Librarians and Technology

A while ago I was wandering around the internet and came across this blog post:

Ivy Blossom captures the dilemma eloquently, with just a touch of snark.  Don’t get me wrong. Judicious snarkiness only adds zing to an argument, and their point is one with which I agree wholeheartedly.

I have worked in an academic library (not as a librarian sadly) for more than fifteen years. As part of the library’s IT team, I have witnessed the evolution of technology and its profound impact on libraries and librarians.  When I started, there were a grand total of 20 public computers in two libraries.  Most staff either shared a computer or used a text-only mainframe terminal.

I have gone to library school and come out the other side, and the experience has only reinforced my belief that modern librarianship is about information in whatever form it may be found.  And that form, more and more, is digital.  To that end, I chose electives that strengthened my understanding of technology.

I have met and spoken with many librarians over the years. My only reservation with Ivy Blossom’s blog post is that most of the newly-minted librarians I have met are digitally savvy, comfortable teaching a class, and deeply enthusiastic about technology and the fast pace of technological change. Only a few fit the cardigan-wearing, hair-in-a-bun, sensible-shoe-wearing, bookish, introverted Luddite stereotype. Maybe it’s a question of regional variation. I don’t know Ivy Blossom, and I don’t know where they live, not even which country. Maybe it’s mostly “quiet, introverted, solitude-loving white women who love books” who enrol in library school in Andorra or Turkmenistan or wherever. Or maybe I’m the statistical anomaly.

But on the whole, the main point of Ivy Blossom’s blog post has merit. The future of libraries and librarianship is digital, and I would argue that the future is now. The library where I currently work is undergoing major renovations and a complete re-branding. And as each area comes online, more an more technology comes online with it. The need for the kind of librarian that breaks the stereotype is only going to increase. It’s an exciting time to be a librarian, so come out from behind that stack of books and let your hair down. Break the mould and embrace the change, because, in the words of a former university librarian (said in a weighty English accent), “Change is the only constant.”


Let’s talk metadata (hoo boy!)

I was rereading my practicum report, just because that’s the kind of person I am (see the name of my blog above). My practicum was all about aerial photographs, a very specialized collection if there ever was one. Air photos are some of the most information-rich historical documents around, but are also sadly underused, mainly on account of the fact that they are notoriously hard to locate and navigate. Most of the libraries I researched don’t even bother cataloguing them; often there is just a note somewhere on the website that says “Talk to the map librarian.”

One of the main tasks of my practicum was to develop a project proposal to digitize and make available online about 100 of these photos. In the course of preparing this proposal, lots of issues came up, way more than I expected. One in particular proved to be the proverbial can or worms: which metadata standard to use to encode the digital copies of the photos? Three in particular kept coming up in my research, each with its pros and cons: KML (Google Earth’s open but proprietary markup language), GML (the geographic subset of XML), and GeoJSON (using JavaScript syntax).

I could write an entire blog post on the topic of the proliferation of “standards,” but all I’ll say about that is if you have too many competing standards, then those standards aren’t really standards at all. That said, right now we have a three-way competition for geo-metadata.

KML is arguably the most used markup language for geospatial data. It is open source and is based on XML in its structure. It includes visualization information (colour, line thickness, that sort of thing) so that you can specify that you want a purple polygon to represent the building you are defining. The main drawback is that it is proprietary to Google and the metadata can only be visualized in Google Earth. There is little doubt that the Evil Empire Google will mine any KML file it gets its hands on (the language does belong to them after all), store it in some secret bunker somewhere and attempt to make money off it somehow. Or so we are told.

GML is a subset of XML used to define geospatial objects.  Because it is an official subset of XML, a standard that most librarians have at least heard of, everything that applies to XML applies to GML, such as syntax and schemas.  On the other hand, unlike KML, it does not include any visualization information, and setting up a GML document takes a great deal of specialized knowledge, such as defining a coordinate system, which must be referenced by a CRS corresponding to a code specified in the CRS registry operated by the OGP (simple, right?).

The third standard is GeoJSON, which is based on JavaScript syntax. JavaScript is a scripting language widely used by coders, especially those who work on web page scripting and design.  It is a favourite of the open data crowd and easily embeds into existing JavaScript code ( and therefore directly into webpages). On the downside, chances are that if you don’t code, you don’t know JSON syntax, and let’s face it, how many librarians do you know who can code in JavaScript? I can, and I know one or two others, but that’s it.

So what is the point I’m trying to make with all this? I’ll answer with another question:  do you remember NTSC versus PAL? Too far back for you? VHS versus Betamax? Still too far back?  Okay, how about BluRay versus HD DVD? Too obscure? MP3 versus AAC versus OGG versus FLAC? You get the idea. Format wars erupt from time to time and eventually one standard (sometimes two) comes out on top and the others either die out or find niches to fill. The trick is to pick the winning standard or else all the investment you made is not exactly wasted, but can leave you somewhat isolated from the majority. For a library, that can be a really big deal. Libraries are connected to each other and to the wider information world by a tangle of purchasing consortia, inter-library loans protocols, derived cataloguing networks, just to name a few. You need a standardized way of communicating across these networks, or else you are speaking English on one end of the phone and the other person is speaking Mandarin, and nothing useful gets done.

