Sunday, September 27, 2009

Borrowing in the Future

Last week, I had the chance to attend a day of the Northwest Interlibrary Loan Conference, hosted at a local college. Though I believe that I'll probably wind up focusing on cataloging and systems in my degree, I am greatly intrigued by ILL. At my last review my boss asked me what interested me the most about my job. My answer was problem solving. I love it when someone hands me a problem or a question and then sends me off to discover the answer. Now, this does lead to a fair amount of frustration, but the result is so rewarding. I feel in cataloging the problem I'm trying to solve is "How do I represent this [book, serial, website, pony, atom] in this system so people will actually be able to find it and use it?" What a great question! It means I need to consider the users, the world they're in, the library I'm in and the limits and requirements of our systems, the rules and suggestions that others have created, and then an end product. Admittedly I'm a baby cataloger (editing established MARC and downloading into a local system), but the possibility is there.

ILL presents a similar sort of challenge - namely how do I decipher what it is the patron wants and how do I get it to them as quickly and cheaply as possible. Sometimes that does mean "I'm sorry, you will have to go downstairs and use the paper copy we have". Or it means spending fifteen minutes waiting for the NLM catalog to load (does it seriously need to be that slow?). Sometimes it means that I'm recreating their citation searching. Few things in life are as satisfying as finding what the patron wanted freely online and then sending them an email saying "Here is is right now and it's free". There are judgment calls to be made too - do I try to send this out or do I use a supplier? Do I cancel this request or do we try to see if we can get it? It's constantly piecing the puzzle together, since for articles we have a longer workflow that means I'm checking copyright, our catalog, the need by date, and then OCLC itself before sending out the request.

The conference made me decide to stick more systems, because I realized how much work I can do there to make ILL better (libraries, please do your Local Holdings Records. You will save us all a lot of time, including yourself when you need to cancel requests for things you've never owned). Cyril's lecture on the IDS Project and the GIST form and the future of ILL was eyeopening. In LIS 520 it was suggested that we can and should view consortia borrowing and ILL as an extension of the library's collection. It's stuff that we can provide to the patron, so we've "collected it" for them. Leading to ideas on cooperative collection development etc. But what the IDS project shows is that we can increasingly move towards that global system Sam Sayre is constantly talking about. That project is what could bring me back to NY. A large group of libraries who have just decided that they're going to work more closely to improve their ILL borrowing. It's magnificent. And they've created such great systems (a connecting database of all of the ISSNs and holdings so article requests can be routed with little intervention). What's also fascinating is that this is really a sort of informal gathering of libraries, all with a clear drive and desire to borrow and share.

But the GIST request form - which lies on top of the standard Illiad request form - is what really set my mind spinning. With this form, the role of collection development goes straight into the hands of the users - a frightening thought at first. This isn't the librarian mulling over suggestions or making educated guesses as to what the library needs. When a request is brought into the system, the library can decide to request or to buy - depending on which seems to be the cheapest option or the best for the library's collection. ILL and Acquisitions merging together into a larger workflow, which is entirely intuitive if you do work off the assumption that both are just workflows for bringing material into the library's collection and thus into the hands of the users. This blows my mind because it's one of those things that appears obvious, but that I couldn't have thought of in a million years. It is an act of faith and it is brought about by the idea that libraries are weeding at an incredible rate, so the cost of used books will be negligible for awhile.

I'm already starting to wonder how I can insert myself into this transition in the future.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Piling it on...

Looking at my desk at home and at work, one wouldn't necessarily get the impression that I'm the type of person who likes organizing for a living. I have plenty of folders (plain and hanging), a board for pinning notes, a brand-new filing cabinet, and binders a plenty. And yet, especially mid-quarter, you can't move more than six inches in this room without tripping over several piles of readings, class notes, or project drafts. For someone in an online program, I do a ridiculous amount of printing (enough to justify purchasing a laser printer for home). This comes primarily from my inability to adequately interact with text on a screen. I cannot digest or remember an online work as well as one that I've held in my hands, despite my best efforts.

