January 28, 2009

Barack Obama on libraries

You may have seen this already, but I have to share it:

Bound to the Word: Guardians of truth and knowledge, librarians must be thanked for their role as champions of privacy, literacy, independent thinking, and most of all reading.

“President -Elect Barack Obama keynoted the opening general session at the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago, June 23–29, 2005, while a U.S. senator from Illinois. This article, published in the August 2005 issue of American Libraries, is an adaptation of that speech, which drew record crowds and garnered a standing ovation.”

The Netflix Prize – not what’s needed

I am a big Netflix user. Netflix has a library of about 100,000 movies that users can watch. Because of the size of the library, much of their business comes from customers who have a strong interest in film and want to see movies that they’ve read about in books and are not otherwise easy to find. In fact, Netflix is often talked about as the one of the biggest proofs of the long tail phenomenon in action, along with Amazon.com. Their bread and butter is the semi-obscure.

You have probably heard about the Netflix Prize, which promises a million dollars to the person who programs the best improvement on their Cinematch(SM) recommendation system. I have found a lot of movies that I’ve enjoyed using Netflix’s recommendation system, and have never exactly been disappointed by it. A recommendation from Netflix is only one factor in a decision to have a movie sent to me. Other, more important factors are facts about the film. Their recommendation system already does all the thinking for me that I want it to do. I don’t really need it to be improved. I need it to be easier for me to find what I want based on my own thinking.

What I want from the Netflix website that I’m not getting is a more useful search engine. The search engine on the site searches words in titles and directors’ and actors’ names, and does fuzzy matching to catch misspellings, which is useful. But it doesn’t do anything beyond that. It doesn’t search the synopses of movies, and there is no indexing of the films based on subject matter, or other people involved in the film (composer, screenwriter) or much else. There are user-created lists of movies based on certain themes, but these are difficult to find and tend not to be all that useful.

The reason I want a better search engine is not mainly because I’m a librarian, though that may be part of it. The reason I want a better search engine has to do with the way movies interest me. When I think about movies I want to watch, I don’t think, “Hm, how can I find a movie that I will rate with five stars?” More likely I think something like, “I’m really liking these Robert Altman movies from the 70s, I want to see more, or other 70s movies with Elliott Gould.” That’s actually something that Netflix accomodates just fine, but there are also times when I’m interested in seeing movies with certain subject matter, like movies about con artists or movies about writing. Netflix does not make it easy to find them; other sources are required to pull them together.

There a number of things Netflix could do along these lines, and some of them I think it is already doing. I have noticed in its recommendation pages that narrower genre categories have appeared, like “Pre-20th Century Period Pieces” and “Classic Movie Musicals from the 1930s.” That is certainly a step in the right direction. However, they don’t make it easy to access these narrow genre lists. (They also treat “Foreign” as a genre, which strikes me as ignorant.)

These narrower genres, though, don’t give the ability to search on subject matter, which is often the thing that makes someone choose a movie. For example, if someone in my family is diagnosed with autism, I’d be interested in seeing films that relate to that (of which there have been a number). Similarly, if I’ve just lost my job and have a lot of time on my hands, I might want to see feel-good movies about people who lose everything and then have some kind of good fortune or succeed because of their creativity and persistence. The facts about a movie that might make it relevant can be things like “stock car racing,” or “horses,” but equally, and I think this is something Netflix would have to suggest to users, the theme or type of plot that the movie has, or genres and sub-genres in the industry sense.

What Netflix doesn’t quite get is that their service, with its immense library, implies an approach to marketing that is entirely different than what the studios have to do to get people to come to see movies in current release. It’s not only movie buffs and the intellectually curious who can be better reached with an attribute approach rather than an algorithm (though of course I would like it if Netflix encouraged more people to be intellectually curious). This is because Netflix has the potential to interest people in movies based on changes in their intellectual interests and emotional needs from day to day, which is something that a recommendation engine doesn’t capture since it assumes that people are basically the same one day to the next. The size of the Netflix library and the nature of their service should allow them to do marketing based on more than just the single dimension that the recommendation engine creates.

