Life is a Mystery

15 April 2011 . Comments Off on Do librarians sound like Ted Nelson?

Do librarians sound like Ted Nelson?

Oh, you don’t know who Ted Nelson is? He is the inventor of hypertext. You thought that was Tim Berners-Lee? Nope, Tim invented the World Wide Web. Ted began working on what would become project Xanadu in 1960, the 1.0 version of Xanadu was shipped in 2007. Along the way Ted defined hypertext, servers sharing content with one another, visible links, even search engines, concepts that would become familiar to us all. Why do we all use the World Wide Web instead of Xanadu?

Tim began work on the World Wide Web in 1989, got it working in 1990, and shared it with the world in 1991. By 1993 Tim’s employer, CERN in Switzerland, announced that the World Wide Web software would be free and open to anyone. By 2007 the World Wide Web was truly a world wide web.

WWW was incredibly simple compared to Xanadu. Xanadu defined 17 essential rules originally, including securely identified servers (and users), explicit permission to link to documents, royalty mechanisms that could be granular to the sentence, redundant storage, and much more. WWW just defined three technologies: the URL (which is now the URI) to identify resources, HTML to mark up pages, and HTTP to transfer content from one computer to another. Xanadu took 47 years to gestate and emerged as a commercial product. WWW took four years to emerge as an open standard for anyone to implement. Although Xanadu began long before WWW, WWW extracted the barest essentials from Ted’s ideas and was released long before Xanadu.

When the web first emerged people hailed it as the embodiment of Ted Nelson’s dream, but I remember thinking that Ted Nelson would hate the World Wide Web. It was brain-dead compared to Xanadu. It had none of the intelligence or authority Ted had built into his vision. The web was anarchy. Indeed, today I read an article where Ted pretty much calls the web “totally archaic” and “completely wrong.”

And yet, here we are in a world where millions know and depend on the web and hardly anyone pines for the glories of Xanadu. Those who know the wonders of Ted’s vision nod sagely at the advertising and spam issues the web faces, at the demise of paid journalism, and note that Xanadu would be much better solution, without many of the downsides we now face. But they miss the fact that simplicity, even when flawed, often triumphs. Right and wrong depend on a frame of reference. From some abstract frame of ideals, perhaps Ted is right and Tim is wrong. But from the very concrete frame of what gets used in the world today, it is pretty clear that Tim was right: the world needed a simple way to share resources stored on computers openly and easily.

Which brings me to librarians. We, like Ted, are experts of a domain. We have been working to build collections and facilitate searching long before either of those things were done on computers. Even the current generation of librarians can recall the world before Google and we know in our bones that there is a “better way” to search for information than the way being pursued all around us. We know that libraries can be the “gateway” to a better search experience and the worry that too many people are approaching information with embarrassingly blunt instruments instead of our refined methods. How awful it is to see the world trend the wrong way.

Do me a favor: if you are a librarian, read this article about Ted Nelson’s view of the web. Try to understand what he is saying. Then reflect on our own rhetoric about the information habits of the people we serve. Realize that often we sound as out of touch as Ted sounds about the web. Of course the world is trending the wrong way from our expert frame of reference, but our frame may also be trapping us, and if we want to be relevant to the next generation of seekers, we need to wrench ourselves into the present, look with clear eyes at the landscape, and get about the business of being of service! Would you rather be part of Xanadu or the World Wide Web?


19 February 2011 . Comments Off on Ten Minutes at Carleton

Ten Minutes at Carleton

Well, to tell the truth, I spent more than ten minutes at Carleton, it just felt like it flew by. I had a wonderful time, and speaking out loud with engaging partners really helped my mental gridlock begin to break. Toward the end I was asked to share a few thoughts, and I wanted to capture the kernel of those thoughts here for future reference as well.

Why am I a librarian? The value of sharing. The value of organization. The value of considering context and the boundary of the question.

Part of what brought me to librarianship was the artifact of the book. The joy of paper and ink and glue binding together a conversation across time. Yet I am also a child of the digital age, sneaking onto a campus much like Carleton to learn to code on a PDP 11/70, going to a public library in Ohio to write software for a computer much like the PET I in a downtown Northfield shop window. I feel the joy of electrons, code, and protocol bringing together a conversation across not just time but space. What Tim Berners-Lee launched from his NeXT machine at CERN is only beginning to unfold. That we all agree to let people into our computers from a world wide network expresses the same value of sharing that drew me to libraries.

I believe in the mission of the library, but rather than that mission being to share the resources of the world with our community, it will be to share the resources of our community with the world. Oversimplified in all sorts of ways, I acknowledge, but in essence true, I think.

I believe in the mission of the academic library as a home for everyone on campus, a place to reach beyond the bounds of your own domain. A place that respects an intellectual journey taken in community.

I believe in the mission of the librarian to make resources discoverable, help the enquiring mind find purchase for it’s questions, to ensure faculty have the tools of their research and the fodder for their teaching.

