Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The flood, the library building, and library services

Thanks to everyone who sent notes of encouragement and offers of help. They are most appreciated.

The flood: The flood was caused by a water main connection break at the new construction. The water poured in through construction-related holes in the foundation, bringing clean water (not sewage) and mud into the lower level of building.

The building: The Art Gallery, which was being used for storage during the construction, is about 6 feet lower than the rest of the lower floor. Water reached nearly to the tops of the shelving in the Art Gallery, soaking everything in storage. The water levels did not reach as high on the main part of the level, but still reached the lower shelves. Everything on the level was affected, if not by the actual flood then by the high humidity afterwards. Everything is being treated by Document Reprocessors or an art restoration company. Everything except the art should start coming back to us in about a month, at which point we will decide if it is usable (as opposed to salvageable, since they aren't exactly the same thing.)

Staff who had office and work space on the lower level have been accommodated on the first and second floors.

Services: Everything that was on the lower level of the building is inaccessible until the processing and cleaning is finished. That includes print journals, microfilm, SCSU theses, the Juvenile (children's fiction), Oversized, and GovDoc collections, plus everything marked Closed Stacks or Storage in CONSULS. Most Government Documents had been reclassified into the STACKS collection, and those are fine, but a few were still in the old collection. As current journal issues and newspapers come in, they will be housed on the first floor and be completely accessible.

This will not affect distance services very much. Distance students can request photocopies of materials in our collections--those journal requests will simply be filled via Interlibrary Loan instead of photocopied from our own journals. I don't believe we have ever had a book request for something in storage from a distance student, since books in storage were all older and rarely used volumes. Again, any requests of that sort will be handled through Interlibrary Loan, possibly by getting tables of contents and indexes so we can send photocopies of appropriate pages. You might have to wait a little longer, so be sure to request things early.

Distance students will probably benefit from some increased electronic access. We will be getting some trial access to a few new databases to help cover the gaps. I will cover any new databases in future posts.

Again, thanks to all for the thoughts and words of encouragement.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Library closed--Water main break!

Last night at about 2 am we had a water main break at the library. The building is closed today and possibly tomorrow (which would be a short day, and Thursday starts the Thanksgiving break, see Library Hours). No news of damages yet (update: see below).

I will be online on and off the computer today, so if you need assistance, feel free to email me or check the Contact page to see if I'm available for IM/chat.

I will post updates as I hear the news.

Update: The library will be closed Wednesday, Nov. 22 as well. The lower level (periodicals, microfilm, storage, and some staff offices) was flooded. About 55,000 books, plus microfilm, periodicals, and artwork are going to Document Reprocessors (I think this is the right company) for freeze drying. A month is the estimated recovery time.

We are still scheduled to be open this weekend, but only if the drying and air testing is satisfactory. Check the SCSU website or call the SNOWline (392-7668) for more info.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Collaboration using Google Docs

I recently had the opportunity to collaborate on an article with colleagues from around the world. The standard way to collaborate on a writing project these days is to email the draft back and forth among the participants. This works pretty well with 2 or 3 people, but it starts getting confusing very quickly with more. Two (or more) people make changes and email the draft out, suddenly you've got multiple versions, and no one is sure what happened to that paragraph someone stuck in--was it in Joe's version or Kim's update?

I decided to try Google Docs. When Google bought Writely, an online word processing program, they integrated it into their services and finally combined it with their existing online spreadsheet program to produce the Google Docs & Spreadsheet service. Writely had already a collaboration system (based on email logins), and Google just added the Google service login. Since our group was already using a Google Group to communicate, using some of Google other services was an obvious choice.

An online word processor is a word processor that exists on a web server rather than on your local computer harddrive. There are a number of them, most notably Writely, now Google Docs, Zoho Writer (and a whole suite of related services), and ThinkFree Office Suite. (Feel free to add more in the comments.) You can usually upload Word and other word processing documents (.txt, .rtf, sometimes Open Office and Word Perfect files), or create a new document online. All the basic word processing features are available (fonts, colors, outlining, inserting pictures, etc.) The files can be saved to the web server, so they are available to you whenever, and from wherever, you log in. You can also save the files in many of the standard formats, usually Word .doc, .rtf, .txt, PDF and HTML, and often Open Office formats. Formatting usually transfers properly in the saved files, though I have found that margins are usually thinner than "normal". Most services have options for publishing the documents online, either to a separate website, like a blog, or on the server itself, as an ordinary webpage. You can also collaborate with others, needing only an email address for registration with the service.

We did have a few hangups. Once the document is online (either created or uploaded), you add collaborators (maybe not the best term--at least for those who have studied history) by sending them emails. People must log in using the *exact* email address used for the invitation. That was our first hurdle. Sometimes the "reply" address on emails is not the exact address, because of proxies or other technical slips. Sometimes people have (sometimes inadvertently) set up a system they are logging to the Google services under a different name than they use for general communication. Anyway, once we had gotten the email addresses straight, everyone could log in and look at the document online.

