Sunday, October 23, 2005

TagClouds: What if OPACs allowed a "Browse by Tags" feature?

I was suitably impressed the first time I saw how Tags were organised and presented from (this was quite some time ago). What impressed me was the simple combination of:
  1. Arranging the words and terms in one paragraph, and
  2. Varying the font-sizes to represent the popularity of a keyword/ tag.
Alone by themselves, aspect (1) and (2) was nothing fancy. But combine them and you get a simple and compact visual presentation.

Recently, I was introduced to Lee, who maintains a site I came to his "Browse by Keyword" page. First time I've seen this arrangement used outside; thought it was a good idea and wanted to try it out for my blog.

Thanks to Kevin, whom I emailed to ask how this could be done, he introduced me to I signed up and quickly created my own Browse by Keyword url. You can also incorporate the cloud into the blog rather than a URL (instructions in the "Implementation Guide" section when you sign in).

Suggestions for TagCloud:
  • Allow for longer 'Cloud names' (you might notice that my tagcloud URL is missing a "G");
  • When creating clouds, create another option for user to specify the tags that go into the cloud. Currently, the cloud is automatically generated so it doesn't give me control over what terms to specify (other than specifying drop-words).

Then it hit me -- why not do the same for library online catalogues (OPACs) or websites? For instance:
  • Allow the user to Browse by Keywords presented in a 'tag cloud' (this is in addition to the typical listing of keywords/ subject categories)
  • Also, for the alphabetical listing of keywords/ subject categories, vary the font-size for popular tags

I'm going to throw this suggestion to my colleagues and see what they think. If you know of any library website (not librarian blogs) that has implemented the above features, let me know.

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Saturday, October 22, 2005

NLB Newsletter features "Introduction to Blogging" session

Preetam, Mr. Brown and XiaXue might be pleased to know that their "Introduction to Blogging" session (held on 16 Jul 05) has been featured in this particular issue of the NLB online Newsletter.

I'm not sure how many people read the online newsletter regularly. Personally, I hope NLB would provide a RSS feed for this in the near future.


Thursday, October 20, 2005

Gahmen Bloggers Meetup (GBM)

For a co-organiser of the very first Gahmen Bloggers Meetup (GBM), I sure am slow in posting this news. It got Tomorrowed already, for crying out loud... To be honest, I'm not much of a co-organiser. Vantan's doing most of the work so far. I just shared some ideas.

How did this meetup come about?

Two month's back (wow, seems like a year ago) I discovered Vantan's blog while searching for posts related to the National Library (Vantan posted this). We corresponded (I suppose like what most bloggers do) via comments and then via email. So I learnt that Vantan works in a government agency too.

A few weeks ago, Vantan -- fresh from attending the First Asian Corporate Blogging Conference -- suggested in passing to have a meetup for government employees who blog -- or "Gahmen Bloggers" for short. I replied, "Why the heck not? Nothing to hide".

Couple of emails later, we nailed the objective, scope and criteria for the meetup. Very civil service-like eh? Nah! "We all the informal kind, lah". Here's the scope of the meetup -- which was drafted tongue-in-cheek:
There are no hard and fast rules, apart from the fact that you should be a civil or public servant, listed in the SGDI. Also, if someone shares some info with the rest of us, but asks to keep it confidential, do respect that. No recording or surveillance devices will be used; no Minutes will be taken (yay!). However, in line with official policy, bar top dancing is permitted.

If you're interested, contact Vantan.

We're limiting to people working in the civil service or government agencies/ statutory boards -- you know, easier to talk-shop, network, gripe vent complain share learning experiences. You may or may not be blogging, doesn't matter. But it's strictly a meet up on your own time.

Oh, in case you're unsure of what you can or cannot share or blog at the meetup, go consult the Government Instruction Manual (IM) or your Employee Handbook. While you're at it, check out the Official Secrets Act (OSA). If you're really really unsure if you're allowed to attend, drop subtle hints to your boss to guage response...

Just kidding! : )


Sunday, October 16, 2005

Questions about becoming a librarian (Part 7)

[Continued from: Part 6]

Question: Why do people remain as a Librarians?
Related question: Would you remain as one?

Some people choose to remain in their jobs (library-related or not) because they see that have no alternatives. Some choose to because they don't want to change. Some have simply -- to paraphrase Steve Jobs -- "Found what they love".

In his speech to Stanford University, Jobs shared three personal stories and called them: "Connecting the Dots", "Love and Loss", and "Death".
In Connecting the Dots, he said he took up Calligraphy without "even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me."

In Love and Loss, he advised that "Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did... As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle."

In Death, he said: "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

Read the full-text to appreciate the context. I've posted a copy of the text here.

Connecting the Dots: To me, becoming a librarian is something like a leap of faith. You don't really know what you'll achieve until you look back and trace the dots that you've connected.

Love and Loss: Some days I'd feel rather useless and ineffective. There are days when I'd ask if what I do is worth anything at all. Luckily most days, I get a sense of satisfaction from knowing I've made a positive difference either to the readers and customers, or to the organisation.

