Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 3: February 2004

The Library Stuff

A small group because time and space conspired against the rest. Sitting in the folder: A trio of interesting articles from D-Lib January 2004; a quintet of possibly-interesting items from Threshold Winter 2004; a 23-page article, “User misconceptions of information retrieval systems,” by Hsinchun Chen and Vasant Dhar; and Guidelines for Online Public Access Catalogue (OPAC) Displays from IFLA, a September 30, 2003 draft. Some will show up in later issues. Some probably won’t. For now, here are a few items, all recommended.

Block, Marylaine, “For a great read, head to the…gov docs collection? Yep.” Ex Libris 198.

Here’s a gem, particularly if you’re one of those who never realized how much good stuff comes from government agencies. It started when Aimee Quinn attended a talk by Nancy Pearl (yes, that Nancy Pearl) about Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Reason and asked why there weren’t any government documents in the book.

Pearl said it hadn’t occurred to her that government documents could be read and enjoyed, and not just consulted for reference. But she said that if Quinn could present her with a list of genuinely interesting, readable government publications, she’d be willing to include some in the next edition of her book.

Quinn, moderator of GOVDOC-L, tossed out the challenge. Block reprints part of the resulting list, with “loving descriptions” eliminated. The boring old government documents include 50 Birds of Town and City (illustrated), The Adventure of Echo the Bat, America’s centenarians. Reports of interviews with social security beneficiaries who have lived to 100, The Most Striking of Objects: the Totem Poles of Sitka National Historical Park…and lots more. Great stuff.

Block, Marylaine, “Browsing, yes. Finding, no.” Ex Libris 201.

This is a gentle rejoinder to “people who claim that it’s easier to find what they need at bookstores than in libraries.” It’s an excellent discussion and matches my own experience (bookstores are great if you’re always looking for the same kind of book and planning to keep them; otherwise, give me libraries any day). Block goes on to point out other similarities and differences between bookstores and libraries—and a few pointers that libraries might yet pick up from bookstores. Excellent.

Bowman, Vibiana, “The battle of getting an article published…Notes from the front.” January 2004,

Does this five-page article replace First Have Something to Say? I hope not (and that’s not Bowman’s intent), but it’s a good list of considerations for “actually getting [your article] into print.” Bowman’s seven rules begin “Learn to schmooze” and end “Persevere,” and include a couple of rules that come before you write the article. I could nit-pick. For example, “Write as much as possible” is only a good rule if you treat “as possible” carefully, and I’m not sure that “having to balance your offers and timeframes” is all that “enviable” a position, particularly if you’re literally overloaded. True overload leads to missed deadlines which tend to undermine your reputation. But it’s a good list, one I would have welcomed 25 years ago and respect now. Bowman points out some things I missed entirely.

Orlowski, Andrew, “A quantum theory of internet value,” The Register, December 18, 2003.

Why “library stuff”? Because Orlowski, in commenting on why Google now sucks and related topics, concludes that “taxonomies also have been proved to have value” and that Google doesn’t (can’t) provide the kind of authoritative results that a real library would. “True archivists have a far better sense of meta-data than any computerized system can conjure.” The title of the piece refers to a theory that Orlowski admits is fatuous; read it for yourself. In the end, he concludes that the magical internet we thought would come to pass, back a decade ago, never really existed. “What we must value is the information archives we have now. If in doubt—ask a librarian, while you can still find one.”

Plotkin, Arthur, “Who loves you like the library?” and “10 cool library maneuvers for writers,” The Writer November 2003.

What can I say? This brief ode to libraries explains why writers need them and what they do that the web can’t do (or can’t do as well), from reaching into the full human record to using “user-friendly information experts”—librarians. He notes that books “give meaning and order to detail,” that many libraries have special collections for deep research on narrow topics (“No one writes credible history, science or social science from the Web”), and concludes: “If the Web were to shut down tomorrow, we would survive as writers. Without libraries…I wouldn’t bet on it.” The sidebar offers suggestions for going beyond ordinary library services. Admittedly, Arthur Plotnik is not a complete outsider (he served as editor of American Libraries, for example), but that doesn’t weaken this excellent piece.

Plosker, George R., “The information industry revolution: Implications for librarians,” Online 16:22 (November/December 2003): 16-22.

I’m immediately skeptical of articles that start like this:

Ah, the “L” word. The profession has been debating whether or not to use the “L word”—librarian—for quite some time…

And I’m rarely thrilled when special librarians take it upon themselves to decide what matters for libraries in general. Fact is, this article is mostly about corporate libraries and special librarians, and mostly reports on a panel of “gurus of the SLA world” at the Special Libraries Association. I’ve heard one of those “gurus,” also labeled an “industry luminary” here, quite recently; it’s fair to say that I was underwhelmed. (No, not Gary Price: I respect his work and I’ve never heard him speak.)

Misgivings aside (and ignoring an unfortunate formatting decision that makes the article tiresome to read in print), it’s a fairly interesting report. But, you know, at least for public and academic librarians, there’s a lot more to libraries and librarianship than “a world of information compiled and organized by information professionals.”

Price, Gary, “What Google teaches us that has nothing to do with searching,” Searcher November 2003. searcher/nov03/price.shtml

In this “Webmastry” column, Price notes the phenomenon of people who think that they don’t need libraries now that they have Google—and what librarians can do about it. Not “fighting Google”—that’s not the point, as well as being nearly impossible. Being familiar with the other innovative search engines is one step, but Price is primarily interested in promoting the special values of libraries and librarians. He offers a set of eight starting points that’s decidedly worth reading.

“The value of libraries: The mind and the market, part two,” commons-blog December 15, 2003, and “Libraries and the information commons,” December 3, 2003 (white paper prepared for ALA OITP).

Given my grumpy comments about “information commons” and the Midwinter open forum elsewhere in this issue, why am I recommending these (and other commons-blog entries)?

Because I suspect I may be wrong in objecting to “information commons” as a formulation. I dislike “information” as a catchall for resources, stories, facts, and the many services that libraries and librarians offer; I think the word itself has been stripped of meaning and that its remaining implications narrow the actual world of librarianship. (That’s half of my problem with “information literacy” as well, and I’m equally inclined to suspect I’m wrong there.)

For those less hung up on the term, commons-blog and what I expect to be a growing number of documents at related sites are worth reading.

I have more than a dozen red marks on my copy of “Libraries and the information commons.” I’m going to ignore them for now. Make up your own mind. If you believe the concept makes sense, join in the process.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 3, Whole Issue 46, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

Original material in this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.