Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Glumness about New Jersey State Budget Cuts and the Future of the Open Web

Forsythia in bloom this week, in front of a pine tree

The proposed New Jersey state budget would negatively affect many types of libraries. (Keep an eye on the Save My NJ Library page for information.) At the community college, we face losing our interlibrary loan service, a number of heavily-used databases, and other things we receive by being part of a state consortium. As the college itself is also facing significant cuts in state funding, I really have no idea how everything will play out.

Moreover, I worry about the perception that everything is free and online now, implying that the library doesn't need funding. Everything is not free and online, of course, and the future of the free web is far from secure. Often it seems that support for 'free' content is the first to go when belts tighten. In recent news there have been stories about the BBC, Cornell's ArXiv, and the New York Times charging for content that had previously been given away.

If our subscriptions are cut, what will the college library then have? (Let's not even broach the topic of how we've been transitioning to an access-over-ownership collection model because of the preference for online materials instead of print.) We would have the expertise of the librarians, who would do their best to help people but who would be unable to supply the actual resources. Would the subscription fees be pushed onto students? Yikes, if so.

Librarians can talk themselves blue about the value of library resources and services, but I can imagine those in the state government might not listen to them -- meaningful support must come from constituents. These constituents are allies of the library only if the library provides them with what they consider valuable and necessary. We'll be hoping for support from faculty, staff, and students as we face the challenges ahead.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Spring Break Project: Digital Learning Object

Mourning Cloak Butterfly (Aglais antiopa), in the woods near campus on Tuesday

This week, with many students and faculty away for spring break, I was hoping to have some uninterrupted time to work on various projects.

One was the creation of a digital learning object for a recurring library-related biology assignment.

I have been worrying about pouring a lot of energy into this and having to realize later that I wasted my time due to technical problems I should have anticipated. Also, the more I think about it, the more complicated it seems to migrate a physical lesson to a virtual platform, and the more sympathy I have for instructors trying to figure out how to teach online. For example:

-To put a lesson into an online learning environment, some technical skills are necessary. Luckily I'm a librarian, but there are plenty of academic disciplines where technical skills are not a requirement. (Topics in technology are treated as academic subjects and assigned to departments at most institutions of higher education, recall.) Plenty of people would not consider teaching a tech-heavy occupation.

-I catch myself constantly assessing whether the resulting product will be durable. A lecture in person, due to being ephemeral, is very easy to revise. In lectures, I am always incorporating new information, responding to feedback, and figuring out clearer ways of communicating. In building this digital learning object, I am planning on being able to make subsequent edits easily, but any editing will not be real-time. Considering all the support for interactivity in learning, this renders the learning object oddly top-down and 'old media'.

-On the other hand, I think focusing on interactivity and learning styles can allow a person to lose sight of the actual lesson to be taught and learned. Effective oration does exist, and it doesn't necessarily require gadgets. (Supporting this point, there was a fascinating Chronicle article a few months ago about how learning style matters less than effective presentation of content.) Newly available tools can also be effective and useful, but not if faculty members regard the accompanying technology with hostility.

I end up concluding that each discipline -- better yet, each lesson -- should be carefully evaluated in terms of whether or not it can be taught effectively online. Such an evaluation process would be complicated to carry out, but ultimately it would be in the best interest of the learners. As far as I know, it is not happening on a large scale at present.

So, maybe what I really need to do is create a set of standards or guidelines to determine whether this biology assignment can be taught online effectively.

Meanwhile, it's the end of spring break week, and my learning object for the biology department is not finished...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Cost of Google

Seen flowering near the library- Cranesbill Geranium?

For the record, I think life with Google surpasses life with no Google.

But when reading The Case for Books by Robert Darnton last week, I had this tangential thought:

Google is not free. We act as though it is, because it certainly seems free (and fast, and easy), but there is a price nonetheless.

First, when we search using Google, a commercial interest is deciding how information is shown to us. When it comes to finding simple, widely-known facts, such as the capital of the Ukraine for example, this effect is not noticeable. But what about when you want to know something more complicated, such as what happened during the bombing of Dresden in World War II? I know Google is good, but if you start with a lack of knowledge about German history and politics, and ask an American corporation (even one trying not to be evil) for the answer, I'm not sure clarity and truth will always result. I'm not picking on Germany, as the world is rife with examples (continuing the World War II theme, let's go with the bombing of Hiroshima), but inevitably Google's ranking is strongly related to majority opinion, and situations are often more complex than the crisp results page implies. Digressing slightly, I think this is where librarians and other information professionals are still relevant.

Second, I'm sure lots of people, like me, are logged into iGoogle all day, and so our web searches and online activities are neatly tied to our names and other Google services. This is a goldmine! Think of all the data that is precisely harvested with this set-up! In exchange for using Google's services, I blithely give all this information away. Typically I am concerned about protecting my privacy, yet this form of invasiveness hasn't bothered me -- for a really interesting article concerning some of how Google uses our data, as well as other articles about the data generated by networked computers, check out the Feb 27 issue of the Economist.

For a while, I have been wondering whether Google will ever get too big. I worry that what it started out as (web indexer, page ranker, data miner) is fast becoming confused with something else (Truth Teller, oracle, gatekeeper). Google's Director of Research recently explained in Nature what the company has in mind for 2020 -- here's the story filtered through Bill Garrity -- and I'm not sure whether to be soothed or perturbed. Even if we wanted to, I don't think there is a way to stop or slow much of this, but I hope the more we understand, the more we can choose to be willing participants (or not). I hope that is what Google ultimately wants, too.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Thank You Note to Springshare

March landscape

I realized when the electricity went out last week that submitting complaints and problems to companies is easy, but it's not always so easy to communicate appreciation. (Thanks for turning our power on again so quickly, PSEG, if you're reading this for some reason!)

In libraryland, I have found the company Springshare to be consistently helpful, professional, and one step ahead of me when it comes to new features and upgrades. Not only do they seem to understand Library 2.0, but also in person their representatives were unflaggingly polite and seemed interested in what I had to say when I stopped by their ALA booths in Chicago and Boston.

Currently our library is using their LibGuides and LibAnswers products (examples at the end of this post), and we also recently started using their Analytics tool (currently in Beta) for our reference statistics. All of these have worked really well for our needs. The interfaces are clear and intuitive meaning we can dive right in, there are tons of useful tools but a lot of flexibility, and the company is responsive if we are looking for something additional. The user community is helpful, as expected, and that advice is supplemented nicely by Springshare tech support. Importantly, LibGuides allows you to create a guide quickly, and updating is a cinch. I have modified guides in front of classes when I'm teaching.

Most recently I noticed a print/mobile view on the LibGuides, which again is fantastic and which I hadn't thought to ask for yet. (Definitely still on the horizon, though.) I don't know if Springshare comes up with these things themselves, or if they just pay close attention to their user community, but thank you: Great work.

(And no, I'm not affiliated with the company beyond being a client, and Springshare didn't pay me to write this.)

Here are some particular examples of our LibGuides. If the links are ever dead, it's probably because the guide is no longer public:

-Music Subject Guide
-Psychology 101 Group Project
-Psychology Journal Article Assignment

And here is what our LibAnswers looks like.