Why Libraries Should Maintain the Open Data of Their Communities

Today I’m preparing for my participation in a seminar on Open Cities that will be held Monday in Toronto as part of the Monday Night Seminar series by The McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology.

As part of my preparation, I thought I would take and publish an edited version of a draft of a paper that I wrote about Why Libraries Should Maintain the Open Data of Their Communities that I wrote in 2014 but never ended up publishing.

The text that follows is loooong. For a shorter take, you can opt to check out my slides on the same topic from a presentation I gave at the Ontario Library Association Superconference in January of this year.


Before we can have Linked Open Data, we need Open Data, and that process of education and data publishing with open licenses has been slow going (Voss 2012).

It is curious that for all the professional and scholarly conversations within librarianship about Linked Open Data there is scant attention being paid to the much simpler technology of Open Data. What literature on Open Data that is found is largely situated within the larger conversation on the preservation and management of experimental data that are now required of researchers to deposit due to changes in national-level funding mandates. Not to take away from the work being applied to both Linked Open Data and Research Data Management as these are both important developments in the work of libraries, this text will put forward that libraries are not taking advantage of an opportunity to collect and manage Open Data more widely from and for their communities. By ignoring Open Data libraries are missing an opportunity to become a platform by which new works by and about their community can be built. Indeed, there are those outside of the profession who have expressed that libraries would do well to address this need.

The Context: Open Data in Canada

It is necessary to define what is meant by the term Open Data before continuing. In this text I am going to use a stricter definition of Open Data than what is generally used in the research data management community. The Canadian’s federal research granting agencies in their consultation report “The Capitalizing on Big Data: Toward a Policy Framework for Advancing Digital Scholarship in Canada” (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council et al. 2014) use the same definition of Open Data as The Royal Society in its “Science as an Open Enterprise” report:

“Open data is data that meets the criteria of intelligent openness. Data must be accessible, usable, assessable and intelligible”(Royal Society (Great Britain) 2012).

But for the purposes that I will be making a case for in this text, it is necessary to extend the definition of Open Data to more than merely making one’s data available online which has be construed as open-washing (Villum 2014). When using the term Open Data I will be using its definition as expressed by the Open Knowledge Foundation:

“Open means anyone can freely access, use, modify, and share for any purpose (subject, at most, to requirements that preserve provenance and openness)”(Open Knowledge Foundation 2014).

It is important to understand the consequences of using the definition of Open Data as set by the OKFN. A dataset that is made available online using the licence CC-BY-NC, or Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial, for example, would not be considered Open Data by the OKFN since it restricts the domain of data use to only non-commercial endeavors.

On the other hand, this text will accept any data – even unstructured data in a proprietary format – that is made available freely online as long as the license has been designated as Open. This is consistent with the definition of Open Data as considered by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web and the initiator of Linked Data. Berners-Lee holds that Open Data is a quality that can be assigned of one of five possible stars for openness (Berners-Lee 2006).

5 stars of open data

Data that is available online that has been granted an open license has a quality level of one star. Openly licensed data available in a structured form such as a table is worth two stars and data that is structured using a non-proprietary format such as within a comma delimited file earns three stars. Four star open data is open licensed data that has been assigned a URI, or uniform resource identifier, so that the data can be linked to with less likelihood of breaking. And according to Berners-Lee, data with semantic metadata or Open Linked Data would be ideal and thus earns five stars. In the course of this text it will be discussed why the work involved of adding additional metadata, structure, and programmatic access to Open Data might be a new service that librarians might want to consider providing to their communities as part of our portfolio of services.

I will also be writing about the Canadian context of Open Data. This context is significant because government produced data in Canada falls under Crown Copyright which is an arrangement that allows for perpetual copyright held by the Crown. This arrangement is unlike that of the United States where government work

“prepared by an officer or employee of the United States government as part of that person’s official duties… is not subject to copyright” and is, as such, free to copy by citizens of the United States (U.S. General Services Administration 2014).

Reproduction and other uses of Canadian government produced information, by default, requires permission and the generally involves the payment of licensing fees that have been set for the purposes of cost-recovery. That was the case until 2010, when the federal government gave notice that it was establishing a license that gave permission for non-commercial uses without the need for permission (Geist 2013). But in 2013, this notice was removed from the Public Works and Government Services site and the announcement was made that,

“as of November 18, 2013 Publishing and Depository Services no longer administers Crown Copyright and Licensing on behalf of Government of Canada departments and agencies. Should you be seeking copyright clearance for Government of Canada information, please contact the department or agency that created the information” (P. W. and G. S. C. Government of Canada 2007).

It is still unclear whether there is a consistent approach across the departments of the federal government in regards to whether prior permission is necessary for non-commercial uses of online data of the federal government.

Canadian Libraries Opening Data

Due to its cost-recovery mandate, access and use of many of the datasets produced by Canadian federal department of Statistics Canada require a licensing fee. These fees that are considered minimal by Statistics Canada have not only inhibited student use of its research data but it is thought to have limited the entire filed of quantitative social science research in Canada (Boyko and Watkins 2014). To alleviate this condition, Statistics Canada in 1996 established the Data Liberation Initiative (DLI) with Canadian post-secondary institutions to improve data access for students, staff and faculty.

“Over the years the focus of the DLI Program has evolved from purchasing access to major Canadian datasets collected by Statistics Canada to providing training services and the continuous support required for the proper understanding and usage of an ever expanding research data collection” (S. C. Government of Canada 1996).

It has been said that the fear of lost revenue inhibited efforts in the 1990s to make government-produced data from Statistics Canada more readily available to Canadian academic researchers through the Data Liberation Initiative (Boyko and Watkins 2014) despite the fact that revenue recovered from such efforts have been suggested to been limited (McMahon 2014). In order to prevent “leakage” of data from the academic sphere to the public/commercial sphere through the DLI, Statistics Canada developed and requires a license agreement to be signed by the institution’s University Librarian and designated DLI contact that makes explicit that that the data distributed by the institution are for

“exclusive purposes of teaching, academic research and publishing, and/or planning of educational services within my educational institution, and may not be used for any other purposes without the explicit prior written approval of Statistics Canada” (Boyko and Watkins 2014).

As Boyko and Watkins notes,

“This license has been remarkably effective. The penalty for a breach of the license would be the loss of data access to the offending institution. As a result DLI contacts are extremely diligent in applying the conditions and have a number of tools at their disposal to help in this regard.”

While libraries have been responsible for upholding obligations of signed license agreements for digital products for decades now, I think it’s important to take a moment to reflect on this behaviour that has been normalized. If libraries during the age of only print had decided to restrict the use of its collections to non-commercial sphere and would regularly interrogate our users of their intentions of how they planned to make use of the information that they found in the library before they were able to access those works, the practice would be dismissed immediately out of a respect for personal privacy.  The fact that this practice has been established with no known complaint is likely for several reasons. For one, the transaction of data from Statistics Canada to the user (through the proxy of the academic library) is framed as an exchange in which the promise of non-commercialization of the data and no re-distribution of the set is given in return for data without a financial cost, as opposed to an imposed restriction on one’s rights on one’s own data.

