Learning to use the tools of the trade

The purpose of this article is to articulate how librarians can improve the practices of librarianship by better assimilating the uses of computer technology into the profession's thinking (and "thinquing"). The article accomplishes this goal first by outlining four informal research projects conducted at the North Carolina State University (NCSU) Libraries. It establishes how these projects exemplify the goals of librarianship. Next, the article demonstrates how librarians can use their traditional skill base to provide new and progressive library services while maintaining the traditional principles of the past. Finally, the article describes why these sorts of activities are important to the profession and its growth.

The Alcuin Project

The Alcuin Project, begun in 1994, is an effort to explore the possibilities of organizing Internet resources using traditional cataloging models and providing access to these resources initially through an online public access catalog (OPAC).[1]

The Project has its roots in the Alex database and Hunter Monroe. Monroe, an economist by profession, had been maintaining a list of Internet-based electronic texts. His goal was to create an OPAC-type database of Internet resources. The NCSU Libraries was lucky enough to foster a relationship with Monroe, and consequently, the NCSU Libraries was able to host his data on its gopher server.[2] Monroe named his database Alex.

The NCSU Libraries experimented with methods of providing access to the Alex database via WWW browsers. While WWW browsers can interpret the gopher protocol, using WWW browsers to access gopher servers does not use the browsers to their fullest potential. Consequently, Monroe was asked to create a specialized report from his database of resources that would be easily readable with WWW browsers and indexable by the WAIS technology. Monroe obliged and a WWW/WAIS interface to Alex was created.[3]

At the same time the NCSU Libraries had been working with Tim Kambitsch on scripts to search our DRA-based OPAC with WWW browsers.[4] These scripts allow the searcher to specify Boolean queries to selected databases on our OPAC. After installing these scripts, we were able to search the OPAC using WWW browsers.[5] Furthermore, by including URLs in subfield u of the 856 fields of machine readable catalog (MARC) records, we were able to make hot links from our OPAC to Internet resources.

By combining the data from the Alex database with the WWW/DRA gateway scripts, the NCSU Libraries was able to create a MARC-record based database of Internet resources. This database was created by asking Monroe to create yet another report against his database. This final report was in the form of rudimentary tagged MARC records.[6] The report was filtered through a locally developed piece of software (Alcuin's Little Helper) that converted Monroe's report into MARC records in communications format.[7] Finally, these records were imported into a database of our online catalog, Alcuin.[8]

Mr. Serials Process

The Mr. Serials Process is a systematic method being applied at the NCSU Libraries for collecting, organizing, archiving, indexing, and disseminating electronic serials. Using readily-available technologies found on the Internet (FTP, WAIS, gopher, HTTP, perl, procmail, and email), the Mr. Serials Process has proven an effective means for the management of electronic serials that are consistently formatted and delivered via email.[9] To date, more than 1,500 individual articles/issues of electronic serials have been collected comprising just over 50 MB of data.

The Process begins with an account on a computer which subscribes to library- and information science related electronic serials. As issues and articles arrive they are filtered into a "to-do" directory. The maintainer of the collection uses a locally developed piece of software to extract the bibliographic information from each item in the directory. This information is used to update HTML files on our WWW server. The original issue (or article) is then saved on a local FTP server. Finally, on a regular basis, the collection is indexed using the WAIS technology to provide keyword access while the WWW server provides browsable access.

The system works well as long as two conditions hold true. First, in order to extract the bibliographic information from each title, the bibliographic information must be consistently located within each document. If any bibliographic element is not consistently located in every document, then extra effort must be made to adjust the system's parameters. This problem may be overcome if the serials were delivered in some sort of standard format like the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML).

Second, more and more electronic serials are currently being delivered via WWW servers instead of email. To over come this problem, the use of the Harvest technology is being explored.[10, 11] Unfortunately, if Harvest is the only thing being used to "gather" and index the serials, then the Mr. Serials Process does not accomplish one of its goals, namely preservation of the materials.

Ask Alcuin

Still, with all the new information resources available today, the need for a expert information intermediary (like a librarian) is apparent. Modeling a traditional reference interview, Ask Alcuin represents the beginnings of an expert system designed to supplement the activities of reference librarians.[12]

Ask Alcuin works by presenting the end-user with a series of questions via WWW forms. Based on the answers, the system asks the end-user other questions. Throughout the process, Ask Alcuin dynamically constructs search strategies in the form of URLs that can be applied to various Internet databases like AltaVista, Yahoo, locally mounted bibliographic databases through the OPAC, or even Alcuin (above). At the end of the question and answer process a "game plan" is created for finding the information the end-user seeks.

This system is intended to be used in conjunction with a wireless network throughout the library. Consequently, a patron could come into the library and borrow a portable computing device. This device, attached to the wireless network and capable of using the WWW, could then be used any where in the library in conjunction with our wealth of print resources. Thus, when reading an article, a dictionary could be consulted or queries could be applied to Alcuin who could find "more articles like this one." The portable device could even provide directions to just about anything in the building.

See You See A Librarian

See You See A Librarian is an exploration into the use of live, multimedia technologies for the use of librarian to librarian or librarian to patron communication.[13] Essentially, this project's purpose is to discover whether or not Cornell University's CU-SeeMe application can be used effectively in a library setting.[14]

The experiment has been divided into three stages:

  1. Feasibility - The purpose of this stage is to learn how many librarians have the necessary hardware, software, and willingness to explore the use of the CU-SeeMe technology.
  2. Librarians on Librarianship - The purpose of Stage 2 is to limit the scope of discussion to library issues. It is intended to be a forum for the real time discussion of library issues like reference services, cataloging resources, collection management, or acquisitions.
  3. Librarians Fostering Knowledge - The purpose of Stage 3 is to open the discussion up to information seekers needing assistance. For example, reference questions could be answered, suggestions could be made for the organization of information, assistance can be given for configuring information retrieval software, etc.

