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February 23, 2015

The library-sized hole in the Internet

Sarah Bartlett of OCLC interviewed me at some length about the future of libraries. You can read it here.

At some point I will write up the topic of my talk at the OCLC’s EMEA Regional Council Meeting in Florence: libraries as community centers…of meaning.

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February 8, 2015

Libraries as community centers…of meaning

Well, it’s snowing in Boston and I’m in Florence. Italy. (I’m SO sorry, Ann!) I’m here to keynote an OCLC EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) conference about libraries.

After three major revisions, I believe that on Tuesday I’m going to propose thinking about libraries as community centers. But not the usual sort where local people gather, work, socialize, play, learn … all good things, for sure. In addition, I’m going to suggest that they view themselves as community centers of meaning.

I know it sounds silly, and I’m open to better phrases, but I think it’s not entirely pointless. (The idea arose in a conversation with Robert Fleming, executive director of the Emerson College library. I’m teaching a course at Emerson this semester.)

The idea is simple. It used to be that once a user checked a book out of the library, the library was out of the loop. The user read it at home, talked about it with friends or a Significant Other, maybe spent an evening with a book club discussing it. The library might be slightly in the loop if they enabled users to review or rate books, or if they have an awesome Awesome Box. But even so, the pickings were pretty slim.

Now, of course, users are likely to talk on line about what they’re reading. At least as important, the library has tons of metadata that it can use to gauge how relevant an item is to its community, and even get a glimmer of what makes it relevant. Of course, much of this information is private, but there are ways to use it without violating anyone’s privacy.

If a community can be made more aware of what it’s finding meaningful and relevant, it can learn from itself, push its own boundaries, unearth new ideas, and find ever-better disagreements.

Note that I am not suggesting that libraries curate community meaning. Rather, libraries can provide services to facilitate the development of community meaning, making the community aware of itself. And this is of course an additional opportunity for librarians to contribute their own expertise at contextualizing and expanding our understanding.

Who is currently the custodian of community meaning? No one. Who is in the best position to be that custodian and facilitator? Your local library.

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February 2, 2015

Future of libraries, Kenya style

This video will remind you, if you happen to have forgotten, what libraries mean to much of the world:

Internet, mesh, people eager to learn, the same people eager to share. A future for libraries.

You can contribute here.

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January 7, 2015

Harvard Library adopts LibraryCloud

According to a post by the Harvard Library, LibraryCloud is now officially a part of the Library toolset. It doesn’t even have the word “pilot” next to it. I’m very happy and a little proud about this.

LibraryCloud is two things at once. Internal to Harvard Library, it’s a metadata hub that lets lots of different data inputs be normalized, enriched, and distributed. As those inputs change, you can change LibraryCloud’s workflow process once, and all the apps and services that depend upon those data can continue to work without making any changes. That’s because LibraryCloud makes the data that’s been input available through an API which provides a stable interface to that data. (I am overstating the smoothness here. But that’s the idea.)

To the Harvard community and beyond, LibraryCloud provides open APIs to access tons of metadata gathered by Harvard Library. LibraryCloud already has metadata about 18M items in the Harvard Library collection — one of the great collections — including virtually all the books and other items in the catalog (nearly 13M), a couple of million of images in the VIA collection, and archives at the folder level in Harvard OASIS. New data can be added relatively easily, and because LibraryCloud is workflow based, that data can be updated, normalized and enriched automatically. (Note that we’re talking about metadata here, not the content. That’s a different kettle of copyrighted fish.)

LibraryCloud began as an idea of mine (yes, this is me taking credit for the idea) about 4.5 years ago. With the help of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, which I co-directed until a few months ago, we invited in local libraries and had a great conversation about what could be done if there were an open API to metadata from multiple libraries. Over time, the Lab built an initial version of LibraryCloud primarily with Harvard data, but with scads of data from non-Harvard sources. (Paul Deschner, take many many bows. Matt Phillips, too.) This version of LibraryCloud — now called lilCloud — is still available and is still awesome.

