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Library Research That Matters

15 Apr

Academic Librarians — please help!

For my presentation at the APLA conference, I will be speaking to the idea of professionalism, what it means, how it matters and etc.   At the end of my talk, I would like to point out some things that give me hope for the future.   One of the things that would give me hope is research/writing that actually matters outside the librarian profession (aka Research that is ultimately not self-serving).

One example I got from Kathryn Greenhill was Peter Morville‘s Ambient Findability, but I would like more.   Any ideas?   What I am looking for is the opposite of “For Librarians” texts – influential books and articles by librarians that are intended to be read by people who are not librarians.

Neither Libraries Nor Information is Free

12 Jan

Oh The Future of the Library is still in question.   This time it’s Seth Godin weighing in.   I actually agree with most of what he has to say.   I think alot of what he thinks is shaped by an aged or narrow sample of libraries.   I find it kind of like saying ‘It’s over for Restaurants’ after getting poor service from an old-style greasy spoon that’s been around for 50 years.   It’s the future of ‘restaurant’.   Not ‘restaurants’.

Librarians have weighed in as well.   One of them is Sarah Glassmeyer.    I have to say I am disappointed in her response.    When it is fairly obvious that Seth is talking about Public Libraries, her response is to refute by reminding that we also have academic, legal and special libraries.   That’s pretty weak.   The latter libraries serve a specific purpose and are available for a specific audience.   I would not expect Seth to have a beef with Academic libraries, unless he had a beef with academics in general (which might be the case, but it’s kind of a different story).    Public Libraries have to stand on their own two feet, thank you.     We need to comfortably explain what we do in very specific terms.   We have to envision a future of service that meshes with reality.

For instance, Seth speak in particular about offering DVDs for rental and how this is a fairly uninspiring use for public libraries.    It’s a bit of a sham argument, actually because it offers flawed anecdotal evidence.   DVDs may circulate more often than other items, true, but they also have shorter borrowing times (they used to have 1/7 the allowed borrowing time at MPOW;  we just changed that to 1/3.) and tend to have larger fines when they are late.    In short, by nature every DVD we circulate will have the opportunity to be borrowed 7 times before a book gets returned.   Not to mention that DVDs tend to be on hold, so they are un-renewable, and so-on.

DVDs also act as a catalyst for other library uses.   It’s plain good old fashion solid business practice, like offering a coupon for Prime Rib Roast knowing that people will also pay full price for the horseradish, potatoes and string beans to go with it.   And, well, some of those DVDs are the popular renditions of Pride and Prejudice, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy and encourage reading (re-reading, even) just as well.

But enough about DVDs – we need to talk about the future of libraries.

Part of the problem is that a public library is not specifically about individuals, but a learning community.   Take, for example, the idea that we could just buy everyone a Kindle and be done with libraries.   At this time, the Kindle offers a selection of about 336,000 books.   As an individual, that is a huge collection of books to choose from, and almost certainly bound to improve my learning.   On a community level, 336,000 books is dismal.   We do not want or need a community that reads the same 336,000 books, and probably the same 336,000 books that will be yammered on about in the usual channels.    Maybe Amazon will fulfill this important community knowledge diversification need in the future, but I would suggest that they have no incentive to do so.   On some scale, for a good 25 years at least IMHO, communities will need to share their resources in an organized way for the interest of the community.   Some libraries will fulfill this need very well.   Others will not.   The former will succeed and flourish; the latter will die a slow and painful death (until another model emerges from the ashes).

(Notice that I haven’t brought up the many other issues with things Kindle-ish, like Jessamyn West has previously.)

In other words, this one idea about libraries (which covers about 50% of library work, I would say), while admittedly declining, still has a fairly good shelf-life on it.   I would also remind that no librarian in the 21st century is advocating for a faster horse here.   Public libraries are dropping those reference books like they were no tomorrow.   They’re also getting rid of those old books that no one is borrowing too.   Public Libraries are no archives.    We don’t keep artifacts on any large scale (although it’s a bit of a political thing to admit that we do actually throw books away when they’ve had their time.)

