Monday, November 27, 2006

A Blog In Transition

As the term draws to a close I want to begin transitioning this blog to something a little more general. Libraries, social software, web 2.0, these are my interests, and as such they will remain staples of this blog, however, I feel that I can now begin to give it a slightly more personal touch.

To kick off the transition I'm posting a photo I took in Colorado over the summer. I went to Colorado to run the Pikes Peak Marathon, but also found myself with quite a bit of time on my hands. As the race starts at 6,295 feet above sea level and has an elevation gain of 7,815 feet on top of that, I went a week prior to acclimatise as much my schedule would allow. During the week, while I wasn't on the top of the mountain, I explored the small town of Manitou Springs at its base. Among the interesting things I found was the town's public library.

As it turns out, the library is an original Carnegie library, as you can see from the picture, built in 1910. That first day I was there the library was closed, but I return later in the week to take a look inside. It was a fantastic space with the adult collection on the main floor and a children's area in the basement. One of the things I do when I have the opportunity to visit a new library is to checkout what OPAC they're using. In this small, century old library, I expected to find some small system of which I'd never heard, but much to my chagrin the screen displayed the same dynix window the the Toronto Public library computers do.

Anyway, as it happens, the Start/Finish line of the race was only a few yards from the library. So, after being thoroughly checked over for potentially fatal injuries and spending some time hunched in a chair recuperating, I hobbled over to the library and immortalized the moment on film.

I had a great many experiences during that race and the week prior, but I can't think of a better way to remember it then with a picture of the library.

[Edit: Oh yea, for those of you in London, go vote !!!]

Sunday, November 26, 2006

To Shirk These Mental Shackles

I wanted to quickly follow up my last post with something of an update to one from a few weeks ago. I received a number of excellent comments pointing me to instances of projects that in many ways lend themselves to the criteria I had suggested. iToolbox and Academici are both social networks or sorts that lend themselves to a more restricted audience and specific functionality then MySpace. iToolbox is a site directed primarily at IT professionals. In implementation, it is structure much less like a MySpace and more like a traditional forum or modified wiki. This is not to put it down, the site has certainly made great leaps in improving upon forum implementations of the past. I also don't want to pigeonhole it into one particular methodology. The site has a wide variety of useful functionality and it seems to be continuing to experiment and improve.

The other site that was suggested, Academici, is a little closer to what I had envisioned. To put it in as few words as possible, Academici is a MySpace for knowledge workers. I haven't used the site, but from what I garnered from the documentation it shares many of the same features as the mainstream social networks. However, in addition to the more traditional functionality ,it also offers more targeted functionality such as the ability to share abstracts and papers as well as open them up to discussion. It is difficult to tell from the description, but the site also seems to have search and contact functionality tailored specifically for academics and other research intensive professionals. Generally, I'm impressed with both these sites and am thrilled that their are those out there working to develop more targeted, and I think, more useful social networks.

My concern, however, is that it is not libraries working to develop these sites. I think the cause for my concerns is largely evident in the Academici implementation. While I have nothing but praise for the work they have done, I can't help but imagine how much better it could be if it were run in the context of a library. Firstly, for research networks to be effective they simply can't exclude, and while Academici does have a free option one still has to pay for the full functionality.

That having been said, my monetary concerns are secondary to my firm belief that the networks functionality could be better as well. The ability to share papers or abstracts is wonderful, but in truth it is nothing more then what many researchers are already doing with blogs. Perhaps their is a certain virtue to the simple feature consolidation that Academici has achieved, but it seems so small as to be almost not worth mentioning. What would dramatically increase the value of such feature consolidations is if rather then providing access only to the few unpublished works, drafts and preprints that a user has created since his registration, users could access their potential collaborators entire opus. Once more, would it not be fascinating if one could view in a user's profile a impartial ranking of their authority determined through some measure based on citation information. Similarly, it is one thing to open up publication to debate on a social network, it is quite another to attempt to draw conclusions or in fact any value at all from them, but what if each comment was accompanied by a ranking, again determined through the use of citation information? To bring my suggestions even closer to the profession itself, what if users could enlist the aid of a trained librarian, within the very context of the network, to aid in the location of relevant colleagues to befriend or contact.

