Linking Library Data: A Panel Presentation

Last night the New York Technical Services Librarians (NYTSL) held its panel presentation at the New York Society Library. If you weren’t there, you missed a fascinating evening in a gorgeous space (with impeccable catering).

The speakers were Cristina Pattuelli, Associate Professor, School of Information and Library Science, Pratt Institute; Ingrid Richter, Head of Systems & First Ledger Project Coordinator, New York Society Library; and Trevor Thornton Senior Applications Developer, Archives, NYPL Labs, New York Public Library.

Mark Bartlett, Society Head Librarian, made a few opening remarks about the history of the institution: the founding of the library in 1754 as a private repository which was open to members only. The Society Library’s membership has included names like John Jay, Herman Melville and Willa Cather. (Their website gives a fuller description of the institution’s history.)

Ingrid  Richter spoke about the New York Society Library’s First Charging and Early Borrower Ledger project.

The starting point for Ingrid’ project was a wealth of original material dating from 1789-1792 that provided some amazing information about the books that luminaries such as Aaron Burr, George Washington, and John Jay checked out while in New York. As the only materials used in the project involved raw data transcribed in the original ledgers, the main goals included creating images which were user friendly and promoting knowledge of the charging ledgers.

Step one involved converting TIF images of the pages. Automated batch commands in Photoshop created thumbnails which were then converted to JPGs.

Step two was the creation of spreadsheets, using Excel. A team of four librarians converted the ledgers into the sheets in question to track data locations.

Step 3 involved creating database in File Maker Pro, imported all spreadsheets into raw data over 2k entries. This database allowed a better, more comprehensive type of reporting than spreadsheets.

Step 4 involved tracking people. What were people doing? Ledgered information allowed the tracking of birth and death dates (for example) and the two databases were linked together by linker web addresses together. The result was a count of borrowing records, counts of checkouts, borrowing dates, etc. Finally, a database of book titles was created to define what happened to book information. Each book had its own database.

Web pages were created to link back to raw data about books. A pages database was visualized as a finding aid for people who might want to read the ledger page by page. HTML sounded simple enough but they finally decided that static web pages were preferable as the metadata needed to be reliably locatable. A bulk reading utility made everything more convenient.

Check out the full exhibit on the library’s website.

Also, check back tomorrow for the rest of the presentation summary.


Top Genre Fiction Titles

Our reference librarian asked me to think about what we might want on the shelves to represent genre fiction titles.

My writing for genre fiction has been limited to a couple of RPG adventure books a long time ago and an epic SF series (The Blockade) that I hope will be published sooner rather than later. I have shared opinions on Andrew Burt’s Critters workshop. I’ve taken writing workshops in college, which, to my mind, is the only time anyone needs to take such classes, because, hey, 3 credits!  I know my own writing here can be kind of rushed sometimes (like, when I’m in a rush) and I try to avoid that.

On the other hand, I know what I like to read. I can tell a good story from a bad one. I know what good writing looks like, or I think I do. And God help me, I know what bad writing looks like. That said, I do enjoy thinking about what titles I’ve read recently (or not) that remain with me.

Granted, the genre stuff I read these days  is limited to sci-fi. I have read and enjoyed fantasy books in the past but it’s been years since I found anything in that space that I like enough to suggest.

At the same time, I’m slogging through titles which I think are amazing (The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson, for one) which I don’t think our students are likely to enjoy. My favorite horror write of all time is Joe R. Landsdale, but unless you really enjoy reading about the freakish things that happen in East Texas, you’re unlikely to share that opinion. We got requests for Urban fantasy, too, but in that realm, your guess is as good as mine.

Anyway, because your guess is as good as mine I’m looking for feedback on this one. I’d appreciate hearing from readers (all three of you) what you’d suggest for the genre fiction shelf.

My nowhere nearly exhaustive sci-fi list is as follows:

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Redshirts by John Scalzi

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Long Earth by Terry Prachett and Steven Baxter

On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

Expiration Date by Tim Powers

Good Omens by Terry Prachett and Neil Gaiman

Moonfall by Jack McDevitt


And on the fantasy side:

The first two Thomas Covenant series by Stephen R. Donaldson

The River of Dancing Gods series by Jack L. Chalker

The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit by JRR Tolkein (obviously)


What do you think? What did I miss?

University of Minnesota Pays Professors to Use Open-Source Textbooks

The University of Minnesota wants to save money for their students by making open-source textbooks available to the student body by way of its Open Access textbook catalog. As textbooks are obscenely overpriced already, this is a good thing.

