Saturday, August 25, 2012

When is simple better?

            I think, in some ways, every culture has a set of values which express themselves in thousands of different ways. I saw things in Italian libraries which reminded me of Italian language, or Italian clothes, or Italian architecture. But, while in Italy, I thought about one thing more than anything else – Italian food. I think the cultural values Italians express through their cuisine are guiding forces in their libraries, as well.

            Fundamentally, Italian food is about simplicity. About perfectly fresh produce, artfully crafted cheeses and oils and vinegars and wines, lovingly raised and cured meats, cooked quickly, simply, or not at all, and combined with only a few other flavors. It is about letting the ingredients shine, and not get in the way of themselves.

            In Italian libraries, we saw this principle of simplicity everywhere. Most of the libraries purported to be “about” only one, or a very few, things. The Uffizzi library and the Casanatense library were devoted to preserving very old and rare collections which were rooted in historical donations. The national library was fundamentally concerned with one type of interaction: a user needs and requests material, the librarian finds and delivers it, the user reads and returns it. They catered to a specific type of user, with specific needs. Like Italian chefs, many Italian librarians want to do things simply, cleanly, the way they’ve been done for hundreds of years.

            While culinary simplicity leads to some of the best food in the world, a culture of simple librarianship may be harming the Italian libraries we visited. Many libraries seemed to be failing because they resisted change, were too enamored with the conservation of history, the preservation of cultural values or documents which are no longer relevant or useful.

            In America (where food is fussy, muddled, complicated and based on dozens, hundreds of different traditions) libraries very rarely feel like they can purport to do only one thing, no matter how well they do it. Librarians, like chefs, complicate things, make their libraries about ten or twenty or a hundred different goals. Sometimes, like a pub menu with too many options or a soup with too many ingredients, the library becomes stretched too thin so that no single goal, no single ingredient really shines. But sometimes by offering a wide range of services, American libraries are able to broaden their user base, and educate, inform, or delight anyone who walks through their door.

            My favorite library in Italy, the Biblioteca San Giorgio is Pistoia, was far from simple. While they were a public library (which must at least attempt to cater to many different users) they excelled at serving every member of their community. They not only had a varied collection, but displayed and curated that collection with a variety of approaches, bringing vastly different talents to each section or department. Perhaps it is not surprising that this library, with a value system more similar to many American libraries than  their Italian counterparts, will soon be home to an American Corner. Of course, while the library was neither simple like Italian food nor rooted solely in the past like many Italian chefs, it did display Italian cultural values: there was a fully stocked bar and cafĂ© on the first floor, many prominent art displays, and a beautiful terrazzo for music, parties, and relaxation.

            In Italy, simplicity is valued everywhere. Simple cooking is beautiful cooking, and I would never want it to change. But simple libraries may not be what we need is these increasingly complex times. Perhaps more libraries should look to Pistoia, look to stay firmly Italian, but learn from librarians and value systems around the world – how to be complicated, multiuse, and relevant.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

First Impressions

We all make judgements based on first impressions. Based, that is, on almost nothing. How many people do you know who decided not to attend a certain college (or, perhaps more worryingly, to attend) based on the impression they got from their tour guide? We can base the course of our education, our future, our lives on snap judgments made over thirty minutes of listening to a single person describe his dining hall’s lunch options.

But first impressions are powerful. Once formed, they are difficult to shake, maybe because they color our perception of everything we see, making it look better or worse than it really is – like how everything seems to go wrong on a day that starts off badly, or how everything is beautiful when you’re in love.

Here in Italy, I had two strong first impressions of two different libraries. The Berenson Library and the public library in Pistoia.

