Monday, December 8, 2008

Learning? Commons

One of the latest trends in academic library spaces across the United States is the creation of Learning Commons. These spaces are generally created by renovating portions of existing libraries in an effort to efficiently serve the student patrons they serve. These spaces are designed to bring together multiple services in one central location where students can go in the pursuit of their studies.
Most Learning Commons (LC) spaces are designed with specific areas and services that meet the needs of the student patrons that use the academic library and Learnig Commons (LC). Most LCs contain spaces for quiet independent study and for collaborative group work and study. A large portion of the LCs will be made up of computer terminals and workstations, where students can come to study, write, e-mail, or search through the library’s resources. They also always integrate multiple service desks that cater to student needs: Technology help desks, Reference desk, Writing assistance desks, career services, and ILL desks. The entire design and service model is focused on the needs of the students and aims to aid them in their studies.
While these spaces are extremely useful for the patrons, some LC designs have recently been going too far. One of the ideas behind LCs is connecting students with the latest technologies to help further their education and ultimately their careers. This means the libraries spend a great deal of money and resources on newer technologies, including the many new computer workstations that go into the LC. The technologies are seen as necessary tools in the information gathering and education of the students. This all makes complete sense in the library setting; however, there are some technologies that seem out of place.
Some academic library LCs have been adding technology that does not seem to exactly fit into the library setting. There are a few libraries that have set up large HD televisions in their LCs along with “stylish” furniture. They proudly proclaim that students can come to the LC and sit back and watch CNN. Instead of utilizing technology to efficiently meet the students’ education needs, these libraries are utilizing technology to simply bring in more students. It seems the management teams of these libraries are more worried about driving up gate counts than with providing students with access to information and with the proper help in their education. In this case, it seems they have ended up creating a new student center where students can go to unwind rather than study. Someone should remind these places that gate counts are not everything. If more libraries continue to follow this trend, they could eventually lose their identity as efficient sources or access points to information. Technology can be a powerful tool in the process of learning and libraries are wise to utilize new technologies; however, libraries need to stick to the technologies that enable patrons with efficient access to information if they hope to maintain their identity as important information sources in the 21st century.

Omnipotent OPAC

With the proliferation of digital technologies and the advent of OPACs in many libraries around the world, there has been a dramatic increase the amount of somewhat personal information being gathered and stored. This pattern inherently leads to ethical questions of privacy and potential conflicts with patrons. This situation is not new; there are many companies that tract the websites an individual visits, stores the data, and attempt to use it by catering advertisements to their particular interests. The worst part of this trend is that during most of the instances that this information is being stored, it is being performed behind the scenes and unbeknownst to most people. As the cost of digital memory has decreased and the number of library institutions using OPACs has increased over the recent years, this trend has even spread to many people’s local library.
In order to use some OPACs, or at least in order to use certain services provided by the OPAC, many individuals need to log-on using their personal library card. After logging onto the system, any search or transaction that is made can be recorded in a database. The most typical use is to simply keep a record of what the individual has checked out to serve as a reminder to that individual of what he or she has read. While this may seem like harmless information, it does represent personal information that some people would rather not be kept. What is worse, most people are completely unaware of the potential for the recording of the information. This data gathering has taken on increased importance in recent years as any information stored by the library could be legally seized by the government under the Patriot Act. The question is how libraries should handle gathering this information.
One option would be to allow the OPAC system to automatically record and store the information for future use. If a particular patron decides they do not want this information stored on account of their privacy rights, they can notify the library staff, who can then turn off that option in the OPAC. The OPAC will then not record the data for this particular patron. Another method would be to allow this information to be gathered, but only store it for a short amount of time. This means that the library would protect all of its patrons’ privacy rights; however, this also means no one can enjoy the potential conveniences provided by the services based on the stored data.
Another option would be to initially turn off this feature on every patrons account so that there is no information automatically recorded or stored. The library could then make it known to their patrons that they have the option of allowing certain information about their accounts to be stored, which brings them certain conveniences and additional services. If they decide that they want this service and approve of that information being stored, they can opt into the service. The library staff can then turn on that feature to those who notify that they want to take part in it. This method has the benefit of protecting the privacy rights of patrons while allowing for those who are unconcerned with the privacy issues to take advantage of the conveniences offered by the service. This not only protects the patrons of a library, but also protects the library itself from any ethical dilemmas.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Free Ride Wi-Fi