I haven’t brought up the plethora of other things that libraries can, have and continue to do.   For one (shameless self promotion) MPOW is hosting Podcamp Halifax, which (i think) strives to do precisely what Seth suggests is the right thing:  Train People to Take Intellectual Initiative.    Except it’s not really training.   It’s better.  It’s providing space, moments-in-time and opportunities for people to gather and train themselves.   Actually, training is not even the right word.    When a space is designed right, the learning is self-organized.   Learning is a natural human behavior, provided that barriers don’t get in the way.   Oh hell – Angela Mombourquette explains it all much better than I do.   In short, we need more unconferences in communities and public libraries are one avenue to help make sure these happen.

And you know what?   I’ve been talking about this for years.    My very first post (July 2006) is an interesting look at how to help people take intellectual initiative.    Not too long after that, I was talking about Open Space and The Law of Two Feet.   The way I see the future of public libraries then and now is still the same and Seth pretty much hits the nail on the [side of the] head.   It’s not about training.   The public, as a rule, doesn’t want training per se.   They would go to school for that stuff.   What they want are places to learn.    Places that have, among other things, DVDs to borrow.   (It’s always nice to bring a little bit of library home with you. )  Places with a little bit of friendly nudging to keep you motivated about learning.   Sometimes with a bit of facilitation.   Sometimes with a bit of structure.   Other times but just leaving them the heck alone to read in a nice quiet spot.   No one is filling this niche right now on any grand scale.    It’s a market failure.    That’s why we need public funds to fill it.   For now and into the future.

Finally, this article needs a shout out because Erin Downey speaks my mind about information and learning as well.

Do The Math – Why Quantitative Measures Are Important

5 Jul

I did a demonstration similar to this at the Canadian Association of Law Libraries conference in May.   It’s just a neat little trick to demonstrate why “Doing the Math” is important when you are measuring success.

Why “The Clash City Rockers” is a Well-formed Song

3 Jul


It seems that I converted Mick Jones to librarianship after this video.    (Yeah, that’s the ticket.)   Actually, he really just opened up his own collection to the public library.   Bottom line is, Mick understands the importance of making knowledge of all kinds and formats available to the public.   Thanks Mick!

(July 3, 2009)

A long time ago, I used to be a Tutorial Assistant for a Listening to Music course put on by Adrian Hoffman.   Usually at the time when we discussed the “Classical Era” (ie. Mozart, Haydn, early Beethoven) there was a lecture on form.   Often, form was expressed as a tool for absolute music (ie. how to give a song a structured feel to it).    I always itched at doing a lecture on how form can impact program music (music that tells a story or paints a picture) – and especially I wanted to do this lecture using a piece of popular music.

So I did an explanation of form using “The Clash City Rockers” by The Clash.   I should note that I believe that the brief samples I use here qualify under fair use policies, in particular because I am using them in a tutorial about music, adding considerable amount of my own knowledge and material in the process.    Got any other good examples of how the form of a rock song really suits the lyrics/content well?


You can go through all the verses of the song and perform the same exercise, actually.     Third verse has “everybody gone dry” on the “down” section” and “plug into the aerials that poke in the sky” in the “up” section (sky/up works really well, don’t it?).    Then, the suburbs are down, and the “you won’t succeed unless you try” get the up.   Very simple “up-down” technique that does alot to help the song makes sense.   I’m always impressed when I see this amount of craft put into a song.

UPDATE July 5, 2009

Just watched this with my wife and must admit that the front needs considerable editing.   (yeah, I’m babbling alot about whatever and whatnot – I think I couldn’t decide whether this was a video blog post or a tutorial on music).

Skip to about 1:30 to get to the fun part (where I use the “W” to show how the song is well-formed).   I’m going to spend some time editing this down shortly and I’ll repost it.

Three Briefs About Your Web Presence

26 Jul

I had three brief things come to mind, neither of which really need a whole post to describe.   I’ve been thinking what works for a web presence in a Microblog world, and what real competitive advantages & disadvantages websites have over other media.

Are You Ready for Your Blog?

One of the things that is overstated about web-based promotion is ROI — the idea that you put little work into a website and return pretty good results nonetheless.   With blogs, this idea has become even more apparent since with typical WYSIWYG editors, you literally just have to type into a box to make a web post happen.

