Saturday, April 05, 2003

Of Parlour Pinks and Parlour Warriors
When I was studying the history of communism I came across an interesting phrase: a parlour pink. It was derisively applied to all those communists who lived in Paris and showed their solidarity with the cause by writing impassioned letters while sipping absinthe in chic little clubs on the Left Bank.

I'm seeing a hell of a lot of parlour warriors in this war.

Friday, April 04, 2003

A Professional Divertissement
Until twenty-five years or so ago, any librarian trained after the introduction of the Dewey classification sytem could have walked into my office and have no trouble taking over. This is no longer true. A librarian from, say, 1950, would be as out of place in my library as John Ashcroft at a communist party meeting. Everything about us would be alien to her.

The changes that would stymie that 1950s librarian arrived in the wake of what we in the library and information science field call electronic information handling technologies. Yes, indeed, the good old computer with all its dazzling array of applications. A little known technofact: libraries have been the canaries in the coal mines of mass information dissemination since the 1970s.

When I started my professional career back in the 1980s, computers being installed were used to facilitate the handling and security of patron information. Soon after, the online catalog appeared. The first library computer I ever worked with had big bulky terminals with built-in screens and keyboards. Any professional librarian of a certain age will remember those terminals. Each came with a small toolkit. If something malfunctioned, the cover could be removed. Inside there were hundreds of tiny switches that had to be manipulated using a thin knitting needle-like tool from the kit. Soon after that the first real online public access system was installed, followed by the technical services modules, then the turnkey integrated library systems.

Today we select and order books from the vendor's online catalogs, download records into our systems from OCLC's worldwide bibliographic utility, and access information from hundreds of online databases. Yesterday I attended a demonstration for a new software that allows any patron encountering problems while accessing a database from home to initiate a real-time reference consultation online. It lets the librarian capture the patron's browser and conduct a mini-training session over the net. The two largest legal information providers are already offering the option. More and more, librarians are becoming teachers of information access, evaluation, and retrieval.

Wide-spread access to the Internet has brought a human wrinkle to libraries: the users who think they don't need us. I can find all I want on the Internet! is the defiant cry of many undergraduates and not a few faculty. A few years ago I had a conversation with a political science professor who informed me that he didn't need libraries any longer. When he needed to find a book, he just went to...the New York Public Library's online catalog. And, of course, for news he used the New York Times website--except when he needed to do historical research, in which case he used his library-provided password to access the periodical databases from home. I smiled sweetly and told him that since he didn't need the library we would go ahead and cancel his password. The deer-in-the-headlights look was priceless. Last time I heard, he was co-teaching a polisci research course with a reference librarian.

As for undergraduates...well, every year we see them troop in, usually five days or so before the end of the semester, looking for the stuff they couldn't find on the Web. Those are the lucky ones. The unlucky ones turn in papers with the information they found. A bit of free librarian advice here: the web is unregulated space and any Tom, Dick, or Kook can post information. Before you take information from a website, identify the source!

And as far as downloading papers: guys, many libraries have someone who specializes in tracking down paper mill sites. We are required to assist faculty who suspect either plagiarism or wholesale download. Watch your asses. We have a computer and we know how to use it.