As libraries struggle to remain viable institutions and aim to increase their gate counts, they often turn to technology to bring people back in. Many people view libraries as outdated sources of information; however, with technology costs declining, there are a number of things libraries can do to turn those views around. One such method is by providing patrons and the public with Wi-Fi access.
Wi-Fi is the most popular system for setting up a wireless network and has been set up in many locations, such as at malls, hotels, coffee shops, and schools. At many of those locations, patrons can pay a small fee or log on to access the wireless network and through it the Internet. Many libraries are realizing the use of these networks and have been setting them up for their patron. In many locations, the patrons need a library card and with that information they access the network by logging on. While this does provide the patrons with a valuable service, it seems that these systems could be put to better use.
There are some libraries that are offering free and unimpeded access to their Wi-Fi network to the public who come to their facilities. This decision to provide the public with free access to the internet without logging on could in fact be used as a sort of marketing tool for the library. Offering free and unimpeded access to their wireless network and the internet, the library could provide the public with an appealing deal. Instead of paying for Wi-Fi access at other sites or even paying for expensive Internet access at home, people might be willing to go down to the local library and access the Internet through their wireless network. Setting up the system like this could help attract people down to the library and help drive up the gate count. Then these institutions could set up the Internet access so that people using their Wi-Fi would be sent to the library’s website when they open up their browser. By developing a creative website that quickly showcases other services the library offers, the libraries could turn these people into regular patrons, helping them remain viable institutions.
In addition this service follows the mission statements of libraries and does it in a cost effective manner. Libraries are meant to provide their patrons with easy and unrestricted access to information no matter what the medium may be. Offering free access to the Internet through their Wi-Fi network, libraries are setting up a system that gives patrons free and easy access to the information found on the Internet. Fortunately, this can even be done relatively cheaply. The Orange County Public Library system in California was able to set up free wireless Internet service in all their branches for under $20,000. This makes this service a very affordable service for the library that also can be used to attract more patrons to the library itself. By putting down a relatively small sum of money, libraries are able to provide the public with a valuable service and attract new people to their institution at the same time. By tying this service with a sleek website, the library in effect implemented a cost effective marketing tool that can potentially drive up gate counts and help them remain viable institutions in their communities.

Transcending Authentication

While technology and computers are great, keeping them secure has become somewhat of a nuisance. In order to provide users with privacy protection, computers and software are increasingly in need of authentication with usernames and passwords in order to limit access. Over the years the Internet and other networks have allowed more and more companies to provide their patrons with remote access to their information and files. These websites include ones like Amazon, retail company sites, banks, financial trading systems, and medical insurance providers. As these companies utilize the Internet and provide their patrons with access from the Internet, large amounts of personal and private information have become accessible via this computer network. In order to ensure the security of this data, these companies require patrons to set up usernames and passwords with specific requirements. Many times, these requirements vary from company to company resulting in one person having a myriad set of usernames and passwords that are needed to access their information. Now, frankly, my memory sucks, so I am constantly forgetting my passwords and which one I use at which site. This unfortunately means that I am all too familiar with that “Forgot your password?” link, and it probably takes me just as long to log onto the website as it would to travel to the company’s nearest site.
It would be wonderful for everyone (OK, mainly for the likes of me) if computer security could move past all these troublesome passwords and offer other means of authentication. This is why my jaw dropped when I saw a description of Transcend’s JetFlash USB with fingerprint readers. These little gadgets, which are the same size as normal thumb drives and cost a comparable amount, read and analyze fingerprints as a means of verification. Instead of remembering a bunch of passwords, it would be amazing if I could just walk around with this little thumb drive, and when I am required to access secure information on a computer or over the internet, I could whip out my thumb drive, plug it in, and put my finger on it. It would then verify that I am actually me and allow me access to my information. There. No more wasting time over failing to remember passwords. Heck, I’d even carry around a retina scanner, if it would mean that I did not have to remember any more passwords. There seems like there are so many possible ways that could be used to provide authentication in the place of the old password system. Why haven’t they caught on yet? If they want to develop DNA readers for authentication, I will gladly submit to the bloodletting each time I log in as long as there are no passwords. I know many people will see these measures as an invasion of privacy or as some government conspiratorial plot. However, they should not stand in the way of progress, and if they want to remain tied to passwords, they will have that choice available. But for the rest of us that are simply hindered by this infernal passwords driven society, allow that progress to be made. Hopefully these biometric identification systems continue to come down in price and are eventually accepted by society. When done right, they represent a very secure authentication system that will have a much higher convenience factor, but they will still offer powerful protection of our personal information that needs to stay private.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Future IT Librarians

