Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Top four things I've learned cataloguing my own books

For several weeks now, I've been (somewhat amateurly) cataloguing my personal collection of books with LibraryThing.  I love it.  Basically I'm just ensuring the proper and well-formatted title, checking it has the right cover, including the main authors and other responsibility holders, tagging them with my own main "categories", putting  them in collections of who in my family it really belongs to, specifying where and when I got it (if I can remember or figure it out), and putting in a Dewey number.  It's fun, of course, being the librarian nerd that I am, but it's also fascinating and I was thinking about how valuable but impossible it would be to have library school students actually do some personal cataloguing of at least a hundred titles.  Here are some of the interesting things I've found:

  1. I've never really thought about the categories of books I've had before.  I've collected books from many sources and over a long period of time so I've never really had a very clear personal "collection policy" so there's plenty of odd stuff in there.  It's mostly graphic novels, reference books, philosophy stuff, science stuff, and of course kid's books but there are ones that stand out:  "Sesshu's Long Scroll", a spiral bound copy of "Understanding Neural Networks", and a nicely bound copy of the Qu'ran.  In the course of cataloguing some of these works, particularly when I'm tagging them with my basic subject areas of interest -- figuring out how broad or specific to make those tags or whether to use them at all if there's only going to be one or two with that tag anyway -- it really makes me think about subject headings and how they can and/or should be used.  I initially just wanted to be able to see the numbers of certain books in a subject that I find interesting and retrieve them easily.  But then I had to add non-subject tags like ".damaged" or ".gift".  And then format tags, such as "REFERENCE" or "GRAPHIC NOVELS".  I came across my copy of "Dark side of the moon : the making of the Pink Floyd masterpiece" and realized that, although I like music, I don't really have a lot of books on the subject.  Should I get more?  Is it worth my time?  I have so many other interests.  Going through my books subject-wise is like walking through a list of my interests, both proven by past actions and potential or maybe just hinted at.
  2. Dewey numbers are crap for fiction.  Ok, everybody knows that but trying to put my books into some sort of order led to using Dewey numbers which led to the hard fact that Dewey doesn't do any kind of fiction justice, especially comic strip compilations and graphic novels.  I had to invent a personal organization method to use instead, roughly based on the solutions I've seen in public library.  For example, "FIC A Smi 1997" is a work of fiction, considered an "adult" novel (not sexual, just grown-up, to differentiate it from my YA books and juvenile books, or other formats), by someone with the last name starting with "Smi" published (or originally created) in the year 1997.  It's mostly, as Dewey is supposed to do, to lump alike things together.
  3. It's a lot of work.  Again, not a new discovery here but it's really hit home.  And I'm not even truly cataloguing them.  Just cleaning up a few key pieces of metadata.  I was tidying up the publication statement and ensuring it had the right ISBNs but that starting taking too long and I didn't think it was really worth it.  And besides, I think LibraryThing records include ISBNs that I can't easily see since I get records with a search for an ISBN that doesn't end up being the in field.  Odd.  Anyway, not really important, and not worrying about it made things go a little quicker.
  4. Finally, although you have to "judge a book by it's cover" it's better if you don't have to.  Describing a book, or really anything, should be done with someone that has a good deal of knowledge about the work (or thing).  Some key access points may not be immediately clear to someone who hasn't read the book.  If you don't know the subject area, then how could you know the place this particular work has in it?  Ideally, cataloguing should be done slowly by a few people who love the particular work, perhaps the particular author.  Philosophy texts should be catalogued by philosphers, collections of poetry, by poets.  How can I truly describe my book on neural networks?  I know very little about cognitive science.  But cataloguers don't and can't know the subject matter to that degree.  The work is done by people who know classification and the rules of AACR2 and RDA.  But when keying in even the tiny specks of metadata about my own collection, I find it much easier and much more rewarding to work with a book I have written a review of, like "Knitting the Semantic Web", or read a million times, like "Waiting for Godot".  Sometimes it makes me think of the part of "Farhenheit 451" when the main character meets the "books", the people who have memorized entire novels and have saved them that way.  Perhaps each book should have it's own cataloguer, who gets to know the work, inside and out, and therefore is the only one qualified to know how to describe it and give access to it.  Not good for the people in those jobs though, I guess, right?
Oh, and one more thing.  I've discovered that I'm really weird.  I take great pleasure in considering the proper capitalization of my books.  For example, in AACR2, the only title words that get capitalized are the first one and any proper nouns.  I have the graphic novel "Star trek : countdown".  Although it looks weird, "trek" doesn't get capitalized because, in the context of the title, it's not a proper noun.  It's just a "trek" through the "stars".  But I also have "Star Trek : The Next Generation : technical manual".  In this case, "Trek" is capitalized because this is a technical manual for the ship in the TV show "Star Trek : The Next Generation".  TV show names are proper nouns.  (I mean, technically, the book should have been called something like "Technical manual for the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701D" or something like that, and not had a cool cover, but publishers like to think they're tricking us into buying their crap...  which they are.)  In the first case, the work is using the term as a name for the work and isn't referring to itself.  It's just using the words as they are, as the entire "Star trek" universe does.  The second case is using the term in reference to the series, to the previous works, to the fictional universe that the TV shows, movies, comics, etc. make up.

