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Immersing Yourself at the Library

Posted: August 21st, 2011, by rachelbalko

I have tried Second Life. I have tried Active Worlds. On the whole, I’d have to say that prefer actual life and the real world. (Not to be confused with MTV’s The Real World, which I only prefer to major dental surgery.)

I think it’s important for the library-archives-museum world to know about these worlds, and it’s probably important for some libraries/archives/museums to take an active role in participating in them, just as we should know about Facebook, twitter, the blogosphere, etc., and participate in those, when it is advantageous to our institution.

However, there’s a lack of attraction for me in these online virtual worlds partly because I have another way to immerse myself in fantasy, history, or anything else I care to, and it’s always been as close as my local library. As Lane Smith might say, It’s a book.

Oh, Rachel, I hear you say. Must you be one of those boring old librarians who talks about how great books are? I mean, how predictable. How boring. How last millennium. Wouldn’t you rather be one of those super-cool, Grand Theft Auto-playing cybrarians?

Well, actually no. I’m not against gaming in the library. (I even created a website about it for LIBR 500: Foundations of Information Technology.) I certainly support technology in, and for, the library; I’m taking this class online, after all. But I’m happy to have both a future job title and a future work place whose names are derived from the word for “book.” That’s because I love books, and I think they are the single greatest tool for immersing oneself in another world that humankind has ever known. Perhaps they will be surpassed in that capacity someday, but that day is not today.

Recently, at the public library, I overheard an extremely earnest young man say to his equally earnest young friend, very earnestly, “If I read a book, when I finish it, I suffer an emotional loss” (emphasis his). (To be fair, I was browsing the drama collection at the time, and when I was a young thespian, I’m sure I was just as painfully earnest.) Although it seemed as if the young man were trying a little too hard to prove his emotional depth, I have felt the same sentiment. It’s part of the reason series fiction is so popular; when we love a character and the world he lives in, we want to go there again and again.

Some people may have the same experience in a virtual world, which is why we librarians should know about such things. Our patrons may come to us with questions about how to create avatars, and we should be prepared to answer them, just as we are prepared to answer questions about how to raise begonias or how to diagram a sentence. Our patron’s interests don’t have to be our interests, but they are our business. As a future librarian, a big part of my job is to help you find out more about what you want to learn about, be it constructing an alter ego in Second Life, building a birdhouse, or finding the picturebook that will turn your preschooler into a lifelong reader.

Thank you, future patrons, for giving me a good reason to always be learning.

“I Am an Aggregator”

Posted: August 12th, 2011, by rachelbalko

In our discussion posts this week, my classmates and I have been discussing which aggregation tools we use to help us control the flow of information, particularly in the online environment, where the sheer number of possible information sources threatens to drown us in a sea of ones and zeros. We use Drupal, Google Reader, TappedIn, Wallwisher, Netvibes, old-fashioned RSS feeds, and a host of other applications. Is it paradoxical that I was overwhelmed by all the information about the tools available to help us defeat information overload?

Remember when the phrase “too much information” came into the vernacular a few years ago? It was generally used when someone you didn’t know that well told you more than you ever wanted to know about their tragic childhood/tragic sexual exploits/tragic difficulties with their G.I. tract. But now “TMI” is just the status quo.

That’s why I found an article published earlier this week in The Atlantic particularly interesting. In Derek Thompson’s “What People Don’t Get About Working in a Library,” an unnamed librarian is quoted as saying:

I am an aggregator, a citation machine, a curator, a specialist in whatever it is you want to know about.

If she’s right (I’m taking a guess at this librarian’s gender, based on the demographics of the profession), then it is, in fact, vital that information professionals be conversant with the tools of aggregation because, to everybody else, librarians are the tool of aggregation.

As hesitant as I am to call myself and everyone in my future profession a tool, it’s true. The Oxford Dictionary Online defines an aggregator as “a website or program that collects related items of content and displays them or links to them.” Replace “a website or program” with “a person,” and I think you’ve got a really good definition of a librarian – much better than the ODO‘s, in my opinion. (“A person in charge of or assisting in a library” is just a bit too bland for my taste.)

