Thursday, December 23, 2010

Giving the Buzzer: Hoi Polloi Fact Checking Game Shows, Rabble-Rousing Due to Network Research Errors

Fox network researchers came away with a black eye recently, when the wild west of invisible internet folks noted they made an error when they ganked a couple on the new show Million Dollar Money Drop. The show told the couple - who had bet $800,00 - that their answer of the Post-It note being in stores earliest was not true, and that it was the Sony Walkman that hit store shelves first. Amateur researchers across the internet shouted about the error until Fox caved and admitted the error. It does my librarian heart good to see people so interested in looking deeply for an answer instead of just taking a game show host's name for it.

I bet the Fox execs are missing the pre-internet days before the gainsayers could catch them out, or are hoping they were asking questions based on polls they had conducted (and could funge the data for). Back when folks just shut up and accepted what they were told by authorities.

I wish my students were as diligent about their fact-checking. This leaves me wondering - we at home watching the show have nothing invested in the contestants other than playing vicariously with them, furiously Googling to see if they (and we) are right. Student assignments should be at least as engaging as something students have no personal stake in - how do we get them as excited about research for their own ends?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

For the Love of Librarians: On Book Reviewing

An interesting topic came up recently, which comes up every so often when folks start discussing book reviews. I'm a regular fiction reviewer for Library Journal, largely in the fiction section (mystery, horror, thriller, paranormal, etc.). I also occasionally review for such journals as Journal of Access Services, Journal of Web Librarianship, Choice and a few others.

A Philosophy of Reviewing: A Pleasure & a Service

I very much think of reviewing as both a pleasure and a service to the profession. Like most of us, my free time is precious, and I have a long backlist of personal need-to-reads in addition to the books I review for various publications. For reviews, I am often asked to read authors I haven't come across before in the genres I'm most familiar with. This is an exciting opportunity for me to hear fresh voices.

In terms of service, I review in the hopes that folks making purchasing decisions (either for their personal libraries or for their place of work) find the review helpful as they weigh what to add to their collections...what to spend those precious few dollars on.

The Bad Review

I mentioned on a Library Society of the World thread in Friendfeed that I recently panned a book Library Journal sent me to review. It's not the first (nor even the first this year), but it always leaves me feeling a bit roughed-up.

The comments in the thread essentially affirmed the value of a bad review. It's a signal to both authors and publishing houses to stop putting out "schlock", and it serves as notice that a review in a professional or trade publication is not simply a rubber stamp congratulating you for having written a book. (Yes, it is hard work. That doesn't, however, mean it is good work.)

I always feel slightly guilty when penning/typing a bad review. As a writer (outside of library topics), I know how terrible you feel when someone dislikes your work. I can only imagine how much worse that is if someone publishes that dislike, and in a magazine many librarians use to select (or not) materials.

But I am not the author's PR director. I am a reviewer, and my responsibility is not to the author, but to the reader. I firmly believe that if you are going to review a book, either in a short blurb in LJ or in a much longer professional review, the reviewer has an obligation to be honest. You are telling people whether, in your opinion, given what you know of the field or genre, that item is worth a portion of a library's budget, or a person's paycheck, or a person's time. With the newer LJ reviewer guidelines, you can't avoid judgment at all, as they've added a "VERDICT" section to the end of the review, which helps weed out mere descriptions and lukewarm praise.

It's Not You, It's Your Book

I know of some folks who will refuse to write a poor review, and instead write a lukewarm or vague piece, write a good review no matter their opinion, or refuse to review the piece at all, sending it back to be redistributed to another. Some think reviewing is an obligation to approve of the work and help make it financially viable. (I would argue that this is exactly the sort of review/blurb model that now leads me to ignore all reviews-by-famous-authors on book jackets.) Others consider it a quid-pro-quo: I give a good review, later I get a good review. Others are just lazy, finding it much easier to write a good review than a bad one. And some people are just flat-out uncomfortable writing a less-than-stellar review - it's relatively rare, so there are few good examples of it. I find all but the last reason unacceptable, and for those who aren't sure how to approach writing a review of a not-great book, you can always ask.

