Reaching toward our users

February 25, 2009 - 5:14 pm

Having discussed our modern day clans, now comes the question: how can libraries and information centers use these social network tools to provide better service? We’ve seen how ever expanding groups of people are creating online identities and circles of friends, and the smarter corporations and politicians have been quick to take advantage. Is facebook just one more place to advertise, or can it provide more interactive uses? The notion is that our users are already on facebook — we just need to reach out towards them.

A cursory glance at some local efforts don’t particularly inspire. The San Francisco Public Library has a facebook page, but it essentially falls in the “free advertising” category. It gets a few posts on its wall — mostly little feel-good comments or reminisces — and it provides updates about library openings and other press release material. However, there is no way to directly access a librarian or view the catalog. It certainly serves to create a facebook presence for the SFPL, but little more. It has many fans, but speaking as one of them, I’ve never received any event invitations or messages as a result of my “fandom”.

I was a little more impressed with an example I found via the group Libraries Using Facebook Pages. It’s for the Tompkins-McCaw Library for Health Services at VCU, hardly a site I’d naturally go looking for. But it had a more impressive array of offerings than the SFPL page: RSS feeds that continually supply library blogs, news updates, and more; an OCLC/WorldCat search widget; clearly listed hours and address; a photo feed; and an external app called “Bookshare” that allows them to highlight popular books. This last one is particularly original and feels similar to the bookstore-style collections often near the entrance of brick-and-mortar libraries. The app provides thumbnails of the book covers, as well, lending a nice visual appeal. It’s a simple but well designed webpage, all within facebook. But it only has a few dozen fans…for all that function, does anyone use it?

My internship supervisor last semester suggested that as a future librarian, it would behoove me to be on facebook — but not to reach library users. He said that when he and many of his colleagues first signed up, they thought it would be a tool for connecting to patrons. But in reality, he explained, users found the librarians other ways — in person, or via the library’s website. No, the real useful trait of facebook was professional networking, not just for jobs, but also for tips and answers and professional questions that come up in the life of a reference librarian.

While I admire the efforts of the Tompkins-McCaw Library, I think ultimately that he was right. Some users will find us through facebook. But the real advantage in facebook is making our own clans, making our connections. That will be the lasting effect — and it’s what facebook was built to do, and is best at.

Adding the cornerstones

February 18, 2009 - 11:59 pm

In the post FOUNDATIONS OF KNOWLEDGE, I discussed the notion of the wiki as an aspect of Asimov’s pyschohistory, a concept born of the faith in humanity’s predictability in numbers.  When discussing wikis, of course, it seems natural to start with Wikipedia, the famous online encyclopedia “anyone can edit”.  It is the first wiki most people become familiar with, and both an epic monument to the value of groupthink and a dangerous loitering place of saboteurs. However, wikis go back well before Jimmy Wales‘ grand experiment.

Reading Meredith Farkas’ explanation of the history of wikis was quite interesting (and verified by no less a source than wikipedia itself). Wikis date back much further than I would have supposed, to the mid-1990s and a programmer named Ward Cunningham. Cunningham was taking the concept of a hypercard program on early Macs that linked different “cards” of information to each other; most, if not all wikis rely on simple, intuitive internal hyperlinks to create a finely woven web of information. He used this idea to create an online “wiki” (from the Hawaiian word for quick, which Cunningham had first seen as the name of a private busline at the Honolulu airport) to share programming ideas (Farkas, pgs. 67-68).

I took three online “wiki” (or wiki-esque) services for a test drive, and found similarities and differences between all of them.  MediaWiki is the software that drives Wikipedia, so it was fairly easy for me to use — I’ve edited a variety of Wikipedia pages over the last couple years, and created new ones. Instead of using html markups, the software uses simple symbols to create bullets, titles, and numbered lists. The theory is that wikis are more intuitive that way, but I’ve never really thought so — I prefer to use html code myself. I’ve always looked at the formatting of pages I’ve admired and mimicked it as well as possible. While uploading the MediaWiki software to the Senna Server was tricky, once online, it was almost identical to editing Wikipedia. Going back to examples on wikipedia, I built a small series of pages and categories built around a simple concept (San Francisco Street Art).

