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Month: September 2008

Three Inches To The Left

There is a very industrious spider that has made her web across my patio door. She started it in July, and very carefully stretched it from a couple of inches into the screen of the door to a couple of inches into the brick of the wall.

Unfortunately for her, I have to open that door nearly every day to water the plants, or sit on the porch, or pick up the porch chair the blows over in storms. So nearly every day I’d split her admittedly rather shabby web in half. And nearly every day she’d repair it. And after the first couple of weeks we both stopped caring too much about the process. I no longer thought twice about opening the door, and she no longer freaked out or waited very long to get back to the business of building her web. She never seemed to care that if she’d moved the entire operation three inches to the left, her life would have been so much less tiring.

All this has set me to thinking. What are the things that I could shift three inches to the left in my life? Are there things in the library that we don’t feel we have control over, but that we actually do control, and that we could shift ever so slightly?

For me, for today, it means not getting too emotionally involved in stuff, and taking a walk over my lunch break, and sending off an email I’ve been dreading for no good reason.

Picture originally uploaded to flickr by Swaminathan.


The P Word

I must have missed the privacy class in library school. I’ll admit to having been pretty taken aback the first time I heard heated privacy debates once I was out and librarianating. As far as I can tell, the two edges of the range of opinions on the topic are: “Privacy is a fundamental right and we are the champions of that right” on the one hand and “Privacy is dead, get over it” on the other. I have problems with both of these positions. The former seems paternalistic and the latter seems cavalier.

So do we, in fact, have a mandate to protect patron privacy regardless of the patron’s views on the topic? Personally, I don’t think so. I consider it part of my job to help people understand when they’re giving up pieces of their private lives, but then let them decide if they care or not. In fact, I think that holding on too tightly to the “guard everyone’s privacy with your lives” philosophy directly contradicts some of the other bedrocks of librarianship, such as making information easily findable, for example. How can we gush about comments, tags, ratings, and other user-generated content and at the same time prophesy in the name of privacy? How can we recommend social bookmarking? At an even higher level, how can we acknowledge that things like smart interfaces and personalized relevance ranking are the way to go (especially on mobile devices where space is at a premium and browsing result lists is painfully slow) while we simultaneously forbid our systems from using data about researcher-behavior?

No, privacy isn’t dead. And yes, I think education about this kind of thing is an important part of protecting the research process. But I think we can no longer afford the simplicity of preemptively guarding everyone’s privacy in every situation. I think we live in an opt-in or opt-out world. Whichever of those we choose as our default, the “opt” part of it should be clearly presented to our patrons so that they rather than we take control of their research experience. I also think that our jurisdiction over their privacy becomes even more tenuous when it spreads beyond the research experience.

Maybe it’s my experience as one who is fairly comfortable living online, maybe it’s my life as an educator in a beautiful Midwestern Ivory Tower. Who knows. But at least for today, my position is that we exist to educate people rather than to take away their choices.


Best End-Of-Class Question Ever

Today I was teaching 6 upper-level linguistics students the ins and outs of Linguistics & Language Behavior abstracts, the crazy rules indexers have to follow that force the rest of us to OR together broad and narrow terms, using what you have to find bunches of other things you might need, and the Web of Knowledge.

It was a pretty good class, if I do say so myself, but the best bit was the very last 2 minutes when the very last question of the day went like this:

Student: “Do you really love being a librarian?”
Me: “Yes! [insert mini-blurb about what I love so much about it and how I got here in 2 sentences or less]”
Student: “How do you become one? Is there a special degree for it?”
Me: “Yes, there is. It’s a master’s degree. [insert mini-plug for being a librarian]”

I love my job.

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eJournals, Blessing and Curse

I love electronic access to journal articles. I admit to being a teensy bit annoyed if I have traipse downstairs (one floor down and all of 100 feet over from my desk) to get the hard copy of an article. I’m even more reluctant to ILL articles, though I know how easy it is and how incredibly speedy compared to my past ILL experiences. Point and click is the way to go (as long as it’s not one of those nasty “HTML full text” articles, by which they mean “we’ll give you the text but none of the foreign characters or charts or images that you’ll need to understand the text… oh, and we won’t give you the original pagination either… mwa-ha-ha-ha…”).

And I’m certainly not alone in this. Students seem to have an even more marked preference than I do, and the faculty helped us move to being much more of an e-only library during the biennial serial review we completed last spring. More than half of our budget was spent on a electronic resources last year, and our stats show downloads are up by over 60%. We’ve tipped over that point, folks. And for the most part, there is great rejoicing in the land.

I say “for the most part” because all of a sudden, people are having to deal with an overly complex system of getting to our stuff from off campus. The new faculty were, understandably, confused and rather frustrated. Most of the systems we have in place (LibX, a proxy server, telling Google Scholar about our holdings, etc) work for most of our resources. But that doesn’t mean that things are any easier because these new faculty use Google, we don’t always subscribe through the publisher web site, and yet publishers put tantalizing web sites up for Google to find. The professor finds a great article via Google, clicks on it, and is told to log in or subscribe when, in fact, the library does subscribe, just through another source.

Sure, there are browser extensions that can help with that. We could OpenURL-ify everything under the sun if people would download extensions and remember to log into the proxy server whenever they sit at their computers. But that’s a pain. We mentioned this kind of thing at new faculty orientation and were met with weary stares.

There’s got to be a better way.

p.s. I’ve also talked before about the problem of eJournals when it comes to copyright and ILL (here).

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