Bureaucrat 101 – or how to be a good libertarian

Dan Leger’s article  Liquor Store Lunacy: Time to privatize NSLC and the subsequent arm-chair economists complaining about government monopolies has me screaming for someone — anyone — to provide the public with a basic tutorial on public finance and policy.   I suppose it is a great thing that people who find themselves going through a business degree, learning the very basics of theoretical microeconomics (you know,  supply and demand, ‘invisible hand,’ OMG don’t mess with the markets.  EVAR! theory) can take their learnings and become blowhard political pundits because of it.    Such is democracy.    But, it’d be nice to hear from some of the people who actually learned the very basics of public policy, the role of government in the economy, and that, despite what business gurus will tell you, everything is not about efficiency.

It just turns out that I took a degree in Public Administration, so am in a position to comment in general about public bureaucracy and the economy and when (and not when) it might be a good time for the government to get involved in the market.

For the record, I am in favor of the deregulation of beer and wine (not the privatisation that Leger calls for, which would just transfer the assets belonging to the NSLC to some private organization).   I think the ability to sell beer and wine would give a little bit of stability to smaller retailers who could then complement their beer and wine with local goods and compete more effectively against the big box stores, providing more consumer choice and lower prices.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s just say that I’m a hard-line ‘NSLC should stay a crown corporation’ pundit.    What lines of argument might someone use to support government control of a market?    There are four major ones:

Natural Monopolies

Some products, usually because they require a large amount of capital to produce, result in monopolies when left to free markets.    A good example for this is electrical power.   Usually the first company to open up a power grid in an area wins, and has a great deal of power to keep others out of the business.   Generally, governments respond to Natural Monopolies in one of two ways – 1) taking ownership through a crown corporation (as was once the case a long time ago) or 2) regulation (which is the current case).   Natural Monopoly does not apply to liquor, though.    Liquor is a basic retail product.   Check one for the liberatarians.

Market Failures

Products that can turn a profit usually have at least two traits.

First, they are rival goods meaning that one person consuming the good prevents another from also consuming it.   A hotdog is rivalrous because if I eat my hotdog, it means you cannot.     This (non-DRM’d) blog post, because it sits on a server, is non-rivalrous.  You can read it, and so can everyone else.

Second, they are excludable, meaning that it is possible to prevent people who haven’t paid for a good from getting it.    The hot dog is excludable, because it will sit on the Dawgfather’s barbeque until you give him the money (although rumor has it that he’ll let you pay him back later, no questions asked).   Marine cod (in the water, not at the store) is non-excludable because you basically need an army to keep people from fishing the ocean.

Goods that are either non-excludable or non-rivalrous result in something economists call market failures.   Because the market will not provide these on its own, some level of government involvement is necessary.   For instance, copyright law is a way to get around the non-rivalrous aspect of an MP3 file.     Selling fishing licenses is a way around the non-exclusivity of marine fish.   In cases of both non-rivalrous and non-excludability (eg. National Defense), you usually have the government offering the service itself.    Liquor is not a market failure.    Score another for the libertarians.

Externalities

Related to market failures is the idea of externalities.    Externalities occur when an individual’s market behavior has an impact on others, distorting the market and creating inefficiency.   The best example is pollution.   Governments will tend to get involved in high-polluting industries because they can make everyone else miserable when making a profit for themselves.    Sometimes the action is regulation, other times it’s taxation.  Ronald Coase has a neat response to externalities as well – the argument is that if you assign property rights (through law), the market will adjust to the most efficient outcome.    So, if the government decides that I own the lake I’m polluting, people effected by my pollution will pay me to reduce the level of pollution in the lake (and because I’ll make a profit, I’ll oblige).    This is called Coase Theorem (not to be confused with another Coasean theory about the nature of the firm, oft cited by Clay Shirky).

It should be noted that externalities can happen in a positive way too.    For instance, me writing blog posts provides the internet with much entertainment that I am not getting paid for, creating an externality and economic inefficiency.    Coase theorem, therefore, would be one argument favoring the use of DRM to protect copyright.

