Organizing Information

Libraries organize information. They also collect, preserve, and provide access to information (as well as a host of other things). But organizing information is key the mission of libraries.

I’m currently working on a project to rearrange some of our internal information. Our library has been using Windows SharePoint Services for about 18 months. Shortly after its introduction the SharePoint site became our de facto intranet site, and we’ve added a lot of content over the past year-and-a-half. Unfortunately, some of the content SEEMS rather disorganized. I say it “seems” disorganized, because I think in one very real way it is not disorganized at all. Close inspection (and discussion with content creators) reveals that documents have been added according to employees’ different organizing priorities.

This reminds me of a class I took during my library school program. We looked at how items can be organized and classified, and we did a number of exercises to explore some of the less-obvious characteristics that can be used for organization. As I look through our SharePoint content, I’m seeing several different organizational trends. Some people organized content according to the unit that created it. Others created new folders to contain similar content. Some quite simply put documents where they thought people were likely to look for them.

As we work to reorganize this content, I find myself constantly thinking of that nearly ubiquitous web 2.0 feature: tagging. Tagging is certainly no substitute for solid, well-ordered organization, but it can definitely provide additional access avenues to help guide people to content. It looks like there is at least one group out there that has implemented a tagging web part for SharePoint, so that’s a definite area for investigation!

At Least They’re Reading Something – Pt. 2

I’ve written before about some of these ideas when I was thinking about multitasking. Multitasking and Internet skimming seem to be two facets of the same problem. In some ways they both combine to reduce our ability to sustain focused concentration over time. I don’t mean to say that they’re all bad. Multitasking and skimming both have their place, and – like it or not – they’re both part of 21st century worklife. I worry though, that that we are rapidly becoming a society of skimmers, and the youngest readers are the ones who are most at risk

So what is the solution to this problem? Libraries have always sponsored reading programs, and that includes some built-in know-how. Combine that with some of the new information literacy programs, and I think a lot of people are on the right track. Teaching people to evaluate information is increasingly important. I think that libraries have a great opportunity to develop solid information literacy skills with the upcoming generation. Adding an Internet component to this is a logical extension. I’m trying to envision a good elementary or jr. high school reading program that combines Internet reading (not skimming) with thoughtful consideration of the content as well as careful questioning of the content’s authority and accuracy. What would that look like? Maybe someone has already built the ideal program and I just haven’t seen it yet.

The New York Times article I referenced in the previous post mentioned one thing that I found to be very encouraging. Many of the teens who are heavy Internet users are also writing a lot. They’re posting on message boards. They’re contributing to fan fiction sites. And if they’re writing on any level, hopefully they’re thinking about their content and how to present it. There is good writing and there is bad writing, but all writing can benefit from practice.

I would even venture to suggest that many of today’s teens are doing more writing than I did at that age. I wrote the papers that were required in classes, but that’s just about all I wrote. The nature of the Internet and particularly Web 2.0 applications drives participation. It demands putting something in – not just taking something out. I do have my concerns about teens’ Internet reading/skimming habits, but more writing is definitely a good thing!

At Least They’re Reading Something – Pt. 1

The New York Times ran a very interesting article a few days ago. The article considers a number of issues surrounding teens’ reading habits. It discusses “Internet reading skills” and the fact that this type of reading is not evaluated by standardized tests. It considers arguments that Internet reading is both helpful and harmful. Many of the readers’ comments are as interesting as the article itself. One of the ideas in particular took me by surprise. Some of the people quoted in the article and a number of the respondents took an attitude of “at least they’re reading something” and “Internet reading is better than no reading at all.”

Interesting ideas, but for me they ignore two of the fundamental questions: WHAT are they reading and HOW are they reading?

First the “what.” I think the content is far more important that the medium. If a person is reading War and Peace, the Wall Street Journal, or Plato’s dialogues, does the medium really matter? Of course not. Book, printout, computer screen, or smartphone – good content is good content. Let the readers choose the format that they find most comfortable. However, if a person’s Internet reading is limited to message board postings, instant messages, and MySpace comments, then the content is far less meaningful.

Next the “how.” There is a lot of variety in how people read Internet content. Some are reading articles in online journals. Some are reading public domain books. And some are clicking rapidly from page to page as quickly as the next tantalizing tidbit catches their eye. I don’t consider this last category reading. It’s skimming, and it’s creating a generation of people who can’t sustain prolonged, in-depth focus on content.

I’ve seen these people, and I’ve worked with them. It can be frustrating for both sides. They ask a question. You answer it. But they think you haven’t answered it because they only skimmed the reply. They didn’t READ the full details. There wasn’t a helpful picture or video embedded in the reply. There were no links to send them off to a host of Internet sites. There was merely clear content, but somehow they just couldn’t comprehend it.

