Posts from LIBR281

Just a quick clarifying update: the posts from January-May 2013 are from a WISE course I’m just finishing up, Transformative Learning and Technology Literacies, with Professor Michael Stephens. It’s been a great experience, and I’ll be working with him on an independent study over the summer to build a MOOC out of another course he teaches, the Hyperlinked Library.


Cool data sets

A lot of really neat government data is just around, waiting for people to do things with it.  People use it for apps that geolocate stuff, mashing one set of publicly available data with another; Needlebase (retiring in June) has some really fantastic sample databases that use public data, and it’s really fun to explore how that’s linked.

There are a couple fascinating datasets that have been released recently, or at least have been updated with a fascinating interface.  The 1940’s census data is all over library blogs (libraries – both public libraries and specialized genealogical libraries – are a very popular starting point for ancestry research), and has actually been experiencing access problems because of unexpected demand.  The interface is really pretty beautiful, and obviously I’ve looked up my grandparents’ families and imagined a little about what they were like at the time this census was taken.  The one drawback when exploring the data, though, is that you need to zero in by location rather than by name or any other kind of data point; I know this is the way the data is organized, but it makes it a little difficult to navigate.  Obviously the NYPL has done something about this and created a pathway using 1940’s telephone directories, which is pretty simple and brilliant.

There’s also the 2011 Federal Taxpayer Receipt, which calculates what your federal tax paid for in 2011 based on either your tax information or your estimated income.  I love the way they’ve designed this interface, and it really helps humanize the data to see what my personal contribution was.  I wish I could see the data as one big set, though, and I also wish a large percentage of it had not gone towards ongoing military operations, but I do appreciate the transparency this information represents.

What I Learned from Cat Videos

Every Friday, I send an email to a handful of my coworkers with links to a few animal videos I’ve come across during the week.  These are people who help find information for doctors and researchers in specialties like neurology or orthopaedics, and many of them are former nurses and have subject specialties of their own.  Cat videos are something almost anyone who is on the internet regularly might be able to claim as a specialty, so you wouldn’t think that there’s a lot to learn in “curating” a small collection of them to email out once a week.  But in thinking of them as a “yay it’s Friday” morale and relationship builder, I’ve learned a LOT from committing to sending these emails out and trying to make them as satisfying as possible.

First, don’t assume that since you probably know more about something you can anticipate what people who know less than you might want. Of the people who have expressed interest in this email, I am the only one with an un-orphaned Twitter account, and I believe I can safely assume the only one who might regularly check in on Buzzfeed, Reddit, Cute Overload or Cute Roulette, so I was pretty sure I had a handle on providing a cat video experience that would blow these people’s’ minds.  Maru was a big initial hit, but I experienced declining returns with other popular internet cats – keyboard cat, for instance, was a complete dud.  That’s when I stopped assuming I knew what was going to make someone’s Friday morning awesome and started asking.

As it turns out, only one recipient was a true cat person (weird for a library, I know) – other people had dogs or no pets at all, and weren’t interested in the cat-internet community.  So I branched out and started including other species – I try to include one cat video every other week because one person REALLY loves them, but also one dog video and one video of a more exotic species, which always ends up being a great “I didn’t know!” conversation topic (last week’s red panda video led to some research on whether red pandas are more closely related to pandas or raccoons [raccoons, although they haven’t been close in a very long time]).  I’ve also gotten very positive feedback about videos that include more than one species, so I try to mix it up a little that way too.

The other major realization for me has been about quantity and the time it takes to absorb it.  Animal videos are awesome, right?  So an email FULL of animals will be amazing!  Except someone sitting at the circulation desk trying to field walk-ins, telephone calls and whatever other desk tasks they’ve been assigned is not going to have time to watch half a dozen animal videos, even if they really want to.  In fact, one woman told me she forwarded it to her personal account and watched them over the weekend! The last thing I wanted was to inadvertently assign homework, so I knew I had to change my methods immediately; I limited myself to three links, two videos under two minutes and an image or slideshow.  When I learned that people were still struggling to figure out when in the day they would watch these videos, I started including notes about the media type – “3 minute video,” “8 slides” – along with the little blurbs I wrote about them.

So here’s my ultimate formula – three links.  Two videos of cats and/or dogs, bonus if they include other species (goats have been popular lately, and I recently had a special request for otters), one image or slideshow.  A little blurb about each, mentioning a specific recipient if there’s been a special request or we’ve developed some kind of inside joke, and a short description of the medium.  I’m happy to report today that everyone looked at/watched everything in the email and we all had quite a few laughs!  Here is today’s tiny collection:

It strikes me that 1. usefulness and 2. minimal content are both things we covered in my web design and information architecture course, and would be two of the first things I would be mindful of if I were designing a website or interface.  But I had to learn them all over again over cat videos!  The truth is, I think I thought I knew all I needed to know because I knew a lot about cat videos, but that had nothing to do with making my coworkers happy on Friday mornings.


