Dec 31, 2010

Earlier today I finished reading "Holidays on Ice" by David Sedaris, bringing my total books read in 2010 to 26. I set an ambitious goal of 39 for myself this year and fell well short. But 26 matches my total from 2009, so at least I'm not regressing. (Of course last year I didn't have to read two sub-200 page books in the last three days to get that total, so perhaps my intellect is sliding.)

Short of some Rain Man-esque miracle in the next 120 minutes, that will remain my total at year's end. So let's take a quick look at my five favorite reads for 2010.

"Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro
This one now ranks up there with "The Road" and "The Great Gatsby" as one of my all time favorites. Few writers have a mastery of the English language that Ishiguro possesses, and his ability to make huge plot revelations in an understated, almost unstated, manner is spectacular. A good film version of the book came out in 2010, but the the novel is the better entré into this story.

"Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCann
Told as a series of stories about disparate people in New York City the day a man walk a tightrope between the World Trade Center Towers, by novel's end the connections between the characters and the emotional resonance of it all left me in tears.

"A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan
Like "Let the Great World Spin," each chapter of this one is told from the perspective of a different character, all somehow connected to one another, sometimes in the most tenuous of ways. Perhaps worth a read solely for the chapter consisting of nothing more than PowerPoint slides, Egan transcends such tricks with tales of how we will never be the same people we are right now again, but we'd never be the people we will become without that moment of "now."

"The Passage" by Justin Cronin
Along with "A Visit from the Goon Squad," this was probably the most fun I had reading a book all year. This novel about a vampire-like plague that ends civilization as we know it covers about 100 years. The first third of the book follows what would ordinarily be the events of a horror film, while the more interesting rest of the book tells of its post-apocalyptic aftermath. Looking forward to Cronin's sequel, whenever it gets here.

"Cold Mountain" by Charles Frazier
Beautiful, terrifying, romantic, hypnotic, infuriating, educational. Frazier's meticulous telling of a Confederate soldier's journey home is a fantastic read, mirroring "The Odyssey." The constant push and pull between good and evil drives the book, and the notions of societal law and justice rarely fall on the side of "good."

Dec 8, 2010

On Friday's episode of "Law Librarian Conversations," I'll be on a panel featuring Ed Walters (CEO, Fastcase) and Jason Wilson (Vice President, Jones McClure Publishing) discussing the future of interface design for legal research applications and services. Over the course of the show we'll be discussing several variations of this topic with co-hosts Rich Leiter and Roger Skalbeck. The show's agenda includes:

  • Native App vs. Browser-based tools
  • What interface innovations can we borrow from other applications?
  • Modularity & Interoperability: Will we ever have modular legal research tools?

In preparation for the episode, I wanted to organize my thoughts with regard to a specific aspect of the subject matter. This post may best fit under the broad umbrella of the first topic variation, native apps vs. browser-based tools, but it branches out a bit in a tangential direction. What I want to consider is, what comes after web browsers, and how will law school libraries adapt in a post-browser world?

I don't think it's going to be as simple as browser-based tools replaced by platform-specific native apps. Content and service providers won't simply stop building websites and focus exclusively on their iPhone/iPad/Android/etc. apps. End users won't suddenly stop using a web-browser like Firefox or Google Chrome, and content for those platforms won't cease to exist. HTML or some variation of it will remain a common way for content providers to present information, even information whose organization and backend are powered by other technologies and programming languages. But rather than have users open a web browser manually, the basic user interface for an operating system might be the browser itself. At some point, Google's operating system (be it Android or something else) might just incorporate Chrome as the desktop. Thus, whether you open an app or a location, you always open it within the browser.

Sound far fetched? It's already here. On Monday Google launched Chrome OS and the Chrome Web Store. (They also launched an eBook store and reader, immediately making all public domain Google Books available in eBook format.)

Many apps, and eventually many web locations, may not functionally run within the browser itself, but for end users the integration will be seamless and all look to be part of the same system, regardless of what backend technology a service actually runs on. As solely web-based services increase functionality using tools like jQuery to expand web UIs beyond simple HTML, a user's reliance on a browser's navigation features (in present form) will diminish. The address bar may not need to be visible at all times, and will instead be hidden away in an easily accessible panel, as so many other once-prominent buttons and menu options already are. (Apple's spec for iOS Safari already includes the ability to hide the address bar, albeit in a manner that creates security risks.) Bookmarks will cease to be locked in the browser and will become icons on the OS browser's desktop, with apps and browser-based tools indistinguishable from one another. Everything will be an app and everything will be a web-based tool.

Perhaps law school libraries will integrate seamlessly into this world, providing an app-like experience that both provides useful information to patrons and links to the vendor-based apps/tools patrons actually use to perform research. Or perhaps no matter how hard they try to fit in, they will feel to patrons like unnecessary intermediaries. Or they might feel like nothing.

