Suggested Features for LibraryH3lp & Ask-A-Librarian

I’ve been collecting some fantasies on improvements to the LibraryH3lp virtual reference service that we use for Ask-A-Librarian at NYU.  Here are some of my favorite ones (that I can recall) right now:

  • The most disappointing part of AAL right now: accidentally dropped chats, which suspend the patron & the librarian in mid-query.  If I could get any of the improvements on this list, this is the most important and relevant one.  Is there a way to automatically pop-out the chat windows of our users when they contact us?  Or offer a link that opens a new, distinct chat window in which the AAL service can take place?  It’s a consistent problem and certainly the most unfortunate.  I used to keep track of the number of unintentional drops (at least, insofar as they appear to be accidental) and, sad to say, it often came surprisingly close to the total number of completes. 😐 :S :#
  • Without citing specific numbers, I know that one of the most common queries posed to Ask-A-Librarian [AAL] via IM or Chat is information re: access hours to the library and various departments.  I wonder if there is a way to feature a more prominent FAQ that offers links to regularly-requested information on the AAL page.  Perhaps, it would even be possible to feature a dynamic list of topics, such that the most common or most recent questions would appear near the top of the list.  DISCLAIMER: I do not claim to be a programmer and have no idea how feasible this is; please indulge my imagination.
  • AAL is currently set up as a window or tab in my internet browser where I receive chats and SMS messages; in order to investigate a specific problem or discover certain information, it is necessary to jump to a different window/tab, and jump back to relay the new information.  This makes for an interruptive and frustrating experience, on both sides of the interaction, I imagine.  I would love to see a feature that offered simultaneous browsing & chatting, where I can browse the web and chat with AAL patrons at the same time.  Kind of like Facebook messenger, I imagine (but with much less threat of surveillance, obviously).  DISCLAIMER: Again, I know that I am clueless about how to propose creating this browser widget-plugin-javascript-thingy, or how to make it compatible with various internet browsers (although I imagine the best ones are the more “open-source friendly” Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome).  But can someone at least tell me what I should call this kind of hovering, multi-tasking software thingy?  A bookmarklet?  An application?  I feel like I shouldn’t have graduate library school without knowing this…
  • Speaking of social media, why not create Facebook and Twitter profile/page for NYU-AAL?  Although this would likely add alternate or extra queues to monitor, it also seems like it a good opportunity to regularly interact with users who prefer that medium, as well as publicly offering access to past interactions of the AAL service.  Notably, this information would no longer be anonymous, as it is in LibraryH3lp, but some users might forgo the need for anonymity to engage and save records of their questions.  The benefits of extending AAL to social media seem evident: publicly recording questions and displaying relevant answers, as well as cataloguing information resources for the benefit of anyone who may not be actively following along.
  • What is the sound of one librarian not talking?  A deadly, stupefying, enervating silence, and not in any way profound.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a LibraryH3lp radio feature, like HypeM or Pandora, that would play in the intervening silence and during ongoing chats, perhaps briefly muting whenever new chats come in to recenter your focus?  Or perhaps even better: a Zen soundscape with dripping water, knocking logs, and maybe even some birds or frogs?  I really enjoy some of the ambient soundscapes that OmWriter uses to facilitate concentration and focus…and maybe somewhere in the future, someone who knows members of Sigur Ròs will ask them to compose some epic, infinite loop that would make my regular AAL session into an even more stimulating experience. [:\o ya!/}
  • Every time a new message comes in to AAL, it activates that distinct and oh so disturbing “ping” noise that I can only roughly characterize as the sound that I’m about to be attacked by a nuclear submarine.  Plz Plz Plz #KillThePing!  For the sake of our sanity, let’s at least make a little less harsh.  Apple’s operating software is especially well-designed in this respect: think of the “bmp” noise that occurs when a notification window pops up or the humble “click” of the keyboard volume control.  Skype & Facebook have generally good notification sounds as well, and while it doesn’t matter what exactly we choose, we gotta find something that sounds less like being suddenly ambushed by R2-D2.



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Back at it: thoughts on truncated language, Socratic character-building, and poly-institutional librarian

I’m back at it.  The Socratic Librarian has returned for a Fall semester residency at NYU’s Bobst Library’s Ask-A-Librarian virtual reference service and wouldn’t you know it, I’ve found some new things to investigate.  See below for thoughts on truncation, character-building, and multi-institutional librarianship.