At the Berenson, when we first arrived, we were treated somewhat rudely. We were told we had to wait outside the library for our host, we couldn’t sit on the terrace in the shade but had to stay on the sunny benches, and we (or at least I) just felt unwelcome, alien, and intrusive. Granted, once the tour began our host was incredibly welcoming and gracious, but I still could not shake my first impression. Perhaps that is why I became so upset when I heard that the library’s unbelievable collection is designed to serve 25 patrons a year (resident scholars). Later in the tour, we were told that other scholars do in fact access the collection, but it is still quite exclusionary. It is not open to the public, and the library is not putting digitization (and thus, the expansion of access) as it’s highest priority. “Yes,” I thought “just as I suspected. Everyone who doesn’t meet Harvard Standards is left outside to sit in the sun.”

Of course, I was probably being unfair. The Berenson is not a public library, and should not be expected to serve everyone. Those it does serve, it serves with the highest levels of competency and scholarship. It’s a wonderful library. But it still bothers me. My first impression can’t be shook. Is it valid? I’m not sure.

On the other extreme, I had an amazingly positive first impression of the Pistoia public library. We walked past local artwork on our way to the entrance, the lobby was huge, open and beautiful, and we were greeted warmly, with open arms (arguably, my first impression of the library may have even been before I saw it, when it’s merits were extolled by librarians and information professionals we met at the US Embassy in Rome). It was a library open to everyone, a library for the whole community.

As we continued to spend time in the library (and with it’s wonderful director) I was continuously wowed by what I saw as the library’s values (open access, a commitment to universal service, a determination to delight, educate, and welcome all patrons) expressed in any number of ways. I expected to be blown away, and I was.

So why are first impressions so strong? Two possibilities spring to mind. The first (which makes me, and all of us, look pretty foolish) is what I mentioned above – once we get an idea in our head, it’s hard to get it out. Once I decided that Harvard libraries were exclusionary or that Pistoia was wonderful, I noticed certain details (and, perhaps, ignored others) which strengthened that narrative – which confirmed my beliefs instead of creating ambiguity (and can’t ambiguity make for a less clean, but oh-so-much-more interesting story?). Shame on me. Maybe.

The other possibility is that first impressions are, at least to some degree, accurate. Cultural values creep into every corner of an organization – whether through explicit policy, subtle conformity, hiring biases, or other means. While one the one hand it seems silly to view every single act by an individual or every minor policy as emblematic of overarching organizational values, on the other hand I could never imagine an employee at Pistoia telling a patron to get up out of the shade. Maybe first impressions are valuable because a first-time observer notices things which long-standing members of a society or organization have come to see as common place. It’s for this reason that many businesses eagerly seek out the opinions of new hires or professionals fresh out of school.

So what are the implications for global librarianship? When we visit a country, we can’t help but form initial impressions based on what we first notice. We notice the novel, the outlandish, the “exotic”. These little details build into a bigger picture, a set of descriptors: ancient, quaint, backwards, dirty, charming, scary, modern, strange, foreign, pretty, boring or fun. And these descriptors build into a set of values, a picture of the country which we can take home with us. Is this picture valuable? Is it dangerous? Is it accurate? I’m not sure. I’ll have to travel more, and I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why Travel?

For the next two weeks, I’ll be in Italy with the Syracuse Library Science program. On this blog, I’ll be writing about the course, and reflecting on international librarianship (at my food blog I’ll write about my culinary adventures).

As part of our course readings, we looked at Peter Lor’s “Critical Reflections On International Librarianship” (2008). After examining the existing literature, Lor explicates a number of possible motivations for pursuing research in international librarianship. He unequivocally (perhaps too unequivocally) assigns value to certain motivations. Among the highest valued are “advancing knowledge” (using international comparisons to broaden the travellers network of intellectual and professional information sources) and “self-understanding” (using international comparisons to answer the big questions about librarianship “who uses libraries, how and why, and what barriers inhibit their use” (Lor, 2008)). This sounds great, right? But maybe a bit intimidating. We’re in Florence for two weeks (and I’ll be in Helsinki for one week) and, so far, I feel more like a tourist than a scholar.

