Famouser Than I Was

I think I have finally arrived. No, I don’t have my own Wikipedia entry, but I do have my own Mahalo page. Mahalo bills itself as "human-powered search," though this page seems to have been auto-generated.  But that doesn’t distract from the glowing pride I now feel about being famous, or at least famouser than I was. After all, I bet you don’t have your own Mahalo page, now do you? Considering what an Internet phenomenon all Bivens-Tatums are, you might want to "claim" that page and make yourself up to $50 a month!

What’s great is all the things I get to learn about myself. I knew all the stuff in the links. I have a blog and a couple of articles in the U. of Nebraska digital commons. After seeing the link, I remember that at some point in the past I joined Linkedin. And I still work at Princeton. Three of the images are even of me, and one of the other images bears a striking resemblance to a former colleague, who is also a male academic librarian with glasses and a beard. There aren’t many of those around, so that’s probably close enough.

However, I was somewhat surprised to see that my "products and merchandise" included two calculus books by Howard Anton. Considering how expensive they are, I should be getting some profit on those, and you can be sure I’ll be contacting Wiley just as soon as I finish this post.

I was even more surprised to find the "Mahalo Answers for wayne bivens tatum." "What do you think of Jacob Wayne Peacocks art?" This must really be a Mahalo question for me, and my answer would have to be, I don’t think about it at all, since I have no idea who he is. I don’t feel too bad, because he probably has no idea who I am, either. There are three questions about someone or something called Lil Wayne, including, "What do you think about Lil Wayne making a rock record?" When I hear Little Wayne, the first mental association is with Little Elvis (def. 1), and I really don’t want to think about Little Wayne making a rock record, or performing at the Grammys for that matter.

The Google ads seems spot-on, too. Elderly home care near Fort Wayne, IN is definitely something I might be interested in one day if I’m ever elderly and living in Fort Wayne. And if I were in Wayne, MI, a back specialist might be just the thing. I do suffer from a touch of lumbago occasionally, and being in Wayne, MI might set it off, especially if I had to drive all the way there. The 8-hour calculus dvd tutor would probably do me good, since I know bugger all about calculus, which no doubt surprises you given my relationship to the two calculus books I mentioned earlier.

This year I’ve been doing workshops on emerging search technologies, and Mahalo has figured in them all. I’m happy that now I’ll have a page to show the audience as an example of all that Mahalo is capable of. All in all, I have to say I’m as impressed by Mahalo as I’ve ever been.

Updating My Status, or, A Blog Post is a 1,000 Word Tweet

I read John Dupuis’s response to my last blog post, as well as the comments generated by his post  Someone actually suggested regarding Twitter that I should try it before I say I won’t like it. Instead, I say, give it to Mikey. He’ll try anything.

The "don’t knock it ’til you try it response" is problematic for many reasons (not that I was knocking anything). To echo one person who commented on my blog, I haven’t tried cannibalism or genital piercing either, but I don’t want to. The response also smacks of an irritating paternalism, as if a grown man who’s reasonably bright and educated is like a child who needs to be told to eat his vegetables. "How do you know you don’t like cauliflower until you’ve tried it?" Not being a child, but instead a rather large man, there’s a temptation to suggest the inquisitor take the cauliflower and insert it somewhere very uncomfortable, like the back seat of a Volkswagen. Mostly, though, the response is flawed because it assumes that any given social software application is somehow sui generis, when in fact they are all just variations on a theme. Twitter, for example, is analogous to all sorts of other things, and even if it weren’t it’s not like it’s some difficult concept to understand.

There is in fact an analogous service I have tried: Facebook. I’ve been on for two or three years and find myself going to it less and less frequently. It’s been okay, but nothing especially life-changing. I’ve been in contact with people I haven’t seen since high school, which has been pleasant. I’ve played a few games of Scrabble. I know some people use Twitter and their Facebook status update the same way, and one thing I’ve never done is update my status. I’ve never told people what I was having for lunch, or posted a Youtube video of some funny antic, or tried to come up with a clever epigram or aphorism to show people how interesting I am.

Why? Mainly because I don’t think anyone would care, just as I’m interested in very few of other people’s postings. On a moment to moment basis, I, like most people, am just not very interesting. I’m not necessarily boring, and I do think I have my good qualities, but I really can’t figure out what I could say in a few characters that would be worth reading. Writing nothing worth reading may not bother most people, but I try to keep an audience in mind and not bore you too much.

However, I’m going to give this "status updating" thing a try. Would you really like to know what I’m thinking about right now? If not, stop reading! But if so, I’ll tell you.

I’m teaching another writing seminar in the fall, and I’m changing the topic to "justice" instead of "liberalism" and revamping the readings. For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to figure out how to present a coherent story about the extremely active philosophical discussion about justice since Rawls’ Theory of Justice in the equivalent of about 8-10 essays. Keep in mind, the goal of this course isn’t to teach philosophy, but academic research and writing. It’s just that to write anything worth reading, students need something to write about.