The consumption of liquor does create an externality because public drunkeness, drunk driving, alcoholism, and poor judgement by intoxicated people can have a negative impact on the happiness of others.     So, because liquor has this negative impact, it is fair for the government to assign property rights on drinking to a Crown Corporation, forcing business that want in on the business to pay for expensive licenses, high taxes and jump through complicated hoops to profit from liquor.     This one is debatable, however, because government could also assign property rights to a private agency just as well.   Let’s say score a 3/4 point for the Crown Corp side.

Social Policy

The strongest argument in favor of giving the rights to sell liquor to a private agency is social policy.    In short, the goal of non-privatised liquor has nothing to do with economic efficiency, but instead addresses community concerns instead.     The list for this is long, possibly exhaustive:

  • to prevent the intoxication of minors, including the enforcement of age limits
  • to reduce alcoholism
  • to control the use of alcohol in the workplace (and prevent Health and Safety incidents)
  • to reduce the possibility of promoting alcohol to minors
  • to provide some level of public accountability for how the intoxicating effects of alcohol could be used to create profits (eg. the combination of alcohol and gambling comes to mind)

The argument here is not that governments prevent alcoholism, but instead that if alcoholism becomes a serious social issue, governments would have an incentive (and responsibility) to do something about it.   In private hands, the public has less control over the degree of product that gets out to market and except for a little bit of brand damage (which would mean literally nothing to someone who is addicted to alcohol) no real clout to force said private agency or agencies to change their behavior.

The NSLC puts considerable money into campaigns against drunk driving.     They are frank and to the point.    In private hands, I would argue, such campaigns would be non-existant – and if they were somehow mandated, they would be purposely done to satisfice, rather than address the real public concern.    We cannot forget that liquor is a drug – possibly the drug that is most responsible for death in Canada, not to mention being responsible for a wide range of other problems we have in our communities.

In short, the community has a strong vested interested in who gets to sell alcohol and who does not and despite silly marketing ploys,  there are very good reasons not to privatise the NSLC.   That’s about 10 points in favor of NSLC as a Crown Corporation, I would say.

Back to Reality

Despite, my rant pro-NSLC, I still favor some de-regulation of alcohol in Nova Scotia.    I think the benefits that having beer and wine in small stores outweigh some of the social negatives I outlined.

My bigger beef is that libertarian ideology overrides common sense, when it should be the other way around.   I can favor reduced government involvement in a lot of places for sure, but to suggest that there is never a good reason for a government to get involved, or to have a monopoly on a service (in reality, any government service *should* be a monopoly because ideally goverments should offer things that cannot already be provided by the market) is just plain false.    There are a few cases where governments ought to be involved in markets, and the smart libertarian ought to discount these cases before calling for privatisation.     Bureaucrats are not as stupid and lazy as your average Joe wants to make them out to be.     It’s just that they do not have a whole lot of opportunity to bring the logic behind their decisions into the public forum.   Maybe they should have more power to debate policy issues to the community.    I am not sure how to make that possible, but it seems to be a fair comment in a society that expects increased accountability from the public sector.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Tips for Libraries

After seredipitously encountering an Search Engine Optimization (SEO) victory (my wife searched for events happening on a major street in my city and our events page turned up #1), I’m feeling pretty good about the library website.   That does not mean that we cannot improve however, so I thought I’d blog about it a bit.

Now, I am not going to cover the basics of SEO, because there are plenty of resources out there that can help with these things.   If you have money, maybe you’ll want to spend some on an SEO consultant who understands the basics.

But even if you hire an SEO consultant, you still need to understand the basics of website architecture from your company’s perspective if you want them — and you — to be successful.  You do not want the people you hire to bring traffic to your website by guessing how your customers do searches.   You need to be ready to identify your user needs online and how best to put the library at the forefront when people have those needs.

So, here are a few tips that I’ve learned about how users search for their libraries:

Sometimes users will search for the system; sometimes they’ll search for the branch

If you look at your website stats, I’ll bet any money that your top searches will be for “library” “[city name] library” “library [city name]” and so on.   The next bunch (I bet) will be “http://name library.”

