Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Net Neutrality and Federated Searching

Net neutrality is a topic of frequent discussion in libraries, which makes sense given how many people use libraries as little more than an internet service provider. Unfettered and impartial access to the world wide web is an important part of library programming and activities, and many libraries and librarians have responded in kind, lobbying to keep the Internet neutral. However, the neutrality of federated search engines is often overlooked. Federated (or “Integrated,” according to at least one vendor) search engines “sit on top” of existing library resources, allowing patrons and staff to search multiple databases using one search. For many people that search may be their only experience with a library’s holdings in a search session. Federated search platforms are provided by vendors. Increasingly, the vendors that offer these services are the ones that also offer content, such as databases that contain articles and other documents. EBSCO’s Integrated Search (EHIS) and ProQuest’s relationship with Serials Solutions, developers of Summon, should have librarians and library administrators on edge because of the potential for conflicts of interest. Summon could funnel users to ProQuest’s content at the expense of content from other vendors. Summon has repeatedly stated that it is vendor neutral as libraries can purchase it without any ProQuest content. Will EHIS deliver neutral content, or content that favors EBSCO products?

When deciding on which federated search platform to use, net neutrality becomes part of the equation. A federated search that returns biased, non-neutral, results is one that may not deliver the information your patrons need. Disconcertingly, they may not realize that.

How do you test federated search engines for net neutrality? I am credentialed at an institution that uses EHIS. I searched for dozens of terms, and the results weren’t pleasant for EHIS. It’s a crude test, but EHIS failed it.

EHIS consistently promoted EBSCO resources, favoring Academic Search Premier, an interdisciplinary EBSCO databases, over product from other vendors that are more specialized. For example, a search for “anorexia” returned ASP results before PsychInfo* and allied health results.

Conversely, another library I have access to uses WebFeat by Serials Solutions as a federated search engine. Using the search terms from EHIS, WebFeat showed no favoritism.

In sum, be aware of the relationships among vendors, and between vendors and their products, when shopping for a federated search. If you have other ways to test the efficacy of federated search engines, drop me a line.

* This institution gets PsychInfo through ProQuest.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Delicious Lesson

Earlier this week there was a rumor that Yahoo! was going to kill off Delicious, a social bookmarking site used by many libraries (and many more people) as subject guides or as another service for patrons (here’s one such service from Cumberland County, PA). It’s now clear that Delicious will live on, but the widely reported imminent death of the service should serve as a warning to librarians.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket; have a back-up plan.

Platforms migrate, content on the web changes within static URLs, and URLs themselves can change. Will we be using mp3s to store audio in five years? I understand that funds are tight, and that staffing is sub-optimal, but use these moments to become stronger. Plan ahead.

In the meantime, if your library used or uses Delicious you may have a ton of information to move to another service or platform. Not just the links on Delicious, but the tags for those links as well. I’ve heard that Diigo will allow you to import Delicious links and tags, but they’re understandably swamped at the moment. Evernote is another option, although you’ll have to retag. I know someone with 15,000 bookmarks who’s not going to like that. Here are some alternative services.

Image from http://www.umbusiness.co.uk/?p=454.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Adjuncts (in beer, not the faculty)

Adjuncts: it’s what distinguishes craft beer from the macros (besides all that extra production). No self-respecting craft brewery would add corn, or rice, or a bittering and preserving agent that’s cheaper than hops… and yet many do. The difference is intent. Macro brewers, BudMillerCoors, use adjuncts as a way to lower production costs, maximize profits, and make the body of a beer lighter in color. I think the latter is what the Bud Light “Drinkability” ad campaign is getting at. No harm in that, this being America and all, but replacing barley with rice and/or corn, and blending or replacing hops with hop extract (that’s still labeled “hops” on the ingredients*) makes for a different beer than the usual water, yeast, barley, and hops. An inferior beer, and a cheaper one as well.

