Library Research That Matters

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.

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.

5 (Actually, 6) Three Letter Acronyms for Librarians


What it stands for: Three-Letter-Acronym

What it should stand for: Lazy Coder’s Obfustication Device

How to recognize it: Three letters; used in place of actual words without explanation.

What it does: Makes computer geeks feel a little bit more sophisticated than they really are.

What a librarian needs to know about it: Don’t be afraid of it; Google it or Wikipedia it and use this glossary to see if you can make some sense out of it.

Similar to: Technical Jargon, Library Jargon, General B.S.

My mission in blogging life so far has been to make the very technical or confusing just a little bit more easy to understand for librarians who tend to teeter on the edge of coding expertise and wishing the whole technical aspect of web design would just go away.

One of the very things that appears to stand in the way of understandability in technology concepts is the TLA, described above. So, I decided to provide a brief glossary of 10 three-letter-acronyms to see if I can make it a little simpler.

Here goes:


What it stands for: eXtensible Markup Language

What it should stand for: Esperanto for Computer software.

How to recognize it: Diamond brackets and forward slashes.

What it does:

  • It describes data, including the data that may, in the end, describe data.
  • It acts as a standard so different computer languages can talk to each other.
  • It is a format for other standards, such as RSS and TEI
  • It can also be used as a text-based database, or in tandem with Database systems such as MySQL or PostGREgreSQL.
  • Various related standards is also used in templating (XSLT), web services (SOAP) and even Browsers (XUL).
  • And it is the source of many other TLAs if you hadn’t already noticed.

What a librarian needs to know about it: It’s a standard; it’s cataloguing (or at least source description); it’s widely used by coders of all types; it makes stuff more “open” and available to others.

It’s similar to: JSON, HTML, SGML, MARC


What it stands for: Application Programming Interface

What it should stand for: “Mi Casa, Su Casa” Software;

What it does:

  • Provides the language and instructions so coders can bring the features of an online service into their own website.
  • It lets people do Mashups with your service.
  • It frees your data.

What a librarian needs to know about it: Information wants to be free, so you should be asking for one of these any time you buy a product — especially if that product houses data that belongs to you. Oh yeah, and your programmer folks will need to learn a few of these if they want to apply something like Google Maps, Facebook Apps et. al to your services.

It’s similar to: XUL, Widget, Mashup


What it stands for: Cascading Style Sheets

What it should stand for: “Hey I Just Completely Changed My Website in the Blink of an Eye!” language

What it does:

  • Provides style and colour instructions for the html on your website.
  • You can say things like “Anything within a ‘paragraph’ tag in my html ought to be yellow and Arial font”
  • It saves you the pain and suffering of re-writing lots of html just to make a simple stylistic change.

What a librarian needs to know about it: Besides saving you time it can also save the load time on your website because it prevents you from having to use tables to style your pages. Although that theory is under dispute.

It’s similar to: XSLT-FO, Skinning, Templates


What it stands for: Personal Home Page, PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor

What it should stand for: “Hey Server, Starting Thinking for the User” Programming Languages

What it does:

  • Tells the server to do stuff, based on user-input, time-of-day, or any other parameters.
  • It displays the stuff in a database or xml file in nice, clean html.
  • It makes your websites a little bit more difficult to troubleshoot, burping when something happens unexpectedly.

What a librarian needs to know about it: A PHP (or other language)-driven website is automatically more complex than one that is straight-forward html. On the other hand, it is more dynamic and make wonderful things happen for your customers.
It’s similar to: ASP, JSP, Ruby


What it stands for: General Public License

What it should stand for: Take My Code, Please!

What it does:

  • Gives permission to coders to re-use and/or the code of software possessing the license, so long as their product uses the same license.
  • Drives open source software and ensures that affordable software continues to exist.

What a librarian needs to know about it: Like Creative Commons and a variety of other licenses, GPL is an opportunity for users and developers alike to create, explore and play with new technologies.

It’s similar to: Creative Commons, BSD

There it is! Anyone else have a TLA that gets overused in library land without explanation?

Connecting Users to Networks — Web 2.0 and Reference Services?

When I was in my first year of Public Administration School at Dalhousie University, I met Marguerite Cassin, who is, perhaps, the smartest and wisest person I know (next to my wife).

