Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Doing something

What happened at Virginia Tech is horrifying. When confronted with a tragic event, we often feel like there is nothing we can do. One method of therapy is to get out there and do something.

Since I'm a librarian, the first thing that comes to mind is a list of resources on trauma and grieving. It won't be complete or comprehensive, but I hope this helps someone.

First is SCSU's Counseling Services. Most colleges and universities have some sort of counseling program, and people should not be shy about taking advantage of them. They can also given referrals to local services for things that they aren't equipped to handle. Many programs have excellent advice on their websites, as well, like Coping with Trauma. I should also mention that campus police services on many campuses have programs ranging from self defense to bioterrorism drills. SCSU's University Police has this advice for dealing with a "Hostile Person Incident".

Second would be federal resources. In the US, we have the National Institutes of Mental Health and the National Mental Health Information Center. NIMH (yes, as in the rats) has a guide to Coping with Traumatic Events. NMHIC has Coping with Traumatic Events Related Links, covering a wide range of circumstances and needs. Other governments have similar agencies, often under the auspices of the military (war-related post traumatic stress disorder has been the starting point for much stress and trauma related research.)

There are a wide range of non-governmental sites with information on trauma and grieving. The American Psychological Association covers Managing Traumatic Stress. HelpGuide.org has information on emotional trauma and grieving. Many organizations set up sites on trauma after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Not all the links will be appropriate, or still active, but the resources should be similar to those needed now.

There are few general university-level programs, like Security On Campus. This site is more about individual crimes (specifically rape) but has good general advice like the Security Tips. Most programs that specifically deal with colleges and universities are aimed at a specific campus. The American Psychological Association has Tips for College and University Students: Managing Your Distress in the Aftermath of the Virginia Tech Shootings.

If you are dealing with children upset by the tragedy (or upset because you and the other adults around them are upset), you might want to check out the National Child Traumatic Stress Network . I wish more media outlets would read Child Sensitive Media Coverage of Trauma and Tragedy: the pictures, including on the front page of our local paper, have been ugly. Our Education Librarian, June Cheng, has more resources on her School Counseling Research Guide.

Above all, we, as human beings, look for community during times of stress. Take advantage of any local resources, whether they be your friends and family, religious organizations, social clubs, or community gatherings to talk, grieve, and just be together.

I hope this helps someone; at least I feel like I'm "Doing Something".

Electronic Reserves

We just got word that we are having problems with electronic reserves. So, if you can't get into a reserve article, it's not you!

I expect this will be fixed shortly, but if an assignment is pending, students should contact their professors. Faculty may be able to upload articles to WebCT if necessary. Also most electronic reserves are also available in print here in the library for those who can visit.

I'll update with more information as I get it.

Update (AM, 4/18): All back to normal now. No hard info on what happened, but it seems to be a software glitch of some sort.

Bad Toolbars?

A number of libraries have built toolbars for the Firefox web browser that specifically search their catalogs, databases, etc. The Effective Brand/Conduit toolbar generator is a popular option for this. Essentially, you use their structure and add your particular search address(es) to it. Voila! Instant toolbar ready for user downloads.

Unfortunately, it may not be that simple. According to a forum post at Mozilla, these toolbars may not be as simple, or as benevolent, as they seem. According to this post, user information is collected and sent to the Conduit servers. Users are not informed, and it is likely that the library "authors" of the toolbars are also unaware of it.

I don't know how accurate this is or whether there is something that the library creators of these toolbars can do. I haven't seen anything in the forum replies that negates the basic premise of the post. I almost created a similar toolbar when I first heard about Effective Brands. I was unable to get onto their site at the time (I think they were changing over to the Conduit name and servers). I never went back to the idea.

I would be interested in hearing from anyone who is using one of these library specific toolbars. Are you aware of any user data being collected? Is there information to that extent during the toolbar creation process? (If you use a toolbar from your local library, you may want to ask the library about it. Point them to this post or the Mozilla forum post for reference.)

(By the way, folks, I'm sure that a post like this is likely to generate lots of "this is the best thing since sliced bread" comments. I'm considering these to be advertising. I'm not interested in how great your library toolbar is--the concept is great and I'm sure all the toolbars are useful. Something can serve a good purpose using a bad method. I'm concerned about the data collection, so comments that are just "gosh-wow" or links to toolbar sites will be deleted.)