I believe I have mentioned before that technological advances have in fact created the need for librarians specially trained in using the technology effectively find pertinent information from the seemingly insurmountable amount of information and data present in modern society. I still believe this is true for today even as some believe that technology has negated the need for librarians. However, those pessimists might not be quite as wrong as I had previously thought. While technology has created a need for specially trained librarians in contemporary society, it seems possible that the current trends in technological advances points us in the direction of a situation or society that in fact does not need librarians in the sense that we think of today. Even if one argues that librarians will still exist, it seems that the characteristics of the job will have changed so much that a new job title would be warranted.
The current and historical trend in technology, including computer technologies, is to simplify the tasks and even the lives of humans and the current task of many librarians has developed into something similar, albeit more focused. Modern librarians generally make it their job to provide aid to patrons in their search for information, or in other words they strive to simplify the patrons’ searches for information. In most cases librarians are able to accomplish this by utilizing new and powerful computer technologies and databases. Librarians are in a constant search to find technologies that improve both the access to information and the efficiency of searching through that information. As it stands now, the technology is useful but generally still needs to be used by or have input from trained information specialists such as librarians, but this may not always be the case. Projecting these trends into the future highlights the potential dramatic changes that could develop out of those trends. If computer technologies continue to develop so there are very simple to use and simplify human tasks and lives and if librarians continue to seek out and use these increasingly less complicated but more powerful technologies, the need for specially trained librarians and information specialists could eventually dwindle to nothing. As future generations of databases and search tools become more powerful and effective and at the same time less complicated to use, the need for librarians as we understand them today will decrease. Projecting further into the future, as these technologies implement the use of artificial intelligence to aid in information searches, librarians will need to help those patients less and less.
However, as everyone is probably well aware, technology does not completely replace humans, especially when it comes to the maintenance of that technology. Technologies, including computer technologies, are not perfect and eventually break down in some way, which generates the need for specially trained humans to troubleshoot and fix them. In the case of computer technologies, specially trained IT professionals maintain the computer systems under their watch. This is in fact the direction the librarian profession seems to be on. As computer technologies increasingly enable patrons to search for information themselves, librarians increasingly are focused on maintaining and troubleshooting that technology. As they work more and more with the technologies in libraries and less with the patrons, they become something akin to IT professionals trained to maintain the sophisticated information search tools that may exist in future libraries.
Gulp. Looking ahead, I’d better take more Technology courses in LIS school.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The PRS-700 is here!

So who is the newest publisher on the block? Care to guess? Well, guess what…. It’s Sony! That’s right, Sony, the electronics giant. Alright, they are not technically a publisher but more like a digital book maker. Last week they announced the release of their new Reader Digital Book, the PRS-700 (sounds exciting, doesn’t it?), which will be available sometime in November. According to an article in the October 8, 2008 USA Today Section B by Marc Saltzman, this third-generation digital reader “is a svelte, 10-ounce e-book reader with a 6-inch gray-scale screen” that offers readers the ability to flip through pages by “swiping a finger horizontally across” a touch-screen. Apparently it is also equipped with an “impressive ‘e-ink’ technology” that “resembles real ink on paper.” This means that Sony has produced a digital book that closely resembles the older technology or traditional book, which is an interesting move that combines state of the art technology with centuries old technology. This combining of technologies can serve as a new model for libraries, which many people believe are becoming antiquated as a result of technological advances.
Sony’s new Reader Digital Book can offer libraries with a new avenue to reaching new patrons that may not have looked towards libraries for their digital book needs. In addition to traditional library holdings, libraries could purchase access to selections of digital books and then offer their patrons an alternative and cheaper access to this form of digital media. The library could have a relatively small number of these digital book units on hand to check out, and after deciding which e-book they would like to borrow or rent, they would take the unit to one of the special digital book kiosks in the library and download the digital book. They could then take the unit home and read the book in the exact same manner that they would have if they had checked out a traditional book. This would also work if certain patrons had their own PRS-700 units; these patrons either could visit the library and use the kiosk or could download a book from the library’s website. The library’s units could also be readily protected with software that limits the unit’s use with any system outside of the library’s. The issue of due dates could also easily be dealt with by programming the digital books to “expire” after a certain amount of time. These units paint a new picture of what future libraries might look like. So let’s buy them… how much are they?
One’s excitement for these digital books might drop after reading their $399.00 asking price. That rather hefty price-tag quickly makes this an unviable option for many libraries. Perhaps it would be possible to acquire less sophisticated units like the hypothetical PRS-700b version that doesn’t come with as many perks. This version could come without the large built-in memory that can store up to 350 digital books. It could also do without the fancy search buttons that allow you to “find words or phrases” and without the ability to “make notes via fingertips or the bundled stylus pen and soft keyboard.” Whether the library gets these cheaper models or whether they wait for the prices to come down, if the price of this technology were slightly cheaper, the Reader Digital Books could have a tremendous impact on libraries. For one, this digital media and hardware would not take up a lot of space in the library’s facilities. Also, as stated before, this could easily open up new ways for the library to reach out to tech savvy people who may not have otherwise even considered the library for their digital needs, thereby helping to ensure that libraries remain important and exciting institutions well into the future.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Vicious Technology Circle for Libraries