I believe at least these three missions endure whatever rapids lie ahead for the institution of libraries, but we must grab them, own them, and help our patrons understand the value that they represent.


15 February 2011 . Comments Off on The Next Ten Years

The Next Ten Years

My mind has been buried in minutia these past few weeks, working off the details of a few client projects that involve a wonderful descent into the details of CSS and HTML. I must admit it has been fun, but one item did break through my concentration, a posting from the ARL looking for candidates for a new program for “Transforming Research Libraries.”

The past few decades have been an amazing ride, and I’ve been lucky to spot a few trends as they emerged. I remember implementing a cataloging resource site on the 1993 internet in both Gopher and Web protocols, realizing the web was much easier to work with, and sensing it would “win” the net. I remember encoding and listening to my first MP3’s in 1998 and realizing that CD’s were history when Apple brought out iTunes and made “rip, mix, and burn” a simple proposition. But until recently I have not agreed that libraries faced an existential threat. Today, I am beginning to think we will see big changes in the next decade.

I always had the sense that librarians were unafraid of technology. Maybe that comes from working at the MIT Libraries! Still, from scrolls to codex, from chains to card catalogs, from circulation cards to computers, librarians have always been ready to adopt the next appropriate technology. This facility with adapting the best that new technology offers to the job we do kept me confident of the library’s place. The challenge we now face, though, is that the very material we are here to share is evaporating into the ether. Once “books” are no longer, what is our work? And how long do books and journals still have with us?

This is a much longer story than I have time to type tonight, but let me just say that I since I’ve started using the iPad over the past year, I’ve concluded that we don’t have as long as I thought. Reading is really fun on these devices, and I think adoption will skyrocket as the tools get better. On top of that, reading is different on these devices, more interactive, more collaborative. These are things that paper can’t duplicate and they will spell the death of paper, at least in academe. And worst of all for libraries, this medium changes the economic dynamic that makes lending feasible. What happens when the cost of the item becomes less than the cost of circulating it?

So if libraries are to have a role in the future academy, it has to be a new role. In the 1990’s I began talking about “libraries turning inside out.” By that I meant that libraries, which had collected the worlds resources so that a community could make efficient use of them, were now in a position to collect the output of the community so that the world could find it. This is why we created DSpace at MIT. And this is the conclusion of Eli Neiburger’s wonderful “Libraries are Screwed” talk (see the end of part 2).

Libraries turning inside out still feels right to me. This is the heart of the task that will face the ARL’s new Transforming Research Libraries program. This is the heart of the issue facing every academic library large or small. This may even, as Neiburger points out, be the issue facing all libraries. Our job is to apply our skills, those things we have inside us, to serve the constituencies who fund us, those on the outside. If we don’t find a way to do that in the next ten years, then I fear it may be too late.


7 January 2011 . Comments Off on Notes from Fall 2010 CNI Meeting

Notes from Fall 2010 CNI Meeting

Last month I had the privilege of attending the Fall 2010 CNI Task Force meeting. CNI is my favorite meeting of the digital library circuit because it combines a small scale with high engagement and a broad spectrum of interest. Last December’s meeting was well attended even though travel was difficult that week. My only disappointment was that the readiness of the audience to talk back and forth with speakers in the smaller briefings seems to have diminished a bit. The best CNI briefings, in my opinion, are about half presentation and half discussion.

My notes from Fall 2010 CNI are below the fold.

DC sunset after Fall 2010 CNI Task Force Meeting

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15 November 2010 . Comments Off on Considering Academe

Considering Academe

A few weeks ago a friend suggested that I consider a position at a small liberal arts college here in Minnesota. As a consequence, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my own relationship to academe. My career as a librarian has been spent serving large research libraries at two very different institutions, MIT and the University of Minnesota. But for the past three years or so I’ve been on my own, doing consulting work, making way for something new.

The first question I asked myself was whether I was really trying to escape the academy. I have all sorts of stories I tell myself about why I left the security of my position at the U of M to strike out on my own as a consultant. Some of these may even be true! But what if it boils down to disillusion with higher education, with the mission of the university? If that were the case, the last thing I should consider is re-entering an academic institution.

The answer, after some reflection (and one particularly long walk along the Mississippi), is that I still believe in the mission, but I began to recognize the different shades this mission takes on at different institutions of higher education. My undergraduate experience at Yale was really more complex than I’d realized. Although Yale is a research university, the Yale College experience I’d had was more like that of a liberal arts college than of the research universities I’d been serving as a librarian. My undergraduate experience was much more about discovering who I was and what I believed in than preparing me for any specific work or career. Activities like letterpress printing and peace protests were just as formative and critical to this experience as classes with Jonathan Spence or Serge Lang.

In my reflection I came across this passage by Wendell Berry:

The thing being made in a university is humanity. … [W]hat universities … are mandated to make or to help to make is human beings in the fullest sense of those words—not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture.