While the Data Liberation Initiative has had success in making government data more readily available for the academic researchers of Canada, it does not help bring government data to the wider public. In response, local governments, non-profit organizations and public libraries such as the Calgary Public Library, Toronto Public Library, and Regina Public Library have independently joined the Community Data Program (CDP) as established by the Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD), to collectively acquire Statistics Canada data. It should be noted that this data is not intended to be shared with the public; rather the data is used for internal planning and decision making (Canadian Council on Social Development 2014).

At one time libraries did belong to a program that made Canadian government information freely available to the Canadian public called the Federal Depository Services Program.

“The original mandate of the DSP was to provide a central and comprehensive distribution source from which published Government of Canada (GC) information would be sent to academic, college, legislative and public libraries, as well as to federal parliamentarians and departmental libraries” (Government of Canada Publications 2014).

The program began in 1927 and ended in 1994 when the program developed into the “E-Collection” in 1995. The distribution of print publications to libraries eventually ceased as access to their PDF equivalents were made available online. While the DSP E-Collection Program is one that distributes publications and not datasets, I believe that the program is worth mentioning in this context because it was one reason given why my own place of employment (and presumably other Canadian academic libraries) have always maintain a bank of computers that are freely available to the public. Since our library was designated a Full Depository Library in the DSP program it was held that our library had an obligation to provide unfettered and free public access to our the DSP collection beyond our campus to the wider community. I would consider this a historical precedent to possible hosting of government open data in the future.

One could argue that the most significant program to make Canadian government data readily available to all of its citizens without a direct cost now comes from the government itself. It is difficult to set a precise date when it and other governments began the shift towards Open Data. It has been said that “The Open Data Movement” began in the United States in December of 2007 (Chignard 2013) when thirty prominent writers, scholars, business leaders and activists came together to form an Open Government Working Group (Malamud 2007). In May of 2009, the City of Vancouver “endorsed the principles of making its data open and accessible to everyone where possible, adopting open standards for that data and considering open source software when replacing existing applications”(CBC News 2009). By June of 2013, Canada signed on to the Open Data Charter at the G8 Summit held in Lough Erne Summit in Northern Ireland and in doing so, committed itself to the following principles:

  1. Open Data by Default – foster expectations that government data be published openly;
  2. Quantity and Quality – release quality, timely and well described Open Data;
  3. Usable by All – release as much data in as many open formats as possible;
  4. Releasing Data for Improved Governance – share expertise and be transparent about data collection, standards and publishing processes; and
  5. Releasing Data for Innovation – consult with users and empower future generations of innovators (data.gc.ca 2014).

As of October, 2014, five of our of nation’s provincial governments host an open data portal as do over fifty municipalities (Lauriault 2014).

In the next section of this text, it will be argued that there is a growing expectation that the library develops into a platform for the information needs of its community and that hosting Open Data may be one such development towards this vision.

The Library As Platform

There have been a number of prominent individuals outside of the librarian profession who have advocated that libraries must go beyond merely providing traditional collections if they are to remain a relevant and vibrant institution in the future. In May of 2011 writer Seth Godwin declared that “The library is no longer a warehouse for dead books” and instead suggested a new vision of the library: “there are one thousand things that could be done in a place like this, all built around one mission: take the world of data, combine it with the people in this community and create value” (Godin 2011). In October of 2013, MG Siegler, who is a general partner at Google Ventures, declared “The End of the Library” in a post on TechCrunch stating, “The internet has replaced the importance of libraries as a repository for knowledge. And digital distribution has replaced the role of a library as a central hub for obtaining the containers of such knowledge: books” (Siegler 2013).

Librarians have generally not been receptive to these interjections. One of the strongest rebuttals to the MG Siegler article addresses the comfortable privilege of Siegler and other writers in the “End of the Library trope” (Berg 2013). While these writers might not need libraries personally, Berg argues, it is a mistake for them to insist that this means that everyone else in the community is in the same situation and to ignore the less fortunate. Indeed, there is still a considerably large population who need and use libraries regularly for access to reading materials or to access digital sources of information (Zickuhr, Purcell, and Rainie 2014).

While acknowledging this particular weakness and their other shortcomings I would like to suggest that within many of these “Death of the Library” pieces is also evidence that there is a segment of our population who are no longer not well served by primarily collection-based libraries of items that can be readily acquired through commercial channels. Before I extend this argument, I would like to locate this observation in the context of the Collections Grid model developed by Lorcan Dempsey and Eric Childress that takes in account the changes in library collection development that have come about in an increased networked environment (Dempsey, Malpas, and Lavoie 2014).

Unlike the writers of many of the ‘Death of the library’ pieces, I am not suggesting that hosting and managing Open Data should or will replace traditional collection building. Instead my suggestion is that libraries consider adding this responsibility as part of our collection development work. The benefit of situating Open Data work within the Collections Grid model is that it opens a conversation about where the library is currently investing its collections resources and allows us to discuss the possibility of shifting some of our resources in response. The model

 organizes resources according to two values: uniqueness and stewardship/scarcity. Resources that are unique, or rare, tend to be in one collection only. Resources that are not unique or rare tend to be in many collections. At the nonunique end of this spectrum are commodity materials, which are widely published or available through many channels. Resources that are highly stewarded are things that attract library attention, have resources and time spent on them, have systems infrastructure devoted to them, and so on. Stewardship and scarcity tend to go together: we have developed stewardship models for materials that are relatively scarce. This gives us four quadrants.


In an academic context, support for Open Data from and about the library and of its parent institution would likely be positioned in this model’s bottom right quadrant, indicating high uniqueness and low stewardship. This quadrant has been given a heading of Research & Learning Materials as this section includes “Institutional records, ePrints/tech reports, Learning objects, Courseware, E-portfolios, and Research” data. Writing about this type of collections work in an academic context, Dempsey et al. states, “This quadrant is increasingly important. We can identify various strands of activity, especially since there is increasing interest in curating and disclosing additional materials from the process of scholarly inquiry, as universities become more aware of the range of digital assets they produce and the management requirements they raise, and as making such assets more discoverable is seen as contributing to university reputation.”

One of the most succinct expressions of this growing expectation that a library should be more than traditionally collection-based comes from within librarianship. R. David Lankes, professor and Dean’s Scholar for the New Librarianship at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies wrote in 2013, “Bad Libraries build collections. Good libraries build services (of which a collection is only one). Great libraries build Communities” (Lankes 2014). This statement fits comfortably within Lankes’ larger Mission for Librarians which framed his Atlas of New Librarianship: “The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities” (Lankes 2011).

There is evidence that those from outside of librarianship are starting to understand the potential of libraries in this particular context. During the month of September 2014 the Knight Foundation began a Knight News Challenge as a means to distribute a share of $2.5 million in funding. The challenge issued was “How might we leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities?” (Bracken 2014). Of the 680 public entries that were submitted, 13 of the Knight Foundation Challenge entries mentioned Open Data explicitly. One such the entry was entitled “From open data to open knowledge: Using libraries to turn civic data into a valuable resource for citizens, researchers, and City Hall alike.” It, like many of these challenge responses, identify a need for librarians to improve the context of existing open data and “to help ensure that our data becomes part of the valuable collection of information they make available to their users” (Franklin-Hodge 2014).