On the other end of the collaborative spectrum is Google Docs. Google Docs is not wiki software per se, but it is a tool for group work. A single google document can be edited by anyone invited to use the page (though they must have a google id), with formatting tools that mimic a skeletal Word Processing program. However, Google Docs isn’t designed to make publicly available web sites (though they can be easily published using Google Pages); it’s best used within a small, finite group.

PBWiki was new to me, but very easy to pick up and run with (as the name implies — PB stands for peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the easiest meal to make!). Instead of feeling like a traditional wiki, it was much more like drafting and editing within Google Documents any other contemporary word processing tool. Buttons for text formatting, auto-formatted links – it was lightyears from the skeletal simplicity of MediaWiki. I only wonder if it has the robust strength and reliability of traditional wikis.

Foundation of knowledge

February 18, 2009 - 11:54 pm

In the 1951, Gnome Press published a series of Isaac Asimov short stories as the novel Foundation, a work of epic science fiction set in a future universe. As a follow-up to Foundation, Asimov would go on to write three sequels and two prequels over the rest of his long, prodigious writing career in the same setting, creating one of the most enduring and influential visions of the future currently in print. Asimov was a rare creature: not only was a he a successful science fiction writer, he was also a scientist, historian, and raconteur of great renown, and his works go beyond the usual spaceships-and-lasers approach of typical space opera.

The premise of Foundation and the works that followed it is that a new branch of study, psychohistory, allows scholars to anticipate the future of human history based on mathematical analysis of huge populations. Humans as individuals are completely unpredictable, but when massed in large numbers, completely quantifiable.

As an aside for library students, the foundation in the title is one of two organizations designed to preserve all human knowledge after a psychohistorically predicted collapse in civilization; the central hub of the series, therefore, is a great library. It’s a long way from Star Wars, isn’t it?

The notion of the wiki to establish and share information is based in many ways on the same concept. Individual experts may be very knowledgeable, but will always have inherent bias, limited points of view, and a reliance on such individuals will lead to an unevenly curated information source.

So the wiki is predicated on the simple concept that two minds are greater than one, and therefore millions more minds are exponentially greater yet. Wikis allow the greater public to compose, edit and share their insight to the world, and as Asimov foresaw in Foundation, relying on a greater mass of people creates predictability and reliability.

Of course, some subjects are so obscure and little known that it takes a long time for even this system to fulfill its potential.  One such subject — close to my heart — is the life of John Vance Cheney (1848-1922), a poet and librarian and the subject of my ongoing thesis.  He already had a Wikipedia page a long time before I settled on him as a subject of historical inquiry, but it was slight (a stub, in Wiki nomenclature), and had a noteworthy error that shortened his influential tenure at the Newberry Library in Chicago by ten years.

That was the first element I corrected — some weeks ago — and in the last day I’ve revised and expanded his page in a couple more ways and added him to the category “American Librarians”.  However, in so doing, I was very wary of not crossing the “original research” line that Wikipedia insists upon; I only used information available in a published biographical entry on his life (a source I added as a citation to the page), rather than the more extensive information I have in my research that cannot be easily cited.

My edits (four) appear as “dsronline” on February 19th in the 0:00 hour (though it was the 18th Pacific Time).

Re-syndicating Sylvanus

February 11, 2009 - 11:39 pm

In 1731 an Englishman by the name of Edward Cave devised a new business model. It was, at the time, a wholly original idea, most likely born out of his experience working in the London Post Office. He took selected articles printed in books and newspapers — which by then were an old idea, having been around for six score years — and repackaged them into a bound set of pages and advertised them for home delivery via the post. Since Cave saw his enterprise as a “storehouse” of articles and poetry relevant to the educated man of his day, he used a synonym for storehouse in naming his publication — The Gentleman’s Magazine.

His endeavor was successful. In time, Cave — publishing under the more literary pen name “Sylvanus Urban” — collected a stable of writers who would submit original work as well. An industry — and a new meaning for a word, now more widely used than the original — was born. The Gentleman’s Magazine is widely referenced as the first periodical magazine (Bond, pgs. 85-86).