As a research project, it’s been an adventure. Building upon my previous knowledge, I’ve been using encyclopedias, anthologies, surveys, reviews, articles, bibliographies, footnotes, and even Google Scholar to develop the reading list. (I’ve been using the "cited by" feature in Google Scholar, not the discovery feature so much.) The goal is to give students a general overview of the subject using only primary texts while tracing a scholarly conversation over the course of four decades. I think I have a good list. The students will read excerpts or full essays by some heavy hitters, and in one unit every source we read will cite all of the previous sources we’ve read, in order to show how a scholarly conversation develops over time. A seminar should tell a story about the topic. This is naturally only one story among many possible ones, and I make that clear, but in the summation at the end of the semester it should be obvious that we’ve outlined an important and engaging dialog about the topic.

In addition, the readings have to lend themselves to the teaching of writing and research. I’ve also been thinking about that topic, and have formed some rough opinions. These classes are supposed to teach argumentative academic writing. Thus the best sources provoke argument. Often writing/ composition/ rhetoric is taught in English departments, and just as often the courses are focused on interpreting literature. In a course like that, the students get a novel/ poem/ play/ film to discuss and write about. There is a clear difference between primary and secondary texts, and the students are writing secondary works while studying primary works, for the most part.

It seems easier to me to teach primary sources that are themselves examples of argumentative writing, and political philosophy works very well in this regard. Philosophers are trained to argue, not interpret. And political topics tend to be engaging to a lot of people simply because they’re an inescapable part of life. So in my class the students are reading the sorts of essays they’re writing. There’s not much of a distinction between a primary and a secondary source. If everything works well, the whole course coheres. My goal is the perfect writing seminar, in the sense that A argues in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or that Don Giovanni is the perfect work of music because it best exemplifies what makes a classic work of art: an absolute correlation of form and content. Every text we read in class is both something to write about and an example of how one should write argumentative academic prose, and they’re all arguing with each other.

Is this interesting to you? It’s more about writing pedagogy than librarianship, but I can see where it might be. Teaching writing and research has certainly made me a better librarian. The skills I’ve gained carry over into research consultations and instruction sessions all the time. Thinking about the nature of scholarly exchange in an academic discipline is the sort of thing lots of academic librarians do.

This is just the merest summary of activity, though I’ve been considering further developing some of these rough thoughts into posts or articles. What’s here says little of substance, and yet I still can’t figure out how to condense it to 140 characters. To be clear yet again, I’m not knocking any of this, even if I haven’t tried it. I just know what I want to read and how I want to spend my time and interact with others.  Maybe instead of macro-tweeting, I should just write:

Wayne Bivens-Tatum just dropped in to see what condition his condition was in.

 

Neophilia, Diversion, Networking, Sharing, and Discussion

Recently a couple of people have asked why I haven’t joined some of the social networking services they find interesting or useful, particularly Twitter and Friendfeed, but the question could probably apply to more of them. The simple reason is, I don’t see any way I would benefit from these services. Some people would consider that statement an incentive to either persuade me that I would benefit or dismiss me as a Luddite who just doesn’t "get it." But I do get it. I know some of the ways people benefit from these services. It’s just that I don’t want those benefits. Partly, it’s a personality issue. I’m not very social, and I don’t have interests in common with many people. For example, I have almost no interest in: television, pop music, celebrities, fashion, food, cooking, new movies, sports, contemporary fiction, cars, gardening, crafts, diets, scandals, or the weather.

However, just in case it’s true I don’t get it, I’ll discuss some of the things it seems to me people get out of Twitter or Friendfeed or even Facebook, and why I’m not especially interested in them. Maybe there’s something I am missing, and if so, feel free to point it out.

As a caveat before I begin, I want to add that I’m not ridiculing or dismissing any of these motives. I only say that because I’ve noticed in many discussions that if you don’t find value in something someone else does, they tend to think you’re criticizing or attacking them. For example, in my life those assumptions often come up around commercial television and meat, neither of which I consume. It’s amazing how many carnivores and television devotees get offended if you don’t share their values. So, if I don’t share your values, don’t get offended. If your values are worthwhile, it shouldn’t matter if other people share them. And so, some motivations for social networking.

Neophilia

Neophilia, or love of the new. I understand this desire, and am as susceptible to it as anyone, just with a different focus than many people. What "new" I track is often for professional reasons. Most days I skim a handful of news sites, especially the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the BBC, but even these very selectively. Mostly I do this because I consider it a professional obligation. A reference librarian should keep up with current events. My interest in politics and political philosophy also requires some basic understanding of what’s going on in the world. However, there have been years of my life, and some of the happier years, in which I read almost no news. The pre-Internet days weren’t a burden on me. Some of my happiest memories are sitting in cafes reading and deliberately not keeping up with what’s going on. My sympathy was, and to a great extent still is, with Thoreau, who had little time for newspapers because so little new ever happened. If I’ve read of one fire or murder, will I find out anything significant reading about another one?

Say, for example, some new techie tool comes along. I pick it up and examine it, classify it, query it. What are you good for, I ask of it. If it does something good for me, I use it. I keep up with these things for the same reason I keep up with some current events. It behooves me as a professional librarian to know about these things, but to know isn’t to champion. Recently I gave a workshop on emerging search tools, and one participant said at the end that she’d expected a "best of" list, as in, "Here are the 5 best new tools!" What she got instead was an examination of several of these new tools and a final critical discussion in which we all talked about what would be useful about them for our jobs or why we would want to know about them even if they weren’t useful. There are new things I should know about, even if I don’t particularly care about them. However, this is merely pragmatic professionalism, not neophilia.