As libraries struggle to retain current and attract new patrons, one of the most effective means available to them is by purchasing and offering the newest technologies. Many libraries invest in these new technologies to keep people coming to their institutions in order to remain viable libraries. However, this strategy seems like it could easily become a vicious cycle that in essence traps libraries into spending large portions of their budgets technology that can quickly become outdated.
In a time when libraries are increasingly competing for attention in a world saturated by a wide variety of media and entertainments, libraries are always searching for ways to attract new and old patrons to their doors. This search often leads libraries to the decision to purchase new and exciting technologies to help generate interest or excitement in local libraries, which in turn helps libraries maintain higher traffic numbers. While this may in fact attract some people to the libraries, it also starts to place the priorities of libraries in different places. By focusing on providing new technologies, these libraries are placing technology over the information libraries can provide people. In a general exaggeration of what is going on, some libraries are beginning to provide access to new technologies rather than providing access to information, which has always been their default mission statement. This is in essence changing the libraries’ mission or raison d’ĂȘtre to one that puts more emphasis on newer technologies than on information and information access. These technologies include new hardware and a wide assortment of software, which includes operating systems, security packages, database systems, and some entertainment applications. While I am not saying providing people with access to newer technologies is wrong, I am somewhat afraid at what the cost of that access is taking away from other aspects of the libraries.
Even though technology is extremely important and helps drive our species forward, it has one large drawback in that it can cost quite a bit of money and then quickly becomes outdated. The pace of technological innovation in our society is simply astounding, and what is seen as new and exciting today very quickly becomes old news and outdated in a relatively short amount of time. One can purchase the most up to date computer with the newest software for a large chunk of change, and within one or two years, that equipment is no longer considered advanced and can even be inadequate in many circumstances. While this is the reality of the technology scene and is something we all accept, it can prove to be problematic for institutions like libraries. Many libraries operate on very limited budgets and as many places deal with dwindling patron visits in these uncertain economic times, those budgets may shrink even more in the near future. In order to attempt to drive up their gate counts, many libraries use their budgets to invest in certain areas that will help drive up their patron traffic, and this often leads libraries to invest in the newest technologies, which can be attractive to the general public. While this may help at first, that technology can quickly become outdated, leaving the libraries in the same position they were in a couple years ago. At this point some are driven to spend more of their budgets to make themselves appealing to the public again (at least for another couple of years). This obviously can become a vicious circle quite quickly and can easily tie up a large percentage of libraries’ operating budgets. This money being repeatedly spent on updating technology to bring in more people takes away money from acquiring more books, information, and access to other form of information, which has always been the main focus of libraries. While it would be wrong to say libraries should refrain from investing in new technologies, it is important that library directors remain aware of the potential pitfalls are and seek to reach a balance between new technology and new information and information access. In this way libraries can remain an important and exciting part of our communities without falling into the trap of continuously paying out money to obtain the newest technologies which can quickly become obsolete.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

RFID Tracking

In most libraries today, books are tracked through the use of individual barcodes on each book that allow the books to be efficiently scanned as on the shelf or checked out. While the use of these barcodes helps the efficiency of librarians, it falls short of effectively tracking the books. As libraries continue to struggle with the problem of what one could call unfound books, whether they are lost or mis-shelved, there needs to be a better way of tracking books within the library system. The use of barcodes is somewhat limited in that a scanner needs to actually see the barcode and therefore is generally only scanned as in house or checked out. A system that could allow automatic scanning at various points would be much more effective towards tracking books through libraries.
There has been a recent advance in technology that is being picked up by the ever powerful retailer Wal-Mart which could be useful to this problem: radio frequency identification (RFID). These small tags contain tiny transponders that use radio frequency to transmit information about what it is attached to, and the information can be passed on to a central database through RFID readers. Replacing the old barcodes with RFID tags would allow libraries to track their books through their systems automatically. By placing RFID readers throughout the library at strategic points, the books could automatically be tracked as it moves through the library. This tracking includes as the books are being moved to a specific floor and even shelving unit within the library on top of whether it is in the library or checked out. This would allow librarians to see whether the books were properly reshelved after they have been returned, and if they have not made it that far, they could narrow down where in the library’s system the book has currently traveled. This would help tremendously in tracking down books in the libraries when they are found to not be on the shelves when they are shown to be in the library.
However, while this technology would help tremendously in tracking books within libraries, this needs to be weighed by any potential drawbacks of this new technology. A potential problem would seem to be the longevity of these RFID tags. Since they are constantly broadcasting radio frequencies to transmit the required information and therefore expending energy, one would want to know how these are drawing energy. Plus it would be very helpful to know how long these tags can live before their energy source runs out. Of course one solution to this problem is to develop a source of energy that is able to renew itself. Since it probably uses miniscule amounts of energy, they would only need to generate a small amount possibly through the motion of the book as it is moved or through the light that shines on it. The other obvious drawback would be the price of this new technology and outfitting every book in the library with these tags along with the multiple RFID readers to make this system work. However, as the price of this technology inevitably decreases it would make this system more viable for the world’s libraries. As long as it does eventually become viable, the use of these RFID tags on the books in libraries would become a useful solution to more effectively tracking books through the library, giving librarians and patrons a better idea of where the requested books can be found.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Can U Help Fnd This 4 Me?