I find this last suggestion the most interesting as it is by far the purest application of library and information science to the online realm. In fact the suggestion I'm really making is that in the context of the online social network a person, or more precisely their profile, is nothing more then a document. To broaden the suggestion, and I'm certainly not the first to suggest this, in an online context everything is a document. Given this universality of the documentary format, their seems little reason that librarians should limit the application of their profession to the retrieval of only that which has remained unchanged between the physical and virtual worlds. In a social network like Academici , users, at some level at least, are simply documents and as such should be well within the purview of the librarian. While in the past a patron might have approached a librarian looking for publications on a particular topic, now in the social network context it seems equally reasonable that a librarian might better serve the patron by locating an authority on the topic or even better a community of authorities.

I must admit their is a certain futility and pointlessness in postulating about the potential of things that don't exist, but my goal is not to make idol feature requests or spin tales of times to come. I suggested these possibilities merely to illuminate the differences between advertising decades old practices online and actually applying the tenants of a centuries old profession to a new digital world. Finally, I would like to suggest that we should not confuse the intellectual paradigms that bind us to the brick and mortar with the librarian profession itself. To shirk these mental shackles is not to abandon the profession, but to free it.

Consuming Libraries with MySpace

A few days ago I bought the latest issue of the MIT Technology Review, a magazine I discovered a few month ago and have been enamored with ever since. I have for some time been a fan of Wired, as regular readers know, in part because of its content and in part because of its connection with the late great UofT professor Marshal McLuhan. For the benefit of those who haven't had the opportunity to browse the publication, I would describe the Technology Review as presenting a slightly more technical take on many of the issues often addressed by Wired.

My general strategy for reading both publications is to peruse the table of contents and cherry pick a few of the more interesting articles, returning later to read the publication from cover to cover. As it happens, this time round my attention was drawn to an article featured on the front cover under the title "What's Wrong With MySpace".

Now I'm no fan of MySpace, and there are many, I'm sure, who would be more than happy to list their grievances with the site. The article's author, however, has a rather unique perspective, and one quite relevant to libraries. The gist of the argument is that social networks are, or should be, fundamentally about people not products. Their function, or what one would expect it to be, is to facilitate things like communication, and relationship building. MySpace, however, is populated by a growing number of artificial profiles. These artificial profiles are for movies, companies, products, and fictional characters, none of which can participate in or contribute to the communication and relationship activities for which social networking is often lauded. Ultimately, this bastardization of the community building functionality of the site has lead to a system that encourages its members to increasingly define themselves by the products and services they consume, manifested in their "friendship" with a multitude of inhuman profiles. To add an analogy of my own, MySpace is much like high school, in theory a place for the transmission of knowledge and betterment of one's person, but has devolved into nothing more then a convenient forum for competitive consumption.

If one resists the urge to place values on the various goods and services that MySpace users choose to define themselves with and instead focus exclusively on the broader issue of personal definition through consumption, one cannot help but lump those libraries with profiles in as part of the problem. This is quite close to the point I was inarticulately attempting to make a few weeks ago. Libraries are not members of communities; in the physical or virtual world, they are fundamentally platforms for community. The physical communities that allow for the transmission of culture and facilitate research have many aspects, an important one of which is the library, but one would never expect to see the name of a library listed as the author of a paper or on the cover of a best selling novel. For the same reason one could contest that the name of a library doesn't belong on a social network user's list of friends. In moving to the digital realm, libraries should be looking for ways to continue to act as facilitators and spend less time attempting to be participants.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Now Hear The Evolution of My Thoughts

My post last week generated a number of interesting comments, all of which raised important points. They also caused me to realize that I hadn’t done a particularly good job of explaining what I was proposing specifically or where I was coming from philosophically. With those comments in mind I had initially planed to write this week in elaboration of my previous post, but have hence decided to take a different approach. I still plan to return to the issue in a more formal fashion but will leave that for another post. What I do intend to do is leverage the connective, communicative power of the internet to provide those so kind as to read this with some insight into the foundations of my thinking on the issue.

For those who don’t know me well, I am something of an podcast addict. I am perhaps one of the few individuals who actually purchased their iPod with the express purpose of listening to podcasts. After my most recent iPod's purchase I went month without cluttering its small drive with music files. While I had no intention of becoming a podcast connaisseur I have, to some degree, simply because of the volume of Podcasts I go through. On the average week I estimate I consume somewhere between 10 and 15 hours. For those ready to click away in disbelief, I should inform that the vast majority of this auditory consumption is due to my weekly commute from London to Toronto, with the remainder lost to many hours running the trails and streets of both cities. These many hours of listening have significantly shaped my thinking on any number of issue, including the role and function of social networks. While many of the podcasts I have listened to are lost in a haze of sweat or highway, thanks to iTunes I have been able to identify a number who’s contents weighted heavily on my mind as I composed my last post.