Lor categorises the motivations of the tourist (“curiosity about how things are done in foreign countries, a love of travel and adventure, and the prestige that comes from having been where others have not” (Lor, 2008)) as “exoticism”, which he writes off as being the motivation with the lowest value towards the advancement of librarianship.

I’m not sure how I feel about that.

On the one hand, I signed up for this program because I love travel. Already, I’ve been delighted by the strange and wonderful newness of Europe. On the AirBerlin flight, the complimentary toothpaste was clove flavored, not mint. This seemed so emblematic to me of travel, or adventure. Standing in the Dusseldorf airport bathroom, jetlagged and disgusting, I was absolutely delighted to taste cloves when the brush hit my teeth. To me, it was a clear and dramatic signal that my adventures were beginning. And once in Florence, the little details of otherness have continued to delight – the cobblestone streets, the red roof tiles, the cast iron window grates, and – oh my God – the food.

But, on the other hand, this is not a vacation. We’re in Florence to study international librarianship – for credit, with rigor, and with the tireless pursuit of knowledge and progress which all librarians should strive for. While in Europe, we should and must work to advance knowledge and gain self understanding, and not just through readings and discussions but through immersing ourselves in the Italian culture of librarianship.

It’s day two in Italy (and day one of the course), so we’re not exactly immersed yet, but I’ve been trying to reconcile my motivations for being here. Of course I want to pursue the lofty goals (that’s why I’m getting my MSLIS) but, right now (if I’m being honest), I’m more excited to be in Italy than to be visiting Italian libraries. That might change, or it might be OK. A love of travel and newness (Lor’s “exoticsism”) may have got me on the plane, I'm still a librarian, and I'm still here, so I intend to make the most of it.


Lor, P J. (2008). Critical reflections on international librarianship. Mousaion, 26(1), 1-15.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Value of Good Enough

As a class assignment, in response to the question “You need a graduate degree to be a librarian?”, I made the above video.

As I’ve shown this video to people, by far the most common question they’ve asked has been “how long did that take you?” It was made using stop motion photography, which can be quite a time consuming process. In case you don’t know, stop motion is a way of turning still photographs into continuous video. All videos are made up of a series of frames (still images) which, played in rapid succession, appear to us as continuous motion. Film and digital video cameras record individual frames and automatically compile them into a continuous format. Stop motion photography is the process of photographing each individual frame, then manually compiling them. Because the photographs can be taken with any amount of time between them (as opposed to video recording, where the frames are recorded in “real time” with fractions of seconds between each one), a variety of effects can be achieved. One of the most common processes (used in my video or in a host of claymation stop motion films) is manipulating inanimate objects between each photograph, moving them a small amount each frame, so that when the frames are compiled, the inanimate objects appear to be alive, moving all on their own.

So the video did, in fact, take quite a long time to make. I took about 1100 photographs, moving books or paper a small amount between each shot. To film the main sequence (where the bookshelf is populated and the “ocean” and ship appear) took two evenings, probably about seven hours of work. Filming the text and transitions between each phrase took an additional two hours, or so. I had a tremendously good time with this part of the project. I watched movies and listened to music as I worked, sitting on the floor late at night with a beer and the occasional snack.

However, once I had those 1100 odd photographs loaded onto my laptop, I had to somehow compile them into a video file. My goal was simple – once the photographs were all in the correct order (backwards from the order I shot them – it’s much easier to take books off a bookshelf and crumple up paper than it is to put them on there or to uncrumple), I had to load them into a software, tell the software to play nine frames per second (fps) (in order for the video to last around two minutes, which is the length of the song I wanted to use), and export the file as a video.