Of course, I'm only half way through my books so far so perhaps I'll learn more (or learn better?) as I go.  And then there's my movies and video games...  I need a "LibraryThing" for those.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Gender as a variable in resource evaluation

In my recent OLA Super Conference presentation (that I didn't actually present due to illness, but my colleague did), I worked on describing a theory of "Constructivist" evaluation of electronic resources, or really any resources in a library collection.  My colleague's counterpoint position was one of Deconstruction and although we had a bit of a disconnect in terms of actual counterpoints, I tried to talk about the construction of "value" not only in and of itself but in contrast and partnership with deconstruction of sorts.  Part of my colleagues position was that Deconstruction of the typical evaluation motivations, goals, and assumptions allowed for the potential awareness of hidden biases and faults, not the least of which was gender bias.

As a father of a teenage girl, amateur philosopher, and Tumblr user, I'm both aware of ethical issues such as gender bias (among other biases) and motivated to do something about it.  Although it's a little down the rabbit hole from an overall framework for normalizing and systematizing evaluation of library acquisitions, the idea of gender ethics consideration in resource evaluation struck me as interesting.

There can be no doubt that information resources -- monographs, journals, indexes, multimedia collections, newspapers, etc. -- are not only filled with gender bias in the content (since they are records society is making and we are far from being free from sexism), but the production system creating them and packaging them for consumption is gender biased as well.  As a librarian, it is my job to ensure that what's going in the collection is valuable and gender balance is certainly a valuable if rare commodity.

But how do you measure it?  Just in terms of authorship?  Is there an appropriate mix of male and female authors?  What about content?  Can you even check for gender bias on a large scale in scholarly works?  How is that even possible?  What about gender bias in the creation of the particular tool or collection being evaluated?  What would that look like?  What about LGBTQ issues?  And how much value can these considerations have if the society in which these resources are created still has problems so you're going to have to let some imbalanced information through otherwise the library would be empty.  How do you label this stuff properly?  Even our labelling systems are corrupt, with horrifying holdovers like the MeSH term "Monsters" that are slowly being replaced.

Perhaps baby steps is the best way to start:  gathering information on resources in the collection such as male-female ration of authorship, details about indexing practices and maybe even hiring practices of the companies building these tools.  I'm certainly no expert in the field of gender studies or feminism but there have got to be some basic concepts that can be molded into evaluation criteria even if it's just to help identify key problem areas in the industry and resources as they are now.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

My contribution to "Access to Scholarly Output: Academic Libraries in Canada"

Along with a few of my colleagues, I presented on the topic of "Access to Scholarly Output: Academic Libraries in Canada" at the "Interrogating Access: Current and Future Directions for Scholarly Research and Communications in Canada" conference on 15 February 2014.  The conference included both librarians and publishers from across Canada and although we were put into a "copyright" section, the purpose of our presentation was to inform people of the various unique roles that academic libraries play in Canada, at the local, provincial and national level.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Allies in the effort to supply college students with textbooks

When I read the blurb about Algonquin College's new program to provide electronic books as textbooks for students through January 17th's Academica Top Ten email, I was impressed.  Sure, everyone's moving towards ebooks now, but it's always nice to see an academic institution move forward on such a project with this much effort and planning.  And speed too!  Three years might seem like a long time to take to do something like this but ebooks are still pretty new and, institutionally, we're all still testing the waters with the vendors to see what works and what doesn't.

The write-up on Contact North seems more like a press release than an actual information piece designed to help the other post-secondary institutions consider their own related projects but it points out many key strengths of the project from my perspective:

  • Partnering with more than one publisher:  Excellent.  The more the merrier.  That gives the institution more flexibility in pricing and instructors more choice in titles to use as texts.
  • One platform that isn't connected with a specific publisher:  Not bad.  Hopefully the developer will listen to the institution in terms of changing needs, customization, and support.  Although it is Ingram's product, and their other ebook platform, MyiLibrary, is pretty bad.
  • AODA compliant to some degree:  It doesn't go into much detail but it's got something.  Again, hopefully they'll be able to work with the vendor.
However, the article claims several benefits that have nothing to do with the deal specifically and only apply since we're talking about electronic resources, online stuff, like how they can be kept current much easier and cheaper than with print.  Really?  An online resource can be changed by the vendor at a distance?  Wow.  Next you'll be telling me there are screens that respond to TOUCH.

