e-Portfolio Complete

November 16, 2009 - 7:46 am

My academic e-Portfolio, representing my culminating experience with San José State University’s School of Library and Information Science, has been approved. I will graduate with a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science this December. The complete project is available on this website, either by clicking on the e-Portfolio tab on the top right of this page, or through the navigation links on the left column.

With that project now complete, I will be able to resume blogging on a more frequent basis.

Feedback is most welcome. Thank you.

The Domino Marionettes

May 20, 2009 - 2:59 pm

I recently used PBWorks, a “Web 2.0″ tool with wiki-like options for collaborative content creation to build an online environment to collect and annotate information about a collection of puppets and marionettes in my parent’s possession, originally crafted for performance by my great-grandfather, William R. Ransom, and grandfather, Charles F. Ransom. It serves as an experiment in family archival practices, applicable to genealogical pursuits, family archiving and similar work to be performed by a small working group. The resulting site can be seen here.

The website will live on and continue to expand as I explore the subject further and discover more information on the history of the Domino Marionettes. We’ve only scratched the surface of Charles Ransom’s manuscripts. Eventually, I foresee hosting full scripts of his plays and scholarly writing on puppetry as part of a family archive, as well as his photographs and sketches of stage and controller designs. As the strings get fixed, I would like to host videos of marionette movement and articulation. YouTube makes that easy to do (especially in a webpage that welcomes HTML editing). I would also like to host more links to external scholarly sources on puppetry and that era to provide greater context on the Domino Marionettes, especially as some of their collaborators went on to noteworthy careers. The website will definitely remain in flux as it gets improved and expanded by both my fellow contributors and myself.

Please take a look and relay your thoughts!

There he sat with an answer for all

April 8, 2009 - 10:25 pm

They coaxed and questioned, they queried and quizzed,
Till the windows winked and the pillars whizzed:
O, heavens, the things they wanted to know
From Moses’ tomb down to dynamo!
“I should like to make some Ozokerite;”
“A cure, if you please, for potato-blight;”
“What is the catch of Saskatchewan River?”
“What have you got on the spleen and liver?”
“The pedigree of the monkey-wrench -
Had I better look in Darwin or Trench?”
“Is there any new trick for coloring butter?
By the way, do you swear by Dewey or Cutter?”

-Excerpt from “A Librarian’s Dream”, by John Vance Cheney, 1891

Publicly presented that year at the American Library Association Conference

Reference is one of the most hallowed and ancient duties of a librarian. Regardless of technology and changing times, librarians have always had two fundamental duties, from Ninevah to Alexandria to the Boston Atheneum: organizing the collection (cataloging) and helping the patrons (reference). In the face of Google and the web at large there are many cries, to paraphrase Nietzsche, that “Reference is Dead!”

Reference is not dead. The shape of it, however, is changing.

It is true that in a minute or so of googling I could find out how to make ozokerite, and would not need to disturb the librarian. Reference inquiries at public libraries are undeniably down. However, the number of online databases continues to multiply, and the differences between the various subscription and free services are becoming trickier and trickier to master. Standards are far from uniform, and students arrive at projects with little or no schooling in research tools. There is still room for the professional. With much of the need coming from our academic institutions — both the students and the research faculty — the academic library needs to take a look at how researchers work and how to best provide them with the reference service they still need.

When researching a new subject, my first step — and this is becoming close to universal — is to sit down at my computer. I see what I can find on google first, and from there I might log onto San José’s King Library databases to find peer-reviewed articles and resources. Only after I have exhausted online resources will I start to look at print information and archival collections. Since the bulk of my time is spent looking at a monitor — a monitor in my house — it makes sense that my library be there waiting for me. I live 70 miles away from the King Library, but I still need reference services. I just need it where and when it is convenient. Fortunately, computer technology — the very bane said to be the Death of Reference — is the tool I can use to connect to professional librarians, 24 hours a day. Email is a difficult tool to use for reference since so many inquiries require back-and-forth responses. The key is synchronous communication. Chat, Instant Messaging, and SMS Texting are all forms of typed, synchronous communication. VOIP (voice over internet protocol) is a form of verbal communication that can blend audio, text and video. Both types of services can take place when the patron is front of their own computer (or the library’s, for that matter), or over a mobile telephony device. Since the researcher will spend more time at their computer than in the Reference Department, that’s where reference services need to be located to be useful.

