Losing Ourselves

Vint Cerf, Internet pioneer and current Google VP, recently expressed concerns about an approaching “digital dark age” in which our prized digital memories will be lost forever, not through cataclysm or degrading media, but because of the obsolescence of the hardware and software needed to access those digital objects. Cerf called for the creation of what he called “digital vellum,” a snapshot that includes content and its related software and hardware together in one package. This object would be preserved in some sort of cloud server structure along with a description of the machine needed to run it,thus allowing those in the distant future to access this era’s content by reproducing the environment in which it was originally created and stored.

This is a very real problem, one that anyone who grew up playing ancient video games is painfully aware of. My first computer was a ZX Spectrum+. It was a big improvement on the original Spectrum, with hard plastic keys (as opposed to the softer, much less user-friendly rubber keys of the previous version) and a whopping 48k of RAM (as opposed to 16k). When I was 13 my family moved from Uruguay to the US, and it didn’t survive the trip. I moved on to the NES, and that was that, or at least that was the case until the age of the emulator dawned on us. Today, anyone feeling the pangs of nostalgia can go to one of several fan sites and download a Spectrum emulator, as well as a broad complement of games and other programs. The machine itself has disappeared, but its spirit, if you will, lives on to, in theory, captivate new generations of enthusiasts. I mean, there’s only so much you can do with 48k.

The problem with the emulator model is that it requires a fan base with enough critical mass and resources to support the effort necessary to create (and update) the emulation software, something that will  become less and less likely as the original users of these machines give way to new generations that lack familiarity with them. My son will grow up playing Wii, or PS4; why would he care about the Spectrum, or the original NES? Digital vellum is a better idea, closer in kin to digital archeology and/or anthropology, but who is going to devote resources to a project of this magnitude? Software and hardware creators are unlikely to carve room out of their bottom lines for something like this. If Mr. Cerf is this concerned about the idea, then Google may get involved, but we’ve seen what happens when they grow bored with a project (or find that it’s not as profitable as they once thought). Organizations like Internet Archive are committed to digital preservation, but their resources are limited. So who is going to do this?

Providing Access

I recently spent some time helping out on the Digital Library Collections (DLC) project here at Columbia, an initiative to create a single portal for discovery of the Libraries’ non-textual digital assets. Pre-DLC, access to Columbia Unversity Libraries (CUL) digital assets was provided through the use of custom project sites like this one. The sites place individual assets within the context of the overall collection, which is great, but limit the ability of a researcher to search across multiple collections: you would have to go to this page and search each collection separately, one by one. The DLC portal provides a more global approach to digital object discovery.

In order to maximize the tool’s effectiveness, the team designed a universal, extensible schema that can be applied to any digital collection that is included in the site. This schema will inform data collection and creation for all future digital efforts, providing an individual project stakeholder with a guide that will help her optimize collection discovery. This also ensures a consistent metadata baseline across a diverse set of collections (images, audio, video, and the born-digital versions of each, etc.) But first, metadata for existing collections must be updated wherever possible to bring it up to the new DLC standard (a process that is currently ongoing).

The project team also took into account the various technical formats used across these collections, and made the decision to create a homogeneous derivative set that would support desired image manipulation functionality (in this case, JPEG 2000). This is a decision that will have to be revisited periodically as available technology improves; format obsolescence or future functionality needs may drive a shift to a different platform.

Because digital texts are cataloged in CLIO (Columbia’s online catalog), they were excluded from this tool, which is geared toward the display and manipulation of images. Of course, the demarcation between text and image is not always clear: what about, for example, correspondence? And what about mixed collections (those that include both image- and text-based objects)? Ultimately, the project’s scope was widened to include archival types of textual material (like correspondence) but not full book-like objects that merit individual description through a cataloging system. DLC will include images and archival parts of mixed collections, while the book-like objects will be cataloged individually and made available through CLIO. DLC will also be used as a tool to examine born-digital collections.