Why Open Data

Some of the key motivations for open data initiatives are to promote transparency of decision-making, create accountability for elected and appointed officials, and spur greater citizen engagement. In addition, however, it is increasingly clear that open data can also enable the creation of economic value beyond the walls of the governments and institutions that share their data. This data can not only be used to help increase the productivity of existing companies and institutions, it also can spur the creation of entrepreneurial businesses and improve the welfare of individual consumers and citizens (Chui, Farrell, and Van Kuiken 2013).

As stated previously in the discussion of the Data Liberation Initiative of Statistics Canada, the argument that Canadian government data is best served on a cost-recovery basis has been challenged.

The little research that has been done into this subject has suggested that charging for government data almost never yields much money, and often actually serves as a loss creating mechanism. Indeed a 2001 KPMG study of Canadian geospatial data found government almost never made money from data sales if purchases by other levels of government were not included (Eaves 2013).

Proponents of Open Data argue that Open Data will release more social and economic value than cost recovery and as such, are more in line with what we understand a government should do for its citizens. Some advocates of Open Data state this conviction even more strongly:

The open data movement has propagated a shifting notion of who the users of data are. In the long history of data, citizens were always considered to be end-users who provided their data to the collector and then interfaced with the end-products of data-driven government innovations. In this new vision, government concedes that citizens can best define and resolve the problems that plague their own communities—implying that communities should take the data provided and use it to address their needs (Deahl 2014).

Alex Carruthers of the Edmonton Public Library has stated that the benefits of Open Data as given generally to governments, can also be extended to libraries:

Were a library to collect and analyze its internal data and integrate it with publicly available data, it could improve the efficiency of workflows and provide evidence-based support for program development. Sharing library data such as in-branch technology, usage, anonymized circulation statistics, and catalogue metadata improves the organization’s transparency and can provide citizens with insight into the value of the library (Carruthers 2014).

Librarians could have additional reasons why libraries should collect and might make use of Open Data to facilitate knowledge creation in their communities and this will be explored in the next section of this text.

Libraries should improve Data Literacy as a means to distribute the benefits of Open Data more equitably

At the 2014 Access Conference, there were two lightning talks that shared the experiences and lessons learned from two respective library-hosted open data hackathons, with one being from the University of Ottawa and the other hosted at the Edmonton Public Library. In her talk “#HackUOBiblio – libraries, hacking, and open data”, Catherine McGoveran told the audience that the focus of their hackathon was Open Data,

“We wanted people to understand what it is and what they could do with it all within the broader context of fostering data literacy in our community”(#HackUOBiblio – Libraries, Hacking, and Open Data 2014).

Elsewhere, she and the organizers of HackUOBiblio have stated that such hackathons are useful in as a means to teach data literacy skills (Weatherall 2014).

In their presentation “Hacking the city: Libraries and the open data movement”, Alex Carruthers of the Edmonton Public Library and Lydia Zvyagintseva, MLIS/MA Candidate of the University of Alberta and founder of HackYEG, continued the theme of the Open Data, libraries and the need for greater data literacy (Hacking the City: Libraries and the Open Data Movement 2014).

Despite the very compelling rhetoric of government transparency and civic engagement, studies suggest that in practice open data access appears to benefit government and the entrepreneurial class more than the public at large who find data difficult to interpret. The general public relies on applications developed by the entrepreneurial class to make sense of data. We believe libraries are well positioned to play a strategic role in developing skills required for citizens to navigate the expanding data landscape.

Further on in their talk, Carruthers and Zvyagintse cite the work of Prado and Marzel, “Determining Data Information Literacy Needs: A Study of Students and Research Faculty” in their conclusion that the increasing importance of data in our civic lives “require public, school and academic libraries to contribute to both data and information literacy, as part of their larger mission to further knowledge and innovation in their respective fields of action” (Calzada and Marzal 2013).

In a blog post entitled, “Learning from Libraries: The Literacy Challenge of Open Data”, David Eaves made a similar response to the problem of a public that may lack the data literacy skills to make use of Open Data:

“We didn’t build libraries for a literate citizenry. We built libraries to help citizens become literate. Today we build open data portals not because we have public policy literate citizens, we build them so that citizens may become literate in public policy” (Eaves 2014).

Eaves goes on to compare libraries and Open Data catalogues and reminds his readers that the value of libraries did not come from books alone but its additional supportive efforts to support literacy:

When we think of libraries, we often just think of a building with books.  But 19th century [libraries] mattered not only because they had books, but because they offered literacy programs, books clubs, and other resources to help citizens become literate and thus, more engaged and productive. Open data catalogs need to learn the same lesson. While they won’t require the same centralized and costly approach as the 19th century, governments that help foster communities around open data, that encourage their school system to use it as a basis for teaching, and then support their citizens’ efforts to write and suggest their own public policy ideas will, I suspect, benefit from happier and more engaged citizens, along with better services and stronger economies.

Eaves ends his post with this challenge: “So what is your government/university/community doing to create its citizen army of open data analysts?” And in response several readers commented that libraries again are well positioned to help create citizens that are data literate.

Open Data builds towards an expectation of engagement

At the 2014 Access Conference, Carruthers and Zvyagintseva framed their Open Data hackathon work in the larger context of participatory learning:

Our main argument then is that hosting and supporting hackathons aligns with larger missions of libraries which is to foster literacies and build communities and specifically, by bringing together people and information, hackathons support digital literacy, they foster civic engagement and leverage community knowledge.  And when we talk about civic engagement, building communities, we are really talking about participatory culture which is a value that the open data movement and libraries share.

Hosting hackathons may prove daunting for many libraries because, as Carruthers and Zvyagintseva put succinctly, “Libraries need participants as much as participants need libraries to support this type of event.” It is probably too soon to make such claims, but I would like to suggest that, slowly, libraries are starting to involve public participation in the building and the understanding of their collections. The experiences of the New York Public Library Lab’s “Map Warper” project, which invites users to help align digitized paper maps so they can match modern maps, and their “What’s On The Menu” Project, which invites the public to help transcribe one of the 45,000 menus in their digitized collection, have led to a such a re-thinking of their work:

Building on the Map Warper’s success, WOTM has undoubtedly impacted the internal conversation at NYPL around digital strategy, user engagement and collections policy. It has helped shift the attention, at least in part, away from static online exhibitions, which notoriously struggle to retain users’ attention, toward participation-oriented Web sites with longer life cycles, involving the public in the grand (if painstaking) work of building the digital library. It has also jumpstarted policy discussions around user-contributed content and its relation to Library-authored metadata (Vershbow 2013).

If the process of crowdsourcing digitized collections can be described as public participation in public memory (Vershbow 2013), perhaps Open Data hackathons and library support for Open Data can be framed as participation in the creation of public understanding.

Open Data as a strategy against enclosure

Many Henk in Ecology, Economy Equity dedicates a chapter to the threat of enclosure to libraries. “Enclosure is the process of taking a previously shared resource, a grazing field, a water source, or even information, and erecting barriers to use“ (Henk 2014). Henk describes the threat of enclosure by commercial publishers in scholarly publishing:

The actualization of the digital library has taken on a particular form, one that presents considerable danger to libraries and our readers. We have allowed commercial interests to claim “ownership” of the scholarly record through digitization and publishing. In doing so we have allowed an unhealthy system to grow. This system leads to libraries that have been hollowed out, reduced to access points with librarians as skilled product trainers, while the publishers themselves profit handsomely from the labour of the very scholars we support and from the citizens whose taxes support us all.