Death: So what about Death? I think death is that little voice that nags and creates doubt, which prevents us from "seizing the day". Mostly, this doubt is from ourselves -- either self-doubt or self-delusion. Simply-put, Self-doubt is where you think you cannot. Self-delusion is where you think you have when you have not done so.

For instance, am I deluding myself in thinking I've done a good job when I've not? I check for this through informal 360 degree feedback sessions with some of my staff who are willing to be frank with me, plus my direct boss as well.

I think the worse kind of death is self-doubt. Hence we owe it to ourselves to minimise the losses and celebrate more of our loves. If not, who will?

But a question remains -- would I remain as a librarian?

Honestly, I don't know.

I do love what I do at this point in time, but I can't say whether I'd be in this profession five or ten years from now. Things change, especially in this modern society. Perhaps I might still want to be a librarian but won't be able to get a job as one -- no jobs are permanent nowadays.

But I honestly say that I'd treat the job like how I'd stay in a marriage. There will be ups and downs, but the parties have got to make it work, most of all the librarian I think.

In this case, there are three partners to the marriage -- the customers, the organisation, and the employee -- the librarian (I shall ramble on this relationship perhaps another day).

Looking ahead, I'll just bear Jobs' quote in mind:
... you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.

This is the last of the Questions about becoming a Librarian series. Thank you for the questions, and thanks for reading. I also appreciate the comments you've posted and emails received from librarians and non-librarians alike. Please feel free to continue the conversation in this blog.

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Interlude: You've got to find what you love (questions about becoming a librarian)

The following is copied in its entirety from the Standford University news website. It relates to Part 7 of my "Questions about becoming a librarian" series:

Stanford Report, June 14, 2005
'You've got to find what you love,' Jobs says

This is the text of the Commencement address by Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer and of Pixar Animation Studios, delivered on June 12, 2005.

I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I've ever gotten to a college graduation. Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That's it. No big deal. Just three stories.

The first story is about connecting the dots.

I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?

It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: "We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?" They said: "Of course." My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.

And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents' savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn't see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It wasn't all romantic. I didn't have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends' rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, its likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

My second story is about love and loss.

I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4000 employees. We had just released our finest creation — the Macintosh — a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.

I really didn't know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down - that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me. I met with David Packard and Bob Noyce and tried to apologize for screwing up so badly. I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.

I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the worlds first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I retuned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple's current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together.

I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.

My third story is about death.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn't even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor's code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you'd have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I'm fine now.

This was the closest I've been to facing death, and I hope its the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960's, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

Thank you all very much.


Friday, October 14, 2005

Questions about becoming a librarian (Part 6)

[Continued from: Part 5]

Nicholas read Part 5 and asked why I decided to work for a library instead of a bookstore company.

Question never occurred to me, to be honest. But the answer is simple.

Libraries are... well, libraries.

I wasn't interested about working with books per se. I was interested in working in a library. As I wrote in one of my very first post in June 2004, titled "How I came to be a Librarian"*, I wanted a job that gave back to society. In my mind, book stores and book companies didn't fall into that category then. Still doesn't -- not like libraries anyway.

* For some strange reason, the permalink to that post gave a 403 error message when I tested it. If it still doesn't work, click here to the archive and scroll down.
(Next: Part 7 -- the end, finally?)

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Questions about becoming a librarian (Part 5)

[Continued from: Part 4]

Question: Why do people choose to become librarians?

  1. Because they need a job.
  2. Because they don't really know what the job is about. They think so long they work in a library, they are automatically a "librarian".
  3. Because they think all that is needed is a love of reading.
  4. Because even though they didn't know what the job required, they did it anyway. And survived.
  5. Because they grew to love the job, and the job grew with them.

Ok, that's just my sneaky way of answering why (or rather, how) I became a librarian. Just replace the word "they"/ "them" with "I"/ "me" in the above. If you're interested in a longer response, here's a previous post back in 2004 that tells more.

People decide to take up librarianship as a career for various reasons. It's all very personal -- as with all jobs. You might want to Google for "why i became a librarian" or "how i became a librarian" (in those quotation marks). You'll find lots more posts by librarians.

In fact, the real question might not be why they became librarians but why they remained as librarians (like this person thought he/ she could have done better other than being a librarian).

So, that's yet another question for the next post.

(Next: Part 6 -- Final?)


Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Questions about becoming a librarian (Part 4)

[Continued from: Part 3]

Question: What makes a good (public service) librarian?
  • Response #1: I'm still figuring that out myself.
  • Response #2: I'm pretty sure I'm not there yet.
  • Response #3: I hope your answer isn't, "I don't need a librarian, so I don't really care".

I thought really hard for this post. For responses #1 & 2, it's not a matter of modesty (if I were, I'd have named this blog "The Humble Librarian").

Started writing this sometime on 7th Oct but kept putting it in draft because I could give a satisfactory answer to myself. Not that I couldn't think of answers. There were just too many.

I'd considered approaching the question indirectly by answering "What makes a mediocre librarian", since a "good librarian" is someone who's the opposite of a mediocre one. Nah, didn't work.