Venture Voice 40 - Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn :

This interview with Ried Hoffman was perhaps the most important of the podcasts I’ve listed in shaping my views on the use of social network. Hoffman talks about how demographics are important in the operation and construction of social networks. He explains that what people need out of a social network can change dramatically based on a great many things including age or life stage. He also explains how by properly structuring a social network one can meet a communities needs in ways that often would not be possible in more generic structures.

Inside the Net 35: Digication

Digication is just another example of a social network that has been constructed to meet the needs of a specific community. In the interview one of Digication's founders also explains how important the simplicity of single purpose tools are to their adoption and use. This is also an interesting example for libraries because the target audience for the Digication software is schools and other educational institutions.

Inside the Net 5: 37Signals:

This is an interview with Jason Fried of 37Signals the company behind the popular productivity applications BackPack, CampFire and perhaps most importantly BaseCamp. In truth I could have selected any number of podcast interviews with Jason Fried because his message is quite consistent. He firmly believes that most software is too complex, which hinders both its use and adoption. He believes that the success that 37Signals has had recently is due to the simplicity and focus of their products, a success he thinks other could share if they adopted a similar approach.

Web 2.0 Show - David Heinemeier Hansson - Episode 19:

This podcast is a little more technical then the others, focusing on the actual creation of the software that drives social networking sites. Hansson is an employee of 37Signals and the programmer that developed their initial product BaseCamp. During the initial development process Hansson started to put together a software framework to help speed and standardize many of the technical steps involved in putting together a web application. The framework he created has since been dubbed Rails and works in conjunction with the programming language Ruby. In the interview Hansson explains how much easier the Ruby on Rails framework has made the construction of web application and how that has contributed dramatically to the Web2.0 explosion. While technical skills are still required, Ruby on Rails has drastically reduced the time, effort and cost of taking an idea from the planning to implementation and deployment stages. While I’m not sure my fundamental opinions would change in the absence of Rails, I am certain my confidence in the ability of libraries to actually achieve what I suggest would be significantly reduced.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Time to be Leaders not Users

Recently I jumped on the Ruby on Rails band wagon, having played around with PHP for a year or two. Ruby on Rails, a framework for developing online applications, was developed by a programmer at 37Signals, a web design firm turned software development house. Part of the Ruby on Rails indoctrination, as I’ve come to discover, is understanding and accepting the 37Signals design gospel. Even prior to the Rails explosion 37Signals was respected in the online community for their blog, Signal v. Noise and other writings. One of the things that they preach is what I would describe as “specificity in design”. By this I mean that applications should be developed with a very narrowly construed purpose. The example they use quite frequently is that of the master craftsman. The craftsman has tools, many tools, each with a very specific function. The true craftsman does not use a Black and Decker all in one, or a swiss army knife, but a tool meant only for that single job. I increasingly find myself looking at the tools I use and the things I encounter on the web, including social networks, and evaluating them based on the 37Signals criteria.

From what I’ve seen most of the social networks would have a real problem meeting the 37Signals standard. MySpace is perhaps the worst feature glut offender, but the same can be said of most of the others, to one degree or another. This seems to be a problem mostly because of the lack of definition in most social networks. They’re not sure just who they appeal too or what people are going to use them for. The lack of focus causes them to crowd their sites with features and various visual components with little cohesiveness. Then users come in and further confuse things by adapting the sites’ disparate features for all sorts of functions. I’m not sure this is a good thing, in fact I’m almost positive its not, and from the readings it seems libraries are as guilty as anyone else.

I am not saying that libraries shouldn’t use social networks or that social networks are a negative thing for libraries, but one has to consider for just what purpose they intend to use a social network and whether they’re using the right tool for the job. I think in most cases the answer is no, but more importantly it seems the question isn’t being asked. If libraries were asking the question and thinking about it critically I think that far few would be spending their time and resources putting up MySpace profiles.

So what should they be doing?