It was also, in many ways, the first RSS Feed Reader. After all, Cave was taking articles, essays and poems you might find elsewhere and collecting them in one place — and delivering them to your door. Sure, 268 years may have passed between the first issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine and the invention of RSS Feeds by Netscape in 1999 (Farkas, pg. 50), but the idea remains unchanged, only modified by the technology available in this day and age. The Reader is a magazine, custom tailored by each individual “subscriber”.

And a powerful technology it is. It is one of the primary engines of the internet, feeding content into countless aggregators and custom pages (such as My Yahoo! or Google News). Web-surfers browse across RSS Feeds daily without even knowing it.

My first witting foray in RSS Feeds was the use of Google Reader. It was one of many tabs on the top of my gmail page that I never used, until I saw a friend reference it in her blog. Using Google Reader was easy and immediately appealing, as I had about thirty blogs already bookmarked. I simply cut and pasted the relevant URLs into the Google Reader, and voilà, the blogs came to me whenever they were updated.

However, the “power” comes in the form of slicing and dicing the information as desired. If I subscribe to a newspaper, I receive (and pay for) the whole thing. What if I only read the sports section, the comics, and the letters to the editor?  Can I pay less, and only get those pages? No. But with an RSS Reader, I can do the equivalent.  I can subscribe to a search string on a specific aggregator; I can subscribe to a folksonomic tag on flickr.

Meredith Farkas lays out a number of methods libraries can harness this tool to better serve patrons. A few of her examples:

RSS feeds are an old idea reinvented; a new technology mimicking a centuries old concept. What worked to make Edward Cave a fortune now makes the internet hum. Learning to use these tools — both as an individual pursuing information, and as an information professional looking to share it — is vital. The Gentleman’s Magazine may have ceased publishing in 1907, but it had a good long run — and so will Really Simple Syndication.


Bond, D.F. (1940). Review: The Gentleman’s Magazine. Modern Philology 38 (1), pg. 85-100.

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

Moving movable type

February 4, 2009 - 5:14 pm

The established barriers of the modern publishing industry did not exist in the early days of printing. Nowadays, a novelist has little or no say in the jacket design or typeface — that’s left to the marketing team, who hire graphic artists, typesetters, and other subcontracters to perform the tasks. Infamously, many cover artists haven’t even read the book they are designing for, leading to some oddly innappropriate covers.

Amongst early printers, that wasn’t always the case. The workshops of the Estienne Family, a Parisian print house, were notable for the involvement of their authors.  Charles Estienne, a doctor and brother to master printer Henri, not only wrote books for publication, he personally carved the woodcut images to accompany the text. For example, he published one book on all the known fish of the world, and personally set the typeface and illustrated it:

Oronce Finé, a French astronomer and mathematician not only drew the woodcut print illustrations that accompanied his books (among them the influential work De Mundi Sphaera), he also designed the typeface.

Now, it’s certainly the case that with ready-made blogger, WordPress and LiveJournal templates anyone who “can type a sentence…can probably use a blog” (Farkas, pg. 12). But in many ways we find ourselves back in Estienne’s workshop, with the opportunity to tinker with the typography ourselves. A dedicated blogger isn’t merely a writer; they need to develop an eye for graphic design, choose a look from amongst a slew of templates, tweak the designs to their liking, or develop their own. They need to pay attention to things like column width, consider links, directories, archives, trackbacks, etc. It goes well beyond writing. While many contemporary published authors are no doubt relieved to leave such technical details in the hands of professionals, the amateur blogger has more leeway — and there is a certain democratizing beauty to that.

The Elements of a Successful Blog

What is success? How can it be defined?

Meredith Farkas’ book, Social Software in Libraries, makes the point that the term “blog” is used to describe completely different uses. For example, the Becker-Posner Blog (the joint project of a federal judge and award winning economist) and a “blog written by a teenage girl about her personal life” both qualify (Farkas, pgs. 11-12). The goal of one and the other are vastly different; the number of readers, the nature of comments (or if comments are even allowed), the content provided. So when we talk about blogging, we’re really talking about a set of technology tools, not a style of writing.

Farkas describes a number of the usual elements: archives of past posts by date or category; dated, timestamped entries; permalinks to individual posts; reverse-chronological postings (the most recent post at the top); and a two- or three-column format. Some blogs encourage comments, provide search features, or trackbacks to allow the administrator to find links to his or her post (Farkas, 11-13). A number of these features are included as standard options on popular services like blogger, Wordpress or LiveJournal.

