Ask This Librarian – Dog years

Today’s question, from a friend who just put a much beloved elderly pet to sleep:

I found out from a chart at the vet’s that Kelty, a 15-year-old Chow/Malamute mix, was, in human years, 99 years old! I want to know how the idea of “dog-years” got started, who figures it out, what kinds of information is added to the mix when they decided how it worked, etc. All about it…

My answer below…

Continue reading Ask This Librarian – Dog years

Ask This Librarian – DIY help

One of my friends got me started on this project by asking:

My question, if you don’t mind: I’d like to improve my DIY skills. I know how to use a screwdriver, drill, hammer, and other usual simple tools, but have very little hands-on experience. Can you point me at some simple and small handyman projects for practice, and/or references to read and learn more, that are just above the level of total clueless newbie?

My answer:

Continue reading Ask This Librarian – DIY help

Link post: August 27, 2010

An interesting post – with links to other ideas – from Joyce Valenza about things she wishes school librarians would unlearn.

I definitely agree with several points on her list, including the Wikipedia one. My comment on it to students has always been that it is a starting place. From there, you can learn:

  • useful terms and phrases common in that subject area (fantastic for me when someone asks a reference question about a topic I’m not already familiar with.) Better terms = better searches.
  • names and dates of relevant people involved (useful for getting broader context)
  • links to further sources, so you can go look at the initial material yourself.
  • and sometimes other things, like recent books about a topic or other resources that can help you dig deeper.

The search that brought this home to me was comparing the Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia a couple of years ago (right around the time The Other Boleyn Girl movie came out) on the subject of Anne Boleyn – scarcely a minor figure. The Britannica version was 500 words, didn’t mention most of her family by name, didn’t give any background on a number of topics – her brother and sister, her interest in religion and philosophy, background issues and politics of the time.

In contrast, the Wikipedia article (at something like 2500 words), gave all of that, plus included links to current biographies with a summary of their main focus and theories, a link to an analysis of the choices that Phillippa Gregory had made in her writing of the book (and the subsequent changes in the movie) and how that fit in with different scholarly theories.

Which one do you think is most useful to high school students who got interested in Anne because of the book or the movie? And which one do you think starts a better conversation about how we study history, and how our own interests and focus and choices affect what we see in that history? Even more importantly, the Wikipedia article showed that real people – people like them – could do that kind of analytical work too, and contribute to understanding how all the historical fragments might fit together in various ways. Not bad for 2500 words.

I think a lot of people remember what Wikipedia was like initially, and forget (or don’t know) that in the past few years, they’ve done a lot to improve citation requirements, address some of the problems of prank edits, and other such things. It’s not perfect (and like all online sites, there are still quirks) which is why you still need to go look at the original sources.But that’s always been true, regardless of your tertiary source. Growing up in an academic family, I’ve long been aware that the ‘authoritative published sources’ (like traditional encyclopedias) have the potential for flaws. There are politics and person wrangling and pet projects, and all sorts of other things that introduce bias and inaccuracy there too. They’re just much more hidden from the end reader.

Michael Stephens shared an updated assignment for the class he teaches on Participatory Service and Emerging Technologies: to read one of the selected books and either do a report (the old fashioned option) or to do a media presentation (podcast, video, all sorts of other options.) That part’s great – but the list of books is also useful (and a good reminder to me: I’ve read about half of them, and should read the rest.)

And to go with my post earlier this week, LifeHacker has a top ten list of Facebook fixes you might want to look at. (including videos on how to adjust privacy settings, if you prefer that to text instructions.)

Locational privacy

There have been a number of posts recently about the issues of locational privacy with the rollout of Facebook’s new Places feature. (There are other sites out there that do similar things: FourSquare is one of the better known.)

The issues with locational privacy are complicated. Some are fairly obvious (people who have stalkers or other people harassing them obviously don’t necessarily want to be found.) Some are related to pranks that can have long-lasting effects (being ‘checked in’ to a location that would look bad to your boss – even if you were nowhere near there.) And some are complex: no one really has the stats on whether burglaries happen more to people who ‘check in’ far away from home, but do you really want to trust that one?

