Category Archives: Internet Librarian 2009

Banning the Word “Robust” from Internet Librarian

photo of painting by Rubens

Romulus and Remus by Rubens

From now on, librarians and other presenters will be obliged to check a thesaurus to locate synonyms for “robust.” We have had too many robust search engines, robust web sites, and robust apps.  We are overwhelmed by robust content.  Robust was fine when it used to refer to the ample people, say, in a painting by Rubens or Botero.  Its overuse at IL conferences has put the “bust” in robust.


The Drupal Hegemony

For a couple of years at the Internet Librarian conferences, some audiences have heard repeatedly a narrative that corresponds roughly to Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces.  A library team, faced with recalcitrant adminstrators and skeptical colleagues, sets off, after producing the requisite usability studies that always seem to correspond magically to the team’s vision, to bring back the boon for the library.  In this genre of presentation, the boon can be found in Open Sourceville, on the other side of Scylla and Charybdis, and just to the right of Careeristan.

photo of window display

Window display in Pacific Grove

The genre allows almost any library team presenting at IL to be parachuted into the story. Remember, the heroes have a thousand faces.  The one the other day happened to be a team from the University of Michigan, if I recall (“Designing for Content-Rich Sites”).  In this genre, library teams change, but an unusually consistent element appears on the horizon, and its appearance seems more than a coincidence.  Of all the treasures available in Open Sourceville, the teams always seem to wander into the suburb marked Drupal.  What about Plone?  What about Typo3? I will not mention OpenCms, in order to practice preterition.   Should we wonder about the conference organizers’ possible hidden preference for Drupal?  Is it fair that one open source CMS receives so much publicity at IL conferences?  Does that not run counter to the spirit of open sourceness?  Umberto Eco counts as one of many people who have directed our attention to the religious fervor attached to these technological preferences, and I have witnessed people so possessed by their particular piece of hardware or software that I could picture the disciples burning at the stake non-believers in the disciples’ beloved piece of hardware or software.

Good people, one and all, on the panel for “Designing for Content-Rich Sites,” and they kept me awake beyond Paul Holdengraber’s 10-minute window, mentioned during his interview Tuesday morning.  The question remains: Do we need to hear the Drupal story again, or the one about a library redesign team’s victories over the forces of evil and technophobia?  I urge the conference organizers to become more catholic (note lower case “c”) in their publicity of open source products.

When Students Go Mobile, Or the Half-Per-Cent Solution

photo of Mayan calendar

The Mayans and 2012

Kristen Yarmey-Tyuutki spoke yesterday afternoon at Internet Librarian 2009 about the relationship between libraries and students with smart phones.  Her motivation for part of her presentation is based upon some group’s prediction that smart phones will become the main tool for student research by 2020. A decade seems a long expanse for accurate prediction. Who knows what new toys will attract young people by 2020?  Back in, say, 1998, did you know anyone who predicted something like the iPhone by 2008?  Some of the audience reading this might be too young to remember some extremely wise people who as late as 1988 were still warning the world about the dangerous grip of the Soviet Union, and those wise people expected that grip to continue indefinitely.  By 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, those expectations looked like the ideological manifestations they were from the beginning.  Not that one erroneous prediction undoes the possible accuracy of all predictions.  My point is that acting on predictions that are precarious might not be the best use of our energies.

When one of the presenters on the panel, a woman from University of California at Irvine, revealed (at the end of her presentation) that only about 0.5% of people tracked on the UC-Irvine’s library system happened to be mobile phone users, that did not diminish her faith in the 2020 prediction about smart phone usage.  Now, she will run smack into the face of those who believe another prediction involving 2012, and if those people are right, none of us will even see 2020.  The Mayans will have won, and they did not have smart phones.

In Texas, the mobile device we worry about students having is a gun on campus.  Some people believe that we will all be safer if students are armed while conducting their library research, etc.  They predict that should a killer come on campus, the best solution will be for students to pull out their mobile devices and begin shooting.  The more people who are shooting, the more likely that the killer will be taken out.  That prediction sounds questionable too.  I feel less shamed about this digression after Paul Holdengraber’s statement that digressions are the sunshine in narrative.

