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!

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!

Does a Fish Know It’s Wet? : Access to Scholarly Journals in Public Libraries

Heather Morrison discusses what she calls an “access gap” for scholarly journals in public libraries.   She claims:

The local public library will have interlibrary loan service; however, with limited staffing looking after everything from storytime for preschoolers to special services for teens, adults, seniors, and more, not to mention buying books and running the library, the public library cannot begin to think about providing the same level of service as a university document delivery service, with a much smaller gap to fill.

The issue will be a familiar one for anyone who works in a public library.   While most libraries will attempt to provide access to some journals, the reality is that other needs take precedent over scholarly work.   Certainly, fostering a love of reading in children cannot begin with scholarly journals; literacy work is not supported by scholarly database;   “pop” non-fiction will get a library more “thank god for the library” comments than anything coming out of Ebsco.

In short, one can easily dismiss Morrison’s analysis with the simple statement:  “there’s little demand for it.”

There a conundrum in public libraries that always creeps up as well.   How far do we go to educate learners?   Do we fill our collections with Charles Dickens and Homer as a way to expand minds, or do we let the paper backs flow with the hopes that something comes out of your mass-produced formulaic and barely literate romance, western or mystery novel?    Do we let Google satisfy your average reference query, or do we drag people kicking and screaming to the databases where they may get the real goods on what’s going on in the world (sort of).

Morrison also uses the example of typical alumnus who, as a student, has access to just about everything under the sun, research-wise, but who has their access reduced to less than 5% of they had before.   Considering many of these alumni will be professionals — working as public servants, lawyers, doctors, or whatnot — this is a great concern.   One that, clearly, public libraries ought to address if they were not so busy keeping up with all their other services.

The group Morrison does not mention, however, is the group that most concerns me — those who do not know scholarly journals exist in the first place, or who, for one reason or another do not care.  Again, the conundrum appears again.   Is this a case where a fish does not know it’s wet, or the natural order of things.   Most of the people I know leaving college were more than happy to stop taking courses and being told what reality is — not because profs were so particularly paternal/maternal but because there is life beyond intellectual pursuits and they wanted a piece of that life.   On the other hand, it is hard to say what choices people would make if they had a choice among the blogosphere, wikipedia, mainstream news and scholarly literature and full awareness of latter’s role in understanding the truth.

A good example is the pseudo-myth of the online predator.  As Bruce Schneier has uncovered, most parents’ fears of online predators lurking after their children are unfounded.   The mainstream news, and even Google for a good while, would suggest differently — it is the scholarly literature that is best able to handle such a question without blurring the issue behind sensationalism and fear.  If parents were more easily able to access and evaluate such literature, there could be a lot of headaches saved all over the world on this issue.   Climate change is another obvious issue that comes to mind as well.  Ditto most health scares.   Anyone who thinks gaming is a waste of time should look at the time wasted worrying about things that don’t matter.

I   don’t have any answers here, although I will say that Morrison’s support of open access scholarship seems a reasonable response to me.   Bring the scientific research out into the public eye via Google is better than throwing big chunks of public library budgets at the big name academic publishers.    Perhaps the more real research there is, the more Digg and Wikipedia will use it as a check on what they present to their audiences.   The better Wikipedia articles are, in fact, those with the most citations.

On the other hand, scholars are as much a victim of the wet fish syndrome as those who do not read it.   Writing in the scholarly world is focussed on those things non-researchers could care less about: methodologies, procedures, scholarly pedigrees and the like.   Is there any wonder why a book like Guns, Germs and Steel will always have more popular interest than anything on Geo-ref?   Maybe popular non-fiction is the better road to knowledge?

It’s very very hard to speculate on a world where access to scholarly information was truly free to all.    Humankind’s reaction to a little bit of truth should not be underestimated, for its volatility.    Personally, I think the dream is worth a shot.

The Life-Path of a Librarian

Steve, Iris, Rikhei & others are going through some kind of meme on why they are librarians. I think self-reflection is great. In fact, when I started this blog, that’s what I intended to do — take opportunities to look at the library world in ways that might reflect “others” in the world. This blog is my way of pretending I am not myself for a bit so I can look at what I do in a new light.

But to say I am pretending not to be myself is a little untrue as well, because I am a contrary person. I do not like to do things the way everyone else does them. That’s why I’m taking this meme and running with it in my own way. So instead of offering why I became a librarian, I am going to imagine a life-path that could very well produce a librarian. Kind of like a 30 second biography.

Librarians :

  • as babies. . . had parents who were less-than-skilled at “peek-a-boo.” That’s why they had to turn to books to get that “it’s gone — no it’s back!” sensation. Every turn of a book, of course, is a game of peek-a-boo!
  • as early schoolers . . . had someone in their life with the guts to give them a book that might offend their parents. Beowulf at six was my big entry into that world. All that blood and gore really showed me that there was a world my parents (and any other authority figures) could not take away from me.
  • at about 10 years of age . . . found a corner of the library where they could laugh and giggle to their friends about all the books with a 613.907 Dewey number (PDF warning). (They would share that “super secret” corner and the Dewey number with their peers of course).
  • as a pre-teen. . . never received “secret admirer” letters because all potential anonymous love interests knew they could figure them out [no, it’s not because librarians are too geeky to be admired].
  • as a teen. . . pretended to read Dostoevski, Trollope, Derrida etc. simply to expose their friends to the fact that these folks exist.
  • before they graduated high school . . . changed from sciences, to arts, to business, back to sciences, and was confused by the idea that anything resembling a specialization in these fields existed.
  • in college. . . confounded profs in discussions by injecting sources of information that the prof never heard of before.
  • before graduating . . . realized that specializing in a particular field was a) going to drive them insane and b) not going to get them a good paying job.
  • in library school . . . reminded themselves “this is temporary hell before getting to a rewarding job.”
  • before graduating . . . forgot most of what they learned in library school (not realizing that this was probably a good thing), but found someone who convinced them that they belong in the profession .
  • in their first job . . . practiced remaining calm, courteous and friendly in front of a mirror while pretending to be abused Hamburger Hill style.
  • by six months . . . after having one of the following happen to them, felt emphatically that they were meant for this job:
    • teen patrons saying hello out of a library context
    • helped someone through a serious health information inquiry
    • got a procrastinating student through a project due next weekend
    • found a weird object to classify and got it fixed nice and easy-like
    • saw a navigation issue with the website and found a logical way to fix it
  • by 2 years . . . learned something they ought to have learned in library school.
  • by 5 years . . . laughed at a library student who was worried about their library school grades.
  • on their first management job . . . started to see the reasons for all those crazy policies that got made in the previous 5 years.
  • yesterday . . . thought about why they became a librarian and pretty much decided “yeah, what Steve, Iris and Rikhei said.”