The university however, is also willing to pay its faculty to "review and adopt" the new open access books:

“High textbook costs are one of the many factors that are contributing to the increasing financial burden that students are facing,” said Lizzy Shay, U of M undergraduate student body president. “Affordable open textbooks would go a long way in relieving that burden.”

The catalog currently lists 84 open textbooks that are in use in classrooms across the country. Over the next year, CEHD will work with U of M faculty to review the texts in this collection, making it easier for users to judge textbook quality. CEHD will support faculty who choose to review and adopt open textbooks with $500-$1,000 stipends.

I share a problem with all academic librarians, namely, the promise of new technology if only the faculty would embrace it. Not all faculty do for a number of reasons. The younger ones tend to be adjuncts and even if they like the new tech, don't have the pull with the Deans or full-time faculty to advocate for it. The faculty are frequently nervous about any change to the status quo, and many don't even understand how the library works or why we develop technology policies. And the Deans are administrators more often than not. A given technology's promise to them is how much money it can bring into the corporate coffers and how quickly. Obviously, free on-line textbooks don't measure up to that ideal, at least, not yet.

So, in that context, I can see why providing a stipend for the review and use of such things would be warranted. Nothing opens the eyes and loosens the tongue like silver in one's palm. At the same time, I would expect that once the University of Minnesota completes its catalog, it will stop paying out to promote its electronic wares. What happens then?

We shall see.


Rich White Guy To Poor Black Kid: Get Technical

Gene Marks, a contributor to Forbes Magazine, (herein known by the phrase Rich White Guy, or RWG) offered some advice to an archtypical Poor Black Kid (PBK) last week regarding how to educate himself out of the ghetto by means of modern technology.  I'm not going to discuss his qualifications for giving advice of this type (none), nor the possibility that he has no idea what he's talking about (significant), nor the barely concealed privilege and racism of his remarks. That's been done very well elsewhere.

I want to talk about his advice to "get technical."

If I was a poor black kid I would get technical.  I would learn software.  I would learn how to write code.  I would seek out courses in my high school that teaches these skills or figure out where to learn more online.  I would study on my own.  I would make sure my writing and communication skills stay polished.

Okay. That's a pretty general account of technical work. I'm not sure what "learning software" means: Learning to use Office 2010 well? Learning to write HTML? XML? Perl? Javascript? C++?  All have different applications, and learning to code competently in one won't necessarily help you with the others. High school (and college) classes in these subjects are limited by the quality of the slowest student–I found that out for myself studying XML at Queens College while pursuing my MLS. I got the concepts and the structure, but many of my classmates didn't. We stopped well short of where I'd hoped we'd be and I finished the studying on my own outside of class.

So, Poor Black Kid (PBK) will need textbooks and a lot of time to sit down in a quiet place where he won't be interrupted to study. That such places in urban settings can be few and far between doesn't seem to have occurred to RWG. The same goes for PBK's polishing his written communication skills. Want to learn to write well? Read several hundred books, several thousand articles, and write a thousand words or more a day for a year. That's how it's done. Time, space, and solitude are what's needed. Public libraries would be good spaces to do this in if they weren't being de-funded left and right.

Part the second:

And I would use the technology available to me as a student.  I know a few school teachers and they tell me that many inner city parents usually have or can afford cheap computers and internet service nowadays.  That because (and sadly) it’s oftentimes a necessary thing to keep their kids safe at home than on the streets.  And libraries and schools have computers available too.  Computers can be purchased cheaply at outlets like TigerDirect and Dell’s Outlet.  Professional organizations like accountants and architects often offer used computers from their members, sometimes at no cost at all.

At first glance this is not bad advice, but again, it misses the point. Three things stand out to me as a guy who sold computers and the components that went into them for years. First, schools and libraries (not to mention school libraries) in neighborhoods where Poor Black Kids go to school are likely to be poorly funded, staffed and maintained. The value of the equipment they have is directly proportional to the amount of money spent, which, as I said, is not likely to be high. So the equipment this kid is meant to educate himself on is likely to be old and semi-functional, or non-functional at least part of the time.

Second, what he calls "cheap" computers generally don't last more than a couple of years. That's why they are cheap. If you spent several thousand dollars at Dell to get the good stuff, then pay for a top-tier service contract on top of that, you get real customer service. If you didn't, you get sent to Dell Hell where you get to spend a fortune in phone charges listening to some guy with an ESL accent insist that you should turn your PC off and then on again. Third, yes, professional organizations often offer perks to their members but Poor Black Kid is obviously not a member of these fraternities yet, so this tidbit falls a bit flat.