Some equate bad reviews with rudeness (likely thinking of newspaper columnists or snarky critics). I've never found it necessary to be rude or spiteful. Is the writing good? Does the plot follow? Are the characters believable? Is landscape and geography authentic, or at least consistent? If the reader likes this author, who else are they likely to have on their reading list? For professional reviews, do conclusions follow from the examination, data and assumptions? Are the thoughts coherently organized? Do they build upon established literature or findings? Does the work do something new, or rehash something that was better written in an older resource? What books would be good supplements? These are the same criteria we apply to student papers and other writing with no qualms. Why shouldn't we address it in a review?

Earlier this year I reviewed a book by an author with an established reputation and fan base who put out a thin slip of a novel where the (already-established series) characters were pretty thin, the plot was completely implausible, and the dialogue was stilted, with a mystery solution that rested wholly on a deus-ex-machina technique. If I recognized this (and I had read the author's other works), there was no way established fans (or even fans of the genre) wouldn't notice that. Writing a good review would have pretty much outed me as a fraud. Not that patrons or genre readers are poring through LJ for reviews...but my colleagues do. And I'd know it was out there under my name.

Last Thoughts

I approach each new book I'm reviewing with enthusiasm, in the hope I'll be able to give it a rave review and umpteen stars. I'm rooting for the authors to succeed. I enjoy reviewing because it's like a Christmas grab-bag - I never know what will come of it, but I have high hopes. Sometimes I get the KitchenAid mixer, sometimes I get the stretchy gloves. I was thrilled that a good review I gave a book ended up on the jacket of that book's sequel. I groaned when I turned in the unimpressed review this morning.

Do you want your stellar review blurb emblazoned on a dud of a book? Do you want the publishing houses to throw more tripe your way? If you review, or are considering it, I implore you: be fair, but be honest. Many of us use these reviews to make selection decisions.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Takeaways from Yahoo's Delicious Debacle

Folks can laugh about the "sky is falling" reaction to Yahoo's leaked information that the social bookmarking site Delicious was being sunsetted, but given how reliant those of us who are active on the social web are, and how much of our information is logged and stored by entities outside our control, it holds some lessons, both for users and service providers.

1. You as a provider are not unique, and your users will bail if you shaft them, are perceived to have shafted them, or if there is a rumor you may shaft them. I don't know if there's a report yet on what the number of signups over at Diigo, Pinboard, or even Google bookmarks

2. You as a company should not assume that any confidential meetings are confidential. Especially if those meetings entail laying off 10% of your workforce. Be PR-ready with such announcements. Come on, guys. If Apple can't hold out without a leak, doubtful that you can, particularly when you've just majorly pissed off the product developers. Transparency isn't just good corporate citizenship, it's also a great CYA strategy in the land of instant updating. To have been caught by surprise and say, "Speaking for our team, we were very disappointed by the way that this appeared in the press" is disingenuous. You should have had a press announcement ready as soon as you showed a slide sunsetting any of your products, but particularly one folks are actually interested in and using. Once your employees know something, it's a matter of time before it hits their airwaves. Once your disgruntled or former employees know something, expect to be asked about it as you walk out of that meeting on your way to the ladies' room.

3. Take note, Important Internet Companies: your audience is fickle. Unless you have tied your users to you with unadulterated loyalty (Apple) or enthusiasm (Google), you're not immune to people flat-leaving you at the drop of a hat, no matter how popular your product. How have you grown your users? How have you made them part of your brand's family? Yahoo could have had very good answers to these questions with delicious and Flickr, but seems to be faltering. Hell, some of us even PAID for a similar service. Why wasn't delicious monetized? Seems a shame, and a waste.

