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Search is receiving renewed attention from developers, designers, and venture capitalists, which surprises me not at all.

Some of that focus is placed on semantic search, such as the work Powerset is pursuing. Others, such as Mahalo, have revisited the idea of human-indexed results. And then, of course, there's Twine, which appears to combine the best of both worlds.

But the project I find most exciting has less to do with advancing the actual retrieval function and more to do with improving the manner in which our results are presented. And it would appear, from what little I've seen so far, that they've jumped the search results page ahead a whole evolutionary order, as compared to the standard set by Google. It's as if Lucy gave birth to Einstein.

May I introduce SearchMe:

Applying the look and feel of Apple's popular Cover Flow iTunes interface to search results is a brilliant piece of appropriation—one so simple that it'll have thousands of people asking, "Why didn't I think of that?" which is always the sign of a great idea. The interface shown in the demo is not only beautiful, but it promises to be the first truly intuitive visual results page. Up front it offers a massive amount of information that is easily digested—in much the same way we flip through a magazine—then parcels out additional information on an as-needed basis through subdued textual features.

Considering Tuesday's post, it is particularly interesting to note SearchMe's use of categories to help narrow a search. Makes sense. In such a visually rich environment in which text is at a premium, such classifications can be a powerful tool.

The actual results SearchMe retrieves have been questioned, as has its scant 1 billion pages indexed (compared to Google's 20 billion). That will improve in time, as SearchMe scrapes more of the Web. And once they go fully live, they will likely have plenty of time and money to get it right. As CNET notes, like a magazine, the riffling effect of the interface allows advertising to be inserted among the results.

However, if precision and recall prove to be the company's Achilles heel, I imagine it won't take long for one of the more established engines to buy their interface.


Clay Shirky Is Overrated

It's to Clay Shirky's credit that after three years people still talk about his piece Ontology Is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags. It makes sense we still talk about it because Shirky is clearly smart, is a good writer, and makes a compelling argument. His piece certainly made a few generations of catalogers, indexers, and taxonomists lurch forward and spit up their morning coffee—which is never a bad thing. Keeps us from getting complacent.

There are a handful of good critiques of Shirky's argument, most notably from Gene Smith, who takes on the politicized nature of what should otherwise be a methodological argument, and Peter Merholz, who takes exception with Shirky's classification of what classifications are.

However, there are two fundamental flaws in Shirky's argument that I've not seen addressed, one philosophical and one technological. First, philosophically Shirky takes umbrage with the bias imposed by top-down classification schemes. He's certainly right about that. However, bottom-up classification schemes are just as culturally imperialistic.

We are, after all, talking about tags applied by an Anglophone society. Our use of English, which is no less a classification system than any offered by the Library of Congress, informs how we view the world. As McLuhan rightly noted, English's phonemic system has a profound effect on how we learn, relate to each other, and relate to the world, as opposed to how a people who grow up in a morphemic linguistic system, such as the Chinese, view the world. Neither is better than the other, but they are different.

Just because a majority of people who can read and write English apply a certain tag to, say, a picture of Fenway Park doesn't make it inherently better or any less imposed. What about the minority that doesn't think of that word at all when they see Fenway? At least with an ontology, everyone has to learn the same lingua franca to access the same material. Which is why, incidentally, Latin, French, and now English have all taken turns as the languages of diplomacy.

Shirky's argument is also—and has always been—creaky technologically. He neglects to consider, either from intention or ignorance, that the entire Web, which enables his dream of democratic tagging, is built on structured metadata, which is why it will always operate optimally amidst structure.

Web 1.0? Built on Java, which solidified an entire system of programming, called object-oriented programming, whose power lies in their application of classes and objects. By the way, classes and objects, along with relationships, form the holy trinity of ontologies. Oh, and Web 1.0 was also built on the back of database technology. So, for that matter, is 2.0 and whatever 3.0 will be. Is there anything more structured and more precisely labeled than a database table?

Web 2.0? Built on XML, which allows individual systems to label their data however they want, but insists that they provide crosswalks that enable other idiosyncratic systems to talk to them and use their data.

