Thursday, May 27, 2010

Who You Gunna Call?

Last time I promised to give you my thoughts on Information Literacy (IL). IL has become a big deal in the library biz. It is mostly the concern of academic libraries but IL has now also become an issue in public libraries. IL boils down to the ability of an individual to document whatever information source he/she is using and to do so correctly. There are a number of other concerns surrounding this concept but for this post I’ll stick to just two.

In middle school, high school or college when you wrote a paper or gave a presentation you might have used footnotes or a bibliography to provide the reader with a documented accounting of how you came up with whatever it was you were writing or talking about. You did so in a format that allowed the reader to check up on your sources. The same idea still hold true today. In the past we used sources that were in a physical form. This is no longer the case. You can easily do all the research you need now through different virtual mediums. Some of those mediums use pdfs or the scanning of physical journals, books etc. However, it is now possible to use a completely virtual source that has never actually been in a physical form. One source may have more clout than another. But to dismiss a source because of its virtual nature is a mistake. It not only implies a preconceive notion of what is being produced but it can also restrict the researcher from the newest discoveries in a field. In this case the medium may or may not be the message. There are peer reviewed journals that only exist in a virtual form. There is information concerning the output and proceedings of academic, literary, professional and scientific conferences that only exist in a virtual form.

What is important is your ability to verify the source of these virtual formats. And that includes two important players in the field of IL: websites as sources and search engines. Another corollary on this statement is the use of wikis as a viable information source, most notably wickipedia. With the advent of web based information sources and the ease with which anyone can run a search the importance of IL has come to the forefront. It is not important that you are using a web site as an information source. What is important is that you do some background checking and homework to verify the information found on the website. The responsibility of verifying a source now falls squarely on the individual using that source.

When you use a database aggregator of journal articles to gather information for whatever it is you are writing or talking about that company has taken on the responsibility of verifying the pedigree of the information source. When you use a general out-there-in-the-virtual-world website, search engine or wiki for information gathering and dispersal you take on the responsibility of verifying that source. I do not mean to imply that these sources are not valid. What I do mean to say is that it is now up to you to validate that source. And to tell the truth I don’t think that is a bad idea at all. Not only do you become a more informed consumer of information but you also become more rigorous in your selection of information sources. In short, you end up having to work a little harder and think a whole lot deeper. Neither of which are bad skills to possess. And remember, if you need a little help sorting all this out send me an email or give me a call.

See you at the Library,

Thursday, May 20, 2010


I recently investigated the databases available to cardholders through the SLFL and CEF websites. I don’t remember exactly what I was looking for but I was searching for some in-depth articles pertaining to a specific subject. So, I surfed over to the CEF website and clicked on the Database tab. You then have to select what type of general information you want to find. There are a number of options. At this point it helps if you think about what you are looking for (TAWYALF) and also think about what you are not looking for (TAWYANLF). This first process, TAWYALF, is the key to successful search and you will actually do this a couple of times. I found a related option under the Topics selection and clicked away. The next window that opens up tells you the different databases you can use under that general topic. You have to decide if you are looking for information from magazine articles, newspapers, journals or scholarly journals. Now it’s time TAWYALF again. Once you click on your desired database you will be prompted to enter your fourteen digit library card number. You type in the number and hit enter.

You are now brought to the front page of the database company and can begin your search in earnest. All of the database companies provide access to articles and information in roughly the same thing. And all of them do it a little differently. Once you have figured out how to search one of these companies you can transfer that knowledge to another. But it does take some practice. And like I said they are all a little different and some are down right quirky. In addition, not all databases offer access to the same subject matter. You will probably also develop a favorite database company. The easiest thing to do is to just type in whatever it is you are looking for, TAWYALF, in the search box and hit enter. You can then review your results and make a choice. If you want the information right now restrict the results to only those articles that that have a full text icon.

What I just described is the simplest way to find what you are looking for. Unfortunately, in my experience, the probability of you hitting exactly what you want to find is not very high. There are a couple of reasons for this:

First, for most people, when you begin looking for specific information you are also beginning a process of constantly redefining what you are looking for while actively engaged in the actual search. So, when you begin your search you may not yet have a clear idea as to what it is that you are actually looking for (TAWYALF). In Library School, everyone is required to take a few courses on how to successfully provide and do reference, search and research. The very first think you learn is how to conduct a “reference interview”. This is a process that helps the librarian make a determination as to exactly what the patron is looking for. The database companies have tried to replicate this activity without the benefit of person to person contact with their search options. Sometimes it works and sometimes it’s a little harder.

The second reason why you might not be successful is that the database may not provide you access to what you are looking for. Database companies don’t offer all the articles in their entire company stable to everyone. They offer clients access to some of the articles. That access is entirely dependent on the deal you (your company, educational institution or library system) has cut with the database companies. And that deal is usually a balance between what your needs and desires are and how much money you can spend. Very, very few institutions can afford complete access to all of the information available from the different database companies. As a rule a given institution makes the best deal it can for the amount of money they have available.

The third reason is the words used in a search engine, epically when searching an article based database (TAWYALF), have a very specific meaning. In addition, a word can have a very different definition given its’ contents and use (TAWYANLF). The American English language has incredible range and flexibility. Some meanings are very specific to a particular field of study or region, some aren’t. And it doesn’t help that while two words can be spelled the same way they may have two different meanings or that two entirely different words can mean almost the exact same thing or that two words can sound exactly the same but be spelled differently.