4. CEOs: When you lay folks off, people will want to know how you're raking in $47 million and not feeling badly about it. It may not be fair, but it's true. If you're going to lay folks off and not take a pay cut yourself, you'd better have some damned good decision-making backing you up along the way so that you look like you're worth it. Good decisionmaking like, say, actually having accounts on services your company provides.

5. You as a user should be more invested in backing up your data. This one is child's play to some folks and may be assumed by others, but many of us sign up for a service in the cloud and assume it will be there forever and ever, amen. Yes, that may be naive, but even savvy social networkers don't always back up all of their info. The delicious leak was a huge wakeup cal for even those of us who are casual users, and a reminder that unless *you've* got your data, you can't guarantee your favorite service will have it tomorrow for you.

I'll be very interested to see how this plays out in the long run, especially after Yahoo's non-response where they say nothing more about delicious than that they hope they find a home for it. Somewhere. Sometime. Maybe. Will folks stay with delicious, or will those already fooling around cut their ties and move along? As for myself, I have to admit that I've already exported all of my delicious bookmarks and am fooling around with Pinboard and Google bookmarks. Should Flickr meet some awful fate, I'd be Yahoo-free.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sad List of 2010 Heroes

Zuckerberg walked away with Times Person of the Year. Which I find baffling. Yes, Facebook as a product is incredible in terms of connecting people, even if it is used largely to poke people, announce breakups, and copy and paste meaningless messages. But given the outcries of privacy issues it creates - and Zuckerberg's remarkable reluctance to take those user concerns seriously - I'm rather surprised about the decision. I probably shouldn't be. He's a bazillionaire with his very own movie.

Many wanted Julian Assange (WikiLeaks founder) or Bradley Manning, the Army private who worked on classified networked and distributed any number of classified diplomatic cables and top secret government documents, to have been the choice, and here I leap into librarian heresy: I'm not going to call Assange or Manning heroes for wholesale datadump of classified material.

In any case, Zuckerberg, Assange & Manning. The Tea Party, which is not, in fact, a "person," but an entire group of persons who border on the irrational and would have us do away with separation of church & state. Hamid Karzai, a ballot-box stuffer). The Chilean miners who - while their story was touching - accomplished not much other than working in horrible conditions and being saved by others.

What a sad and sorry list of "people of the year" for 2010. I suppose they're chosen for impact and not really "Fantastic Persons of the Year" status. In that case, I guess Zuckerberg may have been the most decent choice out of that pool.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

2011 or Bust: The Commitments

I'm not going to call these resolutions, since the very word reeks of failure, given the past thirty years. No, this year I am making some personal commitments to myself. They're all pretty selfish and me-me-me, but I also think they'll help me be better to others. They're very much related to my last post, "Making a Better Me: Lessons Learned in 2010.'

If I have my way, 2011 will be Colleen's Year of Busting.

1. Butt-busting

I'm going to admit it. I felt so much better when I was hitting the gym five days a week, two or three of those with a personal trainer. I felt better physically; stairs did not make me as tired, I had more energy throughout the day, and my aches and pains were minimal. I also felt mentally better - my gym time was a really fantastic way for me to downshift from work time to home time (which I have failed miserably at for 2010, and which, according to Tony Schwartz, is pretty important). I slept better. I felt more comfortable in my skin when everything tightened up just a wee bit. And I felt stronger. Not just stronger in my muscles - which was true - but in spirit. I felt capable, balanced, and in sync with myself.

I want that back. In fact, I've already emailed my trainer and asked him to get me onto his schedule, and if he can't (he's been promoted, and is much busier than he used to be), to set me up with someone willing to yell at me and deal with my grumpy, sweaty self. I need this, and I am going to make time for it. My excuses of "I don't have enough time" and "I'm too tired" are not helping me live the life I want, and they're not really the truth.

2. Bill-busting

I've got an excellent personal budget spreadsheet - I've forgotten the site where I acquired it a few years ago, but I've tweaked the Excel sheet to really work for me (and am happy to share it if you ask). It's kept me on track in terms of not overdrawing, but poor planning for random expenses (vet, conferences, medical bills, etc.) have kept me from really getting ahead on things. My goal for 2011 is to kill all of my non-student-loan debt. It is completely doable if I can be disciplined.