The Latest Tools and Tricks

There are a number of different “2.0″ tools that libraries are using to provide synchronous online reference. Most are variations on the same concept. The IM world is beset by competing Instant Messaging services, each with their own log-in data, such as AOL’s AIM, Google Talk, MSN and Yahoo!, but this can be sidestepped by services like Meebo or Plugoo, both of which provide account holders with blog or webpage-ready widgets that merge different services and allow anonymous users to contact account holders. In this case, the account holder would be the library’s reference department. IM, and its kissing cousins text and chat, are great ways to provide reference since the written word can provide greater clarity than conversation and relevant html links can be copied, pasted and sent straight to the user.

I’ve been able to both use and provide chat reference and found it to be a great way to communicate — with a couple caveats: 1) It’s better to use a chat service provided by a library you are a member of, since then the librarian can accurately judge what resources are available to you; and 2) the user and librarian should both be prompt in replying to each other. A long lag-time between responses — I’ve had patrons go five minutes or more without responding to a question from me — disrupts the process and makes it hard to narrow down the question’s parameters. Obviously a phone or in-person reference interview is not in danger of going idle at seemingly random intervals.

I would also invite readers of this blog to head over to The Pinakes reference desk, near the top right of the screen. You’ll find a Meebo widget with which you can fire any questions you might have my way. You don’t need an account to use this tool. If it indicates I am online, I will try and answer you straightaway; if I’m not, I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

An alternative to text-only services is VOIP in the form of a service like Skype. In its most basic use, Skype is a great way to get free long distance phone calls; with a microphone and speakers (or a headset) the user can speak to any other Skype user for free and make calls to land lines and cell phones. Skype can also be used to send SMS text messages or live chat. A computer with a video camera — increasingly a standard feature on monitors and laptops — can be used as a video phone. The user can simultaneously use the chat features as well, so a Skype reference call could feature live voice interaction with copied links to information resources. Far more versatile than a standard phone call! My experiments with Skype this week reveal that it has a few bugs to work out — different users had different interfaces, the program crashed on some users — but it’s safe to guess it’s only a matter of time before the platform is stable and consistent. The catch with a service like Skype, or even the more bare-bones video conferencing provided by Google or Meebo — is that only a small percentage of users are comfortable with using them (and have the technology).

This is even more true of the Java-based Elluminate, a great video conferencing tool used by many educational institutions but not something most library users have experience using. It allows the moderator to speak back and forth with users, show the user web sites, interact on a virtual white board and more. Earlier tonight I got a great tutorial on Elluminate from the host of Bibliotechno (who is a regular SLIS Elluminate moderator), but are library users really going to flock to a program that requires a tutorial in the first place? Elluminate would probably be best used by libraries on university campuses that are focused on e-learning, with students already accustomed to its use.

None of these services have yet passed the tipping point of popularity and saturation, but I suspect each will become more and more popular — and replaced by dramatically more user-friendly and intuitive variants — as the aughts fade to the teens.

We should not mourn the fact that the number of reference interactions is diminishing. What we are losing in quantity we can make up for in quality — we have more time to work in-depth with the patrons that need it. The reference inquiries that are disappearing in the face of internet search are the ones that weren’t that hard to answer in the first place. Instead, we can grant more time and more assistance to those researchers, students and patrons who are looking into serious questions or truly need help learning and mastering the tools of academic research. This is a blessing.

