DIY library tech

Over at Information Wants to be Free, Meredith Farkas makes a case for the benefits of every librarian acquiring some basic tech skills. With a small amount of tech savvy and a “willingness to mess around with it and break it a few times,” she says, libraries of any size and budget can take advantage of new technologies.

As an inveterate tinkerer, I couldn’t agree more. I am lucky to have great IT support for my library, but if I want to experiment with new technologies, I have to be able and willing to play with them myself. For example, we are using both Plone and WordPress. The sys admin will help me install and update the software, and we have a great webmaster who maintains our main web site, but why should they have to learn all the inner workings of the software themselves? Both Plone and WordPress have great development and user communities, and as long as I have a sandbox to play around in, I can experiment until I get the results I want.

If I had to wait for someone to do these things for me, I’d still be in a queue, great IT staff or no. The library catalog, let’s face it, is not their top priority.

I would never call myself a programmer, but my parents introduced me to programming as a kid, and I’ve always enjoyed the challenge. In college, I satisfied my lab requirement by taking every computer science class my college offered – all two of them. These days, with the support of open source communities, it is incredibly easy to play around with programming. I think the biggest challenge is seeing it as playful and fun instead of scary – and I thank my parents for giving me the right attitude.

Infiltrating a tech conference

I am attending my first tech conference today – Plone Symposium East. It is being hosted at my university, and it is about an open source CMS we are using at work, so it was an easy one for me to infiltrate. So far I’m feeling a bit out of my element, but everyone has been very welcoming. And there are other library people here.

It’s a very different atmosphere from the library conferences I have attended. There are no lines in the ladies room. Everyone has their laptop out. There are power strips under all the tables so they can plug in. Jeans and t-shirts are not out of place.

I’ll write more on what I’m learning later, but I wanted to let you know that some of the conference sessions are being streamed live and all of them will be available on the web after the conference. If you’re at all interested in Plone or content management systems in general, check it out.

Call for Posters: Building Bridges with Collaboration Tools

This is a revision of an earlier announcement – note that there is now a prize for the best poster! (You maybe wondering, what is a poster session?)

The Social Science Division and the Museum, Arts, & Humanities Division invite proposals for a poster session to be held during the DSOC & MAHD Joint Open House at SLA 2008 in Seattle, Washington. DSOC and MAHD will award a one-year SLA membership to the first author of the best poster.

In keeping with the SLA 2008 conference theme, “Breaking Rules, Building Bridges,” the theme for the poster session is “Building Bridges with Collaboration Tools.” Proposals should focus on the use of collaboration tools (blogs, wikis, etc.) in libraries or information work. Posters may include examples of collaboration tools in use, innovative ideas for future uses, comparisons of available tools, or any other idea relevant to the theme.

The poster session will be a relaxed and informal time to share ideas with your colleagues. We welcome proposals from any SLA member, new or experienced, and especially from students. In the event we receive more qualified submissions than we can accommodate, members of the two sponsoring divisions and student members will be given priority.

Proposals should be submitted by March 1, 2008 via e-mail to murray@pop.psu.edu or mail to Tara Murray, Population Research Institute, Penn State, 601 Oswald Tower, University Park, PA 16802. Please include a title and description of about 250 words, and your name, institution, e-mail address, and address. Proposals will be reviewed by a committee for relevance to the theme and quality. We will notify applicants of our decision by April 1, 2008.

The Open House and Poster Session will be held on Sunday, June 15 from 8:00-10:00 p.m.

Wondering what a poster session is? I like this definite from the University at Buffalo Libraries:

Poster sessions are frequently used as a means to convey information in a brief format (typically 4′ x 8′) in classrooms, conferences and symposia, and workshops. Designing effective poster presentations is an art unto itself.

YouTube U

Yesterday I wrote about the popularization of science and the role it plays in scholarly communication. Technology can make popularization easier than ever. One example is the proliferation of academic lectures on YouTube, as reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education (free online article).

Easier does not mean easy. The article quotes Michael L. Wesch, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, on making online videos:

The thought process is very different, which I actually think can be very valuable. I mean we think a lot about how to present our work in writing, and I think when you shift into thinking about how to present this work visually, it actually forces you to think through things in new ways.