Open Data, by its very definition of being open, is resistant to enclosure while allowing for commercial use. This is because while a license is open, copies of the data are allowed to be made which can remain under open license even if the original dataset is updated with more restrictive licensing (Munro 2014). While many municipal governments and federal and provincial government departments make Open Data available, there is no promise or obligation to maintain or perpetually host those datasets, unless those governments are otherwise directed by an internal policy. This suggests that libraries may have a role in the collection and preservation of Open Data in their community, if just to be a source of dataset redundancy in case the original datasets are removed without sufficient notice.


At the time of this text’s composition (2014) there is only small group of public libraries, including the Vancouver Public Library and Edmonton Public Library, that host Open Data, but at this time, the data that these libraries make available are from their own organization only. The only exception that it is known to the author is the Open Chattanooga project, “a collaborative between the City of Chattanooga, the Chattanooga Public Library and the Open Chattanooga Brigade” (Open Chattanooga 2014).

But librarians, like those previously mentioned in Edmonton, Alberta and Ottawa, Ontario and others such as the Cleveland (Ohio) Public Library, have been engaged with their community’s civic hacking communities and have been helping facilitate their use of open data (Greenwalt 2014). It is hoped that the number of librarians and libraries engage in open data continue to grow so that the benefits of such collection work – increased institutional transparency, stronger community engagement, improved data literacy, and the prevention against public commons enclosure – can be open to all.


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Munro, Thomas. 2014. “CC-By Documents Cannot Be Re-Enclosed If Their Publisher Is Acquired.” Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week. October 29. http://svpow.com/2014/10/29/cc-by-documents-cannot-be-re-enclosed-if-their-publisher-is-acquired/.

Open Chattanooga. 2014. “Open Chattanooga – Home.” Accessed September 28. http://openchattanooga.com/.

Open Knowledge Foundation. 2014. “The Open Definition – Open Definition – Defining Open in Open Data, Open Content and Open Knowledge.” The Open Definition. Accessed December 20. http://opendefinition.org/.

Royal Society (Great Britain). 2012. “Science as an Open Enterprise.” https://royalsociety.org/~/media/policy/projects/sape/2012-06-20-saoe.pdf.

Siegler, MG. 2013. “The End Of The Library.” TechCrunch. October 13. http://techcrunch.com/2013/10/13/the-end-of-the-library/.

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and Canada Foundation for Innovation. 2014. “Capitalizing on Big Data: Toward a Policy Framework for Advancing Digital Scholarship in Canada.” http://www.sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/about-au_sujet/publications/digital_scholarship_consultation_e.pdf.

U.S. General Services Administration. 2014. “Copyright and Other Rights Pertaining to U.S. Government Works | USA.gov.” Accessed October 15. http://www.usa.gov/copyright.shtml.

Vershbow, Ben. 2013. “NYPL Labs: Hacking the Library.” Journal of Library Administration 53 (1): 79–96. doi:10.1080/01930826.2013.756701.

Villum, Christian. 2014. “‘Open-Washing’ – The Difference between Opening Your Data and Simply Making Them Available | Open Knowledge Foundation Blog.” Blog. Open Knowledge Foundation Blog. March 10. http://blog.okfn.org/2014/03/10/open-washing-the-difference-between-opening-your-data-and-simply-making-them-available/.

Voss, Jon. 2012. “Radically Open Cultural Heritage Data on the Web.” Museums and the Web 2012. April 25. http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2012/papers/radically_open_cultural_heritage_data_on_the_w.

Weatherall, Dave. 2014. “#hackUObiblio Empowers uOttawa Students by Building Their Data Literacy Skills.” Gazette. February 26. http://www.gazette.uottawa.ca/en/2014/02/hackuobiblio-empowers-uottawa-students-by-building-their-data-literacy-skills/.

Zickuhr, Kathryn, Kristen Purcell, and Lee Rainie. 2014. “From Distant Admirers to Library Lovers–and beyond.” Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Accessed October 14. http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/03/13/library-engagement-typology/.

The Game Believes In You

Over Thanksgiving, my sister and I met up at my parents’ house as per tradition. Whenever we’re back at home we’ve tried to continue our own tradition of sorts and take the time to play some tabletop games. On this particular holiday, my sister brought with her the card game Dominion and over the long weekend we played it several times, largely on the insistence of my kids.

I won every single game.

Before my sister hopped on the bus that would take her to the train that would return her to the big city, she downloaded the Dominion iPad app. As soon as I had spied her playing it on the sofa, I knew that if I didn’t do the same I would likely be trounced come Christmas vacation.

With that app, my sister could play many more games of Dominion against a range of players than I could with my paper cards and small circle of patient friends. Perhaps it was because I had just finished The Game Believes in You and so was primed for the insight, but it was in that moment when I realized that I really did believe in the learning potential of video games. I suddenly saw how such games act as a well of potential that one can draw upon again and again and as such, they can provide for a capacity of learning that is difficult to match.

You may be surprised to know while I have long been an advocate of the learning potential of games, I have always been somewhat hesitant at making the same claim towards video or computer games. I think this was because, until recently, there were very few educational games that I felt I could personally recommend.

I had read The Game Believes in You largely because Jane McGonigal recommended it on Twitter.

There is so much journalism that doesn’t cover games with much nuance so I take particular note when game designers point to work that they think does their craft justice. And for what it’s worth, I also recommend The Game Believes in You as well.  It’s well-told journalism that investigates the promise of video games in the pursuit of learning. In doing so, the book uncovers the potential of games while being clear that the application of play in the classroom is not at all straightforward and it is all still a work in progress.

From the book, I learned that the world of educational technology had significantly progressed since my own exposure to it as a young person. In fact, I was so taken by the book’s whimsical description of the game DragonBox, I downloaded it to try it out myself and quickly found myself happily feeding my dragon bugs, lizards and dice until I ever-so-gradually ended up doing algebra as my go-to casual game.

While the capacity of games to provide scaffolding and a safe place to work out ideas is immense, I still believe that perhaps strongest potential of computer games is their ability to bring people together to play and compete and learn from each other. I’ve seen this first-hand from my son.

Last year, my son went to a local chess championship arranged by the school board. He played well enough to qualify to play in a city championship, where he placed well enough to qualify for a provincial tournament. At the provincial tourney he achieved his personal goal for the event (to win at least one game) and ended up winning a door prize of art supplies. He also came back clearly infected with a growing fondness for the game of chess.

Of course he would. During the course of my young children’s lives, I have played many, many, many card and board games with them. What I find particularly amusing is that there was only one game I refused to play with them — and it wasn’t Monopoly.

I have a long-standing, deep reticence to the game of chess for reasons I won’t go into. And so, after the tournaments were done and my son was looking to play more chess, I gave him a subscription to chesskid.com and signed up him up for a week of chess camp. Since then, I occasionally drive him to chess meet ups at the public library or, like last Friday night, to local friendly chess tournaments.

One of the largest challenges to learning chess is to find other players who are close enough to your own level of expertise. That way, you aren’t blown out of the water by an expert or bored by a challenger who is clearly not your equal. Years ago I took my son to a chess meetup where he was trounced by all the kids there. It was his success of the school tournament that re-kindled his interest in game. This is why I think the decision to design that tournament so that players would compete in small groups that resulted in a third of the whole as ‘first place winners’ was no accident or an indulgence to fragile self-esteem.

