Nick Bilton’s title phrase — Controlled Serendipity — in the NY Times last week spread virally in the Twitterverse for several days. The phrase resonates for me, with hints of “Zen and the art of Web searching” — How to approach the whole idea of Web searching, cultivating an awareness of when it’s good to follow unexpected paths and when it’s a waste of time (the subject of another article maybe).

The point I want to make here is that Bilton’s article is a good read for librarians — Beyond the catchy title words, he also uses other “library-like” language. Marcus Banks, a librarian at the UCSF Medical Center Library, makes the same point on his blog

Bilton’s language in this post is very reminiscent of library talk:  “filtering,” “curation,” even “serendipity”  (call number systems are designed to encourage serendipity while browsing the shelves.) So there is definitely a role–a huge one, if still ill-defined–for librarians in taming and honing the Web.   As this role becomes more clear, each of us should continue to make our deposits into what Bilton terms the digital “daisy chain.”

So, Librarians — Join the Discussion! If you use Twitter, now’s the time — The stream passes quickly…

A last point — Not enough credit seems to be going to Maria Popova, who’s cited by Bilton as having coined the “Controlled Serendipity” phrase, and who also uses many of the other “library talk” words cited by Banks. So, thank you, Maria — @brainpicker on Twitter — for the great language!

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Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

Dan Cohen gave an excellent talk in a panel (Is Google Good for History) at the recent annual meeting of the American Historical Association that brought much attention in the media and in Twitter by people following the conference’s hash tag #AHA2010.

The main focus of Dan’s talk was Google Book Search — He gave a nicely balanced view, noting that it’s been a valuable new source for historians, but also discussing problems with it, especially what he sees as a lack of openness on the part of Google.

The discussion around Dan’s paper brought in many voices and opinions on Google Books — It was especially encouraging to see positive opinions on the usefulness of GBS by historians (about which I’ve blogged) — An opinion that gets little attention and respect on Twitter ;-)

So, because I found this discussion so valuable, and because tweets stay in Twitter Search for only 10 days, I’m taking the unusual step of recording all of the tweets retrieved with this search: #aha2010 google, which follows below (The search was done on Jan 14):

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

In Michelle Kraft‘s article yesterday, Stop the App Madness, she says librarians should resist the temptation to jump on the “App bandwagon.” We don’t have the resources to create apps for all mobile platforms, she says. Good point, especially in medical libraries, where iPhone, Blackberry, and Palm are all used. But note that Michelle is NOT saying that we should resist the trend to mobile. On the contrary — Here are her words:

The most effective way to reach ALL of your mobile users is to create a mobile friendly website.  If your website is mobile friendly then you don’t have to worry how many of your users have iPhones, Blackberrys, Androids, Pixis, or whatever the next trendy sparkly new device, THEY ALL CAN USE YOUR CONTENT if your website is mobile friendly. Creating a mobile friendly website is the biggest bang for your buck [boldface by me].  It doesn’t require as much programming knowledge as an app and you are able to target way more people more effectively rather than constantly creating different apps.

I’m getting the feeling I’m on a roll … Two days ago in my article One iPod Touch per Librarian (OITPL), I suggest that libraries need to become more involved in the world of mobile devices. Early yesterday, I found one article that I thought related closely to this idea, and wrote about it. And then a few hours later, I discovered Michelle’s Biggest Bang article that also resonates with my OITPL article. …

I think Michelle is right on target — The world is going mobile, and we need to learn how to serve it. As I say in the OITPL article, we should see this as a great opportunity to help the world to discover the best way to design information on a small device, and in the process, win over the next generation of potential library users. (Note that, although I suggest in the previous article that libraries consider providing each staff member with an iPod Touch, I’m open to considering other devices if/when they become as practical as the iTouch — The underlying point is that we need to get mobile devices.