In his chair, unflinching took shock after shock;
Without so much as a glance at his clock,
He answered ‘em, yea, by Peter and Paul,
Serenely he answered ‘em, one and all.
His dinner at six, ’twas now quite eleven,
But there he sat, as the saints sit in Heaven;
The friend, the peer, of the shades on the wall,
There he sat with an answer for all

-Further excerpt from “A Librarian’s Dream”, by John Vance Cheney, 1891

The full text of the poem quoted in this blog post can be found in the Papers and Proceedings of the General Meeting of the American Library Association, 1892, pgs. 137-138.

Life Squared?

April 1, 2009 - 4:09 pm

One of the most enduring concepts in Science Fiction is that of a computer-generated reality. We have Neal Stephenson’’s metaverse, William Gibson’s cyberspace, and the fetishistic violence of the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix. Long-running table-top roleplaying games like Shadowrun have mechanics for a hardwired online universe. The popular SciFi sub-genre of Cyberpunk trades heavily on the notion.

Of course, most of these works of speculative fiction speculate a dystopian future in which these alternate realities are worsening the human condition. Despite this, many readers of these very genres are the earliest adopters of online immersive environments such as Second Life. Second Life is an attempt to create a prototype of the metaverse: users control avatars in a three-dimensional environment that allows them to interact (via text and voice chat or IM), and visit graphically rendered indoor and outdoor environments. Without the constraints of gravity, users can fly or teleport; without the constraints of DNA, users can look like anyone or anything they want (depending on their skill manipulating sliders).

What is the practical purpose of Second Life? Vassar College has taken a stab at creating one. Amongst their various buildings — some of which resemble Vassar College campus buildings — is a near-scale replica of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. It was designed to prove a point: art and architecture benefit from the context of three-dimensional space, and the user gains far more from witnessing a carefully constructed replica than he or she can learn from viewing the images in a book. To an extent, I agree: it was interesting to see how each mural related to one another within the Sistine Chapel. I thought Vassar College was one of the best realized areas I witnessed in Second Life: beyond the Sistine Chapel, their tour-pod took my avatar all around their island, and I got to see their castle, their lecture areas, meeting rooms, and other carefully arranged spaces.

What I did not see was people.

Second Life is an interesting concept whose time has not yet come. While there is a for-profit market in MMO games like World of Warcraft, a less goal-oriented setting like Second Life doesn’t offer enough attractions to keep users coming back. While many people have signed up for Second Life, its persistent user base is far lower. This is apparent as you wander around: traveling through the SJSU SLIS campus and the adjacent Stanford University Library I was usually completely alone. When I returned to Vassar College after initially touring it with my classmates, I was the only “person” on the island. It felt eerie and off-putting. Even the libraries generally had ‘bots — lifeless humanoid comment drones — rather than real people.

The technology is part of what fails Second Life. The graphics are blocky and slow (especially compared to the latest video games). It can be slow to load and movement is awkward. In the various fictional versions I reference above, the flow between the real world and the computer-generated one is seamless; in the Matrix movie series, the humans aren’t even aware they are living in fiction. I suspect many people try Second Life and only a very small percentage return. The user interface has not advanced at all in the two years since I last tried Second Life — what other websites cease to advance? When will a younger, smarter company replace Linden Labs? I feel it’s only a matter of time before Second Life is ousted by somebody offering better tech, which will draw many more users.

It’s impossible to escape the fakeness of Second Life. And unlike online social networking tools like Facebook, no one uses their real name — I toured libraries with people I knew were my classmates without knowing which classmates they were! I feel this diminishes the professional potential of Second Life. Instead, Second Life can only serve as an escape valve from the “real world”, a place to be something you’re not. While that may hold some appeal, it’s at odds with what I think it should be best at: meetings and conferences, where networking and making real-life connections are paramount.

I did have the opportunity to speak with a couple librarians and that did help me gain a more positive appreciation of Second Life. The first was “Jenymn Mersand” who I first encountered while “speaking” with a fellow student on the SLIS Virtual Campus. She overheard our misgivings and filled us in on some of the aspects she likes about Second Life. She is a real-life librarian and instructor in New Mexico. For her, Second Life was a great way to attend conferences and work on projects with librarians who lived too far away to meet in person.