So in the end, I settled on these FIVE points:
#1 - A "good librarian" is someone whose existence is recognised by the reader/ user/ customer.
This is the most basic. Be it seen or heard, your presence must be made known to the customer, however vague. In short, the customer must know that the librarian exist. I know this point is debatable but I convinced myself eventually. Even if one is the greatest librarian in the world, if the customer doesn't recognise your existence (and therefore the value you add or create) sooner or later, they're going to ask, "What do I need you for?", even though they use the library.

#2 - A "good librarian" is someone who is accessible.
This is a logical step up from #1. Librarianship is fundamentally about Service. There is no service in the long run (or at least not one with the librarian employed) if customers cannot reach the service provider -- whether it's a face-to-face service, or correspondence via email, or whatever is the gizmo-of-the-day.

#3 - A "good librarian" is someone who produce results.
The key word is "results". It implies the entire range of personal and technical competence of the librarian -- search skills, book talking, facilitation, cataloguing, managing budgets, managing staff -- whatever the tasks assigned. The results are in accordance to what the customer wants.

#4 - A "good librarian" is one who understands and applies Ranganathan's Five Laws of Library Science.
The Five Laws are:
  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader his or her book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. The Library is a growing organism.
The following web resources explain the Five Laws in greater detail: (see page 413, para 10) (written from a fictional first-person narrative)

#5 - A "good librarian" is someone who's passionate about their job
"Passion" implies that a good librarian tries hard to go beyond the "mediocre" and "adequate". The job, ultimately, is about providing a service to customers. There can never be good/ excellent service without passion in what we do.

Ok, I admit I tried to emulate Ranganathan's FIVE laws by coming up with five points. Of course mine are nowhere as elegant as his, and I'm certainly not that pompous to assume I can call mine "Laws".

In anycase, I feel pretty happy about these five points. However, if you were to ask me now, "What makes a good librarian?", my first response would still be those three stated at beginning of this post:
  • I'm still figuring that out myself.
  • I'm pretty sure I'm not there yet.
  • I hope your answer isn't, "I don't need a librarian, so I don't really care".

You might also want to Google for "what makes a good librarian" and see what comes up.

In fact, the best answer might just come from non-librarians. If you're not a librarian and you're reading this, please, I'd really like to know what you personally think are the qualities of a "good librarian".

(Next: Part 5)


Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Questions about becoming a librarian (Part 3)

From: Part 2
# 1 - I'm not quite sure how many parts there will be to this series. More than 2 but less than 10, I think. Thanks for those who've left comments in the earlier posts. Your responses gave me more ideas for additional posts to this series.

# 2 - I use the term "librarian" in a general sense, but am mostly referring to Public Service Librarians, 'cos that's my background.

# 3 - I don't know all there is about "becoming a librarian". I'm sharing my thoughts, hoping you'd share yours too, regardless of whether you're a librarian or not.

Question: How does one become a librarian?
Response: You want a philosophical answer to this one? (I'm answering a question with yet another question... it's an occupational hazard).

Even today, I have problems trying to give a clear and simple answer to this question. One could interpret the question in at least three ways:
  1. "How does one get hired as a librarian"
  2. "How does one develop the necessary skills to be able to do what a librarian does"
  3. "How does one get recognised as a librarian"

#1 - Getting hired
Some people are hired with a general first-degree (i.e. any discipline) while some are only hired if they have library qualifications. Obviously, different libraries (in Singapore or otherwise) have different hiring policies, and even for the same organisation, the policies change depending on the circumstances.

Some people obtain a library degree (first degree or Masters) before seeking employment in a library, while some people decide to take up academic qualifications after they've worked for a few years.

To my knowledge, whatever the hiring policy, it's fairly consistent that a Masters Degree is generally considered as the professional qualification (please correct me if I'm wrong here).

#2 - Being able to carry out the duties as a Librarian
"You don't really need academic qualifications to be able to carry out the duties of a librarian".

It's a logical statement. If given enough training and practice, and with the right aptitude and attitude for the job, anyone can carry out the duties of a librarian (or any other job in the world) without paper qualifications.

In that same vein, I'm also saying that possessing library qualifications does not necessarily mean you can carry out the duties assigned. Librarianship is way more than just a piece of paper.

OK, you might now be asking, "Do I need to get library qualifications then?". You'd better check what the HR department people say, but my take is that you do them. It's why hospitals hire nurses and doctors with qualifications rather than accept those without. Those qualifications show that you possess some basic skills and/ or understanding of what you'd be asked to do, which saves the organisation time.

#3 - How does one get recognised as a Librarian?
I'll quote what BeAReader commented in Part 2:
The people using our library had a satisfying experience and gained access to the information they sought. As Librarians we made that happen - that is what we do.
I think as a Librarian, the recognition comes when our customers acknowledge that they've received good service and obtained the information and/ or material they wanted.

It doesn't matter if customers know what academic qualifications the librarian's got, or the specific tasks librarians do, or how much work goes into getting that book on the shelf or programme in the library.

The crux is their acknowledgement; their awareness and recognition that there are Librarians who made it happen, as opposed to "people who work in the library".

Then Librarians become of us.
(Part 4, next).