The new things I am interested in are often not new, but only new to me, usually some book or article that I haven’t read before but that develops something I’ve been thinking about. I have no interest in the new trends in pop culture or the latest celebrity scandal or happy hours near me or what people think of the new Star Trek movie or the latest Zen koan on techno issues. Often I thoroughly enjoy footnote chasing and the discovery involved, but the joy I get there doesn’t translate well to most social networking tools.

Diversion

Some people approach these social networking tools seeking diversion. They seek to distract themselves from their daily routine, pop in somewhere for a chat, read a few posts by someone to kill some time. I understand this desire, and indulge it myself occasionally. In those rare moments where I want to be mindlessly diverted, I turn to Stumbleupon, for example. Less mindlessly diverted I turn to A & L Daily or Bookforum. I am on Facebook and occasionally read the feed of postings or status updates. Often I wonder why anyone would bother posting some of the things they do, and sometimes this is from people who are my actual friends, and not just my Facebook friends. On a daily basis, I really don’t care what they had for lunch or if they’re tired right now. The best ones are those who consider their audience and post items they think will be of interest, and occasionally the things are interesting, but it’s seldom worth reading through a lot for the occasional gem. I see the value in this, and understand why people find this interesting, only I’m not one of those people. Because of other projects in my life and the sustained attention they require, constant diversions–far from being valuable–are instead a burden in my life.

Networking

"Networking" is a word that’s always bothered me. I am definitely not a networker, which is probably pretty obvious to people who know me. I’m a sociable enough person, and I have friends, but making friends is different from networking. Networking involves making contacts with people whom I think might benefit me in some way, whether I like or respect or value the person at all. To me this violates the categorical imperative to treat people as ends in themselves and not merely as means to your ends. This is not to say that I have no "network," or that many librarians around the country haven’t benefited me over the years, but I’ve never gone out of my way to cultivate any of them as members of my "network." They are people I’ve met through the profession and whom I happen to like, and if they benefit me, fine. If not, fine. I’ll still like them. A lot of these people I’ve met through RUSA, and one reason I keep participating in RUSA is that I like a lot of the people there. But people I don’t like or respect, I just avoid, even if cultivating them might benefit my career. And generally, I have no interest in building up a "network" merely to have people know my name. I don’t have anything to sell or a brand to promote, including myself.

A colleague of mine tried to contradict this sentiment by saying this blog was an example of networking, that I was one of "those people."  However, I don’t think that’s what I’m doing in this blog, and frankly can’t see many ways this blog has benefited me professionally or created a network of people who can help me. I started this blog both to participate in what I thought were some valuable online discussions, and also because I had views or perspectives that I didn’t see represented in those discussions. I thought it might be worthwhile to put forward some of those perspectives. Lately, I’ve been less sure of that, but that’s another story. For example, as far as I know, I’m the only library blogger who works in collection development at a large research library or who regularly teaches a non-library school course that nevertheless has something to do with libraries and library research. (And if that’s not the case and I’ve overlooked someone, then light a candle and don’t curse my darkness.) I started writing because I k
new there were other people interested in some of these issues, but I wasn’t seeing any discussion of them. Which brings me to….

Sharing

Some people benefit from these services because they either enjoy sharing their thoughts or what they’re doing at the moment, or they are curious about what other people have to share. I’m sympathetic to this motivation, too. Considering this blog again, part of the motivation was to share. When I was in library school, I thought I wanted to do pretty much what I’m doing now. It would have been great to get inside the head of someone actually doing it, to find out what they thought about, the issues they faced, the concerns they had. In library school I was the self which I was not, in the mode of not being it, and would have loved more guidance. There were hardly any blogs back then, but now, of the library blogs that have anything to do with my job, almost all are focused on either public services or technology or some combination of the two, and those aren’t necessarily the most important parts of my job. In addition, many of the most prominent ones of these are written by non-academic librarians who have a different take on many issues than academic librarians do, or at least different than this academic librarian does.

The sharing that other librarians do benefits me, and it’s possible some people have benefited from my own sharing, but it’s difficult to think of anything worth sharing for me that can be reduced to 140 or 160 characters. I’m not really interested in what you’re doing at the moment, and can’t figure out why you’d be interested in what I’m doing. What would it be? Here’s what I’m reading? I spend most of my free time reading philosophy or writing in my journal. Would any of you really care that I’m currently reading Brighouse, Barry, Anderson, and Cohen on justice? What would I have to say in 140 characters that would matter for those subjects? I’ve searched Twitter for any tweets on topics of interest and found nothing I’m interested in. Nor am I interested in "trending topics" or "nifty queries." One reason I’m writing here less is that I’m reading so little to do with librarianship, and I hesitate to inflict upon readers some of my thoughts on topics that don’t have to do with education or librarianship.