Call for Posters: Building Bridges with Collaboration Tools

Here’s an opportunity for SLA members to share ideas with colleagues at the Social Science/Museums, Arts and Humanities Open House at SLA 2008:

Call for Posters: Building Bridges with Collaboration Tools

The Social Science Division and the Museum, Arts, & Humanities Division invite proposals for a poster session to be held during the DSOC & MAHD Joint Open House at SLA 2008 in Seattle, Washington. The Open House and Poster Session will be held on Sunday, June 15 from 8:00-10:00 p.m.

In keeping with the SLA 2008 conference theme, “Breaking Rules, Building Bridges,” the theme for the poster session is Building Bridges with Collaboration Tools. Proposals should focus on the use of collaboration tools (blogs, wikis, etc.) in libraries or information work. Posters may include examples of collaboration tools in use, innovative ideas for future uses, comparisons of available tools, or any other idea relevant to the theme.

The poster session will be a relaxed and informal time to share ideas with your colleagues. We welcome proposals from any SLA member, new or experienced, and especially from students. In the event we receive more qualified submissions than we can accommodate, members of the two sponsoring divisions and student members will be given priority.

Proposals should be submitted by March 1, 2008 via e-mail to murray@pop.psu.edu or mail to Tara Murray, Population Research Institute, Penn State, 601 Oswald Tower, University Park, PA 16802. Please include a title and description of about 250 words, and your name, institution, e-mail address, and address. Proposals will be reviewed by a committee for relevance to the theme and quality. We will notify applicants of our decision by April 1, 2008.

Unplugging for credit

Twelve students at St. Lawrence University in New York are living in the wilderness of the Adirondack Park as part of the “Adirondack Semester” program (NY Times). Every other week, they make an excursion to a nearby town for supplies. According to the Times article, necessities included doing laundry, visiting the library, and for some, a visit to a yarn store. [via The Kept-Up Academic Librarian]

It’s kind of ironic that my last post was about a very different kind of unplugging, and yet I find the concept of abstaining from modern life quite appealing.

Goodbye, TOC emails; hello, TOC feeds

Roddy MacLeod provides an update on (and a little peek into the future of) RSS in the latest FreePint Newsletter. MacLeod is, among other things, involved in the ticTOCs journal table of contents project. He envisions a day when we no longer have to explain “What is RSS?” because subscribing to a feed has become seamless.

I think a lot of new technologies follow a similar path. They come out, a few techie types embrace them, and then if they start to catch on, the technology becomes more or less invisible. Think of HTML. I remember taking classes on HTML, and we’d painstakingly hand-code simple pages showing our resumes or photos of our pets. Today, those kinds of pages can be created using point-and-click interfaces with little or no knowledge of HTML. Of course, the code is still there, underneath it all (and I’m glad I know it), but most users don’t need to think about it.

One of our most time-consuming services at my library is collecting and aggregating journal tables of contents for our faculty, so they don’t have to subscribe to individual feeds or email alerts. If ticTOCs accomplishes its mission, we could simply direct them to that site and they could set up one feed with all of the tables of contents, and we could focus on other things (like finding money to continue subscribing to the journals so they can actually read the articles).

From library conference to web conference

Upon my return from SLA 2007 in Denver, I attended another conference, because I just can’t get enough of conferences.

The conference I attended was a conference for web developers at my university. This was my first time attending a technology conference, so I was afraid most of it would be over my head. Maybe I just chose my sessions wisely, but I thought the conference was very relevant to my work and not above my technical level at all. From looking at the program, I think there were also more technical sessions for real web developers.

Not surprisingly, many of the speakers focused on Web 2.0 and its place in higher education.

The opening keynote speaker, Jared Spool, defined Web 2.0 as “designing with an attention to the total experience of the user.” He added that user generated content does not mean Web 2.0, citing Amazon.com reviews and eBay, both of which have had user generated content for a long time.

As an example of what Web 2.0 is, he took a photo of the audience with his cell phone and uploaded it to Flickr. He then discussed mashups, RSS, tagging, and social networks.

His comment about the problem with chronological data in RSS feeds caught my librarian’s ear: “Imagine if the library was one big in/out queue,” he said, adding that RSS is not a good way to find specific information.

From there, I went to a session on “Web 2.0 and the Higher Education Enterprise 2.0”, where we got an update on Web 2.0 applications at Penn State. The presenters said that both student expectations and budget and staffing constraints are driving these developments.

Much of the presentation focused on the differences between this year’s presentation and a similar presentation last year. The big difference seemed to be that rather than trying to develop its own social spaces, Penn State is instead going to the spaces where the students already are.

An example of the power of social networking sites was the ability of Penn State students to organize a tribute to the shooting victims at Virginia Tech in a matter of days.