I have a good job with a good salary - it is ridiculous for me to maintain this sort of interest-bearing debt. I want to buy a house of my own. I'd like to do an international trip-for-fun once a year. I want to develop some financial security. This one is a no-brainer, and unlike the many years I spent as a student broke and living off cobbled-together part-time minimum wage jobs, this is doable.

3. Ball-busting

With too many balls in the air, I start to feel disorganized. Then things start to look disorganized, as papers pile up haphazardly first on my office desk, then on my office table, then on my home kitchen table, then the coffeetable. No more. While having many ongoing projects and rolling due dates is part and parcel of being a middle manager and active professional, I will be making a more concerted effort to (1) schedule things (particularly supplemental, outside-of-actual-work projects) so I don't feel like I'm struggling so much to keep my head above water, and (2)only volunteer for new outside-of-workplace duties when something else gets scratched off the list, leaving space for it.

I need more balance in my life, which is essentially what all of these resolutions have in common.

I've already decided that I'm full up for spring through summer 2011. For travel, I'll be going to Midwinter ALA for the Emerging Leaders program, presenting at Computers in Libraries and at the Tennessee Library Association in the same week in March, and then ALA Annual in June/July. I'll probably pitch a conference presentation or two for the fall, but I'm full up for spring and summer. Writing-wise, I'm full up for the year: I'm co-editing a collection titled Women and Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women Poets with Carol Smallwood which will come out from McFarland, co-authoring The Accidental Access Services Librarian (out of Information Today, Inc.) with Mary Carmen Chimato, and volunteered to write a few chapters for Managing in the Middle: The Librarian’s Handbook, co-edited by Farrell & Schlesinger and expected out of ALA. I'll also be taking another 3 classes toward the EdD this spring.

I'm not even reading CFPs anymore, lest I tempt myself into saying yes to more than I can handle. This is my (admittedly warped) version of balance, and mastering The Force through conquering The To-Do List.

4. Wall-busting

When I get busy, annoyed, upset, sad, angry, or tired, I hermit myself, which removes me from the very people who energize, entertain and fabulous-ify me. I will make the conscious effort to make time for friends and stay in contact. I will not be erecting my usual barriers between myself & my friends. I will make the time to call, write and visit, because being with people I love keeps me sane and closer to my humanity.

5. Streak-busting

I have a really fantastic (or terrible, depending on the scale you use) streak of romance failures. While I know I can't actually commit to breaking that streak in 2011 [it takes two], I *can* commit to being more social, meeting new people, and being open to new possibilities, instead of my usual practice of a combination of (1) working myself to death just because there's no one waiting for me at home and, when that becomes exhausting, (2) racing home to whip off my pants and curl up on the couch to read vampire fiction while the dog snoozes at my feet.

These are the commitments I will be trying to keep for myself for 2011. A silly and worn-out exercise to write them down, but it makes me feel better having articulated them, and gives me a touchstone to come back to if I start to falter, or question why I thought they were important. The rollercoaster ride of 2010 brought me to a job I love with great colleagues, and so overall I consider it a resounding success. I'd like to really enjoy 2011, and I think the above commitments will help with that.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Making a Better Me: Lessons Learned in 2010

Inspired by Justin the Librarian's "Eight Things I Learned" and Bobbi Newman's "The Four Most Valuable Lessons I Learned in 2010", I thought I would contribute my own list. (Meme, anyone?) I've actually been thinking quite a bit about this in the past few weeks, as I've been assessing what I've done, what I haven't, the person and professional I'd like to be, and the general rollercoaster ride of 2010.