With the help of the Library Lab, a Harvard internal grant-giving group, we began a new version based on a workflow engine and hosted in the Amazon cloud. (Jeffrey Licht, Michael Vandermillen, Randy Stern, Paul Deschner, Tracey Robinson, Robin Wendler, Scott Wicks, Jim Borron, Mary Lee Kennedy, and many more, take bows as well. And we couldn’t have done it without you, Arcardia Foundation!) (Note that I suffer from Never Gets a List Right Syndrome, so if I left you out, blame my brain and let me know. Don’t be shy. I’m ashamed already.)

The Harvard version of LibraryCloud is a one-library implementation, although that one library comprises 73 libraries. Thus the LibraryCloud Harvard has adopted is a good distance from the initial vision of a single API for accessing multiple libraries. But it’s a big first step. It’s open source code [documentation]. Who knows?

I think it’s impressive that Harvard Library has taken this step toward adopting a platform architecture, and it’s cool beyond cool that this architecture is further opening up Harvard Library’s metadata riches to any developer or site that wants to use it. (This also would not have happened without Harvard Library’s enlightened Open Metadata policy.)

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November 18, 2014

[2b2k] Four things to learn in a learning commons

Last night I got to give a talk at a public meeting of the Gloucester Education Foundation and the Gloucester Public School District. We talked about learning commons and libraries. It was awesome to see the way that community comports itself towards its teachers, students and librarians, and how engaged they are. Truly exceptional.

Afterwards there were comments by Richard Safier (superintendent), Deborah Kelsey (director of the Sawyer Free Library), and Samantha Whitney (librarian and teacher at the high school), and then a brief workshop at the attendees tables. The attendees included about a dozen of Samantha’s students; you can see in the liveliness of her students and the great questions they asked that Samantha is an inspiring teacher.

I came out of these conversations thinking that if my charter were to establish a “learning commons” in a school library, I’d ask what sort of learning I want to be modeled in that space. I think I’d be looking for four characteristics:

1. Students need to learn the basics (and beyond!) of online literacy: not just how to use the tools, but, more important, how to think critically in the networked age. Many schools are recognizing that, thankfully. But it’s something that probably will be done socially as often as not: “Can I trust a site?” is a question probably best asked of a network.

2. Old-school critical thinking was often thought of as learning how to sift claims so that only that which is worth believing makes it through. Those skills are of course still valuable, but on a network we are almost always left with contradictory piles of sifted beliefs. Sometimes we need to dispute those other beliefs because they are simply wrong. But on a network we also need to learn to live with difference — and to appreciate difference — more than ever. So, I would take learning to love difference to be an essential skill.

3. It kills me that most people have never clicked on a Wikipedia “Talk” page to see the discussion that resulted in the article they’re reading. If we’re going to get through this thing — life together on this planet — we’re really going to have to learn to be more meta-aware about what we read and encounter online. The old trick of authority was to erase any signs of what produced the authoritative declaration. We can’t afford that any more. We need always to be aware the what we come across resulted from humans and human processes.

4. We can’t rely on individual brains. We need brains that are networked with other brains. Those networks can be smarter than any of their individual members, but only if the participants learn how to let the group make them all smarter instead of stupider.

I am not sure how these skills can be taught — excellent educators and the communities that support them, like those I met last night, are in a better position to figure it out — but they are four skills that seem highly congruent with a networked learning commons.

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October 27, 2014

[liveblog] Christine Borgmann

Christine Borgman, chair of Info Studies at UCLA, and author of the essential Scholarship in the Digital Age, is giving a talk on The Knowledge Infrastructure of Astronomy. Her new book is Big Data, Little Data, No Data: Scholarship in the Networked World, but you’ll have to wait until January. (And please note that precisely because this is a well-organized talk with clearly marked sections, it comes across as choppy in these notes.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points.Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Her new book draws on 15 yrs of studying various disciplines and 7-8 years focusing on astronomy as a discipline. It’s framed around the change to more data-intensive research across the sciences and humanities plus, the policy push for open access to content and to data. (The team site.)

They’ve been looking at four groups:

The world thinks that astronomy and genomics have figured out how to do data intensive science, she says. But scientists in these groups know that it’s not that straightforward. Christine’s group is trying to learn from these groups and help them learn from one another

Knowledge Infrastructures are “string and baling wire.” Pieces pulled together. The new layered on top of the old.