Discussion

Another worthwhile motivation, at least for some of these services. The thing is, I already have an active online life with several friends of mine scattered around the country. I don’t have enough time even for them sometimes.  Most of the people I might ordinarily have virtual conversations with are librarians, but only selectively am I interested in library subjects. Gossiping about the latest trend or scandal can be fun, but it’s just not something that motivates me most of the time. When I discovered that I myself was the subject of at least one librarian gossip fest in a chat room, my only thought was, what a complete waste of time. If this is the kind of thing people are discussing, I’ll stick to my books, thanks. There’s a great quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people." I don’t know if I have a great mind, but I do know the further discussion moves from ideas and fundamentals to chit-chat and gossip the less I have to say and the less time I devote to it.

Because of the Roosevelt quote, this is probably the most judgmental of my comments here, but nevertheless it’s the level of discussion that keeps me away. The discussions I find the most interesting and useful are those that develop through thoughtful pieces of writing (and occasionally thoughtful talks), some responding to each other. Sometimes these are blog posts and comments, sometimes blog posts and blog posts, sometimes books and reviews. Whatever the format, the value comes from the depth of the exchange when there’s something substantive to discuss. There are a lot of these conversations in the library literature (broadly conceived), but I don’t tend to get  much personally from oneliners or rapid exchanges. As for discussing problems or seeking help, I rarely have anything practical or immediate I need help or guidance with. Professionally, I benefit from discussions of fundamentals or techniques, but immediate problem-solving from someone not in my library at the moment isn’t something I need.

It’s very possible that I’m missing some great reward that’s out there to be discovered, but after a lot of thought I just don’t see it. The level and immediacy of engagement that most of these tools offer just doesn’t provide much value for me. Again, I see the value for people, but what I need the most they rarely offer. The more brief and immediate the service, the less it appeals to me.

 

Innovation and Waste

I gave a workshop Tuesday on "emerging search technologies," by which I meant roughly searching for just about anything on or via the Internet using means that went past just the text-based websearching of Google or Yahoo. Thus I mentioned sites like Grokker and Hakia and a new (to me) tool, Chunkit. We spent a lot of time on so-called "social search," ranging from Wikia and Mahalo to Worio and Sidestripe (which work with Facebook Connect) to Aardvark, a tool so new and hip I’m not even allowed to use it yet.

It’s enjoyable to see what some obviously very clever people are developing every day, and I had a great time researching the workshop, but I was also struck by how much wasted effort there is in any innovation. I’m not sure I have enough of a social network to take advantage of things like Sidestripe or Aardvark, though they look pretty nifty. But who really needs Stumpedia? "Human powered search"? What were they thinking? Is this going to be any improvement over the old but still useful concept of a web directory? I don’t see how. Or Truevert, the "green" search engine? Is anyone really likely to find more informtion about composting toilet systems on this than on Google or Yahoo? Or Delver, with the dubious claim that "your friends know best." With all due respect to my friends who are reading this, I’m not sure you really know best about any topic I’m likely to be searching the Internet for, and I’m almost positive that I don’t know best about whatever you’re searching (unless you happen to be searching for stuff about me, in which case I probably do–but what are the chances?).

Even sites I kind of like pitch themselves as solving a problem I don’t have. Consider Rollyo, which allows you to create customized search engines a lot more easily than Google Coop. Rollyo asks, "Are you tired of wading though thousands of irrelevant search results to get to the information you want?" To which I’d have to answer, nope. Google does a pretty good job of giving me relevant sites on the top page. Or, "ever wish you could narrow your search to sites you already know and trust?" Almost never, to be honest. Those sites I just go to directly, usually using Google Bookmarks.

Obviously I’m not the target audience for search engines and sites that claim to solve the problem of too many irrelevant resources, but I do wonder how many people really are these days. If people can’t get relevant search results on Google or Yahoo, how likely is it they’re going to do much better asking their friends for help with Aardvark or Sidestripe? Chances are that my social network, such that it is, contains a lot of Internet savvy people, and if I actually had a question, someone might be able to point me to something I hadn’t discovered. But it’s at least possible that the people who are the least Internet savvy are going to have an entire network of unsavvy friends, none of whom can help them.

I’m not even sure how much the people using Rollyo can be trusted. I searched one specialized search engine for guitar tablature, and noticed that it doesn’t have Chordie, which is far better at finding guitar tabs than the Rollyo engine and any of the websites it searches. 

I was thinking about the waste because I remember reading a few months ago about some controversy regarding libraries building innovative search tools to rival Google, and wondered how much of our effort we might waste doing things like that. It’s not because I think that out of this waste good things won’t emerge, because I believe they will. It’s just that there are so many people out there wasting a lot of time and money and effort to come up with the next new thing that it seems hard enough for most of us just to keep up with what’s already going on. There absolutely has to be wasted effort to produce useful innovations. I guess I’m just glad there are a lot of clever working on things like this so I don’t have to.

Libguides Redux

A couple of months ago I posted briefly on Libguides just as my library began a trial subscription. I played around a little bit with it then, and liked what I saw. A couple of weeks ago our trial became a permanent subscription, so I’ve been spending some time creating, or really recreating, my philosophy and religion subject guides, which are now live, though definitely in beta. What I have so far is something of a data dump from my previous guides, which I’d been waiting for Libguides to update. Here are the new beta philosophy and religion research guides if you’re interested.