The second librarian I spoke with was “Liatris Tidewater” who served at the Reference Desk of the Alliance Library in Second Life. She’s a real life librarian on the staff of Florida State University’s Science Library. While she was a very enthusiastic Second Life user and volunteer librarian — logging two hours per week at the reference desk, going back two years — even she admitted that 80-85% of the reference questions pertained to Second Life, mostly from beginners unsure of how to edit their appearances or move around. More damningly, she admitted that of the “Real Life” reference questions, she had yet to handle any that she’d compare to an academic reference question — in two years! While I appreciate her enthusiasm and commitment to the medium, I think that’s strong evidence that library services are not strongly in demand in Second Life — or not in demand at all.

Of the various libraries I visited — including Stanford University’s, the Alliance Library, the “Library of Illumination Island”, Montclair State University’s, and various smaller libraries or special collections — none aside from Alliance had a live staffer. Most were elaborate shells for links to websites that launched in my regular browser. I could get to all of these resources faster — much faster — directly on the web. The only area that seemed to offer something a library website might not was the Rare Book Collection at the Stanford University Library — its oversized displays showing images from Incunabulum in the Stanford collection were quite impressive and very beautifully rendered.

Slideshow metadata available in the fullscreen mode.

Second Life’s strength is its ability to create larger than life three-dimensional images; its weakness is the actual display of textual information. The Stanford Library Rare Books area was great, but the main Stanford Library on Second Life was a hollow hall, with twenty books on the shelf, each of which was just a link to the Google Books version on the World Wide Web. I have more books on the little set of shelves behind my desk — which is in my kitchen. And Google Books is bookmarked on my browser.

I believe that immersive environments have a future — but I’m not sure they have a present.

Place Cubed

April 1, 2009 - 2:45 pm

One of the leading mantras of the library modernization movement is the oft-referenced notion of providing the “third space” a community needs, if the first and second spaces are home and work/school. In my own life, the local library has served that role: when my daughter was an infant, we were regulars at the mid-morning lapsit at the branch down the street. It was about more than instilling an interest in literacy and language in a small child; it was a place to go to escape the monotony of home and socializing. It also served as a way to meet and share experiences with other neighborhood parents. After going for a few weeks, we’d start to see parents and kids we knew from the library around the neighborhood, and started organizing playgroups and get-togethers. The library had served as the jumping off point for community organization and involvement. Suddenly a big city neighborhood felt like a tight-knit community that we were a part of.

While reading Chapter Thirteen, Gaming, in Meredith Farkas’s book, Social Software in Libraries, I was pleasantly surprised by the coincidence of finding the same branch librarian who organized those lapsits — a friend of mine for nearly two and a half years now — quoted for her expertise in library gaming. Catherine Delneo’s 2005 article, taken from Young Adult Library Services, lays out a number of the key facts behind promoting library gaming: the sheer numbers of game players, the increasing percentage of female players, and the social aspects of videogame play. Delneo also described an interesting program in which the Austin Public Library introduced youths to game design through an easy-to-program software scheme that allowed the participants to collaborate on their own new games (Delneo, pg. 34-35).

Farkas goes into further detail on gaming and it’s history, from its roots in the 60s and 70s, the popularity of consoles, game genres (fighting vs. first person shooter, for example) that a non-gamer wouldn’t be familiar with, and some of the ways libraries have implemented game playing. These included “LAN Parties” featuring networked computers, tournaments on console games, creating gaming-dedicated areas, and attempts at providing “reader advisory” services that might, for example, steer a role-playing gamer towards epic fantasy reading.

All of these suggestions serve the Third Place concept. Teens — and an ever-increasing segment of adults — play videogames. It is a compelling interest for them. By circulating secondary materials they might not be able to afford to purchase (spin-off novels and DVDs, strategy guides, related comics), the library can create value for these users. By providing a physical space for them to play, they can try LAN-based games or games they do not own at home. A gathering point is created, and those teens and young adults have the opportunity to create a community of their peers — just as I became part of a community of my peers by bringing my young child to the branch for lapsits.

