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information, design, architecture; information design + architecture

Recession-boyed Libraries Find New Bubble to Invest In

Turns out it’s poor people!

According to Alison Flood, libraries have elected to stop making all those “it’s the foot-fall”, “we’re community hubs” and even “free internet!” noises as soon as loan figures look like they’re on the up.

Why are they going up? The same reason anything happens these days: because everyone is fiscally boned. Do we expect people to stay fiscally boned? Not really, no. If we did, we’d have bigger problems to deal with. As it is, rising food prices make throwing a couple of books on top look unappealing, and the pretend value of three-for-twos is probably going to convince less for the next few years, but in everyone else’s good times, libraries found that the cheapest best-sellers in the land were the most inconvenient, and keeping Richard & Judy’s Book Club display shelving well-stocked once month just meant more stock to be sold the next, as well-marketed short-head items refused to grow that extra tail.

Now is a good time for companies to be getting out of mutually-destructive competitions and finding sexy new forms of growth, and it’s going to work out really badly for libraries if now they want to get back in on it.

As long as everyone continues to not work out how to monetise anything other than an author’s linear character strings, we’re going to continue fighting over the right to distribute them in their audience’s chosen media, and libraries are do much better follow a route like Aaron Schmidt, Dave Pattern and JISC’s TILE (see David Jennings on their recent “Sitting on a Goldmine” event), using their inherent librariness to add a side or two to basic book meat.

If this is what good times looks for libraries, libraries are really shit.

(Props, of course, to The Onion.)


Filed under: Uncategorized, User experiences

It isn’t really a business, is it?

Paul Kedrosky believes we live in an “open information economy”, which we know because he says so right here. But if he’s right, Google Scholar doesn’t have “sucktitude”: it’s the obvious outcome of an information economy.

If you can get past the slapstick of a man pushing hard on the pull door (Click “All n. versions” for a cheeky PDF freebie…), what’s most interesting is that most people don’t even see the stuff there as being of economic value. If they aren’t reading it, then how are they going to act on it? If you aren’t acting, how are you making value? A genderless internet entity notebulb goes in to a kind of fugue state on this theft, blaming the Ivy League Library System, which is the roundaboutest name for publishers I’ve yet heard, and it’s such a long and torturous attack, and it’s so amazingly wrong, because why would anything think about charging for this stuff? That makes so little sense that scholars are reduced to toadying, insular Old Boys (Oxbridge, not Chan-wook), passing their precious secrets through their Ivory Tunnel Network under JSTOR’s subscription walls.

There’s a grain of truth in that (it’s a lot like where all that Just Sharing malarky would seem to end up), but it’s not really everything. Instead, the whole publishing industry is making it really obvious that it’s not only with the advent of digital products that sharing became better than owning, and it’s not, as according to Mary Harrington according to Anna Jay, everything on the internet is the opposite of print.

Most blog posts aren’t product themselves, but press releases for public speaking, or conference attendances, or address books, or even just more syndicated content, but most journal articles aren’t much more than variables to pour in to the dark algebra of other people’s attention.

So can we please stop calling it an information economy if no one can find a way to package information like a product?

(The post that made me think all this in the first place came via Mark Dahl.)

Filed under: Information use, scholarly communication, Uncategorized


For some reason, it’s recently been a veritable jamboree of people trying to find out what kind of regressive freak they are talking to; what deep need is it within my soul that has led me, young and cardiganed in only the sexxxiest manner, to call myself a “librarian.”

I’ve committed to the career with money and time now, and it’s only tangentially related to the last education I had full-time, so maybe it’s only fair that I have to recite endlessly that I got in to it because “I’m interested in information, and how people use information.”

Which has taught me something strange and surprising about some of the people I talk to about this: they hate books. I don’t know why they hate books, but the above smells like comradeship in book-burning they yearn for, apparently, and so out it comes. It’s all online now, isn’t it? Bob Molyneux has something interesting to say about the library’s failings in the digital age, and the easiness with which it as a professional space can host conversations about “information” without ever having had the smarts to be Google, but the most interesting thing about it is the “library function” he talks about.

To “maintain the memory of the human species” is a wonderful goal, and to believe in it doesn’t make people anti-book. What I dislike is the hypercathextic attachment to cataloguing practises that insists on nailing books to shelves. That’s all. That’s also, weirdly, what most people think of librarians as, but apparently my attempt to jump their weird mind-fences only makes things more confusing.

I don’t hate books, I just think sometimes people are ridiculously precious about books. I don’t hate trainers, either, but can we all agree that people who collect them mint are probably not using their trainers to their full advantage?

Filed under: classification systems, Information use, ,

Reading, again (and a metalesson in its perils)

A very odd thing happened to me on my way to writing what I now realise to be a a completely unrelated post about user-generated content…

Two exciting things came to my attention; Nate Hill linked me to Aaron Schmidt, specifically his social database mockup, my reaction to which got bogged down in first hearing about, and then waiting to hear more about, Talis’ Project Xiphos, now finally better explained better over on their Panlibus blog under the explanatory title “Silos Silos Silos”. There’s a lot to both of them, but broadly the former is a social information site that creates a set off tools for users to databases that, in turn, creates a level of metadata for other users, and the latter is a semweb set of technologies for opening up multiple datasets to, amongst other things, radically alter the currently insanely annoying experience of federated information access regimes.

