NOTE: I have a new My Word's Worth column, called "We DO Need Cave Paintings," at http://marylaine.com/myword/cave.html
GURU INTERVIEW: WALT CRAWFORD
by Marylaine Block
Walt Crawford is known to librarians for his books and influential columns ("Crawford Files" in American Libraries, "disContent" in EContent Magazine, and the "PC Monitor" column in Online Magazine), and to netaholics as the creator of Cites and Insights http://cical.home.att.net/index.html, his monthly take on professional issues and technology. I invited him recently to talk about his achievements.
MB: Your real job is Senior Analyst at RLG http://www.rlg.org/. How would you explain RLG and the work you do there to those who know nothing about them?
Crawford: RLG describes itself this way: "a not-for-profit membership corporation of over 160 universities, national libraries, archives, historical societies, and other institutions with remarkable collections for research and learning. Rooted in collaborative work that addresses members' shared goals for these collections, RLG develops and operates information resources used by members and nonmembers around the world."
RLG and OCLC are... the two survivors of the four pioneering shared online cataloging systems and initial work on both began in the late 1960s, shortly after MARC II was adopted... The two nonprofits also operate the two largest bibliographic databases, the RLG Union Catalog and WorldCat, and both offer a range of databases for end-user searching as well as online input and update for cataloging. In many other ways, we're quite different. I don't believe there's any overlap in the citation databases offered through [RLG's] Eureka and [OCLC's] FirstSearch.
[RLG has] always been heavily involved in standards and played a major role in making Z39.50 work and, more recently, developing Unicode <http://www.unicode.org/> (we're the only charter member of the Unicode Consortium from the library community). RLG continues to be a leader in defining best practices for preservation, both microfilming and digital, and in carrying out preservation projects. We (my wife, in this case, as the analyst for the project) developed perhaps the most complete standards-based peer-to-peer InterLibrary Loan management system, RLG ILL Manager -- and, of course, we set the standard for library document transmission through Ariel, our most widely-used software.
Describing what I do is more difficult. Primarily, I work to understand how our systems (and specifically Eureka, our end-user search system) are used and how they can be improved, as well as helping to define and build new systems.
MB: Can you talk a little about your goals for Eureka? Have your ideas for user interface and search engine been affected by research on internet usability and search engine queries? That is, should a bibliographic database interface resemble good Web design, or does the nature of the database require different or superior search capabilities?
Crawford: My goals for Eureka are to keep improving its use and usability (not always the same thing) and to extend it in ways that make sense for us and for our members and users. As lead analyst, I'm proud of the revamped Eureka that was introduced in February 2002, which was very much a group effort informed by user feedback, focus groups, and log analysis -- and I'm excited and delighted by the most recent extension to Eureka, OpenURL support. I wrote about that in the August 2002 "Crawford Files" in American Libraries, and it continues to be a thrill -- adding full-text support to our citation databases without actually adding our own full text resources or increasing user costs. Sometimes, this job is just plain fun and rewarding.
I'm reasonably satisfied that Eureka is serving our members and users well, and the sudden and continued growth in use since the new version was installed, combined with user feedback, tell me that we're not fooling ourselves. We need to keep improving the system, but we've gone a long way.
Our ideas have been influenced by what we see on the Web itself, by my own analysis of anonymous user logs (which I've been doing for a decade now) and statistical analysis of system use, by direct user feedback, and by the varied reading that I and other design team members do. When we redesigned Eureka last year, we looked at Web norms (particularly for search engines) and followed them where appropriate. We looked at every word used throughout the interface, eliminating library jargon whenever that was possible. We went through every click and choice in the system, looking for cases where we could reduce the number of steps required without reducing user flexibility. We eliminated everything that we didn't need, and produced a cleaner, clearer, faster system in the process.
What I see is that users require about half as many clicks and screens to carry out activities as in the prior system, that slow startup is now almost never a factor even on dial-up sessions, and that the bulk of user feedback-which used to be problems with the interface-is now notes and questions about the databases themselves.
I believe the average library user, whether public or academic, does understand the difference between an author and a title, and maybe even the difference between a title and a subject. In that sense, yes, the nature of the databases suggests different and possibly superior search capabilities as compared to Web search engines. On the other hand, for our citation databases, keyword searching is the default choice (as opposed to title browsing for bibliographic databases), and it's probably the best choice about half the time.
People can try Eureka for themselves; we offer free access to a rotating sample database. Go to http://www.rlg.org/, and look for the appropriate link.
MB: In a couple of your books you've spoken about how overzealous technological optimism, both within and outside of our profession, threatens the book and the physical library. Do you see this as a continuing problem? If you were revising Future Libraries, what might you be adding or amplifying?
Crawford: I don't think the problem is technological optimism; I think it's either technological determinism or technophilia -- that is, blind love of technology. I'm an optimist by nature and a technologist by trade. I don't think technological optimism ever did pose a threat to the (printed) book; I think the threat was that people would waste money and time because of a perceived move away from books, damaging libraries in the process. The major technological threat to the physical library comes from people who don't understand what libraries and librarians do; if you dumb down the definition of library services, you can make technological "replacements" sound good. It's particularly sad to see that dumbing-down from within the profession. Fortunately, it's relatively rare these days.
Yes, it's a continuing problem, but, I believe, it's less of a problem than it was in 1992, when I first started speaking out on the subject. I believe Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness & Reality (I give the full name because there's another book called Future Libraries) helped to shift the perceived common knowledge and set of assumptions about the future. I believe Being Analog helped as well -- and, to some extent, Being Analog was a set of additions and amplifications for Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness & Reality. Otherwise, I suppose I can point to much of my writing as a somewhat convoluted set of additions and amplifications.