Imagine a future in which each vendor provides an app or app-like web service for all clientele. When a law student or faculty member wants to access Westlaw, Lexis, Hein Online, JSTOR, ProQuest, etc., he or she simply launches the vendor-provided database icon sitting on that OS/browser desktop. To the patron, there is no visible interaction with the library itself, though the library provides the access itself with a paid subscription. Perhaps the patron has to authenticate through the library the first time they launch the app, but once authenticated, the patron interacts directly with the vendor from then on. (Fastcase and WestlawNext already have iPhone and/or iPad apps. This is just the beginning.)

Imagine further that more and more electronic treatises are available via vendors, rendering a library's print collection into a niche case resource. Thus patrons perform almost all their book-based research electronically from anywhere using direct vendor apps/services.

And imagine still that vendors expand their service offerings to incorporate direct client support for usage of their apps/services. Thus, in a more expensive contract model, when a patron needs help using a vendor application, he or she always gets this tech support from the vendor itself. Maybe this support personnel is in Minnesota or Ohio and consists of attorneys and librarians. Or maybe it consists of cheaper offshore employees who have training not in the subject-matter but the platform.

Maybe vendor service deteriorates in this model. Maybe not. Either way, maybe it's good enough that it's cost-effective, even for the libraries who sign the support contracts and can now reduce the professional staff they employ (i.e., pay), operating successfully on a much lower budget.

Or maybe since vendors are doing everything already, except paying for the school's subscriptions, law school administrators eliminate even the budgetary function of librarians, handling electronic subscription selection directly in the school's budget office.

And maybe patrons won't scream in protest as much as librarians hope they would. Patrons still have access to a wide array of content and, thanks to improved UI design and search algorithms, don't need to call tech support that often anyway.

Law school libraries won't disappear altogether in this scenario. There will still be a need for the print collections, but the demand for them might be low enough that they could operate as closed stacks. The library director becomes more of a curator than librarian, preserving the collection and obtaining limited rare items for storage. Maybe the closed stacks become remote storage. Maybe the remote storage makes more use of robotic technology than human labor. Maybe law schools in the same geographic region combine collections and maintain a single closed-stack, remote-storage facility for the area, meaning only one librarian/curator might be needed to serve four or five law schools.

One might call me a Cassandra for painting such a far-fetched scenario of doom. But for whom does this scenario spell doom other than librarians? Assuming (and yes, this is a big, but hardly impossible, assumption) the end-users-formerly-known-as-patrons are satisfied with the content to which they have easy access, does the direct vendor/patron world look all that bad to them? Or to law school administrators looking to streamline budgets? Or to the vendors who are the only ones developing legal research UIs for the future right now?

This isn't to say there isn't valuable expertise lost in this scenario. Surely librarians are better at legal research resource selection than accountants, and maybe that will save some librarian jobs. Or maybe the accountants won't know this until after they eliminate librarian positions, at which point the accountants will just try to get better at that part of their job. They might never be as good at it as a librarian, but the cost savings might be worth it to the administration.

Patrons might be satisfied with the vendor support they receive when using a database, but who will help them figure out which database to use? So maybe law schools retain one librarian to handle those kinds of questions, or to handle the more demanding faculty research requests. But as I sit staring at a virginal reference statistics sheet for today, unblemished by even a single tally mark, I already know demand for reference desk help is on the decline, and has been for years. Maybe the one librarian retained for reference support is the same library director/curator who's already managing the closed stacks. Or maybe reference service is outsourced to some other offsite professional, one who provides the same service to many libraries simultaneously.

Maybe not. I don't know. This post is intended more as a stream of consciousness exercise than a reliable prediction of the future for libraries. But I do think there is a benefit to acknowledging and verbalizing the worst case scenario, one where law school librarians are gone and no one misses them. If that professional nightmare isn't put to words, how can librarians avoid it—or better yet adapt to it.

There are ways, even in this scenario, to survive. Maybe law school libraries need to look at what available data they can provide to the world and become content providers themselves. Then a law school, relying on the labor of the library, can offer an app or web service to sit alongside the vendors' on that OS/browser desktop. Maybe this means open access law reviews. Maybe it means legal education primary materials and datasets. Maybe law school librarians should take on the responsibility of maintaining primary law collections for the state in which they reside. Most state court systems don't have the budget to maintain decent repositories of appellate court decisions, but if law school librarians take on the effort, such repositories can improve drastically.

Another way to survive might make many librarians feel sick: work for a vendor. WestlawNext, love it or hate it, was a long-term project headed by a corporate vice-president who happens to be a law librarian. (The company insists on calling Mike Dahn a "former" law librarian, which baffles me since he spent the last five or six years spearheading the creation of a massive digital law library, albeit one designed for profit.) Perhaps this may not be an option. After all, Thomson-Reuters is currently downsizing its most visible librarian department. But if vendors provide direct support to legal research patrons, maybe librarians still belong there in some fashion. ("Librarian Relations" is hardly the only role a librarian can play in vendor culture.)