So, librarians, are we ready for our Spartacus moment? Stand up wherever you are, in the story circle, behind the reference desk, in the computer lab, and say it with me.

From Blogging to Glogging

Posted: August 3rd, 2011, by rachelbalko

Inspired by Jessica’s blog post on glogging, I thought I’d try my hand at it, as well. See the results of my experiment below. (Hover over the Glogster banner for the option to view it at full-size.)



The verdict on Glogster? Pretty fun and pretty easy, although it took me more than an hour to create the simple poster above. Of course, I’m new to the platform, and much of that time was spent trying to choose colours, frames, wall patterns, etc. That is one of the potential pitfalls of social media, in general, I think – it’s really easy to spend a great deal of time on things of relatively little consequence.

In this particular case, I was trying out a new technology as a learning experience for an academic course, so it was a good investment of my time – learn something, use a new technology, earn participation points for class.

But if, as a manager, I gave an employee the task of creating a Glogster poster to promote a service in the library, I would probably give a very specific timeframe for completing it, because it would be all too easy for an employee to spend all day on what should be a relatively simple task. When we get carried away by all the bells and whistles a tool offers, too often the task becomes a vehicle for showing off our technical skills rather than communicating our message in the most effective way possible.

I have seen very intelligent, highly educated people waste an inordinate amount of time choosing colours, fonts, and effects for a Powerpoint presentation that, ironically, made the finished product look amateurish. (Personally, if I never see a “checkerboard wipe” in a Powerpoint presentation again, it will be too soon.)

As always, the tool must serve a purpose greater than “it’s cool.” It’s important to be open to the opportunities that a new technology can give us, but before investing a great deal of time and money in obtaining, mastering, and using the latest thing, ask yourself:

  1. What do I want to accomplish?
  2. Will this tool help me accomplish that goal better (more quickly, more easily, etc.) than what I’m currently doing?

If the answer to Question 2 is “yes,” then the tool is worth further investigation. (For instance, if a very expensive tool will help you accomplish a task that you only do once every 5 years and can be easily outsourced, then the tool is probably not worth your investment.)

If the answer to Question 2 is “no,” move on. A tool is only a tool when it helps you accomplish something worthwhile. Otherwise, it’s a waste, no matter how pretty and shiny it is.

“Collaborate” Means “To Work Jointly”

Posted: July 26th, 2011, by rachelbalko

“…on an activity or project.” (Collaborate. [2010]. Oxford dictionaries. Retrieved on July 26, 2011, from

Well, duh.

But the use of the word “jointly” in this definition is, I think, very important in distinguishing the true meaning of what it is to collaborate from what people assume it means. Many people seem to think that collaboration means “working together,” which implies that all the collaborators are together “in the same room” (whether literally or virtually), exchanging information and ideas to create something “together.”

It is this understanding of “collaboration” that makes many people dread it. People complain, “I don’t want to sit there and debate every word with the whole group. It takes forever, and nobody ever really agrees, so we end up with something bland that doesn’t really say anything.” This is, indeed, a pitfall of collaborative work: death by consensus.

Other people say, “Collaborative work isn’t fair. Someone (usually me) does all the work and everybody else just goofs off. Even if the project turns out well, I have to share the credit with a bunch of slackers who didn’t really do anything.” And few of us can deny that in most groups, one or two people will take the lead (usually those with the most to lose if the project fails) and do more than their share to ensure success, while everyone else skates.

That’s why I prefer working jointly to working together. Lennon and McCartney, one of the greatest collaborative duos of all time, worked jointly. One of them would come up with the basics of a song and would present it to the other, who would then suggest changes and additions. They would go back and forth, in an iterative process, until they agreed that “their” song was complete. Any Beatles fan can tell you who the primary writer of a song is from how it sounds. “I Am the Walrus” is John; “Here, There, and Everywhere” is Paul. And most critics agree that both Lennon and McCartney benefited from that collaborative process; the music that each produced independently is generally inferior to the songs they wrote jointly.

