Leap Day fun

February 29, 2008

A library must be useful but it ought to have a sense of humor as well. We want people to be happy to see us. That goes for our online presence, too.

This has nothing to do with libraries, mind you, but I’d love to see a library website fall apart like this retailer’s website in the Netherlands. Kudos to Hema [here is their normal website] for letting customers in on a little fun.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of goofy things on our intranet (mirror-imaged the home page, turned the “staff”web into a disease-ridden “staph”web, etc.) but we’ve been pretty tame on the public side.  Has your library website had fun?

Advertisements

Internet Utilities

February 27, 2008

The concept of Internet utilities intrigues me. Increasingly, I’ve been living it for the last three or four years, but hadn’t heard the term until last December when I read The Big Switch, a new book by Nicholas Carr. [My review.]

The concept is simple. The mundane computer stuff you have been buying and maintaining locally (i.e. software, upgrades, data backups, etc.) could be farmed out to remote services on the Internet thereby freeing you to create, process, and save.

I don’t have a separately purchased word processor on my laptop, for instance. I use Google documents and now Buzzword, too. They do almost everything I ask. For free. And the documents saved online are available anywhere I go. I seldom fuss with syncing copies or loading files to a traveling memory stick. A spare drive is handy at times but seldom crucial.

No email is stored on my machine. For about $25 a year I store most of my photos on Flickr. Not all are public, but all are accessible. I can pull images from my stockpile and use them in blogs and elsewhere. I use desktop photo and video editing software now, but I’m starting to fiddle with online photo editors, too. I use my laptop more than ever, but it holds little more than music and document drafts anymore.

In short, Internet utilities provide the applications, the functions, the storage, and the access for me. They also handle the endless upgrades and bug fixes.

In his book, Carr compared the advent of this era with the dawn of electrical utilities. Factories in the 19th century used to generate their own power. It was part of their business. If you made textiles, you built a mill on a river and ran your looms with belts set spinning by your waterwheel. If you needed steam power, you created it. Eventually, electrical utilities took on the power hassles. They could efficiently generate electricity off-site and supply it to subscribers. Businesses went back to what they were good at and let the utilities fuss with building power grids and transmission systems.

Internet utilities are starting to do the same. IT departments that occupy large portions of every organization might be increasingly freed from the hassles of upgrading hundreds of machines with each new software version or bug fix. Data backups could be automated and off-site. Scalable utility services could probably handle fluctuations in use and storage needs, too. Local IT would still need to handle hardware, troubleshooting, consulting, and parameter settings, but many of the tedious maintenance tasks could be handled by subscription.

Many services are free (or low cost) to individuals now. Organizations with much greater needs would pay more for such services but utilities will likely be more efficient and less expensive than current in-house operations. Many smaller libraries already subscribe to Internet services such as workstation management and catalog support.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s not all rosy. A slew of thoughts came to mind reading up on the subject. Issues relating to our data’s security [Is it backed up? How often? At different locations? How strong are the firewalls?], availability [How reliable is it? How fast is it? Can the bandwidth handle it? How often might it go down?], privacy [Whose property is it? Can others see it? Can the utility mine it for data? How much tinkering can we do with the parameters?] and permanence [If we delete something, is it really gone?] need to be addressed before any sane organization buys into the idea completely.

These concerns are real, but the concept of Internet utilities seems more a matter of when than if.


Learn More: RSS feeds and feed readers

February 24, 2008

[This is one in a series of self-paced discovery exercises for library staff venturing into the social web.]

If checking a website for information is akin to picking up a morning paper at a newsstand, then using an RSS feed is like subscribing to the newspaper. It give you the latest info and saves you the trip.

That’s the metaphor. In real terms, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is a snippet of XML code that retrieves a website’s latest content. Paired with a feed reader (or aggregator), that content is delivered to single place: a web page of your own design. You choose the sources of information (i.e., blogs or frequently-updated websites that you hope to keep up with), and RSS will “feed” all that new info to your page.

MEANING FOR LIBRARIES

As a user: If you routinely check a dozen or more sources, a feed reader will make you more efficient. It could save you A LOT of time. Most (if not all) library-world blogs provide feeds. Blogging software, in fact, usually includes it as a basic tool. Many websites and virtually all news sites offer feeds, too.

As a provider: A library could (dare I say “should”?) include RSS feeds on many of its web pages, all of its blogs, and even within its catalog. When a page changes or a new blog is posted, subscribers will immediately see it on their feed readers. To maximize effectiveness, libraries should advertise the possibilities (or explain the feed concept) when opportunities arise. Don’t be content with providing an RSS icon; be proactive by explaining that RSS icon.