And Web 3.0 might yet be built on RDF, which creates a lingua franca for predicate logic that will enable systems to make inferences, thus creating a "semantic Web." The result, if anyone actually pulls it off, would be a mash-up heaven for all who venture on the Web, whether they know script or not.

Wouldn't that make Shirky happier than unfettered tagging ever could?


The Clock Is Ticking

I've thought a great deal about this extinction timeline since my last post. It's hard for me to imagine a world with no public libraries, mostly because I don't want to. However, even when I try to cast a cold eye on their life and death, it's hard for me to imagine that public libraries will be "extinct" by 2019.

Sure, I think the monolithic House of Knowledge design model that has perpetuated since Carnegie is dying. But in its place will sprout countless other service models designed by the countless creative librarians I know to be out there. In fact, I think there will be as many different service models as there are communities, however we define community. Because the imperative of librarians is no longer to impose but to adapt.

One of the interesting juxtapositions on the extinction timeline is its prediction that copyright will die one year after libraries. The two are undoubtedly linked, because the success of many of the most prevalent library service models is predicated on their offering free access to not-free and, often, quite expensive items—items whose monetary value rests almost entirely on their copyright. I think the timeline gets it wrong at least in that it puts the death of libraries before copyright. Copyright is clearly the canary in the coal mine for most current public library models, which emphasize the value of content way more than the value of how it's delivered.

Therefore, as more content creators search for and successfully develop new ways to openly license and distribute their work (see open access publishing, Creative Commons, and Kristin Hersh's CASH Music for examples), libraries will also have to develop ways to collect the work, make it seamlessly findable, and make it relevant to their public. In other words, once enough content is freely and widely available, "free content access" is no longer a reason for public libraries to exist. That's when it comes down to community need and community service—community relevance.

Which is why it's so distressing to hear that a new service outreach model developed at the Brooklyn Public Library will likely get shelved because of budget cutbacks. Perhaps 2019 will come sooner than we think.


WTF Is a "Twopointopian," Anyway?

I'd really start to be bored by this argument, if it weren't for the fact that its persistence among librarians bodes poorly for the future of libraries.

Toward the end of her piece, the Annoyed Librarian writes:

We need libraries because we need an educated citizenry. We need libraries because there are people who can't afford books and magazines and computers, and they need help, too. We need libraries because children need to learn the joys of reading.
On these points, we are in complete agreement. However, she loses me in her unfocused search for straw men to knock down.

As the rest of her post—and much of her blog in general—attests, she has some sort of fixation on gaming librarians and something called "twopointopians." Granted, twopointopians is a clever construction. But it's about as empty as the phrase "library 2.0." Web 2.0 is nothing more than another information distribution system. Sure, there's a lot of crap out there in its midst, but it's also done some good by placing some control over content back in the hands of the non-programming public. Is that the issue, control? We all know some librarians have control issues. In any case, it's every librarian's job to understand as much as they can about every form of information distribution.

Besides, does anyone else find it curious that AL vents her spleen and hides behind the anonymity of the flagship 2.0 app, Blogger?

Her concurrent fetish with gaming librarians leaves me with one question: Where in the hell did she get her MLS? Mind you, my program is not housed at Harvard. Then again, no LIS program is. Regardless, I've gone to library school with a couple hundred people, some of whom were gamers, yet none of them were able to get credits for playing Myst. We actually had papers and presentations and other assignments, some of which were hard and made me learn things.

The fact remains that public libraries are underfunded. And they likely will continue to be unless librarians learn to capture the imagination of politicians and taxpayers. The educative mission of libraries is paramount, but let's face it, it's not sexy and it's not as self-evident to others as it is to us. It's like spinach: sometimes you have to saute it in a little butter and nutmeg to make it seem more than simply good for you.