Years ago, in high school, I made a stop motion video, and I used iMovie to compile the images. iMovie is a piece of software that comes packaged with Mac computers, and is relatively simple to master. As with most pieces of simple software (especially software designed to edit or create film, sound, and images) simple means less powerful, with less tight control available to the user. Additionally, iMovie is not designed for creating stop motion videos, it is meant to simply and easily combine images, film clips, sound recordings, voice overs, and text into a single video file. Back in high school, I loaded my images into iMovie, and played them each for a tenth of second. iMovie treated the video as a slide show which focused on each image for a very short time, but it worked. So when it was time to compile the pictures of my bookshelf into a video, I naturally turned to iMovie again. I hit a snag. In the past seven years, iMovie has been updated a few times, and the current version of the software will not show a slide show at nine fps – the fastest it will go is three fps (which would have both been six minutes long and looked awkwardly choppy). I spent far too long trying to get iMovie to play at nine fps – looking on a dozen different online forums, messing with every setting, even going so far as downloading the 2004 version of iMovie (it didn’t work, like, at all).

Eventually, I abandoned iMovie and tried using a much more powerful piece of software, Adobe Premier, which was available in the video editing room in Hinds Hall, full of ostensibly powerhouse desktop computers (much faster than my aging laptop). This software costs hundreds of dollars, has a multiple volume user manual, and is used by professional film editors. I even found an online tutorial on how to use this behemoth of a program to create stop motion films. I was excited, and it looked like my project was almost done. Eight hours later, after watching the program crash for the who-knows-how-many-nth time, I was less, to put it mildly, than happy. The same process kept repeating itself – I would load the files, start to render them together, or finish rendering and start to export to video, when the program would crash, making me lose hours of work (loading, rendering, and exporting are all long processes – granted I could do other work while the program was working, but I kept finding myself staring at the status bar as it crept across the screen).

Finally, tired and angry, I downloaded a free piece of software (FrameByFrame) which has none of the subtlety or power of Adobe Premier, or even of iMovie. It simply compiles images together into a stop motion video. FrameByFrame probably crashed as often as Adobe Premier, but it worked faster, so (after shrinking all the images down from multiple megabytes to a few dozen kilobytes each) I had a video clip. It wasn't as smooth, or crisp, or as free of shakyness as it could have been using Adobe Premier, but it was done. I put the finishing touches on using iMovie, and I did it on my laptop. It took less than an hour, start to finish.

There’s certainly a lesson here, and it applies to libraries, and it applies to life. Yes, we should strive for excellence, and if there’s a way to do something better, that’s the way it should be done. At first. But at some point we have to stop asking “how did it work before?” or asking “how should it work?” and start asking “how can it work right now?” Pretty words and grand ideas (like powerful software and fast computers) can lead to wonderful places, sometimes, but when they don’t, we need to know how to start over from scratch, to let go of the work we’ve done and the ideas we loved, and to realize that sometimes “good enough” can still be pretty great.

Monday, October 10, 2011

How Can We Help You?

A few weeks ago, I was in Bird library, and was trying to use a photocopier to scan a page from a book (a Visual Thesaurus for a class assignment) to a .pdf file. The scanning was free, but it required a copy card. I couldn’t get a copy card without putting a minimum of one dollar on it, which bothered me—it wasn’t the money, it was the principal—a free service should be free. I asked the student worker at the desk about this problem, and he was clearly confused (I imagine the question had never come up) as I tried explaining my problem again, a girl who had been copying pages of her own came up to me and offered the use of her copy card.

The student worker slinked away, and I started talking with my fellow copier, Katie. She noticed my Visual Thesaurus, and asked what is was for. When I told her, she mentioned that she was a library student as well, getting her PhD in LIS from Syracuse (it was all very exciting, hooray libraries!)

So, why am I telling this story? The same questions keep coming up in conversation, in class, and on this blog: what is a librarian? What does a librarian look like? What does a librarian do? Why are we all here? For whatever reason, the answers to these questions have been focusing on librarians as agents of change; as critics and innovators and radicals. And sure, when I asked about scanning without a copy card, I was asking because I saw something wrong, which I thought should be fixed. Maybe that makes me a librarian.

