Guest post: Notes from a techie patron, part 2

(Part 1 was yesterday. Onward and upward!)


Recall that book record I showed earlier, FRBR nuts will note that in fact there is not one but three copies of this book in Minuteman. The other two were first editions indexed without the subtitle. At one point the one copy with the full title had 80+ holds, while the two with the partial title were in stock. Situation Normal, All FRB’d Up. This is a job for (cue music) WorldCat!

WorldCat finds them all correctly, and with a decent UI to boot, but introduces three new problems:

  • No way to actually get the book. Yes, there’s a clickable link to buy it from Amazon but no way to actually obtain the book in library fashion.
  • I can "friend" libraries, which I think is meant to give them pride of place in my search results. But I can’t friend the Minuteman. I could friend every single one of its member libraries I suppose… more than once, since some of them are in there twice… and randomly do or don’t include branch libraries…
  • The library results are to physical library buildings ordered by distance. Libraries from which I cannot borrow, but with nearby physical presences, rank ahead of libraries that are subsets of My Library (the Minuteman). This is an almost perfect storm of stupid, because the links themselves go into the Minuteman catalog — but add a completely useless restriction by site! For this reason I have to go to the fourth page of search results to get to the actually available copy that I can borrow — and then only if I happen to know that Mount Ida is part of My Library.
  • It seems like we might try to understand the forgoing by acceding temporarily to the "consortium" versus "library" distinction. But this is not true. There on page four is "Merrimack Val Library Consortium."

In conclusion, WTF? I really like WorldCat — it looks like a site created by modern, competent people to serve actual, tested use-cases. But as soon as you get under its skin, it’s just pervasively weird.

The worst thing is that WorldCat makes me care less about the things I could be doing (eg, a guerilla mashup of the Minuteman web app to make it less bad). I can see that all of the hard technical problems have been solved; the remaining problems are presumably of more aggravating flavors. It’s in some uncanny valley between competence and uselessness.

Things I don’t care about (but maybe should)

Andromeda is always telling me about the comprehensive range of services that are provided by a physical library — services that range far beyond the simple curation of bound volumes — that I should care about. And I feel bad for not caring about them. But to be honest these days I only use physical libraries for two things:

  • Picking up or dropping off bound volumes that I have requested online
  • A quiet place to work

The first of these could be done better in almost any structure other than monumental civic architecture — mailboxes and coffeehouses come to mind. The second of these is actually an outstanding use of a library, except that they almost always turn out to be closed, plus the whole no-food-or-drink thing. I wrote much of this post sitting at a restaurant table for exactly those two reasons.

(Moreover, the Death of Shushing means that it is often quieter at Starbucks than at the library. Some day when I finally lose my mind and go postal, noise-triggered bombs will correct this problem.)

Other information services

But perhaps I should be using those Other Information Services. I find it hard to believe that anyone would actually find it a superior use of their time to answer the sorts of vague questions that google does not answer already ("I read a textbook in 2002 or so that drew a causal connection Chinese brainwashing practices in the Korean War and between modern management theory…" "The phrase ‘failure-generating tendencies’ appeared in a book that I read in the last five years…")

Other patrons seem to make heavy use of some other information services — in particular the ability to play World of Warcraft on library computers (see above about shushing, noise-triggered bombs) or to employ modern communications media such as carving gang signs onto the restroom doors.

Physically local bound volumes

The Art History stacks make a great place to work because nobody ever goes there. But if the only purpose the bound volumes are serving is noise insulation, why not stick them in a warehouse and get some curtains instead?

Moreover, my requests seem to take just as long whether the physical object I’ve requested is in Somerville or Southampton. I can simply find no reason to care what bound volumes are located in which pieces of civic architecture (which makes it all the more aggravating that WorldCat seems optimized to tell me this uniquely dull piece of information).

Strange DRM’d e- and audio-books

I am technologically inclined and I can’t make head or tail of these things. They all seem to want special-purpose applications with little or no cross-platform support. And half of them are abridged.

But I guess they must be popular with somebody, right?

My library’s facebook page

Look, fellows. If you have time to spend on "digital outreach", why not spend it making your actually existing website less dire? I know everyone and their dog has a facebook page now, but is that really the most valuable thing?