Farkas divides blogs into three categories: filters, personal journals, and knowledge logs, but I believe just three categories is inadequate for the range of what can be found — even just within the “biblioblogosphere”. But for now, let’s accept this definition of a blog and move on to the question at hand: success.

Measuring Success

When my wife and I created our baby blog, our goal was to post periodic updates on her pregnancy and childbirth and the life of our daughter. We wanted our immediate friends and family to know how we were doing as a family, and create a chronicle of her life in the process. Two and a half years on, we don’t have more than 20-30 readers per week. Each post generally garners between 2-5 comments. But for us, that is success! We look back on old posts to reminisce. Family members will mention in conversation things they saw on our blog, or save some of the photos we post. That blog has achieved its goals.

Any blogger starting out should contemplate their goals and vision for their blog: are they trying to relay information, develop a community, make a profit, or write a memoir? How many readers make it successful? Is it for friends and family, or do you hope to shape a professional field? Only with these answers in hand can you set about meeting your goals.

Achieving Success

There are plenty of sites that will tell you what to do or not do with your blog. Raj Dash’s post “41 Reasons Your Blog Probably Sucks” is focused on blogging for profit and suggests you stay away from the overly personal*. In contrast, Write to Done’s “12 Essential Blogging Tips” kicks off with “write from the heart”, telling the writer to use personal examples in their writing. What to make of this?

*As an aside, I found Dash’s blog, Performancing, a marvel of poor visual design that breaks at least several of his 41 rules. Well, I guess design is a subjective thing.

Here are my own subjective suggestions, culled from their lists and from others:

  • Keep it interesting by using a thematic connection (even as format and subject varies).
  • Make it personal — without navel-gazing.
  • Post regularly.
  • Provide links to useful or interesting sites or information.
  • If you want a wide audience, promote, promote, promote.

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

Printing Press 2.0

February 3, 2009 - 9:44 pm

There are few analogies more overplayed than the “internet-is-the-new-printing-press” metaphor. But there is a reason for its popularity.

A slim recap of the history: the advent of the printing press is widely credited as one of the most profound shifts in all history, not just the history of information.  Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith, developed a movable type press that within a generation or two had largely replaced the centuries old tradition of hand-scribed codices.

The earliest books, or incunabula, were designed to look like handwritten books: typefaces resembled the calligraphic curves of monks and scriveners, and featured large, hand-colored “rubricated” letters to signal paragraph shifts. In time printers began to shift away from the traditions of hand-written books — traditions simply uneccessary in printed books — and started to develop simpler, easier to read typefaces and layouts. This made printing less expensive, more replicable, and soon presses existed in every major European city. In addition to German printers, the Venetian and Parisian press had substantial influences (the term italic is derived from an obvious source … Italy).

Books and other printed materials exploded in production and popularity, and literacy began to rise as a result. The course of history, faith (the press played a major role in the Reformation) and industry all changed, and centuries later the notions of the free press and pamphleteers would be essential to the birth of democracy. A direct line can be drawn.

It is quite obvious — more now than ever — that the internet is not merely a medium for words or even just information. It is a mechanism for communication, for commerce, distribution — there is at least some form of every intellectual human activity represented in online technology. Just as the domino effect of the printing press altered world history, so to has the internet.


We each have a Johannes Gutenberg waiting at the tips of our fingers. Anyone can create a blog or simple webpage using free, online tools with little to no knowledge or undertstanding of HTML or programming language. Because of cloud computing, a computerless person can sign-up for a blog at an internet terminal in the San Francisco Public Library, then post and publish from a beachside internet café while traveling in Koh Lanta. A password is all they would need to pack.

For the initiate blogger, there are a few competing services that offer one-click publishing. Here are three of the most popular:

  • Google’s blogger — free and easy-to-use, blogger offers a couple dozen templates (although html savvy users can design their own or tweak the basic models). Anyone with a google account (such as gmail) already has a blogger login.
  • San Francisco-based LiveJournal operates on a platform called “Movable Type” (a tip of the cap, of course, to Herr Gutenberg and his movable type printing press). LiveJournal stands out for its excellent friends or “flist”  feature that promotes community blogging. A user can cultivate a group of friends, and by clicking on their “friends” button, read an automated RSS feed of all of their friends’ blogs from within their own blog’s template.
  • WordPress differs from these two competitors in that, like the Firefox internet browser, it is developed with Open Source, not proprietary, software. The WordPress user has two options: using to host their blog and accept some limitations on the software and usage, or go to and download the software and host it via a third party. The differences are explained here.