After spending a few days working on these guides, I can say that I like Libguides even more than I did before. It’s just all so easy. First, the data dump itself was easy. For the initial conversion I wanted to drop things in as quickly as possible, and I just copied text and links from various library web pages and when I pasted them in they looked more or less Libguides uniform. I did this for the database pages especially. Eventually I want to use the different linking features that let you rank the sites and have rollover popups with the descriptions. This is also easy to do, but it must be done link by link.

It’s also very easy to copy content from one Libguide to another, so that when I created a generic portion for the religion guide, I could create a box in the philosophy guide and just have it duplicate a box from my other guide. You can also do this for boxes of information from anyone else’s published guide in your Libguide system, and I used this feature to borrow some great content from my colleague Steve Adams, who I think has done some impressive work with his guides and just in general works hard at communicating with his clientèle. I mentioned that I wanted to use some of his stuff, and some of what I wanted to use he had taken from another colleague, John Hernandez. Libguides makes it very easy to share and borrow good content throughout your entire system. In addition, since we three all have our pictures on our profiles, Libguides lets the world know that many of the Princeton librarians aren’t exactly formal dressers.

Libguides also makes it easy to see, but not so easily import, content from other users of Libguides around the world. There’s a “community” tab that lets the users browse other libraries and take a look at their guides. Many of them are course specific guides or are still in even more beta than mine, but I found some good ideas this way for further revisions to my sites. Particularly relevant for me are the very nice philosophy and religion guides by Fred Rowland at Temple University. I’ll definitely be borrowing some ideas from those. (Though he’s just down the train line from me and seems to be my counterpart at Temple, I’ve never met Fred, but if you work at Temple feel free to give him my compliments. Or Fred, on the off chance you read this blog, I’ll just say “great job, and don’t be surprised if I steal your best ideas”.) I’ll be browsing other sites for ideas.

One thing you might have noticed if you clicked through on my guides, or those of Steve or Fred for that matter, is the easy way Libguides allows communication from library users. If you’ve actually visited this blog site recently, you will have seen the Meebo Me widget on the right. I put that in at the same time I put in the one on the Libguides profile. It’s very easy to drop in the Meebo code. It’s easy to set up IM contacts. You just drop in the info and Libguides does the rest. Also, all the boxes have a comments feature that allows users to send comments from any page.

The ease of getting usage statistics is another nice feature. Without bothering to put in separate tracking software, I can now find out if anyone at all is looking using the guides and which pages and features are the most used.

All the content on my sites needs an overhaul. Eventually I want to more to integrate blogs and other feeds into the site, and it looks very easy to do. I haven’t found anything yet that couldn’t be done by someone who knows how to point, click, copy, and paste, and has at least a very basic understanding of how wikis and rss feeds work.

The only thing I didn’t like was the picture portion of the profile. You can’t just make it go away as far as I could tell. You either need an image there or it has a blank white space that says “no photo available.” I’m not keen on having my picture online, but I don’t mind that much for this purpose, though I did consider putting up a picture of someone a lot more handsome just for fun. However, I can see where some people, such as people who might fear stalkers or who are uncomfortable with their looks for some reason, wouldn’t want to put their picture online. Not being able to eliminate that box makes it seem those people are just unfriendly or unwilling to help, whereas that might not be the case at all.

Other than that, my experience so far has been great. The ease of creation, duplication, copying, sharing, and communicating make this a great resource as far as I’m concerned.

To Facebook or Not to Facebook

It’s clear I don’t like silly ways to engage students, such as trying to act their age, but obviously there are non-comical ways to try to engage students, to go out to them without trying to be like them. Chat reference is one way. Facebook might be another.

Today in class we briefly discussed Facebook and the fact that they and many other students spend a great deal of time every day “Facebooking.” I tried to pin down just what Facebooking entailed for them, but clearly it was just about everything social these days, from communicating with friends to playing games to stalking people. It surprised me just a little because Princeton is a relatively small, completely residential campus with around 5,000 students and the opportunities for non-virtual interaction are plentiful.

I admitted to them that I had a Facebook profile that I don’t do much with, and one student whipped out his iPhone, found my profile, and sent me a friend invitation within about 30 seconds. “You see how much time I must spend on Facebook,” he said. I joined Facebook only because a colleague here sent me an invitation to join. Since I like him, I went ahead and created a minimal profile. I’ve never sent a friend request, but once I joined several other colleagues noted it and sent them to me. That was fine. I’m not sure they’re all friends, but they’re certainly people I’m friendly with and like. Then came old friends from past lives who discovered me. That’s one thing I do like about it. Though it doesn’t help me keep up with them any better, it lets us both know we think of the other sometimes.

Then came the friend request from a librarian I’d never met nor heard of, or at least didn’t remember. Had I met this person before? Were we in library school together? Met at a conference? Served on a committee together? I didn’t think so. But I didn’t want to offend by turning down the request, and it’s not like I’m Stephen Fry, so bombarded with these requests that they would overwhelm me. Also, I realize that it doesn’t matter if Facebook friends are real friends. So I accepted. It so much easier to be undiscriminating online. I’d probably even accept a request from you if you sent one.

But what about the students? Would I use Facebook to communicate with them? To tell them more about myself or find out more about them? I’ve mentioned how freaked out some of them seemed when I told them I’d looked them all up on Facebook before the semester began to find out more about them. It seemed like I was stalking them in their own environment. If I encouraged students to “befriend” me, would they see it as appropriate, or just creepy?