The worst way to survive? Brainstorming ways to artificially insert the library into the research workflow. The fancy word to describe the removal of librarians from the research process, coupled with direct interaction between patrons and vendors, is "disintermediation." Worst case scenarios aside, there may be plenty of librarian functions that will survive for decades to come within law schools. But disintermediation is already happening in subtle ways (or not so subtle in schools with heavy West/Lexis rep presence, not to mention yearly hiring of student reps by these companies).

Travel agents probably aren't thrilled by the disintermediation that occurred when airlines, hotels and car rental companies placed travel reservation functionality on the web. Travelers, however, were thrilled. Disintermediation isn't necessarily a bad thing—unless you are the intermediary.

I'm not claiming to be good at the long-term vision game. In 1999 I told a lot of people I wanted to work for a company like RealNetworks because their RealPlayer product looked more like the future of home video and music than the models embraced by companies like Blockbuster and Tower Records. Nearly twelve years later, however, I don't have RealPlayer installed on a single one of my computers.

But Tower Records is gone. Blockbuster is bankrupt. And every time I watch streaming internet video from Hulu, Netflix Instant or Amazon VOD on my television, I can't help but feel I wasn't too far off the mark.


A caveat: As an academic law librarian, in writing this article I strove to limit my pessimistic vision to law school libraries. I know very little as to what makes firm, court and public law libraries tick, so I'm making no predictions for them, even far-fetched ones. I'll leave that to librarians in those respective institutions.

And a tangent: As I wrote about possible future integration of operating systems and web browsers, I couldn't help but chuckle about the fact that this is one of things Microsoft got into so much trouble for back in the 1990s. So maybe if a Google OS uses Chrome as its UI down the road, antitrust accusations will fly fast and hard. Or maybe no one will bat an eye. Or even remember.

Hat tip to Ed Walters for inspiring the title of this post. On reading a draft, he said, "It’s kind of like 'Mad Max' or 'Escape from New York' for academic law librarians."

Nov 17, 2010

There is no wrong way to use Facebook.

Plenty of people will tell you different. Countless blog posts have been written on the topic. Just this morning a friend of mine posted a link to an article titled "9 Status Updates That Will Make Me Hide You on Facebook." The nine ways were all the same things the 9,429,653 other posts on the subject have already complained about: minutiae, song lyrics, Farmville, politics, etc.

So hide me. I don't care. That's what the "Hide" button is there for. I've hidden plenty of people and applications from my news feed. I suspect plenty of my conservative friends have hidden me. It probably won't surprise them to know I've hidden many of them. It doesn't mean I don't like them or that they aren't my friends. And it sure as hell doesn't mean that I think they're using Facebook wrong.

I hid Farmville (and Mafia Wars and whatever that zombie game is) ages ago. I don't play those games, and I don't enjoy reading other people's updates about them. But I haven't hidden the Movies (aka Flixster) or Netflix apps because I happen to like movies and like to see what other people have to say about the films they see. That doesn't mean Farmville is "bad Facebooking" and Flixster is "good Facebooking." It just means that I happen to like one and not the other. Me. Just Tom. That's it. I could write a misanthropic blog post about how much Farmville makes me hate you or how "you're doing it wrong," which is the jump so many blog authors seem to make. But the truth is, if I played Farmville religiously, I might enjoy seeing my friends' updates on the game. And I'm sure plenty of my friends don't care one bit whether I liked "The Social Network."

It's all about personal preferences, and lucky for us Facebook offers some controls that let us craft a news feed that reflects those preferences. So hide me. I'm a liberal, atheist, sarcastic guy and I do play with song lyrics in my status updates from time to time. If that bugs you, so be it. I'm not all things to all people. But enough of my friends interact with me on these topics in intelligent and humorous ways that I know your annoyance isn't necessarily a universal norm. Hide me. I don't want to stand between you and a happy Facebook, and if you aren't my cup of tea, I'll hide you. But what I won't do is try to make you feel bad for being yourself on Facebook.

Unless you tell me I'm doing it wrong.

Oct 27, 2010

Last Friday I spent the day at Morrison and Foerster's San Diego offices attending the San Diego Association of Law Libraries (SANDALL) Fall Workshop. The workshop topic was "Staying Connected: Mobile Apps for Law Librarians." The day's presentations included one by librarians at San Diego State University who are using QR codes to facilitiate mobile web content and another by representatives of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative, which recently released an iPhone app.

SANDALL Vice President Jane Larrington was asked me to be the workshop's keynote speaker, and I gave two talks over the course of the day. The first, "Mobile Is Here... Whether You Want It or Not," discussed all the ways our libraries have become mobile presences regardless of whether librarians did anything to make things mobile-friendly. Because our patrons use mobile technology, and because sites like Foursquare and Facebook provide mobile web presences for our libraries, we became mobile libraries anyway.

And to those who are aware of my hatred of QR codes, yes, I did discuss them in a favorable light in this presentation. There are excellent uses for them. The problem is, too many libraries use them for non-mobile applications or fail to properly label the codes, giving users no indication of what purpose a code serves before they scan it. In the proper, limited applications (like the Project Gutenberg example in my slides), QR codes can work. But I reserve the right to trash them when they don't.