But, I think, Katie is the real librarian in this story. When she heard me asking a question, she didn’t know that I was an MSLIS student, and she wasn’t acting as an employee of Bird. She heard me ask a question which she had an answer to, so she answered it.

We are all here because we love libraries, and we love librarians. Remember going to your local library when you were little, remember the thrill of asking your favorite librarian about what to read next? Or how about visiting your library in college, asking a reference librarian for some direction for your research, then curling up in an armchair with a stack of books? I'm here because if I could be anything in the world, I would be a librarian. Librarians are curious, librarians are selfless, and librarians always want to help. As I’ve gotten to know my fellow library students, I’ve realized that we are all interested in different topics, have different outlooks on life, come from different backgrounds, but we all love to help. We help each other, we help strangers, we are addicted to helping—“here, use my copy card—here, read this book, you’ll love it—here, try this recipe, it’s amazing—here, buy this melon, it’s riper—here, use this software, I use it all the time—what’s bothering you? What do you need? OK, so how can I help?”

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Radicals and Fanaticals

If you take IST 616 (Information Resources: Organization and Access) with me, you know I recently got quite upset about the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and their organization. I’m not here to rant (in general, I find ranting accomplishes little besides catharsis for the ranter—this is a public forum, where I believe solutions have more value than problems), but, in brief, the system is broken. Because of historical carryovers from the pre-digital age, subject headings are far too broad, relationships between subjects and their subdivisions are messy and confusing, and the syntax of the headings is not intuitive or consistent. While there is room for debate on some of these problems, some aspects of the LCSH are objectively inadequate (for example, early works of fiction have not been given subject headings—anyone who thinks that “Ulysses” is not, in a fundamental way, about Dublin isn’t thinking (wow, I could not have come off as any more pretentious—I’m keeping it, I gotsta be me)).

The LCSHs are not the only facet of librarianship with objective failures. Both Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress cataloging schemes are outdated and vague, catalog databases (from WorldCat to SUMMIT) have uninformative layouts and poorly optimized search result ordering, and I could go on, but I’m not ranting, remember? Enough—to make my point I only need to say that major problems exist.

So. Why?

It is hard to imagine an institution more resistant to change than a library. Change is driven by incentives (I have no formal background in economics, so I’m sure the factors I’m about to describe have technical names, but I’m going based off of common sense). Libraries are only very indirectly funded based on the quality of service—in general, they have no competitors, and they offer free services, so they are not pushed towards change. Additionally, the problems I’ve discussed (e.g. LCSH) are common to all libraries—a single exceptional individual cannot solve these problems, they are too large and too broad (geographically, socially, etc.). I don’t see there being a Steve Jobs of librarianship, but there could be a Mohandas Gandhi—a leader effecting massive and fundamental change from within, rather than stepping forward and hoping people follow.

My Gandhi comparison might be misleading, so let me clarify. I am not saying that there exists any tyrant or tyranny which needs to be toppled, and I am not saying that change will be accomplished by protest (or, less high-mindedly, by b**ching). I am saying that change can and should be accomplished by consensus and by an appeal to what is common in all of us. Recently, I was chatting with an LIS friend, and we agreed that what some people are calling “radical librarianship” bothers us. It can come across as self-aggrandizing and confrontational (I’m reminded of a favorite lyric by The Flaming Lips: “You think you’re radical/ but you’re not/ so radical/ in fact you’re fanatical”). Fundamentally, we like what libraries are, and we want them to stick around. That being said, there are problems which we can work to address.

So, how can we fix these problems? In some cases, there is a huge amount of work to be done, too much for any one group—the Library of Congress does not have the time or resources to fix their own Subject Headings. However, there are thousands of people in the world who use the Subject Headings on a regular basis, and are intimately familiar with some subset of the LCSH. Some of the greatest modern projects (especially those dealing with huge amounts of data) have been need-driven and addressed through massive collaboration: from working to unravel the human genome, to searching for a cure to alzheimer’s, to ending the most terrible war in human history. This century—as communication and collaboration are becoming easier and easier—global, cross organizational, cross discipline efforts are becoming more and more feasible.

