Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Another Reason Why Google Isn't God

Google has, to the best of my knowledge, never claimed to be omniscient. While their oft repeated motto, "Don't be evil", might be seen as a claim of omnibenevolence, Google usually is straightforward about their interests: Reconciliation and redemption are outside of their purview, but data and dollars are right up their alley.

Thus it should be no surprise to the watching world that the Google Books project falls short of divine infallibility. (In spite of Google invoking the cadences of Genesis 1:1 in the project history.) This especially has been no surprise to the watching academic world which still has many mixed feelings about the benefits to be derived from the digitized corpus of the bibliosphere. Geoffrey Nunberg has written an excellent exposé of the shortcomings of Google Books when it comes to meeting the needs of researchers.

Of most interest to me as a librarian, though, are Mr. Nunberg's words of advice to librarians everywhere. He exhorts us to hope that Google "may be responsive to pressure from its university library partners—who weren't particularly attentive to questions of quality when they signed on with Google—particularly if they are urged (or if necessary, prodded) to make noise about shoddy metadata by the scholars whose interests they represent."

This blog post is only a leaf in the tossing forest of the Internet, but it is my effort to heed Geoffrey's advice and put in my $0.02. Our first response as librarians to digital books may not be embracing them, but, as librarians, we do have something to contribute when it comes to organizing them. Our catalogs (if I can persist in using such a quaint term) are not about the arranging of material volumes on physical shelves; they are about the organization of knowledge. Or so my Cataloging 101 course told me many years ago. Librarians are not divine, either, but neatness is next to godliness. Google Books is one horrific mess that needs a good cataloging. We already cataloged it once. Like housecleaning, though, it may need to be done again.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Laws, Sausages, and Statistics

I have just completed the annual task of compiling library statistics for ATS and ATLA a little later than usual, but still before the deadline. I should preface what follows by stating that I like statistics. I like being able to break complex processes down into neat rows of numbers and then lining up those rows of numbers on a spreadsheet. It gives me a secure feeling inside to see all that data marshalled into an eye-friendly format that can be surveyed historically for trends and changes. (Yes, I was one of the popular kids in high school.)

But there is that nagging feeling that an awful lot of ambiguity falls by the wayside when statistics are made. What about the book that comes with full PDF accessibility on a web site for registered purchasers? Did I purchase a book or access to a book? And if I purchased both, how much did each cost? If the publisher helpfully threw in a CD plastered inside the back cover, how do I record that much less circulate it? (Answer: Throw out the CD, and no one will ever know.) Then there are those misleadingly simple numbers about staff and staff salaries. I had one year where a part time professional librarian quit part way through the year. Do I then measure her contribution to staffing totals as 1/4 of a librarian? Or 5/12? The Devil is in the details, which means that there is something diabolical lurking in the white space around those neat rows of numbers.

What is especially troubling to my orderly soul is that we then construct empires out of aggregates of these numbers. "Peer comparison" is one of the benchmarks for how we're doing. It is always much easier to compare yourself to your peer when they are a compact, distant set of numbers, not a flesh and blood institution with crows feet and callused elbows and a host of other minor imperfections that jump out at you. I can say with great confidence that all the libraries in all the ATS schools reported total holdings of 49,280,000 volumes in the 2007-2008 ATS Factbook. (Don't believe me? You can double-check that fact -- I double-dog dare you.) The correlation between that number and the actual number of volumes in all of our libraries ... let's just say I hope that NASA doesn't depend on it to calculate the trajectory for the next Mars mission.

But, like many of my colleagues, I have turned a stony countenance toward those ambiguities, guesses, and WAGs and have now submitted my tidy spreadsheet of numbers to be laid quietly to rest in orderly rows with everyone else's numbers. In addition to being like laws and sausages, statistics are also like cemetaries. It's better not to dig up what lies beneath.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Room for Lots of Librarians in St. Louis

This is the lobby of the Millennium Hotel in St. Louis where the American Theological Library Association will hold the opening reception for their annual conference during June 17-20, 2009.

I'm in St. Louis right now meeting with the Education Committee and the Annual Conference Committee to plan what is shaping up to be an excellent conference for next summer. What follows is a brief pictorial preview of what everyone will be able to enjoy in June.