But let’s go even further, if someone is searching for a branch, they may be looking for a specific service or event at this branch.    If this is the case, you want to be sure they don’t have to look for you.

Solution(s):

  • For one, you want to have a page for each of your branches with the branch name in the <title> tag.   Make sure basic location, hours and etc. are on this page.  That will make sure people find your site when they search for a specific branch.
  • If you have a database of programs & events, make sure you have a way to feed upcoming programs to specific branch pages.    If not, make sure you have a link to events from each branch page.
  • Make sure you have locations mentioned (in text or as image names) when you promote specific programs on your front page.

Don’t Let Enthusiastic Branding Get in the Way of Common Sense

As companies, like banks and software companies move from names (Hewlett-Packard) to acronyms (HP), so will many libraries.   This is all great and fine, but you want to be sure that your brand does not get in the way of your SEO strategy.    Take the Acronym for Halifax Public Libraries, for instance:  HPL.   “HPL” can refer to any of the following:

  • Hamilton Public Library
  • Halifax Public Libraries
  • Human Performance Lab (at York University)
  • Human Performance Lab (at Calgary University)
  • Human Placental Lactogen
  • Huntsville Public Library
  • High Performance Linpack
  • Hewlett-Packard Labs

If you are ‘the’ HPL (in my case, Hamilton Public Library) then all is fine and dandy.   However, if you are HPL number 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 — then there is some trouble.      Also, are you sure that it is an acronym that people will type into Google or another search engine when they are searching for you?

Solution:

  • Make sure all images and acronyms have a plain-english explanation for who you are as well.  For one, the title should include the full title of your organization.
  • As a general rule, favor plain language over jargon on your website.   “FindIt” might be great for print promotion on your catalogue, but “search” is what most people look for online.
  • For your URL, consider including the word “library” somewhere.   This is especially true if your library’s acronym could be confused with those belonging to other organizations.  Remember that the word “library” is the best brand that we have.

Consider Your Users’ Needs, and then Make Pages that Respond to Those Needs.

It shocks me how many libraries have websites that do not include the words “reading” “books” “computers” or “wireless” somewhere on their pages.    We want people to think about the library when they are searching for books, along with all those publishers, used book stores and etc.

When someone is looking for wireless connections in your town, does a search for “wireless [your town]” have your organization up and front?    Why not?

Solution:

  • Build your website according to user needs, using simple language.   You want the keywords that people will use to appear on your website.
  • Assuming that you have the following services, you should include the following terms somewhere on your site:
    • Wireless (wifi)
    • Computers (and computer lessons)
    • Events & programs
    • Books, Bookclubs, DVDs, Authors
    • Reading, Read, Readers
    • Kids, Parents, Teens, Seniors

Don’t Buy into the “Front Page is Everything” Philosophy

Whenever you start a website project, the first thing almost everyone is going to tell you is that their particular interest/service/whatever needs “a big button saying “[insert service here]” on the home page”.    While it’s true that being on the front page will draw more traffic to that page, it does not follow that you will have more visitors to your site.   It is much, much better to have a logical pathway to each service, with clear labels and a simple interface.

From an SEO standpoint, this also matters.    If someone is looking for something specific (eg. How to sign up for an Literacy program), they are going to want to hit the “sign up for Literacy” page on your website when they search, not the home page.

Solution:

  • People will click a few times to get where they want to go.    While you do not want people to get lost, you also do not want to schmush your front page with content simply to give exposure to pet projects.
  • Consider other marketing techniques to draw attention to smaller projects.  For example, you could try viral marketing instead.
  • Spend more time developing useful content that will get people clicking on your website after a search, rather than worrying about from-the-front-page navigation.
  • Make sure that you have search engine-friendly Urls turned on if you are using a content management system like WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal.

These are a few tips I have.   There are many more, of course — maybe you want to share some?    In the end, libraries spend much too much time worrying about the design of their webpage without considering other pathways that customers will take — including search and external links (which I have not covered here).