This reliance on print feels like a personal failing in this digital age, something that marks me as a non-native, like a slight accent or a penchant for mayonnaise on fries. Full-text databases and electronic reserves are dear friends and providers of such joy, but once that PDF hits my desktop it must be printed. I must have paper in my hands when I read, and I can only partially blames my eyes. Primarily, I need to be able to viciously underline or thoughtfully circle portions of the text as I read. My marginalia is the essential component of studying as it's where I first start to work out my thoughts, where I mark down questions or issues. I fully realize that technology has advanced to the point where I could do that on the screen. A fellow classmate once spoke about a program he used to mark up and edit PDFs of readings, a program that allowed him to deface and edit a page just as I do. Though It's rather telling that I've no recollection of the name of the program nor have I downloaded it. I seem determined to kill trees and stub my toes on my final projects till the end of this degree.

This penchant for paper and the inability to keep it all neatly organized isn't a unique trait really. Upon further consideration, I'm not sure if I've ever met a librarian with a well-ordered desk that is nearly free of paper. I've heard more than one tale of librarians facing off with the fire marshal or losing work among their teeming stacks of printouts. This situation, I believe, stems from the nature of the job itself. Though as a whole the field if moving inexorably toward the digital, librarians seem to tear through a ton of paper a day in the form of reports, bib records, work flow sheets, scraps of magazines for ordering, and meeting notes. Yet it doesn't have to be that way. There are scanners, wikis, shared directories and other tools, but many of us, myself included, balk or give myriad reasons for preferring to pass around a sheet of paper instead of logging in and working from there. All librarians aren't paper hoarders, but I think that many of those tools lack something, some sort of flexibility, that paper still provides.

I was reminded of this need for paper yesterday when I installed a file cabinet next to my desk. The point of the purchase, and subsequent hell that is building an Ikea product, was to combine two plastic file boxes and two cardboard boxes of paper into a single, organized space. While sorting through one of the boxes of paper, I re-discovered an article that touches on the endurance of paper in offices.* The article describes a study on how people go about organizing their browser bookmarks, and how deeply contextual and varied this process seems to be. What stuck with me from this article was their discussion of how grounded we are in paper and how difficult it is to move conceptually from paper to a digital environment.

The spatial aspect seems to be one of the biggest obstacles in moving to a fully digital office or digital world. I make piles not just because I'm too lazy to file everything away (though I often am), but rather because the piles need to be there. I need to see that pile of bib records on my desk so I remember to deal with them. I love that people's piles often have a sense of methodical madness to them. My papers and projects are developed from stacks of articles that are sorted by topic or the order in which I'll use them. That's not really going to help anyone who might come upon the stack, but to me it makes perfect sense. (This why I envy literary biographers who pore over boxes of idiosyncratic piling, and not just because I'm nosy. I desire the sort of psychological insight and patience it must take to find sense in a pile of manuscript pages.) That personal aspect is also what makes shared filing systems so treacherous. Without something as strict as the AACR2 in place, who knows where anything will wind up because odds are that in Circ we'll call something by three different names or have a different view on where an item falls in a process.

Obviously this is something that systems and software folks are keenly aware of, so help is on the way. But until then, I'll buy another box of paper for the quarter.

*Gottlieb, L. and Dilevko, J. (2003). Investigating How Individuals Conceptually and Physically Structure File Folders for Electronic Bookmarks: The Example of the Financial Services Industry. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 54(2), 124-139.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Writing Again or At Last

Since I was old enough to read, I wanted to become a writer. Well, that's not necessarily true. Since I was old enough to read I wanted to be surrounded by books and by words. I loved (and still love) becoming lost in a book, being completely absorbed by a novel. I like having the author's syntax still stuck in my head. I owe an entire vocabulary of outdated and unpronounceable words to the Victorian novels I devoured in middle school (vocabulary which has proved useful in academic papers and the SATs). Books kept me sane in a small, salmon colored room in London, during my commute across town, and through now 9 years without cable. I believe it is the natural impulse of a reader to want to cross over into creating what she loves best. So, for as long as I can remember, I've kept journals, dribbled out poetry and essays, and chose schools and classes that demanded an intense interaction with the written word.

