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.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

An experiment in personality

In general, I don’t give much credence to personality or educational profiling—I have more than one learning style, no perfect career path, and I am less than credulous about Astrology. However, I have long had faith in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. In college (in an introductory Psychology course) I took a formal, multi-hour evaluation of my personality type. I was shocked by how accurate the results were (and a little bit alarmed to learn that I fit such a well-defined archetype). I was an INFJ, which stands for Introversion, Intuition, Feeling, & Judgment. If you know me, you know the linked description is dead on (if you have only just met me, I might not seem “highly private” given the incessant tomfoolery, but I do keep quite a bit of myself to myself).

This week, for a seminar course, I was given a fascinating assignment: we were handed a list of behaviors and attitudes which correlate with each of the eight personality characteristics, and we were then asked to behave opposite to our natural tendencies and see what happened. So, here’s what happened:

Extroversion (v Introversion)
People wouldn’t necessarily guess that I’m an introvert, but I used to be incredibly shy (I didn’t talk for the first month of kindergarten) and, more recently, I spent four months in the woods. Still, it’s true that I didn’t have a lot of trouble with this aspect of the assignment.

As an extroverted act, I recently rejoined facebook. I’m remembering now while I left. While it’s a useful networking and organizational tool, the social interactions are fundamentally unfulfilling (what a cool looking word, “unfulfilling”! I think because the u’s and the f’s are both separated by two letters…) to me as an introvert. I prefer focused, substantial interactions—dinner with a small group of friends, a walk in the woods—while extroverts tend to prefer facebook-like interactions—frequent and broad.

Thinking (v Feeling)
These traits have to do with decision making—as a Feeler, I tend to make decisions empathically or based on a set of values, considering the needs of whoever will be effected. Thinkers decide based logically or based on a set of rules, striving for consistency and clarity.

For my assignment, I applied a Thinker's decision making patterns to a task at work. I work at Syracuse Library’s Special Collections Research Center, organizing William Safire’s research files for his column, "On Language". The files are inconsistently labeled, so there are a number of decisions to be made when re-foldering and re-labeling—I’ll focus on punctuation (fun!).

As a Feeler, I would usually decide how to punctuate the folders by considering the experience of the end user. When browsing through the database of Safire’s notes, what will be the most intuitive and attractive punctuation? But while wearing my Thinking hat (see what I did there?) I forced myself to create a set of punctuation rules and stick to them:
    • A backslash separates two or more related or synonymous words, e.g. Agon/agony, Assure/ensure/insure
    • An em dash is used in lieu of the word "and", e.g. Antifreeze—coolant, or in lieu of a colon, e.g. Age and experience—internet terms
    • A comma is only used in proper names, e.g. Auden, W.H. (you may be noting a pattern, I just finished filing the A’s) or when a comma was used in the title of Safire’s column, e.g. attaboy, attosecond
These rules felt arbitrary, and didn’t always feel appropriate (see Antifreeze—coolant), my natural tendency would be to punctuate on a case-by-case basis. But, of course, that is bad practice. The final database should be consistent in every detail. In this case, the task called for a Thinker, not a Feeler.

Perception (v Judgment)
As a Judger, I love to make schedules and timetables, to organize my time into discreet blocks. Correspondingly, I prioritize work, and hate leaving things unfinished. I would not be surprised if every MSLIS graduate in the history of forever has been a Judger.

Perceivers are essentially the opposite of Judgers, loose with schedules, flaky, a mess (the formal type descriptions are all value-neutral, Judgmental (again! I am on fire) tone is my own). I gave it a shot.