The first English scientific journal began almost 350 yrs ago. (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Academy.) We no longer think of the research object as a journal but as a set of articles, objects, and data. People don’t have a simple answer to what is their data. The raw files? The tables of data? When they’re told to share their data, they’re not sure what data is meant.”Even in astronomy we don’t have a single, crisp idea of what are our data.”

It’s very hard to find and organize all the archives of data. Even establishing a chronology is difficult. E.g., “Yes, that project has that date stamp but it’s really a transfer from a prior project twenty years older than that.” It’s hard to map the pieces.

Seamless Astronomy: ADS All Sky Survey, mapping data onto the sky. Also, they’re trying to integrate various link mappings, e.g., Chandra, NED, Simbad, WorldWide Telescope, Arxiv.org, Visier, Aladin. But mapping these collections doesn’t tell you why they’re being linked, what they have in common, or what are their differences. What kind of science is being accomplished by making those relationships? Christine hopes her project will help explain this, although not everyone will agree with the explanations.

Her group wants to draw some maps and models: “A Christmas Tree of Links!” She shows a variety of maps, possible ways of organizing the field. E.g., one from 5 yrs ago clusters services, repositories, archives and publishers. Another scheme: Publications, Objects, Observations; the connection between pubs (citations) and observations is the most loosely coupled. “The trend we’re seeing is that astronomy is making considerable progress in tying together the observations, publications, and data.” “Within astronomy, you’ve built many more pieces of your infrastructure than any other field we’ve looked at.”

She calls out Chris Erdmann [sitting immediately in front of me] as a leader in trying to get data curation and custodianship taken up by libraries. Others are worrying about bit-rot and other issues.

Astronomy is committed to open access, but the resource commitments are uneven.

Strengths of astronomy:

  • collaboration and openness.

  • International coordination.

  • Long term value of data.

  • Agreed standards.

  • Shared resources.

Gaps of astronomy:


  • Investment in data sstewardship: varies by mission and by type of research. E.g., space-based missions get more investment than the ground-based ones. (An audience member says that that’s because the space research was so expensive that there was more insistence on making the data public and usable. A lively discussion ensues…)


  • The access to data varies.


  • Curation of tools and technologies


  • International coordination. Sould we curate existing data? But you don’t get funding for using existing data. So, invest in getting new data from new instruments??


Christine ends with some provocative questions about openness. What does it mean exactly? What does it get us?


Q&A


Q: As soon as you move out of the Solar System to celestial astronomy, all the standards change.


A: When it takes ten years to build an instrument, it forces you to make early decisions about standards. But when you’re deploying sensors in lakes, you don’t always note that this is #127 that Eric put the tinfoil on top of because it wasn’t working well. Or people use Google Docs and don’t even label the rows and columns because all the readers know what they mean. That makes going back to it is much harder. “Making it useful for yourself is hard enough.” It’s harder still to make it useful for someone in 5 yrs, and harder still to make it useful for an unknown scientist in another country speaking another language and maybe from another discipline.


Q: You have to put a data management plan into every proposal, but you can’t make it a budget item… [There is a lively discussion of which funders reasonably fund this]


Q: Why does Europe fund ground-based data better than the US does?


A: [audience] Because of Riccardo Giacconi.

A: [Christine] We need to better fund the invisible workforce that makes science work. We’re trying to cast a light on this invisible infrastructure.

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October 13, 2014

Library as starting point

A new report on Ithaka S+R‘s annual survey of libraries suggests that library directors are committed to libraries being the starting place for their users’ research, but that the users are not in agreement. This calls into question the expenditures libraries make to achieve that goal. (Hat tip to Carl Straumsheim and Peter Suber.)

The question is good. My own opinion is that libraries should let Google do what it’s good at, while they focus on what they’re good at. And libraries are very good indeed at particular ways of discovery. The goal should be to get the mix right, not to make sure that libraries are the starting point for their communities’ research.

