Archive for July 2011

Does Facebook = Knowledge Creation?

If libraries provide computer stations for their members, and all that most members use them for is to check Facebook, are we really “facilitating knowledge creation?”

What if what our community wants is a place where they can participate in social media? What if they want to update their Facebook status and friend their childhood sweethearts and play Farmville just like everyone else? If the library creates this space for them, is this knowledge creation? Or has the library just become a free computer lab? Or is the latter the beginning of the former?

It can be if you insert the one thing that makes a library a library, and that’s a librarian. If that librarian creates guides about the different social networking sites out there; or teaches workshops on how to present and protect your social identity, or how to use social networking to look for a job; or hosts a social networking “petting zoo,” to demonstrate the latest social tool on the block, then he or she is facilitating knowledge creation in their community.


If Librarians Ruled the Web (circa 1998)

The idea of librarians creating a “Reference Extract” for the Web — a “credibility engine” of linked Web pages based on how well they help answer users’ questions — has kinda sorta been tried before by Microsoft, who then proceeded to pretty much bungle it.

When I worked as an editor at MSN Search in the mid-1990s, the main goal of our staff was to organize the content of the World Wide Web around the language used in the most commonly entered search terms on our site. The leaders and many members of this team were librarians, and we used library-like language to describe our work. We created synsets with disambiguators to group and describe these keywords, then assigned Web sites or individual Web pages to those synsets in the ranked order we wanted them to be returned to the user of the search engine.

For example, we may see a new term in our keyword logs one week: Saturn. First we’d need to determine whether that keyword was a part of a larger keyphrase that was already in the database. So maybe we already had a synset for “Sega Saturn,” a sadly defunct video game console system. If so, maybe we could add “Saturn” as a new keyword to that synset and call it a day? But does Saturn mean anything else? Of course. There’s Saturn (planet), Saturn (car manufacturer), and Saturn (Roman god). That’s three new synsets to create. Now we need to search the keyword logs for other search queries that equal each of these concepts. Does a search for “Saturn’s rings” get its own sysnet, or can that query be added to Saturn (planet)? And where do queries like “Saturn facts” or “Saturn information” go? Once the synset work is done, now we have to find websites that the editorial staff think best answer each of these queries. We would even write the descriptions for these sites so that when a visitor to MSN Search enters the search term “Saturn,” they receive a lovingly hand-crafted set of the best search results back in return.

In hindsight this approach has many flaws (Microsoft didn’t lose the search wars for nuthin’!). A team of 20 human editors can only tackle so much. We did not open the process up to other professionals — other librarians — to expand the number of credible contributors. We also tended to focus on new search terms and the most popular terms, so that once a search term was included in a synset it would not usually be revisited. And — crucially, I think — Microsoft did not promote the fact that there were reliable, credible human beings doing this work. In fact, they hid it. PR materials would describe MSN Search as being powered by “SmartSense.” What was SmartSense, you ask? We were SmartSense! The 20 librarians, indexers, and editors in the editorial suite out in Redmond! We even had t-shirts made: “Ask me: I have SmartSense.”

As a technology company, Microsoft was proudest of its technology solutions: its crawler, its results engine, its throughput. And of course, the real goals of the service were more about selling banner advertising and sponsored links, and driving users to other MSN resources. But having started down the path of creating a credible, human-powered system for finding the connections between the information people were looking for on the Web, Microsoft did not have the SmartSense to see it.


“The Mission of Librarians…

… (should they choose to accept it) … Is to Improve Society through Facilitating Knowledge Creation in Their Communities.”

This is the organizing principle of David Lankes’ book, The Atlas for New Librarianship. I suspect it is also the organizing principle of his life, brain, and sock drawer. The man lives librarianship with a passion that is infectious and inspiring. And it makes me embarrassed at my 25-year-old self who had an opportunity to enter the library field but thought, “I don’t really want to be a librarian.” That girl was an idiot.

