Joho the Blog

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 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.


October 3, 2014

The modern technology with the worst signal-to-noise ratio is …

…the car alarm.

When one goes off, the community’s reaction is not “Catch the thief!” but “Find the car owner so s/he can turn off the @!@#ing car alarm.” At least in the communities I’ve lived in. (Note: I am a privileged white man.)

The signal-to-noise ratio sucks for car alarms in every direction. First, it is a signal to the car owner that is blasted to an entire neighborhood that’s trying to do something else. Second, it’s almost always a false alarm. (See note above.) Third, because it’s almost always a false alarm, it’s an astoundingly ineffective true alarm. The signal becomes noise.

Is there any modern technology with a worse signal-to-noise ratio?


October 2, 2014

What does Men, Women & Children think it’s about?

I went to a screening of the new movie “Men, Women and Children” last night. The only positive thing I can find to say about it is that it squandered some good performances from some great actors. In fact, I left wondering why on earth anyone made this movie. What did the director and co-writer, Jason Reitman, think he was achieving? Why did he make it? What’s it about? I don’t know, I don’t know, and I don’t know. By 30 minutes into it, I didn’t care. And now that I’ve had time to think about it, I think it’s actually worse than I had at first thought. [Spoiler: Everything you think might happen in this movie does happen.]

I liked Reitman’s Up in the Air, detested his Juno, and had mixed feelings about his writing on Thank You for Smoking. I wanted to like Men, Women & Children. But it is one of the most intensely unlikeable films ever. Some of that is on purpose. Most of it is not.

The movie was introduced to me as being about the Internet. That threw me, because although much of it documents its characters’ interactions with and over the Internet, it seemed to have nothing to actually say about the Net. In this movie, most of what happens via the Net is anti-life: a student is swayed by a pro-anorexia site, another is unable to get erect with a real girl after all of his extreme masturbatory encounters online — there’s more masturbation in this movie than at a boy’s camp the night after a social — another goes online to hire a prostitute, etc. But the Net also shows up, briefly, as the only way the two most positive couples are able to sneak out together, and as the pitiable source of salvation for a lonely soul. In fact, the clearest villain in the movie is Jennifer Garner’s cartoonish anti-Net control freak. (It’s not her fault. She was written that way.) While overall the movie presents a hugely negative picture of the effect of the Net, most of its characters’ issues are ones they have brought to the Net. The movie thus seems to have no coherent hypothesis about the Internet.

So this morning I concluded that whatever the hell this movie is about, it’s not about the Net. Which is too bad, because what I think it is about makes it an even more of an epic fail, as those young rapscallions say on the Net.

It’s an ensemble piece that follows a set of young high school students and their parents. It only cares about their love lives. It is completely by the book. These are types, not characters. They get what they deserve. End o’ story. At that level, this is merely a vapid, incompetent, trite movie.

But Reitman apparently is after something bigger. The movie is framed by long shots of the Voyager space craft (CGI, natch) sailing through space, with an elegiac narrative intoned by Emma Thompson. Now, Emma to the T has no bigger fan than me, but you have to ask why Reitman chose her. A woman’s voice? Great. A British voice about this very American movie? Was he thinking that a British voice would lend it some class? Really?

In any event, the space framing and the overvoice completely fails. The heavy-handed point it makes is that the troubled lives we are about to see are nothing in the grand scale of things. It is an intensely gloomy perspective. It is in fact the “philosophy” explicitly mirrored by one of the teen characters. It suits a depressed teen. It does not suit an adult. And, yes, the movie ends back in space with Thompson reading a long modestly hopeful quote from Carl Sagan‘s Pale Blue Dot. But did we really have to sit through a two-hour movie to be reminded that we only have each other?

Not to mention three problems with the overvoice: First, I couldn’t get Hitchhiker’s Guide out of my head every time it started. (No, I’m not proud of the fact that for me (British Narrator + Space) = Hitchhiker’s Guide.) Second, Reitman uses it for endless explicit exposition of the plot. Third, he actually has Emma’s overvoice interrupt the action midway through in order to make a jokey comment about the scene we’re watching. If you’re going to have a narrator, it’d be good to have her role be a little consistent. At least make the joke funnier.

Which brings up something you should know about this movie. It is unbelievably depressing. Or it would be if it were any good. It is a movie without joy. Everyone is unhappy. Always. I laughed once, and not that hard. There’s nothing wrong with presenting a bleak picture of life. But you have to earn it.

Realizing that Reitman probably thinks this is a movie with a big idea makes it even worse, in my estimation. He thought he wouldn’t make the usual ensemble teen comedy. He’d tell it like it really is. And he’d spend equal time on the parents as well as the children.