Contributing to Wikipedia

Wikipedia. Love it or hate it, admit it or not, lots and lots of people use it. People continue to express concerns about the accuracy and verifiability of Wikipedia‘s information and rightfully so, but library users are going there for information. Google searches (another favorite of library users) are turning up more and more Wikipedia entries. And librarians are using the site as well. One of the best descriptions of Wikipedia use came from a reference librarian. The basic idea was that when neither the librarian nor the patron know enough about a topic to research it, Wikipedia usually gives a number of relevant keywords and subjects that can guide further research in library resources.

Since USERS ARE GOING THERE, then it’s worthwhile to provide accurate information when and where we can. Now I’m not suggesting that librarians begin poring through the website, ferreting out inaccuracies, and posting updates duly attributed to reputable, verifiable sources. That’s fine if people have the time, but most don’t. No, instead I’m talking about contributing to the wider body of knowledge through Wikipedia when and where it is appropriate.

A couple of days ago I wrote about making some updates to the web pages for our Digital Accounting Collection. As we were talking about the collection, it occurred to me that Wikipedia might be a good place to share information about the collection. An entry might describe some of the collections as well as giving some history on the digitization project. When I came across this University of Florida entry, I was even more convinced that this was a good idea.

I created my account, and started experimenting in the sandbox. I worked with a couple of colleagues to develop the entry, and I posted an entry on the Digital Accounting Collection today. It was an interesting process to work through. Interestingly, this is the first Wikipedia entry for our library — interesting in an ironic sort of way I suppose. The Digital Accounting Collection was our first fully searchable digital collection, so I guess it’s only fitting that our first Wikipedia entry is about this collection.

So there it is. It’s out there. Since we wrote about things that we know and have worked with ourselves, the information is as accurate as it can possibly be to the best of our knowledge.

At least until somebody else edits it.  😉

Plurk

A lot of librarians love Twitter. Some of them are downright rabid about it. Twitter was mentioned a number of times at the recent American Library Association annual conference, and it was used as part of the technology for some of the sessions. But competition spurs innovation, right? Enter Plurk. Plurk is another microblogging service. For those who want to know more, here is an article comparing Twitter and Plurk.

Too Much Information

We all know that there are a lot of web 2.0 tools out there. Some, like Twitter, fill a specific niche market. (Seriously, it may be fun, but how many people really NEED a microblog?) Others tools, such as Flickr, have a more widespread appeal that is easy to identify.

At the Library 2.0 Summit, Amanda discussed the issue of multiple information streams and the rise of personal information aggregators to help manage the seemingly endless flow of data. As I thought about this, I started wondering just how many personal information streams we actually need. Do people really need MySpace AND Facebook? Flickr AND Picasa? Twitter AND Tumblr?
Perhaps the analogy here is that of flathead vs. phillips vs. hex screwdrivers. I can accept the fact that people need different tools to do specific jobs. If two similar web 2.0 tools have some key differences in core functionality, then perhaps it makes sense to use both of them. But if you don’t have to, why would you assemble something using flathead, phillips, and hex screws? Most people simply wouldn’t. Pick one type and go to work!

With the increasing number of Web 2.0 tools, people are exploring more and more avenues for communication, but this had led to a situation in which people sometimes have too much incoming and outgoing data. Just trying to manage their own information is already time-consuming. But trying to follow the information streams generated by friends and colleagues takes it to another level.

Some people are now turning turning to various aggregators as a way to consolidate information. An obvious example is Meebo. For those who NEED to have AIM, Yahoo, MSN, and Google Talk, ICQ, and Jabber chat accounts, Meebo bring them all together in one interface. Friendfeed offers an alternative for bringing together more diverse types of social networking tools.

While these are interesting tools, it seems that they are treating the symptoms rather than addressing the root causes of the problem. I think we’re now at the point where we have so much information available that we can’t decide which is the most important. We subscribe to multiple information sources because we don’t want to miss out on something important.. The end result though, is that we have so many information sources that we can’t thorougly digest any of them. As a result, we probably wind up missing out on many important things anyway.

Multitasking is not always a good thing.

Monolithic Websites?

In her opening keynote, Sarah Houghton-Jan referred to monolithic library websites. It’s easy to think of some library buildings as monolithic structures – massive, sprawling, cavernous creations that patrons find both intimidating and unnavigable. Are we now creating websites that patrons find just as intimidating and just as unnavigable?

Libraries try to offer more and better services, but are these services that patrons need or want? I’ve seen some library websites that offer a staggering array of services splashed seemingly haphazardly across the screen and ultimately resembling a myspace nightmare with every possible plug-in and add-on known to humankind. In trying to reach out to patrons, do these monstrosities actually push them away?

In some cases, too much information can be just as bad as too little. If a monolithic website frightens patrons away, then there is a problem. In some cases less truly is more.