I Should Have Sent My Opac And Database Suppliers A Card

Did you know that today is the first World Usability Day? It was established by the Usability Professionals’ Association to promote “user-centered design and every user’s responsibility to ask for things that work better.” I discovered this from an article about World Usability Day in USA Today. The focus of this special day is to draw attention to the need to make electronic gadgets more user friendly. You shouldn’t need a manual, goes the logic, to figure out how to program frequently called numbers into your cell phone or to use any of the many features on your digital camera that you’ll never get to work. World Usability Day resonates with me because we have our own little usability challenge in academic libraryland.

Our OPACs and aggregator databases offer some great features. I always enjoy showing students how they can format a citation in ProQuest databases or create a personalized booklist in our library catalog. Students can quickly realize the value of these features, and they are important in helping us to differentiate our resources from those offered freely on the Internet. The challenge is in helping our users to discover these added-value tools because, like the too complicated cell phone or digital camera, the usability needs improvement. I’ve gone on the record in the past claiming that our OPACs and databases are not overly complex – and I still maintain that. Students come to our institutions to learn, and learning to use these resources is a part of the process. Having discovered these features a student is ususally able to figure it out the next time. But I would like to see library products that make it easier for the end user to discover the useful features embedded in the product without needing a librarian to divulge its availability. Perhaps the products need to be designed more like website homepages that clearly layout the features and navigation. But whatever we do let’s not just dumb everything down so there are fewer options all together. I think we can do better than that.

Well, today is only the first World Usability Day. The world’s environmental problems were not solved on the first Earth Day. But if it gets us to start thinking more seriously about our responsibility, as a profession, to “ask for things that work better” that’s a start.

My In-box Overfloweth

Amazing all the interesting stuff that can wash up in one’s in-box in a single day. The Chronicle reports that some of the first books scanned in the Google Library project are now online. Google’s blog shows some of the texts. I notice that some are missing the “find in a library” link to WorldCat that the library project is supposed to include (a link that is absent on the digital books supplied by publishers; the idea was to include it on the library-scanned books). Still no memo describing how Google plans to take over the world. We’ll just have to either take their word for it that they’re good guys – or use our imaginations. And wait to see what the courts decide.

If you want paranoia with that, here’s a scary item from the Electronic Frontier Foundation: your printer may be watching you. Remember how detectives used to match documents to the typewriter they were written on by noticing the top of the letter T was a little chipped? Well – that’s sort of the idea. Embed a secret code that can match a page to a specific printer. And how handy when industry does the advance work for you! It strikes me as a tad bizarre that we live in a country in which the idea of making a record of the unique grooves and lands in any handgun as it goes from the manufacturer to the marketplace is totally untenable. Nope. No way. Threatens our civil liberties. Fuggetaboutit. But ideas? Speech? Expression? Hey, those things are dangerous, dude! We need to be able to track back and see where they came from. The Feebs, of course, say it’s just to apprehend counterfeiters, but that’s about as comforting as being told I shouldn’t worry about the PATRIOT Act unless I’m a terrorist.

The EFF tidbit (not the rant) came from the wonderful folks at LII – which has a spiffy new look. Between their weekly update and the one from the Scout Report I usually find plenty of interesting academic sites to share with faculty or to add to our subject guides. Or just to make me think.

Now if Steven would just find a way to add a button to his Kept-Up Librarian that would automatically download all the news fit to feed directly to my brain, I would truly feel kept up. But I would definitely need a memory upgrade.

Perspectives from the Frankfurt Book Fair: 1 attendee’s impressions

Thanks to Heather Moulaison for this report from the Frankfurt Book Fair.

For me, “book fair” brings to mind rows of vendors with stale candy trying to hawk their wares under unforgiving fluorescent lights. That’s what I was expecting when I left for the Frankfurt Book Fair roughly two weeks ago. ACRL has been sponsoring a booth at the fair for years, and this time, I was one of the recipients (through WESS, the Western European Studies Section) of a small stipend to attend the Book Fair (from Oct. 18-23) and staff the ACRL booth. Unfortunately, it looks like funding for the ACRL booth and the stipends is going to be cut entirely next year.

After having been there, “Everyone goes to the Frankfurt Book Fair because everyone goes to the Frankfurt Book Fair” rings true; I was involved with a fantastic group of attendees and made great international contacts. Surprisingly, though, the Book Fair programs were most definitely worth attending and describing here.

First I saw a presentation by Google. Thinking back on last year’s OCLC Environment Scan that, to paraphrase, said patrons want to search OPACs the way they search Google, I was pleased to hear finally what Google claims to be about: focus on positive user experience, never detract from that experience, insure the purity of the search, act first and refine later, function as a switchboard between user and content. The bulk of the presentation covered the two aspects of the Google Print program: the Publishers program where publishers voluntarily submit works, and the Library program where libraries open their stacks to Google. Google Print did seem to make sense from the publisher point of view. Even the Library program didn’t seem quite so villainous after it was clear that small snippets are shown on the results screen and the entire work is not ever revealed. If it’s used as a supplemental tool to helps patrons to find things, my cataloger’s mind tells me this can’t be a bad thing. The copyright/intellectual property issues weren’t addressed. I left thinking for the first time like Google Print is probably a good thing for libraries and patrons, but despite the “public good” aspect, I still wasn’t convinced that the Library program is a fair use of copyrighted material according to the law.

