Response to lesson 5: Mashups

Mashups have had my attention ever since I attended a government information workshop in October.  Two gentlemen gave a presentation on open data, and gave demonstrations of innovative mashups – though I can’t remember exactly what they were, as I’ve done some more research since then.  Here are a few of my favourites:
Sit or Squat helps you find the nearest public restroom, and even has indicators to show whether the establishment housing the washroom is open or closed.
Pizza-Rat Restaurant Health is local to Denver, but I like the premise: you can see health inspection ratings of local restaurants near you.
Layar is a mashup of a whole bunch of different stuff.  It is an augmented reality app, which takes advantage of GPS and camera functionality in smartphones to take mashups to a new level.  Seriously cool stuff!  You can point your phone at an apartment for rent and see its Craigslist ad.  I cannot stress enough how neat this is.

Mashups have a lot of potential, both in a general sense and in a specifically library-oriented light.  As people find new ways to combine sets of information, librarians and library patrons will find ways to apply them to their benefit.  From simple mashups that display library branches’ locations and hours to complex mashups that combine libraries’ new acquisitions with availability information and Amazon ratings and reviews, there is plenty of room for these innovative applications in the library’s toolkit.

But as Darlene Fichter mentions in her book chapter, we can’t just go about mashing things up willy-nilly.  We need to keep in mind the library’s policies on confidentiality that might be breached by some types of mashups, and the ever-present copyright issues that seem to pop up everywhere once we start looking.  We need to read the fine print on the APIs we want to use, and make sure that we are allowed to use them in the way we intend to.  The example of Tom Owad using open data to locate individuals with a certain book on their wishlists is downright frightening.  He didn’t harm the identified individuals in any way, but it is all too easy to imagine how someone could do something more sinister.  Books are contentious items, even now.  Although we are not responsible for keeping our patrons out of trouble, we do have a responsibility to not put them in it.

I was going to get excited about tagging in this space, because social tags have pretty incredible potential as an uncontrolled classification tool, but since we’ll be talking about that later, I’ll save my enthusiasm.

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Response to lesson 4: Wikis

Ah, wikis.  Part of my duties at my co-op placement involve a sort of nebulous “maintain our wiki” function.  This tends to be one of the areas where I don’t spend a lot of time, as the corporate wiki (and my unit’s portal) does not get a lot of attention.  One thing that is contributing to this stagnation is the overbearing company policies that extend to the wiki.  For instance, everything that is published in English must also be translated into French and sent through editors before it can officially go up.  These extra steps really stifle the collaborative, instant nature of wikis.  If we have to have everything translated before we post it, it slows progress to a crawl and overloads our translation team.  Translation is also a cost-recovery service, which means we have to pay for it from the department’s budget.  It seems like an awful lot of process for a wiki that is entirely internal!
DFAIT, on the other hand, has a bustling and successful wiki. (That is the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, for those not up to their ears in government acronyms.)  Some pages are updated in English, some are updated in French, and some are dutifully translated into both languages – but it is at the discretion of the user.  Traffic explodes during times like now, with the hubbub in Egypt.  Updates occur hourly, sometimes more often.  They have developed several in-house features that bring their wiki above and beyond the standard mediawiki package: a search engine that can sort by relevance, their own statistical tracking system… it is a thing of beauty.  People see it, find it useful, contribute, and repeat.
When it comes to the world of libraries, the properties of a wiki give it a broad array of potential uses.  Meredith Farkas outlines some of them in “Using Wikis to Create Online Communities”, all of them bristling with promise.  A catalogue with user reviews! A wiki for the community! A central location for pathfinders!  But as it is all too easy to observe, many wikis never make it off the ground.  There are many things that can cause a wiki to fail, like poor organization and navigation, lack of planning, failure to follow through and continue updating, unenthusiastic or uncommunicative users, lack of content, or too many rules *cough*.  Even if people want to collaborate, an unfriendly interface will turn them away.  Another factor is feedback – a friendly, active community will be good at encouraging wiki contributors to keep doing what they’re doing, while a silent community that doesn’t provide feedback in any way will eventually convince all but the most determined contributors that what they are doing on the wiki doesn’t matter and is not making an impact, and they will stop contributing.
Maish Nichani brings up some very good points in her article about planning and sustaining wiki-based projects, and the commenters chime in as well.  The article provides a solid framework for nurturing the continued growth of a wiki, and commenter Dennis McDonald sums up nicely: “Planning is good. Too much planning without action is bad. No planning is worse.”  It’s all about balance.
As for Wikipedia – this assignment was pretty tough!  I found it tricky to identify things I know enough about to feel confident in editing, and even trickier to find one of those that was less than complete.  But I eventually located a sad little scrap of article that could use some freshening.  Here are some pictures:
It still doesn’t look like a whole lot, but I think it’s much improved.  The article is about the website Gaia Online, which is a predominantly forum-based site.  No problems at all with the wiki markup – the help page was quite handy, but all I needed was the WYSIWYG editor for my purposes.  Even if I didn’t have my background knowledge of markup languages, it would have been quite easy to figure out.

