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Month: October 2008

Emerging Themes from Internet Librarian – Ethnography of Online Life

It’s a curious thing, going to a conference. A healthy chunk of the presenters are people I know and talk with all the time, so I’m often familiar with their topics and sometimes even with their approaches. And yet, the experience of going, sitting, and attending sessions back to back, hour after hour, day after day is still enlightening. It’s not so much that I learned new facts (though there was a little of that, too). No, it’s that when you sit through that many sessions, themes emerge from the periphery, gather form and substance, and finally strut around in all their splendor.

The theme that emerged most strongly for me at this conference was ethnography. Previous conferences have trumpeted tools, change, and stories, but this is the first time that I saw a collective desire to understand what it means to inhabit this online world.

Rather than lead us on tours of tools and services, more than one presenter echoed Cliff Landis’ statement that it’s not enough to have an account any more, you have to participate. Over and over we heard about presenting ourselves as humans online, not as institutions. Sometimes this means presenting yourself as a professional (Elizabeth Edwards’ session on an ethnography of Facebook made this point),* but even professionals have personality, and personality is as important online as off. danah boyd spoke compellingly about how an online profile is our digital body that we adorn as if we were getting dressed in the morning.** And both Greg and I spoke about online identity.

Not only are we finally taking a closer look at what it means to inhabit these online spaces, but the online spaces are becoming more integrated with our off-line spaces. As the two worlds come closer together, as the process of switching from one to the other becomes less and less of an action that requires thought and decision, and as computing becomes more and more ubiquitous, these issues of social norms and interpersonal interactions are bubbling to the surface and commanding our attention. How refreshing! This was the first conference in a long while that didn’t rely primarily on listing Tools You Should Know and instead concentrated on interacting with people online.

* A very similar presentation to the one we saw was blogged here.
**For excellent notes on this talk, see Jenica’s blog.


A Side Effect of Social Networks That I Hadn’t Anticipated

I’ve noticed a curious trend here at Internet Librarian. Those sessions led by LSW members are consistently of high quality. They were informative, humorous, to the point, and organized. Those sessions led by non-LSW members are a very mixed bag. A couple were brilliant (I’m thinking of danah boyd, especially). A few were definitely not.

One explanation could be that we’ve managed to amass a group of cool librarians that are also good presenters. And while I think this is definitely true, I don’t think it’s the whole story. For one thing, if this were the whole story, I’d expect to see improvement in those of us who’ve spoken a lot, and I’d expect to see newer presenters from the group playing a bit of catch-up. I’m not really seeing that, though. It seems like the entire group, veteran and newbie speakers alike, churned out really high-quality work.

My theory is that the fact that we keep up with each other online, and the fact that we all know and respect each other, enticed everyone to step up and make sure that what they presented would be top notch. Put simply, everyone was proving to everyone else that they were cool enough to belong in the group. Even those who had never spoken at a national conference before had a reputation to maintain in front of a crowd of seriously talented, smart, and funny peers.

There’s a down-side to this network effect, too. We generally knew a lot of the facts presented already, since we’d already presented them to our peers online. Still, I heard several things expressed in person in ways that I hadn’t heard online. And the sheer mass of presentations and discussions juxtaposed against each other highlighted some trends that I would probably have missed otherwise.

The conference is over now, and we’re all scattering back to our respective homes. The conversation about librarianship will continue, though, as we keep up with each other online. I wonder what this means for the quality of next year’s conference. Only good things, I imagine.

Next up: actual information from sessions. I promise. I’m working on it.


Dispatches from Internet Librarian

I now understand the cult of Internet Librarian. People have been telling me for years that I needed to come, and for years I’ve very prudently stayed away to tend my collection of panicky Fall Term students. But this year I was asked if I wanted to help lead a pre-conference workshop here with pretty much the best group of people ever, and so here I am, and it is wonderful.

