Dreaming Internet

On Time and a Few Other Things

I sit here with a Steven Covey matrix open and then a list of priorities and I realize the one thing I don’t really have anything doing in is this, my poor blog, which has been going in one way or another since 2000 (and technically 1999) when I was 15 and 16 and decided I would try to learn HTML. My “regular” readers will have noticed I changed to a stock theme, because my ability to do custom WordPress themes has diminished somewhat over the years. My old theme wasn’t really speaking to me any more, and this one isn’t either, but until I have time to sit down and code my with my responsive steampunk that still manages to load fairly fast vision theme this will have to do. I did dip a toe into Ello to replace my LiveJournal feelings place, but guess that didn’t grab me either. It’s taking the time for myself (and in the enlarging my worldview and abilities sense, not playing Dots and doing my nails sense) that seems to be the problem here.

So: time. I had a baby about 10 months ago, as everyone has probably picked up on. I have many thoughts about technology and babies and so on, which I will get into as I work some of these ideas into a presentation (maybe 2?) in February. Time is the other important concept that having a baby alters. John Hodgman always says to participants without kids on Judge John Hodgman that they have so much free time and don’t know it, despite what they may think. At first it seemed I had nothing but time, to the point where I did conference calls for committee meetings during maternity leave since I was bored. But slowly all extra time seemed to vanish as I did things like buy a house and take on yet more projects and committee memberships and professional development opportunities. We are now going to implement a new ILS (integrated library system) and discovery layer, so that is a good opportunity for me to revisit all my commitments and step back on some. Or lean into all of them? I enjoyed Sheryl Sandberg’s book, even if I know it’s not exactly describing my life, or even that of most people. But I do appreciate the message that if you are in the position to set a good example, you should do so. (Though I do worry about people who set unhealthy examples–and honestly, leaving the office at 5:30 is still pretty late. Make it 4:30 and then we can talk.)

The other thing is that in general I am not happy with the internet, or perhaps specifically the pieces of the web that thrive on constantly updated streams of content. Today is a perfect example. There was a traumatic event that lots of people are responding to, but retweeting or writing an explainer is not action. This year has been so wretched for so many people that I more or less have a policy of saying nothing about anything real online, other than very specific library technology issues to which I can give an informed opinion. What’s the use in doing otherwise? I feel the need to defend my not sinking myself into vitriol on a daily basis, but at the same time, I can have my private opinions, thoughts, and sorrows without sharing them with the world. Perhaps what I feel the need to defend is that I do feel strongly about a lot of things, but I want time and space to formulate a useful thought beyond a hashtag.

Internet Libraries

Simplifying Library Database Interfaces

As a way to relax and unwind during a stressful work week, I decided to do some arts and crafts with electronic resources. I wanted to make the simplest interface the database would allow.  The purpose was twofold: I had to straighten out messy EBSCO research database profiles, but I also wanted to play around with EBSCO’s customization features since I knew they were more thorough than other vendors.

For those of you who aren’t aware of what the back end of a research database looks like for the administrator (and I am just fine with not knowing what the back end looks like for the developer, thanks), it’s a lot of options that make the database work properly with your A-Z list of journals, OpenURL resolver, proxy server, catalog, authentication, and branding, among other things. A lot of that stuff you set up at the beginning when you first acquire the database, and what’s possible to customize completely varies by vendor. For instance, some vendors don’t let you change any of that–you faxyour IP addresses and proxy server address, and then if you have to make any changes, you call or sometimes fax again to do so. Some vendors are much more lenient, even letting you remove their big branding from the top of the page and put in yours. Most are somewhere in between. Maintaining all these various options and tuning them up from time to time is what’s called electronic resource management, which also encompasses many other tasks. In case you are one of my non-librarian friends and wondered what I am talking about when I say that.

Simple Profile screenshot
Simple Profile Search Interface

So back to EBSCO. They are one of those vendors which allow you a lot of freedom in changing every aspect of the search experience down to an extremely granular level. A level to which I do not have time to go, in fact, but certainly there was a lot of tune-up that needed to happen. The reason is that as of late 2011 they acquired H.W. Wilson and all of their databases. By about early February all those databases were incorporated into EBSCOHost research databases, and thus a lot of the search options needed a bit of refinement. But I was also interested in what I could take away and still leave a useable product. Enter: the Google-y EBSCOHost.

“Why can’t this work like Google?” is a question a lot of people, librarians and students alike, ask fairly often. If you’ve read Alan Jacobs’ recent piece on the Atlantic website you’ll see some good arguments for why it’s important to work on library research interfaces. I remember Aaron Schmidt declaring in a talk “Patrons shouldn’t see the word Boolean!” to resounding applause. While I don’t fully agree with either statement, I think it’s worth seeing what happens when you do try to make things more simple. In designing this profile, I took away as much as possible. The search options are  not as visible, but still there (Google making advanced search and verbatim search as hard to find as they have recently annoys me no end, though this is apparently only annoying to nerds). The top bar is black like the ubiquitous Google bar. And the branding is for Dominican University (the size kind of sucks currently,  that’s something to work on). Behind the scenes, Boolean searching is turned off completely. Just like our friend Google and their no more + operators except in verbatim search. But now patrons never see the word Boolean. The results page still has a lot on it, but it’s only two columns, like Google, with the results in the middle part of the grid and the options on the left bar.

Simple Profile Results screenshot
Simple Profile Results

I haven’t used this much yet, but I hope to show it in instruction sessions for students to demonstrate as something along the lines of training wheels for novice researchers. But I don’t think it’s an appropriate interface for in-depth research,  because I know what options I took away from the user. Some of them make good research better for experienced searchers even if they make them more confusing for the novice. This is the advantage to having these different profiles available, and why it’s worth spending some time really understanding what your options are.

Computers Internet What I've been reading lately

Review of The Inner History of Devices

The Inner History of DevicesThe Inner History of Devices by [sic] Sherry Turkle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This volume is edited and with an introduction by Sherry Turkle, and each chapter is written by someone else, so the “by” in the bibliographic data should really read “ed.”. Anyway.

This work examines people’s personal relationships with technology through three formats: memoir, ethnography, and case report. In each case, the point is to understand how the technology either builds or elides a sense of self. Not surprisingly, results show that participative environments help people to build a sense of self, though this is frequently pathological. In other cases, the technology masks people’s humanity, usually with deleterious effects; the chapters on addiction and disease are the most striking examples of this. In these cases, a life and death dependence on technology such as in the case of dialysis can quickly lead to despair or feeling like a cyborg. It seems to me that a frequent criticism of Sherry Turkle is that she tends to see the pathological in people’s relationships with technology. My personal view on the matter is that she might be right, though of course I don’t change my own behavior to account for it. But even when new social or learning spaces are created as technology advances, we have to recognize their limits. The chapter “Cyberplaces” by Kimberlyn Leary had the example that most resonated with me. Melissa has just discovered that her “knight” in a medieval online RPG is really a 15 year old boy. He insists nothing has changed about their relationship. Melissa feels differently.

Most clinicians would not fault Melissa’s comment for showing a lack of imagination but would find it a healthy adaptive response. She has come to an important realization, absent in much of the over-enthusiastic literature on cyberspace: the computer makes multiple selves possible–but only to a point. Melissa can live on the surface, but at a critical moment, the need for depth returns. (pp. 89-90)

I am sure we could all name a similar “critical moment” in our own lives.

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