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Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

Yesterday, Dan D’Agostino published The strange case of academic libraries and e-books nobody reads. He questions the investment by academic libraries in eBook packages from publishers that can be read only on computer screens. This is unwise, he says, because studies show that people much prefer to read eBooks on eReaders and smart mobile devices (especially iPhones). I’m including a sizable excerpt because it’s so well-written and because it’s close to the bottom of the lengthy article, and might be missed by many readers:

Just as studies were beginning to show that readers will not read extended pieces of text on computer screens and would use these e-book collections simply for searching, not reading, the Kindle and the iPhone arrived. These devices have shown that dedicated e-readers and smart phones are e-book platforms par excellence; they make e-books work. But unfortunately for academic libraries they don’t work with the huge e-book collections they’ve amassed in HTML and PDF (at least not very well). The result being that as the ownership of e-readers and mobiles begins to increase across campuses, the library’s e-book collection is in danger of becoming a very expensive white elephant, underused at best and perhaps already obsolete.

Dan’s article especially caught my attention because two days ago in my article One iPod Touch per Librarian (OITPL), I suggest that libraries would do well to become more involved in the exploding world of reading on mobile devices. I see Dan’s article as a good example of this — In order for us to put pressure on publishers to provide eBooks on mobile platforms, as Dan suggests, we need to be experienced in using those platforms. And the iPhone/iPod Touch is clearly the reader’s choice now.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

In a discussion of how to label the just-finished decade, some people, most notably Mike Cane, have suggested that it be called “The iPod Decade.” Brian Chen echoes this sentiment, calling the iPod the Gadget of the Decade because it “opened the doors to the always-connected, always-online, all-in-one-device world that we live in today.”

Tim Spalding, on the other hand, says this: “Resolved: The Os were the ‘Lost Decade’ for library tech—libraries made incremental advances, while others flew past them.” Having gotten an iPod Touch (aka iTouch) myself recently, I get the strong sense that much of what Spalding is talking about is the explosion in mobile, especially iPhone/iTouch, use, especially by young people, in the last few years — which has made few inroads in the library world.

So what about the next decade in libraries? How can we catch up to Spalding’s world that’s flying past us? My suggestion is that we get on the mobile wagon as quickly as we can. And the most practical way to do that right now is the iPod Touch (most of the capabilities of an iPhone without the phone and its high monthly AT&T costs).

Mobile Friendly Design: A Great Opportunity for Libraries

The premium in designing information for mobile displays is Simplicity — Dotcom sites are feeling very pinched because small mobile device screens don’t leave much room for ads and Bells&Whistles –  Popular mobile news sites, for example, have mostly the text of news stories on their pages. Likewise, blogs that are well-optimized for mobile (WordPress Rocks!) have just the essential text and accompanying pictures.

A simple, streamlined screen-environment fits us in libraries very well — We don’t have to worry about squeezing ads on our pages, and we’ve never tried to compete with dotcom Bells&Whistles. So mobile seems like a natural for us.

So why haven’t more libraries adopted mobile tools? There certainly are libraries that have developed mobile interfaces for some of their services. But a big barrier to more general of embracing of mobile in libraries is that the information that we have in the “library silo” — most notably the online catalog — is generally not in mobile format (**see below). I suspect that many users, when they see that our “mobile sites” don’t include the catalog, are going to lose interest quickly.

The cost of an iTouch is in the $150-$200 range, making it practical for most libraries to consider providing each staff member with one. The real investment, I think, is going to be learning how to integrate library services with them. It’s going to take an adventurous, visionary administration to accomodate staff time to “play around on the new toy” to learn how to use it.