At the time of this writing, the project has barely reached Stage 2. Based on preliminary observations, the CU-SeeMe technology can be used to enhance communications between librarians and their patrons with a few limitation. First, too few librarians posses the necessary hardware to do "complete" audio/video input and output. Similarly, few patrons have this sort of equipment either. On another note, an informal survey of potential user's of such a system believe telephone communications are adequate for reference interviews and librarian/patron interactions. Unfortunately, these people do not seem to understand the benefits of non-verbal communication.

Librarianship and the Creative Spirit

Librarianship requires both.
Librarianship requires both.

In my opinion, the important things about these projects are not the projects themselves, but rather what they represent. These projects represent a library's ability to provide new and progressive information services with the use of computers. These projects take traditional library skills and principles and implement them using computer technology.

Often times librarianship is described as the process of collecting, organizing, archiving, disseminating, and sometimes evaluating information. Each of the projects outlined above manifest one or more of these characteristics. The Alcuin Project organizes and disseminates bibliographic information. The Mr. Serials Process manifests all the characteristics above except evaluation. Ask Alcuin attempts to disseminate information and in the future will do a bit of evaluation too. See You See A Librarian also demonstrates ways for the dissemination of information.

This process of amalgamating traditional library skills (and ethos) with computer technology requires a certain type of thinking as well as something else I have coined as "thinquing." In this setting, "thinking" is an intellectual process characterized by methodical, systematic, left-brain activities. In many ways ( but not all) this sort of activity is characterized through things like mathematics and computer programing. The other half of the process, "thinquing," is intuitive, creative, and unsystematic. Many people characterize artistic endeavors in this manner.

Both of these intellectual processes, thinking and thinquing, are necessary for the libraries of today (and even yesterday) to manage technology effectively. Thinking must be used to analyze the needs of our clientele. It must be applied when drawing up a budget. Thinking is a necessary activity when learning how to use the newest piece of software. Similarly, thinquing must be a part of the process when evaluating how to use computer technologies for library services. Thinquing must be taken into account when asked a new reference question and the answer is not readily apparent. Thinquing is the process you use when you encounter a new problem and must come up with some sort of solution. The problem with the profession today is it tends to ignore obvious problems and consequently it rarely employs the practices of thinquing.

Put another way, it does not only behoove libraries to continually be aware of new computer technologies (thinking), but they must also be able to discover possibilities for improving services with these technologies (thinquing). Then, and only then, will librarians be effectively managing computer technology. The entire process requires an fundamental understanding of library principles and, at the same, it requires individual librarians to thinque "outside the box" for the purposes of enhancing methods of applying our fundamental principles.

In todays world of networked information, more and more information seeking activities without the need of a librarian. Frequently our clientele can do real, significant research without ever stepping into a library. Many of our profession (as well as lay people) see this sort of environment as a prelude to the demise of libraries. While the future of libraries will not be constant with their past, I do not see libraries fading away. Rather, I see the current environment fostering a means for evolution and an enhancement of library services. Like a caterpillar, libraries can use the current environment to foster growth, turn upon itself for the purposes of reorganization, and emerge as a beauty unto itself and for others.

In conclusion, as more and more people gain access to more and more information, these same people will have to come to terms with methods for evaluating and using this information. This process, the process of evaluating and using information is, in my opinion, the future of librarianship. This process moves the library from one of dispensing information to fostering knowledge and understanding. It has been said that understanding is like a four-rung ladder. The first rung on the ladder represents data and facts. As the data and facts are collected and organized they become information, the second rung on the ladder. The third rung is knowledge where knowledge is information internalized and put to use. The last rung is wisdom, knowledge of a timeless nature. Technology has enabled more people to climb between the first and second rungs of the ladder with greater ease. Similarly, technology may enable libraries and librarians to climb higher on the ladder as well and provide knowledge services instead of simply information services.


  1. See http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/staff/morgan/cataloging-digital-mediums.html .
  2. See gopher://gopher.lib.ncsu.edu/11/library/stacks/Alex .
  3. See http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/stacks/alex-index.html .
  4. See http://dmcpl.dayton.lib.oh.us/~kambitsch/niso/www2dra_forms_NL.html .
  5. See http://library.ncsu.edu/ .
  6. See ftp://ftp.lib.ncsu.edu/pub/stacks/alex/alex-950224-tagged.txt .
  7. See http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/staff/morgan/al-helper.html .
  8. See http://library.ncsu.edu/drabin/alcuin/ .
  9. See http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/staff/morgan/report-on-mr-serials.html .
  10. To learn more about Harvest see http://harvest.cs.colorado.edu/ .
  11. You can see the very beginings of this process at http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/~emorgan/morganagus/ .
  12. You can see the very beginings of this application at http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/staff/morgan/alcuin/ .
  13. See http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/~emorgan/see-a-librarian/ .
  14. For more information about CU-SeeMe, see http://cu-seeme.cornell.edu/ .

Creator: Eric Lease Morgan <eric_morgan@infomotions.com>
Source: This article also appears in Eric Lease Morgan, "Learning to Use the Tools of the Trade" North Carolina Libraries 54:5 (Winter 1996) 158-160.
Date created: 1996-12-06
Date updated: 2004-11-16
Subject(s): librarianship;
URL: http://infomotions.com/musings/tools/