Notes From Underground

No TOCing
December 1, 2007, 4:39 am
Filed under: entropy, information studies, librarians, libraries, poetry, tech services, technology

An additional benefit to the new and improved digital library catalog is the capability to include a table of contents on a book’s record. I can see that there would little use in listing chapter or section names within a single work, but I’ve often wondered why there seems to be such inconsistent work in listing the individual names of collected items within a single work — specifically the names of short stories and poems. With the ease that this can be done in a digital catalog, I’ve been impressed by the number of library catalogs that contain little to no information on the contents of anthologized works.

A quick survey of three major public library systems (New York, Chicago and L.A.) shows a general trend toward only stories and poems of a certain level of fame being listed in the contents of a book, with spotty and inconsistent results even in that regard. An equally quick survey of smaller library systems revealed the same trend.

As an undergraduate English major, it was often that I was in search of a specific short story or poem and the above-mentioned issue with contents of collections constantly plagued my searches for those specific works. I keep expecting the situation to improve, but, despite the newer and easier technologies, I still find it rather difficult to find what collection a given story or poem might be in. There are online (usually fee-based) databases that provide this information, and that is extremely helpful — but in constitutes a “double-search” in that one must first go to the database to find out what volumes the story or poem might be in and then go back to the library catalog to find if the library carries that specific collection or not. It’s frustrating when you realize how easily that information could be included in the library catalog records.

Even extensively staffed facilities such as LOC or OCLC do little to include this kind of information.

I can’t seem to find much history on this. It seems as though, in the move from traditional catalogs to online catalogs, it was probably difficult to foresee all of the uses of the online catalog — but I think it’s time, among the other things library catalogs are doing these days, for catalogs to start carrying this info.


November 28, 2007, 6:09 pm
Filed under: information studies, libraries, prediction, technology, wikis

The Semantic Web is the talk of the global village lately. And I think it will prove to be the next big paradigm shift in the world of technology, pushing us ever closer to producing computers and other things that can fully interact with their environment.

A new mediawiki extension looks like it might be the beginnings of a bridge between libraries and the semantic web — an extension called Semantic Forms. The promise here is basically to provide a means of using a wiki as a mulitple-input database without expecting everyone to learn the code necessary to update wiki pages. It will certainly be useful in other arenas as well, but I can foresee how libraries might be able to use this extension in making their web content more readily availble to (and updateable by) their customers.

Are we ready for Libraries 3.0? We barely had a chance to get used to the idea of Libraries 2.0! I can only imagine that 4.0 will show up sometime in May 🙂

This hints at a core issue (to me) with today’s libraries: that technology is way outpacing the library. It used to be that we could just assume that the library would catch up a few years behind the technology, but it seems now like the technology changes before we even get used to the idea of the change from before. But how could we keep up? I have no answer for that — I really don’t know.

Perhaps the Semantic Web (Semantic Library, anyone?), will give libraries a new means of keeping up, even while providing us with new means of interacting with today’s technology.

desiccated: Get A Life: Oh! Margin of Error
November 27, 2007, 7:05 pm
Filed under: authorities, authority, information theory, poetry, tech services

a page from Ciardi

The above image is a scanned portion of a page from John Ciardi’s book For Instance ((c)1979 by John Ciardi; ISBN 0-393-00939-4) and represents two things to me: one of those little things in the world that I love to serendipitously stumble across, and another argument on authority (of course).

I love that the person who corrected it felt obliged to make sure everyone knew either that the author/editor had made a mistake or that “dessicated” was indeed actually spelled “desiccated“. I wonder if he/she would have still made the correction if the book were not a library book — a correction to remind him/herself in the future that it was misspelled? I wonder if he/she felt compelled to correction because it is a library book? What harm did he/she imagine would come of the misspelled word standing uncorrected? Did he/she imagine that the poem’s meaning would be thwarted by the mistake?

I love that the person who annotated the correction with his/her snide comment felt obliged to make some comment on the correction, clearly expressing his/her opinion that such corrections are ridiculous. I wonder if he/she believed that the spelling-corrector would ever come back across that page in that book (it being a library book after all) and see the snide commetary? I wonder if he/she instead thought that future readers inclined to make the same sort of correction in other texts might take heed, “get a life”, and stop making such corrections?