John and Paul did not sit together on a piano bench and ask each other, “OK, should we start with an A or a D?”, argue about it for 20 minutes, and then compromise on “C.” Not only would that have taken a ridiculous amount of time, the resulting music would have been abysmal. Yet that is the basic modus operandi that many people envision when they think of “collaboration,” and it has resulted in much wailing and gnashing of teeth, not to mention hundreds of truly awful corporate mission statements.

Working jointly means that I bring my skills and talents, you bring your skills and talents, we each do our best work, and then we combine what works best. In a successful collaborative team, the various skills and abilities of the collaborators will complement each other. My sardonic wit will balance out your upbeat melodies (and vice versa), and we’ll end up with “Let It Be” (or at least “I Want to Hold Your Hand“), rather than “#9 Dream” or “Spies Like Us.”

N.B.: I do not have a specific reference to cite regarding Lennon and McCartney’s collaborative style, but I did get an “A” in Music 422: The Beatles: Their Music and Their Times at the University of Southern California. (And yes, it did count toward my major. Awesome, right?)

2.0: Help or Hindrance?

Posted: July 23rd, 2011, by rachelbalko

Originally posted on the Vista discussion board for LIBR 559M on July 21, 2011.

For my money, any jargon, such as the “2.0” suffix, is helpful when it successfully serves as shorthand for a more complicated concept, and becomes a hindrance when it is used erroneously or with an audience that isn’t privy to the jargon.

Medical terminology is a good example of this concept. Having worked with doctors and nurses in the field of medical publishing, I have been exposed to, and come to understand, a great deal of medical jargon, abbreviations, and acronyms. The first law of medical school appears to be, “Never use words when a string of letters will do.”

Take the sentence, “With GERD, we have to avoid NSAIDs. We’ll start with an OTC H2 antagonist and move up to a PPI if necessary.” If a doctor says that to a nurse, no problem. If a doctor says that to a patient and then walks out of the room with no further explanation, it’s potentially a serious problem.

(By the way, that sentence translates to: “With gastroesophageal reflux disease [i.e., heartburn], we have to avoid nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs [e.g., aspirin, ibuprofen]. We’ll start with an over-the-counter [i.e., non-prescription] histamine antagonist [e.g., Tagamet] and move up to a proton-pump inhibitor [e.g., Prilosec] if necessary.”)

Here’s when I think it’s appropriate for information professionals to use the “2.0” suffix in describing their library’s programs or services:

  1. With other members of staff if there have been previous discussions of what, specifically, the 2.0 suffix means for that library’s programs and services, and everyone has agreed to those definitions.
  2. Never with patrons. There’s no way to establish with each patron that what you mean by “2.0” is what they understand by “2.0” – if they understand it at all. If you mean chat reference, say chat reference. If you want to say that the new online catalogue allows user tagging, say that. (And don’t call the catalogue an “OPAC,” either.) It’s possible that even these specific terms may need further explanation, depending on the patron. As information professionals, our job is to provide information, not to obfuscate it with jargon.

Here’s Balko’s First Law of Librarianship: Never use jargon with patrons when plain old English [or insert other culturally appropriate language here] will do. (By the way, that’s always.)

Your Online Presence: How Much Is Enough?

Posted: July 21st, 2011, by rachelbalko

Despite the stereotype of the Shy Librarian (which is also an online game where you get to dress up your very own smokin’ hot librarian – who knew?), it seems like the biblioblogosphere is full of information professionals with something to say. A Google search of the term “librarian blog” yields more than half-a-million hits, and the more emotionally loaded term “librarian rant” gets you 5,680 results.

(My favorite example of the latter is the appropriately titled “Unemployed, depressed old librarian’s rant” on, which starts: “I live in the western part of Kentucky where jobs are scarcer that hen’s teeth. I was released from my prison job for being too nice.”)