Guest post: Notes from a techie patron, part 1

One of the recurring themes of my library science education has been that I see conversations about information all the time — some at school from a library perspective, and some at home from a computer science perspective; as a dot-com-era engineering school graduate married to same, I have a social circle dominated by software engineers. I often find radically different assumptions about the uses, roles, and limitations of technology in these spheres — the sort of differences that derail conversations for half an hour as you hash out why it is you can’t talk to each other, and the derailment ends up more rewarding than the initial conversation. Many of these conversations, of course, are with my software engineer husband, Grant Gould, who has written a guest post for this blog. It’s long, so it’s in two parts; part 1 below.


I am not a typical library patron. Taking my views and preferences into account is neither helpful nor in all likelihood appropriate for professional library-types. This is only one data point, and an outlying one.

What is and isn't my library

What isn't my library

Before I complain about my library, I should establish what is not my library, because there are a lot of red herrings.

This is not my library: it is closed. In fact if you don't get home from work before 6, there's not much there at all.

This is not my library: it has fewer than 10% of the books I look for.

Is this my library? I like the sound of "virtual"…

This is not my library: I am unauthorized.

(Note that if you log in as "guest" you can get a real treat… some great best-of-the-mid-90's web design, "not currently compatible with IE7"…)

My library is my library. It has most books that I look for, is always open, and I appear to be authorized to use it.

Library professionals may argue that this is not really a library at all — it is a consortium of some sort. I disagree with this analysis: It is for my purposes more of a library than any of the various other not-my-libraries on offer. It is hard to see how it is less a library than the West Somerville. More broadly, it does a better job of meeting (this) patron's information wants; it has the library nature.

Why my library annoys me

If you make much use of my library (, you will discover a number of things. First of all, it wants me to pick up my books somewhere — and not somewhere convenient, either. I don't understand why they need more than a kiosk at a coffeehouse somewhere, but my books go to the big not-my-library that is closed weekends and most evenings.

Anothing thing that you will notice is that the user interface is terrible. In fact it is weirdly terrible. Consider this screen, and ask yourself what you would do if this were a book you would like to read later:
(Ed. note: The image is too wide for my blog theme; you can see the whole at, though this gets the point across.)

  • You cannot bookmark this link, because it will just send you to the library's login page instead. (Ed. note: I pointed out the permalink you can sort of see here, which helps, but can’t be directly bookmarked in the way a URL can.)

  • In fact if you linger on this page for more than ten minutes, you will be redirected back there! This is an intentional feature — viewing source shows:

    <meta http-equiv="Refresh" content="600;URL=/search/" />

    Way to vandalize my browsing session there, guys! (I hypothesize that this was a "security" feature for viewing this page from a public terminal. No, really, stop laughing!)

  • "Save to My List," "View My List," and "Clear My List" all refer to a "wish list" feature, which sounds awesome — but the wish list is cleared at the end of your session or any time you open a new tab. Hope you didn't put anything hard-to-find there!

  • You can also — actually persistently! — save a search. Unfortunately "save search" is no longer available when, as in this screenshot, you have narrowed down your search to a single item.

  • The actual way to save it is to request the book and then click a "freeze request" buttom. But — requests cannot be frozen if the book was available. If the book was available, you have just requested it, exactly what you did not intend.

By the way — anyone recognize this visual style? Those beautiful bevels? If you were doing web design in 1998, you do!

Stay tuned for part 2!

shoe shopping, the long tail, and libraries

I hate shoe shopping.

I know — this is grounds for eviction from my gender. But if you’d once gone into every shoe store in your hometown, asked if they’d sold your size, and they all said “no”, you’d hate shoe shopping too.

(I wear an 8.5AA, and basically no one sells — or manufactures — narrows. Note that I say I wear a AA, not that I am one, because in fact my left foot is a AAA or a AAAA, and my right is an AAAA in the heel but an A through the toes, because I have six of them. AA — which you note is the correct size for me nowhere — is my compromise. I was in my twenties before I realized it was possible to own dress shoes that did not make my feet bleed. Like I said, you’d hate shoe shopping too.)

Long story short: thank goodness for the internet. Maybe it’s not worth it for shoe stores, except specialty stores in major metro areas (thank goodness also for Nordstrom) to stock my size, but on the internet I can shop by my size and never have to see all those adorable shoes I will never be able to wear.

Funny thing, though: I was talking to @Zappos_Service yesterday and they mentioned that narrows tended to go out of stock as soon as they got them. Wait, what?

