GURU INTERVIEW: CARRIE BICKNER
Carrie Bickner is The Digital Library's Assistant Director for Digital Information and System Design at the New York Public Library, where her current project is the African-American Migration Experience. Interviewed by Marylaine Block
MB: It seems to me from your description of your training that the web work was something you learned on the job. Could you talk about your learning process, both formal and informal training, formal and informal reading to update your skills?
CB: I learned quite a bit of my skills on the job, but I also received some formal technology training in library school. I took my MLS at The University of Michigan in the late 1990's, when technology classes were nearly as important as bibliography and cataloging classes. Actually, I think I went to library school at just the right time: I took the traditional library classes and the high-tech ones. I have a foot in both worlds now and can crack jokes about AACR2 with transitional catalogers, but can also speak fluently about technology issues. Being able to speak both languages has been very important. A large digital library program is as much about cataloging and other very traditional aspects of librarianship as it is about technology.
I think that the most important experience that I have had as a librarian and technologist is the cataloging work that I did as a library school student and intern. Cataloging is the intellectual foundation of our filed, and it is critical that todayís library students have some cataloging experience, especially those students interested in digital library work.
Iíll get off my soapbox now, and address the ongoing learning aspect of your question. My post library school technology training has been a mix of staying up on the literature, taking classes here and there, and working with talented colleagues. I learn best from watching others do and talk, so going to conferences and watching others work has always been the most effective way for me to learn.
MB: You're a strong advocate for web standards. Suppose that among my readers are librarians whose web sites are not compliant, but they seem to work OK and the mere thought of the work involved in altering a hundred pages or more is daunting. What do you tell them to explain why it's worth the effort? And how much effort will be involved?
CB: I am indeed an advocate for web standards. If I may quote myself, from an article I wrote for Library Journal a while back, web standards matter because "by using XHTML for document structure and CSS for design, librarians can create sites that work over time and across current and future browsers and other receiving devices, including assistive technology. XHTML and CSS are the latest W3C standards for markup and layout and lend a rigorous structure to web sites. This is a structure that receiving devices, search engines, indexes, content management systems, and other tools should be able to take advantage of.
The use of these latest standards also greatly reduces the cost of web site production and provides significant savings when it comes to redesigning a web site. Furthermore, as a light version of XML, XHTML will help developers transition to full-blown XML, a richer markup language that will soon afford even greater interoperability to web sites."
I know exactly what you mean about the idea of trying to retrofit a large site into a new standard. I would not casually throw resources into a major cleanup without first thinking seriously about the costs and benefits. Are these pages used regularly? Are they pages that you are likely to keep or weed? Can you tell which browsers and receiving devices are hitting the pages in question? Depending on the answers, your approach may be anything from ignoring standards compliance problems in legacy pages, to cleaning up a select few pages that really matter, to reworking the whole site.
A useful approach is to concentrate on building new sites with web standards, while handling the old material with a focused and deliberate policy. When I began to work with web standards I had 4,000 old pages to worry about. I decided to concentrate on building the new stuff well, and updating old pages slowly or not at all.
I must add, however, that the best way to learn how to work with web standards is to clean up messy pages. One might want to pick a small site to clean up first as a learning process.
MB: The African-American online image collection you're working on for NYPL sounds like a fascinating project. I'd like to know what's involved in a project like that: how do you choose what gets represented when there are so many images to draw on in the Schomburg collection; are you responsible for the text as well or are you working with a scholar or subject specialist? what kind of collaboration is going on?
CB: The African American Migration Experience will be a thirteen-chapter site; each chapter will document a migratory phase beginning with the international slave trade. The siteís content is vast and includes newly composed essays, digitized materials from The New York Public Libraryís Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and from other sources. We are very fortunate to have scholar, journalist, and author Sylviane Diouf leading our content team. Our collaboration involves presenting this vast and varied content in a way that is easy for the end user to understand and enjoy. My job is to facilitate the construction of the website, and to guide the creation of the asset management system that will keep track of the content. It is safe to say that this project is keeping me quite occupied.
MB: Do you miss doing reference work now that your full-time work is web stuff?
CB: To tell you the truth, I am not a great reference librarian. I am good with customer service, but working with real reference librarians made me feel a little humble about my own skills in that area. I had also waited tables for about 12 years before becoming a librarian, so public service was something that I could let go of rather easily.
MB: I know you've been working frantically on the deadline for your forthcoming book. Would you like to tell us about it?
CB: Thanks for asking about the book! It is called Web Design on a Shoestring, and it is about an overall approach to producing great sites on a small budget. As you can guess, web standards play a big part in my approach, but I also talk about design aesthetics when you canít afford a designer, content management on a dime a day, project management and just about every other aspect of website production. It should be out in March of 2004.
MB: Carrie, thanks so much for taking the time to do this. I'm going to plug your Rogue Librarian site, http://www.roguelibrarian.com/, where people can read more of what you've written on web standards and enjoy your weblog and your library stories collection.
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What's information really about? It seems to me there's something direly wrong with the ``Information Economy.'' It's not about data, it's about attention. In a few years you may be able to carry the Library of Congress around in your hip pocket. So? You're never gonna read the Library of Congress. You'll die long before you access one tenth of one percent of it. What's important --- increasingly important --- is the process by which you figure out what to look at. This is the beginning of the real and true economics of information. Not who owns the books, who prints the books, who has the holdings. The crux here is access, not holdings. And not even access itself, but the signposts that tell you what to access --- what to pay attention to. In the Information Economy everything is plentiful --- except attention.
Bruce Sterling's 1992 speech to the Library Information Technology Association
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