any computer science related topic that would make a useful and informative discussion.

Please email me directly.

Thanks for your time and consideration,


April 13, 2006

Friday Fun (a day early)

Since tomorrow's a statutory holiday around here:

And ya know you've really hit the big time when you've been promoted to Investigator!

April 12, 2006

A personal/professional note

Happy news today, as I received a letter from the president of the university, granting me continuing appointment, which is what we call tenure for librarians. As such I'll be starting my first sabbatical in August, going until August 2007. How the sabbatical will affect this humble blog is uncertain, but I certainly look forward to finding out.

The first round's on me!


This week's crop:

The decline of Western civilization proceeds apace

So begins Scott McLemee's article about rampant rudeness in academic libraries (and conferences).

Wandering the stacks, they babble away in a blithe and full-throated matter -– conversing, not with their imaginary friends (as did the occasional library-haunting weirdo of yesteryear) but rather with someone who is evidently named “Dude,” and who might, for all one knows, be roaming elsewhere in the building: an audible menace to all serious thought and scholarly endeavor.

It kills me when a student calls me "dude" or "Bro" while I'm helping him a the reference desk. It's always a him.
This situation is intolerable. It must not continue. I have given this matter long consideration, and can offer a simple and elegant solution: These people ought to be shot.

OK, maybe not shot. But seriously, we try very hard in my branch library to keep the noise level down. And you know what? I think the vast majority of students love us for it. If the noise level rises too much, if people are talking too much at a particular table, we get complaints and we ask people to keep it down. We're also proactive and try and make sure the noise level stays reasonable. I have to say, 99% of the time people we ask lower their voices are very cooperative.

Science students need quiet to study and we see it as part of our mission to be the one place on campus to provide that quiet. We've been pretty successful, I think. But at the same time, we don't get too worked up about people having quiet conversations on their cells.

The ones that drive me crazy are the pacers. You know, the guys (again, it's always guys) that talk loudly on their phones as they pace back and forth in front of the reference desk.

Update: Oh yeah, and the women (this one's mostly women) who leave their cellphones in their purses when they leave the library and when the cell goes off, everyone in the library is treated to their incredibly loud ring tone. It just happened.

April 7, 2006

Carl Wieman: Trading Research for Teaching

Via InsideHigherEd, an article on Nobel laureate (physics) Carl Wieman and his decision to leave the University of Colorado for the University of British Columbia to pursue, not greater research opportunities, but to investigate issues in the teaching of science, particularly to undergrads.

Wieman has been a major force in pushing a form of science teaching at Colorado know as ”peer instruction.” In peer instruction classrooms, teachers regularly ask students multiple choice concept questions, and the students buzz in their answers with remote clickers. The instructor immediately sees the distribution of answers, and if there are enough incorrect responses, students are asked to try to convince their neighbor of their answer. The students buzz in again — usually with many more correct answers — and when the class mostly has it, the professor can move on. The technique has produced big gains on science concept tests virtually everywhere it has been used. Faculty members at Colorado estimated that perhaps over 10,000 students, thanks, in part, to Wieman, currently carry clickers around campus.

Wieman says that clickers aren’t the cure-all for sleep inducing science lectures, “but can really enhance this kind of interaction.” And with the tidal wave of cheap wireless technology, “it’s practical now,” says Wieman, who teaches a 200-student physics class. “That’s another big reason the time is right for this.” Grounding concepts in practical material also keeps students, if not on the edge of their seats, at least conscious. When Wieman teaches about electromagnetic waves, for example, he starts with “a very mysterious, strange device” called a “microwave.” Students, he says, “are interested in how you can actually understand it, and myths about whether its dangerous or not. They walk away not realizing they’re thinking like scientists.”


The most recent issues of Issues in Science & Technology Librarianship and the HEP Libraries Webzine are both full of interesting articles.

ISTL #45, Winter 2006

The theme is on marketing and outreach, an increasingly important task in academic libraries of all stripes. We know we have something to offer, but does anyone else?

HEP Libraries Webzine #12, March 2006

April 6, 2006

ACRL STS scholarships

From Kate Zoellner, STS Assessment Committee Member:

ACRL's Science and Technology Section (STS) is offering two scholarships for recent STS members to attend a preconference on Assessment that the section has organized prior to ALA's Annual conference this year. More details can be found at:

It should be a great preconference, a timely topic with coverage of assessment for various areas of librarianship. Note that the speakers originally advertised have changed (i.e., Adam Smith from Google will NOT be there):

The speakers will now be:
Fred Heath
Dave Baca (qualitative assessment and interviews)
David Consiglio (survey construction)
Peggy Johnson (assessing collections)
Lisa Hinchliffe (assessing instruction)
Brian Quigley (usability testing)

April 4, 2006

Best popular science books

Katherine Sharpe at Stochastic, The Seed Blog posts about her all-time favourite popular science book and invites readers to post their own faves.

I have to think a little bit more about mine (and may add a few here after some reflection) but I'd have to say the popular science book that's most memorable for me is Programmers at work: Interviews with 19 programmers who shaped the computer industry. It's an amazing book that inspired me incredibly back in the day.

April 3, 2006

McGill Engineering Technical Reports Digitization Project

From Marika Asimakopulos on PAMNET:

Marika Asimakopulos and Elizabeth Gibb, Schulich Library of Science and Engineering Liaison Librarians, are delighted to announce that the second phase of the McGill Engineering Technical Reports Digitization Project has been launched. This phase involved adding the reports of the Department of Civil Engineering and Applied Mechanics. This second phase was financed by the Richard M. Tomlinson Digital Access Award, and funding from former Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, John Gruzleski, and Chair Dennis Mitchell for their support.

The Project continues to provide access to the technical reports of the Department of Mechanical Engineering (launched in December 2000). Now, with the second phase, access is provided to the reports of the Department of Civil Engineering and Applied Mechanics, including reports from the Structural Mechanics, Soil Mechanics and Geo-environmental series, from the 1960s to the present. (Please note that several reports have yet to be added.)

We would like to thank David McKnight of the Digital Collections Program for his support and encouragement, and his staff, Eli Brown, Elizabeth Thomson, and Maria Gosselin. Eli trained our undergrad civil engineering student employee Noor Alif who scanned the documents, populated the database, and linked the PDFs with the appropriate records.

The McGill Engineering Technical Reports Digitization Project is found at

Please select either the civil or mechanical collection, before you

You can go directly to the search interface here.

I have a soft spot in my heart for this particular project, as I was in on the ground floor. When I was a library school student at McGill, I did my practicum project at the now-named Schulich Library of Science & Engineering (then just the Physical Science & Engineering Library) and worked on the initial phase of the digitization project. It was a great experience working at the library (and on the project) with Marika, Darlene Canning, Elizabeth Gibb and all the other staff, a formative experience that certainly influenced me to become a science librarian.