Heroes in a half shell

July 26, 2006

In Cowabunga, Dude, Jane notes that “they” are releasing a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.

My best movie-going story ever is from my …hmmm, must’ve been just after my Jr. year of college. My best friend David and I decided to go to the last showing of TMNT. This was right after school had ended for pretty much everyone, and even the larger town we went to (the one with the theater) was pretty quiet.

So, we go to the theater. It’s empty. We buy tickets and go into the actual screening room.

It was totally empty. Not a single other person. In fact, it turns out, there was no one there seeing any other movie at that point. Except we two 21 year olds watching TMNT.

We’ve got our popcorn. The entire multiplex is ours. The lights go dim…

And the pimple-faced kid comes in and yells at us to get our feet off the backs of the seats in front of us.

I don’t remember much about the movie, but the idea that we were the only movie-goers for — wow, probably at least 15 miles — and still managed to get yelled at, well, I wear it as a badge of honor.


Email goin’ down???

July 24, 2006

Library Stuff has a tongue-in-cheek post about how email is finally “losing” to things like social networking sites, IM, etc. It’s easy to make fun of email. It’s easy to hate email with the burning passion of a thousand suns, in fact, and most of us do.

But it’s also easy to forget that email does a few things really well. Asynchronous messages, queued up and ready to be read, labeled, sorted, and searched, with clear senders and recipients (let’s ignore spam for a moment). Email runs into problems when we try to use it as a todo list, or as semi-synchronous communication, or as a replacement for a real filing system.

The spam problem is solvable: we just haven’t solved it yet. How much IM spam do you get? None, because you only allow communication from people with whom you’ve set up an invitation. We could use whitelists on our email if we had the spine for it, but it’s a pain and doesn’t flow with the ways email is current used.

I predict email will disappear right about the time the book does. ๐Ÿ™‚

Of course we’re a business!

July 17, 2006

NGC4Lib has a long thread on whether or not libraries are immune from, or subject to, normal “market” forces.

I have to say, it’s a little depressing that the question is even being asked. We have customers who give us money, and every so often they decide whether or not it’s money well spent. And when it’s not…well, they take their dollars elsewhere.

The catch for libraries (as well as most other not-for-profits) is that the customers (those who give us money) and the patrons (those who take advantage of our goods and services) aren’t the same group, at least not in a 1-1 correspondence. It’s a representational relationship, and one of the challenges of running a library is that the values of the patrons and customers don’t always line up.

But don’t pretend for a moment that just because libraries are often unable/unwilling to vote with our feet that either our patrons or their representatives with the purse strings aren’t willing, even eager, to take the money and put it somewhere else. If you can’t justify your budget and your existence, don’t expect either to last forever.

Who are your users?

July 17, 2006

[Hey! I made the ever expanding list of libr* blogs over at LibraryStuff!]

Who are your users?

No, I’m not kidding. I’m sick of decisions being made without (as near as I can tell) any sort of data driving them.

Let’s do a little exercise.

  • Think about everyone who uses your library resources.
  • Now eliminate all the people who never walk into the library.
  • Get rid of all the people who made it into the library, but didn’t talk to a library employee.
  • Cut out all the people who came into the library and talked to a library employee, but that employee was a student worker of some sort and not an actual librarian.

OK. NOW tell me how much sense it makes to have the public services librarians be the sole voice for “the users” when making decisions. For most of us in university libraries, the vast majority of our patrons never make it in the door. If they do, it’s usually just to pick something up, or use a public computer or something. It’s not hard to do the math. If you look at how many people are on campus, how many librarians are on duty at any given time, how much time you spend on average with a patron…it’s pretty easy to see that a tiny, tiny percentage of patrons are being represented when we just ask the public service librarians what they think “the users” would like.

Let’s play again:

  • Think of all the undergraduates you know and how much they vary.
  • Think of all the grad students you know and how much they vary.
  • Think of all the faculty members you know and how much they vary.

Now tell me why people insist on talking about library patrons in terms of categories used by the registrar.All grad students are not the same. All undergrads are certainly not the same. Faculty members vary wildly from each other, and when people step (even slightly) outside of their fields of expertise, things change completely. So don’t treat them as if they’re homogeneous groups! In fact, lose the labels entirely — they just confuse things, unless your only concern is how long they can check out a book for.

So…what’s a camel to do?

At least take the first step, which is to admit you have a problem.

After that, it’s a hard question. You can hire someone to systematize research on users. You can create annual surveys and things (provided through many channels) to see what’s what. You can, at the very least, really learn how to use the statistics being generated by your many systems.

Anyone out there with thoughts on this?

Why we’ll never be as good at search as Google

July 11, 2006

librarian.net ยป asking the right questions, when to be simple, when to be complex echo Dan Chudnov to make a point that I think a lot of people miss:

Maybe 20% of the collection is responsible for 80% of the use but that other 80% includes some really important stuff

When people talk about how sucky their OPAC searches are, usually they’re talking about relevance ranking. Yes, yes, there are a zillion things we can (and must) do to help our patrons search better, incluing spellcheck-like suggestions, better stemming, etc. I won’t argue against any of that, and in fact have argued for it fairly forcefully recently at MPOW.

But what makes Google (and their catching-up competitors) truly useful is PageRank, their authority-based relevency ranking algorithm. And PageRank is absolutely useless for libraries.

PageRank presupposes that (a) there are lots of people “voting” by making links to given resources, and (b) the best resources are the most popular/linked-to.

A research library doens’t follow that model. We don’t have “voting” because, except for the most popular items, it would be worthless. And we don’t focus on popularity because the vast, vast majority of our collection is stupendiously unpopular. I could take a stackful of books at random off the shelf and wander around campus all day and never find a single person who gives a rat’s ass about any of them. Any given journal article is likely to remain unread by anyone on campus forever. Forever!

The obvious candidates to drive ranking — circulation, clickthroughs, etc. — will over ever apply to such a small percentage of items that they’re basically worthless.

Relevence ranking is hard stuff. Can we do better than we are? God, I hope so. But will we ever do as well with our catalogs as Google does with popular web pages? It seems really unlikely — the problem space is just too complex.

Getting back in the saddle

July 6, 2006

I’ve let this blog founder…flounder…err…founder, I think. Yeah. Founder.

In any case — I’m gonna start being a little more serious about keeping track of what I’m thinking here, because Lord knows trying to keep it all in my head isn’t working.

The cost of switching

June 21, 2006

In a post titled It’s not that simple over at What I learned today, Nicole Engard takes on the notion that we can "vote with out feet" (or wallets or whatever) when it comes to the OPAC.

Simply put: We can't.

Throwing aside all the contract and interoperability issues she raises, moving all your crap from one system to another is *hard*. Changing your workflow is *hard*. Retraining your users is *super hard*.

I've often commented to people that if all the time and energy that has been put into trying to "put lipsick on a pig" with OPACs had instead been spent creating converters to easily move data between the systems the major players sell, we'd have a hell of a lot more competition and, one can assume, better products.

Is open source the answer? I'm not sure it is. I *am* sure that there's a place in the market for new players, esp. among the smaller libraries who are (a) hungrier, (b) less beaurocracy-encrusted, and (c) more likely to look at hosted solutions. I'm not sure I'm the guy to fill that niche, but boy oh boy do I hope some folks start to step up.