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!

Initial Thoughts on the ASUS EEE PC for Public Use

As a big advocate of laptops in public libraries as a way to engage community, it was a no-brainer that I would experiment with some of the latest sub-notebook class of computers, such as the Everex Cloudbook or ASUS EEE PC.   The obvious advantages would include:

  • Reduced costs:   you can pretty much buy anywhere from 3-5 subnotebooks for the price of a regular laptop.
  • Open-source alternative OS:  the “lean and mean” sub-notebook hardware begs for a linux-based operating system, creating a good opportunity to introduce your customers to non-windows alternatives at the public terminals.
  • portability:   unlike regular-sized laptops, taking a lab of 5-10 subnotebooks on the road could be done with a simple backpack (and a back to go with it).   There is a great opportunity for community technology outreach with these machines.

Step one was to convince the powers that be that I need one of these things to play with.   At a mere $399 for the ASUS EEE PC (the one I’m going to speak about today), this was an easy ask.    When it came in, there was enthusiasm all around about this machine from all levels of staff.   It looks good; it can fit in a purse; it’s sexy; it surprises the heck out of people when you say it’s dirt cheap.

The Xandros install that comes with the EEE is intuitive to most I’ve shown it to.    My initial thoughts are that Xandros is fine for most public use.

That said, having asked a few staff about its potential, there are a good number of cons that need to be considered as well:

  • the keyboard, monitor and mouse pad are way too small for anyone with hands larger than a 12 year-olds.   Libraries would almost definitely require a separate mouse and keyboard for these machines.   People with vision issues would need a separate display as well.
  • Xandros is pretty limited for all but the most basic productive uses.   One of the reasons I would want to introduce linux to the public is to have interesting and/or unique software (like noteedit, Emacs, the kde line of software, sqlite etc.) available for use, not to mention Ubuntu’s for-free Assistive Technology options.
  • Installing and configuring another system (like Ubuntu) does require someone with some linux experience (although Justin Gill has done a great job with instructions for configuring wireless in Ubuntu 8 (Hardy Heron).    I’ve also had to reconfigure the wireless after a standard update using the synaptics package manager as well.    This could be quite a pain in the long run, unless you have techie front-line staff.
  • Although not confirmed, the size of the EEE PC does make it a likely victim of a theft.
  • It gets really hot.   It’s not a laptop really, because it’s intended for a table or desk, not your lap.   And using this on a couch, bed, carpet or anything that would block a square centimeter of the ventilation areas would really kill the lifetime of this laptop.
  • No really cool games are available despite the linux distribution you use.    Even if you install XP, it is not likely you will be able to get any large-scale software on it afterwards.    No Second Life.   No World of Warcraft.

So far, we’ve experimented with the EEE PC as a support for ESL classes.   The bottom line is that the computer is too small to be used for most learners in this group.   However, I do think there are some realistic uses for it:

  • It could be a lost-cost alternative for presentations in branches.
  • The keyboard is the right size for smaller children — so a program with educational games seems appropriate.
  • A number of them could be useful as a lab for state/provincial libraries to offer professional development to rural libraries.
  • A combination of a laptop, keyboard, mouse and screen projector could be really good for a one-to-one IT clinic for older adults (and it would still be cheaper than buying a laptop).
  • It could be useful as a lender program, provided that customers will understand that this is a linux-based, teeny-tiny laptop.
  • There is an opportunity here as a support piece for programs as well.   For instance, people who attend our ESL programs often bring their children.    It could be good to hand children a EEE PC while they are waiting for their mom or dad to finish their ESL sessions.
  • Add a wifi package to a EEE and you could provide bibliographic instruction to people who use homebound or books by mail services.
  • The EEE could be good to expand roving reference services, balancing the portability of a hand-held with the usability of a desk/laptop.

In the end, I do not think the subnotebook is going to solve all our problem regarding providing flexible and effective access to information and technology inside and outside the library.   The future is promising, but I need to see a little bit more before I am going to go bandwagon on this model of service.

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?

Chiming in On the Biggies

There have been a few, ahem, debates going around and I could make a post on each of them, but things have just been too much in my home life recently, so I’m going to chime in one on one.

MLS or non-MLS?

My favorite call on this issue is coming from Dorothea Salo, but there are others by Rachel Singer Gordon and Meredith Farkas. I know great librarians of both the MLS and non-MLS variety. I am one of those who started as the latter and made the decision to got the former. I know the good, bad and ugly in both realms — but most of it from my line of view is good. I hope my colleagues do not see me as a “high and mighty OMG I have my MLS so sit back” kind of person. In fact, it was because I had a mentor that was the opposite of a HAMOMGIHMMLSSSB that I was able to gather the knowledge and skills that make me who I am today. The MLS, well it sort of helped I think. I’d say the MPA helped more, frankly — but I did have the opportunity to meet some very interesting people along the way to the MLS as well — and that did a lot too.