To be fair to my inner idiot, I was working from a very stereotypical view of librarians that was not uncommon. I imagined that as a librarian I would spend all day doing data entry, filing, and shelving. And while I did love to read, I did not especially relish a future surrounded by books and journals.

Not that there is anything wrong with books and journals. But there is nothing sacred about them either. For a long time now, the best tools for sharing and accessing information and then turning that information into new knowledge were text artifacts like books. They still are great tools. But they are only the tools. And the mission of librarians is not simply to organize the tools.


P.S. — TRUE FACT: I worked at Microsoft during the time period Lankes describes in his opening chapter when discussing how the difference in worldview led Wikipedia to succeed over Encarta. In fact, my Scottish husband was, rather hilariously, hired as an editorial assistant at Encarta to write captions for photos of German castles. He used to go to the library and look them up in Encyclopedia Britannica. :-)

“Blackboard is Not Awesome”

I have been using Blackboard as a student for about three weeks now, and I could not sum up the experience any better than one of my fellow classmates: “Blackboard is not awesome.”

Ain’t that the truth. Visually, the site leaves a lot to be desired: editable windows are tiny and aren’t expandable, icons hold little clue to the functionality hidden underneath, discussion threads are difficult to follow and are not searchable. And those are just the first three things I thought of.

More important though than the myriad design, navigation, and structural flaws of the Blackboard interface is a more fundamental issue: In this social networked world where students — and faculty — are used to systems that “just work” and that allow us to make connections with people who are important to some aspect of our lives, Blackboard doesn’t and can’t.

Moving from the world of Facebook and Twitter and Google+ and Foursquare to Blackboard feels like someone has slammed on the brakes in your brain. You can practically hear the “screeeeech!” followed by the “clunk … clunk … clunk” as you try to upload an assignment or find the one discussion thread you are supposed to respond to. And — crucially — the real life connections you make with your fellow students in the classroom have no presence here. All of that real connection and collaboration seems to happen elsewhere: in Facebook groups primarily but also on Skype and maybe soon a Google+ hangout (I know we are still in the “Google+ will change [FILL IN THE BLANK] as we know it!” phase of giddiness, but the Circles and Hangout features look sooooooo tempting to me right now.) How cool would it be as a student if your academic life online felt as connected as your social life?

There are other learning management systems (and isn’t that a horrible name — you will learn, but that learning shall be managed in this system!) that I am not familiar with that seem to be moving in this direction — namely Moodle. And I wonder how long a very un-social, not awesome tool like Blackboard will be tolerated in an increasingly and awesomely connected world.


The Goddess of Clarity Goes Back to School

So the blog is re-emerging from one of its quieter phases again (have I *really* not posted in three months? Shame on me!) and will be taking on a slightly different range of topics in the months ahead. You see, I am going back to graduate school, specifically for my Master of Library and Information Science degree from Syracuse University. It is all very exciting and all very daunting and all very ridiculous.

I have to admit that so far the predominant feeling or thought running through my head in the last couple of weeks has been, “what the hell am I getting myself into?” followed by, “you can’t be serious?” Oh, but I turns out I am. To borrow from my original personal statement when applying to the program:

[In the mid-1990s,] I began working full time at Microsoft on the MSN Search team — Microsoft’s first foray into the search engine wars — where I was surrounded by librarians. With their indices and taxonomies and hierarchies it seemed they had set about the task of cataloging the whole of human knowledge. But how far can software go in knowing what we’re really looking for?

Now in my current position as the Web Editor for the University of Rochester, it’s my job to help people find what they are looking for on our websites. And while it can be customary to think of content and design as two separate aspects of website development, I have come to view design as content. The most informative content in the world is of little use if it’s hiding behind layers of roadblocks. How can interface design contribute to the accessibility and ultimately the value of the content we have to share with our users?

These are just a couple of the questions that I very much want to explore.