February 27, 2007

Re: Accidentally Found on Purpose

To me, a big difference between most archives and most libraries in the U.S. is the closed/open nature of the storage. Obviously this has a big impact on how users interact with the materials, but I think this also has a big impact on how users interact with the staff and vice versa. Because in a closed stacks scenario the user MUST ask for specific materials, there is an expectation of interaction. If you don’t interact, you’ll never get anywhere at all. In a open stacks library, I think that users might be more reluctant because the librarian is simply going to walk you back out to the open stacks and point at a book that you could have pulled off the shelf yourself, you moron. Now, as librarians, we know this is not what we’re thinking (well, not in most cases, at least), but I think it’s a consideration. The library is *potentially* a self-serve operation and it seems that the self-serve operation is the ideal. Does this hurt the user? (For that matter, does it hurt the librarian and library?)

I think the vastly disparate levels of cataloging that exist in special collections are very significant (i.e., where one user said, “if I am lucky and they have an inventory of each document”, p.481). One institution might process to the item level while another might stop at the folder level. How is the user to deal with this? Is it just “luck”? What expectations does a user have? And then there are the unprocessed or semi-processed collections. In a library, you can be pretty sure that the books and other materials are pretty thoroughly handled at the item level. True, there might be some variety in whether full contents are present, etc., but the traditional system of library cataloging has well-established basic access points that users can rely upon.

I also believe that users do not open the door to special collections unless there’s reason to believe there is relevant information to be found, even in the broad “contextual knowledge” search. Because the scope of the library is much wider, it’s reasonable to think that the library will have *something* of use. This is not the same in the archives, especially those archives which are highly specialized and again, because of the closed stacks set-up, you can’t be looking at one box and then have your eyes wander over to another – that second box will only exist for you if you specifically request it.

Lastly, it doesn’t surprise me that humanities researchers would look for other channels because the existing systematic tools are so inconsistent. I suppose this will continue until someone determines that literature or history or art cures cancer and then the appropriate funding will appear.

Michael Fitzgerald


February 20, 2007

The idea of being more accurate about the Internet is a good one. I would also recommend being more specific about the points in the path. In terms of pathways, the assumption seems to be that the sources are consulted in simple series, but what about the complicated real world where you check the Internet (really four things: a web search, a website, sending an email, and posting a bulletin board inquiry, for example), then visit a library (for a reference book) and while at the library you get a reply to your bulletin board inquiry, leading to a magazine article at the library, which mentions a different website, where you can contact the author of the page. And so on. I think the questions were constructed to make life easy for the researchers (well, heck – can you blame them?).

The idea of people being “embedded in information fields that determine their level of awareness and knowledge of particular issues” doesn’t seem to take different issues into account. While someone might be ideally positioned in a field for one issue, isn’t it quite reasonable to think that this same person might be totally out of the loop (in left field?) regarding a different issue? The cancer patient scenario seemed to be way too extreme – if you’ve got cancer, this is a major life change and altering your field is very logical, but what about inquiries in less dramatic circumstances?

As others have suggested, the boundary between fields and pathways has become blurred and I would be interested to see detailed studies of communication – for instance, I might theorize that people tune into certain channels for a limited time and others for extended periods and I’d also theorize that people’s roles change, both over time and in different contexts. Last year’s question-asker might be this year’s question-answerer in the same forum and yet that same person might remain a question-asker in a different forum where there are more “experts”.

Michael Fitzgerald

P.S. – Our study of citation analysis will remain with me. Why is it that the 1951 work on field theory by Kurt Lewin is not cited and instead the John Scott (2000) is? Is this an aversion to referring to something that is “too old”?

February 11, 2007

Regarding the help desk article: I wonder whether the popularity of communication devices like IM, text messaging, etc. has had an impact on the exaggerated brevity of user questions (2.2.2 no. 1). Obviously these wouldn’t have been considered in the 1975 and 1981 research cited. My experience with those who use these is that they pare things down as much as possible. They also seem to rely on multiple cycles of dialogue, rather than thinking things through and putting together a single complete message. I think there is also the expectation of more interaction. I very much like the sequenced prompts that ask the user to consider more than one aspect of the problem. Basically, the help folks are saying, “Don’t bother us until you’ve thought this through” – which is great (and it worked).

We have all seen the dark side of being constrained to supplying only small pieces of information (and not even our choices of which pieces) – you know, “For help with billing, press 1” – and I’d imagine that most of us do everything we can to bypass the automated menus as quickly as possible to speak with a human being who can actually answer our question. I know that in these cases, I’d much rather present more information sooner and I’d much rather have control of what pieces of information the system uses. Can someone come up with a better automated customer service telephone system? Or will telephone service wane and computer chat service take its place? I think there’s still a strong appeal for a lot of people in (eventually) getting a human voice on the other end of the phone.

