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


Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 4: March 2004


The Library Stuff

Notess, Greg R., “Toolbars: Trash or treasures?” Online 28:1 (January/February 2004): 41-4.

Just as there’s more to web searching than Google, there are several other toolbars, each with its own strengths and peculiarities. I’ve used the Google toolbar off and on, mostly off: For my own purposes, it’s usually wasted space. Notess’ discussion of the options, advantages, and problems of the various toolbars includes a wonderful illustration of what happens if you use all the toolbars: There’s almost no space left for web pages themselves.

Beyond that absurdity, Notess offers enough useful information to make this a must-read.

A Threshold Cluster

The following articles appeared in Threshold Winter 2004, www.ciconline.org, as five of six articles in a cluster running from page 10 through page 32. Citations appear in page order rather than alphabetic order. I’m sure it’s better in print with the context of the full issue, but (most of) the articles are well worth reading in any form.

Dickson, Paul, “On libraries, learning, and loving both,” p.10-12.

Dickson, author of The Library in America (Facts on File, 1986), labels himself among those who have “a passion for libraries. He has more library cards than credit cards in his wallet and was shocked some years back “when a well-known writer on the subject of personal computers opened his syndicated column by saying he was looking for a database that would save him trips to the library.” Dickson likes the serendipity of libraries; he also likes the “real-time help of librarians” and knows that that’s “where the best databases are.”

He speaks fondly of small country libraries “that are still vital community centers…despite shoestring budgets.” He recounts early experiences with libraries and discusses the ability of libraries “to accommodate themselves to what is new and, as a result, to constantly get better.” He also notes that the American library system “is the envy of most of the rest of the world” and finishes a refreshingly positive essay with this paragraph:

The systems by which we learn and get information have been in constant flux for some time now and will doubtless continue to be for the foreseeable future. The one thing that is predictable is that our libraries, led by public and school libraries, will play an essential role in adapting to and expanding on what comes next, and that librarians will be in place directing the flow of information and ideas.

“The future of libraries,” p. 13-17.

This feature includes six brief essays on “how libraries, librarians, and library patrons will adapt to changing times,” summing up a “future in which libraries continue to be central to our lives,” according to the editor. Clifford Lynch leads off with a typically first-rate commentary on how libraries are “loosening the tyranny of geography”—but why “there’s still a place for place.” He notes the role of libraries as the “revitalized intellectual commons” for colleges and universities and notes, “The evidence is that place still matters—though we must be honest and recognize that it matters more or less to different people for different purposes.”

I’m less thrilled with the second essay, by Janet H. Murray of Georgia Institute of Technology. She writes of information “[moving] from the analog world of paper, film, and vinyl phonograph records, to the digital world of computer archives, screen displays, and DVDs” and says this means the library “is morphing from a physical place with shelves of books to an online portal for screenfuls of information.” Sorry, Cliff: Ms. Murray says books are dead, and so is place. The rest of the essay partially softens this “information is everything” beginning, but Murray regards any fondness for place and object as “sentimental attachments” and pounds in the belief that only the content matters. After all, the promise of digital technology is that “it will make valuable information available to more people with less effort.” And information is all that matters. Right?

Alana Springsteen is a student at Mattawan (MI) High School and a member of Kalamazoo Public Library’s Teen Advisory Board. She writes about the importance of interaction in education and at the library, and of experiences at Kalamazoo, where teen-led programs appear to be highly successful. Here’s what a member of the digital generation says about technology:

The problem with growing technology, which we have now integrated into everyday life, is becoming too dependent on it. If we forget to take the time to talk to each other, it’ll just be a matter of time before we find ourselves back in the Dark Ages.

Carolyn Karis is a library media specialist at the Urban School of San Francisco. She writes about information networks and information literacy and puts down early school libraries as “warehouses of books.” But she also asserts that digital resources enrich print materials—and that book circulation rebounds in schools after an initial technology-induced slide.