The second talk, titled "Making Mobile Work for Your Library," was a gentle introduction to mobile app development, discussing technical issues related to cellular data networks, mobile features available to app developers and the requirements of developing native and web apps for mobile phones.

SANDALL plans to post videos of the workshop at a later date.

Aug 5, 2010

With DrupalCamp L.A. 2010 coming up this weekend, it seemed like as good a time as any to post the video of my presentation from last year. I'm nothing if not timely. My presentation was titled "Social Scheduling and Personalized Event Management" and focused on how I built ScheduAALL. As you may recall, ScheduAALL was a personal conference planner I put together for attendees of the 2009 AALL Annual Meeting.

The video runs 56:45 and is a screencast of my live demo of the site along with the audio from the presentation. I built ScheduAALL with Drupal 6. Over the course of the hour I discuss several modules, including CCK, Date, Views, Content Profile, Workflow and Flag. Enjoy!

DrupalCamp L.A. 2009: Social Scheduling and Personalized Event Management from Tom Boone on Vimeo.

Jul 29, 2010

With WestlawNext (WLN) finally going live for law school faculty, librarians and staff yesterday afternoon, many law school librarians are finally getting permanent access to the much-hyped interface. This comes only a couple of weeks after Julie Jones's fascinating panel at the AALL Annual Meeting, "The Economics of Interface: Vendors Respond." Following presentation's by Thomson Reuters' Mike Dahn, LexisNexis' Molly Miller and Fastcase's Ed Walters, Larry Abraham of Fordham Law stepped up to the audience microphone and told the vendor representatives that their interfaces discourage users from using secondary sources, instead emphasizing primary law materials. Following Laurence's comments, a few other audience members (myself included) complained to the panel about how vendors treat secondary sources both within their systems and in training provided to subscribers.

With that fresh in mind, I wanted to hit on some specific problems I've encountered while searching secondary sources in WLN. My concerns aren't new. I mentioned them in my initial review of the product back in January. Specifically, when searching state-specific secondary sources, the results are often cluttered with irrelevant materials at the top of the results list. Here's part of what I had to say back in January:
The search algorithms for secondary sources are also problematic. When I select California as my jurisdiction, if there are California-specific resources available on my topic, those need to show up first in my results. Period. When I ran a search for the term "rape," the first 12 results were from "National" sources such as Am.Jur. Trials, Am.Jur. Proof of Facts, and several law reviews. More alarming, none of these were general overviews of rape law, but instead provided information on specific aspects of rape law in various jurisdictions. I discussed this problem with Mike Dahn, vice president of new product development at Thomson Reuters Legal. He assured me that this was not by design and that they were working to make sure jurisdiction-specific resources for a user's selected jurisdiction float to the top of search results, but as of now this isn't working correctly.

The problem I described then still occurs. Here's what the top search results for the Secondary Sources facet look like when I select California as my jurisdiction and search for the word "rape":

The first result from a secondary source covering California law doesn't appear until the 11th result. This means a researcher, despite having already selected a jurisdiction, has to wade through numerous off-topic, out-of-jurisdiction articles to find the ones that are on point for the search.

There is, however, a way around this problem. Having already narrowed the search results to the "Secondary Sources" facet, the left sidebar now displays additional filters. Find the one labeled "Jurisdiction" and select "California":

With this one tweak, the results reflect more of what a researcher expects to see when performing a jurisdiction-specific search:

The jurisdiction sub-facet illustrates part of the problem with the original set of results. Despite a researcher having selected California as the jurisdiction before running the search, WestlawNext still includes "National" sources in the results. In a state with fewer high-quality secondary sources than California — say Nevada — including these national sources is probably a necessary evil (though one would hope these national search results would be more on point). Just realize that if you want only state-specific resources you'll need to do that extra step of filtering.

Oddly, even if you narrow your search target to only "California Secondary Sources" by browsing the WLN sources before running your search, WLN still considers those national sources to be "California Secondary Sources," so you'll again need to apply a post-search jurisdiction filter to get true state-specific results.

But the problem with secondary sources in WLN doesn't go away by selecting a sub-facet. This refers back to another problem I discussed in January:

In these results, very little specific information about each source displays. Most of the time what a researcher sees is the title of the specific section, the title of the source, and a couple of text snippets in which the search terms are highlighted. Little to no information about where within that source the section appears shows in these results. For example, when a section of "Witkin and Epstein's California Criminal Law" title simply "Generally" appears, that's the extent of the citation information displayed. The precise article within "Witkin & Epstein" in which this section appears is nowhere to be found, so researchers won't know until viewing the document itself whether it's from an article about sex crimes, robbery or murder. The threaded information available in search results for statutory sections (Title, Chapter, Subpart, etc.) needs to be included in secondary sources as well, or else the results are confusing at best and unusable at worst.