I think there is a parallel between the help desk situation and the Endeca-powered OPAC that Cory has (rightly) raved about. But since there is no human involvement required to search a library catalog, there isn’t a need to demand all the information up front. The catalog can take a general query (or even one that is specific to a field) and show you results PLUS a dozen ways for you to refine. See http://catalog.fcla.edu/ – and I think it’s important that you get to see the quantity of “answers” before you ask your refining “questions,” as well as seeing “wrong” refinements that might cause you to rethink your query. I see no excuse for dead-end searches that don’t allow refining. Forcing the user to start over from scratch (or even from his last search) is frustrating and that frustration helps no one. Imagine if you had to do that with a help desk: “OK, please re-ask your question but this time include more details, (you bonehead)” No, instead we have a dialogue, or we simulate/anticipate dialogue with the sequenced prompts (which are very much like the facets that the OPAC uses).

February 5, 2007

Regarding DRM –

Music piracy is a subject near and dear to my heart. I come from a generation that doesn’t believe that everything is free-for-the-download. When I was teaching high school (this was the Napster era) it was quite revelatory to find that so many students believed this. Some had never purchased music in their lives and could not understand what was so wrong about this. There were plenty of rationalizations too. However, my position is definitely *not* on the side of the content owners without reservation.

Too late for this article, but in the fall of 2005, Sony implemented a new kind of copy protection on a batch of CDs. This was found to be illegal and really blew up in their face. Read more at

Is this an example of what the article says – how “consumer discontent with highly restrictive DRM may force content owners to make DRM more consumer-friendly”? Maybe it’s even worse than that.

Things like the “DAT tax goes to copyright owners” is a joke. Yes, and after the big (four? five?) record labels get their money, what next? The media industry seems to have elevated the non-payment of royalties into a science. The supposed “rights agencies” ASCAP and BMI are no better and the RIAA speaks only for the biggest fish. The little fish and the folks who actually write and perform the music get nothing. The big guys can say that they dominate more than 80% of the music being sold – scary enough, but still, what about the rest? Will we ever see independent production/distribution make enough of a dent to matter? How could this happen?

I still believe that if the big companies had their way, you would never be able to BUY anything. You would pay them a fee to view or listen and afterwards if you wanted to repeat, you would pay all over again (and you still wouldn’t get the highest quality that technology allows). It seems that content owners have a lot to do to overcome the perception that they are evil and only interested in money. Is this even a possibility? Truth be told, one of the few times I see the conglomerates as good guys is when it is in light of blatant copyright violation by foreign *companies* (e.g., releases from Andorra). But all too often there are mitigating circumstances – sometimes it is out-of-print material. If the legitimate owner won’t make it available and there is a demand…. This situation goes back at least as far as 1951 when RCA Victor record pressing plants were being used by a label called “Jolly Roger” (get it? Victor didn’t!) to press pirate copies of out-of-print Victor material (i.e., Victor was “unknowingly” making money by pressing illegal copies of their own back catalog stuff!).

In the library world, restrictive copyright law is hurting preservation efforts and there is plenty of evidence to show that the content owners (very often different from the content creators) have not been good stewards of their domain. They aren’t doing their job and yet they want to stop others from trying.

Michael Fitzgerald

January 29, 2007

I think the “Is-digital-the-new-microfilm?” concern is off-base. What is different about digital is that everyone has a reader, i.e., a computer. I continue to do a lot of microfilm newspaper research and yet I still am not about to purchase my own reader, nor am I going to purchase reels myself. That’s what libraries are there for (and it keeps the gate count up). Unfortunately, even huge libraries like UNC don’t make the big investment in digitized newspaper collections, so unless you want the historical NYT (which is available digitally just about everywhere), you’re going to be dealing with microfilm. But if you want a digitized document (and you’ve got the appropriate access permissions), you can read from the comfort of your home sofa. This makes a difference.

It also bothers me when I continue to see this pre-web idea credited solely to Vannevar Bush (1945) when Paul Otlet (1934 and earlier) proposed a very similar idea. See:




Is this some jingoistic revisionist history that wants to put America in the lead over those Yurropeens? Or are we dealing with another tricky problem of electronic (and non-electronic) scientific research: that scholars read – and more importantly, *cite* – works that are in their own language and tend to ignore works that have not been translated? A bunch of Otlet’s writings were translated in 1990. I don’t know if this was the first translation, but I wonder. A quick ISI citation search shows V. Bush in Atlantic Monthly cited about 600 times and P. Otlet still in the single digits for all of his cited writings except one that gets about 50 total. That most-popular article only begins to be cited a lot at a certain point (80% are 1990 and more recent). Hmmmmm. Why is this subject of language not addressed in any of the articles? Are folks assuming that researchers are bothering with foreign texts?