Can U Help Fnd This 4 Me? Do you mean - Can you help find this for me? Ahhh, text messaging. It’s one of the latest great advances in telecommunications, and at the same time it is the probable death sentence for the English language as we know it. These messages are supposed to be an easy way of efficiently communicating with other people. (Why don’t you call them?) Formally known as Short Message Service (SMS), text messaging has become a popular form of communicating via the ubiquitous cell phones.
I guess I should state here that I cannot stand text messaging. This probably has something to do with the fact that I am extremely slow at it, since I can never seem to find the right letter. It would be quicker for me to dial up the person, wait for an answer, say hi, and hang up than to type “Hi.” Also, I find it difficult to send a message where there is no grammar and spelling is very relative. I just can’t bring myself to type something like – “C U 2morrow! lol!” However, it seems to be an unwritten law that you have to text like this.
Actually there is a good reason for the texting “grammar.” All SMS messages have to be under 160 characters and are meant to be quick. This is why people resort to leaving out letters, ignoring proper grammar, and using recognized symbols. However, the more people write and even think in terms of this form of communication, the less they will know how to write with proper English grammar. Perhaps I am just an old fogey at heart, but that bugs me to no end.
Anyway, it seems text messaging is invading the world of libraries. In an effort to better serve the patrons of libraries, librarians are setting up SMS reference service where people can text message a reference librarian a reference question. In the SMS reference service set up at South Eastern Louisiana University, students can text a reference question to a librarian, who generally receives it as an e-mail. The librarian then responds to the student by e-mailing a text message to the student’s phone ( Is a service like this really necessary? This particular school already has reference desks manned by actual people, phone lines, e-mail service, and chat groups where people can seek reference help. In addition, all those types of service still abide by the rules of English grammar, whereas normal grammar is completely ignored in the use of text messaging. While it might seem like I am just whining about something I don’t like, it does seem to me that there is some potential for miscommunication through this form of service. As people start taking out letters and ignoring grammar in order to make their message as short as possible, there is real information being left out. One person might think something is not very important, so they don’t pass it along and waste any precious room in the text message they are sending. This could actually be useful information the librarian might need to effectively answer the question they are seeking to answer. The loose grammar and spelling could also lend itself to misunderstandings between the student and librarian as they both struggle to shorten complex questions and answers down to 160 characters. While it makes perfect sense to become as available as possible to the patrons of the library, does it make sense to and is it even efficient to utilize every single form of communication, including one that could easily distort information? Mull that one over while I go actually call and talk to someone.