This is also a Truncate -- specif, a Flowr Xmas Cactus  -- in bloom...

This is also a Truncate — specif, a Flowr Xmas Cactus — in bloom…

I’M STARTING TO INTRODUCE A TRUNCATION SYSTEM: it’s loosely based around the idea that you can communicate whole words with only a few letters in the correct place, especially the 1st & Last letters.  Consider the following paragraph as a kind of example of the ability to read in between the characters:

Arocdnicg to rsceearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pcale. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit pobelrm. Tihs is buseace the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.


As this source suggests, this may not be a real area of research for linguists (or librarians for that matter) tho it does point to some interesting potentials for our ability to recognize these jumbled words as signs or indicators of some intended meaning, rather more ephemeral and intangible, than what would otherwise appear to be a set nonsense words.  For one thing, you need to provide at least some kind of internally coherent context.

So, for some examples, I’m using “yr” for your and “Qs” for questions and generally considering other potentially useful truncations.  The aim for truncated language seems especially useful in a position which demands something like “instant” communication thru the IM and SMS texting systems, and it might cohere with the whole vocabulary for words, emotions and ideas being currently being developed on Twitter.  (Incidentally, would it be interesting to consider an Ask-A-Librarian Twitter account?  Not sure if people have really started to opt for this as a primary mode of communication, but it does seem like people are establishing regular lines of communication via 140 character tweets…I think it would make sense to open a public line of communication in social media services as well, not unlike @NYULibraries).

Yeah, prob not the best image for the Socratic Librarian...

Yeah, prob not the best image for the Socratic Librarian…

THE SOCRATICE CHARACTER-BUILDING IS GOING relatively aimlessly and I’m just doing what feels natural in this medium.  I’m thoroughly enjoying my growth into the Socratic Librarian, though I believe there’s still room for improvement.  To highlight one thing from my time so far (~1 yr [found another one!]), I find that, for me, one of the best ways to guarantee a helpful and reassuring experience is to create a character with a generally pleasant demeanor: the Socratic Librarian is a friendly and curious person who aids you in yr quest fr knowledge.  I have been pleasantly surprised at the possibility of achieving a sense of excitement or approval that I receive from users on AAL, especially in moments when I feel as if we are unsuccessful at achieving the requested objective.  And that has turned out to be one of the biggest contributors to my sense of satisfaction on this job.  Even though we may be unsuccessful at resolving every question, the communication that comes out of our interaction may still produce a positive result, where the user and the librarian both have learned something they didn’t know.

In this, I think i differ from a pure Socratic character, who may convey a brash attitude of leading people into contradictions and cutting down arguments (like the archetype of obnoxious law school professor); by comparison, the Socratic Librarian thus far is a bit more affable, empathetic and constructive.

One of the most difficult parts of acting as a “gateway to knowledge” as it were, is explaining why I may not have the answers at hand. When it comes to information queries, librarians are the 1st ones to recognize how limited their ability to provide all the answers is.  So, in general, I tend to presume an empathetic position of ignorance in relating to the patron, asking the patron to relay their situation, trying not to assume that I know more about what is going on.  To me, this usually presents the patron as leading the interaction, and I am dependent upon their ability to understand me and achieve their objectives rather than evaluating their practice in terms of some information literacy standards.  And there is a fascinating paradox which often appears therein: how do we assume the role of teaching skills of information literacy without grading patrons based on their knowledge/ignorance of it?  Thoughts anyone? Comment below.

So, I’m going to continue to document this experiment as the Socratic Librarian, hopefully supplementing it with some simulated desk experiences in the Morgan Library of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where I’m currently residing.  (Not in the library, of course…though I’m sure the kind of dedication that Bobst Boy showed can give us all hope. ;))   I invite you to follow along.  I’m generally doing about 1 session /wk [and there’s another one!] and hope to keep things up to date here as well.

Ever in ignorant wisdom,


What a Network!

What a Network!

I’M ALSO DISCOVERING THE BENEFITS OF BEING OF A POLY-INSTITUTIONAL LIBRARIAN, being generally characterized by simultaneous affiliation and employment with several educational institutions.  In a way, it feels like the natural implication of late capitalism to librarians, as in other jobs, in which people are primarily being reclassified as ‘freelance’ workers.  Obviously, it’s an extremely insecure scenario for those people who would much like to “settle down” (i.e. find a job, nice apartment, get married, have kids, collect furniture, etc.), but I’m learning to activate my nomadic impulses in order to accommodate for it.