I think that million dollars needs to go in another direction. So, they should call me.

January 23, 2009

Judith Hoffberg

This from ARLIS-L:

Dear Colleagues,

We have the very sad responsibility to report that Judith Hoffberg passed away peacefully at home on Friday, January 16, 2009 after a short battle with leukemia.

In 1972, Judy, along with a group of notable librarians founded the Art Libraries Society of North America at a meeting in Chicago, serving as its first chairman in 1973. With her boundless energy, she edited the ARLIS/NA Newsletter from 1972 to 1977 and served as the society’s executive secretary from 1974 to 1977. She founded Umbrella Associates in 1978 and began issuing Umbrella, “… which is a new vehicle for art news, review and resource information.” Judith published the last issue, volume 32, no. 3, Dec. 2008, knowing it would be the last issue.

There is a brief Wikipedia article, which she approved, at
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Hoffberg. Amy’s interview with her was published in the Spring 2008 (v.27, no.1, pp.41-52) issue of Art Documentation.

Judy had an insatiable appetite for being involved: going to exhibitions, participating in conferences, giving lectures, and communicating with colleagues via Umbrella. Demanding, stubborn, funny, thoughtful, passionate, high standards, and intellectual curiosity are all words one can use to describe Judy.

There will be no funeral, but a local memorial service is being planned. As more details are available, including addresses for condolences, we will update you. The Indianapolis Conference Committee is already planning something for April.

Judy touched many, many lives in several worlds, and she will be missed in all of them.

Susan Moon
University of California, Santa Barbara

Amy Navratil Ciccone
University of Southern California

January 22, 2009

Upcoming presentations and publications by Rory Litwin

A little self-promotion here. A few things coming up:

On Saturday, March 7, I’ll be giving the keynote lecture at the Fourth Annual SIRLS Graduate Student Symposium at the University of Arizona.

On Wednesday, March 18th, I’ll be doing a poster session at the Midwest Library Technology Conference, at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Widgets for a library website.)

Media in Transition 6: stone and papyrus, storage and transmission, at MIT, April 24-26. I will be presenting a paper on the ideas of Walter Ong and their applicability to the contemporary context of shifting media, with special attention to text-based professions (like academia, law, librarianship).

With Martin Wallace I have a third book based on Library Juice coming out soon: Speaking of Information: The Library Juice Quotation Book.

January 20, 2009

Obama’s Policy Agenda on Government Ethics

The most frustrating thing about eight years of Bush Administration nefariousness and stupidity, from a librarian’s point of view, was their attitude of secrecy and contempt for the public. It is important for government to be open and transparent, and to avoid rather than seek corrupt relationships with moneyed interests. In that regard the Bush Administration was about as bad as it’s possible for a modern American presidential administration to be.

Obama inspires hope in this area not only because he’s not Bush, but because he really does have good values and promises a lot to the country in terms of transparency and integrity in government. To see exactly what I am talking about, read his policy agenda on government ethics.

I am pinching myself right now. If he delivers a quarter of what it looks like he will, it will be a much better America than the one I’ve gotten used to.

Library Juice Readers: What is your favorite Wikipedia page?

This is semi random, but I thought it might be interesting to see what comes to your minds in answer to the question: What is your favorite Wikipedia page? I actually have a favorite page, one that I like to go back to repeatedly. It’s not necessarily a good summary of my interests as a person, but it’s something I find fascinating and would love to know by heart and in detail:


Who’s got a favorite page?

(Stay tuned later this year when you will get a chance to share your favorite recently read books.)

Tim Clydesdale on the new student, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed

There is a great article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education about today’s students, how they think, and why: Wake Up and Smell the New Epistemology, by Tim Clydesdale. I think what it says has a lot of applicability to anyone working with students, and especially information literacy instructors.