Friday, September 26, 2008

AI Inquisitors

While OCLC’s WorldCat Resource Sharing™ brings together and centralizes vast amounts of information and holdings, it is still a far cry from creating the world’s largest possible library consisting of all libraries fully networked together. This ideal World Wide Library, or WWL, would theoretically resemble the fictitious Library of Babel described by Jorges Luis Borges and would therefore encounter the same sort of problems as laid out by Mr. Borges. In “The Library of Babel” Mr. Borges describes what amounts to as a seemingly infinite library that contains all the possible pieces of information, including all the possible combinations of alphabets and characters known to humans. While this may seem like an ideal to humans, Mr. Borges warns us against developing something like this because it would have some inherent problems that would render the holdings useless. Developing a WWL that recorded all the library holdings in the world would develop a system very similar to Mr. Borges’ Library of Babel and would be in danger of encountering the same problems described by Jorges Luis Borges.
One of the major problems inherent in the Library of Babel as described by Mr. Borges is that because there is so much information stored in the Library of Babel, it becomes near impossible to find anything.
"There are official searchers, inquisitors. I have seen them in the performance of their function: they always arrive extremely tired from their journeys; they speak of a broken stairway which almost killed them; they talk with the librarian of galleries and stairs; sometimes they pick up the nearest volume and leaf through it, looking for infamous words. Obviously, no one expects to discover anything."
Obviously these human inquisitors, or librarian searchers, are far too slow to actually find something from within the vast holdings of this library, and a WWL would contain so many holdings that it would pose a similar problem. While there would be computer help in searching in the form of WorldCat’s search tools in their database, it seems like it would still be difficult to sort through all the information available. What would be needed is the next great progression in computers and technology: Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Conventional computers seem powerful because they can compute billions of simple calculations in sequence within a second, which means that they work extremely fast. But speed is not always everything. Humans are much slower at doing these simple calculations, but nearly billions of neural pathways can be used at the same time, giving us the ability to have and follow more complicated thoughts. The ability to simulate human thoughts and emotions in computers, known as artificial intelligence, is still in its infancy but has the potential of opening up a wide array of applications. By combining the thought pattern of humans (whether it is by using neural networks or some other AI methodology) and the speed of computers, one could make a very useful search tool. This could be the equivalent of making an AI inquisitor, which would be similar to an intelligent agent that could go out into the vast holdings and rapidly search for and find information that it knew was relevant. Having a search tool like this would enable us to use a vast library system and would therefore enable us to develop a large WWL that resembled the Library of Babel.
Unfortunately it seems like that sort of AI inquisitor is a long way from being developed, so as yet, the problem of actually being able to find anything in the Library of Babel and the WWL still persists and hinders the actual development of such a library system, whether or not WorldCat Resource Sharing™ could really be developing such a network.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

WWL: World Wide Library

With the introduction of computers into libraries, librarians and patrons were able to gather greater amounts of knowledge and information at much greater speeds. Now, as computers become increasingly powerful and databases and search tools become more versatile, it makes sense that the libraries in the world are becoming closer.
OCLC promises to take the search for information yet another step forward with the product WorldCat Resource Sharing™. With this new product (which I am sure comes with a nice shiny price-tag), OCLC is in effect attempting to make the world’s largest library by linking many independent libraries together through this central WorldCat database. According to their brochure for WorldCat Resource Sharing™, “the more than 9,100-library system has at its core the comprehensive WorldCat® database. With more than one billion holdings—both physical and digital—WorldCat crosses all manner of subjects, languages, cultures and uniqueness.” ( brochures/211370usb_resourcesharing.pdf) One billion holdings…. Now that’s a library! By combining the holdings of those 9,100 libraries into one database, OCLC and WorldCat are making a strong effort to build the world’s largest catalogue or database, giving the patrons of these libraries unprecedented access to vast amounts of information. OCLC’s product brochure promises member libraries that “fulfillment grows dramatically when your customers can place requests electronically” (http:// and receive their requested material from wherever it resides within the various holdings. WorldCat Resource Sharing™ gives libraries and patrons the ability to share and find a great deal of information from all over the world.
Judging from this advancement the next and perhaps ideal progression is development of the ultimate library by connecting all the libraries in the world. By networking all libraries and recording all holdings in one central database, we could develop the ultimate library. Since this encompasses all libraries around the world, the theoretical structure would resemble that of the worldwide web. Instead of the Library of Babel, one could call this the WWL (World Wide Library), and it would obviously have a much more powerful search tool than Jorge Luis Borges’ perpetually lost inquisitors. Even though it would be possible to search for information and materials in this system, there would still be problems with this system. While it would be easy to find and access digital information, one major problem remains. If one needs access to an actual physical information source such as a book, it is very possible that it would need to be shipped from across the world, delaying the access to that information. Any problems aside, this would represent a giant advance in information science and retrieval.
While WorldCat Resource Sharing™ does not bring us to this ultimate library, it does go far in networking a large number of formerly independent libraries and building up an extensive database of holdings. This product represents a large advance towards the ideal of an information network consisting of all the world’s libraries and known as the WWL.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Digital Archives as Profit