This project allowed me to dig into the complex issues surrounding the provision of meaningful access to a contemporary academic library’s collections. It’s not enough to make objects available; the metadata foundation needs to be there for researchers to be able to find everything the library has on their specific subject. This means a lot of work up front, and the need to constantly re-examine standards as collections incorporate new types of materials that may not readily be described by existing schemas. For example, the distinction between image-based and text-based objects made sense for the project right now, but will that be meaningful in five years, as the proportion of born-digital materials increases?

Blogging again

I created this blog when I started library school, back before kids and cross-country moves and New York commutes. I was prompted to do so as a requirement for one of my orientation classes at Syracuse (go Orange!), but more than homework it felt like an opportunity to reconnect with writing, something I’d done precious little of in the previous decade. Well, that didn’t work out so well. A full time job, plus school, plus the aforementioned (lovely, perfect, blameless) kids, all jumbled together in one life, leaves little time for hobbies. It also reduces the ability to find time to stop the world for an hour or two and just think, which is, in my case at least, a prerequisite for putting ideas to paper. I also was unsure about what I would write about as a newly-minted librarianship student. I followed the class exercises (that helped), and then fell back into silence.

Three years later, when I finished my degree, I thought that would give me the time I needed, but I still lacked focus. I found one of those 23 things programs and briefly followed that, but then it was time to find a job and move and I lost the thread again. I did some personal writing, and created some posts for my brother’s site for fun, but mostly I focused on work and family. I (mistakenly) figured the inspiration would come sooner or later.

Late last summer, I saw a posting for bloggers to help revamp the LITA blog, and I asked to be a part of it. I still wasn’t sure what my focus would be, but this time I had two years of experience in an honest-to-goodness library to draw on. My first post went up in October: a series of broad-stroke tips on managing projects (that’s what I do in my current position). It was a nice enough post, and it got some attention (it helps to have LITA behind you), but I wasn’t thrilled with it. Still, it was a first step. After that, I chose to focus on my take on Agile development. Our digital projects division uses Agile for some of its engagements, including the website for my specific project (sorry, no live link yet) and a library digital collections site that I helped develop. I also participated in a full-scale conversion to Agile development in my last job, which took about two years to fully come to fruition. What I experienced there gave me an appreciation for both the value Agile can add to a development environment and the difficulties inherent in making the switch. So right now I’m focusing on a personal perspective on Agile philosophy: I looked at pros and cons in December, and discussed Agile core values just this week. My ongoing LITA post list can be accessed here.

There are a few more topics I’d like to add to this series. After that? Who knows. In the meantime, I will use this space to reflect on my librarianship experience, and hopefully to find ways to add to the ongoing discussion about libraries.

Thing 8: Google Calendar

I’ve been using Google Calendar for years. I don’t consider it to be an amazing tool, but it does the job, and it has a few distinct advantages:

  • It’s online: I can access it from anywhere I need to (as long as I have a connection of course). This became much more useful once I joined the smartphone world.
  • It’s free. This one speaks for itself.
  • It’s user-friendly: I can do what I need to do on it without much hassle or a steep learning curve; well done, Google.
  • It’s integrated into my Google account: This helps because it’s within a single-sign-on login with other tools I use often, like Gmail, Reader, etc. Simple is best.
  • A lot of people I know use it: The Achilles heel of Google+ (as I mentioned in my last post) is one of this tool’s biggest strengths. I can synchronize my calendar with those of friends and loved ones, and see them side by side in the same interface. I can also easily turn other calendars off with a single click to avoid clutter, and turn them right back on when I need the information. With data, the key is not just about having access to as much as possible, but being able to control what you don’t see a swell as what you do see at any one time.