Google Docs has a nice feature that shows you who is editing the document at the same time as you are logged in (or technically, who is viewing the document.) That way, if several of you are online at once, you know that maybe this isn't the best time for your own edits! You could also communicate using instant messaging, while actively editing.

Another great feature, which is very common in online collaborative software, is version histories. As people edit and save the document, old versions are archived. You can go back and review previous versions with a click of a button. This is identical to the "history" functions in wikis, such as Wikipedia. Each version clearly indicates the changes and the authors of those changes. Just as in wikis, you can revert to an older version as well. This saved us, when one person accidentally deleted our whole article. It just took a minute to go back through the versions to the last one that had the whole text and call that one back up. Had the person who had the problem been more familiar with the system, the rest of us would never have known there had been an accident. As it was, we had a few frantic emails before I was able to go back in and fix it.

We didn't need it, but there is also a "compare versions" feature, which shows you exactly what the differences are. That could have been really useful if several people had been editing the same paragraph, for instance, and couldn't decide which version they liked best.

When it came time to submit the article, I just downloaded a Word version of the file, checked the formatting and emailed it off to the editor. I did have a little trouble with opening the files on my Macintosh, but I don't have MS Office for Mac on my computer, so I'm not sure if that was the problem. I haven't previously had problems with opening the files on my PC at work. It was quite easy, however, to simply copy the text (and pictures) from the website to the word processor.

Given the ease of use, I now use online word processing for a lot of my text writing, especially since I spend so much time connected to the Internet. I hope that the next step will be a downloadable program that will automatically synchronize with the online server, so that it's easy to work offline as well. Right now, it's easy enough to download the current version to your computer, but you have to cut and paste to update the online version later on. At this point, I don't think I'll ever pay for a personal office suite again (between the online stuff and Open Office/NeoOffice, I'm fine for everything I do outside of work), but I'd probably be willing to pay (a reasonable amount, anyway) for the downloadable synchronizing system.

I encourage people to try these services out, even if you aren't collaborating on a project right now. If you ever work on more than one Internet connected computer, you will find that having the files on a web server is really handy. And you won't have the "corrupted disk" problem! (Though you do trade it for the "inaccessible server" problem, so it's still best to back everything up regularly.) These systems will likely become more and more common. The LA Public Library decided to go with the Thinkfree Office Suite for it's employee and public access computers.

Do remember, however, that your data is on someone else's server. You should keep regular backups, and be careful with sensitive information. (I doubt the CIA will be using Google Docs anytime soon.) And there is nothing to stop Google from browsing your files and delivering tailored advertising in the same way that they do for Google Mail. If this sort of thing makes you nervous, this is not the service to try, or you should try it only on a very superficial level. However, if you are comfortable with the possibility that a company will have the same access to your files as your ISP or workplace does to your email, you should be fine.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Refworks' RefGrab-It

Refworks ( has unveiled a new tool for collecting online citations into your Refworks library. RefGrab-It is a browser bookmarklet that collects information from a webpage for import into Refworks. It is currently available for Internet Explorer and Firefox on Windows, and Firefox and Netscape on Macs.

First you have to install the RefGrab-It link. Login to Refworks, go to Tools, and select RefGrab-It, or go directly to the Refworks bookmarklet page. Drag the appropriate bookmark, by operating system and browser, to your Links or Bookmark toolbar in your browser, or right-click and Save to Favorites/Bookmarks. Now go off to some interesting page and click the link in your toolbar or Favorites/Bookmarks list. From all webpages, Refworks will extract the URL and the Title for import. However, if the page has recognizable bibliographic information, you will see some additional tabs on the import page. ISBN's will bring up book information, DOI's article info, etc. A page with an RSS feed will bring up a link for citing an individual entry. You can choose any or all of the possibilities to import. Once the import is complete, you can edit the record as you would any Refworks entry, adding, for instance, an author and the accessed date to a webpage.

(Remember that Refworks entries are only as good as the data fed into them, so plan to review all your imported references carefully. Playing with the Record Type is helpful: for instance, there are differences in the way a WebPage, a Generic electronic source, and a Journal, Electronic are handled, which may or may not be appropriate for your particular source. You may have to do minor editing of the citation output as well. For instance, Refworks does not handle proper name capitalization in titles very well.)

Another new feature is the ability to turn off the look up feature that was introduced in the last update. The look up feature, called Term Assistant, is a pop up that allows you to find terms you have already used, such as author names. While it could be very useful for some projects, I find it annoying. Since my records do not have many common authors or journal names, the popup just gets in the way. I was happy to turn it off.

For the SCSU community: If you aren't currently using Refworks, contact me for information on setting up your account through Southern.