Perspective and Context

January 2, 2008

As much as I enjoy new technologies, I still appreciate the older stuff. If not for the creative energy of the people who came before us, we wouldn’t be as well off today. It’s like the old adage attributed to Isaac Newton: We see farther because we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Joseph Janes’ column in the new issue of American Libraries (January/February, 2008) prompted me along these lines today. He used the old National Union Catalog as an example. For twenty years, it was an invaluable resource. Does anyone use it now? I barely remember seeing it in the basement stacks when I was in college. It’s been replaced by WorldCat, a vast improvement. But each new tool builds on the concepts, if not the technology, of its predecessors.

In my online database classes I hold up an old green copy of the 1990 Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature before delving into the much more interactive sources available online today. It illustrates how far we’ve come in a very short time.

Janes offers two reasons to keep the old works in mind. I’d call them Perspective and Context.

  • Perspective is the humbling reminder that “everything ends.” The latest tool always looks great, but don’t expect it to last forever. Even the Next Great Thing will end someday, too.
  • Context. Here’s Janes speaking of the Union Catalog:

“Even though this behemoth had a comparatively brief run, it was useful and we learned from it and moved on. It represents a milestone on our path of innovation and development, which, in the end, is what matters.”

It’s context that motivates me to read history as often as I do. (I even enjoy the history of science – a discipline whose current theories almost always obliterate their predecessors.)

We have no idea where our current tools will lead us, but we may be certain that they  — like the behemoths of Library 1.0 — will become obsolete one day. “All tools end,” Janes says. “The path remains.” I think it’s the context that lets us know where to post the “You Are Here” signs on that path as we move forward with the Library 2.0 world.

An intranet chock full of web 2.0

November 7, 2007

Time for a little show and tell. 🙂

Pierce County Library has had a vibrant StaffWeb for nine years and it has become integral in system communications and information. But nine years of patching and upgrading took a toll. The website and its software platform started showing its age. Last year we were moving full steam ahead in our Social Web Literacy classes when we finally got the permission and budget for a complete overhaul. Talk about great timing!

We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to build web 2.0 tools into the new intranet.

Our project committee discussed how social networking tools could enhance efficiency and communication. Staff would also get daily practice using these tools in the course of their work. It was a win-win.

The new StaffWeb debuted a few weeks ago. Here’s some of the fun new features:

Tags and tag clouds
One of the first things you see on the new home page is a tag cloud. Every page of the StaffWeb can be tagged by staff using their own words. They can then follow up on their tags, use tags from the aggregated tag clouds, or run a tag search.

Success story: We have a travel expense reimbursement claim form that, despite past efforts, people have at least a dozen different names for. Now everyone can call it what they will and still find it.

Tabs for adding widgets

The tag cloud sits on a tab, but it’s only one of six customizable tabs waiting to be put to use. Staff can add widgets to the tabs on their home page.

We currently have 32 widgets to choose from, including feeds from Flickr, iTunes, and email. If staff need a quick connection to the bookmarks they’ve stashed in their account, they can reach them using a widget on their home page. Common work tools like Google documents and Remember the Milk, and feeds from blog, weather, and traffic websites make this a well-rounded collection. We may add to the 32 flavors of widgets as everyone begins to use them and seek out more.

Blogs and RSS
Then there are the blogs. Each department and branch can have their own blog now. A few have already started. We envisioned the blogs as a “here’s the latest news” clipboard for people who work in those locations, but it might morph. Supervisors can add quick notes and routine updates for regular staff. Substitutes can tap in and read them from other work sites … or home.

Every blog has an RSS feed so a “need-to-know” staff member can subscribe to whichever he/she chooses.

Staff wiki
Dozens of staff are already adding content to the regular StaffWeb pages, but the system collaboration will increase yet again once we unveil a staff wiki later this month. We honestly don’t know where the wiki will lead us (that’s a wiki’s nature!), but we suspect reference staff will share tricks at pulling gems out of the catalog, circulation staff will elaborate on workflow practices, and IT will tell us how best to unjam the printers. But don’t count on it to be that well-defined! Who is to say that reference people can’t enlighten us on printer jams or circ staff don’t know the best way to limit action DVD searches by language? We’ll see how it works out. It could be messy, but worthwhile.