So what is the “proper” use of social media for information professionals? Like most things, it depends. Where are you in your career? If you’re two months from retiring, I wouldn’t worry about it. For those just starting out, there are many, including Hack Library School and American Libraries magazine, who believe that a strategically designed online presence, including an e-portfolio, is necessary to help you stand out from the crowd of recent library school graduates. If you have any desire to someday hold a title such as “Emerging Technologies Librarian”, the answer is obvious: Start tweeting immediately, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. Even if you’re at church. Even if it’s a wedding. Even if you’re the bride. What am I saying? Especially if you’re the bride.

Henry Jenkins, currently the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California and the past Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, in Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, says:

Rather than dealing with each technology in isolation, we would do better to take an ecological approach, thinking about the interrelationship among all of these different communication technologies, the cultural communities that grow up around them, and the activities they support. Media systems consist of communication technologies and the social, cultural, legal, political, and economic institutions, practices, and protocols that shape and surround them (Gitelman, 1999). The same task can be performed with a range of different technologies, and the same technology can be deployed toward a variety of different ends. Some tasks may be easier with some technologies than with others, and thus the introduction of a new technology may inspire certain uses. [p. 8.]

The focus shouldn’t be on using technology; the focus should be on what we want to accomplish. Only after we have determined that should we begin thinking about what types of social media (if any) would work best to accomplish our goal. If your goal would be best served by a blog, by all means, blog away. If your goal would be best served by a plain, old-fashioned phone call or an in-person chinwag, do it that way, and don’t even think of apologizing for not being “2.0” enough.

Because information professionals are supposed to be knowledgeable about all the latest technologies (and we should do our best to stay informed on the topic, so we can serve our patrons better), we sometimes get distracted by all the bells and whistles and forget that any technology is just a tool. A tool is only useful if it helps you accomplish what you want to accomplish. Remember:

What you want to do and why you want to do it is always more important than the how of getting it done.

Librarian 2.0 – Are You One?

Posted: July 20th, 2011, by rachelbalko

I did a Google search of the term “2.0”, and in the first five pages of results, I found the following:

  • Web 2.0
  • HTML 2.0
  • RSS 2.0
  • Health 2.0
  • Classroom 2.0
  • Museum 2.0
  • Where 2.0
  • Efficiency 2.0
  • Life 2.0
  • Enterprise 2.0
  • Data 2.0
  • Women 2.0
  • Nerds 2.0.1
  • StrengthsFinder 2.0
  • Wisdom 2.0
  • Identity 2.0
  • Publishing 2.0
  • Government 2.0
  • Art Education 2.0

I found the term “Women 2.0” a bit disturbing and wondered if I am one, or whether I’m a plain old “Woman 1.0.” “Women 2.0” does sound vaguely fembot-ish, so perhaps I will upgrade myself.

I was also oddly pleased that the Nerds saw fit to extend their designation to “2.0.1.”

In the library community, I have found that the “2.0” designation generally refers to adding/integrating some sort of interactive online/social media component to whatever it is you’re discussing.  However, as in many industries, some library folk use “2.0” to convey a general sense of hey, we’re cutting-edge, technologically savvy hipster types who just might have a tattoo somewhere interesting, without any real definition of what that might mean, in a concrete way, to an actual library patron.

David Lee King, the Digital Branch & Services Manager of Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library, has a list of what a “Librarian 2.0” should be able to do. The “most important, big-picture” skill he lists is “the ability to tell the library’s story, through various media – writing, photography, audio, and video.” If that is what’s most important, then the point of Library 2.0 is to promote and advocate the library and/or the librarian (and we are two different things – perhaps the subject of a later post), as opposed to serving the library’s patrons.

Is King right? Is Library 2.0 really all about us, the information professionals? Or is it (or should it be) about the people we’re trying to serve?

I Am Officially Addicted to Mash-Ups

Posted: July 15th, 2011, by rachelbalko

In researching the term “mash-up” for this course, I came across several very cool “music video” type mash-ups, and now I am trolling the Internet incessantly, looking for good remixes. (I believe this is still healthier than my previous productive-activity-avoidance technique, which was watching back-to-back episodes of “Maury Povich.”)

Rather than send emails to my friends every 15 minutes, I’ve decided to collect my favorites here.

