Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Online Catalogs and their Peculiarities

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education looks at problems in online library catalog databases and some efforts to fix them.
This is a topic of ongoing interest to me, but I can't say I think the article addresses the problem with sufficient depth, and the comments on the article suggest that I am not alone in thinking so.
We're presented with a specific case: a grad student gets poor and frustrating results when using University of Virginia's Virgo catalog. We aren't told what the Virgo search options are or where in the interface the student typed "Thomas Jefferson." We are told, however, that new and better software is taking over.
I haven't used Virgo, so I don't know how it's set up. But I've used Melvyl, Gladis, PittCat, PittCat+, Library of Congress, WorldCat (and is this or is this not the same as OCLC?), and various other library databases in the US, the Czech Republic, and Great Britain. I'm not a librarian and I don't consider myself an expert on library software, but we could say I have some experience in using and getting used to different catalogs.
In most catalog software I've used, the user chooses whether to put "Thomas Jefferson" into search fields such as author, title, or keyword. This is usually but not always pretty effective. Things aren't always properly catalogued. For instance, when I returned from the Czech Republic, I spent a lot of time looking for materials at UC Berkeley--generally books for which I had full bibliographic data. I was surprised to discover that often the library didn't appear to have a book when I searched by title, but that an author search would bring the book right up. I think the reverse was also true, and that sometimes it was more productive to locate Berkeley books using Melvyl, even though I'd normally Melvyl to see if any library in the UC system (within easy driving distance) had a book.
Some of the new catalog software, however, has you just type in "Thomas Jefferson" without specifying whether you want books by him, about him, with his name mentioned in the keywords, or with his name in some other random location. University of Pittsburgh's new PittCat+ does this, forcing the searcher to spend absurd amounts of time winnowing down the categories to find him as a subject. When I first saw PittCat+, I thought I would like it because it does allow you to narrow the search in ways that I had seen on OCLC, but I rapidly concluded that since you can't start with a focused search as in PittCat "Classic", PittCat+ simply wastes the user's time. This was a complaint I heard repeatedly from librarians and faculty. We learned rapidly that PittCat "Classic," with all its faults, was way quicker and easier to use than its replacement.
I've heard people argue that Google-style searching is the new direction for library catalogs, and I've heard people decry it. Well, surely it should be possible to have both Google-style searching (useful for fairly obscure things) and more focused initial searches. After all, if you want books about Thomas Jefferson, the problem is more likely to be how to narrow down the search, since there must be a plethora of books dealing with various aspects of Jefferson--biographies, histories, political studies, works on plantations and slavery, etc.
One of the people to comment on the Chronicle article argued that what we really need is a return to Library of Congress headings. He or she apparently taught these headings for years and imagines that they are easily learned. I beg to differ. I wouldn't say Library of Congress headings are useless, but back in the early days of online catalogs, I tried searching with them, since in those days UC Berkeley's online catalog used them (maybe it still does, in some hidden place). I'd dig around in the big red books, trying to figure out where in the hierarchy my topic might be. I understood the concept of hierarchy, but--not having taken the commenter's class--I found it impossible to guess which aspect of a topic might be higher on the hierarchy. If I had wanted to look for Czech art, for example, I would have been uncertain whether Czech, Czechoslovakia (this was before the Czech Republic existed), or art would start the string. Fortunately Boolean searches pretty much wiped out that problem. Not that Boolean searches are always simple, but the basics of Boolean searching are easy. Czech and art, or Czechoslovakia and art.
I haven't yet familiarized myself with the catalog here, but I've already had one disturbing experience with it. I wanted to put a volume of the commonly used anthology Art in Theory on reserve for one of my classes. I searched for the title Art in Theory and was shocked to find that apparently the library didn't own any of the three volumes. I therefore (after scanning the pages needed and posting them online) requested that the library order the series. To my great surprise, yesterday I got an email saying that we do actually own the volume in question (apparently not the other two) and that it has been put on reserve for my class. Well, I'd like to know where this book was hiding in the catalog.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Photo Book on the Neighborhood

A local photographer has just brought out a book exploring my neighborhood, and you can see previews of it here. She's put more focus on the art galleries and restaurants (some of which I've already visited), with some interior shots to go with the exteriors, but a few of the local houses are also shown, including two that are down the street from me (the 1870s house and the ultra-modern house).