I am very curious to read Harry Lewis’ Excellence Without a Soul, where he writes “The students are not soulless, but their university is.” Mary returned from a conference last week in Denver with an image Parker Palmer apparently used to refer to the soul: the soul is a wild creature within us, shy and reluctant to appear, easily startled, which we coax to light with gentle attention and carful nurture. The soul is easily crowded out by the busy concerns of daily life or, in this case, departmental demands and course requirements.

I realized as I reflected, that the academic library could nurture the soul of the scholar. Libraries can be more than just an archive of books, we can be stunning shared architecture, we can be art, conversation, performance, serendipitous discovery. We are a quite woods in the bustle of academe’s demands, a place of contemplation and self-discovery, with the whispers of lives bound to page or pixel all around us.

With this I realized that I was not running from academe, I just want to engage it in an environment that cares as much for the soul of the scholar as it does for the job prospects, research results, or test scores of the scholar. I suppose this is a bit romantic, and possibly naive. Still, I decided to apply for the position and see whether a smaller liberal arts institution might be able to teach me something about nourishing the soul and raising “responsible heirs and members of human culture.”

Lower Arb Panorama by Adam Gurno

25 August 2010 . Comments Off on Airport reading

Airport reading

My favorite airport is Amsterdam’s Schiphol (convenient since many flights to Europe from MSP transfer in Schiphol). Last time I was there I even spent the night, due to an awkward transfer on my return from Austria. I noticed quite a bit of construction near the museum (yes, there is a museum at the airport). Little did I know this was the installation of a library!

Hat tip to Lorcan for the news that Schiphol has become the first airport sporting a permanent public library. Most of the collection will be in English and won’t circulate. However, it sounds like there will be a way to take something on the plane with you: downloads!

As an Apple fanboy, I am also interested to see that the public computers at this library are iPads! I love the little stands they’ve created. I wonder how long it may take US libraries to realize that an iPad could make a pretty snazzy and durable public kiosk machine?

Now I just need another excuse to fly through Schiphol. How about iPres 2010? Anyone want to send me?


5 December 2009 . Comments Off on Let’s de-crap-ify the library

Let’s de-crap-ify the library

Do you have a few minutes? 12? If you care about libraries, take those 12 minutes to listen to a bit of wailing from Tim Spalding, the guy behind LibraryThing. I showed LibraryThing to a small group at Minitex in September 2005, the same month it became public. Today LibraryThing gets more traffic than WorldCat. What I love about Tim is that even as an outsider to the profession, he takes librarianship seriously and does everything he can to help drag libraries into the future. This is just a gentle kick in the pants for librarians.

19 November 2009 . Comments Off on Access 2009

Access 2009

It looks like Access 2009 was a great conference, and they have many of their presentations online. The shame of this is that until a few hours ago I didn’t even know Access existed. With my US blinders on, I failed to realize that Canada hosted a conference that falls somewhere between DLF Forum and Code4Lib. It’s been going on for a long while, I have no excuse! I’d better start watching some video.


19 August 2009 . Comments Off on Be real

Be real

Yesterday I gave a talk to the wonderful staff of the CSBSJU libraries. I love the setting and the scale of this library, so I knew I’d enjoy the event. Even so, I got nervous as always about my talk. Did I have anything worthwhile to share? Would I keep people awake and thinking or put them to sleep? Was I using my toolkit in a way that enhanced the discussion or shut it down? I think the talk went well, I got some nice feedback from the staff, and maybe I’ll have to courage to do something similar again some time.

Getting up in front of a roomful of (essentially) strangers is something that many librarians confront every day. We are teachers, among other things. Today I came across a very helpful post by Carrie Donovan on In the Library with the Lead Pipe. She talks about being authentic in the classroom:

In his book, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer (1998) discusses identity as the evolution of all the forces that come together to form a person, including: background, culture, experience, and anything else that shapes the self. Recognizing that we bring all of these aspects of ourselves to everything we do, including our instructional activities, is key to finding your teaching identity. Librarians have pursued neutrality for a long time in their provision of organized and accessible information and knowledge, but this philosophy does not serve us well in the classroom.

We have to find (and share) ourselves in order to convey the richness of the experiences we want our students (or audience) to grasp. Not easy, but very rewarding when we pull it off!


28 July 2009 . Comments Off on Scanning Documents with iPhone at Ponoko

Scanning Documents with iPhone at Ponoko

I ran across a story about a cool iPhone apparatus that makes scanning documents with the iPhone simple. This is a neat idea, the iPhone can make a serviceable scanner in a library or at home, a great alternative to copying costs.

But even better was the service the creator of this apparatus had used to build and sell it. Called Ponoko, it is a website that lets you build almost anything you can imagine. You design it, you price it. Ponoko makes it, ships it, your customer assembles it.

I love sites like Jakprints where I can print almost anything and CafePress where I can design and sell t-shirts and other swag. Now I can come up with a crazy idea for a physical object and have that instantiated in the world. Cool.

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Eric Celeste / Saint Paul, Minnesota / 651.323.2009 /