The conference will be in the Millennium Hotel:
with a great view of the Arch from the North Tower rooms:
One of the highlights of the conference will be our day on Concordia's beautiful campus when we will be able to enjoy seeing the Luther Tower with its 49-bell carillon:
Wartburg Commons:
Share in worship in the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus:
And, of course, browse the books, art, and Reformation materials in the library:
A picture from inside the library:
Luther Tower reflected in the fountain outside the library:

I'm looking forward to seeing everyone in St. Louis in June.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Many Returns from Hurricane Ike

I know that most of us in the geographic region of the country known as Chicagoland have little to complain about compared to those of you in Texas and other parts of the country that bore the brunt of Hurricane Ike's fury. But I did see in a weather map on Saturday evening that Ike had pushed bands of rain across the Midwest and even as far north and east as Buffalo, NY.

When I came into the library Monday morning, I was surprised to find that four boxes of books in my office had been soaked by a leak. I can't even blame this small-scale disaster on that venerable achilles-heel of libraries: our flat roof. Instead, we evidently had a strong enough west wind to push the heavy rain in around a window with cracked glazing. (Though our flat roof and clerestory also leaked as they usually do.) On the positive side, instead of being boxes of new books to be added to our collection, these were books that had been culled from donations to go toward our book sale.

At the moment, we're still drying out in the Chicago suburbs and laying on more sandbags while waiting for some of the area rivers to crest. I pray that other libraries damaged by Ike will recover quickly.

Friday, September 5, 2008

My Thoughts On Google Chrome (FWTW)

Since I have sometimes posted on things Googlish in this blog, I thought I would mention that my first experience with the beta version of Google's Chrome browser was less than ecstatic.

Until I tried Chrome, I had no idea how prevalent Macromedia's Adobe's Shockwave Flash is. Chrome definitely has a bug when it comes to the Flash plugin. I found blog postings where other people claimed that reinstalling Flash solved the problem for them, but that certainly did not work for me. On the positive side, every time Chrome put up an error message in response to the Flash bug saying that it would have to close, it never did close, and I could continue my browsing uninterrupted. I just couldn't see all the pretty, flashing pictures. Maybe that's a good thing.

I also did not experience the blazing speeds that some bloggers were talking about, especially for library-type applications like OPAC searching or pulling up result lists in WorldCat. I did find the option for the default phishing filter and turned it off, which noticeably improved speeds, but my perception was that it was still taking longer than either IE or FireFox to display results pages.

People have already started finding security flaws, and there was the EULA flap over the early version of Google's agreement that stated in section 11.1,

"By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services."

The kinder, gentler version of 11.1 now simply reads, "11.1 You retain copyright and any other rights you already hold in Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services." (Remember "Don't be evil"?)

I also missed the ability to install my Dictionary.com toolbar that lets me lookup words on Dictionary.com easily plus a number of other standard browser amenities like decent bookmark management.

In short, I think Google Chrome has a long way to go yet, and I uninstalled it. (Kudos, Google, on the cute uninstall message--"Was it something we said?") I'm sure I'll be coming back for another look, though, once more of the rough edges have been knocked off. I wonder how long until the library vendors start listing Chrome as a supported browser?

And the Winner Is . . .

After having been gone on a lovely vacation in Colorado and after having unburied my desk at work, I am now prepared to declare the winner of the Longest Thesis Title Contest:

Congratulations to Eric Benoy from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary for submitting the winning entry, weighing in at 289 characters (including spaces and punctuation), a Ph.D. thesis title from 1993:

An investigation of the roles of the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans, the Louisiana Baptist Convention, and the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention in the planting of selected churches and missions in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods of New Orleans, 1950-1991

Look for this contest to reappear next summer when you, too, could have a chance to claim the coveted title, The Person Who Submitted The Longest Thesis Title On That Blog Thing.

(All contestents in this year's program have received honorable mentions and a no-expenses paid trip to Anywhere They Can Afford To Go. All decisions and awards depend on the arbitrary skills of the blogger to paste titles into Microsoft Word and hit <ALT><F> and <I> and are final. This contest is not endorsed by Microsoft® or by Bill Gates, who never wrote a thesis in the first place.)

Monday, August 4, 2008

Longest D.Min. Title Contest

It's that time of the year when we are working on processing the new D.Min. theses. A quick query of our catalog turned up one thesis title from 2001 that was 207 characters long:

Development of an educational program of Christian formation for the Baptist Church of Quintana, Hato Rey, Puerto Rico to deal with the racial and ethnic prejudice in the congregation and the local community

What's the longest thesis title in your library? To be sporting, I'll allow Ph.D. titles as well.