There were a few details that bothered me:
  • The constant referral to cost-savings:  That's great and all but it's a little cliched to lean on the not-quite-accurate idea that ebooks are always cheaper because of the lack of printing costs.  The deal includes, for now, a built-in discount for electronic versions compared to the print versions.  Phase One allows for perpetual access to the titles if the student downloads them to a personal device.  Hopefully that will last.  Publisher's haven't tended to just give away that kind of access in the past so hopefully it will survive the pilot stage.  Of course, I assume that students won't be able to sell the etextbooks they aren't using anymore, illustrating just where the students' "savings" are coming from.
  • The library is not mentioned once:  Yes, this deal is about student "purchase" of textbooks, but I would hope that the library had at least a seat at the table since we've all been dealing with ebooks and access issues (not to mention the platform vendor and the publishers in this deal) for a long time.  Some of the texts being used might well be acquired for less and with more stability by their own library.  The library should also be used to negotiating consortially for ebook deals, a possible direction the article mentions at the end.
  • 100% of students?  100% of programs?:  I hope that doesn't force the hand of faculty too much.  Despite the flexibility of platform and the selection of publishers, I would assume that it's not always going to be possible to find the ideal textbook in the list of system-compatible works.  I don't know how college instructors select textbooks for their courses but I hope that this doesn't mean that they will have to "make do" with a certain title just because the institution has demanded universal compliance.
Well, hopefully Algonquin and other institution's moving in this direction will learn and grow through this effort.  I will be interesting to see how it turns how, come next September.

[ Read "e-Textbooks at Algonquin College" from Contact North. ]

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The connection between evolution and library science

evolution Is there a connection?  I've been thinking about the possibility for probably the past year year now and reading chapter 10, "Life's Own Code" from Glieck's "The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood" has suggested it to me.  (The following chapter -- "Into the Meme Pool" -- would have done it if I had been a little slower.)

In a way, libraries could be thought of as "anti-evolution".  Not "anti-evolutionary theory" but rather working against the force of evolution.  As it is in meme theory, ideas have a life of their own, literally not figuratively.  Concepts, plans, images, theories, etc. have "survivability" and replicate themselves and can be thought of as surviving, or better yet, thriving the more copies there are of them and the more they are replicating themselves.  The idea of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a particularly successful.  My grocery list from last week, not so much.  So what do libraries collect?  Ideas encased in containers, in a way, frozen in time.  The librarian's job is typically two-fold:  preservation and access.  We collection valuable resources to "save" them from the wilds of the information wilderness, but then also house them in such a way as to allow people to look at them and use them as they see fit.  The analogy to genetic evolution could be something like a zoo, animal conservation area, or even cryogenic lab.  We house books, journals, videos, etc. in a safe place, away from the damage that could be done to them while in the hands of the users, publishers, society in general.  And then we provide a controlled environment for the ideas inside those "idea-holders" to come out and play, or more accurately, reproduce.  When patrons read a journal article, skim through a textbook, watch a video, practice a piece of music, what they are doing is producing an inexact copy inside their mind, in effect, allowing the meme(s) to multiply and escape the confines of the collection.

So libraries are both anti-evolution, in that the organisms are stored away to ensure non-replication (or rather non-imperfect-replication) and pro-evolution, in that the organisms are allowed to reproduce, and in fact, the storage is done for the express purpose of continued and "appropriate" reproduction.

Our job as library workers is made easier and more difficult by the differences in reproduction of ideas as compared to living organisms.  Pure replication is easier of course, so that maintenance of content is made possible by the practice of perfect replication (e.g. LOCKSS).  On the other hand, any replication is easier so that more control and therefore more work is necessary to ensure that unwanted replication doesn't happen (e.g. loss of "old versions" that some shareholders such as publishers may consider valueless but may have value to others).  It's easier to "freeze" content in containers unlike cryogenically storing animals or plants (e.g. archiving old electronic journals).  On the other hand, extended storage without active involvement can involve loss of content as well (e.g. unsupported formats and/or technological failure).

What does this mean for librarians?  I'm not sure.  Perhaps thinking about the work of librarianship in this way can help us prepare for the inevitable disintegration and/or substantial alterative of content.  If we consider the ultimate goal of librarianship is to ensure a certain kind of "idea mutation" then it puts preservation and access assurance into a slightly difference light, doesn't it?