The Ithaka S+R survey found that “The vast majority of the academic library directors…continued to agree strongly with the statement: ‘It is strategically important that my library be seen by its users as the first place they go to discover scholarly content.'” But the survey showed that only about half think that that’s happening. This gap can be taken as room for improvement, or as a sign that the aspiration is wrongheaded.

The survey confirms that many libraries have responded to this by moving to a single-search-box strategy, mimicking Google. You just type in a couple of words about what you’re looking for and it searches across every type of item and every type of system for managing those items: images, archival files, books, maps, museum artifacts, faculty biographies, syllabi, databases, biological specimens… Just like Google. That’s the dream, anyway.

I am not sold on it. Roger cites Lorcan Dempsey, who is always worth listening to:

Lorcan Dempsey has been outspoken in emphasizing that much of “discovery happens elsewhere” relative to the academic library, and that libraries should assume a more “inside-out” posture in which they attempt to reveal more effectively their distinctive institutional assets.

Yes. There’s no reason to think that libraries are going to be as good at indexing diverse materials as Google et al. are. So, libraries should make it easier for the search engines to do their job. Library platforms can help. So can Schema.org as a way of enriching HTML pages about library items so that the search engines can easily recognize the library item metadata.

But assuming that libraries shouldn’t outsource all of their users’ searches, then what would best serve their communities? This is especially complicated since the survey reveals that preference for the library web site vs. the open Web varies based on just about everything: institution, discipline, role, experience, and whether you’re exploring something new or keeping up with your field. This leads Roger to provocatively ask:

While academic communities are understood as institutionally affiliated, what would it entail to think about the discovery needs of users throughout their lifecycle? And what would it mean to think about all the different search boxes and user login screens across publishes [sic] and platforms as somehow connected, rather than as now almost entirely fragmented? …Libraries might find that a less institutionally-driven approach to their discovery role would counterintuitively make their contributions more relevant.

I’m not sure I agree, in part because I’m not entirely sure what Roger is suggesting. If it’s that libraries should offer an experience that integrates all the sources scholars consult throughout the lifecycle of their projects or themselves, then, I’d be happy to see experiments, but I’m skeptical. Libraries generally have not shown themselves to be particularly adept at creating grand, innovative online user experiences. And why should they be? It’s a skill rarely exhibited anywhere on the Web.

If designing great Web experiences is not a traditional strength of research libraries, the networked expertise of their communities is. So is the library’s uncompromised commitment to serving its community’s interests. A discovery system that learns from its community can do something that Google cannot: it can find connections that the community has discerned, and it can return results that are particularly relevant to that community. (It can make those connections available to the search engines also.)

This is one of the principles behind the Stacklife project that came out of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab that until recently I co-directed. It’s one of the principles of the Harvard LibraryCloud platform that makes Stacklife possible. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been touting a technically dumb cross-library measure of usage. These are all straightforward ways to start to record and use information about the items the community has voted for with its library cards.

It is by far just the start. Anonymization and opt-in could provide rich sets of connections and patterns of usage. Imagine we could know what works librarians recommend in response to questions. Imagine if we knew which works were being clustered around which topics in lib guides and syllabi. (Support the Open Syllabus Project!) Imagine if we knew which books were being put on lists by faculty and students. Imagine if knew what books were on participating faculty members’ shelves. Imagine we could learn which works the community thinks are awesome. Imagine if we could do this across institutions so that communities could learn from one another. Imagine we could do this with data structures that support wildly messily linked sources, many of them within the library but many of them outside of it. (Support Linked Data!)

Let the Googles and Bings do what they do better than any sane person could have imagined twenty years ago. Let libraries do what they have been doing better than anyone else for centuries: supporting and learning from networked communities of scholars, librarians, and students who together are a profound source of wisdom and working insight.

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October 8, 2014

A dumb idea for opening up library usage data

A dumb idea, but its dumbness is its virtue.

The idea is that libraries that want to make data about how relevant items are to their communities could algorithmically assign a number between 1-100 to those items. This number would present a very low risk of re-identification, would be easily compared across libraries, and would give local libraries control over how they interpret relevance.