Fine. But what message does he have for us men, women and children? What does he have to tell us that justifies the time and expense and contribution of useful hours by his cast and crew? And our time and money as an audience? It turns out that Reitman, who is about 37 years old, has come to the adolescent’s recognition that none of us is the center of the universe despite the way our parents’ focused on us. Reitman thinks this audience is stuck on that awful teenage truth. But you can’t become an adult without getting past that truth and incorporating it into a idea of meaning at a more modest scale.

Perhaps that’s why I didn’t recognize a single human being among the ensemble he put on the screen. We are not all miserable creatures, wrong about ourselves, masturbating ourselves into sexlessness, frittering away our time on our pale blue dot. And if we were, this movie would not help, not only because it’s bad art but because in lieu of providing any vision of meaning beyond that of a disappointed adolescent, it leaves its characters either in their misery or in a phony-baloney Hollywood wrap up.

There is not a single reason to see this movie. Not even Emma Thompson.

Here’s the end quote from Pale Blue Dot from a much earlier production. Now you don’t have to see “Men, Women & Children.

You’re welcome.

So, one more thing. You know how at the end of Casablanca Bogart, er, Rick says that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”? That’s an important thing to remember, but only because the film has shown us that problems of three little people do amount to something.

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September 30, 2014

[d’oh] CSS alpha makes me happy

After all these years, I just found out about CSS alpha as a way of adjusting the opacity of the backgrounds of elements on a Web page.

In the past, I’ve used the opacity setting to do the job. So, if you have, say, a div that’s overlaying another element, setting its opacity to, say, 0.7 will make the entire thing 30% transparent. Opacity, in other words, is inherited by all of an element’s children without the children having any way of contesting the will.

But yesterday the opacity setting wasn’t working on an element for some reason. So I googled around and stumbled upon the alpha setting, which did what I wanted even better. Alpha sets the opacity of the background of the element while leaving the text and border opaque. This is great if you’re putting a label with text over other elements.

Here are two divs that are exactly the same in all their settings except one has its opacity set to 0.5 and the other has the alpha of its background color set to 0.5.


Notice that the alpha setting has left the text and border un-alpha’ed.

To set the alpha, you have to specify it as part of the rgb color setting, using the keyword rgba. For example, here’s the relevant portion of the CSS of the alpha-ed box in the screen capture above:

border: 6px solid #FF8000;
background-color: rgba(255,111,207,0.5);
color: black;

And here’s a site that will convert your hex colors into rgb colors.

So, I’m hereby giving myself a giant D’oh slap n the hope that you won’t have to.

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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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September 22, 2014

The future of libraries won’t be created by libraries

Library Journal has posted an op-ed of mine that begins:

The future of libraries won’t be created by libraries. That’s a good thing. That future is too big and too integral to the infrastructure of knowledge for any one group to invent it. Still, that doesn’t mean that libraries can wait passively for this new future. Rather, we must create the conditions by which libraries will be pulled out of themselves and into everything else.


September 18, 2014

Et tu, U2?

A few days ago, when Apple pushed the latest from U2 into everyone’s iTunes library, you could hear the Internet pause as it suddenly realized that Apple is its parents’ age.

Now in the ad-promotion succubus occupying the body of what used to be Time Magazine, you can see U2 desperate to do exactly the wrong thing: insisting that it wasn’t a gift at all. You can learn more about this in the hilariously titled cover article of Time: “The veteran rock band faces the future.” This a future in which tracks we don’t like are bundled with tracks we do (the return of the CD format) and people who share with their fans are ruining it for U2, boohoo.

Or, as Bono recently said, “We were paid” for the Apple downloads, adding, “I don’t believe in free music. Music is a sacrament.” And as everyone knows, sacraments need to be purchased at a fair market value, the results of which Bono, as a deeply spiritual artist, secures in sacred off-shore accounts.

In my head I hear Bono, enraged by the increasingly bad publicity, composing a message that he posts without first running it through his phalanx of PR folks:

Dear fans:

You have recently received a copy of our latest album, Songs of Innocence, in your iTunes library. U2 understands you may be confused or even upset by this. So, let me clarify once and for all the most important point about this — if I may humbly say so — eternal masterpiece. It was not our intention to cause you stress or to wonder if you have the musical sensitivity to full grasp (if I may, humbly say) the greatness of our work. But most important, it is essential above all that you understand that it was not our intention to give you a gift. No freaking way.

We understand your mistake. You are, after all, just fans, and you don’t play in the Jetstream world of global music. As I said to my dear friend Nelson Mandela (friend is too weak a word; I was his mentor) shortly before he passed, music is a sacrament, just like tickets to movies, especially ones with major stars working for scale, or like the bill at a restaurant where you and any two of the Clintons (Chelsea, you are a star! Give yourself that!) are plotting goodness.