There is one thing that getting the MLS does do, and that is establish an accountability trail which may reduce risk in the workforce. That’s not a whole lot, but I do think it is something. One thing I find interesting is that the blogosphere may be a not-bad proxy for accreditation and the recent blab on the MLS may be a side-effect of this. David Rothman and Walt Crawford are good examples. The contribution that those blogs make to librarianship more than counts for having an accredited degree in my mind.

I think the ALA and librarian accreditation as a whole better start looking to Web 2.0 and social networking as a threat to their credibility. If the Masters is going to mean something, it ought to mean that those who came through the gate had earned it using their head, heart and body — and not just their pocketbook and ahem lips. Dorothea Salo has more to say on this.

Gaming or No-Gaming

I support gaming in public libraries. It seems to me that most of the gaming skepticism comes from non-public librarians, though I could be wrong. There are a few things that I feel are being misconceived here.

  • Public Libraries use gaming to attract teens

That’s not precisely true. If we have public computers, the teens are already there — gaming. Gaming programs are an attempt to channel the gaming energy into a community building experience. It’s noisy; it’s not books; it’s probably more fun than your average taxpayer would like to think a teen should be having in a library — but it does some very important things: a) it builds trust with teens, helping them to see the library as a positive place to be b) it engages them toward other positive — not necessarily toward books, no — but if it is staffed properly, lots of progress can be made toward strong research skills, safe internet use, respect for property, respect for each other and so on and c) it builds community support around the library. Police, Fire Fighters, Health Professionals, Recreation Professionals, Social Workers and more have got behind some of the activities we put on for teens — and that’s because they know libraries play their part to help young people grow into productive, healthy and happy adults.

In a nutshell, teens are in the library anyway — we might as well say “hello” on their terms. If I can go back to my “made-of-straw” non-public librarian again, we cannot forget the essential role (no, responsibility) that public libraries play in community development.

  • Gaming programs are unnecessarily noisy in libraries

Have you ever been around public libraries post-adult programming? You get a group of people excited about a topic, they are going to be chatty, noisy, laughing sort of people. I have also seen a good share of older adults being disruptive, evening bullying to teens simply because they are teens. The library is a public space, shared by many people from many walks of life. There are going to be moments when a public library is not going to be the Mecca you expect it to be. We try our best, but it’s always a challenge to make everyone happy all the time.

  • That’s not what libraries are for. . .

As they say in the unconference world “the people who are here are the right people.” Teens are in public libraries because they need us. We bloody well better serve them. We’ve had board games for years. Heck, I went to the library in my young age to play with the games on the Apple computer way back when.

Media Equity

Michael Sauers chimed on Media equity at the request of David Rothman in an episode of Uncontrolled Vocabulary. And, yes Greg, I will buy a t-shirt. I think I am going to put in a longer post on this issue, but I’ll start my questioning now.

I agree with Michael that policies related to public computers in libraries should try to mirror those for other formats, but I am not yet convinced that this has to do with a principle of media equity. As an avid reader of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan in my day, I feel that media makes a big difference in communication. Whether this difference can or should influence freedom of information as offered in libraries is a hard question. The only way I can think of to get at the bottom of this is to try as hard as I can to refute Michael’s position and see what I have left in the end. My instincts say that I’ll conclude that Michael is right on this one — however, there is an assumption in favor of individualism that makes me a little uncomfortable in using media equity as a axiom for all service.

I will say that the media equity line does make things easier in the end. Explaining the policy is alot easier too when you treat the computers the same as if they were anything else.

APIs: Who? What? Why? How?

APIs (Application Program Interfaces) are among those things that most presenters talk about with the caveat: “You do not have to know how to do it; you only need to know they exist.” You have to be fair to the presenters — an api is not really something you can explain without actually demonstrating how to use it.

Well, since I spouted a challenge to all those Learning 2.0-ers out there, that they can and should learn a little bit about what goes on under the hood of Web 2.0, I thought I’d give explaining apis a shot. I’m going to do this using four questions: Who? What? Why? How?

Who? :

APIs are most often released by web-based companies that host data created by users. Offering an api in this context is rather obvious: if users create the data, they might want to use it in other places around the web. Business-to-business web services may also offer apis to partners so business can happen more quickly and efficiently (think VISA, PayPal & eBay).