I’m coming to the conclusion that it might seem more inappropriate than not. It would be encroaching on their territory, as if I had walked into their dorm room or something. They have a space apart from old people, and if there had been Facebook when I was a freshman in college, I doubt I’d have wanted old people to invade my space. So while I would gladly accept any friend request from a student, and do occasionally actually befriend students, I would never encourage students to make me their “friends” so I can communicate with them and keep track of their lives and tell them all about the library. I don’t want to be socially connected to students in this way, and I don’t think they would like it either, especially since my profile page is so boring.

Second Life, Pac Man, and Computer Chess

Recently, I was asked my professional opinion about Second Life, and this is one answer.

When I give periodic talks about Google, I demo Google Gadgets and show the variety of them, including ones that are games such as Space Invaders or Pac Man. Usually I make a joke about how great this is, because now I don’t have to be bored at work anymore, that I’m ranked in the top 100 of Space Invaders, but with another slow semester I’ll probably make the top 10. It usually gets at least a chuckle from the audience. I made the joke in a talk to the university community, and some of my colleagues then claimed I’d told a hundred university employees that I sit around all day playing Space Invaders instead of working, thus making librarians look bad. One colleague actually asked me if I sat in my office all day playing Space Invaders. With as straight a face as I could muster, I told her that no, I usually played Asteroids instead. The irony is I don’t even like computer games.

However, I do play a lot of games with my computer, though rarely at work. I especially like abstract strategy board games and know how to play many different ones, though I also play backgammon and cribbage. A few years ago I was trying to play games with my daughter and yet escape the living hell that is Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders, so I started researching games we could play together with no chance involved. She was a bit young for chess, but I taught her some. However, I’ve also taught her checkers, reversi, go, gomoku, ninuki-renju, mancala, Cathedral, Blokus, connect 4, fox and hounds, nine men’s morris, chinese checkers, alquerque, tafl, surakarta, and probably a few more I’ve forgotton. The last three were so obscure I had to make the boards myself. (By the way, I highly recommend surakarta for small children; it’s a checkers-like game where one captures by moving pieces around big loops on the corner of the board.) I have computer programs that play almost all of these games, and I rely upon Fritz 10 and Hoyle Backgammon as ways to relax of an evening. I find these applications invaluable for playing, practicing, and even learning the games. I taught myself to play chess with the Chessmaster. But I don’t like computer games.

Okay, so what am I talking about and how is it relevant to Second Life or librarianship? For my purposes here, I’m considering computer games to be games that one couldn’t play without a computer, games that were born in a computerized environment. This would include such relatively simple games as Asteroids or Pacman to such complex games as World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs. I don’t like them. I never liked them. I gave away my Atari as a child. I didn’t hang out in arcades. I just found them all boring. However, I love computer chess because the computer program allows me to do better something I like to do in real life. I don’t like World of Warcraft because exploring strange worlds and fighting monsters isn’t something I want to do in real life, and even if it was, this game wouldn’t make me any better at it. Wielding a virtual sword just isn’t the same as wielding a real one, and I should know since I just bought a sword, the primary purpose of which is to give my wife something to look at me and shake her head about.

This is how I at least relate to various kinds of social software. I like the ones that help me do something more efficiently that I was already doing. Recently, I set up a wiki for our reference department because I was trying to capture in one accessible shared place all the information we had in files folders or post it notes or hard drives or email folders that we need to do reference work. We were already keeping this sort of information, just not in a convenient form. Thus, I like this wiki. It makes real life easier, and I consider this the best reason to persuade people to use it.

But so far, I don’t see how Second Life helps me do anything better that I’d ever want to do away from the computer. This may change in the future, and I’m open to development, but so far it bores me. From what I’ve read, virtual shopping and virtual pornography are the most popular things in Second Life. I do almost all of my shopping online, but that’s because I can shop for real things more efficiently. I don’t want to do any virtual shopping. I don’t like to shop at all. I’ve also visited a lot of islands that might be of interest to me, but I couldn’t find anyone there, including the chess island. I wouldn’t go to Second Life to hang out with my friends, because none of my friends visit there.

Thus, while I realize that there may be academic uses to Second Life, so far I’m skeptical of its usefulness. It still seems more like a computer game to me, something that one does mainly for fun and can only do with a computer. It doesn’t seem to build on real life so much as provide a fun alternative to it. It is purposeless, like games and even perhaps like the humanities themselves. I don’t consider this a criticism. Reading a poem is purposeless, yet nonetheless valuable and enjoyable, at least if it’s a good poem. Second Like, like a game, provides an end in itself, but so far it’s just not an end I value. If I found it more utilitarian, I’d have a higher professional opinion of it.

A Student’s View of Second Life

Some librarians are excited by the prospect of Second Life. I don’t have any strong opinions about it. I’ve been on a few times, played around with my avatar trying to make it look like me except handsome, and watched other neophytes run into obstacles because they couldn’t navigate very well. I can never find any islands with many people on them, but perhaps it’s because I don’t go in for virtual shopping or virtual sex.