The Pinakes is part of an educational project and therefore hosted by the San José State’s School of Library and Information Science. It was designed using technology.

Using the downloadable WordPress service confers some definite advantages over the offerings: hundreds more highly customizable templates, plugins and extensions that allow for a more powerful, robust website or blog. For instance, The Pinakes makes use of the Sun City theme, not available on

I chose Sun City because the distinctive header echoes the transitional arc of civilization I hope to invoke in the blog — discussing “papyrus to pdf”. I also appreciate the dark contrasting colors and bold design.  Hundreds of templates are free to browse at’s theme directory. Once a theme is downloaded from WordPress and uploaded to your server, you can switch one in and another out with a few simple clicks — though some themes support features that others don’t, so be wary if you’re trying this yourself.

Take a look at what The Pinakes might look like under different skins: Less is Less, Random Background, or WordPress Classic.


Publishing? Via blogger, LiveJournal or Wordpress it is relatively easy. Gutenberg’s ghost is satisfied. The true challenge in blogging is dissemination. Sure — anyone can look at your blog, but will they? Amidst the clutter and noise of five million blogs (Farkas, pg. 11) and assorted websites, who will read your offerings? The majority of search engine queries are one word long. Is there any one word that will lead a reader to your blog off of a search engine? Unlikely.

So the real trick isn’t getting “published”. It’s getting noticed. Every blog has its own target audience — not everyone is angling for thousands of readers — but even then your niché can be hard to find. If search engines aren’t the answer, promotion is. A push. Developing buzz. To experiment with the “buzz” tools of the day, I’ve installed the Sociable Plugin. This is a tool that creates a set of buttons at the bottom of each post’s page that allows a reader to import that post or page into facebook, delicious or other networking websites seamlessly (for instance, anything I post on facebook is immediately exposed to 209 other people.  What happens if 2-3 of them post it as well?). The so-called “viral marketing” that can result from an endless chain of individuals forwarding a link (at no cost to the original source) is the holy grail of online promotions.

To install Sociable, I downloaded the plugin from the WordPress site and, much like the templates, uploaded it through SJSU’s Senna server. Now my task is to write posts that inspire you to share them.

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

A Long Way from Babel

January 30, 2009 - 12:21 pm

The moving picture has an enormous power to communicate beyond the mere word, spoken or written. The versatility of the power to combine motion, image, sound, and music has long since exceeded the vision of the Lumière Brothers. One of the most ballyhooed — and profitable — shifts in internet technology was the debut of YouTube and its countless imitators. These services make the sharing of short videos quick and easy for the tech savvy and novice alike.

The following video, available on YouTube, demonstrates that ably: it is a promotional video for the Bibliotheek Amsterdam, the modern public library in the heart of Holland’s greatest city. While the voice-over is entirely in Dutch, the graphic design and editorial choices made by the director makes it easy for any non-speaker to follow — film transcending language. I knew and understood what the video presented without understanding any of the narration. It is a triumph of design.

The video makes clear that the Bibliotheek Amsterdam is a forward-thinking library, ready to use the tools of the 21st century to provide better service to their users. It demonstrates the online tools provided by the library and its slick, modernist website — which is, incidentally, available in both Dutch and English.

A Reading Room

January 30, 2009 - 2:48 am

While this blog will largely be devoted to technology, it is always worthwhile to look at the past: there is both beauty and wisdom in the old ideas of our great institutions.

One of my favorite aspects of historic libraries is the grand, classical reading room with its soaring ceilings and walls clad in books. Few modern libraries have a public space so monumental, and so wholly devoted to quiet scholarship. The reader is impressed by his or her surroundings; it elevates their condition. I took this picture in the reading room of the New York Public Library:

Locally, I recommend the Doe Library’s Reference Reading Room, on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, for similar grandeur. Would you nominate any other grand spaces?