Update: Conduit CEO Ronen Shilo sent this link to their privacy policy: http://www.conduit.com/privacy/ConduitPrivacy.aspx and says that they have had no complaints from their publishers. According to the policy, "Firefox Toolbar users are allowed to disable statistical data transfer at any time. "

Thursday, April 12, 2007

"How Google Books is changing academic research"

Jo Guldi is a Ph.D. candidate in California looking for information on roads in the 18th and 19th centuries. She had, in proper library research fashion, explored the contents of the Yale, Harvard, and British Libraries, California libraries, and ultimately the contents of a large number of North American libraries via interlibrary loan.

Then she stumbled upon Google Books. And turned up 20 new sources related to her research in a single search. That's 20 new sources, sources which she had no idea existed from her library research.

How did this happen? I see two major contributions, one fairly trivial, one major. The trivial one was her search. According to her blog post, she did a search for "roads", a single keyword across the vast collection of Google Books. While she doesn't say so, you can easily limit your search to fully available sources, which generally means out of copyright--mostly pre-1920 or so. This limits the search to works that are most likely to be of use to her, 19th century texts, since those are both out of copyright and in good enough shape to be scanned. In short, she was lucky, and lucky with a search that few librarians would have recommended in a non-subject specific index. (Confession: I actually do these sort of searches in general databases occasionally. When you are having trouble, sometimes it's worth doing single keyword searches to see if one particular keyword is limiting your search too much. At least you get a sense of the extent of the universe in which your more complex searches are operating.)

However, I don't think that is the real message of her search. Google Books also searches the full text of the books (both in and out of copyright). No library catalog can do that. And, as librarians know all too well, there is no way that a typical library catalog record can record every topic covered by a book. A library catalog is, in a way, a simulation of a library. It models the library in a way that makes it easier to manipulate, but the information available is degraded or simplified. (If a simulation has all the information contained in the system it is simulating, it is that system, not a model. Simulations work because non-essential information is stripped out. However, sometimes you are wrong in what is non-essential. Library catalogs work fairly well for many needs, but they are not suited for every single need.) Google Books increases the amount of information within the simulation, increases it to an amazing extent.

It is still a simulation of a library. Copyrighted books are not available fully. You lose some physical knowledge of the book. It doesn't contain the range of books in a full research library (though Google would like to, I'm sure.) Google has not replicated the metadata produced by the experts (librarians) who cataloged the books in the first place. However, for what it does contain, it's hard to argue that it's not a better simulation of a library than your average library catalog is. The major loss is that metadata, which Google attempts to replace with tables of contents, indexes, and a "Key words and phrases" section.
For those unfamiliar with library metadata, I'm mostly referring to subject headings. Subject headings, and other controlled vocabulary systems, allow the assignment of one or more subject terms to a book, article, etc., with the specific terms being consistent over the entirety of the system, and not dependent on whether or not the author used that term. It's related to the way libraries shelve books by subject, so that all the gardening books are together, or all the versions and criticisms of Hamlet end up on the same shelf.
Google's "Key words and phrases" imitates this, but is strictly dependent on the words used in the actual book. I'm assuming that this is an automated process, so this probably related to the frequency of use, and the placement of the words. I would guess that a word used over and over again will score high for inclusion on this list, as will words used in the title, as chapter headings, etc. It should lead to some interesting choices: a book of General Sherman's letters includes "affectionately yours" as a key phrase. It's an interesting fact of letter conventions at the time, but not likely to be a good search phrase. (In case you are curious, the phrase "affectionately yours" turns up 1730 books in Google Book Search, mostly, though not entirely, books of letters. OK, I can see a use for this search, but how often to you need to know the relative frequency of different salutations in different eras? Getting back to the subject, we do loose the specificity of the LC subject heading "Correspondence"--used with a name to specify the letters of this person.)

I hope that Google will see the advantage of not tossing out decades of metadata that would only increase the usefulness of their system. Just add subject headings to the keywords already in use. It does lead to an interesting question of who owns library catalog records. Could Google buy them from someone? And from whom? LC? OCLC? Individual libraries as the books are scanned? Are they copyrighted, or is an individual record similar to an entry in a phone book?

To jump back to Jo for a final moment, she also points out one other service that Google Books performs: multiple access. She found a book that was invaluable to her research. She had kept it for months, paying overdue fines and all, so that she could ensure needed access to a book that she had had such a hard time getting a hold of. Here comes Google Books with instance access, as long as she needs it, and in no competition with any other researcher. (Previously, I had mentioned a tip for using Google Books for copyrighted books before putting in interlibrary loan requests.)

I'm not sure where Google Books is going, or even where academic research is going, but I do conclude that Google Books should be one of several avenues of library research that good scholars should perform.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Campus servers down over the last day or so

Our main campus computer server system went down yesterday in the early evening. We are now coming back up, but there may be further interruptions or stuff that isn't all the way up yet. Keep trying!