As I continue to apply for work as a librarian, this issue of standards continues to circle my brain. And since my practicum dealt with geospatial information, the current state of flux  in the sphere of geospatial metadata is what I am especially concerned about. I have my idea about the standard I’d like to see adopted, but before I say, I’d like to see if there is anyone else out there with the same amazingly esoteric niche concern. Please voice your thoughts in the comments page, and eventually I will update this post with my answer.

The new Halifax Central Library and some musings about the role of libraries

A few weeks ago the new Halifax Central Library opened its doors to the public for the first time.  According to news media, the event was a great success, with over 10 000 people visiting the library that day:

The response was overwhelmingly positive, from all the news items I’ve read, and I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be.  This building represents some of the best aspects of the modern library.  It is a blend of the traditional and the innovative, with all the books, journals, and media one would expect from a library (with the possible exception of Bexar County’s digital library), as well as a performance space, a cafe, a rooftop terrace, a video game station, a recording studio, even a photo and video studio that includes a green screen.  There is a kids’ play area, covered booths that offer a bit of quiet privacy, computer stations, iPod stations.

Some people have raised their eyebrows at the $56.7 million price tag, funded by the federal, provincial, and municipal governments, but most seem to believe that it’s money well spent.  As I have often repeated in this blog (not quite ad nauseam but getting close), public libraries are very often the cultural centres of their communities.  In an era where public squares are getting scarce, and those that remain are becoming ever more restricted, commercialized, and plastered with advertisements, libraries provide an open space for people to congregate and exchange ideas; to gain knowledge; to become exposed to new music, movies, theatre, books; and all in a socially level environment.  Libraries strive to grant all members of society, regardless of income, social status, ethnicity, age, gender, or sexual orientation, equal access to the public library.  All the information contained in the library (and all the information available online through the library’s computers) is available to all.  Libraries can be, potentially, one of the embodiments of liberal democratic values.

That may sound a bit over the top, but think about the values that democratic societies espouse: freedom, equality, justice, fairness, to name a few.  When you apply these values in a more concrete way you get things like: free access to education (up to a point), fair and open elections, publicly funded infrastructure, and a social safety net to protect the most vulnerable.  To make sure sure these values continue to thrive, we need institutions whose purpose is to directly protect or enforce them (such as the justice system – we can debate the effectiveness of the aforementioned later) or, in the case of libraries, institutions that embody these values, that act as shrines to the societal ideals we are trying to live by.  Open democratic societies thrive on information.  Knowledge is power, as the saying goes, and by making information available to all, society invests power in its citizens, and thus trusts its citizens to make informed decisions .  What is the first thing that despotic governments do?  They restrict access to information.  They censor, they block internet access, they close or restrict libraries.

So hooray Haligonians for single-handedly saving us from the foul clutches of tyranny!

Like I said, a bit over the top, but in all seriousness, I do stand by these words. I chose to become a librarian not because I love books (although I do love books), nor because I like discovering new information and sharing it with others (although again this is something that I love doing), but because I truly believe what I wrote in the previous paragraph.  Libraries are fun, interesting places that can be dynamic and innovative, and that is good to have in society.  Libraries are also important institutions that make information available to everyone, that provide a space for people to come together in a spirit of openness.  And that is very good for society.  And judging from the people’s enthusiastic response to the new Halifax library building, a lot of people agree with me.

Libraries are more than just places for books

I was listening to the CBC the other day and heard this amazing piece about the Ferguson Municipal Public Library:

While the city was wracked by violence and unrest over the Michael Brown shooting and the grand jury non-indictment of the police officer who shot him, the library remained open, providing a safe space for people.  Because of school closures, the library organized volunteers to teach children in the library.  People just needing a quiet space to process what was going on in their community went to the library.

I know I’ve harped on this point in other blog posts, but I have to say it again.  Libraries are such incredibly important focal points of their communities, and the Ferguson library is an exemplar of this fact.  I have immense respect for Library Director Scott Bonner and his team, as do many others (over $175 000 has been donated to the Ferguson Municipal Public Library since the unrest started).

So go and get to know your own public library.  It could be your oasis one day.

Apologies to my faithful readers (both of you)

I can’t believe I didn’t post a single thing in April.  I had set myself the goal of posting once a week, but, as I am sure you can guess, I am about to make excuses.

Legitimate excuses, I assure you.