All this time I assumed that no one stocked my size because no one wears it, so there wasn’t an economic case for it. But apparently there is more demand for narrow shoes than vendors can meet and somehow the invisible hand is failing to make money off of this. Whuh?

I think what we have here is a problem of perception. When I talk to people who don’t wear narrow shoes (particularly people with wide feet) they don’t realize I have a problem finding shoes. They assume stores carry my size, and that finding narrows is easier than finding wides (demonstrably untrue). People, including shoe salespeople, will tell me that this brand runs narrow as if that is useful (it isn’t; please stop saying that).

So wait, how did my cranky rant have to do with libraries again? I mean, under normal circumstances I think of, e.g., Amazon as having a huge advantage over libraries on the long-tail front, for all that WorldCat and ILL and consortial borrowing help with that.

Eric Hellman posited recently that a library is a collection organized for the benefit of its community. And it’s that spirit that’s generally lacking in my shoe-shopping travails. The profit motive should be enough…but it’s not, if people misunderstand the nature of the problem. If they think that stocking 8.5Bs that “run narrow” will result in sales to the narrow-footed among us, they will merrily stock them as their AA and AAA and AAAA widths fly off the shelves, unnoticed. What’s needed is some sort of conversation, where I can say, so yeah, I have these mutant feet, how can we work together to clarify assumptions? to bend the rules for me? And it’s that kind of conversation that, ideally, libraries — human intermediaries — are well-suited to provide.

In other words, the internet works great for you if you’re in the long tail of stuff that gets made. If you’re in the longer tail of stuff that doesn’t — if you need some sort of DIY, bespoke, creative solution — libraries can, at their best, make that work.

Library sherpas are great and all, but maybe I’d rather library MacGyvers.

digital natives need tech support too

Seems like digital natives want more tech support than they’re getting in an academic context. The quote that stood out for me:

While college students are adept at manipulating complex social-networking tools through their iPhones and BlackBerries, along with video and computer games, “they’re not nearly as proficient when it comes to using digital tools in a classroom setting; this turns the myth that we’re dealing with a whole generation of digital natives on its head,” said William Rieders, executive vice president of global new media for Cengage Learning.

This reminds me of all the debates surrounding nonnative speakers of English in academic contexts — specifically, how there’s a whole population that’s fluent in conversational English, but that doesn’t mean they’re conversant with academic English (in fact, their conversational fluency may mask real difficulty with the demands classes make upon English proficiency). Looks like the same thing here — because we see people who have these everyday, conversational uses of technology, we may overpresume their grasp of more sophisticated tech skills.

what Google ethnography and research oncology have in common

Here, we have an ethnographer talking about why (outside of academic/elite contexts) Google is not widely adopted in China. (A variety of reasons: the Google name is hard to pronounce and spell in Chinese and there is not a widely accepted, Google-promoted canonical form; many, many users have their primary internet access through mobile technologies and are accustomed to an instant-messenger/Facebook-like paradigm, not an email/browser paradigm; Google is identified with a set of western values appealing to elites, but not appealing to the majority of the population, particularly in the presence of a heavily marketed, nativist alternative; Google hasn’t done a good job of outreach and market positioning vis-a-vis these difficulties.)

And here, we have an oncologist blogging about how he doesn’t (any longer) need to use particular library services, and ways proactive and tech-savvy librarians could insert themselves into his workflow, helping him while raising their profile. The thing I really liked about this post is that it’s an outside perspective on what the information workflow looks like — I think it’s too easy to just see our own parts of a workflow (and there’s a lot of information workflow in a library), but the library-external parts are where the new opportunities for relevance are. It’s a good reminder of the importance of having good relationships with your patrons and seeing things from their perspective, seeing where the needs are instead of hypothesizing about what they might be.

I read this article first, closed the tab, read a dozen more tabs (oh, eventful week, how you have destroyed my tab-reading flow), got to the one about China, and thought, hey, this is the same thing. Here, too, Google has its set of habits and expectations, and is finding itself irrelevant in a population which has a very non-complementary set of habits and expectations.

I’m looking forward to being a liaison between the library and…some outside, whatever it is. Seeing that outside’s perspective. Is this some sick, twisted aspiration — will it all just be herding cats? Still. There are reasons for the tagline Across Divided Networks.