I explain this idea in a post at The Chronicle of Higher Ed

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October 7, 2014

Library as a platform: Chattanooga

I finally got to see the Chattanooga Library. It was even better than I’d expected. In fact, you can see the future of libraries emerging there.

That’s not to say that you can simply list what it’s doing and do the same things and declare yourself the Library of the Future. Rather, Chattanooga Library has turned itself into a platform. That’s where the future is, not in the particular programs and practices that happen to emerge from that platform.

I got to visit, albeit all too briefly, because my friend Nate Hill, assistant director of the Library, invited me to speak at the kickoff of Chattanooga Startup Week. Nate runs the fourth floor space. It had been the Library’s attic, but now has been turned into an open space lab that works in both software and hardware. The place is a pleasing shambles (still neater than my office), open to the public every afternoon. It is the sort of place that invites you to try something out — a laser cutter, the inevitable 3D printer, an arduino board … or to talk with one of the people at work there creating apps or liberating data.

The Library has a remarkable open data platform, but that’s not what makes this Library itself into a platform. It goes deeper than that.

Go down to the second floor and you’ll see the youth area under the direction/inspiration of Justin Hoenke. It’s got lots of things that kids like to do, including reading books, of course. But also playing video games, building things with Legos, trying out some cool homebrew tech (e.g., this augmented reality sandbox by 17-year-old Library innovator, Jake Brown (github)), and soon recording in audio studios. But what makes this space a platform is its visible openness to new ideas that invites the community to participate in the perpetual construction of the Library’s future.

This is physically manifested in the presence of unfinished structures, including some built by a team of high school students. What will they be used for? No one is sure yet. The presence of lumber assembled by users for purposes to be devised by users and librarians together makes clear that this is a library that one way or another is always under construction, and that that construction is a collaborative, inventive, and playful process put in place by the Library, but not entirely owned by the Library.

As conversations with the Library Director, Corinne Hill (LibraryJournal’s Librarian of the Year, 2014), and Mike Bradshaw of Colab — sort of a Chattanooga entrepreneurial ecosystem incubator — made clear, this is all about culture, not tech. Open space without a culture of innovation and collaboration is just an attic. Chattanooga has a strong community dedicated to establishing this culture. It is further along than most cities. But it’s lots of work: lots of networking, lots of patient explanations, and lots and lots of walking the walk.

The Library itself is one outstanding example. It is serving its community’s needs in part by anticipating those needs (of course), but also by letting the community discover and develop its own interests. That’s what a platform is about.

It’s also what the future is about.

 


Here are two relevant things I’ve written about this topic: Libraries as Platforms and Libraries won’t create their own futures.

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September 25, 2014

BoogyWoogy library browser

Just for fun, over the weekend I wrote a way of visual browsing the almost 13M items in the Harvard Library collection. It’s called the “BoogyWoogy Browser” in honor of Mondrian. Also, it’s silly. (The idea for something like this came out of a conversation with Jeff Goldenson several years ago. In fact, it’s probably his idea.)

screen capture

You enter a search term. It returns 5-10 of the first results of a search on the Library’s catalog, and lays them out in a line of squares. You click on any of the squares and it gets another 5-10 items that are “like” the one you clicked on … but you get to choose one of five different ways items can be alike. At the strictest end, they are other items classified under the same first subject. At the loosest end, the browser takes the first real word of the title and does a simple keyword search on it, so clicking on Fifty Shades of Gray will fetch items that have the word “fifty” in their titles or metadata.

It’s fragile, lousy code (see for yourself at Github), but that’s actually sort of the point. BoogyWoogy is a demo of the sort of thing even a hobbyist like me can write using the Harvard LibraryCloud API. LibraryCloud is an open library platform that makes library metadata available to developers. Although I’ve left the Harvard Library Innovation Lab that spawned this project, I’m still working on it through November as a small but talented and knowledgeable team of developers at the Lab and Harvard Library Technical Services are getting ready for a launch of a beta in a few months. I’ll tell you more about it as the time approaches. For example, we’re hoping to hold a hackathon in November.

Anyway, feel free to give BoogyWoogy a try. And when it breaks, you have no one to blame but me.

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