Monthly Archives: May 2004

Email, MOO, and the Lost Protocols

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I am not particularly fond of email. From the very beginning I didn’t like it. I got my first email account in 1993 and promptly abandoned it. No one else I knew had one, except for my roommate and the girls across the hall, so what could I do with it? And on top of that, it was so slow. Not that sending a message was slow, but it was exactly like sending a letter. I write something out, send it, and wait and wait for a reply. It could take days.

Instead I opted for the various synchronous chat environments I had at my disposal in those days. At the top of my list was MOO. (See also the lost library of MOO, which is not only an interesting slice of what’s been lost on the internet in the last 10 years, but also happens to credit my dear friend Jason). MOO is an old telnet protocol. Man, I don’t even know how to describe MOO anymore. I used to access it with raw terminal telnet, which means command line input, no backspace, and no local echo until you turned it on. (Local echo is when you can see what you type.)

MOOs were so much cooler than email. First, there were hundreds of people on them. There weren’t many people using the internet at the time, but lots of the students who were were logging into MUDs, MUSHes, MUSEs, and MOOs. These systems allowed for hundreds of independent users at once who could create spaces and interact with each other and code stuff. It was real time, there was lots going on, and you could meet people from all over the world. Of course this was before Netscape and even Mosaic, and www was competing with gopher and telnet. I used to work with a black screen and orange type.

But MOOs used to be so busy and so fast that you would log into one and people were talking up your screen before you could blink. I failed typing in high school. I learned how to type by wanting to get in on the conversation.

For the record, it’s because of my MOO experience that I understand SQL and PHP. In case you’re curious.

After MOOs on my list of best communication methods was a little program called Talk. It was connected to the email system, but it was better than email. It worked via Pine (and Elm) and would let you ping someone who was online at another university and talk to them real time. Like, you could see what the other person was typing as they typed it. That was just mind-blowing to me. I loved the talk option, but I really only knew a couple of people outside of my own university who had it by the time I found it, so I didn’t get to use it much.

Today I only email people when I absolutely have to, or it’s clear that that’s their preferred method of communication. The vast majority of my friends close by and abroad communicate with me via instant messaging systems. These are more like the old pine talk and less like MOO, but it works. I’m talking to people real time and if they don’t really want to talk with me I know that right away. Email always feels like you’re taking a chance. Sure, they don’t need to respond right away, but that means they don’t respond right away. I’m used to synchonicity. I have no patience. I want to hear back from you NOW, not next week. Not next month. This is a conversation, not something you can hit the pause button on.

See, I’m a demanding soul.

So this is why I don’t use email as much as some people do. I tend to imagine that it’s more of a conversation, when really what it is is a memo slipped under someone’s door. It’s easy for them to step on it, ignore it or just not answer it. Email doesn’t demand an answer.

Email is a post it note on your mirror that reminds you to do something, or tells you something nice. “You look beautiful today.” “Buy milk.” Email is nice, but it’s not the most efficient means of communication.

Though it’s a dead/dying medium, MOO is the best form of online communication I’ve ever encountered.

In MOO, everything is an object. It’s make believe; when you log on, you are animating a character that you have defined. When you log in, you are seen to “wake up”. Your offline life happens like a dream for this character. In MOO, you walk around from place to place, you can touch people, you can hug them and give them things. You can pick up objects and put them in your pocket, and then when you look down at your “body” you will see what you’re carrying. People can pin things to your shirt.

In MOO you can express a world of emotion without expressing a statement, without actually moving your virtual lips. MOO provided the online self with body language, something IM (instant messaging) systems lack. IM is talk. MOO is heart, body, and soul.

MOO is a present-tense narrative, with dialogue, description, and punctuation that encapulates your speeh and movement. MOO is the sense of place in a sea of ones and zeroes.

The richness of that environment, though increasingly lost, makes me feel the deadness of email.

I don’t write email. I write blog posts to an audience of one.

You Reap what you Sow

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Well, this is certainly interesting.

In sum: Michael Gorman, ALA president elect, jumped up and told us that blogs are dumb and bloggers are dumber. Blogosphere goes balistic, most nod their heads and say, yeah, we knew librarians were stodgy and on their way to extinction. Blogging librarians everywhere have a heartsore day. Next up: Blaise Cronin writes BLOG: see also Bathetically Ludicrous Online Gibberish. Most bloggers, recognizing a troll when they see one, ignore him. Some others respond, understandably miffed and personally affronted.

Blaise Cronin today, reacting to the blog backlash he stirred up:

In the long run, the net effect of such mean-spiritedness will be to chill public debate, deter people from blogging and depress free trade in ideas. Personally, I would much rather face another, even angrier fusillade of blogs than be cowed into silence. And I would expect no less of graduates, past and future, of this school. For now, though, I leave you with the cautionary words of Samuel Johnson: ‘When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency.’