I plan to attend IL2020, and will eat crow when the conference theme is devoted to the triumph of the smart phone.

Holdengraber – The Circle from Private to Public and Back Again

photo of holdengraber

Paul Holdengraber

We have a couple of circles at work here, one of which is that Holdengraber and his interviewer, Erik Boekesteijn, at this morning’s session have covered similar territory before, and not only for the video produced for the Shanachie Tour.  Nonetheless, Holdengraber is a walking Tesla coil, so it almost does not matter whether you have witnessed the show before, because the electricity is just as jolting the next time.

The second circle consists of Holdengraber’s view that his job as a person who organizes library events begins with his own pleasures involving books, those private experiences that he finds enriching.  In wanting to share that kind of private experience, his job allows him to take that experience to a public realm, the Live at New York Public Library series.  There he can interview authors, artists, thinkers of a variety of stripes, and generate some friction at the event to give the event an afterlife, the afterlife in which someone might pick up the book that was discussed and have a private experience of her own.

photo of Joan Crawford

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Holdengraber held back from a full frontal assault on the trend among some librarians to see the introduction of gaming models as a panacea.  He mentioned explicitly his wish not to offend his colleagues back at the NYPL who might have seen the live video streaming of the interview, or who might have viewed the video later.  Not all friction must be of the positive variety for Holdengraber.  His objection, muted as it was, deserves our attention at Internet Librarian, because what is at stake is a narrowing of experiences in general, and an undermining of a kind of learning that takes place against our will.  Holdengraber’s negativity about librarians fretting endlessly over usability studies and surveys of what “users” want seems justified, lest we end up with a world that simply leads to some Skinnerian horror show in which “users” say they want the intellectual equivalent of doughnuts at the library, and librarians feel a duty to meet those wishes and provide only an endless diet of Krispy Kremes for the “users.”  That cannot be healthy on a number of fronts.

The “give-them-what-they-want” (i.e., entertainment) model of librarianship, predicated on the self-interest of librarians who also want their jobs to be fun, produces one kind of experience, met by a variety of means from Second Life to World of Warcraft, two of the recent staples of IL conferences.  That model leaves out an entire range of learning that the ancients knew well — pathei mathos, learning via suffering.  Holdengraber expressed this ancient notion somewhat differently, offering language that would not be as jolting.  Holdengraber talked about “friction” in conversations, and about offering “surprises” to those who visit libraries (virtually or in person).  He outlined a scenario not that far from Aristotle’s Poetics, particularly Aristotle’s discussion of the audience’s role in tragedies. Naturally, Holdengraber does not have in mind that the audiences for his events will undergo some experience akin to Oedipus, but he insisted upon something other than pandering to audiences.  In fact, he mentioned at the outset of the morning interview that he did not want his interviewer to exempt Holdengraber from tough, potentially uncomfortable, questions.

To practice what he preached about offering experiences that might cause audiences to leave an event wanting to learn more, Holdengraber urged his listeners to run out and read anything by António Lobo Antunes.  As soon as I can find a decent bookstore, I will look for something by Antunes and complete the second circle.

Google Scholar Takes a Beating – Peter Jasco

Photo of pumpkin patch

Pumpkin Patch at Earthbound Farms in Carmel Valley

This presentation addressed directly the conference theme.  In other words, the person proposing the session was paying attention.  Peter Jasco gave an impressive and candid account of the state of indexing and abstracting services.  Jasco believes that libraries can save huge amounts of money (tens of thousands, if not more) by cutting back on indexing and abstracting services and relying on other sources for those services.  He does think that Google offers a part of the answer, but not Google Scholar, which is software that is seriously flawed.  Jasco admits to having confronted Google representatives at conferences and demonstrating to them the problems in the company’s software, and Jasco said that the representatives have been evasive in their responses.

The problems with Google Scholar are both wide and deep, according to Jasco, starting with Google Scholar’s inability to handle Boolean searches. The software produces some embarrassing search results when it orders results chronologically.  It was laughable to see Jasco’s slides of the number of possible relevant results produced for a search with the parameters, say, 1960-2009, and then the results for the same search with the chronological parameters of 1980-2009.  Anyone would expect that the number of possible relevant results would decrease with a more constricted chronology.  The reverse turns out to be the case with Google Scholar.  Jasco convinced his audience that Google Scholar needs less “goo” and more “scholar.”  He knew the audience would chuckle at his slides, but he was not laughing. For him, such failures mean people have not done their jobs correctly.