Dawn of the Dewey: What About A New Standard?

Tim Spalding of Library Thing has initiated an idea for an open source, crowd created replacement for the Dewey Decimal System called OSC.   On the whole, I am for starting anything.   I think entrepreneurialism like this is a good thing.   Competition of any kind cannot hurt the process of information organization — it makes everyone stronger, smarter and more productive.  There’s more discussion about it by Tim from this Wednesday’s Uncontrolled Vocabulary.

I do get a little up in arms when I hear pretentious snark about someone’s idea.    More of it was thought to appear on librarian.net, although it seems it may not have been snark after all?

Having skimmed over the forum, one of the concerns I have at the outset is that the ideas appear to be mimicing, rather than replacing the DDC.     I would like to see people using their minds more about this issue.   Mimicing is a definite no-no from an aesthetic point of view, and it makes me question what the point of such a replacement in the first place?   I say if you are going to do something new, make it new.   Make it noticeably 2008, rather than an updated 18-hundred-whatever.

The other issue I have is that thinking about book order in the abstract is quite different from action thinking.   Considering that this replacement will be largely about placing books on a relative shelf order, I think we should be developing that standard while actually shelving books.   So, here is my idea:

  • Go to your local public library’s catalogue and using any random selection process of your choice, place a hold on 20 or more books.
  • Put those books in a shelf order, that makes sense to you.
  • Try an alternative shelf-order.
  • One more alternative shelf-order.
  • Post those titles and shelf orders to the Library Thing forum on this issue
  • Explain how you came to these shelf orders, which one you liked the best and why.

Or you can do something else similar.   The broad point i want to make is that, if this thing is going to replace DDS, then it ought to be based on some sort of new foundations, hopefully considering not only what the user thinks, but how the user will eventually use the system.  The only way to get at how people use something is through action.

All in all, I love this idea and kudos to Tim Spalding for proposing it.    And by the way, he is looking for a leader for this project — someone who will facilitate the process without dominating it.   You got the guts?  Go for it!

Navigating Online Cultures

I’ve had a tongue-in-cheek post-in-waiting for a while now that would look at traits I notice in online cultures as a way of understanding whether or not a particular service is for you or your library.    It had been percolating, percolating, percolating. . . and then I read Greg Schwartz’s post on Managing His Own Social Network.   In it, he describes how he offers a quiz to people who request being his “friend” because he does not want people in his network that do not want to converse with him.   I appreciate this trait alot.   I met Greg at CIL and you can immediately tell that he does not take interpersonal contact lightly.   He is all the positive aspects of extroversion personified.    I don’t blame him for expecting dialogues from his online friends.   I approach things a little differently, because I am more than happy to have people lurk around in the social networking world (so long as there is no spam).   Like any or all things interpersonal, there’s alot of discretion that happens within and without social networks.   The only way to tell if something is going to work is to try it out.   Or is there. . . ?  

One of the things I’ve decided is very important is to understand a bit of the culture of an online space.  I thought, “If we can look at a few features, measure them on specific scales, and then align them with our own personalities — then maybe we can have a tool to see if the service works for the organization.”    Well, as a tester, I have 12 things that could be assessed on a social site to give a flavor of what does or does not work for individuals or organizations.   For added fun, I gave them goofy names.

Here they are:

Friendsliness  

  • Friendliness would refer to the extent that a service expects you to collect friends as badges on a profile.   MySpace and Facebook would score high on this as they practically force you to expand your network into outerspace.   Twitter, surprisingly, would not rate as high — you can follow, but it really is more on your own terms.  The “friend” aspect of Del.icio.us and Flickr really focuses more on whether an individual likes the content than it does on whether there is a social connection between two or more individuals. 

Ratingsliness

  • How much does ratings matter to a social site?    For sites like Digg, StumbleUpon and Amazon, it’s just about everything.   Del.icio.us, by comparison, is much less Ratings friendly.   Delicious doesn’t care if people think something is cool — they merely want to know how many people bookmarked it.