Daniel Callison is at Indiana University, Indianapolis and edits School Library Media Research. He writes about the learning laboratory and asserts, “Inquiry is the driving force for authentic educational experiences in the Information Age.” I suspect inquiry has been important for effective learning in any age, but never mind. His concept of a “library learning laboratory” includes strong librarian (sorry, “library media specialist”) interaction with students, lots of group work, all kinds of technology—and up-to-date print resources as well.

Finally, Jon Goodman and Doug Donzelli of MarketBridge Partners offer an odd combination of realism (noting the silly predictions of ten years ago) and questionable assertion (claiming, “The separation of corporate libraries and public libraries is disappearing”). They agree that physical libraries aren’t disappearing—but the suggestion that public libraries are becoming corporate libraries is, at the least, disturbing. Maybe I’m reading it wrong.

McCook, Kathleen de la Peña, “Serving the demands of democracy,” p. 22-25, 30.

I continue to question the urgency of the constantly redefined “digital divide,” so I won’t say much about this article. As always, McCook is clear, thoughtful, and makes a good case for the problems she sees. If I differ on some details, that’s probably my problem. I do wonder about one key sentence: “Eighty-six percent of households earning $75,000 or more per year have Internet access compared to 12.7 percent of households earning less than $15,000 per year.” Quite apart from the suspicious precision of those percentages (and the fact that, in most communities, 100% of people in households earning less than $15,000 per year have internet access—at their libraries), two points strike me immediately:

Ø    Fourteen percent of well-to-do households don’t have internet access. Does that say something about the absolute necessity of such access to lead a successful life?

Ø    Any household earning less than $15,000 per year in most of the U.S. has a lot more pressing problems than internet access: food, medicine, clothes, housing.

I’m clearly out of line in failing to sign up for the ongoing ever-expanding equity crusade, and as a long-time traditional liberal, I should just shut up if I’m not going to applaud. So I will. Since we will never, ever have truly equitable access (since the definitions of “equitable” and “access” will keep changing, among other reasons), there will always be a problem to be addressed.

O’Neill, Lucinda, “Building forward,” p. 26-30.

This is a fascinating article about the new Cerritos (CA) library. I’m not sure I can or should attempt to describe the library (which I’ve never seen). It’s refreshing to note that the director does not claim the new library is the answer: “Outside our profession, there seems to be no doubt in anybody’s mind that we are truly a library of the future, or at least one model that exists.” From what I read of the library, I certainly don’t doubt that it’s one model with quite a bit to recommend it. There’s a bookstack: 225,000 books, roughly 4.5 per capita.

I could do without the quotes from Stephen Abrams with his assurance that “keyboarding skills will become unnecessary” because the “next generation of learners will be talking to their computers.” And of course all kids these days are visually oriented, so search engines like Kartoo.com “will become the norm.” Abrams knows all this, just as he knows that all kids’ minds work the same mutant way. Let’s just say it’s inevitable.

Then there’s Doug Johnson of Mankato School District, who says that future libraries won’t be “quiet places with all the chairs in a straight line.” That’s good, but one could wish that future libraries would have some quiet places, since contemplation and quiet reading still have a role along with group learning and interaction. Or is that OldThink again?

The final point that struck me as odd in this article about a library I suspect I’d love is this statement: “65 percent of Cerritos residents are registered library cardholders compared with the national average of 20 percent.” I wonder where that “national average” came from. Looking at PLA’s Public Library Data Service figures for 2003 (thanks to Skip Auld), I see that Cerrito is at the border of two size categories for service area. In one category, the mean or average registration as percentage of population is 63.1%; in the other, it’s 60.1%. In other words, Cerritos registration is just barely over average for its size—and significantly below the top quartile for either size (74.3 and 74.7%). For that matter, no size category shows average registration lower than 48%.

Martin, Robert S., “A nation of learners,” p. 32.

This brief coda discusses the role of IMLS and its current premises. It’s a good statement that fits well with the cluster of articles.