I can’t believe he’s arguing that the response he got from being rude to a very, very large group of people is indicative of some kind of PC big chill. On one hand he wants his voice to never be silenced, but he disapproves of the tools that exist to make sure the voices of the rest of us have the same priviledge. On one hand we’re spilling out of control with our blogs and our endless nonsense; on the other hand, that massive growth is in danger because of our inability to sense anything valid in his petty little derivative screed. You can’t really have it both ways. Too much feedback isn’t likely to kill a genre, generally speaking. When you have a truly democratic space, things sometimes get ugly and loud.

Never have so many tongues wagged so waspishly and wittily in warp time…Old rules and constraints have fallen away…On the Net, every voice is equal.’

And this is his great lament, and a very telling part of his response. First, that he expects his voice to be more weighty than that of anyone else, and expects us to naturally believe that this is the proper order of things. Second, he believes that every voice is in fact equal on the internet. At this point it becomes painfully obvious that Blaise Cronin is yet another old school academic who has not come to terms with the socially vibrant and dynamic world that is the internet. Not every voice is equal here. But every voice gets a chance to be.

But his Samuel Johnson quotation stands. When he opted to troll the blogging community with his clearly insulting and offensive musings, the first shot of incivility was fired.

One wonders for whom these hapless souls blog. Why do they choose to expose their unremarkable opinions, sententious drivel and unedifying private lives to the potential gaze of total strangers? What prompts this particular kind of digital exhibitionism?

We’re wondering the same thing about you, Blaise. There was nothing classy about this op-ed. How could you possibly expect a classy response?

Textbooks

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Today I learned that the Western libraries don’t collect textbooks.

I’ve been looking at the reference section and thinking about what it’s for. I know that it’s not like reference is an LC class; the individual libraries and librarians make the decisions about what should be in reference and what doesn’t need to be there. It’s about what is useful for them, not necessarily a certain kind of book. Also, there is an emphasis on availability and access; one of the lines I’ve been hearing a lot is “if this were in the stacks, it would be gone.” Not stolen or anything, just always out. So putting something in the reference collection means that the librarians can access them to answer specific questions, and it ensures that students will have access to the source.

In my mind, textbooks are a reference source. This is probably because so much of my background is in history, but a textbook is normally where I start my searches. A good textbook that’s fairly recent has a series of useful parts; a table of contents divided in a useful way for the subject, short essays on all the elements of that topic, and a usually sizeable bibliography of further sources. A recent textbook will cover all the important works on that subject. I think just about every paper I’ve ever written has started in the bibliography of one particular textbook.

So the reference section as it is is an add-on to LCSH. It’s a small version of the library for quick use, it’s a summation of particular useful sources. So my first thought was, how useful would it be to have another section just for textbooks? Like, extrareference. A few ranges of just textbooks on all the LCSH areas. So you could sort of browse through for textbooks on particular areas, get more in-depth stuff, that sort of thing. Sort of a dumb idea, but my God I had no idea they didn’t even collect textbooks here.

And why not? Well, they should buy those, damn those undergrads.

So. Just to sum up. We will buy sources that someone might someday use, because we sure would want to fill that information need, but goddamn it if we know you’re going to need it, buy it yourself.

Do you sense a note of snobbery? First, that textbooks are purely adjunct to classrooms, not useful in and of themselves; that undergrads are just going to come in and photocopy the whole damn thing instead of supporting an academic publisher; that textbooks are not worthy sources. That everyone already has them. (Doesn’t everyone also have access to, for instance, the London Free Press, the Toronto Star, and, concievably, the New York Times?)

I’m not criticizing anyone here, by the way. No one working here made this decision. I just think it’s interesting. Clearly I’ve been spoiled by the last two schools I went to, both of whom collected pretty much everything. Finding textbooks in the stacks was just a given. But apparently other, smaller libraries don’t have these things (Western and Windsor, for instance.)

Interesting, that’s all. See, while a lot of indexes and so forth are promptly digitized, there’s no way they’re going to start digitizing textbooks. Those things are really useful. And they only get updated every five years or so, it’s not like they’re completely out of date immediately. It will tell you in a snapshot who the big writers in a field are, you can take that information and go search for articles they’ve written more recently. Chances are they’re stilll writing in the same general topic area.

This job is just epiphany after epiphany.

SQL is MOO

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First things first: I don’t think London Transit is being very fair when they have so many buses with 3 in their digits coming to the same stop. I got on the 33 when I thought it was the 13. That was pretty dumb. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I were wearing the skirt with a slit in the back, but I wasn’t so I had to waddle back like a duck. And then there was a detour, and the 4 didn’t come, so I got on a 15, which was just fine. But it took forever and a day to get home.

