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.