Take another look at that last screenshot showing results from California-only secondary sources. This uses WLN's default "More Detail" display type. In these results, the first result looks to be the most relevant. After all, it is titled "Rape" in big bold print. The second and third results also look to be on point, but the information provided is rather cryptic about what specific crime they refer to. If the source in question isn't part of your subscription plan, the only way to find out if they're relevant is to click on each and incur an out-of-plan charge. Not exactly the best way to go about cost-effective research. Worse still, that first result — the one titled "Rape" — that looks so relevant? It turns out this is a section from an article about First Degree Murder that only discusses rape insofar as it pertains to the commission of a homicide. The second result ("Nature of Crime") is the only one in the top three actually from Witkin & Epstein's article about the crime of rape. The third document in the results ("In General") is, like the first, about homicide.

There is a more detailed view available than this one, but it doesn't solve the problem. To change the display type, go to the display options at the top of the search results (the icon showing one to three horizontal lines) and select "Most Detail":

Even with the most detail display available for search results, however, the full threaded information isn't included and it's still impossible to tell whether each result concerns the specific crime of rape without retrieving the document itself:

This isn't a problem so long as the source is part of your subscription plan and you can pull up as many documents as you want. But if "Witkin & Epstein's California Criminal Law" isn't in your plan, you might be faced with quite the dilemma when deciding how important it is to find the right document. Or perhaps you'll skip secondary sources altogether, jumping instead into the primary law results directly.

Truth be told, the more specific your search terms ("unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor" vs. "rape"), the stronger likelihood of having relevant search results float to the top. This is true of any search engine, and I'm not suggesting the search algorithm is the problem. It's the display. Given that general searches like "rape" are common in legal research, particularly when searching secondary sources, the lack of useful identifying information about a document is a problem that needs to be addressed by Thomson Reuters Legal.

I don't want this post to be interpreted as a negative review of WLN. Most of my review in January was positive and I stand by that overall opinion. WestlawNext is a vast improvement across the board over Classic Westlaw, and I don't share the opinion of many that it "dumbs down" legal research. To the contrary, I've found that it adds considerable power to most of the research I've done using the new system. Figuring out what database I need to search in Classic Westlaw doesn't mean I understand the sources of law any better. It just means I know what database I need to search in Westlaw.

But as superior as it is to its predecessor, it still has legitimate problems. The issues associated with secondary sources in WLN need to be highlighted. Even if Thomson Reuters opts to not fix these problems, we as researchers need to be aware of them. And as instructors — both in the classroom and at the reference desk — we need to be prepared to educate others about them, too.

Jun 30, 2010

The last week or so has seen a flurry of discussion about the AALL Annual Meeting's educational program and suggestions to improve it. I won't rehash the discussion here. Instead, have a look at:

To some extent I heartily agree and vehemently disagree with each in one way or another. Rather than pick apart what others have written, I'll simply offer my three suggestions on how AALL can improve the program selection process.

1) Create tracks by library typeThe idea of conference "tracks" has already been floated by many people over the years, and the Annual Meeting Program Committee (AMPC) already announced that the 2011 Annual Meeting will have six tracks for programming based on AALL's "Competencies for Law Librarians":

  • Library Management
  • Reference, Research and Client Services
  • Information Technology
  • Collection Development and Cataloging
  • Teaching
  • General or Core Programs

Problem is, every one of these tracks remains a one-size-fits-all approach, meaning programs related to providing reference service to public patrons at a court library will be on the same track as ones about service to attorneys in a law firm. As is often the case with the non-track approach to the Annual Meeting, many coordinators will still include both types of presentations in the same session as a way to spread their programs' appeal to a wider audience and increasing the likelihood of its acceptance by AMPC. Unfortunately, programs that try to meld disparate audiences become half as useful to their audiences.

Last year I moderated a program on adding Web 2.0 tools to the library catalog. The panel included both academic and firm librarians, each speaking on the tools used in their respective libraries. The academic librarians' portion of the session kept academics in the audience interested, but had little to no applicability to the firm audience. When the firm librarian spoke, the opposite was true, with firm librarians suddenly engaged and academic librarians uninterested.

While we are all law librarians and work with legal information resources, the truth is that crossover appeal between what we work on and are professionally interested in is rare. A commenter to Jason Eiseman's blog post about the programming debate wrote, "Personally, I find the sessions presented by law firm librarians to be above and beyond the best of the conference." With all due respect, she only feels that way because she is a firm librarian. I, personally, find those sessions to be sleep-inducing and think programs presented by academic librarians to be the best, but this has nothing to do with who the best presenters are. It's simply a reflection of our professional interests.

To summarize the problem with the Annual Meeting's programming as deficient in programs for firm librarians is myopic. The real problem is AALL's well-intentioned push to appeal to all of the people all of the time, which results in watered-down programming that has limited applicability to everyone but inspirational functionality for no one.

