Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Second Life and Libraries

There's been a lot of really big buzz around Second Life in the library world. Lots of libraries have electronic presences in SL -- University of Cincinnati, the state libraries of Kansas and Michigan, a huge presence from these guys -- they were the first, as far as I can tell. It's getting a lot of non-library related press as well; both from news sources and blogs. And it's not just hippie librarian types or bored techies, there are actual, real businesses buying land and doing things all over SL. People who are into SL are really, really, into SL, to the point where they wax rhapsodic about new worlds, completely new social interactions, new economies, new ways of doing business. They feel as though they are on the cusp of something big, something world-transforming. Hell, SL has even had its share of disasters -- including their very own "Napster Moment".

Does this sound familiar?

"ITS POPULATION IS AROUND 8,500. IT has private nooks and corners as well as very public gathering spots. Though small by any demographer's standards, this place has seen more than its share of civic crises. Undesirables and miscreants wreak havoc. There are wild hot-tub parties and heated debates over whether a fellow citizen should be allowed to exist. People are teleported to other places against their will. Some men pose as women, some women pose as neuter aliens."

Okay, ignoring the "population is about 8500" -- SL's population is way more than that currently -- this sounds a lot like Second Life, right? How about this?

"Truly wacky: Programming on the ---, or "building," can be done by any player. Building includes creating new rooms, linking rooms and creating objects. One player, for instance, whose character is Kilik, a Frisbee-chasing black Labrador, programmed a lavish fireworks display last July 4. Another player began to build a Rube Goldberg device. Others added levers and doors to the machine until it became a truly wacky contraption, complete with blaring trumpets and lemmings in search of high ground. When a virtual version of Mel Torme appeared, the Rube Goldberg contraption carried out a rather brutal execution of the crooner."

These two excerpts are from 1994 -- it's in Newsweek's 11/7/94 issue, and if you've got a big collection of old Newsweeks or live near a dentist's office, you can go and look at the article yourself -- it's in the one that's got a big picture of Ollie North on the cover. At any rate, all this virtual hullabaloo is about LambdaMOO, once the text-only darling of the early Internet cognoscenti and now more or less consigned to the dustbin of Internet history, although it does still exist and does retain a certain hardcore following. But the point here is that when I hear the hype about SL -- especially when its couched in the futuro-language of the true believer -- I get serious, heavy deja vu.

To be sure, there's differences between SL and Lambda -- SL is very graphical, Lambda isn't, SL allows users to retain copyright over their in-world creations (this is the one thing that I think is really, truly innovative about SL), Lambda never had to think about that. But Lambda's lessons can probably be applied to Second Life -- a virtual world that showed early promise, but didn't really deliver.

Before I get hatemail, there are some things I really like about SL -- someone in SL once steered me towards an in-world museum dedicated to space exploration, where models of rockets were on display and one could take a virtual rocket journey into space and around the planets -- very cool stuff. For the visual, the concrete -- making objects and virtual buildings -- SL is exciting as all hell. I'd really love to see a virtual model of my own university in SL, so that potential students, staff or faculty could get a feel for the structure of the place before they'd come and visit. But that would take serious time and cash, and I don't know of any institution that's made a model of its physical campus in SL.

But for libraries, I can't really see this going anywhere. See, the point of a library isn't the physical space or any of the other things that I think SL is good at; it's getting warm bodies (or, in this case, digital representations of warm bodies) interacting and asking questions. And in all my noodling about in SL's library related areas, I have yet to see an actual reference transaction from an actual civilian patron actually happen. I see lots of reference desks and lots of librarians and other interested parties hanging around, but I don't really see any movement. I've asked on an SL library related mailing list if anyone had any statistics as to reference transactions, and nobody replied to me. My guess is there aren't any.

I'd love to be proven wrong on this -- I'd love to see SL become a vibrant, fruitful avenue for patrons to interact with librarians. Anything that brings in patrons is good. I just don't really see it happening.

One last quote from that Newsweek article:

"Players go to great lengths to create their characters--female, male or neuter, centaur or mermaid. "Whether you're short or tall, fat or thin, black or white, ugly or beautiful in real life, what determines how you look on Lambda is completely controllable," says John Fink, a 21-year-old senior at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. "The anonymity also provides people with a sense of invulnerability."

Now just where did they get that handsome fellow?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

ODCE and Zotero

Woohah, I've been invited to speak at ODCE on Zotero and other bibliographic management systems. This is no itty-bitty poster session -- it's two-plus hours of workshop. Man. Ouch.

I'll be developing some sort of handout/slideshow/other sort of thing for the workshop and will, of course, be licensing it under some sort of Creative Commons license.

If you're planning on attending ODCE and read this, please do drop me a note and let me know!