For other reasons, Jasco said that he does not a see a future for librarians trained solely to produce indexes and abstracts.

Jasco possesses the confidence of a man who knows of what he speaks.  He has spent a good portion of his life studying the topic, and it shows.  IL2009 benefits from his presence.

Follow the Money – “E-learning: Trends and Tools”

At one of the morning sessions of IL2009, Frank Cervone and Lori Reed spoke about technologies and trends used in e-learning.  Dr. Cervone kicked off with a few words about the stratification of education into public and private sectors, but did not follow the money.  He did present statistics that were designed to be helpful (e.g., the majority of students in North American classrooms are non-traditional), and he does think that learning ought to be interesting.  If learning could be like a game, that would be best.  After all, young people (and implicitly non-traditional students) like games.  Someone must have been watching “Jeopardy” all these years.

The coastline at Pacific Grove, California

The coastline at Pacific Grove, California

Lori Reed, who has been an online student herself but is also in charge of learning at the Public Library of Charlotte, suspected the audience needed to know that she was on the verge of issuing a piercing scream at the morning interview of Vint Cerf. Doubtless several people appreciated her restraint at the earlier session.  Her scream would have been about Vint Cerf’s comment that he wanted to expunge the word “teaching” from everyone’s vocabulary. You see, in the new, enlightened world of technology, the light transforms quite a few matters into stark contrasts that make things as simple as recognizing the difference between black and white.  Here is all the information you require, courtesy of Ms. Reed and Mr. Cerf.

  • Learning is good.
  • Teaching is evil.

I had planned to put “Learning is good” in a white font, to accentuate its goodness, but then you would not have been able to see the letters. All that work Annie Sullivan did with Helen Keller? Evil.  Aristotle?  Evil.  He was, among other things, Alexander the Great’s teacher.  Now is not the time to say more about this topic, because we want to follow the money.

Ms. Reed had a chance early on to follow the money, but declined in favor of a seasonal message (zombies are seasonal, eh?), pleading with the audience to avoid the zombification of education.  This translated into a version of Dr. Cervone’s refrain that learning ought to be fun, a game, if possible.  My guess is that Ms. Reed does wonderful things in her role at the Public Library of Charlotte, and this session simply did not bring out all of her professional qualities.  The chance for a different direction came when Ms. Reed asked the audience why e-learning became popular, and a woman at the back shouted, “Money.”

Not the answer Ms. Reed wanted.  As a good learner (not teacher), Ms. Reed had asked one of those questions that everyone dreads, the kind with only one correct answer.  Ms. Reed’s answer: 9/11.  According to Ms. Reed, e-learning surged when business people became afraid to fly to training sessions and turned to technology to link the main learner (not teacher) with other learners (not students).  The University of Phoenix might have answered differently.  Most administrators at public universities offering completely online degrees might blush when asked about their motivations for offering completely online degrees.  E-learning is a cash cow.

During the Q & A, someone wanted to know about methods to verify who the learners are at the other end of e-learning.  How do we know the person receiving the grade is the person who has submitted the work?  Perhaps because both endorsed a game-like approach to higher education, our session presenters might have unconsciously slipped into an adolescent mindset, judging by the responses to the above question.  Rather than dealing with the question itself, their inner 10-year-old took possession temporarily, and they both said what almost every e-learning office says about the problems of verifying the work of e-learners: “Well, the face-to-face instructors cannot verify who their students are either.”  What?  Who said anything about face-to-face classes?  The question was about verification of e-learning students. Remember when your 10-year-old friend Barb, who, when confronted by her parents about why she hopped into a van with older male strangers to attend a Smashing Pumpkins’ concert (in keeping with the seasonal theme), said as justification for violating her parents’ instructions: “Well, Rita’s parents let her go the concert”?  Rita is, of course, the same age as Barb, and on this line of logic, if one 10-year-old is offered a ride by older males to a Smashing Pumpkins’ concert, then all 10-year-old girls ought to be permitted to do the same. Anyone can chart the syllogism’s structural accuracy.  Unfortunately, Barb’s answer is analogous to the responses by both Dr. Cervone and Ms. Reed.  If face-to-face classes sometimes cannot verify which students are in their classes, then the people in charge of e-learning have no obligation to verify.  The irrationality and irresponsibility of that response turn out to be beside the point.  The verification that is important pertains to the word shouted by the woman at the back: money.  No university allows anyone to take an e-learning class until the university verifies payment of tuition.  The institutions of learning do not accept bogus checks, Linden dollars, IOUs, etc.  Until someone at a university is absolutely sure that the learner (not student) has paid the tuition, that learner will not be in either a face-to-face class or an e-learning class.  Verification becomes essential when money is involved. Clearly, an e-learning course can be approved by numerous people without anyone being asked to provide a methodology for assuring that the people doing the work are the ones receiving the credit.  It is about the money, not the e-learning.