As a conduit: A library’s website could include RSS feeds from other sources. Do you know of a reliable RSS source of local traffic information? Does your town have a website with a community events feed? Maybe you could pipe that content (or content even more imaginative) into your page. When the information is updated on the original website, the RSS will feed it to the library’s page where your patrons can see it.

LEARN MORE BY PARTICIPATING

Some browsers (including Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox) have built-in feed readers which simplify the process but limit your feeds to one machine. Skip to the “get a few feeds” section below if you want that option. Follow the whole process if you prefer a web-based feed reader.

Start with a feed reader or aggregator.

  • Open a free account at GoogleReader, Bloglines, Technorati, or other feed reader or blog reader service.
  • Each site works a bit differently but I’m hoping you’ll be able to navigate the set-up process once you’re in. Look for links offering to help you add RSS, XML, subscriptions, or feeds. (This set-up is usually the most difficult step in the process. Fortunately, you will only need to do this once. Seek an experienced friend if you get stuck.)
  • This will be the beginning of the web page you’ll use to collect all those subscriptions.

Now, get a few feeds.

  • Open another browser window. (This is not required, but it will make returning to your aggregator much easier in a moment.)
  • Go to a blog or webpage to which you’d like to subscribe.
  • Scan the page for a (usually orange) button or link denoting RSS, XML, or FEED. It might also be an orange ’emitting’ logo like the one shown a few paragraphs above. (LibraryStream has an RSS box on its sidebar with an “Entries RSS” link, but the RSS/XML box right here works, too.)
  • Click that button or link.
  • Depending on the site and your browser, the page that opens might resemble computer code gibberish. That’s XML and you need not understand any of it. What you want is the web page address for all that XML. Right-click your browser’s address window, and click COPY.

Return to your aggregator.

  • Right-click into the aggregator’s RSS text box and click PASTE.
  • Once that address is entered, you should see the latest content (or a clickable title for the latest content) in your feed reader.

What you do next is your call: find more feeds to add to your aggregator,rearrange your aggregator’s display,adjust the feed settings (to display full content, titles only, number of posts to display, etc.),or close for the day. You can return to your feed reader at any time and see all the new stuff that your favorite blogs and websites have fed to you while you were away. And of course you can add other feeds whenever the need or mood strikes.

Make your feed reader work for you. Have all the stuff you like delivered. And why not? It’s your web now.


Creative Commons in the Catalog

February 21, 2008

An interesting initative: Michael Sauers, the Travelin’ Librarian, is working on a project at the Nebraska Library Commission involving materials published under Creative Commons licenses.* They have begun incorporating CC works into the library catalog, and — in some cases when the license permitted it — created spiral bound hard copies of books. This is a wonderful idea. The materials are available, their authors are willing, the selectors chose them. Why not help patrons find them in their catalog searches? See Michael’s post in the NLC blog for more info.

* Creative Commons is a cooperative licensing plan developed in the last several years and heavily used throughout the social web.


Buzzword: Web-based word processing

February 17, 2008

I’m jazzed about Buzzword, a new web-based word processor created by Virtual Ubiquity and now under Adobe management. It’s easy to learn and easy to use. After a simple sign-up process* I was up and running.

The screen is attractive and the tools are largely intuitive. In fact, the toolbars appear better organized than those I’ve seen in many PC-based word processor programs. So far I’ve found every tool I’ve needed or gone looking for: margins, tables, spell-check, text/background colors, images, headers/footers, etc. It even has an always-visible word count and a page-numbered scroll bar.

A comment feature allows meta info and the collaboration possibilities** seem at least as good as Google Docs. I’ll have to experiment more to be sure. I can save my documents as an online Buzzword file, plain text, rich text format, or Word document, and then access my files from anywhere. (Don’t you just love the convenience of online storage?!)

Downsides? Despite Adobe’s involvement with Buzzword, there’s no PDF format yet. And there’s an occasional delay in the typing-response time, but it’s not bad for an on-line application. Not bad at all. It’s just a teensy bit jittery. That might change depending on your machine and browser; I’ve only tried it on two of each so far and noticed a difference.

If you try Buzzword, please let me know what you think.


* Name, email, and password; it couldn’t be much simpler.
** Why email copies to several people when you can share a single document online?


Dead People’s Books

February 10, 2008

Meant to write about this a month ago

Last September, jbd1 (his screen name) embarked on an intriguing project to enter all of Thomas Jefferson’s books* into a LibraryThing profile. Jefferson would become, in essence, on online persona on the popular social networking site. We could browse his catalog and compare** it to our own as easily as that of any other LibraryThing friend. It’s as if we were running our fingers across the spines of books at Monticello [right].

I friended Jefferson and joined in on the cataloging project with jbd1 and about fifteen other people during that first week. My sections were astronomy and natural philosophy (personal interests of mine). I started with enthusiasm but got bogged down after entering about three dozen titles. These were pre-1815 volumes, after all, and required time-consuming searches for precise editions in academic library catalogs; no small task. The small group of collaborators finished the entire project a month ago. Check it out. It’s a wonderful resource.