April was about as crazy a month as I have had in many many years.  There has been work and searching for a home, among other things, but it was also crunch time for my MLIS degree.  I finished my practicum at the end of February and spent a good part of March just getting my footing back at work after a extended time away.  April was taken up mostly with writing up my practicum report, and the last few weeks has been devoted to adding the finishing touches to a research project.  I even skipped celebrating my birthday this weekend so that I could meet my deadline. But I managed to send off the final draft of the research paper to my prof yesterday, which makes it official:

I am done my degree.  I have completed all the work required to graduate.  I only have to wait for the paperwork and then I can call myself a for-real librarian.

It took me five years to get here, but here I am.  It’s a weird feeling to no longer be a student, to no longer be a librarian-in-training.  Training is over.  It’s also exhilarating to finally be ready to jump into librarianship.  The job searching starts in earnest now.

So, dear readers, I do not have any more excuses not to write about exciting techie-librarian-nerd news items.  I have a few ideas percolating, and you should expect more frequent posting from now on.


Rising from the ashes, public libraries live again (but really, they never died)

Yesterday’s edition of The Tyee featured a story about how the public library in Bella Bella, BC is rebuilding after a devastating fire last year.  The 4000-book library had become a storytelling space and a meeting place for the small remote First Nations community.  In Lac-Mégantic, QC, a train derailment and subsequent oil fire destroyed the entire center of the small town and killed 47 people in the summer of 2013; the public library was one of many buildings that was consumed by the flames.  Only the petty cash box survived.

Despite the very different circumstances surrounding the destruction of their libraries, there are parallels to be drawn between these two communities.  In both towns the library was a beloved institution, serving as more than just a place to borrow books. In both cases rebuilding the library became a symbol of the community’s resilience and rebirth after tragedy.  And in both cases the rebuilding effort received an overwhelming wave of support not only from people in the communities themselves, but from around the country and even from around world.

This says a lot about the role that public libraries play in small towns.  I remember the public library in the small town where I grew up.  Weekly family visits were a treat.  When I became a sullen teen in a home that was too small for a family of five, the library became a refuge.  And so it seems to be the case for small town libraries.  The Tyee article underlines the fact that Bella Bella became a political hotspot during the Northern Gateway pipeline consultations, deemed too dangerous for the National Energy Board to visit.  The library, according to the article, became a safe place to discuss the pipeline project.  The Lac-Mégantic library also served as a community archive, with donated historical photos and artifacts on display.  Larger towns and cities often have a wider range of public spaces available, but in small towns, especially remote or isolated ones, the public library will often become the focal point.

This also underscores how public libraries are perceived in general.  The fact that people from outside these communities donated money and books to help with the reconstruction speaks to the attachment we have to our libraries.  Despite what I said earlier about cities having a wider availability of public spaces, public libraries remain very popular. I won’t quote you the stats, you can just follow the links.  The fact remains that when a library closes, moves away, or is destroyed by fire, collectively we seem to feel a fundamental wrongness, and we rally to help.

So to those who proclaim that libraries aren’t relevant anymore, look to Bella Bella and Lac-Mégantic, to my hometown library (still going strong), to the lovely, tiny library my wife and I stumbled across in Lancaster, ON recently.  These places are vibrant, engaged, and valued.


Update:  Browsing through some of my favourite blogs, I came across this entry by N.V. Binder which very eloquently outlines how important local public libraries are, especially in small towns and rural areas.

Content curation, content creation

My co-worker sent me this very interesting blog entry on content curation.  It was good timing on his part. I had just finished my practicum and one of the issues that was discussed was the fact that the collection I was working with was very much underused.  One aspect of the project that was developed over the course of my practicum was how we could make the collection more visible; the solution was to highlight a small part of it in a very interactive way.  In some sense, this project had a curation element to it.

In my studies and during my years working in an academic library and talking to librarians, I’ve come to realize that one of the exciting realities of digital librarianship (and argh! I can’t remember who it was who wrote that all librarians are digital librarians to some degree) is not just content management but content creation.  Librarianship is becoming more and more about creating interesting and meaningful ways of evaluating information, contextualizing information, adding value to information, drawing attention to information.  All of which creates more information.

Take Reddit for example.  I’m not a Reddit user, nor do I know very much about how it works, but from I do know, people don’t create content on Reddit, they post links to things they found on the internet that they found interesting, and everyone else votes as to whether or not they find it interesting.  So the information is not original, but the evaluation of that information is new information.  It’s a form of democratic curation.  Popular links float to the top, and unpopular one sink to the bottom.  It’s not necessarily the best way to evaluate and present content, but it is one way that it can be done.  Google does it with fancy proprietary algorithms (granted, with an eye to maximizing advertising revenue, but I digress), librarians do it by picking which sources they think are best for a particular information need.

So what’s my point?  I’m not sure I have a point, really.  Just a notion.  A notion that there is something very profound about even the simple act of voting for a post in Reddit.  A notion that my new career as a librarian/information specialist is going to involve a lot of this kind of content creation.  A notion that as we continue down the path of ever-increasing amounts of information, content curation is going to become more and more important, and that everyone, not just librarians, should be thinking about how that content gets evaluated, and by whom, and to whose advantage.