Blue Monday meets Car Wash, with a little bit of Funkytown

Star Trek meets Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps

Stayin’ Alive meets The Wall

Come Together meets Closer (warning: adult lyrics)

Thunderstruck meets Ghostbusters

Paradise City meets Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Blue Monday meets Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Can’t Touch This meets Love Shack

Rap meets Weng, Weng, the Impossible Kid (warning: adult lyrics)

A Preliminary Definition of “Mash-Up”

Posted: July 14th, 2011, by rachelbalko

This has yet to be added to by my study buddy, but it’s a start:

A mash-up (sometimes called a web application hybrid) is an application that combines data, content, functionality, presentation, and/or other features and services from at least two different sources in order to produce a new creation. The mash-up may or may not serve the original purpose(s) of its source materials. Peter Evans-Greenwood has proposed a new definition for the term:

A mash-up is a user interface, or user interface element, that melds data and function from multiple sources to create one single, seamless view of a topic, eliminating unnecessary decisions and actions.

Less formally, “mash-up” is often used interchangeably with the term “remix” to describe the combination of two or more songs to make a new composition, such as DJ Sandstorm’s mash-up of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” with Christina Aguilera’s remake of “Carwash,” or a “music video” created by combining the visuals from one source with music from another (such as Cake’s remake of “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” laid over footage from the original “Star Trek” series). These types of mash-ups are almost always unauthorized, using the source material without the permission of its original creators, and are generally created for entertainment purposes.

Sources consulted: Dean Giustini’s Social Media Glossary, Peter Evans-Greenwood’s website, YouTubeWikipedia.

How (and If) Librarians Use Online Tools

Posted: July 13th, 2011, by rachelbalko

WebJunction, the self-described “learning community working together to ensure that all library staff have the resources they need to power relevant, vibrant libraries” whose mission is “to promote learning for all library staff by providing open, affordable online learning communities” (WebJunction website, “About Us”), recently (July 6, 2011) released the results of their survey of WebJunction members about their use of 10 types of online tools and resources. The tools in question (listed in descending order of reported daily use) are:

  • Email discussion lists
  • Professional or social networking sites
  • RSS feeds
  • Chat or instant messaging
  • Online library news or magazines
  • Blogs
  • Wikis
  • Bookmarking sites
  • Mobile apps
  • Discussion forums
  • Video sharing sites
  • Photo sharing sites
  • Online games
  • Self-paced courses or tutorials
  • Webinars or other online events

Interestingly, this survey separated personal use of these tools from use in a professional setting, which I believe makes the results more relevant to a discussion of how librarians use online tools as librarians, rather than as private individuals. I find this to be an improvement over the similar survey WebJunction released in July 2010, which asked members about their use online tools but didn’t specify whether the tools were being used for personal or professional use.

Even the current study is flawed, however, because of the vagueness of the term “use of online tools in professional setting.” Does that mean that the tool is actually being used for the business of the library, or just that it’s being used when the librarian is on the clock? These could be two very different things. As the Annoyed Librarian points out in her critique of the survey:

I’m also skeptical about what using the tools “in a professional setting” means. I would speculate that the majority of librarians using social networking for “professional” purposes aren’t really using it for anything to do with their jobs. At least that doesn’t seem to be the case for the librarians I know, including myself.

They may hang out on Facebook or Friendfeed or Twitter communicating with other librarians, and maybe even about topics related to libraries, but rarely about their actual library work.

What if the question was changed to, “used the tools for work,” defining “work” as “the stuff you actually do for your job,” rather than, “any activity even tangentially related to libraries that I could therefore consider professional activity”? I suspect we’d find a huge difference in the statistics.

While the survey has serious flaws, including a relatively small (1,039 responses), self-selected study population (members of WebJunction are, presumably, interested in its mission “to promote learning for all library staff by providing open, affordable online learning communities” [WebJunction website, “About Us”]), and a tendency for WebJunction to use the survey findings to promote its own products (such as webinars), the results do provide an interesting starting point for a discussion of how, and whether, librarians are using online tools in their work.

What do you think?

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