Lesson #1: Overextension /= Overachievement

I have had the very good fortune of being invited to speak and write a great deal this year. I have a difficult time saying no (first of all because those invitations are usually a result of a proposal I wrote, and that would be rude; secondly, you never know when the well will dry up!). This resulted in a lot of travel, a lot of deadlines, a lot of late nights and working weekends. On top of my actual job (which is fabulous), the three courses I took toward the doctorate this semester, and my creative writing on the side, it was all too much.

I get myself into this with the idea that the sense of achievement when everything is complete will be overwhelming and incredible...and instead, I find that I am generally left feeling pretty poorly physically and emotionally after draining all of my energy. With this lesson now firmly learned, I am planning to be much more deliberate in the writing projects I choose and the conference presentations I pitch. In fact, I'm full up for 2011 on professional writing projects already, and will not be volunteering for anything new until 2012. My conference schedule is already fixed through ALA Annual. There is a sort of freedom in allowing myself the choice to say no, and for this next year I am going to wield the "No" as an exercise in self-care.

Lesson #2: If I Ain't Got My Health, I Ain't Got Nothin'

I know that stress makes me ill (hello, IBS), but this year I also had my gallbladder out, and have been plagued with shoulder and neck problems. Not taking more time initially to get well (in all cases), led to prolonging the problems. I've learned it's worth the time on the front end to get myself well instead of dragging my carcass along until I absolutely must stop. Sleeping until I am not tired should not be a luxury. Gritting my teeth and bearing it is not a long-term coping strategy. Replacing my gym time with more work time is not doing myself any favors. I realize this is an obvious lesson - "Take care of your health" - but it seems to be the one I consistently fail to learn. I'm pledging to myself that I will be much more deliberate with my self-care in 2011.

Lesson #3: Deliberate Joy

Two weeks ago, I was driving home from a poetry reading and got a bit lost in suburbia. As I was grumbling (a common enough thing when I'm driving) and fiddling with my Garmin, I was suddenly struck by the houses decked out in holiday lights. I stopped, slowed down, and smiled as I enjoyed the decorations. Later that night, I realized that I do not smile enough, I do not try to find joy, and I am not very happy with my lack in this area. I tend to focus on What Needs To Get Done Now, while living under the shadow of What Needs To Be Done Next. That doesn't leave much room for simply enjoying a moment.

I do not want to be a person so enmeshed in my own to-do list that I'm not enjoying the world around me. I want to be open to those small moments of random, unplanned joy.

Lesson #4: It's Not A Competition, Comparison or Contest

This feeds back into #1 a little bit. Working with such fantastic colleagues both in my home library and in the library profession as a whole, I easily slip into competition mode, where I measure my own achievements against those of others, and inevitably find myself lacking. While the benefit of this is that it helps me push myself, the downside is that it's a confidence-killer, and feeds my tendency to overextend. No one else is keeping score, or measuring me against anything more than whatever good work helps my library provide good service. It's not quantity, it's quality that is important, and it's not me versus anyone - it's me versus the work that needs to be done.

Lesson #5: Stop Taking Friends for Granted

I have a small circle of wonderful friends. These are the folks who know me well, and understand that when I get stressed, sad, mad, or into any other non-optimal emotional state, I tend to become a bit of a hermit. Unfortunately, with years like this one, whcih included a job switch and interstate move, physical ailments, and the deadline-oriented lifestyle of the overcommitted, my contacts with friends are the first thing to suffer. Not superficial internet communication like IM chatting, but in-person visits, good long phone conversations, and the sort of investment of time and emotion you are supposed to put into those you love. I know well I've fallen down on this in 2010, and it has been highlighted these past few weeks as those conversations (and even a visit!) have happened. I feel simultaneously guilty (for neglecting my friends), reinvigorated (because they make me feel loved, wanted, and not-as-crazy-as-I-probably-am), and simply comforted by being with those I love.

This should not be a tear-inducing luxury.

This should be a regular part of my life.

Simple lessons. Lessons I should already have taken to heart by now, certainly, but that were very much driven home this year. I'm looking forward to 2011, where I can demonstrate that I have really learned these lessons, and am making changes because of them.