Jefferson’s collection isn’t the only historical library of interest, however. Members of LibraryThing’s I See Dead People[‘s Books] group have completed or started working on the catalogs of about twenty other famous people ranging from Samuel Johnson and James Joyce to Marie Antoinette and Susan B. Anthony to Mozart and Tupac Shakur. I applaud this imaginative collaborative effort. It places a scholarly resource within a user-friendly environment and brings dead people’s books back into view. Oh yeah: It’s also just a cool concept.

* Specifically all the books Jefferson sold to the Library of Congress in 1815.
** I share 27 titles with Jefferson, it turns out. Newer editions, of course.


Learn More: Blogs and Blogging, pt 2

February 5, 2008

[This is one in a series of self-paced discovery exercises for library staff venturing into the social web.]

Welcome back. I’m terribly sorry I missed a week and left you hanging between Part 1 and Part 2 like that. If you’d like to review the basics of a blog, here’s an outstanding short video from the folks at the Common Craft Show: Blogs in Plain English.

MEANING FOR LIBRARIES

Individuals start blogs for many reasons. A family member coping with a medical condition or treatment might post progress reports with far less time and trouble than daily emails to individual family and friends. The same is true for people striving for a goal (running marathons, climbing mountains, losing weight, opening a business) or keeping a travel diary.

Libraries can help these individual bloggers by providing access, start-up assistance, and reasonable ongoing support. Your library might consider offering a blogging class for the public. If kept simple, even a novice can create an attractive blog and understand the basics within a single hour workshop.

Within the library world, Librarians use blogs to share ideas and experiences, prepare for conferences, and report news and issues from those conferences. Jenny Levine, The Shifted Librarian, is one of the masters of live blogging — describing a presentation while it’s still underway.

Libraries can dive into blogging as institutions, too.

  • An active teen group might consider keeping a blog to talk about upcoming events or rehash the last one.
  • Staff interested in reader’s or viewer’s advisory can review new books, movies, or music available at the library and solicit patron feedback. Reviews should be honest, though. Proudly book talk, sure, but be willing to rag on something that deserves it, too.
  • Reference staff might contribute some chatter about new databases, tools, and invaluable resources.
  • Directors can become more connected to their communities by writing about current library issues (rearranging floor space, offering new services or programs, funding issues) in a conversational style. Tell the newspaper about it. The growing archive of transparent library operations could become an invaluable addition to their reputation.
  • My favorite idea for a blog: An employee of any rank with a talent for entertaining prose and a healthy awareness of the library’s need for decorum and patron privacy could amuse readers on any subject he/she cares to approach. (“Funny thing happened as we were packing up from storytime today…”)

These blogs need not reach a wide audience to be successful, but they will likely find a niche once they’re advertised and talked up at programs.

My personal belief is that blogs shouldn’t be viewed as tools unto themselves but as part of an overall interactive strategy; an extension of personal service in the library; informal communication with chance of feedback.

Of course, any blogs on the Internet might also attract readers outside your traditional service area. That’s okay. But local publicity and a steady focus on your target audience should maintain a healthy balance.

Want to browse more varieties? Ellyssa Kroski, the iLibrarian recently listed 18 Different Kinds of Blog Posts.

LEARN MORE BY PARTICIPATING

Think about a blog you’d like to create.

  • Consider a topic. This could be a fun topic you use as practice, or a serious topic you plan to develop fully. Some ideas: hobbies, crafts, pets, experiences, traveling, reading interests, music, faith, politics, issue advocacy, etc. Just make sure it’s something you feel comfortable discussing in public!
  • Consider your audience. Who would you like to read your blog? (Examples: family, friends, coworkers, library patrons, fellow hobbyists, anyone?)
  • Consider a voice. How formal/informal do you want to be? You should write with your audience in mind.

Now create it!

  • Set up an account. There are many free platforms out there, but Blogger and WordPress are popular and have easy set-up processes. Blogging software can also be installed on a server of your choosing, too. Your library might have blog capabilities. Ask.
  • Paint the walls. Give it a name, choose a template (layout, colors, tools), and write a profile. Get comfortable with it.
  • Write a brief “Hello World” introductory post. Mention your objective. Be honest.
  • Post at least two other blogs over the course of the week. Practice your conversational voice and pacing. There’s no need to say everything at once. There’s always next time…
  • Solicit some feedback. Send your address to a few friends or coworkers and solicit their feedback.
  • Continue the blog indefinitely if you enjoy this exercise. Growing it may take some skill and marketing, but that’s another topic…

[Caution: Use your discretion how much personal information you are willing to divulge online. More on that in a future post.]