Update on Cushing’s all-digital library

Update on Cushing Academy, the school that ditched its print collection for Kindles &c — worth knowing about now that the academic year is underway. Some pros, some cons, not a lot of detail. Interesting that a wide variety of administrators, including a library administrator, are quoted approvingly (I wish I could’ve been around for that decision-making process). Depressing money quote:

Sophomore Elsie Eastman says she’s here all the time now. “I remember last year I barely went to the library,” she says. “I loved the library — I just barely ever went.”

data mining for fun and…

That slideset yesterday was funny, so I’ve RSSed the guy’s blog. Liked this recent post about data-mining your circ records. His university now has a recommender system (both “people who liked this book also liked” and “people in this course of study tend to like”) and a course-of-study-specific search functionality (nursing and law students want different books when they search for “ethics”). Turns out the recommender service is very popular and noticeably increases how much of their collection circulates (which my little ROI neurons like). Also provides suggestions for refining large searches based on search data. And keep an eye out for the very clever acronym which will warm your heart if you, like me, were online in the early ’90s.

discovery interfaces in the Chronicle

Chronicle of Higher Ed article on discovery layers in library catalogs. Doesn’t say much I haven’t already seen (although if you have no idea what I mean by “discovery layers” do read it; it’s a good overview). I did like this bit, though:

“It’s sort of our answer to, Why it is you need a library when you have Google?” said Ms. Gibbons [vice provost and dean of the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries]. “What this is going to do is show how much you’ve been missing.”

Positioning libraries to stay relevant is, of course, a major obsession these days, and I liked how she phrased it — not exactly as “let’s present ourselves in ways that are familiar to the users” (although I do think that matters), but “by presenting ourselves in ways that are familiar to the users, we can better showcase ways that we are already awesome.”

Comments section is kind of disheartening. I shouldn’t be surprised that the demographic that reads the Chronicle is the demographic that is conversant with old-school catalog searching ;), but so many of the comments read as “fix the user, not the catalog” and…that just never works. Even if the user is uneducated about, e.g., subject headings (and let me tell you, one semester of library school showed me it is amazing how undereducated you can be about catalogs after even a humanities MA), even if the existing technology works really well once you put in the time to learn it — fixing users just never works.

It would make me sad if discovery layers made it impossible to do the sort of precise, controlled searching library nerds get good at, but another of the lessons of Google (or, for that matter, of any number of intimidating databases) is that your clean searchbox doesn’t mean you can’t have that functionality. But if you say to users “you can’t even play until you’ve spent a couple hours learning how” — well, just like my last post — that means there will be a lot of users you never get at all.

Make it easy. Or, at least: make the first hit free.

the perfect is the enemy of the good; the good is the enemy of the perfect?

In my Library Automation class yesterday, the concept of satisficing came up.

Digression: satisficing is where I feel most acutely the cultural conflict between the librarians I read and talk with in school, and the software geeks I socialize with. So any time that comes up, there’s a lot going on in my head.

Someone noted how the nature of research was changing as new search tools become available — not, to be tactful, that the quality was suffering, but that people are drawn to accessibility over exhaustivity. A favorite classmate of mine leaned over and said, “How is that quality not suffering?”

Well, class is not the time to go into that, but here’s my answer to her:

It depends.

Making search easier, making records and then content more accessible, means that more searches come up with something. It means that people are more prone to treat searching for information as a realistic tactic. It means that the generation of ideas, and the development of content and other products based on those ideas, is easier. It means we will have a world with more generation, more creativity, more content, more entrepreneurship.

And that content will cover our world with information kudzu which, like kudzu, will often have to be macheted away. Some of that content, those prototypes, those ideas, will be horribly flawed (broken, misleading, decontextualized) because they were based on incomplete or inaccurate information. But sometimes, the idea that exists, the product that exists, even if broken, is better than the idea or product that does not. I’m typing this on a browser with bugs on an operating system with bugs on hardware that’s getting increasingly apoplectic, but my life is better for having these.

So satisficing, yes, you are my little love for what you bring to our lives. But I think the cataloguers and old-school library theorists of the world have a very real point as well when they decry you. Because sometimes, the incomplete search really isn’t enough. There are objectives and applications for which good-enough is good-enough, but if I’m talking academic research (at least, past the undergraduate level)? If I’m talking, good heavens, medical research? Intelligence and security work? I would really rather the investigators not satisfice. And to this extent, the easy availability of patchy search, the least-effort temptation, really is a problem, and even a threat.

So there you go, M: the answer behind my expression.