Writing is, unfortunately, much harder than reading. Or, at least, I find it more difficult. Thinking it over, I'm somewhat convinced that this is partially because I practice reading more often than I practice writing. The professor I had for the short story class I took a few summers ago at UP adores John Updike. When he taught the class story "A&P", the professor related how Updike treated writing like a job. He rented office space, sat down to write at regular times, and thus produced nearly a book a year during his life. It seemed strange to me at the time that writing would be like any other occupation or craft. While I cannot count the hours I've spent playing scales or repeating footwork patterns, the idea that writing would have to be actively worked at still seemed strange. I suppose I felt that writers just sat down and did, that they had some sort of idea in their head and applied pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and a novel emerged. Naive, I know. And that image of Updike walking up a flight of stairs, unlocking a door, and ceremoniously sitting at his desk and beginning to write has stuck with me ever since.

Not that I necessarily know what to do with it. Despite halfhearted efforts to work through The Ode Less Travelled or to set aside time to work on this blog, nothing has materialized. Again I find I must contradict myself as soon as a sentence emerges. Nothing has materialized in the form of something that could be submitted to The New Yorker. However much has materialized in the way of message board posts, literature reviews (which I find strangely and immensely satisfying), final papers, presentations, and reviews. I can even now say that I have an article "in press". What in earlier degrees had been a constant source of anxiety and dread is now a somewhat pleasureable requirement.

This requires some explanation. A naturally neurotic person, my anxiety problem came to a head in my senior year of undergrad. Under the combined stress of being a senior in college, two break ups (one of the relationships having lasted nearly three years), and trying to apply to graduate school and determine my future, I found I could not write. I had always been a procrastinator. The fear that something wouldn't come out perfectly or to mine or other's expectations kept me from really working on something until the last minute. I needed the fear of a deadline to kick me over the edge before an essay would flow. I learned to edit as I wrote, printing out drafts when I started to lose steam and tearing them up with pen. At my worst (or best, depending on your perspective), I wrote two term papers in a single 18 stretch (over 12 pages each) and aced them both.

However when faced with my undergradute thesis, I found I couldn't get the fear to push me over the edge. I felt absolutely terrified. I could read and outline, but at that time in my life all I wanted to do was to be left alone and to sleep. When I did manage to pull words into setences and then into paragraphs, I became disgusted by the effort and would delete it all. Happily the counsel of an advisor and the loving intervention of two friends who discovered me hysterial in the reserves room of library allowed for a week long break from school when, finally over the edge, I pulled together something like a thesis, passed, and graduated. My graduate thesis was a trial on a similar level. Admittedly here the research was much better and the writing flowed faster the second time around, but I'm still not terribly happy with the final results nor the final few all-nighters to pull it together. I still had not learned how to draft nor, most importantly, how to write without the pressure of fear.

Writing without fear would come after a couple years of talking with a therapist, settling down into a new life in Oregon, and figuring out what I was going to do with myself. The writing assignments I took on at work helped greatly. Those assignments provided a fair amount of structure and control in terms of topic. While analysis was often welcome, the driving force behind the projects was clarity and concision. I learned to make my writing tight and engaging. I learned not only how to draft, but how to put my work out there for my peers. My coworkers and boss actively read everything I wrote (or most everything). This past quarter I exchanged reflection papers with a classmate in a peer-editing scheme, something I would have never contemplated 3 or 5 years ago - mainly because I would never have gotten something written far enough in advance to allow for it!

While I am very proud of the work I have produced in my MLIS program thus far (proud enough to post portions on my web space), I still want to be writing other sorts of things, particualarly essays. I want to learn how to set aside time for writing for pleasure just as I've set aside time for writing for work and for school. This is a sample of what I want to create and, though it's taken me nearly a week to finish it, the sort of thing I want to put up here at least once a week from now on.