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.

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.

Panera Fridays

January 24, 2008

Michael Stephens posted a photo yesterday mentioning that he holds his Wednesday office hours at Panera Bread. It reminded me of an effort I made last year to encourage some of our reference librarians to set up a weekly shift at Panera (or Starbucks or Safeway). It seems like such a simple idea to get the library out in the community — visible in a place our patrons are.

  • Talk to the proprietor. I’m sure most would be happy to support a public library in such a simple way.
  • Buy a sandwich and coffee/tea.
  • Prop up a sign “Got a question? Get an answer! I’m a librarian.
  • Turn on your wireless laptop.

A librarian with access to the Internet and the library’s online collection of databases could surely answer most questions on the spot. Difficult puzzlers might be solved with a quick email or IM to the folks back at the branch. Answers could be sent to a portable printer or the patron’s email address.

Busy people might not think of the library in their daily routine. Let’s change that! A consistent reference shift (say, every Friday from 11-3) at a local wifi hotspot could make the friendly librarian at the next table much more visible than the big library building itself.

No one in our library has done this yet because, so I’ve been told, there’s not enough staff to spare and no overall vision for this to fit. (Sigh.) Does it need to be a big, planned project? Can’t we just try it and see how it’s received? Tell the staff you’re going to take a long lunch tomorrow … and do the field research while you’re at it.

My question to readers in LibraryLand: Is anyone doing a “Panera Friday”? Would anyone like to give it a try?

IM in the catalog

December 1, 2007

I love this idea and David Lee King‘s library made it reality yesterday:

“We added a Meebo widget to unsuccessful keyword searches in our library catalog. This way, when a customer searches our catalog and doesn’t find anything, they can contact us via IM and ask for help (we also display our phone number if they want to call).”

Learn More: Avatars

October 29, 2007

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

Let’s start our wandering with a little fun. Let’s create a few avatars.

We exist as flesh and blood in the real world, but we don’t transmit that way in the digital world of the Internet. It could get kinda messy. Instead, we can adopt a digital form better suited to an online environment and one that our friends will learn to recognize as us. That form is an avatar.

Avatar comes from a Sanskrit word. In Hindu philosophy, a supreme being normally exists in a form incomprehensible to us. When that being descends to earth, it appears as an avatar so we mortals can better relate. The concept is similar with us and our avatars of the cyberworld.

Avatars come in many styles. Some are simple cartoon-like drawings (like the Simpsons figure, left) that users of the social web place on their personal pages. Others are photographs (like abchick‘s buddy icon, right) or three dimensional animated figures within a virtual world or online game. Whatever the form, though, your avatar becomes “you”. When your friends see your avatar likeness, they’ll know it’s you. Even if you adopt a penguin as your avatar, people will become accustomed to thinking of you when they see the penguin. Why? Because that’s your avatar; that’s you…in this world.

The term “buddy icon” is often used interchangeably with avatar, by the way.

Meaning for libraries

The social web is populated by avatars. Many of your patrons likely use and see them regularly. Some – don’t laugh – may want to freshen up their online appearance as often as (or more often than) they change their real world look. That may mean posting a new or doctored photo. They might appreciate a photo editing tool on public workstations and simple file uploading abilities. If the library can’t provide such basic conveniences, they just might find another place to work, play, and interact. Ouch.

If your library is venturing into the social web, you might want a library avatar. Most of the library avatars I see on Flickr are logos or building photos. That’s advancing the brand. It’s also corporate. I’d like to see something more fun: something professional, of course, but maybe a bit more human. Anyone have ideas? Please share!

Learn more by participating

Let’s make a few avatars of the cartoon variety this week. (We’ll probably look at photo and virtual world avatars — as well as upload avatars to social sites — in the weeks to come.)

  • Set aside time (10-15 minutes might do the trick) on at least two different days this week.
  • On the first day, create an avatar from one of the sites listed below. This is just for play. You might need to print or do a screen capture if you want to save your creation.
  • On another day, make an avatar in a different style or mood. Experiment, design, play.

Do you like The Simpsons, South Park, or Harry Potter? Make yourself into a character from those series. Start with a basic body and click the onscreen tools to change hair, face, and clothes. Must your avatar resemble you? Not at all! Make it resemble what you feel like. Do a Google search and discover other avatar styles (e.g., anime).

If you already have a Yahoo! account, log in here and fiddle with even more avatar-generating tools. Yahoo! has gadgets that let you customize skin tone, wardrobe, accessories, and backgrounds with endless possibilities. Since it’s tied to a member account, it can also travel with you into other Yahoo! services.

Have fun!