So how does this sound as a solution to the LCSH’s problems: a central organization, such as the LoC or OCLC, spearheads an overhaul of the Subject Headings. Cross organizational subject specialists—from academics to subject librarians to catalogers—are assigned a small subset of the LCSH to overhaul, and are assigned the upkeep of their subject headings, as their disciplines continue to change. The central organization pools the updates together and creates a new set of subject headings, which they then distribute to new (or the same) specialist groups who recatalog existing collections within their field, and make the new cataloging records available for international copy-cataloging. This project could involve dozens of countries, hundreds of institutions, and thousands of people, and the participants could be grouped by common interest (or even common passion) and ability, as opposed to common geography. It could really work. Really.

We exist in a field that has problems, but some of those problems have easily addressable answers. Librarians, as a group, want to help people. We want to make information more easily accessible and understandable, and we want people to love learning as much as we do. So what are we waiting for?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Oh, I just can't wait to be a librarian

I spent the evening fiddling around with tagxedo, which Erin Lee pointed me towards on her blog. I’m pretty excited about going to see The Lion King tomorrow, so I decided to play with the software by making the above image, constructed from the movie’s song lyrics.

(An aside: In writing the above sentences, I was very tempted to use “wordle” as both a verb and a noun (wordle is a program similar to tagxedo, used to make “word clouds”: aesthetically pleasing arrangements of text automatically generated from a given text source, with the size of each word correlating to the number of occurrences of the word in the source). As we discussed in class tonight, certain companies can become synonymous with the product or process which they offer—Kleenex, Xerox, Google, Hoover. While Wordle is no where near as large or as ubiquitous a company, it also offers a highly specialized product. When describing the above image, I am tempted to call it a “wordle” and call the process of creating it “wordling”. “Word cloud” is clunky, "tagxedo" is awkward with an ambiguous pronunciation, and “wordling” is way too fun to say).

Tagxedo has some fantastic features. The coolest one is the ability to upload the framing image. After selecting the image, you can adjust what they’re calling the “Threshold” which seems to pretty much be contrast, as well as the “Blur” which effects how simplified the image is (0% blur is more or less the original image, as blur increases the frame starts to look more blob like or stylized), as well as a few other features.

You can also change the color scheme and font. Right now (in the Beta) you can upload fonts (I uploaded the font “African” for The Lion King image) and create custom color schemes (with a basic understanding of html color codes) for free. Later, these services will presumably cost money, as will the ability to upload custom frames. I will be happy to pay.

Finally, under "Word / Layout Options" you have a lot of options for pretty tight control. To make a highly detailed image (a face, for example) you can increase “Maximum Word Count” or add a “Hard Boundary” (i.e. the words don’t color outside of the lines). Another useful feature is the “Skip” tab, where you can choose not to include certain words. I took out the character names (which aren’t song lyrics), other words on the page but not in the songs (“lyrics”, “modified”, etc. (and yes, I know I missed a few(and yes, I know I have an unhealthy relationship with parentheses))), plus the string parsing isn’t perfect so, for example, “isn’t” gets split into “isn” and “t”.

Word clouds are popping up all over, sometimes used to quickly and visually illustrate a point about word usage, and sometimes used just because they’re hip, or interesting, or because they software is there. Information Design (the definition of which is explored here, by our very own Jaime Snyder) is an exciting field, and one which will become increasingly relavent to librarians as more and more software becomes available which streamlines the design process. I hope Syracuse will offer the IST600 course in Information Design again this Spring, it would be a blast.

There’s a lot more to librarianship than I realized. We certainly are not just book pushers or catalogers, but then what are we? I get to spend the next two years (or ten, or fifty) figuring that out.

Oh. I just can’t wait.