January 17, 2009

Richard J. Cox – Personal Archives and a New Archival Calling

Personal Archives and a New Archival Calling:
Readings, Reflections and Ruminations

Author: Richard J. Cox
Price: $35.00
Published: January 2009
ISBN: 978-0-9802004-7-8
Printed on acid-free paper

In Personal Archives and a New Archival Calling: Readings, Reflections and Ruminations, Richard J. Cox argues that personal archives might be assuming a new importance in society. As the technical means for creating, maintaining, and using documents are improving and becoming more cost-effective, individuals and families are seeking to preserve their old documents, especially traditional paper forms, as a connection to a past that may seem to be in risk of being of being swallowed up in the immense digital gadgetry in our Internet Age. There is a reversal to other technologies as well, such as leather bound journals and fountain pens, by some individuals resisting or protesting the increasingly digital world they reside in. Behind these very different approaches are similar impulses, and, these divergent paths raise identical questions about the role and purpose of traditional archives dating back two centuries and more. Personal recordkeeping raises a remarkable array of issues and concerns about records and their preservation, public or collective memory, the mission of professional records managers and archivists, the nature of the role of the institutional archives, and the function of the individual citizen as their own archivist. Archivists need to develop a new partnership with the public, and the public needs to learn from the archivists the essentials of preserving documentary materials. We are on the cusp of seeing a new kind of archival future, and whether this is good or bad depends on how well archivists equip citizen archivists.

(Publisher’s description)

January 16, 2009


If you’re a Twitter user, feel free to follow me @rorylitwin. I just signed up for it. The feed won’t be too busy, and will be just a bit personal, in that I will actually answer that “what are you doing” question in a concrete way from time to time, and I will say what I’m thinking about things that don’t have a lot to do with libraries (politics, language, religion, philosophy, Minnesota, California, ethics, movies, etc.).

Update in March:

I now have separate Twitter accounts: my personal one, @rorylitwin, and one of stuff relating to the business, @litwinbooks. My personal one is about me (including things I do professionally) and the business one is about Litwin Books and Library Juice Press.

January 13, 2009

LJP Reading Groups

Library Juice Press is offering a discount to reading groups – groups of library students or active professionals. This is ideal for the PLG student chapters or even the ALA student chapters out there, students who want to read a book together and discuss it. The discount is 25% off on four or more copies of any book from Library Juice Press or Litwin Books.

In addition to the discount, we can also try to arrange for our authors to come and do book talks for you, if the circumstances are right (no promises).

I know that when I was in library school, some of the more important readings I did were extracurricular, recommended by progressive librarians I was coming to know…

January 12, 2009

New SRRT Newsletter

The new issue of the SRRT Newsletter is out. It’s issue 164/165, January 2009. A new editor takes the reins with this issue, Myka Kennedy Stephens. It’s got a new look but the content is so far consistent with previous issues – conference calendar, task force reports, minutes, resolutions, message from the coordinator, book reviews, etc., as well as discussions about some recent events in SRRT. Emily Drabinski has a review of Questioning Library Neutrality that I thoroughly enjoyed. (Emily is an entertaining writer – I hope she makes the most of her talent.)

January 7, 2009

Privatizing the Commons: The Commodification of New Deal Public Art

New article by Lincoln Cushing: Privatizing the Commons: The Commodification of New Deal Public Art.

Lincoln Cushing is an important person in the world of political graphic art, having put together books on Cuban poster art and Chinese propaganda posters, both very enjoyable and interesting books. Lincoln is a librarian who had an earlier career as a printer and graphic designer. Labor and labor history are big interests for him. I have had the pleasure of working with Lincoln in a number of areas and am always happy to be able to direct people to new work by him.

This is quite an interesting article, and returns us to an important ongoing problem, from which our justifiable excitement about Obama’s victory has I think naturally distracted many of us. I don’t think Obama is going to be very strong on questions of the public sphere and privatization, unfortunately, despite how far along that road we’ve come by this point.

January 6, 2009

Deadline extended for contributions to Celeste West festschrift

Editors K.R. Roberto and Toni Samek have extended the deadline for contributions to the Celeste West festschrift. The new deadline is February 2nd.