As far as negatives, adoption in the business community is the main one. My employer uses Outlook, which means I have to keep up two calendars, especially if I want to keep my personal life private. I did use Google Calendar Synch for a while at one job, but I found that the synchronizing algorithm was losing some entries on both ends, Google and Outlook, and I could not find a solution to the problem (and neither could our IT department). Since I’ve gone back to keeping separate calendars, I’ve come to appreciate the value of keeping my personal appointments off my work calendar to avoid clutter. Another solution would be to keep two Google Calendars, professional and personal, synch the former to Outlook, and make them both viewable on a single Google account. This would eliminate the need for double entries, but that just seems like a lot of work and does not solve the missing events problem. A far more elegant solution is to use the calendar on my Android smartphone and feed both Google and work calendar information to it. This is what I do right now.

As far as libraries using the tool for scheduling purposes, I think it has a lot of potential for all of the same reasons listed above. A library could create internal and external Google accounts, and share them appropriately with staff and the general public. Imagine if a student was able to access an academic library’s calendar directly from his smartphone calendar application rather than relying on a browser and the library’s ability to optimize its website for mobile devices or even the various types of browsers that are available. By outsourcing that work to Google, the library would greatly enhance its ability to reach patrons and educate them about services and events in user-friendly way.

Thing 7: Real-life Networks

Networking has always been a mixed bag for me. As an introvert I prefer reflection or deeper, meaningful interactions with a select group of people and absolutely abhor “small talk.” This leads to trouble when trying to make those initial connections, although once I know someone I am a good listener and a strong communicator. Despite my personal difficulties, I do think there is a lot of value to these interactions in terms of honing one’s beliefs and message and learning about new trends, ideas, etc. My significant other is quite outgoing and a strong networker, and we have benefitted greatly from her extensive network in many ways, from career and job connections to that free pair of tickets to a great show, and everything in between.

Professional organizations are a useful tool for finding connections. Yes, they can be stuffy, or elitist, or bureaucratic, but they give us access to people. Can I find ways to contact those people outside of established channels? Yes, but time and energy are limited and we all have a lot to do, so any mechanism that tilts the odds in my favor is OK with me.

In the library world, I am a member of the American Library Association (ALA) and the New York Library Association (NYLA). The MLIS program at Syracuse is designed to enhance networking opportunities, which is great given that most students are distance learners. Most classes have some sort of group or individual project component, and many assignments require partnering with a local library or establishing a connection with a stakeholder in a library. In addition, the school offers to pay for the students dues in a professional organization during the first year they take part in the program. This is how I ended up as an ALA member, three years ago. In terms of involvement, I will be attending my second conference in a few days; the first one, held in my hometown last year, was a great opportunity to hear a lot of great ideas and participate in discussions about the specific topics that interest me within librarianship. I have also expanded my membership to include LITA, a group within ALA concerned with technology topic.

My membership in ALA provides me with opportunities to meet people, hear ideas, and participate in discussions that help me progress in my professional development. Now that I am looking for work in the field, I look forward to exploring other organizations that are more closely related to my specific corner of librarianship, like the ACRL (a group for academic and research libraries).

Thing 6: Online Networks

Online networks have been around for a long time, although they have become mainstream recently with the success of MySpace, Facebook, and others. For a long time, they were mostly clustered around a single interest, and could be very insular and protective of their own (they were called newsgroups at this point). Acknowledging that one was a participant in one or more newsgroups was mostly construed as a sign of a lack of a “proper” social life, at least in my personal experience. You found friends online because you couldn’t find them in the real world.

Over the past decade or so, the expansion and increased acceptance of online communities has led to radical changes in how many people interact with their world. Did I just eat lunch at a cool new restaurant? I better get on Facebook or FourSquare (or both) to let my network know that I did (and if I am the first to discover this gem, so much the better). That will tide me over until I can get home to write a more detailed review on Yelp. I could take my best friend there for his birthday, which is… em… well… no matter; Facebook will remind me in plenty of time to make reservations. Still, that’s a lot to get done, and I have only an hour before I have to meet up with some buddies inside Battlenet for a rousing game of Diablo III (and I better be on time, because there’s no way finishing Act II’s main boss without some serious help).