Other neat stuff and the future
Since many of the tools are customizable, we’ve created a personal log in. Once signed into the StaffWeb from work or home, staff can see their tags and widgets, comment on the blogs, and (when a new payroll installation is complete) call up their own HR information.

We’re just settling into this vast playground of web 2.0 tools. Once staff become old pros at their use, they’ll have no problem relating to patrons navigating the same tools on the social web.

We already have public blogs and a wiki, but don’t you think we’ll want to move more of these cool tools over to the public side, too?

A self-paced discovery series for the social web

October 25, 2007

A few goals were clear when I was mulling over the concept of this blog last month. One was to contribute to the discussion of training, social software, and library issues in general. Another goal appealed specifically to the trainer in me: provide a resource for library staff beginning their own exploration of the social web and its tools. I’ll start working on that second goal next Tuesday with a series of self-paced discovery entries that I’m calling “Learn More”.

Each week or so under the “Learn More” banner, I’ll post a short introduction to a different social website, tool, or concept. It might not be ground-breaking information to veteran readers of the blogosphere, but I hope each brief summary will act as a gentle nudge for the uninitiated on your staff. If they read the posting and join/browse the suggested site a few times during the week, they might find value in the various tools and online communities. Maybe they’ll find a niche and enjoy a particular site enough to set up camp there and explore indefinitely. Most of all, I hope experiencing the social web at their own pace might offer a better understanding of the needs of our patrons and the services a library can provide them.

I teach a social web literacy class for my library system. It’s a fast-paced four hour introduction to web 2.0. But the class also has an online component to encourage exploration and participation beyond the classroom. That’s what I hope to do here for anyone — whether they can come to a class or not. Must they do every activity, every week? Heavens, no. Not every site will be to their liking. This will be self-paced and self-motivated.

Most of my Library Stream blog posts will continue to be random observations, commentary, and sharing. But I hope the “Learn More” series will serve as an ongoing learning opportunity and resource.

Finally, I want to give a nod to Charlotte & Mecklenburg County who last year began 23 Things, a thriving curriculum for the social web. “Learn More” is intended neither to supplement nor compete with 23 Things, but I hope — like the PLCMC program — it excites library staff about the social web and new technologies.

Digital information doesn’t need a shelf

October 21, 2007

Last week I responded to a video that Michael Wesch and his cultural anthropology students recently posted on YouTube. I also mentioned another video without much comment because I hadn’t quite digested it yet. Now that I have, I’d argue that it is more significant than the first.

Without spoken words, Information R/evolution examines the remarkable transformation that our whole notion of information is undergoing within today’s digital technology. Information is the foundation of libraries. A library is a place to access and interpret information. Always was. The perception of a library as a warehouse of books is — like it or not — false. It’s just that information was once stored almost exclusively in books. That’s not true any more. Information is now delivered in many ways, with digital formats growing exponentially. Libraries are adapting by providing digital online resources and portable devices.

But as we move to more digital formats, libraries must also be aware of even more dramatic changes taking place in the way information is organized. Three-dimensional objects (i.e., books) get cataloged and placed on a shelf in a specific place. Pure digital information, however, is fluid and finds itself at home anywhere. There’s no single specific place for it. There’s no shelf. And there is a declining reliance on a single rigid authority to decide “where” its homes might be. Future categorization will be a flexible collaborative activity.

This strikes at our basic concept of information. Libraries are in the information business; we should be prepared for this shift. Clay Shirky (“Ontology is Overrated”) and David Weinberger (“Everything is Miscellaneous”) — both of whom are mentioned in the video — told us about this trend in recent years. The power of organizing information with tags on social websites has made the trend obvious.

Dr. Wesch’s fast-paced video is about giving up the shelf. That is an extremely difficult concept for those of us whose brains were wired pre-Internet. But the fact is, our brains are naturally wired this way. Mentally, we put our thoughts not in one place but in multiple places. We carry ideas in our heads not on a shelf but connected to other ideas … and experiences … and hunches. It’s the nature of information to be miscellaneous, connected in countless ways, and always subject to review.

Watch the video. Whether the idea excites or frightens you, digital information doesn’t need a shelf.