The institutional side of things, it’s not so easy.  This came up at the last 4th Thursday event, in fact.  When you open a blog for yourself, there is little to no brand associated.   You can pretty much use any template and away you go.  Institutions need to manage brands, reputation, target markets and quality assurance.   If you want your business or institution to be successful, it cannot look like every other blog.   As an individual, people can perceive you poorly and you can still have a successful blog.   Not so with an institution — if your library looks like a jerk, no one will show up to your branches.   Even though web presence has little to do with product/service development, people will associate poor writing on a website with the quality of a product or service.  Libraries cannot afford to have their services downgraded because of poor web content.  In short, you need to add a whole lot of editing, design and marketing time to the denominator of your ROI.

If you are institution, you need content before you establish your web presence.   A blog that has been doing nothing for a month will look bad.   Take a look at what happened to Google when they left their Google Librarian blog to sit for a while.   This does not work the same for individual blogs.   Go away for a month as an individual and people will just think you are on vacation or something.   Those same users will have higher expectations for your library, however.   If you want to start a blog, you need to commit 52 pieces of 800 words or better per year.   Then you need to manage spam, comments etc.   In short, add the costs of content creation and management to the denominator of your ROI equation as well.

In the end, the ROI is still going to look good — just not as good as most people assume.   If you do not put some time and money into the denominator of the ROI equation, the numerator will be zero — or worse, it will do damage to your library/company.

Thinking About Metrics — Total Time Viewing?

Television ads or well-placed bulletin boards are sure to find a good number of eyeballs, but how much time do you really have to get your message across to them?   More importantly, does your website offer a better alternative to these options?

Two popular ways to measure the effectiveness of a website are total visits, and time duration of visits.   Is it possible with typical statistics packages to estimate how much total time users access a website per month?   Yes.   Does it matter?  I am not sure.

For example, my statistics package (AWStats) will tell you the percentages & number of visits in each of the following time-duration categories:

  • 0-30s
  • 30s-2mn
  • 2mn-5mn
  • 5mn-15mn
  • 15mn-30mn
  • 30mn-1h
  • 1h+

A calculation of total time visited per month would be the mean of each category times the total visits that lasted each amount of time.   So, if you had 1000 visits in the 2mn – 5mn category, you might put (210 seconds * 1000 = 210 000 seconds or 3500 minutes or a little less than 60 hours total).   You would do that for every category, except for the 1hour + category.   Although you would definitely lose some numbers, I would remove the 1h+ completely from the list.   These durations almost always mean that someone left their browser running on this page, so the number aren’t really valid.

Then I would have pull two numbers from your stats.   The first is the total number of minutes per month that someone pulled from the sight.   The second is the total number of minutes in 30s-2mn, 2-5mn, & 5-15mn categories.   These are the categories that show the most engagement with a website (anything less could be a mistaken visit; anything more could mean the person was lost).

In the end, you can have an argument for your promotions people that you can expose your users to promotional content longer than other media.   This should shape how your make promotions on your website.

How Do People Come to Your Site?

Another misconception that many people have about a website is that a service merely has to “win the battle of priorities” and find its way to the front page of a website to get traffic.   The reality is something different.   Having a whole bunch of stuff on a front page merely gets people lost on the site.   You may get slightly more traffic to your page, but they might not be happy that they got there.   Further, you may, in turn reduce the traffic of all other pages in the mean time.   You really need to think about how people use your site before you “plop” something on a front page.

Some things people will immediately associate with your library.   These are the things that you should put on your front page.   Other things will be value-added services.   You have a logical pathway to these pages, but they should not take up the prime real estate.   THEN, you find excellent ways to ensure that these pages show up in Google and other search results.   Why?   Because if potential users do not immediately associate the service with your library, they are more likely to use Google instead.   Take advantage of common Search Engine Optimization techniques that can help you in this regard.

You can go further than this.   When I launched our website, one of the first complaints we had was that staff counted on the website to find simple things like the halifax weather, basic mapping, provincial catalogues etc.   My first reaction was “just Google it.”   But then I thought about how staff were using the site.   The website was part of their daily routine — they load up their operating system and then search the main links, most of which were already established on the website.

How are non-staff using the site?   I’d love to know.    Ideally, it would be great if key customers would have a library “visit” scheduled every Thursday morning, for instance.   In fact, I would be surprised if a few people had this exact routine.   Getting good data on this sort of thing could really help your respond to customer need on a website.   I’d like to see more of this kind of research in fact to go along with usability tests and statistics taking.

In the end, I think we still need more people thinking about web presence in all institutions.   The more librarians understand the technical benefits and limitations of the web, the more effective our services will be.


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