Friday, October 19, 2007

How to Make a Conference

I've finished my second day here in Ottawa, Ontario with the ATLA Education Committee working on planning the next annual conference scheduled in June, 2008. Breakfast was at 7:30am, and we finished our working supper at 8:30pm. Tomorrow morning we will review what could be called the first draft of the conference program. There is a lot of work yet to be done, and there will be many changes between now and the final version of the program, but tonight we were able to see for the first time all the many pieces start to come together in the recognizable shape of an ATLA conference.

Compared to the annual ALA conference which can draw over 25,000 delegates, the annual ATLA conference is not very big. It is not tiny, though, either -- attendance can be between 300 - 400 depending on the year and the locale. Planning has to begin three to four years ahead of time in order to identify sites and sign the necessary contracts to ensure adequate space for the conference. Members of the local host committee start attending planning meetings two years prior to the conference to learn how the conferences are planned and to begin preparing for their turn to be hosts. The content of our conferences is member-driven, and the program we have to offer is whatever ATLA members are interested in and willing to share with others. Proposals for papers, panels, interest group meetings, and roundtables are collected every summer and fall. (And starting last year, we have also begun to add poster sessions.) In October, the Annual Conference Committee and the Education Committee meet at the site for the conference to select the program content from out of the many proposals and to preview the conference facilities.

I have found it to be difficult work to select the best proposals that will create the most balanced program. We try to arrange all the sessions so that there will be a minimum of conflict between simultaneous sessions, but it is impossible to avoid all possible conflicts. Attenders will always have to choose between breakout sessions that are scheduled at the same time; a full schedule with a maximum number of choices makes for the best conference. And we always have to keep in mind the logistics of moving 350+ librarians between rooms and buildings while making sure that everyone has time to go to the bathroom. Be it trains, planes, boats, buses, or elevators, most of the conference stories that members like to retell year after year have to do with locomotion or the lack thereof at some point during the conference.

Barbara Kemmis, the Director of Member Services for ATLA, compares our conferences to a big family gathering. This is the one time of the year when we all get to see each other, share food and stories, and spend time as theological librarians thinking about how to do our jobs a little bit better. The program for ATLA 2008 is not perfect now, and it probably never will be. I am amazed by the vast creativity and resourcefulness of the proposals that we have received and humbled by the willingness of ATLA members to share what they have with others. I am grateful for this opportunity to be part of the making of ATLA 2008.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Blogging from Ottawa

This posting is a shameless promotion of next June's annual ATLA conference in Ottawa, Ontario.

This post comes from my hotel room at the Ottawa Westin where the Annual Conference Committee and the Education Committee are meeting to put together the program for the conference. This is my first visit to Canada's beautiful capital. (I believe "Capital Region" is the technically correct designation; my Canadian friends will have to correct me if I am flaunting my American parochialism.)

I am enjoying my brief views of the city as much as I am enjoying the growing shape of the conference that is emerging from all the roundtable, paper, and presentation suggestions that have been submitted by ATLA members this fall. As a theological librarian, I benefit daily from my network of colleagues in ATLA, and I greatly enjoy our annual conferences when we can all get together for a few days. I look forward to seeing our conference program reach its final form, and, even though I'm still in Ottawa, I'm already looking forward to coming back here in June when everyone else will be here, too.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A Reply From Google

In response to my query about the availability of statistics for Google Book Search, Dan from the Google Book Search Team wrote:

Thank you for your email. As you may know, we've been able to include over 2 million books in Google Book Search so far. We hope to be able to release further information about the scale of Google Book Search in the future.

I hope that the Google Book Search Team can follow through on that promise. Having more data about the scope and content of the collection would be very useful.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Reminiscence -- Google Street View & Charge Cards

Here in the Chicago area, there is a lot of reaction to Google turning on their street view service in the Windy City. In-between web sessions spent Googling their own streets in an effort to catch their neighbors doing something naughty, Chicagoans are lamenting the loss of privacy that comes with the ubiquitous images of daily life broadcast on the Internet. Google, of course, keeps pointing out that all these images are taken from public streets where anyone could walk by and see the same things or even snap a phone cam image of all the silly things we do in broad daylight.

