NOTE: Because my original e-mail address has been misappropriated and used to send spam and viruses, I am switching to a different e-mail address (and guarding it a little more carefully). You can now reach me at: marylaine at netexpress.net
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REVIEW: KEEPING CURRENT
Steven M. Cohen. Keeping Current: Advanced Internet Strategies To Meet Librarian and Patron Needs. ALA, 2003. 0-8389-0864-0. $35, or $31.50 to members. Reviewed by Marylaine Block
Many of you already know Steven Cohen, internet columnist for Public Libraries and proprietor of the blog Library Stuff <http://www.librarystuff.net>. And if you know him, you're aware that he is passionate about the need for librarians to keep up with new technologies and other developments in our profession.
In this slim volume, he explains why it has become even more essential to remain current even in the presence of the information overload that makes doing so a daunting task. He confesses that before he developed the methods he's explaining in this book, he used to spend three hours a day skimming and/or digesting new developments -- a level of devotion few of us would bring to the task no matter how strongly we believed in its necessity.
Cohen begins by reviewing the old ways and the new ways of keeping up, laying out the advantages and disadvantages of print and internet-based resources. Print sources offer authority and portability (it's easy to carry a magazine anywhere), but have the drawback that, by the time an issue is routed to the most junior person on the staff, it is no longer even remotely current. Web resources lend themselves better to breaking news and highly current information, and are available to many simultaneous readers, but the glut of self-published zines and blogs feeds our terror of never having the time to sort through it all and weigh its credibility.
His theory of keeping up is that instead of librarians hunting for information, information should come to librarians. Never click on a web site, he says, unless you have an absolute certainty there's new information there. The ideal is: "Every article, journal or resource will come to them either via a certain piece of software, e-mail alert, or electronic discussion list." Corollaries include: Keeping current should not take all day; use as few tools as possible; and learn to skim headlines. (The latter is a trick I've mastered, even about technologies I don't understand. I use the rule of three: if I read about the same thing in three very different sources, I take it as a hint from God to pay attention.)
Cohen devotes an entire chapter to keeping up with new developments in search engines, a field changing far too fast for most ordinary folks to keep up with. That's why he reviews a number of search engine expert sites which are also available by e-mail. Other chapters explore web site monitoring resources, which will notify you when the web sites of your choice have been changed, weblogs (whether created by others or by yourself as a strategy for stashing notes to yourself about important resources), and RSS.
One point that Cohen makes, but does not elaborate on, is how to move the new stuff into your long-term reference memory. For him, Library Stuff was both a device that pushed him to learn something new everyday so he'd have something to talk about on the blog, and a memory device -- we all know that we learn something better when we teach somebody else about it. The book could have profited from an entire chapter about devices librarians use to remember new stuff and integrate it into their working knowledge.
But that's a minor quibble. The book by its very slimness and succinctness makes the task of keeping up seem manageable, and Cohen's explanations of how to use the various tools are lucid to even the most technologically intimidated. I highly recommend it.
MY OWN PRIVATE STASH
by Marylaine Block
So, let me elaborate on what Steven didn't cover. I have a regular collection of sources I visit daily and weekly. You can view them at http://marylaine.com/home.html. These sites include librarian blogs, journalism blogs, news, site announcement services, and news about technology, science, arts, politics, and federal and state government. I also read plenty of magazines, many of which mention web sites from time to time, or contain important articles which I will then try to find posted online so I can pass them on. (Not all of them will be. There's a wonderful tribute to libraries and librarians in the November, 2003 issue of The Writer, but you'll have to read it in your print copies.)
I used to just stash my newly discovered sites on Best Information on the Net [http://library.sau.edu/bestinfo/, but when I quit my job and left BIOTN in the hands of my colleagues, I had to find another place to store them until needed. Now, when I find a web site or article or thought-provoking quote I think I might use, I stash it in a web site on my C drive called "NextNeat." When it's time to put together the next issue of Neat New Stuff, this is where I trawl.
I keep at least six months of Neat New Stuff online, but before I delete the oldest, I always make a printout. That way, NeatNew and NextNeat become prime sources when I'm putting together the online outline for each conference or workshop presentation I do -- each site is already described and ready to go. Those outlines themselves [see http://marylaine.com/handouts.html] become stashes where I can retrieve vaguely remembered sites by subject -- business sources, readers' sources, government sources, etc.
The act of inspecting these sites and describing them has placed them in my long-term memory. I may not remember the site's name or creator or address, but I will remember what that site did, and with that information, I can easily retrieve the specific site from one of my pages.
If you contribute to your library's web pages, you already have a place to store resources for your future retrieval. But if you don't, you might want to consider starting either a blog or a private web page of your own (which is also a good way to teach yourself XML and web design).
These days, I get fewer blank stares when I talk about library school than I did 8 years ago, but that doesn't mean people really "get" the reference thing. I explain it to my friends like this: This is a question, but not a reference question: "Do you guys have any information on caves?" And this is a reference question: "I am trying to find information on those sightless fish that live in caves. I would like a book for my 10th graders to read." It's the librarian's job to turn the first type of question into the second. The fact that we as librarians will also tell you what time it is or where the bathroom is does not mean that we're not doing some serious question alchemy to help you find most things. The best reference interactions are ones in which the patrons find what they want and are not even aware that the librarians have been giving them reference interviews the entire time.
Jessamyn West. "The Librarian Is In and Online." Computers in Libraries, October, 2003. http://www.infotoday.com/cilmag/oct03/west.shtml
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
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