OK, as I have written before, I am concerned about the preservation of digital information in light of the rather quick deterioration of such files and the rapid introduction of new technologies and software. Apparently, I was not thinking like a businessman as certain people see this as the perfect opportunity to make some money. There are two major organizations that repute to offer long-term storage and preservation of digital information and collections: OCLC’s Digital Archive™ and Amazon’s S3 (Simple Storage Service). These two services seem to offer solutions to some of the problems that I outlined in my blog entitled “The Question of Digital Durability.” These services do not come free, however, and Amazon’s S3 charges $1.80 per gigabyte per year, while OCLC’s Digital Archive™ costs about $7.50 per gigabyte per year. Digital Archive™ costs over four times as much as storing information in S3! As Peter E. Murray describes in his blog Disruptive Library Technology Jester ( ), there are important reasons for that price difference.
As Murray points out, while Amazon’s S3 does provide an accessible place to store digital information, this provider has some serious drawbacks. S3 does make certain guarantees, but they seem to be limited to the performance of their service, which seems to relate more to the accessibility of the information you are storing with them. There seems to be no guarantee on the long-term preservation of that data. In fact, they explicitly say that the customer is responsible for the security and backups, which are a large part of digital preservation, for the information S3 is storing. In section 7.2 of their Customer Agreement, they state, “you acknowledge that you bear sole responsibility for adequate security, protection and backup of Your Content.” In light of this, when doing business with S#, you are mainly paying for information storage and not preservation.
According to Murray, OCLC’s Digital Archive™ goes a step further than Amazon’s S3 and specializes more in the preservation of digital masters. In the “Our Commitment” statement, OCLC describes what they aim to do: “OCLC is actively developing processes for full preservation of digital assets to ensure complete renderability, regardless of technology changes. This preservation system will likely involve a combination of migration and emulation.” Not only do they protect the information more than S3, they also ensure its accessibility “regardless of technology changes.” This goes much further in attempting to preserve the digital information they are storing for the customer. However, this helps translate into a cost that is over four times what S3 costs.
While the costs labeled above may not seem like an exorbitant amount, when you start dealing with storage in the TB range, as Murray plans to do for his institution, you can quickly run up the costs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for the storage of your digital information. This could quickly put this service, especially OCLC’s Digital Archive™ (I love how they trademarked that term already), out of reach for many libraries, which still leaves the problem of storing digital information. However, it is comforting to see businesses attempting to help remedy this particular problem. Perhaps one day soon it will be affordable to store data with companies that guarantee the preservation of the digital information in their care (I guess as long as that company stays in business).

Simple Tech

I recently heard from an acquaintance about an issue at a certain library (which shall remain nameless here) that sounded rather archaic for this day and age. It seems that there was a problem with lost and misplaced books at this library and the management decided to try to track it. They decided that all their re-shelvers would carry around a chart with them, and as they perform their duties, they would record the call-numbers of the books, their names, the date, and the time. This method would effectively trace the last person to shelve a book, so if a book ever went missing or turned up in the wrong location, management would know who re-shelved the book last. While there are other ways to lose a book in the library, if it turned out one person had handled a substantially high percentage of the misplaced books, management would be able to determine that at least part of the problem rested on certain employees in the institution. They could then use that information to identify who needs to be retrained or watched more closely. Incorporating this form of accountability into the re-shelving process could help management at least reduce in some part the frequency in which books go misplaced or incorrectly re-shelved.
As it turns out, the re-shelvers at this institution had a problem with this new policy. They didn’t mind the newly introduced accountability, though. They felt more annoyance towards the fact that this new policy made them terribly inefficient at their jobs. It now took them at least twice as much time to re-shelve a given number of books, because each time they re-shelved a book, they had to manually record the call-number, their name, the date, and the time. While the information derived from this new policy could be put to good use, the policy itself greatly increased the amount of time to perform a certain job, which made the re-shelving employees unhappy.
One of the stated benefits of technology is that it makes our lives easier and makes us more efficient at what we do. It seems to me like a very simple task to utilize some rather simple (for this day and age) technology to improve this particular policy. All you would need is a few hand held scanners that the re-shelvers could carry around with them as they re-shelved books. The re-shelvers would be givin log-in names and passwords so they could log onto the scanners, which would be wirelessly connected to server and central database, as a particular user. Each time they re-shelved a book, all they would have to do is scan the already existing bar code. This one quick scan would record the call number of the book, the re-shelvers log-in name/real name, the date, and the time, and the scanner could then send the information back to be stored in the central “Re-shelving” database. This is a fairly simple use of a database and would not take long to set up. This technology would record all the necessary information without increasing the amount of time it took to re-shelve books. It allows the library to increase the amount of accountability while maintaining the efficiency of its employees. While the scanners might represent a moderate initial expense, the long term savings on labor costs would quickly repay that investment. These scanners could also be used to quickly record additional information, thereby only increasing their value to the company. However, if the re-shelvers in the library are interns and don’t get paid, it might make it difficult to argue that buying the equipment and technology is going to save the library money.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Question of Digital Durability