And even if you do want some people – your closest friends, the people you’d want to tell anyway – that doesn’t mean you want to tell the whole world. If you only friend people on Facebook that you are quite close to, no problem. But if you have people friended who you’re not as close to – or maybe don’t even know very well – then you probably want to change things from the default ‘Friends Only’ setting. Here’s a great article on changing the Facebook Places privacy settings.

There’s a great article from the EFF about the issues of locational privacy (that go far beyond these kinds of ‘checking in’) sites – they also talk about the implications of transit passes, electronic toll paying devices, and other ways to match up a specific person with a specific location. The Center for Democracy and Technology also has a good article.

And finally, if you’d like a totally different way to understand some of the issues with locational privacy, I recommend Cory Doctorow’s YA novel Little Brother. You can download a copy for free from Cory’s site – or, of course, get it from your local library or bookstore.

Book meme: day 2

(First: all theme related stuff should now be back to normal. If you do notice something odd, please let me know via the contact form or a comment!)

Day 02: A book you wish more people were talking about

My current wish along these lines is Mira Grant’s Feed. It’s a complicated book, both for world-building reasons, and because of the complexities of the plot, which is all about truth, journalism, blogging, and having the courage to do the right thing, no matter what the cost. It’s also about zombies, as the worldbuilding part involves two vaccines (for the common cold and for cancer) having spread and combined. Everyone in that world – 2040, 20 years after these two vaccines combined – carries a resevoir of the viruses, and if they die (of whatever cause), they reanimate as zombies, who are also much more contagious, unless totally destroyed.

It’s a hard book, and Grant pulls few punches about what it’s like to live in that world, but also about how news stories, blogging, journalism, and other fields might have changed and developed in a world where going outside and travel we take for granted right now is extraordinarily risky. I’m definitely looking forward to the sequels.

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Quick note

I did something odd to the theme I’d prefer and realised it while travelling (for an interview). I hope to have a fix up in the next few days, but in the meantime, have an alternate theme, and please excuse any oddities you might notice (I think the things I haven’t fixed are all content from other sites – my Delicious and GoodReads sidebar widgets, for example.)

Book meme

There’s a fascinating 30 day book meme going around, that I thought I’d chime in. (I don’t anticipate 30 daily posts, and I may skip some – complete list below.) While there aren’t spoilers in this one, I will make note of any, and put them below the ‘more’ tag.

Day 01 – A book series you wish had gone on longer OR a book series you wish would just freaking end already (or both!)

I read a lot of series books, and am therefore pretty tolerant of the problems of a series – things that get so tangled that going on is immensely complicated, or where the author just needs to change what they’re doing, or a series stops selling well.

I would love especially to have more books in Deborah Grabien‘s Haunted Ballad folksong series (the last one was in 2007, and I don’t know if she has more planned), and in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion series (I’m also deeply fond of her Vorkorsigan books, and her others, for that matter: she does hope to return to that world at some point.) And I’d love another Jacqueline Kirby book from Elizabeth Peters (though again, I also like her other series, and just finished the latest in the Amelia Peabody series). But mostly, I don’t pine for series, as much as I do for more stuff from authors I love.

Beyond that, I’m not so sure. I try not to pine for series where the author has died, as it seems a waste of time. (Though I am among those who would cheerfully inhale more Dorothy Sayers, for example.)

In terms of series that I wish had stopped sooner than they did: Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books took a sharp turn after about Blue Moon, and I wish she’d done a more deliberate split at that point (or perhaps a book or two later) than what she ended up doing – perhaps branching off a new sequence with a coherent arc/series title, or something.

continue below for all 30 days of this meme.

Continue reading Book meme

Links post: August 13th, 2010

Want an idea of exactly how huge the change in information literacy, research skills, and other related topics are between 1999 and 2010? Joyce Valenza and Doug Johnson have released the chapter they wrote for administrators about how environmental scans of information have changed. It’s readable and a powerful reminder of just how many things we’re doing that are new, engaging – but also have some major differences from research in the past. Check out See Sally Research: An Environmental Scan

One of the things that interests me is a particular problem of folksonomies – user-created tags and other sorting devices. The problem is that when they get large, they get unwieldy. There’s an interesting recent post from StackExchange about how they’ve handled this on their site.