Monday, December 04, 2006

Outsourcing technical services

Take a look over here. McMasters is planning on outsourcing cataloging; this has been done before, of course, and in my limited experience it seems to usually end up costing more to outsource than to keep cataloging in-house, but maybe things have changed since the last time I thought about this (roughly 2001) and/or McMasters has some information that I don't have. Regardless, a gutsy move.

What really impresses me though is the new lines they're opening up. Interesting stuff.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Canadian universities abandoning RefWorks?

Remember how I talked about RefWorks and ownership of data? The CBC ran an article about how Canadian universities are abandoning RefWorks because of the Patriot Act -- it's a pretty good read. My wife heard some audio on this on CBC Radio, and supposedly they went into a lot more detail about it -- pity I didn't catch it. Apparently they mentioned some sort of homegrown RefWorks replacement, which I personally would love to see. I'm really thrilled with the in-browser Zotero but it's utility in a shared-computing space like a library lab would be minimal, because Zotero's stuff is stored locally.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Google Customized Search Engine

Lots of chatter about Google's CSE stuff. Always one to jump in on the middle of a trend, I've whipped one up for searching Ohio's newspaper websites. Seems to work okay, and I do appreciate the fact that Google has let me opt out of advertising for search results.

Zotero and RefWorks

There's been a lot of talk about Zotero and RefWorks out in library blog-o-land. I've had oblique experience with RefWorks (I wrote my own master's paper using citeulike, which I wouldn't really recommend to anyone due to the fact that, at least at the time I was using it, it was mostly geared towards science-y stuff and having to manually type in references was a Colossal Pain) as we officially support it here in my library and I'm on the committee that coordinates RefWorks issues. It's more or less a success here -- people that use it tend to really really really enjoy it once they get into it. However, I've always been somewhat resistant to RefWorks for a few issues -- some technical, some ideological:

1) It's not intuitive to use. Okay, nowadays we tend to expect our applications to be immediately decipherable and usable, and that may or may not be a realistic expectation based on the complexity of the given application. RefWorks definitely has usability warts however that probably relate from it being a website, and not an application -- users have to log into RefWorks and remember their group code, userid, and password if they haven't saved that info.

2) It's not free. Okay, it's "free" if your institution has paid for it -- the costs are transparent to you -- but due to the fact that I've had a long and somewhat goofy love affair with open source I'm naturally going to have to give some pretty serious credence towards open solutions. As it stands now when a patron leaves our university their RefWorks account stays, but who knows at what point that may change. Ceding control of your data to an external organization is always risky behavior.

3) Connectivity. If RefWorks is down, or someplace between you and RefWorks is down, your data is inaccessible. This doesn't happen often, admittedly.


Things I like about RefWorks that are not present in Zotero (that I could tell -- haven't messed with Zotero enough to be authoritative about it):

1) Buncha buncha bib format exports. The list is downright dizzying. Sure, you may not need to export your bib into the exact format needed by Meat Science, but dammit, somebody somewhere does and its nice to have a comprehensive field of export formats from which to choose. This is an acknowledged issue for the folks at Zotero, although I doubt they will ever reach RefWorks's array without some serious dedication.

2) Write-N-Cite. I actually know near-zilch about this; it doesn't work with Linux or But I've talked to a couple of patrons about it and they really like it.


Where Zotero shines:

1) Open source. (okay, okay, I'll stop harping about it)

2) Folksonomy-ish tagging.

3) Saved searches. The concept of saved searches is something I first encountered with Thunderbird -- I don't use it that often but when I do use it I'm always, damn, that's cool.

4) The ability to store data as well as metadata, like page images or PDFs of articles. This doesn't work in Linux though so I can't test it out.


Things Zotero needs to do to be an Absolute, Complete World Beater:

1) Get it so the plugin works across the board. As it stands right now using Linux and Zotero leads to a less than optimal experience -- I can't save PDFs, and for some reason at least one other person in the library can get our local catalog software to sync up with Zotero and I can't. This may be another Zotero-Linux issue. Oddly enough, I have no problem importing items from the statewide union catalog, which runs the same OPAC.

2) More export formats.

3) Resolve the weirdness with OpenURL support. When I first used it, trying to "Locate" an item bounced me to GMU's OpenURL resolver -- great for GMU, less great for anyone outside GMU. And yes, I know that there's some sort of Automagic OpenURL Discovery tool in Zotero's preferences -- I found it (belatedly -- first I unpacked the Zotero .xpi file and replaced the GMU OpenURL resolver with our own) eventually, but there should be some sort of install wizard that either guesses your resolver or asks you for it manually. I think Zotero people are working on this.

Needless to say even in this somewhat unfinished state I'm a big fan of Zotero and am eagerly looking forward to new developments.

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