Here is an example of two words that sound the same, are spelled differently and have a number of different definitions: item and idem. You can also use the word item to describe two people who are dating or in some type of relationship, as in “They are an item”. Or you can use the word to describe a single thing, as in “I was allowed to choose a single item from the list.” In the Library biz “item” has an extremely broad definition and refers to any piece of information. It doesn’t matter if you are talking or writing about a book, magazine, newspaper, serial publication, audio book, sculpture or DVD. They are all an item. The word usually refers to a physical thing but that is not always the case. This particular posting on this blog can also be referred to as an item. However, if you used the word “idem” in reference to sailing in the Adirondacks it would mean that you were probably looking for information about a specific class and type of sailboat that is usually identified with Lower St. Regis Lake, Spitfire and Upper St. Regis Lake. Even if you spelled the word incorrectly when searching for information about the sailboat there are strategies to be used that can increase the likelihood of you finding what you are looking for.

As I said earlier this process can be confusing and frustrating. If you have any difficulty using the databases give me a call at the library, drop me an email or better yet, come in and I’ll be happy to help you. If you have a laptop, bring it with you because the public computers are often already in use. Next time I’ll write about a pivotal concept in this entire process: information literacy.

See you at the Library,

Friday, May 14, 2010

I Always Judge A Book By It's Cover

I’m fascinated by book titles. I'm also fascinated by how titles are given. A surprising large number of titles seem to have been serendipitous. Faulkner's work Light In August was suggested by his wife over cocktails on a glorious, late summer afternoon in Mississippi. Knowing just that bit of information, it's easy to be transported across time and miles to not only see, but also feel and understand the title in a number of additional tactual ways.

One of the things you do when you are at the main desk at our library is that you restock the paperback carousels. I thoroughly enjoy doing this; you get to read every title and while doing so you can also make a guess as to what possible genre the book may belong. On occasion you are lucky enough to run across what I would refer to as crossover titles. So you look for other clues to help you decide. This leads to a related and additional favorite activity: I also enjoy the cover art of books. And again this is especially true when discussing paperbacks.

When talking about titles or cover art it's important to remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But since I am only discussing my eye I feel I can do so with an accurate appraisal. I also believe that with paperbacks we are no longer constrained by what some would consider to be an appropriate title or cover art for good literature. There is a difference between writing and literature. There are also differences between writing, story telling, fiction and literature. What I can say is that for me some of the absolute best titles and cover art end up on paperbacks. Thrillers, murder mysteries and westerns are all worth mining for great titles and cover art. But to hit the mother load you need to stop at the romance paperbacks. Here are a few facts concerning romance novels.

Over 40% of all books published today are considered to be romances. And this genre is the single largest proportion of all works published. In addition, there are at least 17 recognized sub-genres of romances. And as I'm sure you've already guessed if the publishing houses didn't think there was a market for these works they wouldn't be published.

Titles and cover art are mirrors of their own time and place. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne was first published in 1850. The original cover was a simple page without any graphics. It reads: The Scarlet Letter, A Romance. by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Boston Ticknor, Weeds & Fields. Words take on different meaning over time and so do titles. I seem to remember my high school copy having the title as only The Scarlet Letter without "A Romance" added. It was a paperback edition with an illustrated cover that depicted a woman in puritan clothing on a bleak, mid-winter day with her face obscured, clutching something to her chest. I can't help but think that if this work was being first published today with the original title stating that it was "a romance" not only would the connotations be very different but so would the cover art; but then again maybe not.

See you at the Library

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Past Isn’t Even Past

Two weeks ago I read a recommended review of Hellhound On His Trail by Hampton Sides. I was attracted to the review because of the title; as a guitarist I recognized the reference. After reading the review I dashed off an email recommending that the library purchase the book. The next day I was told that the book had already been ordered. Two days later it arrived. Over the weekend I read it; even though I already knew the story.

The book recounts the intertwining of the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Earl Ray. I’m old enough to remember what happened in Memphis on April 4, 1968. So before I ever opened the book I knew what was going to take place and who all the principle individuals were. The book begins with Ray’s escape from prison in 1967 and ends with his death in another prison in 1998. Along the way the author reveals how Ray’s life would be forever bound with that of Martin Luther King.

Like many working writers today Hampton Sides writes non-fiction as if it were fiction. When discussing his work Sides quotes Shelby Foote who said he “employed the novelist’s methods without his license”. It’s a good description of what you will find when you read the book. And it’s not a bad way to read fiction.

The ironies found within the book are almost overwhelming. A practitioner of non-violent protest is murdered in an extraordinarily violent way. By the time of his death King who had earned a PhD, founded and lead a national organization, received the Nobel Peace Prize and was internationally known and an inspiration to generations of people. He had come to Memphis to bring attention to a garbage workers strike. To assist individuals who earned their living in perhaps the most menial of labor. Ray’s life as a small time criminal and his attempts to begin a porno business as a photographer and distributor are documented. Throughout the book many individuals who spent time with Ray remark on his ability to be so non-memorable as to almost not exist. Prior to attending the Memphis garbage workers strike, King had been working on his plan to bring the Poor People’s Campaign to Washington, DC. King’s idea was that the PPC would bring to the nation’s attention what the effects of chronic poverty were to all people, not just Black Americans. Ray’s early life and upbringing was mired in generational poverty. The consequences of which were to set the path of his adult life.

The entwining of these two lives is best told via a book. And I will go further. It is best read, not listened to. When you read you are given time to reflect as you go. You can reread. You can refer back. And once finished you can pick up the book again. And by doing any or all of these things you become an active participant with the written words. Sides’ writing certainly has something to do with your ability to do these things. With another writer you might not finish the work; you already know the individuals and the ending before you begin. But these words stuck with me and I’ve continued to think about what I read; and how these two people and the events of their lives continue to affect mine. What more can you ask of a book?

See you at the Library,