The most popular apis are released in such services as Google Code, Flickr, Del.icio.us, Facebook, and MySpace.

Two apis that I’m going to describe today (with limited detail) are the Twitter, & Twitter Search apis. If you are a beginner, I think the Library Thing api is also quite nice and simple to play with.

What?:

This is where you are free to doze. Just a few acronyms to get you through your day.

  • REST (Representational State Transfer) : This basically means “getting XML data from an api using Http and a URL.” It is the most popular because it is easy.
  • GET/POST : Http commands to do stuff with an api. A “GET” usually means you are just going to output data to the screen. A “POST” usually means you are going to store the data somewhere (eg. in a database).
  • cURL : A popular way to get api data without being worried that the data will cause bad things to happen to your server. Using cUrl is often mandatory with web-hosted servers (like Dreamhost).
  • XML/JSON : Two different ways to markup data. JSON is faster and more friendly when using AJAX. XML is slower, but easier to read, and more easily handled by server-side scripts like PHP.
  • SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) : A harder and more particular way of using data in an API. I’m not going to talk about it much, but suffice it to say that it uses an XML-based protocol to make api requests.
  • WSDL (Web Services Description Language : A complicated standard a Web Company can use to make SOAP a bit easier to use for the rest of us. It meticulously describes every command someone can use in the api.

In general, simple services offer simpler (REST) apis. Get into large, complicated services where money gets exchanged or whatnot (eg. Business to Business data exchange, eBay) and you are going to find SOAP and WSDL.

Why? :

You would use a API for the following reasons:

  • to create a widget for your website or blog.
  • to create a Mashup (a combining of two different services).
  • because you want to store or organize data in a service for your own personal use.
  • to do something cool without having to build a service from scratch.
  • to provide a unique way to show a service’s data (eg. tag clouds, visualizations etc.)

How? :

My 10 Step Program:

  1. Read the api instructions and find out what you can and cannot do with the api. For instance, the Twitter api does not (as of today) offer a “search” for twitter. For that you need the Twitter Search api, which is an entirely different web service.   UPDATE:    Twitter now offers its own Twitter Search api.
  2. Choose your coding method. Yup! APIs require coding ability — that’s why conference presenters don’t want to spend too much time explaining it to you. AJAX is the client side api tool. PHP, JAVA, PYTHON & RUBY are probably the most common server side tools. (Don’t stop here just because you do not know how to code. I can at least explain the process of how apis work!)
  3. Use Curl (PHP etc.) or the HttpRequestObject (AJAX) to grab information from a URL. What you want to do is usually indicated through the URL. For instance, to get the last 20 statuses from one of your friends (MYFRIEND) in Twitter you would use
    http://username:password@twitter.com/statuses/friends_timeline/MYFRIEND

    (using your username and password from Twitter).

  4. Use your coding skills to manipulate the data you receive from the URL. PHP has a nice tool called SimpleXML to do this. AJAX uses the XML DOM. XPath is another way to get your way around an XML file. Or maybe you just want to template the data using XSLT.
  5. Output the data to the screen or a file for later storage. Html is usually quite nice.
  6. Run the page and find out you have a gazillion errors. Go back to #4 until you have them all fixed.
  7. Share with your friends to show how geeky you are.
  8. Clean up your code and provide lots of comments so you can understand what you did later.
  9. Find ways to make your script run faster.
  10. Secure the code (hiding that username and password might be a start).

That’s the basics behind using an api.

Final Words :

API is a buzz word in many circles. I have seen it bandied around by all sorts of people who have no true understand about what it is or what it does. Knowing what an api is will help you make better decisions about products. Here are some api axioms for librarians:

  1. Demand an api. Web-based products that store data you own should have an api of some sort. Look to the competition or an open source product if your product people say “no.”
  2. You need to know what you (or your coders) can do with that api. It ought not be enough for a vendor to say your desired product has an api. Creating an api is easy. Creating a useful api is more challenging.
  3. Respect the rules of the api. Each time you call that URL for the api means you are using the service’s web resources. Most services create limits on the number of request you make per second (usually no more than one per).
  4. Expect alot, but not the moon. Apis cannot do everything. Expecting to be able to search gazillions of items from an http request in an XML file is not going to do you or the service favors (especially if that search includes an “OR,” a “NOT” or any regular expression. Expect to get a limited amount of data in a single request. If you want more, store it on your own server (with permission or license) and work it that way.
  5. Mash-it-up! Working two apis together is really, really fun. Possibilities are (almost) endless.