In many ways, I’m finding the mobile interface on the iTouch to be “uncharted waters.” The standards for what makes a good mobile site are yet-to-be-written — Bloggers, journalists, publishers, web developers — are all hard at work looking for the best approach, competing for the users’ attention. Whoever gets it first will be the winner in the next decade — Hopefully libraries will do better than in the last one.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the inspiration for the cute title of this article –  One Laptop per Child (OLPC) of course — And just in case anybody’s paying attention, I’ll the first to apply the new acronym — OITPL ;-)

**Library Catalogs in mobile format – The only ones I’ve been able to find that have what I would call a truly optimized interface, to make them readable on an iTouch, are North Carolina State Univ, Iowa City Public Library, and Univ North Carolina — Please tell me if you know of others!

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Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

[Sample pictures from the article discussed below are here -- Optimized for mobile viewing.]

A few days ago, Roy Kenagy wrote these interesting comments:

Browsing Twitter today, I was led to a wonderful blog which consists almost entirely of fine art images of people reading. [O Silêncio dos Livros, The Silence of the Books] … As far as I can piece together, the blog is from Hugo Miguel Costa, a bookseller in the small Portuguese city of Portimão.

Costa’s Silêncio is indeed an interesting article, and Roy does a great job of tracing how it got spread around the world in typical Twitter fashion, with many hands keeping the ball rolling, including mine. Building on Roy’s detailed description of the people involved, and their geographic locations, what I found interesting is the combination of “fields of specialty” and nationalities of the tweeters — Starting with the one who really got it going, Andréia Azevedo Soares (@BordadoIngles), a London-based science journalist, who’s from a Brazilian-Portuguese background (which is probably how she happened upon the Silêncio article), with a specialty in health/medicine (which is probably how I happened to be in her Twitter-community.) Here’s Soares’ tweet that got it started:

BordadoIngles: The iconography of the act of reading: the most beautiful list I’ve ever seen: http://tinyurl.com/bvrn3j
6:48 AM Dec 22nd

After I picked up the tweet from Soares and @EvidenceMatters, science and medicine people in the UK, it quickly got spread in the US (and back again to Europe, and to Asia) by people in those areas, as well as among librarians, who Roy helped to bring in.

What I find most interesting about this whole sequence is the word “iconography” — Which was first used to refer to Costa’s Silêncio article by Soares, when she introduced it to the English-speaking Twitterverse. I was doubtful about using the that word in my retweet, thinking that it sounded a bit too archaic, and that it would put people off from looking at the elegant pictures in Silêncio. But, to my surprise, it got attention, to the tune of ten RT’s in a day.

As Roy Kenagy points out, it’s difficult to trace the source of Silêncio. It’s also difficult to establish the date when it was first published, since the article has no date attached. Searching for the Portuguese title (Silêncio dos livros) in Google Blog search, I find articles as early as November 12 that refer to it. So it had apparently been around for at least a few weeks before Soares passed it on to the English world. Since Twitter search only goes back about ten days, it’s not possible to see how much it got tweeted in the Portuguese world in November and early December. Searching now for the Portuguese title and its English version finds only two tweets that are not related to the “iconography” thread.

This whole discussion has been especially interesting to me because it touches on so many of the themes I’ve blogged about here. Some of them are:

  • The importance of concise, creative writing in Twitter – The initial words in Soares’ tweet – “The iconography of the act of reading” essentially gave Silêncio a new English-language life. Her qualifying description “the most beautiful list I’ve ever seen” no doubt helped draw interest, but I’m pretty sure from my own experience that the first few words of a tweet are critical in drawing attention. As quickly as Silêncio got spread in the little corner of the Twitterverse that I inhabit, I suspect it will sooner-or-later spread among other Twitter-communities, maybe with another imaginative Tweet handle. (Seeing the Picture: Writing to Get Retweeted: Emphasize What’s Important!)
  • The vibrancy of science journalism on Twitter – There are several people with connections in this area in my Twitter-community, and I’ve learned much from them, I think because they straddle the world of science and publishing, both of which face similar problems to librarianship. (Seeing the Picture: Librarians & Publishers Twitter Together)
  • The uniqueness of Pictures – Silêncio is essentially a blog article made up of nothing but pictures – Pictures on the elusive theme of “reading books,” that many people seem to find fascinating – But how to communicate the subject in a few words? – “Iconography”? “Silence of the books”? As I said, sooner or later someone will think of something better. This all comes back to the ineffable problem of connecting pictures and text, as I discussed in Seeing the Picture’s first article: Think Different: Pictures.
  • Twitter and blogging working together – Silêncio is made up of “silent” pictures, that don’t “talk for themselves” i.e. have few to no words attached. Twitter is a way to hook some words to it. (Seeing the Picture: Keep the Ball Rolling: Twitter & Blogging Together)