Princeton now has a Second Life island. I had to visit it from home, though. Because I don’t have administrative rights on my work machine and we inhabit a culture of distrust when it comes to our computers, I couldn’t download the software. (Cultures of trust and distrust could definitely be another post.) Then when I got someone from systems to download it, my computer crashed, possibly because my graphics card wasn’t powerful enough. Thus, I visited the Princeton island from home. Very pretty, but not much there. And I felt strange being the only person on campus. It was like one of those end of the world movies. I kept waiting for some horrible space monster to leap out of Nassau Hall.

The Daily Princetonian, our school newspaper, published an editorial about the Princeton Second Life island today entitled Second Life and the Soul. From the very first sentence, you can get an idea of what the writer thinks of Second Life. “You are alive. You are reading this newspaper.”

I’ve noted before that I don’t think these kids today are ahead of me technologically, even though I’m getting old enough to be their father, except with less money. I’m not sure I believe the hype about how the “millennials” are all that much different from other generations. The writer for the Prince might agree with me on this, being skeptical about the value of a Princeton on Second Life.

The editorial concludes:

“In fairness, we do not yet know the purpose of this program. Perhaps alumni will be interested in seeing Princeton online and will have fond memories of Chancellor Green. Perhaps perspective students will lie about their age to catch a glimpse of what could be. Maybe if the software is flashier more strangers will download our lectures. To some, these applications may seem trivial, but more importantly they are harmless. Should Second Life begin to intersect or usurp student life, however, this campus will be radically worse off for it.”

This seems to me exactly the kind of skeptical attitude one should take toward social software. Try it, perhaps use it, try to adapt it to good uses if possible, be ready to admit if it doesn’t work very well, and be aware of the dangers.

And all this from one of the millennials.

(You might also be interested in a more hostile reception of Second Life by a Princeton Student.)

UPDATE: I asked my students in class this morning how many had ever visited second life, and none had. One woman said, “We have real lives.”

Are the Users Ahead of Us?

Inside Higher education had an article a couple of days ago about a new study on technology use among undergraduates. As we’ve been hearing for a while, students are using more information technology than ever. This certainly comes as no surprise. They use social networking sites. Everyone has a cell phone, a laptop, and an iPod. The study noted that many students are comfortable with a variety of information technologies, but don’t necessarily want them everywhere. “Over half of laptop owners don’t bring them to class at all,” the article says. And, “the study finds ‘themes of skepticism and moderation alongside enthusiasm,’ such that 59 percent preferred a ‘moderate rather than extensive use of IT in courses.’” And as much as it might frustrate some librarians trying to make contact with students, some places they want to be left alone. “Students appear to segment different modes of communication for different purposes. E-mail, Web sites, message boards and Blackboard? Viable ways of connecting with professors and peers. Same for chat, instant messaging, Facebook and text messages? Not necessarily, the authors write, because students may ‘want to protect these tools’ personal nature.’”

That more or less confirms my experience with students. Technologically, they’re usually not ahead of me. After all, I have an iPod, a smartphone (only 12% of students have one of those), a laptop, a blog, an rss reader, a Facebook site (which I rarely use), and a Blackboard site (which I use intensively for my class). I use some of those Firefox extensions. I made a toolbar for the Princeton library that the library ignores but that some students and colleagues use. I just made a wiki for my reference department and am giving a demo on it tomorrow. I’ve even been on Second Life a few times, and found it mightily boring, though the new Princeton island is nice. Just to get a reaction, I told the students I’d looked them all up on Facebook, and commented on the great parties it looked like they’d attended. They were appalled until they realized I was joking.

Yesterday, I asked my students about their IT knowledge. Since we have a class blog that becomes an integral writing assignment for the course, I wanted to know who had blogged before. Only one student, who had signed up for the course partly because he liked the idea of the blog. A few students read blogs, but mostly those of their friends. Most of the students didn’t really know what an rss feed was, and only a couple used them. I doubt they’d spent much time on Second Life. They use a lot of IT, but have gaps in their knowledge, gaps they might never want to fill.

To shift the subject slightly, the library just started hosting blogs, and I created one for the philosophy department, partly just to see how WordPress works since I use Blogger for the course blog and Movable Type for this one. However, I don’t think I’m going to use the blog for a while, because I don’t think it will be read by my target audience, in this case philosophy professors and graduate students. I’ve talked to some, and while some are very cutting edge, most are very traditional is their approach to information. They read scholarly journals, not library blogs. They’re happy emailing me with problems; they don’t need to IM me. The graduate students may be different, but not necessarily. I oversee the philosophy department’s private library, and a couple of years ago I caved in to some grad student demand to leave the print journal collection intact, even though every one of the journals was available online through the university library.

This brings me in a very roundabout way to the question in my title. I often read library blogs that argue we should be adopting new information technologies because that’s where our users are at. I’m not so sure. I think that those librarians are ahead of their users in this respect, as I believe I’m ahead of most of my users. As a reason to change, catching up with the users might not be a very good one, because I suspect most of the users might not be caught up with us.

Does this mean we shouldn’t play around with new modes of communication and information technology? Certainly not. It just means that some of the urgency of calls to change ring hollow for me. We must change QUICKLY and NOW! But that urgency doesn’t seem to fit the facts.