To tell you the truth, I’m disappointed in you. No, worse. I’m hurt. Personally hurt. How dare you think this was a gift! After all these years, is that all U2 is worth to you? Nothing? Our music has all the value of a CrackerJacks trinket or a lower-end Rolex in an awards show gift bag? Do you not understand that Apple paid us for every copy they distributed? We were paid for it, sheeple! Massive numbers of dollars were transferred into our bank accounts! More dollars than you could count, you whiny little “Ooh look at me I’m sharing” wankers! We’re U2 dammit! We don’t need you! You need us! MONEY IS LOVE! EXTRA-ORDINARY LOVE!!!!!!

Have a beautiful day.

Meanwhile, as always, Amanda Palmer expresses the open-hearted truth about this issue. It almost makes me regret making fun of Bono. Almost.

>Bono makes it clear U2 was paid for the

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September 17, 2014

The problem is not with our imaginations

Yet another brilliant post by Ethan. (I think I’m going to turn that into a keyboard macro. I’ll just have to type ^EthanTalk and that opening sentence will get filled in.) It’s a reflection on the reaction to his piece in the Atlantic about advertising as the Net’s original sin, and the focus on his “confession” that he wrote the code for the Net’s first popup ad.

But I think I actually disagree with one of his key points. In other words, I’m very likely wrong. Nevertheless…

Ethan explains why the Net has come to rely on advertising money:

We had a failure of imagination. And the millions of smart young programmers and businesspeople spending their lives trying to get us to click on ads are also failing to imagine something better. We’re all starting from the same assumptions: everything on the internet is free, we pay with our attention, and our attention is worth more if advertisers know more about who we are and what we do, we start business with money from venture capitalists who need businesses to grow explosively if they’re going to make money.

He recommends that we question our assumptions so we can come up with more imaginative solutions.

I agree with Ethan’s statement of the problem, and admire his ability to put it forward with such urgency. But it seems to me that the problem is less a failure of imagination than the success of the power of incumbent systems.Is access to the Net in exactly the wrong hands because of the failure of someone to imagine a better way, or because of the structural corruption of capitalism? Similarly, why are we failing to slow global warming in an appreciable way? (Remember when Pres. Reagan took down the solar panels Pres. Carter had installed on the White House?) Why are elections still disproportionately determined by the wealthy? In each of these cases, imagination has lost to entrenched systems. We had innovative ways of accessing the Net, we’ve had many great ideas for slowing global warming, we have had highly imaginative attempts to get big money out of politics, and they all failed to one degree or another. Thuggish systems steal great ideas’ lunch money. Over and over and over.

Ethan of course recognizes this. But he ties these failures to failures of the imagination when one could just as well conclude that imagination is no match for corrupt systems — especially since we’ve now gone through a period when imagination was unleashed with a force never before seen, and yet the fundamental systems haven’t budged. This seems to be Larry Lessig’s conclusion, since he moved from CreativeCommons — an imaginative, disruptive approach — to a super-Pac that plays on the existing field, but plays for the Good Guys ‘n’ Gals.

Likewise, one could suggest that the solution — if there is one — is not more imagination, but more organizing. More imagination will only work if the medium still is pliable. Experience suggests it never was as pliable as some of us thought.

But the truth is that I really don’t know. I don’t fully believe the depressing “bad thugs beat good ideas” line I’ve just adumbrated. I certainly agree that it’s turning out to be much harder to overturn the old systems than I’d thought twenty or even five years ago. But I also think that we’ve come much further than we often realize. I take it as part of my job to remind people of that, which is why I am almost always on the chirpier side of these issues. And I certainly think that good ideas can be insanely disruptive, starting with the Net and the Web, and including Skype, eBay, Open Source, maps and GPS, etc.

So, while I don’t want to pin the failure of the Net on our failure of imagination, I also still have hope that bold acts of imagination can make progress, that our ability to iterate at scale can create social formations that are new in the world, and that this may be a multi-generational fight.

I therefore come out of Ethan’s post with questions: (1) What about this age made it possible even to think that imagination could disrupt our most entrenched systems? (2) What makes some ideas effectively disruptive, and why do other equally imaginative good ideas fail? And what about unimaginative ideas that make a real difference? The Birmingham bus boycott was not particularly imaginative, but it sure packed a wallop. (3) What can we do to make it easier for great acts of imagination to become real?

For me, #1 has to do with the Internet. (Color me technodeterminist.) I don’t have anything worthwhile to say about #2. And I still have hope that the answer to #3 has something to do with the ability of billions of people to make common cause— and, more powerfully, to iterate together — over the Net. Obviously #3 also needs regulatory reform to make sure the Internet remains at least a partially open ecosystem.

So, I find myself in deep sympathy with the context of what Ethan describes so well and so urgently. But I don’t find the rhetoric of imagination convincing.

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