What’s surprising to me is that the initiative to make data interoperable is explicitly courseware, and the one to make it social is implicitly (and slightly reluctantly) so. You’d except that to be the other way around, which to me firms up the idea that libraries host a specific kind of information use, that they served and encouraged by topic-based physical browsing, that they need to now better support with new, non-physical (well, non-linearly-physical, or something) technologies. (TANGENTALLY RELATED ASIDE: last night Stan Cohen, a bright button, said that Google held 338,000 entries on “climate change denial” as if this meant it contained 338,000 items denying climate change. Of course, it does not. It contains 338,000 items discussing the denial of climate change. There’s something about search as the primary form of access that implies you’re finding exactly that encourages a bias in favour of certain desired biases, I feel. He wouldn’t go to 324.243 and become outraged at the quantity of fascist literature encroaching on academia, would he?)

Final point, (WARNING: .pdf) the JISC & SCONUL Library Management Study reports that “[t]he ability to aggregate user behaviour has significant potential for discovery services, based on click streams, context and personalisation. Nevertheless libraries are not yet exploiting intelligence about user habits to enhance their position in the information value chain.” Well, yes.

Filed under: classification systems, Information use, scholarly communication, Semantic Web, User experiences, , ,

Reading machines

Lee Gomes’ Portal column “Why We’re Powerless To Resist Grazing On Endless Web Data” has gone and crystalised some thoughts I had following Matt Webb’s comment here, that “RSS turns us into machines for reading”.

Thoughts that that was wrong. RSS makes more explicit, and more conventionally mechanical, Deleuze and Guattari’s insight that “[a] book itself is a little machine”; that it’s an inert mechanical assemblage that we plug in to, and through us is plugged in to other books, or spaces, or recollections, or artworks. This is, of course, the exact opposite of clarifying how it is that we might show this lines except through their traditional forms of discursive scholarship.

The citation is a shitty hyperlink, the index a shitty full-content search, and pagination a physically-contingent and essentially imprecise form of conveying the where of the explanation of a thought. The machines that are other people’s thoughts are now being opened up, and what I and others have been calling “desire paths” are what Matt Jones in a recent interview has said people a calling “information wakes” (although I’m unclear where; would love to know!).

Peter Merholz is right that extending programs that capture this data beyond the computer is inevitable, but Nike+ isn’t beyond the computer; it just extends the extant cable from the computer to the pocket. Is it possible to bridge the physical and digital information areas? The emphasis is that discussion is on building a personal data-set, and from all manner of miscellaneous procedures. It’s tools will be handy, but desire paths are specific and intentional. Libraries are a object-centered social spaces, but their social objects aren’t books; they’re the links between books.

Getting closer to that practical advice, Nate…

Filed under: Information use, , ,

Library use models

Nate Hill’s post about library cards as service avatars, and the Playful Librarian’s about desire lines across (information) architecture tie in to the same thing, and, not to come over all Annoyed Librarian, but it’s not David Lee King’s engines-not-OPACs thing

Libraries are a very odd sort of space, and bound by the kinds of space-y things people run up against all the time, like sequential time and scarcity of resources. None of these really have anything to do with human thought, which is a transitional thing moving from one point to another (accurately, if poorly, rendered in the essay, and it’s emphasis on structure and argument), which libraries attempt to render via classification schemes that create (metaphorical) shelves of related items, and put these on (physical) shelves of metal. These metaphorical shelves are not fixed, and slide across the physical shelves depending on the demands of the (entirely arbitrary) physical dimensions of the resources they consist of.

Everyone already knows that this compromise isn’t ideal. Resources have multiple possible shelf-marks listed on the catalogues themselves, while the indexes of classification systems have multiple routes to the same numbers (this means you, Israel/Palestine/DDC 956). More to the point, books themselves (it’s probably clear I’m talking in the academic context by now) are often collections of threaded essays, rather then a single lengthy one. Even Ranganathan was wrong: the real point is each chapter, each paragraph, each line has it’s reader, each reader her… etc.

The library doesn’t have to simply funnel free resources into advertising-subsidised social networks, as King valorises (although free things and people doing with free things what they will are both important); it — and its related discipline of scholarly communication — already is Hill’s service avatar, but needs to build on the behaviours it already supports and extend these outwards, showing the worn patches of ground between data, across the walled gardens of documents.

Filed under: classification systems, Information use, scholarly communication, ,

Return of portal-based navigation?

Omar Elsayed bought up Google’s mainstreaming of the “site:” search function by putting search boxes for major sites in their results, no doubt further entrenching the behaviour whereby people, lacking a URL for, say, the pub they want to meet are, simply prefix the name “Just put in Google… “.

Is disrupting recommendation systems the main thing about this, as Omar discusses, though? By filtering more and more of our information navigation, not only can Google track us, and then sell to us, better, but it can also allow us to store crap automatically, operating across platforms via sign-ins and circumventing TiVO-for-the-webs like WebMynd.