Perhaps the most interesting session was the one on electronic publishing. I wasn’t able to stay for the entire program, but saw quite a lot. The head of the French National Library, Jean-Noël Jeanneney, began by presenting a short talk on the impact of electronic publishing. He followed the structure of the traditional French lecture: 1) discussing convictions that a digital divide is being created, that books will outlive the web, and that there is a necessity for cultural diversity with the creation of new technologies; 2) addressing the problems and dangers Google presents if they establish a monopoly on digitized information and if only English language results are available; 3) responding with the notion that other possibilities exist, that government should lead organized ventures and that democratic projects like wikipedia were valuable. He didn’t discuss concretely any of the French or European digitization plans. During the presentation, Jeanneney reasserted that his position on the matter of Google’s projects does not stem from an anti-American stance. It seems to me this was in response to articles in the Anglo-American press; I remember some in the Chronicle of Higher Education alluding to his chauvinism, in the French sense of the term.

After questions from the audience, Jim Gerber from Google gave his presentation; he used roughly the same PowerPoints as the one I’d seen the day before. Gerber took a couple of shots at Jeanneney; for example, his introduction included the fact that the two had something in common: Gerber, like Jeanneney, was not anti-American. Google’s stated mission is to organize all the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Librarians of the world, snicker in unison? Audience questions tried to get at the legality of the Print program and the need for licensing and contracts, but those questions were brushed aside. Archiving seemed to be on the minds of those seated around me – and the problem of what would happen to the digitized versions in the future. Were we all to trust Google blindly? They are, nevertheless, trying to make money. These were the questions that didn’t get asked officially, but were mumbled amongst the librarians in the group.

Did this whet your appetite for information about the Book Fair? Look for more coverage in an upcoming edition of C&RL News.

–Heather Moulaison, Cataloging/Modern Languages Librarian, The College of New Jersey

Some Questions About Survey Proliferation

Is it just me or does it seem like the number of times we get solicited to complete web-based surveys is rapidly rising. You may be asked to complete a survey after attending a conference. Perhaps an association or a vendor wants to know how you like their service. There are colleagues who just want to know who else is doing something a certain way or dealing with a certain issue, and would just like some feedback; these folks usually don’t even bother with a web-based questionnaire and instead just stick a few questions right in their e-mail message.

I’m more concerned about academic librarians that are gathering research data by way of sending an e-mail to a discussion list to solicit colleagues to complete a web-based survey. An increase is no doubt owing to the ease, speed, and low (or no) cost associated with a web-based survey. Have an idea for some research? Get on SurveyMonkey, create a survey, send an e-mail providing its URL to one or several discussion lists, and then just sit back and collect the data. This sure beats figuring out how to find a unique survey population, then using a totally random method to identify questionnaire recipients, and then sending surveys to only those targeted individuals. With many librarians under the gun to publish or perish, the proliferation in requests to complete surveys being sent to discussion lists is no surprise.

I certainly don’t respond to them all. I doubt most of you have the time for that either. So how do you decide which ones you’ll respond to, and since the distribution method is hardly random isn’t the likelihood of response bias much higher? I posed this question to a few social scientists. They suggest that soliciting via discussion lists introduces a variety of response biases, but mostly self-selection. You might complete a survey about ERM systems because you just purchased or are in the market for one, while others who have no interest in them ignore the survey. Thus the results are skewed by respondents with a particular attitude, mindset, or set of values.

Granted, it may be that academic librarians are in fact using random survey techniques but are also soliciting on discussion lists just to get a statistically valid number of responses. It’s also commendable that more academic librarians are actively pursuing research projects that advance our knowledge of the profession. But the discussion list solicitation technique seems more reasonable for an informal survey, perhaps to support a conference presentation. I question if our research literature is becoming largely based on survey data gathered via discussion list. I don’t claim to have expertise on this issue so I’m open to the insights of those who do or who edit the journals that publish research articles. I also can’t say there is any research on the number of discussion list surveys, or that examines the validity and reliability of the research resulting from them.

I suppose all I can do at this point is to – and I’m really sorry about this – ask you to complete another survey. That’s right, a survey about surveys. Let me know what you think of the proliferation of requests to complete surveys being distributed via discussion list. There are just six questions. I’ll report the results in a future post to ACRLog – assuming any of you have the time or inclination to respond.

An Appreciation Of The College Newspaper

I came across this article by way of Library Link of the Day. It’s a good read from a student who admits his love of technology, but also acknowledges there are flaws and hidden dangers in his obsession. Like many student-authored articles I’ve read in college newspapers, when the topic of research comes up the library is the butt of a joke or its irrelevance is duly noted. This one is no exception:

“How did students do research without Google, Wikipedia and Lexis-Nexis? Are you telling me they used “books”? I guess that means they actually had to go to the library and have a proficient understanding of the Dewey Decimal system, two things any self-respecting student of the modern age avoids.”

About two weeks ago I started using INFORM.com on an experimental basis as part of my higher education “keeping up” regimen. I found that they have a nice college and university section under “Hot Channels”. In addition to providing articles from national and regional newspapers, it also provides content from college newspapers. The stories from the college papers offer some genuine insight into the latest issues brewing in higher education, but it’s also a good way to come across student opinions and the occasional article about the state of research for college students. It would be a shame to miss out on many of these articles.

At my institution, Philadelphia University, we have no regular student newspaper. As a mostly professional/career-oriented institution, we lack a cadre of aspiring writers and journalists. There is talk of trying to get at least a weekly student-run campus paper established. I hope those of you who have the luxury of being a member of a campus community that offers a student newspaper take some time to appreciate its availability.