To remedy the problem of matching players by ability level the world of chess have develop their own chess rating system where players establish their own rating number through the process of tournament play. My son earned his first chess score at the provincial tournament. He has since developed one through chesskid.com and that rating number is now slowly growing past his tournament mark.

While I have become a more confident advocate of the potential learning of video games, I still can’t bring myself to play other people on chess.com.  So, inspired by Kottke.org, I’ve decided to start slowly and start playing Mate in One, which is a collection of chess puzzles for the iPad. Chess will have to wait until I feel I’m ready for it.

In the meantime, I’m going to download Dominion.

The Hashtag Syllabus: Part Three

In The Future of the Library: From Electric Media to Digital Media
Robert K. Logan and Marshall McLuhan, you can find this passage from Chapter 9: The Compact Library and Human Scale:

As an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, I (McLuhan) encountered a library in the English Department that had immense advantages. I never have seen one like it since. It consisted of no more than 1,500 or 2,000 books. These books, however, were chosen from many fields of history and aesthetics, philosophy, anthropology, mathematics, and the sciences in general. The one criterion, which determined the presence of any book in this collection, was the immediate and top relevance for twentieth-century awareness.  The shelf-browser could tell at a glance exactly which poets, novelists, critics, painters, and which of their individual writings were indispensable for knowing “where it’s at….”

… The library of which I spoke existed in a corner of the English Faculty Library at Cambridge, but it enabled hundreds of students to share all the relevant poets, painters, critics, musicians, and scientists of that time as a basis for an ongoing dialog. Would it not be possible to have similar libraries created by other departments in the university? Could not the History Department indicate those areas of anthropology and sociology that were indispensable to the most advanced historical studies of the hour? Could not the Department of Philosophy pool its awareness of many fields in order to create a composite image of all the relevant of many fields in order to create a composite image of all the relevant speculation and discovery of our time? Only now have I begun to realize that this unique library represented the meeting of both a written and oral tradition at an ancient university. It is this figure-ground pattern of the written and the oral that completes the meaning of the book and the library.

McLuhan isn’t the first scholar to recognize that there is something feels fundamentally different between a library collection of material selected by librarians and a working collection of material selected by practitioners. While the ideal academic library is close at hand and contains a vast amount of material relevant to one’s interests, the ideal working library is compact and at ‘human-scale.’

It is as if there are two kinds of power at hand.

From Karen Coyle’s FRBR Before and After‘s chapter The Model [pdf]

Patrick Wilson’s Two Kinds of Power, published in 1968, and introduced in chapter 1, is a book that is often mentioned in library literature but whose message does not seem to have disseminated through library and cataloging thinking. If it had, our catalogs today might have a very different character. A professor of Library Science at the University of California at Berkeley, Wilson’s background was in philosophy, and his book took a distinctly philosophical approach to the question he posed, which most likely limited its effect on the practical world of librarianship. Because he approached his argument from all points of view, argued for and against, and did not derive any conclusions that could be implemented, there would need to be a rather long road from Wilson’s philosophy to actual cataloging code.

Wilson takes up the question of the goals of what he calls “bibliography,” albeit applied to the bibliographical function of the library catalog. The message in the book, as I read it, is fairly straightforward once all of Wilson’s points and counterpoints are contemplated. He begins by stating something that seems obvious but is also generally missing from cataloging theory, which is that people read for a purpose, and that they come to the library looking for the best text (Wilson limits his argument to texts) for their purpose. This user need was not included in Cutter’s description of the catalog as an “efficient instrument.” By Wilson’s definition, Cutter (and the international principles that followed) dealt only with one catalog function: “bibliographic control.” Wilson suggests that in fact there are two such functions, which he calls “powers”: the first is the evaluatively neutral description of books, which was first defined by Cutter and is the role of descriptive cataloging, called “bibliographic control”; the second is the appraisal of texts, which facilitates the exploitation of the texts by the reader. This has traditionally been limited to the realm of scholarly bibliography or of “recommender” services.

This definition pits the library catalog against the tradition of bibliography, the latter being an analysis of the resources on a topic, organized in terms of the potential exploitation of the text: general works, foundational works, or works organized by school of thought. These address what he sees as the user’s goal, which is “the ability to make the best use of a body of writings.” The second power is, in Wilson’s view, the superior capability. He describes descriptive control somewhat sarcastically as “an ability to line up a population of writings in any arbitrary order, and make the population march to one’s command” (Wilson 1968)

Karen goes on to write…

If one accepts Wilson’s statement that users wish to find the text that best suits their need, it would be hard to argue that libraries should not be trying to present the best texts to users. This, however, goes counter to the stated goal of the library catalog as that of bibliographic control, and when the topic of “best” is broached, one finds an element of neutrality fundamentalism that pervades some library thinking. This is of course irreconcilable with the fact that some of these same institutions pride themselves on their “readers’ services” that help readers find exactly the right book for them. The popularity of the readers’ advisory books of Nancy Pearl and social networks like Goodreads, where users share their evaluations of texts, show that there is a great interest on the part of library users and other readers to be pointed to “good books.” How users or reference librarians are supposed to identify the right books for them in a catalog that treats all resources neutrally is not addressed by cataloging theory.

I’m going copy and past that last sentence again for re-emphasis:

How users or reference librarians are supposed to identify the right books for them in a catalog that treats all resources neutrally is not addressed by cataloging theory.

As you can probably tell from my more recent posts and from my recent more readings, I’ve been delving deeper into the relationship between libraries and readers. To explain why this is necessary, I’ll end with another quotation from McLuhan:

The content of a library, paradoxically is not its books but its users, as a recent study of the use of campus libraries by university faculty revealed. It was found that the dominant criterion for selection of a library was the geographical proximity of the library to the professor’s office. The depth of the collection in the researcher’s field was not as important a criterion as convenience (Dougherty & Blomquist, 1971, pp. 64-65). The researcher was able to convert the nearest library into a research facility that met his needs. In other words, the content of this conveniently located facility was its user. Any library can be converted from the facility it was designed to be, into the facility the user wishes it to become. A library designed for research can be used for entertainment, and vice-versa. As we move into greater use of electronic media, the user of the library will change even more. As the user changes, so will the library’s content or the use to which the content of the library will be subjected. In other words, as the ground in which the library exists changes, so will the figure of the library. The nineteenth-century notion of the library storing basically twentieth-century material will have to cope with the needs of twenty-first century users.


After I published this piece I realized that I didn’t include what I think is a genre-defining example of McLuhan’s “Where it’s at” library: Bret Victor’s Bookshelf.

This is the third part series called The Hashtag Syllabus. Part One is a brief examination of the recent phenomenon of generating and capturing crowdsourced syllabi on Twitter and Part Two is a technical description of how to use Zotero to collect and re-use bibliographies online.

The Hashtag Syllabus: Part Two

Last week I finally uploaded a bibliography of just under 150 items from the Leddy Library that could be found on the BlackLivesCDNSyllabi that has been circulating on Twitter since July 5th. In this post, I will go into some technical detail why it took me so long to do this.

For the most part, the work took time simply because there were lots of items from the original collection that was collected by Monique Woroniak in a Storify collection that needed to be imported into Zotero. I’m not exactly sure how many items are in that list, but in my original Zotero library of materials there are 220 items.