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Response to lesson 3: RSS

I love RSS.  My Firefox RSS folder is bursting at the seams with all of the assorted feeds I follow.  The browser comes equipped with a BBC News feed, which is where I got hooked.  We used to get the newspaper when I was younger, but my household no longer subscribes to a local paper, and I had been missing the news.  Not any more!  RSS allows me to scan headlines faster and more efficiently than I ever could in a print copy of the paper.  And as an added bonus, BBC and other sites have a social feature embedded in their pages: I can see which articles are being read the most, and which are being most frequently shared.  The numbers are usually in favour of interesting or contentious topics, like incredible scientific discoveries or (sigh) more public shootings.  Despite my personal level of interest in the topics that are presented in the “most popular” section, I feel that as a librarian, I should keep myself up to date on current events. (This would go double if I was working at a reference desk!)  The combination of RSS and social metrics on news sites makes it very easy for me to be aware of current events.
RSS feeds are an excellent tool for keeping informed while keeping information overload at bay.  With my Advanced Information Filtering Skills ™, I can skim titles of stories or pages and determine which ones are relevant to me and which ones I will ignore.  Personal blogs can be more hit-and-miss than feeds from official news channels, but the opportunity to get a personal perspective, sometimes different from my own and sometimes not, is refreshing.  The downside to this is that some people write excellent content with really terrible titles.  It’s great for you if you like to keep your entries arranged numerically, but it gives me no idea what each of your varied entries is about, and it turns me off of your feed.  (It also makes it  harder for me to remember things I liked – “Oh yeah, entry 11282010 was really informative!”) 
When it comes to the use of RSS in libraries, I’m all for it as long as the content is there.  If you only update your feed once a month, it might not be necessary – the slowest feed in my list only updates once a week, and I really only have it there to remind myself to look at it every once in a while.  Technological ADD is beginning to rear its ugly head in my life.  But an RSS feed for a library blog, especially if the bloggers are active, is a great idea.  It seems to cost next to nothing in terms of effort, server space, and webpage real estate, and it adds another layer of accessibility to the new (and not-so-new) generation of web-savvy information addicts.
The fact that RSS capability is built into my browser makes it very convenient to use the feature, and I had very little trouble figuring out the ins and outs of subscribing.  The theme I chose for my blog already had RSS included, so that was a step I didn’t have to take.  In terms of this week’s lesson, my only complaint is the size of the screenshots.  I use a netbook for a lot of my personal computer time, and the giant screenshots are really hard to navigate on a tiny screen.  I would like to see thumbnails linked to the full size images.  (Even on my larger monitor, I still have to scroll sideways to see everything. I hate scrolling sideways.)

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Hello!

Hello, members of LIS 9763!  (If you are viewing this blog and you aren’t a member of the class, I will be very surprised.)

My name is Tabitha, and I am nearly finished with my MLIS degree, I swear.  I started in Summer 2009 and I think most of my cohort has moved on to bigger and better things.  I’m currently on co-op with Statistics Canada, loving every minute of it.

Social media has been flitting around the edges of meetings and discussions at my placement here, although mobile devices have been hogging the spotlight lately.  Like many librarians, I am not extroverted by nature.  But I can’t deny the looming presence of social networking and related applications, and their potential is actually pretty exciting!

On the personal side of things, I am currently living in Ottawa with my fiance and giant cat.  It’s a beautiful city, and I can’t wait to start checking out the museums!  I am practically salivating just thinking about it.   My spare time mostly goes to crafty dabbling, and I own more yarn than a reasonable person should.  I am also quite fond of the new Doctor Who series.

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