And finally, looking for something great to read? I really like the Seattle Public Library’s Shelf Talk blog‘s thematic posts.

Personal collections

No links post this week, as I’m travelling, but there’ll be one next week. In the meantime, I’ve been working on weeding through my bookshelves and thinking about what I want as a ‘collection’ in library terms. (The realities of job hunting right now mean that there’s a reasonable chance a move will be involved. So I’m sorting through books and weeding out stuff I no longer need to own, on the theory that if I move, it’ll be useful, and if I don’t move, it’ll still be useful.)

My starting point:

– I currently live in a little tiny house with limited bookshelf space. (To the point that the childhood books I adore but rarely reread live on the top two shelves in my pantry, which are too tall for me to use for kitchen storage without a ladder.) Everything I own therefore needs to pass the ‘do I love this enough to make room for it?’ test.

– Realistically? There is this thing called the Internet, and this other thing called the Library. I own very few reference books, because the Internet does most of what I need in a far smaller space, and I own very little non-fiction in general because the library is likely to have what I want. (Exceptions noted below.)

What I own:

Reference: A small reference collection useful for the kinds of questions easier to work with in print than online. (Greek lexicon, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phase and Fable, that sort of thing.)

Non-fiction:

  • books which would be very expensive to replace but that are in formats I am affectionate about or sentimentally attached to. (The Riverside Chaucer, several gorgeously illustrated books on the history of the book, etc. etc.)
  • A very few college and grad school textbooks that remain reasonably current and useful, in subject areas I’m likely to want to reference at home. Or if not current, at least a reasonable starting place (A classic in this category is Grout and Palisca’s music history text book, though I forget which edition I have. A number of other music books, as well.)
  • cookbooks I refer to regularly (though I usually start by checking them out of the library first to see if I like them.)
  • a few pieces of classic literature that include annotations of usefulness (I have a number of the Penguin editions of various Arthurian legends pieces.)
  • and a few miscellaneous non-fiction books that I come back to regularly and enjoy rereading for pleasure (The Mummy Congress (mummies) or Honey, Mud, and Maggots (where modern science and folklore around healing and remedies coincide), or Color: A Natural History of the Palette (color))

These are about a fifth of my shelves.

Fiction:

  • Books I re-read at least every 2 years or so.
  • Genre series where the library has proven unreliable in keeping copies of everything …
  • … or which I want to read at 3am when I can’t sleep (or I’m sick, or any other thing that makes it unlikely that the library will be very useful.)
  • And a small collection of fiction that I don’t necessarily re-read very often, but when I want to read it, it’s for a very specific reason, and I like to have it handy.

These are about half of my shelves.

Religious non-fiction (and some fiction):

(For other people, this might encompass books about a hobby or a very specific interest, too.)

The library is not a good and reliable source for a sizeable amount of the material I refer  to in my religious life: often copies would only be available via ILL, and even then, not very reliably (since my home library right now is the biggest public library system in the state: chances are decent that if they don’t have it, it’s going to be hard to come by, as we’re talking ‘books for members of the religion’ not ‘academic discussion of the religion’, which would be easier to come by from university sources.)

So, I have copies at home (both of books I like and recommend, and a shelf that a friend of mine labelled ‘Books of Ill Repute’ where I like having certain popular but problematic titles handy. It’s a lot easier to say “On page 50, I really disagree with the assumption that…” and “This section in chapter 3 is really muddy and poorly explained: I’ve heard people interpret it this way, and that way, and this other way.” if, in fact, you have the books in front of you.

I do the least weeding here, honestly – because I never know which of these books is going to be useful or not useful, and in which circumstance. (And because replacing them would be more expensive and complicated in many cases than replacing, say, a genre mystery series I decided I do want to keep.)

I’ve also gotten (through the kindness of a friend) a number of copies of items that are now fairly hard to come by (small press run books in the days before Print on Demand), and I figure I ought to keep them until I find a specific better home for someone to make use of them.

So, mostly, I look for whether I’m going to want to refer to a book repeatedly, whether it fits a hole in my existing collection, and  the quality of information before I bring it home, and after that, expect to keep it (though I do plan to do a little bit of weeding here, as there are a few things that probably don’t need to live with me anymore.