I understand Google's point, but I also understand the privacy concerns. There is something different between public indiscretion and the permanent preservation and global distribution of public indiscretion. I like to think that my temporary lapse of good judgment can somehow be winked at and quickly fade into the past. Google is aggressively bursting that delusion by catering to my own basest instincts--the same kind of narcissistic appetite that drives reality TV and twittering (and blogging) also drives our horrified fascination with seeing ourselves caught in the daily foibles of the public sphere. Google street view is voyeurism redoubled on itself.

This modern phenomenon, though, puts me in mind of an older one -- does anybody remember charge cards? No, not the credit card kind, but the index cards kept in the back of books where people used to sign their names when checking the books out of their libraries. Here, too, was a public preservation of a private activity--research and leisure--that was freely available to anyone who wanted to look at the card in the back of the book. There was no Patriot Act and no concern over privacy. That little card kept a record of the people who had borrowed that book. I remember working as a student at the Wheaton College library and finding a charge card with Billy Graham's signature. What shivers ran down my young evangelical spine back then, handling a card that had once been handled by Billy Graham himself!

The difference, of course, between an old charge card and Google street view is that the charge card was keeping a record of an intellectual pursuit, not a public indiscretion. (Unless you were one of those bold enough to sign out Madonna's Sex from your local library.) It is a sign of the times to me that our intellectual pursuits are now shrouded in library databases guarded by fiercely activist librarians while our indiscretions are broadcast globally. Or maybe I am being too negative. Maybe Google street view is also capturing random acts of heroism and decency, and perhaps those will also be immortalized the way library charge cards once kept a record of our pursuit of knowledge.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

More on Google & Microsoft Book Searches

I have been doing some more experimenting with both Google Book Search and Microsoft Live Book Search. I continue to be amazed at the speed with which these collections are growing, though neither Google nor Microsoft are publishing any statistics on the actual size of their databases, making evaluation difficult. (I have emailed Google about this lack of statistical data -- if they send me any information back, I'll let you know.)

I have, though, added both Google Book Search and Microsoft Live Book Search to our list of available library databases, and I am adding them to my information literacy class to give students some tips on how to make use of these databases. The extent of the available resources in these two collections makes them too valuable to ignore.

As an experiment, I searched 30 titles from our collection in both Google and Microsoft that were published before 1923 and therefore are in the public domain. From this highly unscientific sample, I found the following:

Available full text in Google: 10
Available full text in Microsoft: 4
Limited access in Google:10
Not available in Google: 10
Not available in Microsoft: 26

(Of the 10 that had limited access in Google, 7 were recent reprints--therefore under copyright--but 3 were the original, pre-1923 texts and should have been available full text.)

This then got me to wondering about more recent books, so I searched another 30 titles from off our new book list, picking titles that were published at least a year ago in case brand new items would not have had time to find their way into the databases:

None were available full text (not too surprising)
None were available in any form in Microsoft
Limited access in Google: 7
Listed in Google, but no access: 15
Not in Google: 8

"Listed in Google, but no access" is what Google calls "No preview available". You can find the title by searching title or author information, but the contents of the book are not available even for key word searching, much less previewing. I had not been aware that "No preview available" meant that the book contents are not searchable, but my own efforts to search key words and phrases from some of our "No preview available" titles confirmed this. In spite of their We-have-the-right-to-scan-any-book assertions, Google for whatever reason is not providing any access (beyond a title listing) to a certain percentage of their scanned database.

[Excursus: I find searching in Microsoft Live Book Search to be frustrating. There is no advanced search to allow searches by title or author; putting phrases from the title in quotes seems to be the most efficient way to search Microsoft. The response time is also much slower than Google, especially when scrolling through the results. I also found it odd that I kept encountering listings in Microsoft that said "Book Removed -- This book is no longer available" with no information to identify what the original book had been. If it's not available, why bother to provide a "Book Removed" listing?]

One practical question comes to my mind after this experiment: There have been rumblings that Northern Seminary may sell our current campus and relocate. This has necessitated a lot of work on my part to evaluate our collection and design possible scenarios for what to hypothetically do with the library collection should it theoretically be relocated to any number of putative sites. Most of these possible scenarios involve off-site storage for a certain percentage of the collection. Identifying titles available in Google Books appears to be one way to select volumes for storage. Dare one download and archive one's own copy of the PDF file and discard the book altogether? What would you do, hypothetically?