Through Marguerite, I learned about Dorothy Smith and Institutional Ethnography (IE). Basically, IE is a path of inquiry that begins with individual experience and tries to map out the “texts” that exist between individuals and the institutions that control/impact/direct their lives. Most of the time when I explain this approach to people, I get a blank stare. But I really, truly, positively believe that at least thinking in an “IE way” can help with practical problems, and I have tested this out at a reference desk when I was doing my internship.

When people are doing hard-core research — and by “hard core” I mean they are looking for multiple resources and an in-depth understanding of a subject from as many angles as possible — I recommend a “research plan.” This plan is very simple and consists of three things:

  1. A brainstorm of possible search terms, perhaps with the aid of a cognitive map.
  2. Resources to use as grounding points (eg. encyclopedias, key journal articles etc.).
  3. A list of possible databases.

Number 1 is important because, if you want to access more than one resource, you may need to use different terms to get at the same information.

Number 2 is useful because it uses a “pedigree” approach to research (ie. you can steal citations from the most important articles in your research).

Number 3’s usefulness is obvious. Unfortunately, I find that this is the only route that people take to finding information. It is helpful sometimes, but other times it simply wastes large amounts of people’s time, especially if #1 hasn’t already been done.

As I stated before, Web 2.0 seems to imply new approaches to online knowledge seeking. Instead of searching for subjects, social softwares make it possible to access information through the people who know seem to know it. Ironically, we have learned that the “find a knowledgable person” approach is the favored approach in real life as well. Web 2.0 only brings that experience through a computer.

So, what does Web 2.0 imply about my three-step “research plan?” Well, here are some ideas.

Step 1: brainstorm possible search terms, perhaps with the aid of a cognitive map

The typical cognitive map used in this situation, is the infamous “thesaurus map” where individual topic words are extracted from a thesis, problem or research statement and broader, narrower and related terms are used to provide a broader (subject-oriented) context for the subject. For instance, a person with the topic “The impact of the cold war on international trade in Canada” might take the phrases “cold war” “international trade” and “canada” and brainstorm other words to go with them. For instance “cold war” might produce other words like U.S., U.S.S.R., communism, capitalism, international relations, Cuba Missile crisis and so on.

Through my association with Marguerite, I learned the Institutional Map approach. The thinking with the institutional map is a little bit different. Instead of words, you begin with an event and brainstorm the players involved in that event. So, you begin with (for example) the Cuban Missile Crisis and identify players related to that subject (Castro, Kennedy, US Department of Defense, Kruschev, etc.). Between these “players” are documents that connect them, for example, correspondences, official government documents, pamplets, policies and laws, minutes of meetings and so on.

With a more local area of information need, the “event” could be their own localized problem. For example, “I need to apply for Canadian citizenship.” Then you can make the institutions involved in that scenario, for instance, a department of Customs and Immigration, local citizenship groups, advocacy groups, and community leaders. Once you have these names, then you can use Google or Technorati to see who’s talking about them. Then the network approach begins. The person can connect, via RSS, the sorts of information that is important to them.

Step 2: Find Resources to use as grounding points (eg. encyclopedias, key journal articles etc.).

Ok. So you have the key resource for econometric analysis via the Granger Test. Why not Google the author and see if he/she has a blog, or better yet, Instant Messaging? Maybe this person has a Wikipedia account and adds/edits frequently. If he or she does, then you can begin the networking process from that resource. As librarians, shouldn’t we be offering this as a search strategy as well as the citation stealing? As Web 2.0 matures, it seems that the wealth of information will grow and grow through this strategy.

Step 3: list of possible databases.

There’s not much to add in this regard, except that we know now that databases offer RSS feeds for their searches. Also, there are a wide range of blogs and wikis that do nothing but pathfind to new an interesting journal articles. Perhaps libraries ought to highlight particular resources like this, or maybe even offer them as part of their services.

Web 2.0 impacts the way users access information; it should therefore impact the way libraries do reference work. I am sure there are a variety of search strategies besides the ones I suggested that could greatly improve the customer experience with doing research.

I also focussed on the “hard core” research experience, which is only a small part of the game. I bet there are other strategies out there to take on the task of bringing Web 2.0 power to our customers. One I can think of off the bat is a downloadable import of key blogs for basic reference. I know that snopes would definitely be on my list.