I wake up every morning (far too early, I might add, due to the craziness that is the Pacific Time Zone) to the sound of the sea lions singing to each other. There’s good sea food. There’s good company. And there have been several really interesting sessions so far. I might even get around to blogging about a couple of them soon. For example, there was a great session on an ethnographic study that a team at George Washington University did to see how students used Facebook and how librarians might appropriately fit into that world. It’s always great when somebody backs up hunches about the way things work with actual research.

But more on that next time I have a good wireless signal.

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Dear EndNote

Dear EndNote,

I use your product to manage my ever-growing collection of PDFs and bibliographic references and, on occasion, to suck those references very handily into the writing I do. I teach your product to students and faculty and have spent quality time figuring out how to present it in a way that’s simple, memorable, and not overwhelming. I tweak custom filters and styles for anyone on campus who asks and even for some who didn’t think to ask. I boldly stand up for your product when people curse its steep learning curve, explaining that there are times when the cost-benefit analysis tips in favor of learning a massive piece of software like this. For those times, there’s EndNote.

I’ve got to say, though, that I’m finding this generally sanguine attitude toward EndNote more and more difficult to maintain. First, there’s the way you always put off releases for the Mac platform until quite some time after releases for the Windows platform. This is not an uncommon practice among software companies, I know, but it’s less and less tenable with each passing year. Have you been to a conference lately? Look around and notice all the Macbooks in the audience. Mac users are no longer a fringe user base.

Now, after years of proving to us that you think the Windows platform is at the top of your value scale, you’ve modified your implicit value system to favor the Windows XP version of your favorite platform. I know people love to complain about Vista, but it’s been out for 2 years now. I should not have to teach tedious work-arounds to my faculty and students who have happily used their Vista computers for years now. There was no excuse for allowing EndNote X1 to have been released last year without full compatibility with Vista. None. You had access to Vista. It was your job to make your software work with the platforms your user base were using, not for Vista to conform to your software. Imagine if I decided that my town should reorganize itself so that my favorite hang-outs were near my home rather than deciding that I should move to be nearer to the places I work and play? Absurd, right? The town was here before I was, and there’s nothing I can do to change it.

EndNote X2 is just out, and I hear that it’s doing better. That’s great, but late. Let me reiterate: if you proclaim your belief that the Windows platform is the platform of choice for EndNote users, you belie yourself by making that same user base wait 2 years for a software upgrade that makes EndNote work correctly. And since many campuses can’t upgrade EndNote until the school year after you release a new version (so that we can make it work with our lab builds, and so that we can have both PC and Mac users on the same version of EndNote without having to teach one version to half our patrons in the first month of Fall term and then suddenly switch all these Mac-using patrons to another version all of a sudden) we’re stuck using X1 for yet another year. My Vista-native computer will be due for replacement before I get an EndNote version that works well for me. I realize this is half our problem and half yours, but even so, none of the other software I use has inflicted this frustration on its customers.

But enough about platform compatibility. What about being a good citizen of the software community? A healthy response to competition is to capitalize on your unique benefit, not to pout that others can do the most basic part of what you do. (Yes, I’m talking about Zotero, here.) Your unique benefit is your vast array of output styles. I mean, really, 3600 citation styles is amazing! And the fact that I can instantly customize these styles to fit my needs or those of my patrons… that’s a unique benefit. When the German department here on campus requires its students to use the early 1970s version of MLA as the citation style for their senior theses, we can accommodate that. When the Music department makes up its own citation style, we can accommodate that. This is a Very Good Thing.

Simply collecting citations is no longer the coolest thing on the planet. Taking bibliographic information and spitting out a citation in one of the top citation styles is also no longer the coolest thing on the planet. These are not functions that set you apart from any number of other products that are now in existence or will be in existence soon.

So if your old kingdom is no longer new enough to be different by default, concentrate on making your unique benefits your selling point, and concentrate on making them even better. You might even take a page out of Zotero’s book and make the data-collection piece of EndNote easier on your users. But for heaven’s sake, whatever actions you take, stop doing things that make your long-time users ashamed of you. That’s no way to grow a user-base.