Two from RLG DigiNews

Declaration of competing interests: I work for RLG but have no role whatsoever in RLG DigiNews. For that matter, this first-rate newsletter isn’t produced by RLG headquarters staff; it’s produced by the Department of Research, Cornell University Library, in consultation with RLG. Published six times a year, the newsletter is consistently worth reading and frequently nothing short of fascinating. It’s also free for the taking at www.rlg.org/preserv/diginews/

RLG DigiNews 8:1 (February 15, 2004) is 26 pages long. While everything in the issue is worth reading, I’m only commenting on the first feature article and the FAQ, both of which I found particularly fascinating. Since each issue is an HTML document (printable as a whole or in single-article chunks), page numbers may not be relevant.

Grotke, Robert W., “Digitizing the world’s largest collection of natural sounds: Key factors to consider when transferring analog-based audio materials to digital formats.”

Grotke is in Cornell’s Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds, a collection of “over 160,000 recordings of bird, insect, frog, and mammal vocalizations.” Thanks to funding from the National Science Foundation, Andrew Mellon Foundation, and Office of Naval Research, the library is now digitizing these analog recordings (on acetate disks, cassettes, and open-reel tapes, with the tapes in “various stages of deterioration”) with an eye to long-term access.

This article details some of the decisions made, including the choice of analog/digital converter, possibly the most important piece of equipment in the whole process. After the project had reviewed A/D converters based on published specifications, they requested six units for in-house testing. “The results were nothing short of amazing. Even though all six had very similar published specifications, the actual sound character or lack thereof was very different. Our final decision, the Prism Dream AD-2, was the only device that did not color (alter) our signals.” That’s an astonishing finding—but maybe it shouldn’t be.

The project wasn’t settling for old-fashioned (ca. 1984) “perfect sound forever,” that is, CD quality audio (44.1kHz sampling rate, 16-bit resolution). Based on investigation of what was required for accurate recordings, the project chose close to DVD-A standards: 96.0kHz sampling rate, 24-bit resolution. The specifications for the conversion appear in detail: “Specifications like these are not typically found in the sound cards that often come built into, or bundled with, computers. Nor are they found in stand-alone compact disc recorders.”

After consideration, the project chose DVD-R as a storage medium (at the data rates needed, a CD-R would only offer 20 minutes of stereo recording). The article details the tests performed on each DVD-R before burning and explains why the discs are created as UDF DVD-ROM discs with Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF) data files rather than as DVD-Audio discs.

A fascinating article (if you care about sound and digitization, at least) on a fascinating project. No, Grotke doesn’t believe the DVD-R copies represent a final solution. “Only time will tell, but if history is any indication, we assume that in the not-too-distant future some new and better digital format for long-term preservation will appear in the market place.” This project has avoided proprietary traps and any form of compression that could compromise future transitions; it’s well positioned for future changes.

Entlich, Richard, “FAQ: Handwriting recognition for historical documents.”

“OCR (Optical Character Recognition) seems to be widely used for providing searchable indexes of printed texts that have been scanned. Is it possible to do a similar thing with handwritten manuscripts and correspondence?”

What a question—and what an interesting answer! There’s been a lot of work on a fairly daunting problem—after all, if I can’t read my own cursive writing from a year ago, how can a computer? Most projects don’t try to do full machine translation of the handwriting; instead, the hope is to “recognize a subset of the most commonly used vocabulary…usually within the writings of a single author” so that an index can be built to support text queries.

The amount of research activity and the variety of clever techniques being utilized in off-line HR [handwriting recognition] should be gratifying for the archivists who maintain, and the scholars who utilize, handwritten historical documents. However, it should be noted that none of the work described here appears ready to emerge from the laboratory anytime soon.

That cautionary comment is followed by suggestions for greater involvement in this field by librarians and archivists. The conclusion ends: “Librarians, archivists, and scholars may be able to push the agenda more effectively by partnering with computer scientists who share an interest in solving this challenging problem and improving access to significant historical archives.”

Again, a fascinating commentary on one of those problems you can’t solve by throwing computing power at it.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 4, Whole Issue 47, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced at least monthly by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to wcc@notes.rlg.org. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

All original material in this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/1.0 or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.

URL: citesandinsights.info/civ4i4.pdf