When TimBL(e) slated Phorm for invading his privacy, he was probably right, but people enjoy making their information navigations public, either showing all the music you listen to, through, or with a greater degree of control, such as RSSing your bookmarks. It’s a development of wearing certain clothes and performing certain behaviours with an eye to displaying what we do or don’t approve of, or what we are or are not interested in.

Everyone already knows that Google’s view of privacy is an interesting one, but then it’s just as much a commonplace that so is ours. The emerging “lifestream” trends will continue to expand on the RSS feeds made by, etc., that turn a behaviour intended to help you remember things that barely registered in your attention and turns it in to a display of you, your interests, and things you’d like to talk about.

It’s clear that much of what’s outlined in the above link is basically horrible, describing communities of interest passing bits of information back and forth forever, doing little to add to this information or generate anything new. But it’s also clear that people want to display and discuss these behaviours. Systems such as Google allow much of our information use to be captured passively and continuously, and its Social Graph APIs, etc. hint at possible reuses for it. More then what this means for how advertisers can get and use our data, the more interesting thing is what it means for how we can use our data to talk to each other, and how this collective data can be leveraged to supplement the broader information environment.

Filed under: Information use, ,

What’s happening with all this “What’s happening with the Semantic Web?”?

Blimey! The Semantic Web’s made it all the way up my RSS reader and in to Svia Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything, repping a Digital Eccentric post which is functionally identical to this one on Fiona Bradley’s The Semantic Library.

They’re two nice articles, and seem to be pretty good at telling people what’s going on (I assume), but it was still a surprise to see it on Googlization. I’d like to know what Vaidhyanathan meant by it: it might be that the tech is going to power the next go-to search engine and eat the big-G’s market-share before cleanly replicating it, but the more exciting prospect is, as Danny Ayers says in the Nodalities post, it’s not going to refine search, really. With enough sources, your terms probably can brute-force relevant results, because the question “How do I bake bread?” is always going to return results with the words “how” “bake” and “bread” in them, if the engine knows what “baking” means or not. The real thing about search is you only look at so many results before you actually read them, and from there you go and look at things those people are talking about.

Vaidhyanathan’s Critical Information Studies has a healthy dose of scholarly communication theorising bound up in it, and what with the Vaidhyanathan-affiliated Institute for the Future of the Book moving formally into research in this area, I was kind of hoping he’d tackle something about the actual nature of search and what it means for information retrieval.

Searching immediately brings to mind finding the right thing, which is presumably why there’s an I’m Feeling Lucky button. But how many people use that? How many people are taken to the best possible result through doing that? In how many instances is there a best possible result? The real joy of the almost-no-finite-resources-used non-tree model of publishing means single scraps of data can be produced, found and consumed (that’s basically the form of the Googlization blog, and many others), the ease with which they can be linked to other comparable resources making the assemblage as a whole at least if not more valuable then a single resource, no matter how detailed or well-referenced.

Browsing around from one resource to another, as opposed to reading every entry off a single search results page or making constant new ones is what Semantic Web tech like RDF promises, introducing interoperability between information resources will allow reading and writing in a networked environment to finally realise what reading and writing in academic (and other discursive, albeit largely non-conversational) forms has always striven for, is probably the real reason why people who read things other people say should be excited.

At the very least, it might give us hyperlink with tones of voice. Nothing is worth anything if it’s not a vector for sarcasm.

Filed under: e-text, Semantic Web

Text – user experiences

Ian Bogost’s post about Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s Expressive Processing, the my-peers-are-bloggers,-my-publisher’s-peers-are-academics,-let’s-get-a-bite-to-eat love-in, reminded me of a previous working running on the Institute for the Future of the Book‘s CommentPress; McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory.

As a bloggy form, GAM3R 7H30RY showcased the paragraph-by-paragraph reader’s commentary offered by CommentPress by pulling separate paragraphs out and making them note-card-like, but these were a labour to navigate linearly. Yet the book’s structure clearly intended them to be — otherwise why group them under chapters that deal both with one theme and one game apiece? I’ve skimmed it, sure, but I couldn’t say I’ve skimmed it very well.

It’s treey counterpart, Gamer Theory, however, doesn’t help much. Certainly vs. my laptop, I fell asleep once with it in my bed, woke to find it on the floor, and didn’t burst in to tears. But where I couldn’t get in to the linear passage of argument in G7, I couldn’t get in to the non-linear passage of discussion in GT, whose publisher, Harvard University Press, had selected choice comments and included them as endnotes, along with Wark’s own, more traditional, quasi-paranthetical bibliographical commentary on his own thought processes.

Endnotes kill arguments dead, not because balance and counterpoint don’t have a roll to play in argumentative and discursive text, but because those texts’ rhetoric go from top to bottom, while endnotes go sideways, fowards and backwards, through that text and others. Digital media isn’t going to kill the book; in many ways, like this one, it will create books that are more book than book. But as Bogost notes, current networked text continues to strain against it’s own limits in ways that don’t yet (convincingly) demonstrate it’s possibilities.

Filed under: e-text, User experiences