I tend to single-thread my online networks: Facebook for social interactions, LinkedIn for career and job search tasks, Google+ when I want to talk to my programmer friends and that one college buddy who makes a living writing AD&D campaigns (this would be a joke, except that seems to be everyone I know on Google+). I am not a big Facebook user, but many of my friends and family members are, so I find it to be a very useful way to talk to people. I don’t use it for professional contacts because I like to share more on that platform than I think coworkers and bosses need to know, and perhaps more importantly, so do my friends. Another reason for my use of Facebook is that my significant other is an avid FBer, so being on the network helps me stay up to date on the lives of mutual friends, planned social activities, pictures of the kids, etc.

I find Linked in to be a great resource for career purposes; it’s designed around professional interactions and job searching, and as some other posters have pointed out it has a knack for swimming to the top of search results. I use it as a resume showcase, for industry-centered discussions with colleagues, and as a source of information on my field through the use of groups. I also use it as a networking tool; whenever I’m interested in a company or organization, I look it up on Linked In to see if I can create an introduction to someone there via my network (I learned that one from my SO).

Being a Google fan, I tried to give Google+ a chance, but my use of the network is minimal at this point. The problem is adoption; a small subset of my social network is active on it, so it doesn’t pay to abandon Facebook. When it first got started I had a bit more free time so I tried to keep both going, but if I only have time for one post, it’s not going to be on G+. It’s a shame, because I really do like the interface (more so than Facebook) and I think the tool was an innovator in the industry, as it may yet be again. As I’ve heard say many times, it’s not that Facebook beat MySpace; it’s that MySpace won first.

Overall I have a positive view of social networks and I plan to continue using them. The main frustration I have is this fragmentation across populations and/or time, and the lack of compatibility. I’d love to use Google+ for social interactions, but critical mass just isn’t there for me. Facebook is the current king, but at some point it will go the way of MySpace, and we will all have to start over again. I’d love to see an effort within the industry to provide portability standards for online network information, so that all of the content that we’ve put into one network isn’t lost forever when we switch to the next. We managed to do something similar for cell phone numbers, and we’re working on it for medical records; it would be nice to have compatibility in this area.

Thing 5: Reflective Practice

Over the course of the last few weeks, we’ve discussed several social media tools. As a general rule, I’ve been familiar with and a user of most of them, Storify being the exception. In completing some of the reading and posts, however, I noticed a pattern in my use of these tools: I mostly consume information and rarely participate in a conversation or put forward my own information stream. It seems that, even though the tools may be Web 2.0, personally I am still operating in 1.0 mode. This is a significant issue because it is the cooperative and conversational aspect of Web 2.0 that makes this paradigm so interesting and promising in my eyes.

Part of the problem is that my life has been busy enough that I don’t have a lot of time to reflect and work out what I want to say, but there’s also a part of me that is intimidated by the idea of putting my thoughts out to the world. I don’t really know what qualifies me to blog, or tweet, or storify (is that a word yet?). A cursory glance at some of the information streams out on the Web should convince me that lack of qualifications is not something that will necessarily stop people from publishing, but in my head I still think in the old model, where authorities speak and the rest of us learn. I should say, while trying not to skip ahead to Thing 6 too much, that I am much more active in “closed” social networks like Facebook, Google+, etc., or at least I was until I started my MLIS program and had a couple of kids. I believe that is because I am communicating with people I know, which makes me less apprehensive. I figure my friends and “friends” are much more likely to find what I’m broadcasting interesting or useful, so the whole enterprise seems like less of a waste of their time (and mine).

While I think there are some negative consequences to the conversational free flow that is the hallmark of Web 2.0, such as data growing in a weed-like and feral state across the Internet, I believe that the ability to start and join conversations with people regardless of physical location has enormous potential for transforming the world in positive ways. However, it doesn’t seem to me that I am doing my part to encourage or benefit from that development. My decision to sign up for CPD23 was actually driven in part by a desire to change the way I approach social media, so this post is one way in which I am applying lessons learned in this reflection exercise. My plan is to continue to blog and use some of the other tools   I am familiar with (and others we will discover in this process) to augment my Web presence and get myself comfortable with the conversational Internet.