This article http://library.wur.nl/frontis/ethics/05a_zwart.pdf does address the subject and says:

“During the first half of the Twentieth Century, for example, the German language constituted the international scholarly lingua franca (French and English coming second). After World War II, however,
scholarly discourse migrated into English. And now, as fluency in German and French is declining, enormous archives, written in German and French, are seriously at risk

January 19, 2007

OK – here goes:

1. I found it curious that while the Scientific American article is largely devoted to examining a word that is and was well-known and in common use: communication, that a term like “cybernetics” was just blithely dropped into the discussion without any clarification (and even toward the end of the article when the term comes up again, it is still not explained). It’s certainly not a word that I felt comfortable reading – and my quick search on the web tells me that it’s still (nearly 35 years after the article) not clearly defined. See: http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/ASC/CYBERNETICS.html . In an article about communication, shouldn’t clarity be a priority? I tend to think of Scientific American as something aimed more at the “ordinary” reader than an academic journal.

2. I tend to disagree with the comments made about music. “Order undetected is order in vain” – not true. Just because a particular listener (or even a large group of listeners) may not realize what structure is hidden beneath the superficial doesn’t mean that it wasn’t useful. In fact, without it the composition might not have been possible. And those listeners might well have gotten something out of the piece in spite of the fact that this time they didn’t notice the order that the composer put in it. The other consideration is that what goes undetected upon first (or fiftieth) hearing might come through upon subsequent exposure. Every time you listen to a piece you are (hopefully) a bit more experienced, a bit wiser. The problem is that it is assumed that if someone doesn’t “get it” after the first hearing it is judged to be “bad”. It’s a knee-jerk kind of reaction. I can’t find the quote I want right now, but the gist is that the only thing that new music (referring to contemporary classical music) requires after it is premiered is that it be played again. And all too often this never happens. Pieces are performed once (if ever!) and then swept under the carpet and the warhorses return. (Amazingly, there are ballets *other* than The Nutcracker, can you believe it?) I don’t know if my copy of the article is missing anything, but I found no specific citation for the comments of Sir Donald Tovey and Gerald Strang. I also wonder about the interpretation of Gerald Strang’s comment. Following the idea (although untrue) that Eskimos have more words for “snow” – those who devote a great deal of time listening to what Strang calls “uniformly gray” music probably can distinguish between a whole lot of shades of gray. I think the author’s comments show his bias and ignorance (“by what has moved no one” – that’s an absolute and absolutes are NEVER true….). The statements about the diatonic musical scale are better suited to the *pentatonic* musical scale. Howard Goodall did a good bit on this as part of one of his recent BBC-TV programs. And another thing is that once the “hidden” order has been pointed out to the listener, then that listener might catch it before the fiftieth hearing for the next piece. Why do people continue to study classic literature over and over? Wasn’t everything readily apparent upon first reading? Shallow things work that way. On the other hand, works of significance have depth that rewards repeated listening. Before I leave this topic (“Thank God,” I hear you say), I’ll also mention that there is a world of difference between active and passive listening. There are some thoughts on this subject here: http://www.mcgath.com/philmusic.html

3. It was interesting to read the 1972 perspective on phone calls, picture phones, etc. One thing that I find is that although I have unlimited U.S. long distance via my cable telephone service, my years on the Internet have allowed me to develop relationships outside of the U.S. (the intellectual vs. geographical community idea that the article mentions) – so now I wish international calls were also included. Browning said, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Jagger said, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Will we always want more than we can have?

4. The graph about radio, TV, and cable was, to me, not any big news – and we now know how big cable has become in the subsequent decades. But the consolidation of these sources in recent times is a disturbing reality. When the article was published in 1972, FM radio was perhaps at its zenith (if you’ll pardon the pun). There was a great diversity of content and there was quite a bit of freedom in programming (which was done by human beings – and sometimes even the DJs picked what music you heard!). With the introduction of computer playlists and the purchases of stations by huge conglomerates, ratings, demographics, and homogeneity are the order of the day. The article states that “In totalitarian societies great efforts are made to narrow and control the channels of communication.” Hmmmmm – ClearChannel, anyone? http://www.cjr.org/tools/owners/clearchannel.asp