If I was a poor black kid I’d use the free technology available to help me study.  I’d become expert at Google Scholar.   I’d visit study sites like SparkNotes and CliffsNotes to help me understand books.  I’d watch relevant teachings on Academic Earth, TED and the Khan Academy.  (I say relevant because some of these lectures may not be related to my work or too advanced for my age. But there are plenty of videos on these sites that are suitable to my studies and would help me stand out.)  I would also, when possible, get my books for free at Project Gutenberg and learn how to do research at the CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia to help me with my studies.

Now we get serious. It's time for Tech Talk.

"Free" is a relative term. Air and water are free until you need someone (say, the government) to guarantee it's safe to breathe and drink, or unless you want to take it with you in a big tank. That takes money. Technology in all its myriad forms, applications, and performances, takes real money to make happen. What RWG doesn't seem to get is this: what he calls free technology is only available because thousands of people who produce it worked long hours with no pay then made a conscious choice to give it away it for free. Textbooks–the mainstay of higher education in the industrialized world–are never free, and they are what the education industry thrives on: text book sales. (Forbes, being a publisher of some note, surely understands this.)

So. Does PBK have to pay for the software? No. But will he have to scrape up $80 for a 6-inch Kindle or more for a Netbook or laptop to make use of this online material? You bet your booty.

Anyway, here's an experiment for you: send your application to harvard with the words "Self educated by means of free technology" scrawled on it instead of a high school transcript, and then call them a week later and see how you did. If you're accepted, I'll eat a bug.

 I don't have a problem with Google Scholar per se (I'm unsure if it will ever live up to the hype but that's another post), but in my experience both as a teacher and student, services like Spark Notes and Cliff Notes do more to wreck kids' ability to read a book than anything else. You won't understand the book any better, you just get exposed to a slim cross-section of it. That's not reading. That's cramming for an exam. Not a habit PBK should be cultivating this early in his academic career. Sources like TED and KhanAcademy are worthwhile, or one could be really ambitious and take a look at MIT's Open Courseware website.

I love Project Gutenberg. How can you not like a source of 36,000 free ebooks for download to a PC or portable device? The books are high-quality items all produced by bona fide publishers, and are made available through the effort of thousands of volunteers. The trouble is that these books are not generally textbooks. Classics, yes, and lots of them (here's the top 100 titles by download), but Business, Science, and Math classes don't use the classics. They use textbooks. Those are expensive and not generally available on line except in the most expensive universities.

The CIA World Fact Book, also isn't a bad resource. It's not the most easily accessible almanac in the world but, yes, it is complete, as long as you remember that its data are limited to descriptions of countries. Wikipedia, on the other hand is not a primary resource. For anything. Ever. Why? It's written and edited by absolutely everyone regardless of background, education, or research. Some articles are clearly better (or worse) than others, but using Wikipedia as a primary source is a sure ticket to an F from any competent teacher.

That said, one thing Wikipedia can be extremely useful for is to show you where else to look for source material. Scan the article, then go to the reference links. Those will lead you to better sources.

I would use homework tools like Backpack, and Diigo to help me store and share my work with other classmates.  I would use Skype to study with other students who also want to do well in my school.  I would take advantage of study websites like Evernote, Study Rails, Flashcard Machine, Quizlet, and free online calculators.

I won't argue with any of this on a point-for-point basis, as they are good suggestions for people who make continual and substantive use of online files. But–and you knew there'd be a but–Diigo,  Backpack, Evernote and all those other good suggestions require all participants to have a PC of his or her own. In poor families, you're more likely to see one device shared among several people, or none at all. Again, Poor Black Kid is more likely to be relying on crappy equipment and spotty online access than not. These well-meant ideas don't work so well under those conditions.

I don't know what exactly our Rich White Guy thought he was thinking when he wrote this. None of it this is bad advice as far as it goes. But it seems inappropriate to me. It assumes that Poor Black Kids go to schools that are equally well funded and equipped as Rich White Kids' schools. That is not the case. It hasn't been the case for decades. Up to date textbooks, equipment, competent and well-paid teachers, and the time and opportunity to study are what make mediocre students into good ones and good students into great ones.

So . . . yes. Medicore White Guy is technically correct even as he misses (or obfuscates) the larger point: Poor Black Kid can use technology to help educate himself out of the inner city. Possibly even into a job in Big White Sky Building. But the tech he probably has access to will break often, take a lot longer to work, and the experience will suck.

But hey, at least it's possible, right?

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