Having originated from that isolated rectangular region sometimes known as “The Blank Rectangle,” I have long felt the need to roam far and wide around the geographical world.  The virtual presence of Ask-A-Librarian seems to offer an amazing opportunity to explore that, even while providing service to a specific library.  As such, I’m exploring several affiliations and projects with other institutions, primarily the Anarchives, Revolutionary Games, and the Occupational Art School, for which I don’t get paid.  I’m often in the habit of taking on way more projects than I can handle at one time — but over the LONG term, I only imagine that the intersections and cross-pollination among various affinity groups would generate a diagram similar to the network above.  This will produce a resume that looks more broad than tightly focused, and in that way, I hope to teach me to be flexible enough to take on a diversity of tasks and actually expose me to opportunities for work that I otherwise might never encounter.  Feel free to check in and see how I am doing.

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Whose medium? Whose message? Ideology on the internet.

This post started off as a simple announcement. It was supposed to be about Memefactory deciding to write a book about the internet. It was supposed to be just to tell you to go support them on Kickstarter. That’s in here, but the more I thought about stuff, the more complicated things got. Stupid brain.

Kind of reminds you of the Anonymous logo, doesnt it?

YAY!  Memefactory is writing a book about the internet!  I’ve been waiting for this day for years(ish)!  Actually, I saw these fit to be tie-d guys about a year ago when they did a show at NYU.  Their presentation about internet memes was both hilarious and thought-provoking.  My mind was so provoked it forced me to ask questions.  I fought off this assault for as long as I could.  But it won, and it has now turned me into it’s slave and forced me to…(partial transcript: No, God no!  Please…don’t!  oh yes yes you’ll do it you know you’ve always wanted to…) start a blog.  That’s right.  I blame them.  And my stupid wonderful mind.

MemeFactory is a group of performance artists who use popular memes to talk about internet culture…or wait, is Memefactory is the performance itself?  Could it be both???  Well, whatever it is, it has helped illustrate some important implications for understanding the protocols and pastimes of people and their internet paraphernalia.  I think they could also do so for you.  FURTHERMORE, they are doing another Memefactory NYU this week, which I’ll be pumped to attend!  Here’s the facebook invite:  From what I can tell it’s free and open to the public — and yet it’s located at NYU, hmmm…  Memefactory is awesome!  Get a sample of last year’s show!  Come with me on Friday!

Anyway, like I said, they’ve decided to write a book distributing their message about why internet culture is important but also, apparently, “the internet’s message on why it’s important.”  Pause for semantic nerd-out: does the last portion mean “the internet’s message on why [internet culture is] important” or “why [the internet is] important.”  I might agree with the second question because clearly the internet thinks it is hot shit.  It’s got its own lingo.  It’s got its fancy new technology.  It can talk to its own audience.  I mean seriously, if the internet was a Saved by the Bell character, he’d be Zach Morris.

What did he do with that phone when he wasnt using it?

But seriously, there’s a rather difficult aspect of this whole “message” thing.  Let me put this as delicately as a LOLcat might…

can teh internetz has message????

I mean, does the internet or internet culture or even internet users as a whole have any kind of coherent “message”?  Memefactory clearly see themselves as torch-bearers for “internet culture” at large, but it still represents a particular message grasped by a particular group. (Though I would note that, it is the younger, hipper, sexier side to be on — I mean, it’s all about freedom and stuff, right, which generally speaking is cool in my opinion.)

Were so revolutionary, yeah!

To be sure, they believe that this message is ours in the sense of the we who are regular, ordinary, everyday internet users, all us anonymous nobodies out there just trying to capture our own bit of famo in this corporatist, statist, elitist media world.  I suppose the expectation is that, even if we don’t self-identify with this “we,” they are advocating on our behalf anyway, providing their own analysis of the proper forms of communication, the right balance of useful and useless uses for the internet.  But here Memefactory displays the fact that it represents a particular contingent of “internet culture,” an ideology that most definitely has particular goals and ideals, and one that probably does not represent all users everywhere.  But who are the others?  And is it a hard line?