This brings me to my second idea/inspiration. I was recently reading an article in this months Nature entitled “2020 Computing: Science in an exponential world”. The gist of the article is that the amount of data being produced by modern science is overwhelming the traditional methods of scientific communication/storage. While a portion of the article is addressing simply storage and creation, it also address the scholarly use of data, particularly the increasing degree to which original research is conducted by data mining and not experimentation. As one would expect from a science journal they come at the issues from a very “preserving scientific method” perspective. The authors are very concerned with issues of reproducibility and long term preservation and less with how researchers themselves are coping.

I couldn’t help but think while reading the article that the solution to many of the issues they were raising, any many they weren't might be found through the use of a social network. If research is happening entirely online through databases and data mining, it seems silly that they should have to step offline then to participate in scholarly communication and collaboration. It also strikes me as silly that they should have to use inappropriate tools such as Google and blogs to keep themselves online and up to date. Their should be a social network for academics that is designed specifically to facilitate positive scholarly communication and collaboration. It also strikes me that the construction and maintenance of such a social network should be the responsibility of the library. It was revealed to me a few months ago that it was the special libraries at Canada’s big Toronto banks that constructed some of Canada's first corporate intra nets. While this might not seem to require anywhere near the same level of skill and understanding as the creation of an effective social network, it did a decade ago.

Libraries today have no excuse for passivity. The cost and time to develop applications such as social networks is decreasing rapidly as both the tools and platforms improve. Libraries need to think critically about where they spend their dollars. Is it more valuable to spend millions on electronic journals that place you at the mercy of vendors and publishers or is better to spend a fraction of that on developing a system that truly makes use of modern technology and insures a role for libraries in the future as more then simply spending committees. It seems that it is no longer enough for libraries to be the users of generic or inappropriate tools.
I have less time to think on this then I would like, but I hope to refine my understanding over the next little while and post more on the topic.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Do All Roads Lead To Facebook

This is actually the second post I’ve written today. After writing the first, I decided that I wasn’t happy with the thought, particularly as to how it addressed libraries. Anyway, you’ll have to forgive me if this is somewhat cursory in its treatment of the subject of social networks, but it’s being done on the fly.

I recently listened to a podcast of a presentation on transportation networks. The presenter, and author of a book on the subject had a number of interesting things to say about historical transportation networks, as well as networks in a more modern context. One of the networks he dedicated some time to was road networks, particularly toll roads. Aside from describing the origin of the term “turn pike”, fascinating in itself, he described how many original English toll roads were designed to capture revenue from outsiders traveling into a jurisdiction rather then from the areas residence. This description gave me cause for pause when I considered it in the context of the library Myspace and Facebook profiles I had looked at. I wondered just who the libraries were trying to attract or contact, outsiders or locals. This may seem like something of a non sequitur, but give me some time.

As far as I can tell, and admittedly I’m not a heavy user, the individual online social networks allow for the formation of social ties over increasingly great distances. For organizations, social networks provide a means of advertising to large groups of people dispersed over vast distances at relatively little cost. The question that I’m driving at is why would a library have any interest in attracting attention from users that aren’t close by geographically? I know, the simple answer to this is that they offer service online that don’t require physical proximity, virtual reference for instance. However, this issue of proximity begs two questions. The first of which is who’s using these services. If the users are local to the library’s jurisdiction, then why waste time advertising to the entire english speaking world on Myspace and not focus on more effective local advertising, such as public transportation signage, physical mailing, email lists, etc.

It would seem for a service to be legitimately justified in its delivery through Facebook or Myspace and not through the library webpage, a service should be accessible to the entire population of the social network on which it’s hosted. However, that begs my second question, just who is going to pay for its delivery? The english speaking population is a fairly large group to provide a service too and service like that doesn’t come cheap. This was much the same situation that many a seventeenth century english county was in with their roads, their solution, the toll road. (I told you I’d get to it)

Now I may be putting any future I have with OCLC on the line, but I have some difficulty with libraries, particularly public ones, charging for library services. So you can see, I’m stuck in something of a bind about social networks and libraries. If one isn’t going to provide the service to the network's user base, why not stick with the traditional library web site? If one is going to provide the service, just how is it going to be paid for? At this point unfortunately, I don’t have answers, only questions.

I apologize for the rather rambling structure of this post, these are just a few things that sprung into my mind. Maybe I’ve missed to boat on the rational behind the library social network profile, I certainly solicit rebuttal.