Okay, so here’s my revelation: I think I do understand SQL. I mean, I’m just reading chapter one in my book, SQL: Clearly Explained, but I discovered something interesting. SQL is an object oriented language.

This isn’t going to make sense to anyone in the normal way, so I’ll be very metaphorical about it, because object oriented languages are metaphorical away. With an object oriented language, you pretend you are actually producing objects. It’s make-believe. You say, I will make this thing, and this thing will have kids, and those kids will have the same qualities as the parent. And then I will take those kids and modify them, and then make them parents, and their kids will have the qualities of two sets of objects, the original object and its own parent. And so forth. And then they all get modified and have kids and those get modified in different ways, and they all branch off, like evolution. Some things go off to become certain kinds of dedicated objects, and others become totally other things. But you can trace them all back to a parent object. Like the missing link.

Reading the installation instructions is like a flashback: in the beginning there was nothing, and we called it #0. And then we created #1, the object that would be the parent of all objects, the object that really doesn’t do anything except bind the rest of the functional world together. #1 is the creator and the created, the beginning of all things and the end of the path of parenthood for everything that will be created from here on in. #1 is God.

And then you type into your little terminal window and get God to create users, and objects, and things. And It was good.

See? It’s not really so complicated. SQL is created by a bunch of nerds who miss ye olde telnet days, that’s all. I too remember the telnet days, and I know an if statement when I see one.

World? Yeah, I can conquer you. You sit back and relax. I’ll be right over.

The Reference Collection and the Internet

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My argument has always been that technology has not really so much changed things has it has added to things. Libraries, for instance, are not being replaced by the internet. Not really. People still have the same needs they had before, and if anything they may just be more certain that what they need doesn’t exist. One of the things I’ve learned since being at library school is that while google is an amazing tool, most people haven’t got a clue how to use it. It’s way more powerful than most people can even comprehend, let alone use.

And in the end, public libraries exist to provide light fiction, and academic libraries exist to provide scholarship and subscriptions to scholarly journals. Outside of, of course, the building itself, the hardware, the software, and the people. You see where I’m going. I don’t think the internet threatens libraries at all, and I’ve been flogging that half-dead horse for some time.

But going through the reference collection shows me where in the internet has actually changed things and made parts of it obsolete.

The thing about reference, really, is that the layman doesn’t really understand what it is. I’m sure I’m not the only person to scoff at the concept of an encyclopedia (what, you’re too dumb to go straight to an actual book?!), but that’s just the beginning of it. Even as a Ph.D student I had no idea how much organization had gone into information, I didn’t realize there were ways to find things I needed outside the library catalogue. I think generally people don’t know what reference sources really are and how much they can do for you.

But it’s amazing how many reference sources are being superceded by the internet. As Liz tells us, there used to be a time when sources would be gold to the librarian because there was no where else to find lists of films produced in a certain year, or indexes of first and last lines, and so forth. There are whole chunks of the reference section that could be safely replaced by a nice google input box.

Pictures, for instance. “I want a picture of,” questions. Why would anyone ask a reference librarian for a picture of, say, the Andrea Doria, when you can just go here?

There’s a sense of being on the brink while walking through reference. Not because of the librarians, not by any means. I don’t think there’s any danger of reference librarians going extinct. It’s the sources. The print indexes of things, this sort of desperate attempt to impose some order on the orderless. So much of that has been superceded, if not by google, than by digital versions, more or less complete.

I’m not being nostalgic about it, really. But there’s definitely a skill that’s disappearing in all this, or maybe just an instinct. Liz has these instincts about where to look on the shelves, which sources might answer which question, how to flip to the index and what to train her eye on. It’s these sorts of things that are disappearing, the coping mechanisms librarians developed in order to cope with the print reference sources. Like once the learning curve was incredibly great, and now it’s lessened, leaving them with a tendency to flip through books in a particular way, or to see the universe of knowledge in LC terms rather than database queries.

Sort of interesting, that’s all.

Manifest Destiny

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Reading through the reference stacks yields an interesting narrative. I wish those people who try to argue with me about the purity of the catalogue and how fundamental changes to it alter the inherent credibility of the librarian would try this; where there is some logic to the LC organization, it often borders on colonialist, racist, or just plain ignorant.

Where do you think would be the best place for a source called Dictionary of Medieval Europe? How about right between man-man catastrophes and world war II! They were the “dark” ages, after all. The American Dictionary of National Biography and the American Who’s Who are held in an entirely other range than the African American Who’s Who. The process of moving from “general” to “specific” feels like manifest destiny; we move inexorably from east to west, through the colonies and the eager little satelite nations, from most to least important to American interests.