As technology enhances our ability to observe and obtain new observations and information, we have an increasing amount of information to store and organize. Fortunately, technology has also developed digital forms of storage that can save large amounts of information in small areas. All of our collective knowledge and information needs to be stored and organized in an accessible manner, because the only way for us to move forward in our thinking and knowledge is to work from the knowledge and information that has previously been developed. For this reason the storage and preservation of our collective knowledge and information is of the utmost importance. Since we now develop such vast amounts of information on a daily basis, digital libraries, archives, and databases have become tools both popular and necessary for the purpose of preserving our knowledge and information. However, there remains one important and nagging doubt in my mind about all this digital storage. Durability. Will these methods of storing data last and be accessible in the distant future? Not being an expert on the subject, perhaps I am missing some vital information myself. Regardless, it seems to me that there is the very real danger of losing vast amounts of information to the detriment of our future progress.
In the past, humans have generally stored useful information on very tangible things: stone, wood, clay, and paper. Sometimes these pieces were lost but subsequently dug up by people thousands of years later. The information stored on these relics could generally be retrieved whether through vigorous research or simply by reading it. The information stored on these tangible objects remained accessible to us and have been proven useful in understanding past civilizations and the human species itself. What would happen if we stored some vital or interesting piece of information digitally on a CD or on a USB flash drive and then lost it. If found by someone in the future, would the information that was stored be accessible to future generations?
Information that is stored digitally is stored merely as 1’s or 0’s on some sort of digital storage device, whether it be a CR, a DVD, a hard drive, or a flash drive. Depending on the storage device and depending on what type of information is stored (text, music, pictures, video, etc.), one needs a certain piece of hardware with specific software to retrieve the stored information and render it into something that means something to the human brain. This method of storing information seems very specific to both the hardware and software being used to store it. If one does not have the correct combination of hardware and software, is the information stored in a digital format transformed into a meaningless sequence of 1’s and 0’s? And if true, isn’t that information in effect lost to future generations? Of course, all of this ignores the fact that many digital storage mediums don’t actually last long anyway. It is said that certain magnetic storage devices last “years, even decades, before deteriorating” (Stair, Ralph M., and Kenneth Baldauf. 2008. Succeeding with Technology: Computer Concepts for Real Life. 3rd Edition. Boston, MA: Thomson Course Technology. p.79). Decades?! A few decades is a mere blink of an eye in the grad scheme of things. Storage mediums that deteriorate after a few decades are not durable storage mediums.
All of this seems to suggest that now on top of storing all the vast amounts of new information that being developed, we also need to constantly resave or restore all the old information from the past. This may mean simply resaving it in the same medium; however, since technology keeps advancing at such a fast pace, this probably means restoring and moving old information onto new storage mediums. This process of restoring and restoring and restoring this information seems to increase the likelihood of possibly losing some information. Once something is left behind, it may rather quickly be difficult or even impossible to access the information digitally stored since our technology rapidly develops new hardware and software. To me, this situation seems to make it alarmingly possible to lose large quantities of important data; however, as I stated before, I may be missing something here.

Technology Preserves Librarians

While advances in technology continue to rapidly improve our daily lives and enhance our ability to expand our collective knowledge, these advances carry the potential undesirable effect of information overload, which in turn could then hamper our ability to further our knowledge. Technological advances have increased our ability to observe and collect data and have increased the speed of communicating any knew information, which has the effect of increasing the amounts of and the discovery rates of new knowledge and information. While new technologies are developed to help cope with storing all of this new information, one is left to wonder if there is too much.
Technology has always helped our species drive forward in our quest for knowledge, understanding, and information, but now as we use technology to improve technology, the rate of technological advancements has vastly increased and continues to dramatically increase, thereby rapidly increasing our knowledge base. Technological advances in communications have also improved the ease and speed of communicating information across the globe and beyond. This improvement in communication and the spread of knowledge helps foster the generation of new information as other people use and work off of that newly communicated information. Technology has also made publishing much more efficient, meaning we as a species can turn out much more information quickly and cheaply. This also means that the publishing community in general does not have to be as critical in what actually gets published since such a great quantity can be published. This phenomenon has the effect of both increasing the amount of information being spread, but it also has the effect of spreading useless or bad information into our collective knowledge base. All of these situations help grow our knowledge base at an ever increasing rate.
Fortunately, technology has also developed methods that aid us in storing all of this information. Digital libraries and databases allow us to store vast amounts of information in relatively small areas. However, know that we have all of this knowledge and information, scholars and other people need to sift through it all in order to find the relevant information they are seeking. With all the information out there, this can seem like a daunting task. It would almost be a full-time job for someone in a particular discipline to keep up with all the information in their field alone. In order to move their field forward, they need to be able to work off of the information already generated, which means they need to be able to find it in the first place. Just sitting down and attempting to sift through all the information that is out there could easily overwhelm a person and prevent them from finding what they need to know, which in turn prevents them from generating any new information. This situation places librarians in a new and very important position. Having trained individuals in place working with other disciplines in order to help gather, organize, and maneuver through the seemingly endless amounts of information becomes indispensable if our species is to continue in our quest for knowledge and information. Far from negating the need for librarians, technology has developed a situation where librarians, with new technologies and skills, are desperately needed to help control the storage and flow of information.