“Our Brains at Risk” – Vint Cerf at Internet Librarian

The opening keynote session turned out to be utterly refreshing.  Rather than a stand-up act accompanied by PowerPoint, the audience witnessed a conversation.  Better than that, it was, at times, an uncomfortable conversation, the kind of conversation most often lacking at IL.  Paul Holdengraber, Director of Public Programs at the New York Public Library, wanted to do something else besides surf with Cerf. Holdengraber wanted Cerf to think. Cerf gave the impression that he preferred to be on autopilot for the morning, and was taken aback by Holdengraber’s thoughtfulness.  This became clear early on when Cerf wanted to give  canned responses to some of Holdengraber’s inquiries. The “grab” in Holdengraber exerted itself, and he insisted that Cerf engage in a higher order discussion, and occasionally had to drag Cerf up the intellectual hill with him. At one point, Cerf was uncertain whether he was being insulted, and by the end of the interview Cerf aimed some barbs back at Holdengraber, accusing Holdengraber of ignorance about the percentage of mail worldwide that reaches its destination.

October at Earthbound Farms, Carmel Valley

October at Earthbound Farms, Carmel Valley

One of the themes that Holdengraber insisted upon was multitasking, and it was fascinating to hear Cerf, the so-called evangelist of the internet, endorse multitasking, as if unaware that data show that multitasking is counterproductive.  Since we are all in California, maybe it has not dawned on Cerf that California has banned drivers from driving while phoning or texting, because that kind of social networking endangers the lives of others.

On the other hand, Holdengraber interrupted the usual cheerleading atmosphere at IL to question whether multitasking and gobs of e-mail lead to a better quality of life when juxtaposed to the world of old-fashioned books and letters.  Not that Holdenbarger came across as a technophobe or as someone clinging to the past.  Holdenbarger wondered aloud whether our brains are at risk with so many technological distractions and so little time for thought.  Doubtless Holdenbarger is aware of the neurological studies that have been performed on the brains of those who use technology, with the results appearing in places like Jonah Lehrer’s The Frontal Cortex.

The interview moved into matters of privacy on the internet, and it was interesting that Cerf avoided talking about Google’s role in helping to enforce the Patriot Act. Cerf did not address Google’s participation in censorship, or its storage of massive amounts of information to provide demographic and other forms of information to various sources.  Instead, Cerf pointed to another company, Comcast, for his example.

While Cerf offered the audience numerous informative narratives — the story of his wife’s deafness being ameliorated by technology was so effective it caused spontaneous applause –, his bromides about the evolution of technology were uninspired and at least once inaccurate.  That literacy depended upon scrolls and books in the ancient world leaves out amazing accounts of memorization (e.g., Plato’s Ion), among other things.  Holdenbarger pressed for a more thorough consideration of the ways in which technologies themselves alter our thinking, à la Friedrich Kittler’s Discourse Networks, 1800/1900. Cerf wanted to leave the matter at the economic level — newsprint is cheaper than killing lambs for vellum. One expects an evangelist to opt for preserving the lambs.  Holdenbarger pursued unsuccessfully a line of inquiry that was closer to what Jacques Derrida had in mind with his book about postcards.  As much as the interview with Cerf was enjoyable, I wished that someone would have interviewed Holdenbarger too.