Another theme that strikes me here, that I haven’t blogged about (yet), is the remarkable vitality of Net activity in the Portuguese world — Costa’s Silêncio article from Portugal and its spread by Brazil native Soares. I first noticed that there are interesting Portuguese net-happenings last year, when I discovered the phenomenal Twitter presence of Jose Afonso Furtado (@jafurtado), who tweeted circles around the world with his prolific high-quality messages.

Roy Kenagy is @RoyKenagy

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

If you know of others, please send email or post comment.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

It’s been occurring to me that our old categories — books and magazines — are losing their meaning in the transition to eBooks and eMagazines. So I was interested to stumble last week on the serendipitous series of Twitter tweets below that nudged me to write this article …

Just as I was about to tweet this message …

ericrumsey: Difference Between “Web Pages” & “Magazines” is Getting Blurry http://bit.ly/7AmmsT View Tweet

What should appear in my Twitter stream but this …

doingitwrong: Worst thing about this piece: The assumption that in 2020 eReaders will be about the same as they are now. http://is.gd/5rEZQ /via @PD_SmithView Tweet

And the day before, I had tweeted this …

ericrumsey: Prognosticating eBooks – “What Exactly will Define a Book at the End of 2010?” (LA Times: @paperhaus) – http://bit.ly/4vL1JxView Tweet

The three articles linked in these tweets, on eMagazines, eReaders, and eBooks, have the common theme that the digital world is very much in flux, that old formats are likely to change in unpredictable ways. I think this is especially true in the case of picture-laden magazines –The experience of reading an article on the Web that combines text and pictures is pretty much the same, be it on a blog, news source, miscellaneous webpage, or part of a “magazine.” So I’d guess that “magazines” will fairly soon disappear as a category separate from other Web sources. The category of “books,” on the other hand, I think will take longer to lose its meaning – For now, the experience of reading a book is quite similar whether its in paper or online — The game-changer for the “book” category will be when eBooks become connected to each other so they all blend into the ocean of the Web.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

As a dilettantish historian, I find Google Books invaluable, especially for 19th century sources. With the chorus of negativity surrounding the GBS Settlement debate, it’s been hard to find anyone saying what seems obvious to me – Whether you like it or not, it’s apparent from the comments below that GBS is revolutionizing historical research. So it was good to come across a recent discussion to this effect among historians on a rather obscure academic listserv (SHARP-L: The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing). This is especially interesting because it centers around commentary by Geoff Nunberg in August on GBS metadata as a “train wreck,” which I discussed in articles here. The postings below on the GBS thread are in chronological order. I’ve included excerpts from most of the posts, including representations of all points of view. Most of the postings are in the November archive (thread title: do you use Google Books?). Thanks to @cpwillett for bringing this to my attention.

Beth Luey, Arizona State University

[An earlier] post called to mind a number of recent attacks on Google. I have become addicted to Google Books, which has not only given me access to books that would be hard to find … but has allowed me to find people and passages in books where I would not have known to look. … I’d be interested to know whether other SHARPists find Google Books useful.

Mark Samuels Lasner, University of Delaware

I find Google Books useful for finding truly obscure references but have learned not to trust either the bibliographical information given in the listings or the integrity of the scanned books themselves.