Because I’ve made this library public, you can open Zotero while on the page and download all or just some of the citations that I’ve collected.

I transferred the citations into Zotero because I wanted to showcase how citations could be repurposed using its API as well as through its other features. I’m a firm believer in learning by doing because sometimes you only notice the low beam once you’ve hit your head. In this case, it was only when I tried to reformat my bibliography using  Zotero’s API, I then learned that  Zotero’s API has a limit of 150 records.

(This is why I decided to showcase primarily the scholarly works in the “Leddy Library” version of the #BlackLivesCDNSyllabus and cut down the list to below 15o by excluding websites, videos, and musical artists.)

One of the most underappreciated features of Zotero is its API.

To demonstrate its simple power: here’s the link to the Leddy Library #BlackLivesCDNSyllabus using the API in which I’ve set the records to be formatted using the MLA Style: https://api.zotero.org/groups/609764/collections/V7E2UPJP/items/top?format=bib&style=mla [documentation]

You can embed this code into a website using jQuery like so:

<!doctype html>
<html lang="en">
  <meta charset="utf-8">
  <title>Leddy Library #BlackLivesCDNSyllabus</title>
  body {
    font-size: 12px;
    font-family: Arial;
  <script src="https://code.jquery.com/jquery-1.10.2.js"></script>
<h1>Leddy Library #BlackLivesCDNSyllabus</h1>
<div id="a"></div>

$( "#a" ).load("https://api.zotero.org/groups/609764/collections/V7E2UPJP/items/top?format=bib&style=mla" );

The upshot of using the API is that when you need to update the bibliography, any additions to your Zotero group will automatically be reflected through the API: you don’t need to update the website manually.

For my purposes, I didn’t want to use Zotero to generate a just bibliography: I wanted it to generate a list of titles and links so that a user could directly travel from bibliographic entry to the Leddy Library catalogue to see if and where a book was waiting on a shelf in the Leddy Library.

Now, I know that’s not the purpose of a bibliography – a bibliography presents identifying information about a work and it doesn’t have to tell you where it is located (unless, of course, that item is available online, then, why wouldn’t you?).  Generally you don’t want to embed particular information such as links to your local library catalogue into your bibliography precisely because that information makes your bibliography less useful to everyone else who isn’t local.

The reason why I wanted to include direct links to material is largely because I believe our library catalogue’s OpenURL resolver has been realized so poorly that it is actually harmful to the user experience. You see, if you use our resolver while using Google Scholar to find an article – the resolver works as it should.

screencapture of alma

But if the reader is looking for a book, the resolver states that there is No full text available — even the library currently has the book on the shelf (this information is under the holdings tab).


In order to ensure that book material would be found without ambiguity, myself and our library’s co-op student manually added URLs that pointed directly to each respective record in the library catalogue to each of the 150 or so Zotero entries in our #BlackLivesCDNSylllabus collection. This took some time.

Now all I had to do was create a blog entry that included the bibliography…

I will now explain two ways you can re-purpose the display of Zotero records for your own use.

The first method I investigated was the creation of my own Zotero Citation Style. Essentially, I took an existing citation style and then added the option to include the call number and the URL field using the Visual Citation Style Editor,  a project which was the result of a collaboration of Columbia University Libraries and Mendeley from some years ago.

I took my now customized citation style and uploaded it up to a server and now I can use it as my own style whenever I need it:


I can now copy this text and paste into my library’s website ‘blog form’ and in doing so, all the URLs will automatically turn into active links.

There’s another method to achieve the same ends but in an even easier way. Zotero has an option called Reports that allows you to generate a printer-friendly report of a collection of citations.

Unfortunately, the default view of the report is to show you every single field that has information in it. Luckily there is the Zotero Reports Customizer which allows one to limit what’s shown in the report:


There’s only one more hack left to mention. While the Zotero Report Customizer was invaluable, it doesn’t allow you to remove the link from each item’s title. The only option seemed to remove the almost 150 links by hand…

Luckily the text editor Sublime Text has an amazing power: Quick Find All — which allows the user to select all the matching text at once.


Then after I had the beginning of all the links selected for, I used the ‘Expand selection to quotes’ option that you can add to Sublime Text via Package Control and then removed the offending links. MAGIC!


The resulting HTML was dropped into my library’s Drupal-driven blog form and results in a report that looks like this:


Creating and sharing bibliographies and lists of works from our library catalogues should not be this hard.

It should not be so hard for people to share their recommendations of books, poets, and to creative works with each other.

It brings all to mind this mind this passage by Paul Ford from his essay The Sixth of Grief Is Retro-computing:

Technology is What We Share

Technology is what we share. I don’t mean “we share the experience of technology.” I mean: By my lights, people very often share technologies with each other when they talk. Strategies. Ideas for living our lives. We do it all the time. Parenting email lists share strategies about breastfeeding and bedtime. Quotes from the Dalai Lama. We talk neckties, etiquette, and Minecraft, and tell stories that give us guidance as to how to live. A tremendous part of daily life regards the exchange of technologies. We are good at it. It’s so simple as to be invisible. Can I borrow your scissors? Do you want tickets? I know guacamole is extra. The world of technology isn’t separate from regular life. It’s made to seem that way because of, well…capitalism. Tribal dynamics. Territoriality. Because there is a need to sell technology, to package it, to recoup the terrible investment. So it becomes this thing that is separate from culture. A product.

Let’s not make sharing just another product that we have to buy from a library vendor. Let’s remember that sharing is not separate from culture.

This is the second part series called The Hashtag Syllabus. Part One is a brief examination of the recent phenomenon of generating and capturing crowdsourced syllabi on Twitter and Part Three looks to Marshall McLuhan and Patrick Wilson for comment on the differences between a library and a bibliography.

The Hashtag Syllabus: Part One

Marcia Chatelain, who started the #FergusonSyllabus almost exactly two years ago wrote about her work in The Atlantic:

From the beginning of the situation in Ferguson, news reports alerted the public that Michael Brown was to start college soon. Before surveillance videos and photographs of protestors with their hands up were available, people saw a stoic Brown in a bright orange, probably acetate graduation gown. He will not have a first day ever again. And for the children of Ferguson, who have yet to have their first day, they may remember the smell of death, the odor of tear gas, the stench of an American tragedy.

In this kind of situation, people all say, what can I do? I have few talents in a crisis, but I do know I’m pretty good at teaching, and I knew Ferguson would be a challenge for teachers: When schools opened across the country, how were they going to talk about what happened? My idea was simple, but has resonated across the country: Reach out to the educators who use Twitter. Ask them to commit to talking about Ferguson on the first day of classes. Suggest a book, an article, a film, a song, a piece of artwork, or an assignment that speaks to some aspect of Ferguson. Use the hashtag: #FergusonSyllabus.

From a children’s book about living with someone with PTSD to maps of St. Louis’s school-desegregation struggles to J. Cole’s “Be Free,” the Ferguson archive was tweeted, re-tweeted, mentioned, and favorited thousands of times. A small community has formed; the fabric of this group is woven across disciplines and cultural climates. Some of us will talk about Ferguson forcefully, others gingerly, but from preschool classrooms to postdoctoral seminars, Ferguson is on the syllabus.