Academic Libraries

The academic library environment is commonly held fairly far apart from the public sector; collections are to serve the institution’s research needs, not the pleasure of the patrons.  Academic libraries are not as caught up in the high-culture/low-culture debate that has persisted in public libraries. However, some academic libraries are starting to look at gaming as a potential vehicle for library relevance. Jim Morris of Lake City Community College in Northern Florida writes that adopting gaming in the library — particularly in after-hours, when the din of a tournament won’t detract from the study-hall environment — goes hand-in-hand with other loosened regulations (allowing food and drink, bringing in comfortable furniture, circulating reference materials) to create a more appealing library. One night might be LAN gaming; the next might feature a poetry slam. Morris believes these disparate activities both serve the same purpose: saying “yes” to his patrons. And therefore, Morris is creating a new twist on the Third Space: dorm and lecture hall as first and second, library, again, as the third.


Delneo, C. (2005). Gaming for tech-savvy teens. Young Adult Library Services 3 (3), pg. 34-38.

Farkas, M.G. (2007). Social software in libraries. Medford: Information Today, Inc.

Morris, J. (2007). The new academic library and student services. Journal of Access Services 5 (1/2), pg 31-36.

Screen(cast) Test: ARTStor

March 18, 2009 - 10:17 pm

Today, your bibliophylax is going to take a look at ARTStor, the beautifully designed repository of art images available through many academic institutions. This screencast can also be viewed at YouTube. Feedback is appreciated!

I thought I would add a few of my personal thoughts on creating this screencast. I used a free trial of Camtasia Studio, a professional application for screencasting. I found the bulk of features to be user friendly, but I encountered substantial roadblocks when it would not allow me to record or re-record separate audio. The features for adding audio were simply grayed out and unavailable for selection. This required me to perform “live narration” while “recording” my screen for the screencast; this led to a less professional narration than I would have preferred (a few stops and stutters; uh, um, etc.). The other catch was the lack of a Flash option; I had to produce the file as an MP4. Fortunately, that was compatible with the PodPress plug-in I use for media files here on The Pinakes.

I liked the automatic zoom-and-pan features, though I had to edit them in a number of places as it zoomed in on the wrong part of the screen. More practice with the software would eliminate that step as I would learn how to manipulate the automatic system with my mouse moves. Overall, I found Camtasia to be a very simple program to use, my only quibbles probably down to deficiencies in my hardware.

icon for podpress  The Pinakes Presents ARTStor: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download

Wiping the Screen Clean

March 18, 2009 - 3:32 pm

In Ancient Rome, it was fashionable for the sons of the wealthy to be educated by literate Greek slaves, some individually, others in small, privately run schools with at most a dozen students. The typical writing materials of the era were parchment (made from animal skins; vellum, from calves, was considered the highest quality) or papyrus, made from beaten reeds. However, both parchment and papyrus were too expensive for children’s education, so tutors used a clever alternative: a wax tablet and stylus.

The tutor or his students could use the stylus to draw markings in the semi-soft wax; afterwards, the text could be smoothed out and the tablet used again. With this tool, the tutor would teach the most important subjects to his students: Greek, Latin, and arithmetic. This idea never went away — from slate chalkboards to contemporary whiteboards, reusable writing surfaces have had a long lifetime.

Education today, of course, takes many forms, and extends far beyond the classroom. With distance learning enjoying ever-increasing acceptance, new tools had to be created to allow for classroom-quality teaching to be available in an asynchronous electronic environment. The computer, once owned and online, is a tool where lessons can be written and re-written, viewed and re-viewed, and updated all with minimal cost. One tool intended to fulfill that role is screencasting. A screencast is a video screen capture combined with narration and disseminated using RSS feed enclosures, much like a podcast or vlog.

One entertaining and well-known example of a screencast is the ‘heavy metal umlaut‘ screencast by Jon Udell that serves as a primer on wikipedia.