Folksonomics

  • How important are tags in the service?  LibraryThing and Delicious score high.   Facebook scores low.

Hiveability

  • Hiveability would describe the extent to which a readership needs engagement, discussion and even outright flamewars to remain successful.   I would pit Wikipedia and the Blogosphere high on this scale.

“You Ness”

  • “you” ness would refer to the extent our narcissistic desire to show people our whims factors into the web service.   YouTube is the obvious example, but Flickr applies as well.

Collabability

  • Different from hiveability in that it merely opens doors to encourage more than one user to act on a project at the same time, Google Documents, PbWiki would score higher on this than, say, Wikipedia because they provide easy answers to specific collaboration problems.   One would not want to say “let’s go on Wikipedia to work on a project!”

Anonymanimousness

  • Does it matter to the web service that you use your real name for your identity?   This is an interesting one.   For example, Twitter does not force you to use your real name, but I think it matters alot whether or not you do.   Facebook requires it.   Del.icio.us actually makes it pretty hard to make your identity known.

Dumbanomics

  • This is not intended to be an insult at all.   How friendly and/or forgiving is the service to newbies?   Is there an expectation of lurkership, or can people just go ahead and be dumbasses in spite of themselves?    The easy-to-use Google and Yahoo! products are definitely high scorers for being accessible to just about anyone.   Metafilter would score lower — not because they are unfriendly to newbies, but because they work hard to ensure that the content appearing on the site is relatively asshat-free.

Graphicality

  • Some services depend on graphics more than others.    This should be fairly easy, but Flash/Gaming sites like Newgrounds and Kongregate would score high.   Text-based social sites like Twitter and delicious would score lower.

Contribattitude

  • How much does the site depend on the contributions of users?   Blogger and WordPress are high on this, of course.   Let’s put BoingBoing.net on this one as a second tier, because user comments often add a lot to what they have to say.   Miniclip, the gaming site, doesn’t score high, because if all the reviews on the site were gone, you’d still have the games to play.

Carrotomics

  • Does the site provide something of values in return for your participation?   The classic examples are Second Life and World of Warcraft.  The more you play, the more points, money, levels or whatever you score adding to your prestige.   Your average blog gets attention through usage stats, but that’s not the same — those stats exist anyway, not a “carrot” provided by the service.

Noseyamourousness

  • To what extent does the service enable the nosey online user to peek into the lives of others.   I won’t link them, but porn sites would be an obvious qualifier.   YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, and MySpace all appeal to the nosier side of human behavior as well.

That’s my 12 for now.   Even as I write this, I could go on with more examples.   For instance, how tolerant is a service of profanity?   What are the privacy settings and TOS like?  Add your own, please!  

I also think some of my suggestions could be grouped together to make a more tidy unit of measure.   Let me know if you have any ideas.

I think it would be a good thing to look through this list and see what would match library culture the best.   What do you think?

Treading on the Commons: Book Recommendations and the Wisdom of the Crowd

I love the idea of recommendation services like LibraryThing, Bibliophil and Books iRead. The main reason I like these services is because of their potential to identify items for me that I may never encounter on my own. You have to accept that I am a) a busy parent with little time to read, b) a busy parent with even less time to find a book to read, c) a librarian who spends too much time on his computer and d) someone who likes pleasant surprises and who has tolerance for entropy.

As I add books to these recommendation services, I am becoming increasingly aware of a problem, similar to the ever-present “Tragedy of the Commons.” The problem is this: with all the classics in my collection I have a hard time getting useful recommendations.

I like classics. As someone who enjoys classics, I put some of my favorites into the database. Things like William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I have it in my personal collection, largely because it is the sort of thing that my kids might enjoy reading when they are older. If I’m going to do ‘trash’ reading, or popular reading — I’m not going to buy, but instead I’ll use the library. I enjoyed A Spot of Bother, for instance, but I have no desire to read it twice. That’s why borrow-and-return works for me.