To be honest, most of the techie blogs I read are by public librarians. It’s been a long time since I worked in a public library, but I would think the typical undergraduate at a four-year college is technologically ahead of the average public library user. And I would also suspect that members of the public who are the most technologically advanced, who have smartphones and laptops and read blogs and keep up with information technology, are probably the least likely to use public libraries for anything other than leisure reading. I use our public library for my daughter to get books, period, and not even that often, since we buy her a lot of books.

So is it the case that in either academic or public libraries the users are ahead of the techies? Or are they just ahead of the luddite librarians, if there be such? How wired is the general populace or the average student population? Are they really ahead of us?

Google 2.0 as a Teaching Tool

One of the best ways to encourage people to try new things is to show how they benefit and how easy it can be. Librarians should be persuaded by the argument that a particular change will benefit library users, but some aren’t, and to be fair, it’s not always clear the latest new tech fashion really will benefit anyone in the library but the people who enjoy playing around with new gadgets.

But just considering changes in information technology and social software, I’ve lately been trying to make the case that learning new tools isn’t just fun (since for many people it isn’t) or a good way to communicate with students (sometimes yes, sometimes no), but that it also brings some personal benefits. What personal benefits can it bring?

(On a side note, as I’ve been working on this post, I’ve run across two interesting blog posts that try to provide reasons for librarians to learn about some of these new tools: David Lee King’s follow up post on Basic Competencies of a 2.0 Librarian and 20 reasons why learning emerging technologies is part of every librarian’s job at Librarians Matter. Both of these posts present good reasons to learn new technologies and show how such learning is relevant to contemporary librarianship.)

I’ve been focusing on ways the technology can immediately benefit librarians by helping them personalize and organize their own information environment, and I’ve been doing this specifically through Google, because in their drive to take over the world, Google has made it easier for people to come to many of these new tools through a one-stop shopping exercise.

Recently, I’ve been giving some talks through a New Jersey library cooperative called Infolink, and also working closely with a couple of colleagues teaching what I call Google 2.0. Focusing on Google is a good way to introduce people to a wide array of tools at one time. (By the way, I’m giving a hands-on Infolink workshop at some New Jersey public library sometime in August. That’s about as specific as my self-promotion can be right now. If you get the opportunity, sign up. I’m entertaining and informative, and I bet that’s more than you can say about your last few library presentations.)

For example, lately I’ve sat down for long sessions with two colleagues who wanted to know more about all of this 2.0 stuff. By the end of my last two-hour session, the colleague I worked with had accounts for Google email, Talk, Bookmarks, Calender, Groups, Docs & Spreadsheets, Reader, and Page Creator, as well as a Blogger account and new professional blog. Orkut seemed a waste of time, especially since he already had a Facebook profile. Whenever Google gets around to merging completely with Jotspot, I’ll even be able to add wikis.

The Google-phobic librarian might ask, why Google? Google isn’t the only place, or even necessarily the best place, to get all this stuff! The answer should be obvious. Google has a great search engine, and they are putting together in one place a lot of useful tools. My goal isn’t to be a shill for Google (though if they want to give me a lot of money, I’ll be happy to shill for them); my goal is to introduce librarians to new information technologies as easily as possible.

By the end of the sessions, my colleagues also had the tool I think is essential for making this as easy as it can be — the iGoogle page, with all of its movable gadgets. We loaded up their iGoogle page with the Gmail, Gtalk, Bookmarks, Calendar, and Reader gadgets, plus some other things. We loaded the Reader with a few blogs and feeds relevant to their work. We loaded the Bookmarks with some useful websites. I showed them how to easily add items to the Reader and the Bookmarks. And it’s all right there on one web page once they log in. They don’t have to move from page to page or go out and find the information. Now information comes to them. They don’t have to remember. It’s just there, and my assumption is if it’s there they’ll use it.

And what was my rationale for encouraging them to do this? Because they’ll have fun? Absolutely not. Because they’ll recapture their youth and be “relevant” to the teenagers coming into the library? Of course not. Because they’re inferior if they’re not up on the latest trends? Considering they are among the colleagues I respect the most, certainly not. (I have to say that, because if all went well, they’re reading this on their feed readers right now.)

My rationale was that these tools could save them time and effort, and allow them to replicate a common information environment wherever they log in. With these tools, they can get information relevant to them and share information in many formats more quickly and efficiently than they could before. The tools make their life easier and help them in some way. If they see further applications for them, or if the knowledge allows them to know more about current trends, that’s just an added benefit. What sells a lot of us on emerging technologies is not that we want to be relevant or “hip” or something, but that we see benefits in the technologies that others might not see, and we see those benefits because we have incorporated the technologies into our lives to a greater or lesser extent and lived with them for a while. Most people are already comfortable living with Google as a search engine, so the transition is made easier.

Sure, I’m ignoring all the competing services by concentrating specifically on Google. I’m not talking much about other feed readers or social bookmarking applications like Del.icio.us that would let people share their bookmarks. For the most part, I’m even ignoring the broader concepts behind this technology. (I’m certainly not trying to define what Web or Library 2.0 means.) But at the end of a couple of hours, someone receiving this training knows more about the possibilities of social bookmarking, online group working environments, blogging, RSS, and other tools than they would before. They are able to use a lot of social software in practice and see its benefits for them. The theory can come later.