For these reasons, I don't see the six tracks announced for 2011 being a solution to the problem. They simply reshuffle the schedule without resulting in any difference in the programs themselves. Instead, the tracks need to be based, at least in part, on librarian types. This means a track for academic librarians, one for court librarians, another for firm librarians. But this doesn't solve every problem, as reference librarians in an academic environment have little in common with technical services librarians in the same institution, so these tracks need to be split into additional mini-tracks. In the end, we could continue splitting until there are 100 or more tracks, but even with only one or two splits, the tracks become far more applicable to individuals than the current ones. Does this mean more than six tracks? Yeah, probably, but maybe every track doesn't have to be represented in every time slot. Or maybe having more, smaller programs is a good thing. Convention center meeting rooms can usually be split into smaller rooms, right? Not every session has to have 100+ attendees to be valuable. I'd rather sit in a room with ten people discussing academic library reference and technology concerns than in a huge room with 150 people discussing non-specific reference and technology concerns.

I don't know exactly what the structure of this multi-layered track system would be or what the specific tracks are. All I know is, trying to appeal to everyone at once in the same program rarely results in information I can take back to my library and put into action. In order to be useful to anyone, the tracks need to focus first and foremost on the type of library attendees work for. Only then will all constituencies find applicable programming.

2) Replace the AMPC with a separate committee for each trackIf focusing program content on specific types of audiences is a desirable thing, it then follows that the content should be designed by the very people it is designed for. If there is a track for academic reference librarians (which is the category I fit into), the content should be solicited by, vetted by and scheduled by academic reference librarians. A committee made up of academic, firm, court and public librarians lacks in specialized knowledge what it gains in professional diversity. Instead, each of those librarian types should be involved in creating the track that fits their own qualifications and interests, not someone else's.

Under the current structure, where wide appeal is the goal, a committee with a sampling of all constituencies makes sense. With a move to specialized tracks, even the one announced for 2011, the committee makeup should shift to specialization as well.

Perhaps this would make AMPC membership less prestigious since there would be multiple committees instead of one centralized cabal, but firm librarians shouldn't be subjected to a program selected by academics and vice-versa. Embrace our differences and allow us to get the most out of the conference. This only happens if the committee itself reflects and embraces the differences, not through homogenization, but through specialized programming created by specialized committees.

Of course, the influence of the committees themselves becomes less important if we...

3) Crowdsource the program proposals within each trackIn the last year or so I've had a lot of private conversations about crowdsourcing AALL programming. One of the commenters to Jason Eiseman's post also mentioned this, citing the SXSW PanelPicker as a model. The extreme example of this would be to post every proposal online and allow the AALL membership to vote. The top vote-getters then become the educational program. This model is problematic because it allows the largest constituency to dictate the program, leaving little or no content for specialized groups. This would also probably lead to the same problem with the current program in which sessions with the widest possible appeal, and perhaps highest likelihood for being watered-down, receiving the most votes.

Another suggestion I've heard is having AALL crowdsource one session, perhaps posting all the remaining proposals after the rest of the program is selected, allowing the membership to vote for the last slot. I find this problematic on two accounts. First, it sends a message that AALL only views member preference as worthy of consideration for a single session, preferring the machinations of a committee working in secrecy over the voice of its members. Second, it makes all the rejected proposals public, subjecting AMPC to an onslaught of "How could you have picked this session over that one" complaints. Both of these would be valid complaints, but the ensuing chaos might lead to obnoxious flame wars that would annoy everyone but the rabble-rousers.

With program tracks defined by clear member constituencies, however, crowdsourcing becomes a workable option. If there is a track for firm librarians (or some sub-category therein) already defined with a set number of session slots, a proposal can be submitted to that specific track where it will be voted upon solely by firm librarians. Proposals for academic tracks would be voted upon solely by academic librarians. This ensures that each constituency gets a program that reflects its current interests and needs.

This doesn't mean AMPC (or the various tracks' AMPCs) doesn't have a role. Crowdsourced voting should be the top consideration in selecting a program, but scheduling, speaker availability and other issues will still have to be dealt with by the committee(s). Again, this might make AMPC a less prestigious committee appointment, but prestige shouldn't be why AMPC exists.

These three changes to program selection are not small. They would involve major alterations to how the Annual Meeting's content is selected, requiring personnel, administrative and technological overhauls to be implemented. So what? AALL is our organization, and if we don't shape it and the Annual Meeting into something that meets our needs, we have no one to blame but ourselves. This is really just an "off the top of my head" summary of various conversations I've had over the last year, so it's by no means intended as an end all, be all solution. Your mileage will vary. But hopefully as more people enter the conversation and the various suggestions are weighed, we can come up with something that results in a more valuable Annual Meeting for everyone.

Jun 29, 2010

The "Lost" season six rewind posts are not intended as a thorough analysis of the episodes, but are a fresh look at each in light of what later events would do to shed new light on them.

It goes without saying, but HERE BE "LOST" SPOILERS. If you haven't watched the entire final season of the show yet, please spit out the poison pill and give it to your infected friend.