Limping Goose

Every day at lunch I take a walk on the esplanade.  On sunny days, everyone’s happy, I get to pet a few dogs and watch the duck party, wave at a sailor or a gondolier, it’s great.  On cold days, though, everything takes on a weird poignance; I’m one of only a handful of people there, maybe one of the only people to ever notice or see certain things.   The marriage proposal written in chalk, for example:

Marriage proposal in chalk on the esplanade, 3/15/2012

Or some of the very first blooms:   Yesterday, it was a limping Canada goose.  I inherited what my grandmother calls my mother’s bleeding heart for animals by the side of the road, under bushes, in danger of being attacked by a hawk, you name it, so when I saw this goose limping I called Animal Care and Control, who I have on speed dial.  They forwarded me to the state wildlife line, who apparently knew exactly which goose I was talking about (“He’s been there for a couple weeks,” the guy said); then I was transferred to the lady who knew how to talk to someone who called up to ask them to help a limping goose.  The answer was “no,” but not in a sad/we-don’t-care way, in a we-know-what-we’re-doing-and-this-is-best way.  She explained that they’re federally protected animals (I forgot to ask why – I know they’re not endangered, but maybe they’re on federal land?  They’re such a pest that the federal government doesn’t want you to help them?   Unclear), that they’re very resilient (we both laughed), and VERY hard to catch (another laugh).  Basically, unless the goose is chasing people or looks ill to the point of contagious, they do nothing because after years of trying to find the right thing to do they’ve determined that doing nothing causes the least harm to the goose.   I was completely satisfied with this answer. What struck me was that after a little over half a semester in Evaluation of Information Services, I seem to have much more faith that an institution’s way of doing things has developed through methodological trial and error.  I’m always pretty likely to assume that the person who should know more actually does, but a year ago in this same situation I might have lost sleep that night, wringing my hands over the limping goose, but I didn’t.  I also was conscious of how much I appreciated this woman’s willingness to take a couple minutes to talk to me about why they weren’t going to do anything, and how much that little effort on her part meant to me.  I did thank her for that, which I think she thought was a little weird.

Boston Digital Humanities meetup: no bloodshed, just snacks

One of the things that has me excited to be an internet-extroverted know-it-all again is the Boston Digital Humanities (soon-to-be New England Digital Humanities, I believe) meetup I attended Tuesday.

There are a lot of digital humanities groups around, but the point Zach Davis made was that the Boston area has both the humanities resources and the technical skills to form a really powerful digital humanities community. Zach’s presentation was a great overview – for some people there it was a first introduction to digital humanities, and for some it was a review.

For me the most interesting part of the evening was listening to everyone their introduce themselves, what their interests are, and what interests them about the digital humanities conversation – a great moment of looking around and thinking “these are smart people and they are all so much more than their job descriptions.” Many of them qualified their introductions by mentioning that they didn’t think they belonged there, even though after they talked about themselves a little there was a rousing chorus proclaiming that they obviously did.

A fight did sort of brew around the issue of the influence of technology on culture, specifically younger generations; I maintain that it’s a perspective thing, and that if you look at technology from the right angle there’s incredible potential, much of it only being realized once it’s already being practiced. But, I understand that from another perspective, technology – specifically the occasional k-hole of internet content – might look destructive, or at least a frightening distraction. I think it depends on the looker’s definition of valuable interaction.

Rapportive: the Oracle of Plugins

Rapportive is my absolute favorite plug-in; it makes me feel like Batman from inside my email, totally certain that I’m a few steps ahead (even though at this point everyone I email probably also has it).  I’m excited that they’re celebrating being acquired by LinkedIn, and I just want to highlight one idea from the announcement that I think is relevant to anyone working with information technology:

When we founded Rapportive, we had one simple belief: we would build software that you don’t have to remember to use. Our software would be an intrinsic part of the tools you use every day. It would be there when you want it, and out of the way when you don’t.

This definitely echoes the librarian sentiment of meeting users where they are.  It feels especially relevant to me in working to make our link resolvers and our catalog (secondary, at this point, to the link resolvers) to try and create a seamless experience for our users. Not even close right now, but you have to shoot for something.

Well maybe I am!

After going to Sweden for a friend’s wedding last year and heading back to school, I took a hefty timeout from this blog and really from writing at all. I do still tweet, although I focus primarily on finding material for my library’s twitter feed (@MGHTreadwell).

I told myself that I felt like there was plenty already out there; that it was enough to keep up with it, I didn’t have to talk about it too because people were already saying what I would say better than I would say it (true).  And honestly, I’ve started keeping up with a lot more than just library blogs; I’ve become more interested in geek feminism and the discussion about women being silenced on the internet, as well as keeping up with the larger pictures of data management, information technology and the digital humanities. It’s funny that librarians, the people users turn to to help them manage information overload, end up buried under it themselves.

So I haven’t been checked out, just quiet; it’s the same in class. I used to be one of those inimitable chatterboxes with an opinion on everything, but now I sit there hoping I won’t get called on, which is strange considering that I’ve been more on top of my work this semester than any other.  I’m just not confident that I’ll be able to answer the question, even though I usually would have given the answer that ends up being right.

Part of me is nervous that I’m not working as hard to distinguish myself as my peers are, and that at some point that’s going to show.  But I think we probably all feel that way, and that’s never stopped me before – if anything, it’s made me work harder. Part of me is nervous that I’m too competitive, or that I’m not a good enough collaborator to really be able to produce anything worthwhile working with a group of smart people. I guess that sort of has yet to be tested, but I’ve worked harder at building relationships with people who are interesting, who are doing interesting things, and who have good style (they’re the easiest, because I can start there).  And there’s always part of me that’s going to be nervous about something, but it doesn’t explain the radio silence and the unwillingness to break it.

Then I looked at the date on my last blog post, and I realized that shortly after that I was told by someone  I admire that I was basically a know-it-all.  It wasn’t meant to silence me as a girl or to shut me down professionally, but it has had a huge influence on the way I see myself and my role in professional relationships.  Maybe I am a know-it-all, but being reserved to the point of timid is not helping me to be invested in my field. It’s not a quality I admire in my peers or the people I look up to, and I need to find a way to balance my tendency to get excited about ideas with my ability to listen without just retreating.