Since then, we have seen the #CharlestonSyllabus, the #lemonadesyllabus, the #OrlandoSyllabus, the #BrexitSyllabus, and the #BlackLivesCDNSyllabus and I’m sure there have been others that have been circulating but have done so outside of my own social media circle.

These syllabi are the collective efforts of many people who are sharing and recommending works of fiction, poetry, non-fiction articles and book-length works, as well as scholarly articles and theses. They are doing so in the pursuit of a richer, more complex, and more nuanced understanding of each other and the issues we face both alone and together.

While most of these syllabi collected their recommended readings through Twitter, each eventually needed to captured and collect the recommendations into a more static document. This is necessary for a number of reasons with the primary one being that tweets are difficult to bulk-retrieve from Twitter over time. There is also the not-consequential problem of trolls using the designated syllabi hashtags to insert their own agitating counter-messages.

For this post, I’m interested in how these ‘captured and collected’ syllabi have expressed the citations of their crowd-sourced recommendations:

#FergusonSyllabus (The Atlantic)

  • texts not online are listed with minimal citation information with no additional links: e.g. “A Talk to Teachers,” in The Price of the Ticket, Collected Non-Fiction 1948-1985 James Baldwin
  • a zotero library called “#Ferguson” is listed which is a collection compiled by Sociology and Anthropology professor, Josh Wells which includes several links to library research guides on the topic

#Charlestonsyllabus (African American Intellectual History Society)

#PulseOrlandoSyllabus (Google Docs)

  • texts not online are given a full citation but no link e.g. Moore, Mignon R. Invisible Families: Gay Identities, Relationships, and Motherhood among Black Women. University of California Press, 2011.

#BrexitSyllabus (Google Docs)

#LemonadeSyllabus (ISSUU /PDF)

  • title and author of each work is given with no further information or links provided e.g. Waffles, Zora Howard

#BlackLivesCDNSyllabus (Google Docs)


I’ve long wondered why many of my peers in librarianship seem markedly less enthusiastic than I am about citation managers like Zotero, standards such as COinS, and software like OpenURL resolvers that connect the library collections to non-library services like Google Scholar.

I tried to make the case for the importance of this suite of technologies last September as part of the Access 2015 Conference in Toronto when I gave a presentation called Library of Cards. I started my session with a brief history lesson to remind us the library catalogue and the bibliography share the common ancestor of the humble index card. In second part of my three-part talk, I sung the praises of Zotero and explained how it uses standards such COinS to connect the scholar to the library and beyond. And then I speculated that present-day card UX designs in platforms such as Twitter suggest that a new digital model of the 3″ by 5″ index card was possible.

We still don’t have an easy way to share citations online. This is apparent when one sees all the human labour still needed to create a formal bibliography from a collection of tweeted citations.

And I also know this first-hand because on and off over the last several weeks I’ve been working on a project to collect the books recommendations from #BlackLivesCDNSyllabus into a bibliography that can used by my library as well as re-purposed by other libraries. I will describe this work in Part Two.

[This is the first part of three-part series called The Hashtag SyllabusPart Two is a technical description of how to use Zotero to collect and re-use bibliographies online and Part Three looks to Marshall McLuhan and Patrick Wilson for comment on the differences between a library and a bibliography.]

The Observer or Seeing What You Mean

If you are new to my writing, my talks and work tends to resemble an entanglement of ideas. Sometimes it all comes together in the end and sometimes I know that I’ve just overwhelmed my audience.

I’m trying to be better at reducing the sheer amount of information I give across in a single seating. So for this post, I’m going to tell you what I’m going to say briefly before I tell you what I’m going to say in a more meandering fashion.

In brief, libraries would do better to acknowledge the role of the observer in our work.

Now, true to my meandering style, we need to walk it back a bit before we can move forward. In fact, I’m going to ask you to look back at my last post (“The Library Without a Map“) that was about how traditional libraries have library catalogues that do a poor job of modeling subject relationships and how non-traditional libraries such as The Prelinger Library have tried to improve discovery through their own means of organization.

One of the essays I linked to about The Prelinger was from a zine series called Situated Knowledges, Issue 3: The Prelinger Library.  The zine series is the only one that I know of that’s been named after a journal article:

Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective
Donna Haraway
Feminist Studies
Vol. 14, No. 3 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 575-599
Published by: Feminist Studies, Inc.
DOI: 10.2307/3178066
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3178066
Page Count: 25

I have to admit that I struggled with this paper but in the end I was glad to have worked through the struggle. To sum up the paper in one sentence: we need to resist the idea that there is exists ‘god-like’ vision of objectivity and remember that our vision and our knowledge is limited by location and situation. Or as Haraway puts it:

I want a feminist writing of the body that metaphorically emphasizes vision again, because we need to reclaim that sense to find our way through all the visualizing tricks and powers of modern sciences and technologies that have transformed the objectivity debates. We need to learn in our to name where we are and are not, in dimensions of mental and physical space we hardly know how to name. So, not so perversely, objectivity turns out to be about particular and specific embodiment and definitely not about the false vision promising transcendence of all limits and responsibility. The moral is simple: only partial perspective promises objective vision. All Western cultural narratives about objectivity are allegories of the ideologies governing the relations of what we call mind and body, distance and responsibility. Feminist objectivity is about limited location and situated knowledge, not about transcendence and splitting of subject and object. It allows us to become answerable for what we learn how to see.


I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the power of the observer recently.

On my other blog, The Magnetic North, I wrote about how a world-weariness brought on by watching tragedies unfold on social media has led me to spend more time with art. I go on to suggest that being better versed in observing art without the burden of taste might help us better navigate a world that shows us only what we chose to see and perhaps even bring about a more just world.

But on this blog, I want to direct your attention to a more librarian-focused reason to be concerned with the matter of the observer.

You see, after I published my last post about how our library catalogue and how it poorly handles subject headings, I received a recommended read from Trevor Owens:


I found the paper super interesting. But among all the theory, I have to admit my favourite takeaways from the paper was that its model incorporates business rules as a means to capture an institution’s particular point of view, restraints or reasons for interest. It is as if we are recognizing the constraints and situation of the observer who is describing a work:

Following the scientific community’s lead in striving to describe the physical universe through observations, we adapted the concept of an observation into the bibliographic universe and assert that cataloging is a process of making observations on resources. Human or computational observers following institutional business rules (i.e., the terms, facts, definitions, and action assertions that represent constraints on an enterprise and on the things of interest to the enterprise)5 create resource descriptions — accounts or representations of a person, object, or event being drawn on by a person, group, institution, and so on, in pursuit of its interests.

Given this definition, a person (or a computation) operating from a business rules–generated institutional or personal point of view, and executing specified procedures (or algorithms) to do so, is an integral component of a resource description process (see figure 1). This process involves identifying a resource’s textual, graphical, acoustic, or other features and then classifying, making quality and fitness for purpose judgments, etc., on the resource. Knowing which institutional or individual points of view are being employed is essential when parties possessing multiple views on those resources describe cultural heritage resources. How multiple resource descriptions derived from multiple points of view are to be related to one another becomes a key theoretical issue with significant practical consequences.

Murray, R. J., & Tillett, B. B. (2011). Cataloging theory in search of graph theory and other ivory towers: Object: Cultural heritage resource description networks. Information Technology and Libraries, 30(4), 170-184.