I love little notes that personalize an individual book. The inscriptions like “To Jacob for X-mas 1971, Love Mom”, or senseless notes of correction and comments on those notes. These things make the book an edition of its own to me, entirely unique in the world. And an edition as could not be reasonably noted or searched for in any library catalog in the world.

What does it (if anything) have to do with authority? Well, it’s just another example of the nagging suspicion I have that everything contains mistakes, problems, or some manner of “incorrectness” — anything that didn’t would be perfect, wouldn’t it? Does that mean we, as libraians, should simply relinquish all control and just let it be? No. But maybe we could loosen up a little. I mean, we argue a lot about maintaining control over authorty records to make sure they remain accurate, and yet despite that grip on authority control authroity records are as messy and mistake-riddled as so many things in the world. Why not reliquish the control at least to the average citizen who is watchful enough and dedicated enough to correct two letters in one page, in one book, in one little library system? And let those snide-commenting-get-a-lifers stay out of the margins, living in harmony with those messy little mistakes? Would the library world crumble into anarchy if we did? No. It seems to me, it might get a little cleaner, a little more authoritative, and be right on the mark for what we strive for every day.

Taking it Easy is Hard
November 24, 2007, 3:10 pm
Filed under: technology, Uncategorized, wikis

In working intensively on my wiki project for the last several weeks, I’ve come to several conclusions, one of which is that making something “stupid easy” is hard.

David Weinberger, in his book Everything is Miscellaneous, attributes much of the success of the World Wide Web, Google, and other internet phenoms to the creators of those successes having made their product so simple to use. Creating web pages for the web became something not relegated to only computer scientists — anyone could figure out at least how to use the software to create one. Research and research on the web became something even an elementary student could do, simply by typing in a few terms at Google. Wikipedia made writing an encyclopedia something not only more democratic, but even easier than creating a web page — all a person has to do, essentially, is type.

So, it makes sense that, if I’m trying to create something new, I might want to make it as user-easy as possible if I want it to be successful. Ah, but therein lies the proverbial rub. At the time of reading, I was so struck by the idea that these things successes being because of their ease that I hadn’t considered how much work the creators of those successes might have had to put in their products to make them so easy. I’m no computer science person — the extent of my knowledge about computers up to now has been built almost entirely on trial and error (lots and lots of error), so perhaps it’s easier for people who know what they’re doing to make it easy than it is for people like me. It must be. My project still lacks the ease-of-use that I’ve noted in other successful web sites, and I suppose it will continue to until I’ve gone back to college to learn computer science, or trial-and-errored my way into an easier site.

And, really, I think the coding part of the wiki creation issues I’ve had is only half the problem in making things easy. The other half has been the design — what makes what easier to see, to read, etc. I’ve read scads of material on this topic this semester, and much of seems to be fairly intuitive to me, but again, the point here is that it’s hard to make it easy.

And, of course, I’m supposed to be taking it easy over these five days off from work and school too….

The Authorities
November 11, 2007, 3:32 pm
Filed under: authorities, authority, Uncategorized, wikipedia, wikis

I came across an interesting disparity of information yesterday, one that proved wikipedia to be right and an authoritative source to be wrong. In doing some research on the author John Irving, I found the information provided by Columbia Encyclopedia to be different from the information provided by wikipedia and a print source that I have at home, Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia (3rd ed.). Basically, Columbia Encyclopedia had the publication date of Irving’s first novel as 1979, one year after the publication of his fourth novel. Big deal, right?

Well, yes and no. Knowing the precise date of publication for a given novel is rarely important information. But what about source trustworthiness? How is one to know when the information in a given entry is accurate or not? If one entry is wrong, then any other entry could be. In reality, all that happened with the Irving entry was that the date 1969 was replaced by the date 1979, probably by the person who typed the entry. This doesn’t mean much in publication dates (perhaps) but what if a kid is doing a report on isotopes and one of the numbers in that entry is off by 10?

I know, I know, I know, I know, I know… we can’t sit around all day wondering if everything we read is true, authoritative, and incontrovertible and that for any student of serious study, secondary and tertiary sources are absolutely necessary for the above reasons if for no other. But the continued trend among scholars so far is that wikipedia on its own is less trustworthy than other sources because it was not developed by authorities.