One of the challenges in writing these rewind posts is to not cover too much territory in the earlier episodes. If I write too broadly, I might not have much left to discuss as a narrative thread is expanded in subsequent hours. For example, I wrote at length last week about what I saw as the thematic purpose served by the Temple Others: corruption. The Man in Black's control of Benjamin Linus didn't just affect the leader of the Others, but spread throughout the entire group. Thus, now three years removed from Ben's departure, the Others remain ruined as a functional unit of good. Once corrupted, always corrupted. This links in to MiB's words to Jacob as the Black Rock approached the island in the season five finale: "They come. They fight. They destroy. They corrupt. It always ends the same." The Others were a long-term project by Jacob, but in the end they fought, destroyed and corrupted like all their predecessors. Just like the Dharma Initiative, whose fighting, destruction and corruption we watched throughout season five.

So having covered all that last week, what's left to talk about with several more episodes featuring the Temple Others? Well, I guess not much, but "What Kate Does" does offer further evidence of this aspect of the Others' corruption. The first of these is the presence of Aldo. For fans of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," his return was little more than a "Holy crap, it's Mac" moment. For the rest of us, it was just another whiny, secretive, abusive member of the Temple Others to annoy us for an hour.

Aldo was the guard Kate attacked to escape her caged captivity back in season three. Given how awful the polar bear cages arc was, any tie-in to the almost-as-excruciating Temple Others arc is like mixing mustard and raisins: two nasty things that become even worse when combined. (Those are just two things I dislike. Feel free to substitute in whatever you need to complete the effect.) Here, Aldo tells Kate that he still holds a grudge over being hit in the head, and proceeds to treat her and Jin pretty poorly. Aldo is also this week's device of pointless plot stalling, as he repeatedly shushes his fellow Other whenever he starts to reveal anything that might progress the story or our understanding of the island's secrets.

But I have found a redeeming purpose to Aldo's purposelessness: he is a direct connection to the corrupted tribe of Ben Linus's Others. This makes his abusive and secretive behavior toward Kate make sense. That's how Ben ran things because that's how MiB taught him to run things. The bad habits of Ben Linus continue through Aldo and through everyone else at the Temple. Despite whatever suspicions or explanations we had for Ben being an evil leader, at this point in the story we've only recently learned that Smokey had been corrupting him and the Others for years, taking them far off Jacob's track. And at this point in the story, we also aren't yet 100% sure that Jacob is good and MiB is evil (or even who they are). In hindsight, knowing which side is which, we can better appreciate that Ben derailed the Others off the path of good during his tenure thanks to some serious manipulation from Smokey. So folks like Aldo behave badly because it's how they were told to behave. Even with Ben gone and the Temple Others trying to do what the real Jacob wants, they just don't quite know how to do it because they were never taught by anyone how to do it.

I can even tie this theme into another annoying season six gimmick: Sideways World cameos. In "What Kate Does," the token cameo is Dr. Ethan Goodspeed. Ethan, such a menacing presence as Claire's season one kidnapper and castaway infiltrator, shows up here as a kind obstetrician who takes care of Claire when she goes into early labor. Believe it or not, his "I don't want to stick you with a bunch of needles if I don't have to" schtick serves a purpose beyond mere groan-inducing irony. The point is that Ethan is a good person here. Minus the corrupting influence of MiB and Ben, he's a kind, gentle doctor whose bedside manner puts Claire at ease. The Others, including Ben, weren't inherently evil people. They were corrupted, as so many on the island are.

This angle on the Temple Others is something I find infinitely intriguing, and to some extent redeeming for the storyline, but it doesn't change the fact that the action itself is often poorly written and executed. This is something that recurs throughout the show's final season: interesting ideas executed in annoying ways. (More on this when we get to "Across the Sea.")

While he was already detaching from everyone in "LA X," this episode saw the first real manifestations of Sawyer's return to moral free agency. Here he ditches the Temple, heading off for the Dharma barracks to retrieve the ring he intended to give Juliet. Though Kate follows him there, he eventually sends her on her way to pursue his own path alone. Like much of season six, this is a direct parallel to the show's first season, when Sawyer was an angry con man who used and abused his fellow castaways for personal gain. As the final season develops, Sawyer tries to find a way out of both Jacob and MiB's plans, eschewing both good and evil. I'll save most of this discussion for later episodes, but while there was a lot of online discussion about whether this path would be the right one for Sawyer, his resemblance to the early asshole version of the character seemed to indicate it wouldn't. And it wasn't, arguably costing Sayid, Sun and Jin their lives.