I’ll end this post with a video of the first episode of Ways of Seeing, a remarkable series four-part series about art from the BBC in 1972. It is some of the smartest TV I have ever seen and begins with the matter of the perspective and the observer:

The first episode is based on the ideas of Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which I must admit with some shame that I still have not read.


Art takes into account the observer.

I’m not sure that librarianship does.

But perhaps this observation is not sound. Perhaps it is limited by my particular situation and point of view.

The Library Without a Map

One of my favourite exercises from library school is perhaps one that you had to do as well. We were instructed to find a particular term from the Library of Congress Subject Heading “Red Books” and develop that term into a topic map that would illustrate the relationships between the chosen term and its designated broader terms, narrower terms and related terms. Try as I might, I cannot remember the term that I used in my assignment so many years ago so, here is such a mapping for existentialism.


Recently we’ve been spending much attention on the language of these subject headings as we come to recognize those particular headings that are reductive and problematic. For example, undocumented students are denied their basic humanity when they are described as illegal aliens. And as most of you already know, the act of reforming this particular heading was seriously hindered by Republicans in the House of Representatives.

A word after a word after a word is power.

As troubling as this interference is, this is not what I want to write about LCSH for you today.  For this post, I want to bring greater attention to something else about subject headings. I want to share something that Karen Coyle has pointed out repeatedly but that I have only recently finally grokked.

When we moved to online library catalogues, we stripped all the relationship context from our subject headings — all those related terms, broader terms, all those relationships that placed a concept in relationship with other concepts. As such, all of our subject headings may as well be ‘tags’ for how they are used in our systems. Furthermore, the newer standards that are being developed to replace MARC (FRBR, Bibframe, RDF) either don’t capture this information or if they do, the systems being developed around these standards do not to use these subject relationships or hinder subject ordering [ed. text corrected].

From the slides of “How not to waste catalogers’ time: Making the most of subject headings“, a code4lib presentation from John Mark Ockerbloom:

Here’s another way we can view and explore works on a particular subject. This is a catalog I’ve built of public domain and other freely readable texts available on the Internet. It organizes works based on an awareness of subjects and how subjects are cataloged. The works we see at the top of the list on the right, for instance, tend to be works where “United States – History – Revolution, 1775-1783” was the first subject assigned. Books where that subject was further down their subject list tend to appear appear further down in this list. I worry about whether I’ll still be able to do this when catalogs migrate to RDF. [You just heard in the last talk] that in RDF, unlike in MARC, you have to go out of your way to preserve property ordering. So here’s my plea to you who are developing RDF catalogs: PLEASE GO OUT OF YOUR WAY AND PRESERVE SUBJECT ORDERING!

I highly recommend reading Karen Coyle’s series of posts on Catalog and Context in which she patiently presents the reader the history and context of why Library of Congress Subject Headings were developed, how they were used and then explains what has been lost and why.

It begins like this:

Imagine that you do a search in your GPS system and are given the exact point of the address, but nothing more.

Without some context showing where on the planet the point exists, having the exact location, while accurate, is not useful.

In essence, this is what we provide to users of our catalogs. They do a search and we reply with bibliographic items that meet the letter of that search, but with no context about where those items fit into any knowledge map.

And what was lost? While our online catalogs make known-item searching very simple, our catalogues are terrible!dismal!horrible! for discovery and exploration.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why there is so much interest in outsider-libraries that are built for discovery, like The Prelinger Library.

This remarkable library – which is run by only two people – turns a collection of ephemera, found material and of library discards into a collection built for visual inspiration and support of the independent scholar through careful selection and an unique arrangement that was developed by Megan Prelinger:

Inspired by Aby Warburg’s “law of the good neighbor” the Prelinger Library’s organization does not follow conventional classification systems such as the Dewey Decimal System. Instead it was custom-designed by Megan Shaw Prelinger in a way that would allow visitors to browse and encounter titles by accident or, better yet, by good fortune. Furthermore, somewhat evoking the shifts in magnitudes at play in Charles and Ray Eames’s Powers of Ten (1977) the shelves’ contents are arranged according to a geospatial model departing from the local material specifically originating from or dealing with San Francisco and ending with the cosmic where books on both outer space and science fiction are combined with the more ethereal realms of math, religion, and philosophy.

“The Library As Map”, Megan Shaw Prelinger & Rick Prelinger in conversation with Erin Kissane, from Fantasies of the Library.

Of particular note: The Prelinger Library does not have a library catalogue and they don’t support query based research. They think query based research is reductive (Situated Systems, Issue 3: The Prelinger Library).

Frankly, I’m embarrassed how little I know about the intellectual work behind our systems that I use and teach as a liaison librarian. I do understand that libraries, like many other organizations such as museums, theatre and restaurants, have a “front of house” and “back of house” with separate practices and cultures and that there are very good reasons for specialization. That being said, I believe that the force of digitization has collapsed the space between the public and technical services of the library. In fact, I would go as far to say that the separation is largely a product of past organizational practice and it doesn’t make much sense anymore.

Inspired by Karen Coyle, Christina Harlow, and the very good people of mashcat, I’m working on improving my own understanding of the systems and if you are interested, you can follow my readings in this pursuit on my reading journal, Reading is Becoming. It contains quotes like this:

GV: You mentioned “media archeology” and I was wondering if you’re referring to any of Shannon Mattern’s work…

RP: Well, she’s one of the smartest people in the world. What Shannon Mattern does that’s super-interesting is she teaches both urban space and she teaches libraries and archives. And it occurred to me after looking at her syllabi — and I know she’s thought about this a lot, but one model for thinking about archives in libraries — you know, Megan was the creator of the specialized taxonomy for this pace, but in a broader sense, collections are cities. You know, there’s neighborhoods of enclosure and openness. There’s areas of interchange. There’s a kind of morphology of growth which nobody’s really examined yet. But I think it’s a really productive metaphor for thinking about what the specialty archives have been and what they might be. [Mattern’s] work is leading in that position. She teaches a library in her class.

Situated Knowledges, Issue 3: Prelinger Library, Geogina Voss, Rick Prelinger and Megan Prelinger.

I understand the importance of taking a critical stance towards the classification systems of our libraries and recognizing when these systems use language that is offensive or unkind to the populations we serve. But critique is not enough. These are our systems and the responsibility to amend them, to improve them, to re-imagine them, and to re-build them as necessary- these are responsibilities of those of our profession.

We know where we need to go. We already have a map.

Ex Libris

Last week, as Europe staggered from the implications of the Brexit referendum, I was in Denmark on vacation with most of my nights free to read about the Existentialists and how their lives were torn asunder by the violence we now call history.

I enjoyed my copy of At the Existentialist Cafe very much and I’m hoping to pass it on to a friend or even my local library if they would have it. But before I do, I’m going to add my very own bookplate.

I don’t have any bookplates yet as still I haven’t decided on the design. I’m hoping to materialize a handful of ideas and choose the best one(s) for printing.


Years ago I suggested that every librarian should write a book. That was clearly too big of an ask. So I would like to use my first post here on my new blog to suggest that everyone should make their own bookplate for their books.

I am not suggesting that you should do so for the benefit of future historians, libraries, or book collectors.

I’m suggesting you do so because you have a history that is worth commemorating in your own expression.