on casual research and a 2012 wrap-up

Happy New Year! (LOC)

My year-end 2012 was pretty mellow. I’ve been doing the same technology instruction and teaching at the vocational high school and the occasional local library fill-in shift. I’ve gotten more active in VLA and in the new Rural Librarians Unite group. I had a very busy April-June speaking season which I enjoyed and didn’t do any solo talks after June. I’m upping my rates for 2013 which may seem counterintuitive. I’d like to continue to do public speaking but do fewer events (or more local events that I do for free or cheap) for the same general income. The end of the year was a quiet time to reflect on the value of the work that I do and the work that others do in getting the word out about library technology and technology culture. And there were many people having discussions about the value of libraries, and whether we (or the media) are even asking the right questions. I read these posts with interest.

A lot of questions at the end of 2012 and we’re working towards answers. I have a more hopeful feeling at this year end than I’ve had in a while. One of the things I’ve been doing a lot of these past few months is online research types of things. I was elected a local Justice of the Peace and started a “What is a Justice of the Peace” type of blog called For Great Justice and I posted daily from the time I got elected until January first. Turns out that this JP business isn’t that fascinating and so I had to dig deep into archives and/or special collections to find stuff that was notable and would interest me as well as modern-day Tumblr readers. And it was difficult, really difficult.

It sounds funny, but if there was ever a time that I was wishing for a Digital Public Library of America, these past few months have been it. Not so much because of all the other good reasons but because I would love some standardization of query languages, results formatting, rights statements and just general user experience when I am trying to find something in an online archive. I am aware that asking people to just do things differently does not work and is a crazy thing to request. I am not asking for that. But I am aware, more than usual, that leadership is needed if we want to make the United States’ cultural content accessible in some sort of aggregated fashion.

I am also aware that these archives have evolved organically and most of the time the people involved made mindful decisions about how they wanted things to work. Other times it’s clear that the archives had purchased off-the-shelf archiving software and made the barest of adjustments. People and libraries don’t have a lot of money or time and I get that. At the same time, trying to do a basic set of things

– search for the bound phrase “justice of the peace” (the individual words return too many non-relevant results)
– return results in a way that allow me to sort by relevance or other options
– at a speed where I could browse results and easily check out 10-15 results in 10-15 minutes (or more quickly, optimally)
– in a way that let me know the format of the items in my search results (jpg, pdf, text) and optimally limit by those formats
– in a way that I could know if the item I had searched for was available to be viewed or not
– with sufficient help files that if these things were possible, I could determine it on my own

These things were things I could almost never do. I wound up doing more searching in places like Google Books and Flickr Commons than in library archives even though the library archives often had more relevant content simply because I had limited time and a limited frustration level and I had to make some choice. I am a power searcher. If this is what I am doing, knowing it’s sub-optimal, what are our less power-searcher users doing?

So I’m back to wood shedding, reading and learning more about the digital divide and about how people learn technology and bringing forward my experiences with searching and not-finding to see if I can make something out of the experience that is helpful to other people. I wish everyone peace and joy in this bright new year.

Thanks to…

December is the wrap-up month around here. I’m still holding out hope that my booklist will gain another item or two, but I know I’m not doing any more public speaking in 2007 so I thought I’d do a wrap up and talk a little bit about behind the scenes stuff at librarian.net inc.

First of all, thanks to all the organizations that hosted me in 2007. This includes state and regional library associations like NELA, VLA, NSLA, NEASIS&T, ACURIL, ILN, LocLib and LARC. It also includes library systems that I came to do talks and workshops for, such as the University of Michigan, Halifax public libraries, Dodge City and Manhattan KS public libraries, a small group of New Hampshire libraries, and the State Library of South Australia. Lastly, I went to a few tech conferences like Computers in Libraries and Access 2007. Please forgive me for not linking to all of them, you can find more details as always on my Past Talks page. Some of these talks were paid gigs, some were gratis and allowed me to travel, some were supporting my local organizations, and some were all about spreading my ideas far and wide. Thanks to all these groups of librarians, technologists, administrators, and students for helping spread the word, whatever the word happens to be. Thanks to my day job for giving me the flexibility to do this much travelling.

One of the things that is challenging about my job teaching technology classes and working with local libraries is that the job pays terribly and it’s very very local. This means that I work with people who rely on me to use my big network to bring new ideas in and also to spread their stories and challenges to the larger world. I’m happy to get a chance to do that, and joyful that I’ve found a niche where I can be both local and global. Doing public speaking helps pay the bills a little but also allows me to do travelling that I could never do on my little local budget.

I also feel incredibly fortunate that for someone as technologically interested as I am I’ve been able to find an additional job really making a lot of my 2.0 interests live and breathe on the web. Being a community moderator at MetaFilter has been a full-time real paying job for me this year. Not only have I gotten to see Ask MetaFilter, our Q and A part of the site, become even more popular than the original linkblog part of the site, but I’ve also seen many librarians join and help people with their questions. I maintain a “last five questions on AskMe” sidebar to the web version of librarian.net, check it out if you’re interested.

With the site owner and two other employees, we’ve been able to use a lot of social tools to help people connect and share interests and get to know each other. This year alone we’ve added twitter, flickr and last.fm feeds to user profile pages, created an “also on” feature so that users can find MeFites on other social sites, and made our tagging system much more robust with the addition of a concerted backtagging effort. We’ve created resources that I’ve mentioned here such as the ReadMe wiki page for reading suggestions, the EatMe wiki page for food and cooking suggestions and a ShopMe section where users buying holiday gifts are encouraged to patronize the online shops of other MeFites.

I’m aware that a lot of this may just seem like frippery. However, I’ve spent a lot of time this year in between trips, in my Vermont fortress of solitude, thinking about what people want out of life and what I want out of life and how libraries do or do not meet those needs. Out here, I go to libraries for work and to get books and movies, but also to see people and have people see me. There’s a sense in which we don’t entirely exist, to me, unless our presence in the world has an impact, however small or however fleeting. Thursday I went to staff my usual drop-in time at the computer lab. My only student that day was a regular attendee who hadn’t been around in a while. She had been in my email class and I had helped her get her first email account. Her son, about my age, committed suicide in November. She had been home with her husband receiving a steady flow of well-wishers and co-grievers and casseroles. She was tired and she was sad but she wanted to leave the house and do something “normal” where people wouldn’t be clutching her arm saying “I’m SO sorry!” I had heard the news but hadn’t known what to say and as a result said nothing.

I’ve been dealing with my own melancholy thoughts lately and I haven’t had a lot of free cycles for other people, to my regret. So she came by, and we turned on the computer, and then just sat and talked in the lab for a few hours while the screen saver blinked at us. I think we both walked out the door feeling marginally better about our lives and the impending Wall of Holidays that I find difficult even in the very best of years.

So, thanks to you for reading this and for doing what you do, whatever you do, as well. Peace to you in the new year.