Then I attended a more applied session on web graphics. Cyndi Carey said that web design is different from all other design because of end user control over the display and differences in equipment. She also noted that we have gone backwards, in a way, because so many people are accessing web sites using handheld devices. She urged developers to “use graphics responsibly,” using them only when they enhance communication and keeping download speed in mind.

My next session, “Creating Web (2.0) Sites to Support Communities and Collaboration” provided examples of the use of CMS and blog software at Penn State.

The final session I attended was not directly relevant to my work but was one of the more interesting. Christian Johansen and Jerry Maddox spoke about scholarly publishing on the web. Johansen talked about the semantic web and “lost (X)HTML tags” and metadata. Jerry Maddox, an art professor, spoke about making long texts easier to read online. He emphasized typography and eliminating “density” (extraneous information that is not part of the text). He demonstrated a style switcher he developed for reading texts online.

Maddox began his talk with another library story. He talked about sitting in Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library, taking advantage of the wifi. A little boy came up and started talking to him, and wondered whether sharks have babies. Maddox typed “do sharks have babies?” into Google and got the boy an answer in a matter of minutes (some sharks lay eggs while others have babies). I started to be offended, but then realized I would have done the same thing. As Maddox pointed out, it would have taken much longer to go into the library and look up the answer. For the purpose at hand, the Google answer was good enough, and Maddox is probably an astute enough web user to evaluate his sources. And Maddux warmed this librarian’s heart by ending his story with a note that it then started to rain and he went into the library.

Though I did get to meet some of my campus colleagues, I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to do more networking. To tell the truth, though, I may have just been too tired after SLA to network. All in all, I’m very glad I attended the conference, and I’d encourage other librarians to attend conferences outside of the library field.

Tomorrow morning I’m attending a post-conference tutorial on writing for the web. Because I really just can’t get enough conferencing!

Preparing for what’s next

At a recent meeting, a colleague mentioned that we are using RSS feeds, and my boss (a professor, not a librarian) asked what an RSS feed was. I winced as my colleague launched into an explanation that began with XML.

My boss doesn’t need to know that an RSS feed is an XML file formatted to be read by a feed aggregator any more than she needs to know that our Web site is hosted on a Linux server or which brand of soap our custodian mops the floors with. All she needs to know is what we can do with the feed.

Right now, there are still a lot of people clicking on links to RSS feeds and staring, puzzled, at lines of unintelligible code. But those days are numbered. After I installed Firefox 2, the first time I clicked on an RSS link, Firefox let me know that I had encountered a machine-readable feed, and gave me some options. I selected Bloglines, because I already have an account there. Now when I click on a feed, I am automatically taken to the Bloglines subscription page—or I get a message telling me I am already subscribed to the feed.

I am sure that in the early days of television or radio, the process was a bit mystifying. But now we just take it for granted—hop in your car, turn on the radio, and let the tuner find a station for you. Soon I think news feeds will be just as automatic for most people.

So, for now, we do still need to invest a certain amount of energy in helping people use our RSS feeds. But we should also be thinking about what’s next.

I was reminded of this as I read Roy Tennant’s January Digital Libraries column in Library Journal (why yes, I am still behind on my reading), “Facing the Not Knowing.” Tennant urges us to prepare for constant change and plan for obsolescence rather than longevity. “We need to become comfortable with the not knowing,” he says.

SLA Leadership Summit

I’m here in Reno (well, technically Sparks) for the SLA Leadership Summit. I arrived a day early because I was worried about making two flight connections in January, and then promptly spent several hours trying to get my laptop to talk to the hotel’s wireless network. I just recently got a wireless card for my laptop—watch out, 21st century, here comes the DIY Librarian!

Unlike the last time I was frustrated by a hotel internet connection, I was almost relieved when I couldn’t get the laptop to connect. Suddenly, my extra day was wide open. Instead of working, I could go running, check out the public library, read a book, or work on my writing…

Ah, but now I am connected, so here I am checking my email, blogging, and charting my mileage on MapMyRun.com. While I was unconnected, though, I did write a long letter to my dad (to be mailed when I get home) and almost finished my book.

Much as I like being connected (now that we have high-speed at home, it’s just so easy to go check a recipe on Epicurious!) these unconnected moments are very special, like a moment of silence, or the feeling of wandering aimlessly in the library stacks. There is something simultaneously scary (I can’t check the hotel restaurant’s menu online! I’ll just have to go down to the lobby!) and peaceful about it.