What about the Sideways World? Summary: Kate hijacks a cab with Claire inside, ditches Claire, ditches her handcuffs, and picks Claire up again. When "What Kate Does" first aired, a big viewer complaint was Claire's inexplicable decision to let Kate, who had just kidnapped her at gun point then abandoned her in the middle of Los Angeles, drive her around the city, accompanying her to both Aaron's adoptive parents' house and to the hospital where Claire helped Kate elude police pursuit. In real life, one would hope Claire would've told Kate to get the hell away from her when she showed back up and offered a ride. Well, lucky "Lost." This isn't the real world. It's an afterlife where the rules of common sense don't have to apply. The real point here is that these characters are drawn to one another in the Sideways World against all logic. Despite her better judgment, Claire accepts a ride from Kate because of their real connection to one another. Alas, it doesn't play out believably, even on a second viewing. And as future episodes illustrate, the bendable rules of the Sideways World allow writers to take shortcuts whenever necessary to connect characters, logic (and medical privacy laws -- more on that when we get to "Everybody Loves Hugo") be damned.

A few random thoughts...

  • Dogen's bizarre "test" to see if Sayid is infected makes no more sense on second viewing than it did the first time around. Perhaps that's the point, since I don't think there is an infection. Maybe when you test for something that doesn't exist, the results always come back positive.
  • As Kate's hijacked taxi leaves LAX, she and Jack lock eyes in a moment of puzzling connection. As we learn in the finale, Kate's love for Jack has the power to wake him, though he resists her.
  • In the hospital, Claire calls her unborn baby Aaron despite having never chosen that name. On first viewing this was commonly interpreted as some sign of destiny for the characters but now we know it's because she'd already given birth to Aaron in the real world and is simply reliving an alternative version of his birth in the afterlife.
  • I've fallen behind with my "Lost" rewind posts the past two weeks due to the Los Angeles Film Festival and a day-job-related conference in Philadelphia, but I'm bound and determined to keep up, so hopefully in the next couple of days I'll be able to watch and write about "The Substitute."

Jun 29, 2010

Today Hulu announced plans for its long anticipated paid subscription service, Hulu Plus. As suspected, the $10 monthly fee will provide subscribers with iPhone and iPad access, as well as the ability (eventually) to watch on TV via devices like the PS3 and XBox 360, as well as certain TVs and Blu-ray players. In addition, subscribers will have access to the entire current season of popular first-run shows plus the back library of other series. Yet, despite the $10 price tag, subscribers will still have to sit through ads, just like with Hulu's free content.

The ads aren't the only problem, though. The premium service's approach to archive content illustrates that content providers (i.e., TV networks) still don't have the first clue how to approach online television.

Think of it this way, assuming that most Hulu users have televisions, why is online content so popular? I can think of two primary reasons: mobile access (be it on a mobile device or on a desktop/laptop in a location without a TV) and the ability for viewers to catch up on missed episodes. Hulu Plus expands it offerings in both of these categories, but in the latter case it still misses the boat, providing access to most current shows only for episodes from the current season. Essentially, with the exception of series that are in their first season, Hulu Plus only helps viewers who already watch a particular show, not new viewers who want to catch up. And this is the problem.

Both DVD and on-demand content provide a means for those who "missed the boat" on a show to catch up and eventually become regular viewers of older shows. (This is what I did a couple of months ago with "Breaking Bad.") They also allow viewers who lost track of a series at some point to get back up to speed if they hear a show has gotten good again. (Earlier this year I did exactly that with the last two seasons of "Rescue Me.") The problem with DVD, however, is that it is a pricey option if a viewer chooses to purchase the discs, or requires waiting impatiently for new discs to arrive in the mail if he or she uses Netflix to rent them. On-demand, on the other hand, provides instant gratification and the ability to run extended marathons of episodes.

With Hulu Plus, one can only catch up on the current season, requiring reliance on DVD for any viewing lapse beyond that. This means the service provides no avenue whatsoever to attract new viewers to a show or bring back old ones. Those viewers, if they watch at all, will continue to do so via DVD, which they will probably rent, bringing no revenue to the network at all. Worse still, they may resort to more illicit means, like Bitorrent, to catch up free of charge on their computers when they would happily have paid $10 per month for a legal option.

I suspect Hulu Plus's current season only for most first-run programming is intended as protection of DVD sales revenue, as the market for "Modern Family" or "Glee" on DVD will be higher than older shows like "Arrested Development" and "Miami Vice." But just as Paramount realized last week that Redbox DVD rentals have zero impact on DVD sales, eventually maybe one of these networks will realize that on-demand availability doesn't affect DVD sales either, and that it could actually lead to increases in on-air viewership once new and lapsed viewers catch up.

Something else to be aware of with regard to Hulu's shift to a paid service option is that for all its prior assurances that nothing free would become paid content, "Arrested Development" is a show that was long available in its entirety for free on the site. Based on the company's press release about "Hulu Plus," that show seems to be headed behind a paywall.

In fairness to the networks, Hulu Plus is still an expansion of both content and viewing options for the site's users, and for those happy with the site's current structure, that will remain largely unchanged for now. And all flavors of Hulu remain preferable to HBO's totalitarian approach to its series, in which only old series/seasons are available on-demand at inflated prices (e.g., HBO offers old shows on Amazon VOD only as 24-hour rentals -- at the same price every other network SELLS its episodes).

Those ads are still a big disappointment, though.