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Neighborhood, Part 2

I wouldn't want it to seem as though everything around me is annoying. It's time for a few more photos of my neighborhood.

Friday, September 18, 2009

And Now for a Moment of Tetchiness

On the whole, I am settling into my new teaching situation without any real trouble. Faculty and staff have been generally welcoming, and my students (so far as I can tell thus far) are pleasant and friendly, with some good observations to offer in the classroom.
On the other hand, I am disconcerted to receive a small onslaught of student emails that do not really bode well.
For example, a student who apologizes for missing class due to taking care of alleged administrative hassles inquires "Is there anything I missed?" This is the kind of query that tempts me to respond "No, I don't bother to lecture when you aren't there."
Another student asks "Since I missed today, I was wondering if we have any assignments due next week?" While it is better to ask than to miss out, the syllabus does reveal that there is a paper due next week.
Somewhat in the same vein is the question "what is the name of the paper we have to read and where can I find it also do we have to write a feed back to the paper and if so how any pages?" All of this information is on the course website, which is also where the syllabus can be found since (as a cost-cutting measure) we are not supposed to hand out paper syllabi and assignments. For that matter, I did talk about next week's paper yesterday in class.
Finally, another student apologizes for tardiness due to problems in the preceding class, and regrets that telling me so after class would have caused further tardiness. Since it is only the second week of class, I have certainly not learned to match everyone's name and face yet, nor do I notice everyone who slips into a dark classroom late; thus it is essential for me to know who actually showed up so that I do not wrongly penalize lateness as absence; hey, handing me a simple note after class would do the trick if I am (improbably) surrounded by eager students.
It's true that I prefer students to ask even somewhat foolish questions than be too shy or easily embarrassed to ask a question at all, but it would be nice if they thought a bit, too.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


And why does Blogger suddenly want me to say I accept its Terms of Service in order to upload a photo of Orion? I've been uploading photos onto Blogger since 2005 and I don't recall having had to accept any such thing in the past...