(These, if it weren’t obvious, are the rest of my collection.)

Shelving:

I am very odd in that I shelve by sub-genre in fiction. All my historical mystery series are together. All my urban fantasy are together – near, but separate from – my high fantasy, and my historical fantasy (my term for books clearly in the fantasy genre but clearly in a world closely influenced by our history – Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series, or Guy Gavriel Kay’s books.

Within those, I go by place within series (usually chronological internal to the series, rather than publication date), and then by ‘where does this fit on the shelf’ (so my authors are not always in alphabetical order, since for some series, they’re all paperback, and in others, there’s a mix of mass market, trade, and hardcover editions.)

In the non-fiction, I group by general topic (and in the religious materials, by subtopic).

In an ideal world with more shelves for bookshelf space, I’d have the space to spread everything out, and to go alphabetically by author (and then by place in series) and so on, but until then, I make do.

Myths of the benefit of ‘real names’ (‘real’ names: part 3)

Myth 1: Using a ‘real name’ reduces problematic behavior.

This myth is a myth because it makes having a ‘name that looks like a real name’ equivalent with ‘name associated with a history that the poster cares about’. The problem is, these are not necessarily the same thing. (And thinking they are won’t solve your problems.)

Reality: There’s nothing to stop someone making up a name that looks ‘real’. Unless, of course, you start requiring things like linking it to a credit card (which is not appropriate for many uses and has significant security concerns if you don’t want there to be major risk of identity theft. More understandable if you’re Amazon.com, but not so good for small sites.

Reality: It’s also not solely the legal name that prevents harassment – instead, it’s the link to an identity that someone cares about. Someone using a persistent pseudonym often cares about its reputation. Someone using their legal name may not for whatever reason (no matter how foolish that might end up being for them in the long run.)

Truth: Realistically, people who really want to harass will find ways to do it. For most circumstances, your average reader is not going to check out that Jane Doe is actually Jane Doe. What they’re going to care about is whether Jane Doe is interesting, thoughtful – and consistent with Jane Doe’s past history. Those things don’t require the name. They do benefit from history.

There’s also the problem of verifying the ‘real name’. There are ways this can work – Amazon’s process, which uses the name on the credit/debit card you have on file with them. But even there, there are problems, and in other settings, it gets even more complicated. For example, looking at Blizzard, many teens have accounts under their parent’s name – so the verifiable name on the account would be the parent, not the person (theoretically posting.)

Myth 2: Anything worth saying can be said using a legal identity.
Well, no. Really not.

If you force people to use a legal name, what you tend to hear are things that are socially acceptable to say. But there’s a lot that goes unsaid. People who are in the minority in that community will be less inclined to speak up (whether that’s due to gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, relationship preferences, background, or whatever else.)

People with health issues (their own, or their family’s) may not be willing to share useful information with others – for fear that employers or health insurers will take their comments out of context. People who have good reason to avoid being identified (those with stalkers, violent exes, etc.) won’t comment either.

While hurtful and trolling anonymous comments (those meant solely to disrupt a conversation) are a problem, I tend to think that not hearing all those other voices is even more of one. And there are other good and thoughtful ways to reduce the problematic comments, while allowing people to select a name that represents them – but that doesn’t reveal more than they’re comfortable with.

Myth 3: You can stay out of trouble online, just avoid saying anything that causes offense.

When you figure out what that topic is, please share. Pretty much anything can cause offense to someone, somewhere.

Plus, you’re assuming that all people out there are reasonable. Many people *are* reasonable. But there are people out there who aren’t – people who for whatever reason can fixate on someone (or something – it can be a topic) and be anywhere from extremely bothersome and disruptive to dangerous.

Myth 4: Privacy (and related settings) can fix the above concerns just fine.

Not so. Too many sites have gone along with one set of privacy settings only to change them fairly rapidly (and not always with advance notice to users) to make this one believable anymore. A site can’t share information it doesn’t have. It might share what you did. (So our internet history tells us, and we all know the line about those who don’t know their history being doomed to repeat it…)

Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

More about my job and a day in the life

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