Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Arrows Wanted

“Me and my Arrow,
Straighter than narrow.”
– from Harry Nilsson’s song, “Me and My Arrow”

This delightful song has been playing in my head ever since I bought Nilsson’s Greatest Hits album. I also adore the animated movie, The Point about a land where everything must have a Point. The made-for-TV movie featured “Me and My Arrow” and other songs by Nilsson who is also credited with The Point’s story.

So let’s talk about pointing. Among the genteel it’s considered impolite, but on the web one can – indeed, ideally, will -- point (i.e. link) to other resources, or, frequently, to descriptions of those resources. In this blog entry so far, I’ve linked to entries in the All Music Guide, Internet Movie Database, and Open WorldCat, and these have all been references to information about the “thing,” but not the thing itself. Indirection of this sort can be powerful, sometimes annoying -- and for items that can’t transit over the web, a necessity -- but done well, it’s also a superb means of adding value to a reader/user’s experience. The information I’ve linked to provides background and context, and, for the album and movie, provides adequate information to help you get to a copy if you wish.

Referring is something libraries have done forever. Certainly through our catalogs (e.g., search the catalog, discover resources, find the call number, retrieve the item), but also through carefully-crafted pathfinders (i.e. selected bibliographies of library resources). And library reference work is, well, mostly about query-refinement, recommending, and referring. We’ve raised pointing to a high art. Heck, if you simply counted the number of times reference librarians have pointed to where the library washrooms could be found, surely librarians have claim to a new category in the Guinness Book of World Records.

But back to the point -- if the recent past gave us “Rip, Mix, Burn,” (a la Apple’s iTunes ad campaign) and the current thinking emphasizes “Remix” (for more see a conversation with and presentation by Rael Dorfest of O’Reilly Media), I’d like to add another verb, “Refer.” It might just be the Next Big Thing. Indeed, maybe it’s a candidate as a central feature of Library 2.0. Authoritative pointers to reliable descriptions -- and a quick means (intermediated by the library) to get to the referenced resources – is a durable, powerful role for libraries. The next phase is arguably about re-platforming these basic services, and adding in a robust content contribution role for users. Maybe the Library 2.0 campaign slogan should be “Reconnoiter, Refer, Retrieve, Reuse, Reward?”

OK so I got slightly off-point again. Sorry. Let’s return to the pointers themselves. As you’ll see by looking at the various URLs used so far in this blog entry, many lack an elegance of syntax. And we know far too many URLs lack persistence. A lack of elegance isn’t necessarily fatal, but a predictable syntax that lets you remix well-known identifiers into persistent, actionable URLs is certainly far more useful – it makes pointing a lot more predictable, and the pointers far easier for third parties to construct without actually having to do a lot of preliminary searching to figure out what the URL will be. As a new blogger (welcome!) recently noted, there is now a very nice feature in Open WorldCat that allows anyone to cite resources by using a simple URL syntax and the appropriate ISBN/ISSN/OCLC-record-number to point to the corresponding Open WorldCat record (official instructions here).

And use these Open WorldCat links I have. I’ll find the ISBN of an item I’m interested in through various sources, then use the Open WorldCat ISBN URL link method to bring up the appropriate record, click on the editions tab (if one’s present) to look for other editions (e.g., audiobook, e-book, etc.). It’s easy to see if my local public library (for personal reading) or the OCLC Library & Information Center (for professional reading) has the item. And for the professional materials I want, I’ll just email the Open WorldCat link to the OCLC library staff as a circulation/material purchase/ILL request (which is really handy – when they get the item they automatically check it out to me, and ship it to me by interoffice mail. In fact it’s possibly too easy – OCLC staff get indefinite check-out for most items so I now have a very sizable collection of library materials at my desk. And yes, we’re a little spoiled by our marvelous library staff. The blame falls partially on George though – he encourages this sort of user-centered behavior).

If I cite a book, DVD, CD, etc. in a document, blog entry, or create a bibliography that’s going to be made available on the web, I’m now favoring embedding links in the citations to their respective Open WorldCat records – it just makes life so much easier for anyone who actually wants to follow through on the citation and get a copy. Presumably routinely embedding Open WorldCat links would make library pathfinders a bit easier to maintain (as opposed to linking to a number of alternative bibliographic sources) since the links should prove very durable. And in any case the Open WorldCat links in pathfinders could be used with greater ease by users who aren’t the primary service population – all the easier to find the copy in their local library.

One tip, gentle readers – Open WorldCat has a corresponding record for every record in WorldCat, but the search engines only index a subset of all of WorldCat’s records. A big subset, true, but not all. Which means the URL-with-ISBN/ISSN/OCLC record-number link will retrieve records that don’t show up when you search Open WorldCat via the search engines (BTW did I mention that there are some great Open WorldCat tools/search plug-ins are available?)

Which all leads to the final point: I may “heart” Harry Nilsson, but now I “arrow” Open WorldCat frequently and often. And I hope others will too.


Anonymous said...

"The Age of Point-at-Things...":

Eric said...

Thanks for the link. I had actually seen this many moons ago, and should have remembered it.

Eby said...

I still think it would be nice to have a permalink icon/link somewhere that makes the openworldcat easier to link to. Once I happen to find something I find it often hard to get the durable link (outside of the one google uses) and going back to the faq doesn't really make sense.