To be clear, I do not doubt their earnestness here in trying to do well for most internet users.  But even the idea of transparency can be an effective message that conceals some underlying ideology (cf. Morgan Spurlock’s “The Greatest TED Talk Ever Sold”) and one that we may not always agree with.

Just think of the election claims of “Transparency and Open Government” made by President Obama.  But remind me…how did they respond to the Wikileaks state cables release?  Eh, not so well.  And remember Google’s motto, “don’t be evil”?  Even that can be subjected to the kind of critique that Siva Vaidhyanathan seems set to perform in “Be Evil: Does Corporate Responsibility Matter?”  (Here’s a taste from the ad: “Is corporate responsibility just a clever trick to gain a slight marketing advantage and defer state regulation?”)

The internet is not in a post-ideological environment where everyone lives in a world of more or less good, and the self-identifying we is much more complex than we really think.  We shouldn’t trick ourselves into believing in a simple Us (masses) v. Them (corporations, governments, evil geniuses, et al.) story about the internet either.  There may be a message in the medium, but whose message is it?  Yes, I have backed this project.  Yes I sympathize with them — I mean, Memefactory…and maybe some other people like “them” — but we can’t let this ideology of openness blind us to the idea that all openness is good, or even that supporting one kind of freedom is supporting all kinds of freedom.

Phew.  This post has been like a 2000 lb. leg-lift in disclosure.  Now, here’s a link to their Kickstarter page.  You should contribute!  For all of “our” sakes:

I am as strong as an internet Pat Robertson.

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Hey, Hack Library School – word to ya mutha!


YO YO YO YO just a short word to say, I am super-impressed with the folks today at HackLibSchool – who kickstarted a fresh new blog to “participate in the redefinitions of library school,” a topic that I am all about, even as I’m preppin myself to walk across that library school stage in May!

I got especially pumped not too long ago when I heard about this project starting up, and decided to apply for a chance to post as a guest or a friend or whatever you want.  Inspiration hit and I knocked it right out, a short order called

What is there to argue about in library science?  Well, how about everything….

Well not long after it arrived the post lit up and came alive!  A popular topic, yes that’s true, soliciting 31 comments — that’s right, S’UP FOOs!  (Okay, so maybe like 26 if you take out my responses, and maybe just 22 if you discount the LIS drink-em-up meeting plans…but it’s all gravy to me, baby.)

So I gotta give much props to the main libhackers (Micah, Heidi, Julia, Nicole, Britt, Lauren, Annie, and Zachary, REPRESENT!) and the many previous posts which cultivated a perfectly skillful fermentation for maximum buzz-production.

This one is wishing y’all luck in keeping it up — though I don’t feel like they much need it — and I’m hoping to be putting something else together to contribute to this most excellent discussion re: the greater purpose behind building a more critical engagement with the discipline and the work of librarianship!

HackLibSchool, you done good.  Word to ya mutha.

Alternatively, there’s this.

And yes I am living in Bed-Stuy…or should I say livin’ Bed-Stuy!

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Is profit still possible for media in the internet age?

the key word here seems to be "please"

So, The New York Times recently re-enacted its paywall for unlimited access to online content with Canada is the initial test subject for the moment and March 28 planned for the rest of the world.   Approximately seconds later, the blogosphere erupted, somewhat unsurprisingly with sufficiently snarky letters (An Open Letter From A Canadian To The New York Times, Eh? ) and workarounds via Twitter (@freeNYTimes) and bookmarklets.

Now, not to brag, but apparently I was one of the few lucky people to be offered “Free, Unlimited Access to” by Lincoln.  (It’s all on account of being a “frequent reader of” with “an uncommon interest in a wide variety of today’s most important topics.”  I was skeptical at first, but this uncommon interest lurking somewhere in my brain is not averse to employing fear tactics.)  But still it left me with a lingering question:

Is profit still possible for media in the internet age?

NY Times is a private, for-profit corporation, so it makes sense that they should want to make money somehow.  But I tend to sympathize with the idea that information/knowledge should be free.  We’re all still trying to figure out how teh internetz works in all this, but, until we do that, what’s a media company to do?

Image via Jon Radoff's Internet Wonderland

A collection of reader reactions to the newspaper paywalls by the Atlantic’s The Daily Dish has a few interesting thoughts, including this one about a donation system:

Why don’t newspapers actively court donations? I’d be happy to spend a non-trivial amount of money of my choosing in the hope of keeping the Guardian what it is. Maybe £50-£100 every year or so? Less than a subscription, freer than a paywall, more lucrative than ad-supported.