Why they opted to pick up LC instead of Dewey I’ll never entirely understand. At least Dewey is a conceptual model, I don’t know what LC is really trying to do.

At the same time, another one of the reference librarians keeps telling us that browsing is bad. He says that the library is too big and the sources that are useful to the student are held in entirely other LC ranges, so browsing should happen via the catalogue, not in the stacks.

That made me really sad.

I enjoyed Joyce’s explanation of the budget, which I got to hear this morning. When we walked into the classroom Joyce lit up. Walter walked us over, and Joyce turned to him and said, “Isn’t it exciting to see the next generation of librarians?”

Walter said, “Hey, I was at her Harvard graduation!” Walter’s son is a Harvard grad, and he was there for a reunion the day I graduated. The speaker was Allan Greenspan, hard to forget that. Though, to be honest with you, I didn’t go hear him speak. I was busy graduating and being festive over at the Div school. So anyway, Walter was telling Joyce about all this. Being at Harvard the day I graduated, Allan Greenspan speaking, and so forth.

Joyce turned to me and said, “You went to Harvard?”

I just don’t know how to respond to that. I mean, yes, yes I did. I have the diploma on my wall, in case you want to check. But people are way more impressed by that than I think they really should be. So I said it was a master’s in theological studies, not, like, med school or something.

“People say they went to Harvard when they were just there for the day,” Joyce said.

The weirdest thing about that is that I was sure she knew that already. The fact that she was recommending me without knowing that I’m a Harvard grad is certainly nice. Because, come on, I’m mostly all hype, let’s be honest.

Anyway, the briefing was good. I’m not spilling any Western library budget secrets here, all the documents are public. Apparently they got most of their requests from the senate, and as usual no cuts to the acquisition budget, and increases for the operational budget. Of course Joyce had to stop and ask me if I had any comments. You know, in front of a room full of library staff. I didn’t have any comments, not even one.

Man, she must be the only person on this campus who has managed to actually embarass me so completely.

That doesn’t make me love her any less, of course. I just love her more.

Reference Training

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Before I collapse into bed, I wanted to record one last thing about being trained for the reference desk. I was hesitating about posting this, since it’s probably inappropriate. Now, granted, this is a 2 week process (at least), and I’ve only really had one day of training. So I’m not expert on what this process is all about.

That said, I think it’s all at once completely understandable and completely frustrating that they train us as if we have never been to library school.

Not that I have any problem with the people training me. Everyone is very nice and very understanding, I enjoy my time with them very much. And there are points where they acknowledge that, yes indeed, we have taken the reference class. Also, cataloguing. We are being introduced to some basic cataloguing concepts (LCSH), which is great and all, but yo. Eight months of cataloguing over here. Not that I’m an expert or anything, but you’d think they could rely on our backgrounds a teensy bit. Just a smidgen.

On the other hand, I realize they have to make sure we know a base level of stuff. They know we’ve taken these courses, but they can’t be sure we got the right things out of them, can they. It’s like 505, we had to take the computer class and learn that there these things called “browsers” and “RAM”. Sure, we know that already, but they can’t be certain we know it properly. So they teach it to us anyway. Reference training feels like that so far. Sometimes I feel like the instruction has that sort of “I-know-you-already-know-this” feel to it, but other times it feels shockingly basic and unironic.

Here’s five hours of information you already know better than you ever wanted to! Have you got it all? Are you confused? Still with me?

There were points during the training when I thought that I really didn’t need the program to do this job. They were going to teach it all to me again anyway. Granted, that was during the afternoon when I really needed my nap. I get a bit groggy at about 2pm, so my reflections should probably not be trusted.

I’m enjoying the trek through the print sources, though. We’re getting upclose and personal with every source in that collection. That really will take weeks at the rate we’re going, and that’s okay with me. It’s pretty fun looking at them individually. The woman who’s training us has a degree in history, so we ooh and ahh over the same sources.

My mother told me to stay quiet and I’m not doing that very well. It’s really hard for me. I can’t help it. There’s just always some quip coming out of me and I should probably put a stop to that. There’s a little quip monster living deep down inside me who just has to have her say.

Resolution: blog more, talk less.

Tomorrow we’re going to a briefing for the staff by the infamous University Librarian. I can’t wait! I think we’re being asked along for the experience, since it’s about things that have nothing to do with us. But it’s all about library planning and budgeting, which I’ve gotten a little bit close to through strategic planning, so I’m pretty interested to hear how this goes down. Communication plan indeed; now I get to see it happen.

I’ll keep quiet like a little sponge and keep you posted.