IST-511 Day One: The basics and information retrieval

I confess I am having a little trouble with this blogging assignment; write one or two paragraphs each day about your experiences. It sounds easy enough, but these are no ordinary days. We are earning four credits in seven days, which means each day we learn about two weeks’ worth of material. How do I summarize that in a few lines? If I mention everything that happened, it’s hard to accurately convey a true representation of any one activity or lecture. If I concentrate on one experience, I leave many important things out altogether.

Today was the first day of the LIS Gateway course. This is a smaller group whose interests, in theory at least, relate a bit more closely to my own. It is also a “smaller” class: less of the 50,000 foot view, more of the dirty everyday business of being a librarian, or at least a library graduate student. We learned the basics about our course of study over the next few years; we discussed the information information life cycle; and we went over our graduation requirements and optimal course scheduling.

We also actually met some real-life librarians. To me this was the highlight of the day. I was told after listening to them speak about public libraries (today’s topic) I would want to become a public librarian myself. This did not happen. I still prefer the academic and digital sides of the profession, when I’m not thinking about what it would take to become a library school instructor. Now there’s a group that seems to be having fun. What I took away from today’s guests was not how great public libraries are (and they are great), but the joy that comes from following one’s passion. This has been a common theme so far this trip, as well as in talking to various people back home who are connected to librarianship. These are people who seem to really enjoy what they do, no matter the roadblocks and annoyances in their way. They seem energized and excited by their work, and they seem eager to share that energy and that excitement with those around them.  This was what I was looking for when I decided to pursue an MLIS degree: a career I could be passionate about. I’m starting to think I may actually have made the right choice.

Of course, tomorrow we spend the morning talking about copyright law. We’ll see how I feel after that.


Reflections on chapter 11 of The Portable MLIS

When I tell people about my desire to become a librarian, they almost always bring up the Evil Internet. After the jokes about how long it will take to grow my hair long enough to make a proper bun, the E. I. is probably the most common reaction I get. How can I possibly put this much effort, they ask, into learning a profession that is being made moot by the great electronic revolution as we speak? The E. I. is democratizing access to information at a torrid pace, obviating any need for libraries, newspapers, television networks, and any other vestiges of the dictatorial systems of the past. Why would anyone come to me for advice on finding a particular piece of data, when Google and Yahoo have made the task as easy as putting on a pair of pants?

Until now, I have responded to these concerns with some sort of speech about how librarians are needed now more than ever, for as the information available to the average person multiples exponentially, the ability to intelligently search and retrieve that information becomes even more valuable. In order for democracy to be valuable to you as a voter, you need more than simple access to the booth; you also need a way to educate yourself about the issues you are deciding, lest your vote become meaningless. Thanks to Judith Weedman, the author of chapter 11 of The Portable MLIS (2008), I can now dispense with the oratory and answer with one simple word: kittens.

Ms. Weedman uses kittens in a discussion about social tagging, the phenomenon whereby the users of an online resource create their own information retrieval as they add content by adding tags to their content. In her example, users who upload pictures of kittens are likely to apply the tag “kitten” to the photos because that is the tag that will make it easy to find whenever that user needs a picture of a young cat. In the best case scenario, the vocabulary used in tags converges, that is, all users decide on “kitten” as the proper tag for this type of photo (as opposed to “cat,” or “young cat,” or even “dog”), and the system evolves organically into a useful database, containing a powerful, intuitive information retrieval system. If you want a picture of a kitten, and you don’t have one, you can use the communal tag and find other users’ kittens. In this way, online communities obviate the need for librarians, as all information is correctly catalogued by the users themselves.

If you are looking for a picture of a kitten, any kitten, this system is likely to work well. If you are writing a paper on the defeat of Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps by British forces at El Alamein in 1942, and you need to find information on troop numbers, strategies, key leaders, and the impact of the campaign on the overall course of World War II, then community-operated databases may not be your tool of choice. Sure, Wikipedia has a page on Herr Rommel that contains a bounty of information, but how do you know that all of it is accurate? How can you be sure that its sources include all of the information on this particular episode? The litmus test for a professionally designed information retrieval system is that it will find not just some information on a particular topic, but the most reliable, most relevant information. Or as I will now tell my friends, say you lost your kitten. Would you be satisfied if someone brought you any old kitten, as smart and cute as it may be, or would you insist in finding the very same one you lost?

Weedman, Judith (2008). Information Retrieval: Designing, Querying and Evaluating Information Systems. In Haycock, Ken & Sheldon, Brooke E. (Ed.). (2008). The Portable MLIS: Insights from the Experts. (pp. 112-126) Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.