It sounds interesting to me and I wondered what others might think about this idea.  It sounds more like the kind of fundraising that libraries are mostly dependent on to support their services, though something tells me media companies wouldn’t want to be thought of as glorified, up-to-date libraries.  But it would certainly speak to the impulse behind Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want system for their release of “In Rainbows” back in 2007, which seems to be behind patron-based fundraising websites like Kroogi and Kickstarter.  Any other thoughts on this?

P.S. For all you who want a quick synopsis of the NYTimes expected paywall restrictions, here’s the details via

Access is cut off after 20 article views in a month; the three plans for non-print subscribers start at $15 a month. Home delivery subscribers will get full access to the site and the full content of certain apps; the Times has been a long-time believer in the concept of adding value to its expensive print subscriptions through bundles. Access to TimesSelect was included, for instance, as were earlier efforts to create additional revenue digitally. But the all-access pass doesn’t include everything; the e-edition and the premium crosswords online/apps are excluded. (Drat.)

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When will Watson be offering 24-hour reference service?

The other day, a classmate of mine brought up the question of whether Watson (the IBM computer who beat out our greatest champions of Jeopardy — because they were merely human) could become a replacement for reference librarians in my Emerging Web Technologies class the other day.  Part of the concern was also due to an article in the New York Times about the computer intelligence of Google’s search algorithm, which also mentioned the Watson victory, in which stated,

“Google can be thought of as a supercharged, automated reference librarian for the Web.”

This comment seems primed to stoke the ire of the ruthless librarian/library-loving internet hive mind.  (I’d rather not include any links to Steve Lohr’s contact information to facilitate the unleashing of its wrath — though I’m not sure that will stop it anyway.)  But there is still the lingering question, and one that I’m more ambivalent about than offended by:

When will Watson be offering 24-hour reference service at my library?

For our class, the answer was left pretty uncertain – the discussion suggested that AI computers could only mimic human thought and not replicate it, but still that computers were growing “smart” enough in some important sense to allow them to respond to simple answer-based queries in Google’s Reference Tools: things like performing calculations and unit-conversions, and even suggesting specific answers to important questions like “What is the population of Florida?” or “How tall is Justin Bieber?”

To be sure, these are still pretty simple questions and don’t engage all the critical and emotional faculties which the librarian has to respond to library patrons confusion about how to get what they are looking for, helping them try to remembering/figure out what it is, or offer a sympathetic ear to the frustrated patron.  These are important capacities, but I’m still not sure that this is reason to be skeptical about the idea that we could teach computers to think like humans or mimic human emotions to enough extent to handle much if not most of the queries that librarians receive at the reference desk.  Though i suppose I can think of some reasons not to be excited about computer-automated reference…


Sure, I hate computer-automated telephone support as much as the next human being.  But does this mean, as another classmate suggested, that we have a “puerile” sort of need to speak to a human librarian, even for the simplest questions?   After the sight of Watson’s victory, it seems like a sufficiently human-like computer could do just fine.  Or perhaps we can compromise on a pretty little replicant…?

P.S. For all who are interested in the discussion about Watson and artificial intelligence and whether computers can become like humans (or vice versa for that matter), there is an interview of Brian Christian with Jon Stewart on the The Daily Show: can’t figure out how to embed the video so the link is here.  He is the author of The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive.

I haven’t read it, and I’m not sure Jon did either, though it still sounds pretty interesting.  Anway, here’s a review from the Wall Street Journal by the British philosopher Julian Baggini, who referred to the book as “absorbing.”  And here’s a post by Stanley Fish in the NY Times Opinionator blog called “What Did Watson the Computer Do?” and the follow-up by Sean Dorrence Kelly and Hubert Dreyfus called “Watson Still Can’t Think.”

P.P.S. I wish I could embed this much more entertaining video about Watson brought to you by IBM and…alas, my WordPress skills fail me again.

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published on gnovis!

I just published my latest post “Issues with inevitability in info tech discourse” in a slightly better-edited form on the blog for gnovis, a really interesting peer-reviewed journal and academic blog run by graduate students in the Communication, Culture, and Technology program at Georgetown University.  Check it out here!

(Also, a previous posts I made about Tumblr was also picked up by them.  No changes there.)

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