Patrick Leary, Northwestern University

(boldface added here and below) Beth calls attention to a phenomenon that I’ve noticed lately, too: articles sneering at Google Book Search, despite the fact that every serious researcher I know, including myself, now uses it routinely to accomplish certain tasks that would otherwise be very difficult or even impossible to do.

The article by Geoffrey Nunberg in the August 31 Chronicle of Higher Education, is typical.  That article, which has been widely cited, is entitled, “Google’s Book Search: A Disaster forScholars.”  That characterization is flatly ridiculous, and utterly irresponsible. …. The plain fact is that Google Book Search is *not* by any measure a “disaster for scholars”; to the contrary, it is one of the most useful tools that scholars (and other researchers, of all kinds) around the world have ever had available to them, and unlike the many subscription full-text databases, it is available for free to anyone who can muster an Internet connection. … We absolutely do not need are any more sneering dismissals of the entire enterprise.

Elizabeth Horan, Arizona State University

Many books printed in Spanish, esp. Latin America, even important books, were printed without indexes in order to save on production costs. Google Books isn’t fail-safe but it’s better than sitting and skimming huge swathes of text, especially for finding name references.

Zachary Lesser, University of Pennsylvania. These comments suggest what I’ve discussed in previous articles.

The Nunberg article might as well have been called, “Libraries: A Disaster for Scholars.” After all, I’m sure we could all relate anecdotes about how a book was mis-shelved, lost in the stacks for years, catalogued under an inappropriate subject header, etc. For that matter, one might write an amusing article entitled, “Printed Books: A Disaster for Scholars,” with funny examples of typos.

Richard Fine, Virginia Commonwealth University

I agree with Patrick and others.  Google Books is a useful tool and promises to be even more useful in the future.  I think it is especially so for my colleagues working in 19th century (and earlier) materials, and those in the public domain.  That said, I’ve been fishing around for texts from the 1940s and have found several of relevance to a current project through Google Books that I could not locate elsewhere.  Like any tool, it is imperfect and can’t do everything, … Nunberg was way off base, as Zachary Lesser indicated.

Eleanor Shevlin, West Chester (Pennsylvania) University

I just want to quickly second Patrick’s remarks–especially about the value of GBS (despite its flaws, errors, etc.–one needs to be an aware user).  I find GBS indispensable as a finding aid for a host of purposes.

Paul Duguid, University of California, Berkeley

I would indeed almost go as far as to say that to criticise Nunberg through the subtitle without addressing his interests and issues directly comes close to being “flatly ridiculous and utterly irresponsible”.  (Full disclosure here, I am a friend and co-teacher with Nunberg, while Patrick and I have crossed swords before about Google and its critics and he regards me, as he seems to Nunberg, as suffering from “scholarly fastidiousness” for finding fault with Google.) …. Looking beyond the headline, note that Nunberg is well aware of what Google is good at …. So in no way is his piece a “sneering dismissal of the entire enterprise”.

Lisa Berglund, Buffalo State College, SUNY

I use Google Books a LOT, especially for my courses. I can assign chapters and sections of books … Google Books frequently helps me answer quickly and easily questions that would  have been difficult to research with only Buffalo State’s limited college library … Yes, it has its limitations and yes, it can be frustrating but it has made my job so much easier, and enlivened my research so dramatically, that my occasional whining is lost in an almost daily rush of relief and gratification.

Daniel Allington, The Open University

Paul Duguid writes that “we need GBS to take metadata far more seriously so that the collection can be examined as an unrivalled and reliable corpus and not simply a bunch of scanned books”. This is, I think, the heart of the issue. As a “bunch of scanned books”, Google Books is very useful indeed. But it could be so much more than that, and it’s the problems that would have been easiest to avoid that are in many ways the most frustrating.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

This is a subset of my list that has all titles as of November, 2009, when Google announced that they would provide their own list. The titles below are my subjective picks, based on generality of interest and/or length of availability.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey