Month of October, 2007
This is my final post as guest blogger on FGI. I've really enjoyed this gig and I want to thank FGI for invting me. This is also probably the last time I'll be contributing to public discussions as a librarian. Last week I learned that my position is being abolished. The budget was tight, they needed to cut, and my position was selected.
So indulge me a moment as I stroll down memory lane.
My first library job was at the Steenbock Agricultural Library at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. This is where I first mastered the intricacies of gov docs.
After college I moved to Chicago, where I got a job at the John Marshall Law School library, still filing government documents but now expanding my repertoire to include serials checkin (on a kardex, remember those?) and looseleaf updates.
After Chicago I moved to Los Angeles where I got a job at the RAND Corporation library in Santa Monica, doing serials checkin again, as well as acquisitions and copy cataloging. One year they gave us all PCs and a few months later Migell Acosta loaded a Mosaic browser on my machine. Things have never been the same since.
A few years later I got my MLIS from UCLA. I was no longer a "paraprofessional"...
I moved to D.C. and hopped around a bunch of library jobs (including one that took me to all the Marine Corps base libraries on the East Coast- Semper Fi!) until I arrived at the IMF where I took a job as librarian in 2000. I did systems librarian work mostly, then got into training and that pretty much brings me to today.
So that's it. While I never say never, it's most likely that my career as a librarian is over.
See you on the dark side of the moon.
Last month the Washington Post published this piece on how DHS is collecting information on travelers:
"...new details about the information being retained suggest that the government is monitoring the personal habits of travelers more closely than it has previously acknowledged. The details were learned when a group of activists requested copies of official records on their own travel."
What?! That's right. FEMA deputy director Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson held a phony news conference on Tuesday (story here and here) about assistance to victims of wildfires in southern California. At the news conference, FEMA employees played the part of reporters and asked Johnson softball questions. I don't know which is worse: having a director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who's previous job was as a commissioner for an Arabian horse association or having a FEMA director who thinks it's ok to hold a sham news conference for political gain. FEMA deals with serious life and death situations (Katrina, wild fires etc) and so should have leaders of the highest qualifications, NOT political lackies who do not take their jobs seriously.
I need the help of the FGI community in a strange way. I need you to link to the now official copy of the State Blue Book guide I originally created in 2005 and updated with great assistance from Jennifer Manning of the Library of Congress.
That link is http://wikis.ala.org/godort/index.php/State_Blue_Books. Please post it whereever you can.
Why? Because if you do a Google or Yahoo search on the term "state blue books", the page that comes up isn't the one hosted by ALA GODORT and patrolled by several eagle-eyed sysops (Hi James R!), but the former well-meaning host. I haven't actively looked at old page for over a year.
And that was a mistake. Ugly spammers got to the former page from the history, it looks like they've been there awhile. I had forgottened to watch the page and only found out the problem because of someone who had been planning to show off the page as an example collaboration, but thought twice. Then I realized that I hadn't updated my personal web page to reflect the shift to GODORT, so not only were the search engines going to an outdated page, *I* was telling people to go to an outdated page.
No more. I have redirected my links to http://wikis.ala.org/godort/index.php/State_Blue_Books. If you've got a link to my guide, please update your link. And if enough of us do that, the search engines will direct to the page where we've got the guide's back.
And accept my apologies for not updating the community sooner.
Last week saw the launch of a new blog, the Ideas for Development blog. Authors include the Director General of the World Trade Organization, the President of the African Development Bank, the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, and other A-list types. A quick scan of the posts (why are there no dates on the landing page?) shows big chunks of text with no hyperlinks. This tells me that it's a one-way conversation. A blog is not a memo distribution system. A blog is an online conversation.
And speaking of conversations, James Jacobs responds to my World Library post.
Moving on in the blogosphere, Simon Johnson, Director of Research for the International Monetary Fund, launched a blog last week. Yes, this is the second blog launched by the IMF in the past month. "Strange days indeed".
Finally, a short requiem for the IFC's Innovations in Emerging Markets blog, which appears to have died over the summer. I am sad because these folks, along with the PSD blog, were the ones who introduced blogging to our IFI community. The fact that the IFC let this blog die tells me we still have a ways to go in convincing organizations of the benefits of blogging.
The other day Barrett posed the question Do We Need A World Library? in response to news coverage of the prototype World Digital Library being developed by the Library of Congress, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the National Library of Brazil, the National Library and Archives of Egypt, the National Library of Russia, and the Russian State Library.
Barrett makes some good points, particularly about the problem of information disappearing. The combination of problems -- including the natural loss of the physical information objects (particularly rare ones) and the fact that the problem of digital preservation (particularly for the "born-digital" objects that have no physical instantiation) remains largely unsolved -- creates a situation in which huge losses of information are almost guaranteed. I was at a meeting last year at which a university was acknowledging that it is losing information every day -- it just doesn't know what or how much.
I also like Barrett's point about the existence of technologies to help solve some of the information problems we face today.
And I share Barett's frustration with large scale, top down projects and his implied promotion of smaller scale, innovative projects.
Need for Libraries
But I believe we do need planning and we do need libraries. I don't think the situations we face call for an either/or approach. We don't need to choose big libraries OR small libraries; we don't need to choose small projects OR large projects. We don't even need to choose "libraries" OR "no-libraries" as a solution to information preservation and access. We can choose a both/and approach that makes best use of a variety of tools and techniques, each suited to a particular problem that it can address best.
I don't think that we should exclude any possible solutions or worry about big projects like the World Library. I think we should welcome such projects -- just as libraries should welcome P2P file sharing, user-generated keyword-tagging, and even private sector projects when they facilitate more access to more information. I believe that it is extremely important that libraries and librarians avoid assuming that everything will take care of itself.
Technology helps us reach our goals; we shouldn't let it set our goals
Some librarians take this kind of thinking way too far, I think; (see my post, The Googlization of Everything, "Drop the fight"? or Start a Revolution?). They miss the point that even such revered tools as Google work not because of technology but because of human generated metadata. Technology (e.g., Google's algorithm) provides tools that are only useful if there are raw materials to work with. (Try building a house with hammers and saws and no wood or nails; imagine google if there were no links, i.e., human generated metadata, to which it could apply PageRank.) Technology helps us reach our goals; we shouldn't let it set our goals.
Rather than "dropping the fight" or saying that we don't need a world library, I think librarians should be looking for things to do that will complement what others are doing. For example, we should be looking for ways to apply existing (and forthcoming!) technologies to what we do. We shouldn't give up on authority control (e.g., LCSH) but neither should we overlook the value of user-generated keywords when they provide better, more-precise, more up-to-date access than slow-changing authority records. Rather than hoping that someone (e.g., publishers, distributors, individuals, researchers, volunteers?) will save what needs to be saved, we should be building redundant digital collections and providing selection, organization, preservation, access, and service to those collections. And so forth.
It is commendable that individuals and non-librarians are creating metadata, just as it is commendable than people can design and build their own homes; but that doesn't mean we want a world with no architects and no carpenters and no plumbers. I might be content to live in a self-built dome, but I can still value a skyscraper designed and built by professionals. To use a different analogy, the open-source programming community values professional programmers and version control and source-code monitoring and so forth to guarantee good reliable code. Professionals (be they programmers, or carpenters, or librarians) bring skills and tools that are valuable. And we should not ignore or deprecate those skills and tools; we (librarians) should celebrate them and make sure we (society) do not lose them.
The Web is a tool, not a Library
But, perhaps more importantly, the web is not a Library and never will be. The web is a tool libraries can use for what they do -- just as scholars and readers and publishers and artists can use it for what they do. Libraries are defined by what they do -- not how they do it. Libraries should use the best tools available to do what they do. What do libraries do? They fulfill an essential function of society by having as their primary role the selection, acquisition, organization, and preservation of information and the provision of access to and services for that information. Societies need professionals in specialized institutions who take on this role. This won't happen by accident. Others may from time to time provide one or more of these functions as a secondary role (e.g., Google makes money by selling ads and, as a by-product, indexes web pages). But society needs institutions that fulfill all these functions as their primary activity. The web is a tool libraries can use to do that, but the web is not the library.
When we see some of those functions being performed on the web and it tempts us to say that the web is a library, we need to ask ourselves if we really have everything we want: organization AND access? Access AND preservation? Selection AND service? etc. And we should be particularly careful about relying on commercial services that replace the public function served by public institutions. Will privatization of "organization" (e.g., Google's book-scanning project) reduce access and fair use and replace copyright with license agreements? Private companies must, by law, make money for their stock-holders; any "public service" they perform is secondary to that. We need institutions whose primary function is public service related to information selection, preservation, and service. What would you call such an institution but a "Library"? Just today I reread an old article that addresses some of these issues and, though it is dated, I still recommend it.
- Griffiths, Jose Marie (1998). "Why the Web is not a library." In The Mirage of Continuity: Reconfiguring Academic Information Resources for the Twenty-first Century, eds. B. L. Hawkins and P. Battin, pp. 229-246. Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources, 1998.
In it, Griffiths asks, "...why is there an assumed headlong dash into digitizing everything in sight while beating a chaotic retreat from the functions our libraries and librarians have fulfilled for centuries?" She has lots of answers for what libraries are and should be and some of them are still relevant today almost ten years after she wrote this piece. Thinking like this and the planning being done by The Institute For The Future Of The Book and the Digital Library Federation is a good thing that we should, I believe, encourage. (See the really modern library.)
Not a Technological Problem
I also believe that, though we do have lots of wonderful technologies, the problems are not technological, but social, political, and economic. Two recent articles said as much. One was an article about the World Library (Checking Out Tomorrow's Library, by John Ward Anderson, Washington Post, October 18, 2007, page A21). In it, Paul Saffo, a long-time Silicon Valley technology forecaster, says
The challenges here aren't technological... the issue is the will to make it happen.
I believe that "the will to make it happen" has to include a societal-scale recognition of the information needs of society, not just a hope that things will work out because technologies make it possible and lots of volunteers might make it happen. We need to think in terms of public access to information, not just commercial, privatized access. And, in a recent editorial (Sue the libraries - they're letting people get content on the cheap by Andrew Brown, The Guardian, October 18 2007, p2 of the Technology section) Brown, who is an English writer and journalist, said,
This isn't a technological problem.... The problem, as usual, is a social one: it can only be solved by collective action, and there is no better means of sharing in the information age than old-fashioned, unglamorous libraries, even when you can use them at home.
I think this sums it up pretty nicely. Technology provides us tools to get more information to more people better than we ever have before. But it can also be used to lock-up information and make it harder to get and more expensive. We'll always need libraries because libraries do something that societies need and that no one else does -- not publishers or readers or the private sector.
Google's book-scanning project and restrictions that Microsoft places on books it scans in a similar project continue to attract attention, praise... and controversy. This article in the International Herald Tribune outlines some of the key problems of commercializing information in libraries and of libraries outsourcing one of their key functions.
- Research libraries close their books to Google and Microsoft, by Katie Hafner, International Herald Tribune, October 19, 2007.
Hafner notes that "Several major research libraries have rebuffed offers from Google and Microsoft to scan their books into computer databases, saying they were put off by restrictions these companies wanted to place on the new digital collections."
One particular example demonstrates how Google's business plan simply does not allow for adequate scholarly access and use. Tom Garnett, director of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a group of 10 prominent natural history and botanical libraries tells the story.
Garnett said the most striking example of this came when he asked the Google representatives about a theoretical example.
"We asked, 'Suppose we allowed you to digitize all our literature, and there was an ant researcher who wanted to peel off 10,000 pages of ant literature and load it on his own server and perform advanced analysis to correlate it with climatological data over the last 100 years, using software he had developed to study trends in species research,'" Garnett recalled.
He said the Google executives told him this would not be possible. "They said, 'We'd be sympathetic but it doesn't fit in with our model.'" Smith [Adam Smith, project management director of Google Book Search] ... said this was not the case. "It's certainly something we would work with libraries to do," he said.
The Open Content Alliance (OCA) offers an alternative to the Google project, but Hafner says that Microsoft, after joining the Open Content Alliance in 2005, "added a restriction that prohibits a book it has digitized from being included in commercial search engines other than Microsoft's". This was news to me and I was not able to confirm that.
Paul Duguid, an adjunct professor at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley and author of The social life of information, says, "There are two opposed pathways being mapped out. One is shaped by commercial concerns, the other by a commitment to openness, and which one will win is not clear." And Doron Weber, a program director at the Sloan Foundation, which has made several grants to libraries for digitization, says, "You don't want any for-profit company having control of the world's knowledge."
[The article was online on Saturday morning October 20, but I have been unable to find it on the IHT web site since then. A copy is available here. The article is in LexisNexis and can be found by doing an "easy search" on "Major U.S. and World Publications" on the phrase "research libraries have rebuffed offers from Google" (including the quotation marks).]
[UPDATE: the article is now available on the NYT website:
See also: On Google's Monetization of Libraries, By Rory Litwin, Library Juice 7:26 (December 17, 2004).
Google. Who's looking at you?, by John Arlidge, The Sunday Times, October 21, 2007. "It wants to know everything about you. It wants to be your best friend -- or your Big Brother. Are your secrets safe with Google?"
Google's overall goal is to have a record of every e-mail we have ever written, every contact whose details we have recorded, every file we have created, every picture we have taken and saved, every appointment we have made, every website we have visited, every search query we have typed into its home page, every ad we have clicked on, and everything we have bought online. It wants to know and record where we have been and, thanks to our search history of airlines, car-hire firms and MapQuest, where we are going in the future and when.
This would not just make Google the largest, most powerful super-computer ever; it would make it the most powerful institution in history. Small wonder that the London-based human-rights group Privacy International has condemned its plans as "hostile to privacy", and EU ministers called Google's vision "Orwellian". Even John Battelle, one of the net's leading evangelists, who co-founded the technology bible Wired magazine, and wrote The Search, the definitive study of Google's rise, now says: "I've found myself more and more wary of Google, out of some primal, lizard-brain fear of giving too much control of my data to one source."
(see also: Google: "We don't know enough about you"... yet.)
Court may move against White House, by Pete Yost, Associated Press, Wed Oct 17, 2007.
A U.S. magistrate indicated Wednesday that a federal court may order the Bush administration to preserve copies of all White House e-mails, a move that a government lawyer argued strongly against.
I think this video makes a good companion piece to the last GAO video I blogged about. I found this video on YouTube and it appears to have been made by a group of GAO analysts trying to form a union on their workplace. It introduces a number of people who appear to be actual GAO employees. It is about seven minutes long and is interesting for giving voice to the people behind the reports that often get so much press coverage. The video is also notable for its positive, non-hostile tone.
I'm not positive that the unofficial union blog at http://gaounion.net is connected to the producers of the video, but it goes give good background about why GAO analysts are seeking to unionize and provides the latest news on that effort. Part of that news is that on September 19, 2007, GAO analysts voted 2 to 1 to form a union. FGI wishes them well in their efforts and hopes that a unionized work force will contribute to government accountability.