Monday, September 14, 2009

Around and About

One or two of my faithful readers have mentioned, offline, that there have been lamentably few posts of late. Or just few--perhaps not lamentably. I shouldn't make assumptions here, but if people are looking to see what's here, I suppose they might want to see something new now and then.
The school year has begun here, rather later than for most of my colleagues at other institutions, and curiously enough various things have settled into place. The fluorescent lights in the bedroom closet, for instance, which stubbornly refused to function for a week or so, went back on last week despite my having done nothing yet in the way of checking the fuse. The toilet-paper holder that had fallen from its mounting finally consented to stay in place again. I can't say that the molding around my windshield has magically stuck properly again, but another call to the glass company will fix that, when I get around to it. (I think their next step will be to replace the window a second time.)
More entertainingly, I have been out in the community taking a look around. I visited the Dayton Art Institute, a very fine small-scale museum. (And free to the public! And in biking or even walking distance from home!) I attended the monthly dinner of the Dayton Area Rabbit Network, where I met other people who live with long-eared beings and made tentative plans to have the Spotted Pair's toenails clipped. I visited the 2nd Street Market--several times, so now I know that Saturday is the day when all the produce vendors show up (I'm not sure, however, that I can take home a pumpkin on my bike until I get actual bike baskets). I was too tired to roam the streets and galleries on the most recent First Friday or the latest Urban Night, but I did get to my neighborhood's last potluck picnic of the summer (my potato salad was devoured and I met neighbors who garden, adopt shelter animals, and like art). I also roamed yesterday's street fair on 5th, which meant I finally set foot in some of the galleries and even bought a couple of things. I didn't sample any of the foods, because I had just eaten Thai food at the aforementioned market, but I enjoyed checking out the various art and jewelry vendors.
I was intrigued by the collage-decoupaged furniture made by one vendor, and seriously considered getting a piece, but since the university is only reimbursing about a third of my moving expenses, I felt protective of my pocketbook and thought I had better be certain that I didn't buy anything over $100 and that any piece of furniture had to be something I would actually use and, of course, that I was particularly drawn to the collage on that particular work. Well, I could in fact use another piece or two of furniture, but the types the vendor had available weren't precisely what I would find most useful in my current residence; some of the pieces I liked the most were out of my price range; etc. I chatted a bit with the artist, who was a bit disgruntled that nothing had sold yet despite people liking the work. I said that I supposed it is harder to sell in this economy, but she assured me that in some cities she's sold lots of pieces recently. It seemed to me that in a bad economy people are more likely to buy art objects that don't cost too much--Archelaus cards sell very well--but the artist was skeptical about that. Well, since I don't have a lot of money and there wasn't one special piece that just called my name, I confess that I didn't get any new furniture. And I daresay the artist wouldn't have liked the thought that, as a person who's done a lot of collage myself, I might someday make my own collaged piece of furniture. But that wouldn't stop me from buying someone else's piece if I thought it was absolutely wonderful. Each person's imagination is a bit different, after all.
And, in fact, shortly after that I talked to a different artist, also a collage artist. He remarked that since he was really broke, he was selling pieces for $20 each. Well, I had admired them earlier but assumed they were expensive, so I hadn't considered buying one. At $20, though, I figured I could get one, and that I didn't even feel like it had to be one I adored, but simply one I kind of liked. He does his collages digitally, so I suppose he can make as many copies as he likes of any individual collage--I'd like to learn to do this, since there are a lot of things I'd like to collage with but don't want to slice up, and for that matter I've found a lot of potential collage sources on BibliOdyssey and other art-related sites. The artist was friendly and local, and indicated he might be up for teaching me how he did some of this. So now I've got one of his collages. I also picked up a couple of art-deco-ish spoon rests from his dealer; I've never used a spoon rest, but the elongated rabbit and dog are pretty neat just as objects.
A ways down the street, I wandered into another gallery, where I was immediately complimented on my Czech linen hat. Next thing I knew, the woman who liked my hat, along with her friend, were giving me directions to the local Czech club, which has frequent dances (not that I have much experience with the polka); great places to hike and ski; and so forth. When these kind people bade me adieu, I took a look at the gallery and saw some works by a few of my new colleagues, which was rather fun.
Most of the time, of course, I have been sitting at home working on my classes, on a postdoc proposal, on journal articles, and on other projects.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Blogger Search Sucks

Those of you who have been reading blogs for some years have probably noticed that those hosted by Blogger usually have a search bar up at the top of the page. In theory, you can search the blog for mentions of a specific word or phrase.
It used to be that this search worked just fine, or at least I had no reason to believe it didn't. I used it every so often to locate old posts on my own and other people's blogs, and generally I got more results than I expected.
Over the past few months, however, I began to suspect that this search was simply not functioning properly; I'd search for something that I knew was discussed in a blog somewhere, and yet get absolutely no results, or not the specific post I was seeking. This made me panicky; were my friends deleting some of their old posts, or was I searching using the wrong terms, or what?
This morning I wanted to find what Jesse's old Brno blog had to say about Czech trains and train stations. I knew that Jesse had had quite a bit to say on the topic, so I started by searching for "train."
Not a single post came up. Gadzooks, I thought, can he only have mentioned trains in the plural? I did a search for "trains."
One post came up: a post about trams, which parenthetically calls them "street trains" although in English I've usually called them "streetcars" (A Streetcar Named Desire).
I began to feel a little frantic, and searched on "station." Again, I got one post, this one about the Brno train station. And hey, it used the word "train" right in the first sentence, as well as "trains" later on. Why wasn't this post coming up on my previous two searches? And for that matter, I knew Jesse had also blogged about the Prague main train station, about the train known as the Brnensky drak (sorry, my Czech keyboard doesn't want to work just now), and probably about quite a few other train-related matters.
Jesse began the blog well before Blogger introduced labels, and I don't think he added Delicious tags to each post. My own old blog is partly labeled and also has Delicious tags for quite a few posts, but that still doesn't help me find a lot of the old posts. So the reader really does have to rely on the search function to locate old material. It really has to work, and it just isn't anymore.
This annoys me.