But think about this — the incorrect article was in the sixth edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia (online). I have the fifth edition of that encyclopedia (in print) at home and the exact same article is printed there, with the exact same wrong information. Since the fourth edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia was published in 1975, presumably without an entry for John Irving at all, basically the Columbia Encyclopedia has never had that information correct.

A 2006 article on wikipedia cited a study as showing “the average science entry in Wikipedia had four errors while Britannica had three” — and no doubt both entities correct errors when they find them. But the difference here is that when a person editing at wikipedia finds an error, the error could be corrected instantaneously, as opposed to the time frame for entities such as Columbia or Britannica whose average time frame for correcting articles (i.e. a new edition is released) is every 12 years and every 15 years respectively. And to think they complained about the four months it took to correct the “John Seigenthaler, Sr. Wikipedia biography controversy”! Furthermore, from what I could find online, there were no means of informing Columbia Encyclopedia of their error. And I think therein lies the most significant differences between wikipedia and other “more traditional” sources. Errors are only natural — but the speed with which they can be corrected is essential. The faster they can be corrected the better. Only time will tell if wikipedia will see an uncorrected entry sit on it’s *shelf* for up to 36 years (remember, Columbia didn’t have it right in the 5th edition or 6th edition and the new edition isn’t slated for arrival for some time yet — that’s three cycles…). But with millions of people looking at the articles, and the ability to instantly change an article and/or let someone know a mistake exists, it doesn’t seem very likely.

Which reminds me of a favorite quote from Thoreau: “No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.”

The Problem with Prognostication
November 9, 2007, 4:14 pm
Filed under: libraries, prediction, prognostication, technology

Looking back at Dr. Vannevar Bush’s famous article “As We May Think” offers an interesting view of what difficulties lie in trying to predict the future as well an interesting view of what it means to look back at someone’s prediction from what was their future.

When Dr. Bush laid out his vision of the Memex, everything seemed to rely on the mechanical and the physical. It seems a little preposterous to us now to have a machine full of whirring gears and vacuum tubes, microfilm and photo transmitters when we can just store everything by a virtual/digital means. But Dr. Bush could not have foreseen the digital/virtual world because in his time there was much (if any) cultural background for that kind of thinking.

In a recent article from the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Richard Veith outlines a number of ways in which Dr. Bush’s article has been cited for things it did not say. I think, from the modern viewpoint, from the vantage point of a cultural background that now includes virtual/digital technology as well as nodal information storage and retrieval — people are able to see the ultimate outcome of Dr. Bush’s predictions even though he couldn’t. In taking Dr. Bush’s vision a step farther than he could, I think people naturally tend to give him credit for the vision nonetheless. It’s a little like finding a prediction of a catastrophic event after the fact of the catastrophic event.

I’ve been heard to comment a lot lately on similarities I see between today’s culture and the predictions made in the book 1984. Orwell’s saving grace was that he didn’t delve very much into the mechanics of the things he was predicting, thus the TV’s in everyone’s home through which everyone could be watched doesn’t sound all that preposterous to us today, considering the massive use of security cameras and web cams. Unfortunately he put a date on it. In 1984, it still seemed rather unlikely that there would be a camera everywhere a person went, and yet, by 2004, it was easily foreseeable — but again, only after the fact, only once we’re immersed in a culture that predicates that kind of thinking. Had Orwell illustrated what he believed were the mechanics behind the camera in every home, it no doubt today would seem a little amusing, having nothing at all to do with digital photography or the internet.

So, where does that leave us with trying to predict the future of libraries? Will INFORMATION (that all-encompassing term we use to mean “everything knowable“) be readily available to every human being in the world? Will that information be organized? Will it be organized in a way that everyone can understand? My answer to all three questions is a definitive YES. But I don’t think it will be in available in a form that looks much like the internet. My own prediction? We’re going to have to move beyond the limitations of magnetic media for storing our information first. Something more organic and dynamic will have to be the basis, the base unit of storage for all of this information — assuming future technologies will require a base unit of storage. I mean, what the heck do I know anyway 🙂

A Poetic Aside
October 31, 2007, 4:07 am
Filed under: libraries, poetry

For a minor aside, here are some links to poems I found that are about libraries (in no particular order other than the last being my personal favorite) :

Ode to the Librarian

The Crybaby at the Library


The Library

Because of Libraries We Can Say These Things