In the world of book recommending algorithms, this is a problem. It came to a head today when I searched for a recommendation using Books iRead and of the 10 recommendations I trudged through, 8 were in the “obvious classic genre.” 3 were Shakespeare. 1984 showed up, as did To Kill a Mockingbird, Oliver Twist, more than one Harry Potter, The Grapes of Wrath, Alice in Wonderland, The Lord of the Rings and so on. I could have asked any English-speaking (and maybe a few non-English speaking too) 17-year-old on earth to come up with these books as recommendations.

But that’s not the real problem. If I want to keep 1984 from showing up as a recommendation again, I need to add it to my collection as a “Read It, Reading It or Want to Read It.” But if I add it to my collection, it’s all the more likely that some other person is going to have to suffer the same ordeal. So I’m stuck in a conundrum: do I add it and save myself some misery, or do I ignore it and continue to grumble everytime I see it on my list.

(Remember this: there’s always a third option. I removed the application from my [rarely used now] Facebook account and went elsewhere).

Now, I am picking on Books iRead, but the other applications have similar problems. At the heart of the matter is the nature of social information in the first place. Our world is full of influences — both traditional and commercial — that hit on our collective ability to coordinate our interests. When I want to know how I am similar to the crowd, simple algorithms work fine. If I want to know how I’m different, there’s a problem.

The Solution:

The solution is empathy, understanding, broad-thinking, letting people help computers think rather than the other way around. That is why I am going to put in some love for LibraryThing over its competitors.

Library Thing is not about its algorithms and that’s the difference. You can tell by its attempts at making the website human. Yes, their “people with your books also have. . .” search gives me the usual suspects like Henry James, and D.H. Lawrence — but then I can just switch to a tags or “special sauce” recommendation. There’s also a neat “easy linking” tool and api, that will try to guess titles from keywords in a URL. For instance, here is the result for “http://www.librarything.com/title/hanky panky/“. Currently I am using this service as part of a Library Thing/Twitter mashup. (It’s vaporware right now, except to people who have followed me on Twitter). There are more surprises coming that direction as well.

But the real secret of Library Thing’s success has little to do with the range of services it offers, but instead in Tim Spalding’s understanding of what libraries are and how they work. For one, he tapped the quagmire that is Z39.50 and took his service one step beyond what just a re-hash of what Amazon has to offer. He added a “talk” section to his website, because he understands that books are one way we connect with other human beings. And he hires librarians too.

So, there’s no wonder Tim Spalding is in Library Journal’s Movers and Shakers. But forget that, give him the freakin’ Reader’s Nobel Peace Prize. Or better yet, howzabout an “I Love You” subscription to the Library Thing service. He deserves to be sitting on a pot of gold, and you’ll be sitting on the (ahem) pot with lots of good reading. Maybe we could also get him a better set of data than that Z39.50 stuff we’ve been handing him too, eh?

And you know what? I also think the same kind of understanding is what makes MetaFilter successful as well. Jessamyn West is revered as a near goddess there, and I can see why. There’s a good mix of the social and the authoritative — which is what librarians have been all about for, like, 100s of years.

In the end, I think librarians rock. The main problems we have occur when we get in our own way — as in insisting on complicated standards where more simple and flexible standards will do. Viva Libraria!

Tell me what you think. . .

We are launched in beta with a new website over the holiday on January 17, 2008 and I would really appreciate your feedback. Your information will be really valuable to me because we are already looking at a review of the website just as fast as we launch it. True to principle, we may never get out of beta.

Untrue to principle, at least for the short term, there are no RSS feeds yet. They will be coming I promise — it’s just that there are some minor tweaks that need to happen and folks are doing vacations right now. Look out for them on the left hand side of the page, beneath the programs though.

I’d would also really like it if people could do a test using the following:

1. A mac

2. A screen reader or other assistive technology.

3. Non-Firefox or IE browsers.

4. Handheld browsers, especially the iPhone.

As any web designer knows, it’s really hard and expensive to cover every single base out there. We are using web standards, so most things should be fairly operable, but you can only be sure if you actually have a system in front of you.