Every night, I lull myself to sleep by planning the next day, something like up at 6:30, out by 7:20, coffee, bagel (no small bills, have to break a 20), work 8:00-1:00, lunch… it’s a blast. But on Sunday night I didn’t let myself plan anything. If you have any experience with Buddhist meditation, it was a bit like trying to practice mindfulness—every time a schedule arose in my mind, I had to let it slip away. It was pretty rough, I kept myself up trying not to think too much, refusing to plan breakfast—my mind was in revolt against itself. The next day was a disaster too, I missed breakfast because the coffee shop opened at 8:00 (normally I would have checked online) and I almost didn’t make it to the gym since I hadn’t decided on a start time. Never again, Judgment for life.

Sensing (v Intuition)
Often described as learning preferences, Sensing and Intuition relate to how we prefer to handle and process information (pretty relevant to LIS). Intuitives like me often prefer abstract ideas, insights, the big picture, while Sensers prefer data, physical realities, and practical applications (Scientists are often Intuitive, while Engineers are Sensate).

Two of my textbooks exemplify these two different learning preferences. So far, I love the Intuitive Atlas of New Librarianship. It is packed with big ideas, moral imperatives and broad definitions. It’s also beautifully written—very much my kind of book.

Reference and Information Services in the 21st Century, on the other hand, is pretty firmly Sensate. The core chapters describe various reference sources, one after another, in factual, practical detail. I find myself having to go back and reread paragraphs constantly. I realize the information is useful, even necessary, but it just doesn’t captivate me.

So, what are the results of this personality experiment? Sure, I tend to behave in a certain way, but I’m capable of acting antithetically. The toughest changes were behaviors which had no benefit (e.g. refusing to plan) while the easiest were changes which were vital to success at my chosen task (e.g. punctuating). Over the course of my career, I will constantly be required to act as a Senser, a Perceiver, a Thinker and an Extrovert, and I’m fine with that. However, as I test out career options and start to figure out what I want To Do With My Life, maybe I’ll shy away from cataloging or marketing and move towards (is there an opposite to shy away? assert towards?) bigger ideas, structured time, empathetic management, and the peace of the stacks.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What is a librarian?

generated in creately

In class last night, we attempted to define librarianship. The diagrammatic definition above was my favorite—succint and profound. I should define its terminology for any readers outside of our class:

Conversation—the exchange of knowledge: from librarian to patron, librarian to librarian, patron to text, text to text—the conversation is endlessly evolving.

Facilitation—what most people imagine one learns at library school: cataloging, search methods, the ins and outs of research.

Values—our biases, our opinions, what our choices and our actions impart to our patrons.

“What is a librarian?” naturally leads me to a question which I have been struggling with (and will, I’m sure, continue to struggle with) for a while, “Why do I want to be a librarian?”

“Why libraries?” is and always has been easy to answer. I love visiting libraries, wandering the stacks, diving into databases—libraries are home to me. But I love libraries as a patron, as a seeker of knowledge. In considering the role of a library patron, I realized that it might be defined as follows:

generated in creately

Even the most passive patron is engaged in these two aspects of librarianship. Without some basic knowledge of facilitative methods (even if that method is “ask a librarian for help”), patrons could never find the information they need, and without any interest in conversation (that is, in the one or two way exchange of knowledge), they wouldn’t want the information at all.

Over the years, as my comfort and competance in libraries have grown, I have expanded my skills and interest within the categories of conversation and facilitation. I have learned about more search tools, discovered hidden corners of academia and the arts (and hidden corners of my libraries), criticized and praised, printed and stapled, argued and borrowed and browsed. But a patron is not a librarian.

Yes, a librarian expands on the skills of the patron—he is more facile with the library’s tools, more involved in The Conversation—but fundamentally a librarian also imparts, or even imposes, his values onto patrons and into the library space, both physical and virtual. Librarians are not unbiased automatons, we are proudly biased, we are active shapers of our communities, leading them into the future with our values as our guides.

I am tremendously excited to spend the next two years becoming a librarian, elucidating my existing values and discovering new ones. I hope to shape my life and career around these values, making professional decisions which are not only practical and logical but are moral. Today, I do not know why I want to be a librarian. But I know that I want to be one.