Furthermore, society is changing rapidly, and some of that change is due to digital media. That means that the book-and-periodical model of library service is going to get crowded out, at least a little. One need only look to the NEA's latest research for evidence. As a book person, this saddens me. But as an information person—a librarian—I need to adapt. No one makes this point better than Catch and Release:
I’m not sure that I look at the circulation desk as the service point at which the core competencies of librarianship are being or should be practiced, and because of that I really have no problem with self check machines augmenting and *not replacing* that part of library operations. Further, I think it is important to recognize that the “classic” public library is based on an archaic definition of literacy. Literacy is no longer about just reading text in books. We live in the “information age”, a time defined by complex cultural and media literacies. We need new buildings and new service models to address the new literacy needs of our patronage and our potential, unrealized patronage.
As I see it, it's either evolve or die. And if we do our jobs mindfully, we might just help guide the public through the changing reality. If we don't, then we'll prove right those predicting the death of libraries in 2019.


Boys and Their Toys

I'm fond of Wikipedia. It does a pretty good job of harnessing collective intelligence, and it's a good starting point for research into most topics, particularly technological or esoteric subjects. Is it perfect? No. But it's no less perfect than any other encyclopedia and it's certainly unrivaled in scope. It's also free.

Given my attitude toward Wikipedia and how I use it, when a controversy over one of its entries surfaces in the news, I usually scan it, yawn, then move on. That is, unless it's a story about how Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales dumped his girlfriend, former Fox News personality Rachel Marsden, via a Wikipedia post.

Beyond the story's tawdry appeal—and I readily admit I find it tawdry and, thus, appealing—what really attracts me to it is puzzling out what point Wales was trying to make by handling his personal affair in this way. I mean, he had to know what he was doing. He is, after all, the most visible and vocal proponent of freely distributed knowledge and had to realize that anything he posts will be scrutinized. The alternative is that Wales, like some latter-day Victor Frankenstein, does not truly understand the power of the creature he wrought.

In any case, I think it's great that an encyclopedia entry generated so much buzz, thus displaying Wikipedia's power as a news distribution tool, something no other encyclopedia can boast. And if you want more on this story, go to

Update: Maybe Wales is more of a mad scientist (emphasis on mad) than anyone thought. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, found via Slashdot, Wales not only may have violated the spirit of Wikipedia editing protocol during the Marsden affair, but he also is alleged to have tried to play fast and loose with Wikipedia Foundation money.


Agent of Change

Librarians have long wrestled with identity. We have argued about our role in an organization or in society. We have struggled to define our work as a field of research, a practical discipline, a higher vocational calling, or some combination of the three.

What remained stable throughout the struggle were the tools, services, and environments in which we operated. Our environment was always the library. Our tools and services were fundamentally bibliographic in nature.

The rapid and continuous development of digital technologies has, of course, changed that. Or has it? It has in the sense that it intensified the library world's struggle over identity, and it's certainly made librarians more accountable to prove the value of the work their doing and generate quantifiable results—neither of which is a bad thing, by the way. What hasn't changed, though, is that librarians still must use tools, design services, and develop environments. Some of them are just digital now.

In other words, proprietary databases, search engines, and Web 2.0 apps are information tools, just like books and periodicals and videos. Reference services and information literacy instruction and archiving and data collection and access are all just services, no matter how they're performed and what tools are used to perform them. Hell, even libraries themselves are only environments, just as the Internet is.

What sets the tools apart is how and why librarians use and understand and interpret them. What sets the services apart are the ways in which librarians design them to meet our public's needs effectively and appropriately. What sets the environments apart is how and why librarians build them and use them and get others to populate them.

So, you see, it's the librarians in all three cases that are (or should be) the agents of action and change, not the tools, services, or environments. And that role as agent of change implies certain values specific to librarianship.

I don't currently work in a library. Yet I went to library school for a particular reason and I still consider myself a librarian, because a librarian's identity has nothing to do with the type of building or organization he works in. I applied to library schools because I recognized that librarianship, of all information sciences, is the most people-centered. And it all comes down to people—how they use content, technology, or a medium, not the content or technology itself.

I became a librarian to understand the "hows" of people's interaction with information and its distributive systems—the informational context—and through that understanding, become an agent of change.