So how is the screencast being used by our bibliosphere? Meredith Farkas points out a number of examples:

  • The UCLA Library’s “Road to Research” online research guide contains a number of screencasts, such as this side-by-side comparison of Google Scholar and the PsychINFO database.
  • Princeton’s “UChannel” streams a mix of screencasts, filmed lectures and other materials, also available over RSS feeds and iTunes.
  • The University of Maine has many of their online tutorials available as screencasts.

Other institutions use related technology for the same purpose. San Francisco State’s J. Paul Leonard Library prefers narrated slideshow style presentations, such as this one entitled Intro to College Level Research. I like this product since it avoids some of the herky-jerky, follow-the-mouse effects of Camtasia screencasts; it also has easy-to-use options for captions for users without speakers or headphones (this can be very important for library users!).

This is one of the chief perils of relying on screencast technology for user education; users at library computer terminals may not be able to listen to narrated presentations, or even if the library allows sound, they may hesitate to. We cannot assume that all users are accessing these types of resources from home computers; in fact, many users are at the library because they do not have home internet access. Therefore, we should provide multiple options, including captioned presentations and non-video (text and/or image-based) alternatives.

Podcasting to the People

March 11, 2009 - 9:23 pm

In this follow-up to Creating a Durable Voice, I investigate methods by which libraries are reaching out to the public with podcasting technology.

icon for podpress  Standard Podcast: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download

Run time- 3:47

The Art of Listening

March 11, 2009 - 3:42 pm

The Listener Remixed by Kim Dohrman

My first foray into being a podcast consumer started when I bought a larger, hipper iPod to replace my old dying model about two years ago. With so much space to fill, I looked to podcasts as a way to always have new content. Subscribing was easy enough; I was already using iTunes as my portal, so I searched the iTunes store for appealing podcasts. Established radio networks are a reliable source of quality material, so I went straight to NPR: Terry Gross’s Fresh Air and the occasional music series, All Songs Considered, appealed to me the most.

My problem turned out to be time. Fresh Air is a daily program, an hour apiece. For a while I picked and chose which broadcasts I wanted to listen to based on the guestlist, but after a while iTunes stopped downloading the new episodes automatically since I had failed to keep listening to the older ones. I managed a little better with All Songs Considered; it appears less often, not quite once a week, and is only 30-45 minutes. Eventually I fell too far behind it as well. Perhaps if I were a regular train commuter I’d be a better podcast consumer, but I’ve mostly been a bicycle commuter in my professional life and weaving through downtown traffic is trouble enough without the latest political debate on Fresh Air to distract me.

I’m more interested in the possibility of listening to music and news podcasts via my computer. I spend a dire number of hours per day in front of this monitor and podcasts of interviews or new music sound more compelling than my usual rehash of old music I’ve heard a thousand times. I’ve subscribed to two podcasts via RSS feeds on my browser from SFGate: Tim Goodman on television and Mick LaSalle on film. I’ve also subscribed to the San Francisco Public Library’s Word and Performance series. Via iTunes, I’ve re-subscribed to All Songs Considered and added Cool Tools for Library 2.0. Overall, I prefer the iTunes interface for subscribing to podcasts: iTunes is already my go-to program for listening to music, and it interfaces with my iPod and iPhone if I want to sync the podcast in multiple places.

Listening to Greg Schwartz’s presentation for the SirsiDynix Institute was fairly compelling and I was impressed by the range of library uses he described. Some seem obvious: storytime, for instance, or broadcasting planned presentations and lectures. I really liked his example of the Primary Sources Theater “performed” by an Academic Library on Long Island — that sounded inventive and interesting.

I’ve never been patient enough to listen, but with so many diverse offerings, perhaps it is time for me to develop my skills in the art of listening.

Creating a Durable Voice

March 11, 2009 - 2:19 pm

A quick glance at the legacy of oral communication and thoughts on podcasting, a technology for distributing sound via audio files to the general public.

icon for podpress  Pinakes Podcast #1: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download

Runtime- 4:56