MB: Which of your accomplishments are you proudest of?
Crawford: I'm going to leave out work accomplishments because most everything at RLG is team effort, although taken as a whole I'm proud of what we have accomplished. So, sticking with professional activity, I'll mention the following, in chronological order:
MARC for Library Use, my first published book, because it provided a common understanding of what MARC really was and, specifically, because it got library automation vendors to move from "MARClike" and "MARC-compatible, sort of" to actually supporting MARC.
Editing the LITA Newsletter for nine years, more than half of its print life (unfortunately), and making it a key way for the Library and Information Technology Association to keep all its members informed on what we were doing and thinking about -- something I find lacking in LITA since the Newsletter was abandoned.
Patron Access: Issues for Online Catalogs, which I believe changed the course of online catalog design for the better.
Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness & Reality, for reasons noted above
And in its own odd way, my current complex of publications: "disContent" in EContent, "Crawford Files" in American Libraries, "PC Monitor" in Online, and Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large-because as old and weary as I am, people still seem interested in some of the things I'm interested in.
MB: How have your personal history and interests helped shape your professional ideas?
Crawford: I don't see a boundary between personal and professional, although there's somewhat of a boundary between the library stuff I do for a living and the professional activities I do on my own time. These days, my primary hobbies include reading and thinking to write and speak, but we're also seeing the world by cruise ship (as time permits), and we do watch some real TV -- network series, not just PBS and A&E. Buffy (since its inception), Angel, West Wing, Enterprise, Boston Public, and maybe John Doe, and not all that much else...
My work and life have shaped my writing and speaking. I can't make easy distinctions; I'm not sure what they would be. My father was (and is) a constitutional conservative -- an absolutist about constitutional issues, specifically including the First Amendment -- and a professional engineer. I grew up in an absurdly functional household where reading was commonplace and thinking was encouraged. I've been married almost a quarter-century to a woman who's smarter, nicer and more thoughtful than I am. I hope to keep changing and growing until I die, and I expect that to be four decades away.
MB: Could you talk a little about Cites & Insights -- why you
started it, what it allows you to do, the advantages and disadvantages of
less formal and more personal professional communication, the kind of feedback you get back from it, the personal satisfactions of doing it, or whatever else you'd like us to know about it.
Crawford: Originally, what became Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large was to be an extension of "Crawford's Corner" in Library Hi Tech News, to provide more current and more extensive coverage... As events unfolded in 2000, I decided to stop doing "Crawford's Corner" ... So, since my dialup ISP (AT&T Worldnet) offers up to 60MB of robust Web hosting as part of my standard subscription, I decided to experiment with Cites & Insights as a full replacement for "Crawford's Corner"...
The advantage of doing it for free is, of course, that I can ignore reader
demands/requests that I consider unreasonable. When someone swears at me
because there's no HTML version (which would, as far as I can tell, require
about twice as much paper to print, as well as cutting my available Web
space in half and making it impossible to do the end-of-year volume index I
do), I can tell them to go read some other Website.
Cites & Insights grows and changes much the way my writing and speaking
"career" has -- by accident and whim. Certain standing features, mostly from
"Crawford's Corner" and "Trailing Edge Notes" before that, have remained,
but I've added new areas of continuing coverage that (a) interest me, (b)
seem to need the kind of delayed, aggregated, annotated citations and
comments I offer, (c) seem not to be getting enough mainstream library coverage.
The 'zine lets me communicate. I'm not sure it's "less formal and more
personal" than the rest of my writing -- actually, I'd say that my two
monthly columns may be more personal than most of Cites & Insights. It does
lack proper editorial oversight, and that's a weakness. (My writing can
always stand editing, as, I believe, can everyone else's.)
I get great feedback, some of which shows up in the zine itself. It's clear
that Cites & Insights has a significant and involved readership -- I don't
actually know the size, because I can't run Webtrends on the site. Given
that readers actually have to exert effort to get each issue, I'm satisfied
that people are actually reading it, not just letting it pile up on the
desk, and an actual readership of 1,300 to 1,500 (or more: most logs now
point to individual issues, which mean those readers aren't counted at all)
is pretty good for librarianship.
Personal satisfaction: enormous. I believe that Cites & Insights helps
hundreds of librarians to find particularly interesting articles and to
think deeply about some areas that require deep thought. I also have fun
with some of the nonsense in technology and media. There's not really a
conflict with paying deadlines; after all, nobody requires me to do C&I on
a set schedule! Additionally, C&I is cumulative: it builds as time permits,
and I organize and publish it when it feels right. (I handle deadlines by
using a rolling Excel spreadsheet and making sure I'm always ahead of the
game. If I was doing this for a living, it might be more complicated.)
As with my other writing and speaking, I'll keep doing Cites & Insights as long as I have fun doing it and as long as it appears that people want to read what I write. After
that, I'll stop and do more pleasure reading myself.
MB: Thanks, Walt, for an enlightening exchange.
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While electronic systems have brought inestimable advantages to the library, including the online catalogue and access to remote databases, the tasks of libraries have expanded enormously. Librarians must now stay on top of technology as well as information, and must maintain archives and provide continuous access when operating platforms and systems change every few years. Liza Chan has likened a library's struggle to select the best delivery and storage system for electronic media to a "blindfolded person shooting at a moving target."
Julia Martin. "The Archive as an Ecosystem." Journal of Electronic Publishing
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You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles for noncommercial purposes (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2002.
[Publishers may license the content for a reasonable fee.]