As a result of this, there’s been some stigma, historically, against using adjuncts in the craft beer community, but there are signs that this is changing, and I think it’s a good thing. Macros use adjuncts to lower production costs and end up with fizzy yellow water, but some craft brewers are using them for additional flavoring. And some of these adjuncts aren’t cheap.

But first, a slight digression. According to the Reinheitsgebot, or Bavarian Purity Law, an adjunct is anything added to a beer beyond water, malted barley, and hops (and yeast, which their feeble 16th century minds could not grasp), which would make a great many beers guilty of doing so. But adding oats to an oatmeal stout or wheat to a wheat beer or spices to a winter/Christmas ale isn’t the same because those beers, by definition in many cases, can’t be made without use those ingredients.

Beyond the macros, my first experience with an adjunct came at the Union Square Heartland Brewery (note, actually a brew pub as no beer is made on the premises). Their Cornhusker Lager is made with corn. The end result is that the beer tastes a bit like Fritos. Seriously. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to you, but Cornhusker Lager is a good introduction to what adjuncts can do to a beer.

Flying Fish Brewing is working on a series of beers inspired by Jersey Turnpike exits (yes, really). Their exit 16 offering, not too far away from some of the chemical factories that make food adjuncts like “banana flavor” and “smoke flavor,” chronicled in Fast Food Nation, includes wild rice, a tribute to the marshlands that have been (mostly) paved over.

So if you’re into craft beer and are stridently anti-adjunct, ease up. Just like in the courthouse, intent matters. If you already knew all this, what are some of your favorite craft beers that include adjuncts?

-- I’ll get you started: Dogfish Head Bitches Brew, which uses gesho root because it’s hard for hops to grow on the arid steppes of East Africa**, and Brewer’s Art Green Peppercorn Tripel, a one-of-a-kind beer in which spice and booze give way to a snappy, peppery taste.

* What, you thought your Miller Lite was dry-hopped with Warrior? One of my favorite double IPAs, Lagunitas Hop Stoopid (sound), does something subversive (as far as beer goes) by including the same liquid hop solutions used by the macros, but at extreme levels, in addition to actual hops. The end result is delicious, similar to grapefruit juice. It’s rarely more than $5 for a 22 oz bottle and is worth every penny.

** Dogfish itself presents craft brewers with food for thought because by recreating and updating older beer styles they implicitly acknowledge that the purity law and concern with adjuncts are recent phenomena. For most of human history if beer was made it was made with what was local, usually including things that are now considered adjuncts. Sahti and tella are two examples of ancient beer styles.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How to get coffee in NE DC

If you're familiar with the Northeast quadrant of DC, you've probably already bemoaned the lack of good coffee outside of H St, which is blessed with both Sidamo and Sova. Sure, there are McDonalds and 7/11s (the Dunkin Donuts on 16th and Rhode Island Ave is closed), but be honest: coffee at these two stores is a caffeine delivery system and nothing more (not that there's anything wrong with that). However, on the campus of The Catholic University of America, there's a Starbucks so obscure that it does not appear on the Starbucks store locator. It's the only Starbucks in NE and is much closer to where I work and live than H St.

If you're driving, park at a meter on John McCormack Road, or hypothetically press your luck by parking on campus. You'll only be there for 10 minutes, so why not live on the edge and risk a ticket? Walk to the Pryzbyla Center, using parking garage stairs as a shortcut through campus, and go up to the 2nd floor - voila. Order what you want and be on your way. I usually go for the off-menu cafe con leche (or cafe au lait if you're feeling more continental), which means I get to explain to the barista that I'd like coffee and not a latte. To get back to Michigan Avenue you'll need to cut through campus, exiting at the front of the Basilica.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Good Beer Everywhere!

I spent this weekend in Front Royal, VA, mostly at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's open house (and no, I didn't get to pet a clouded leopard cub). As is often the case when I'm traveling, I do a bit of beer research before I go someplace. I tapped into the wealth of knowledge that is the DC beer listserv... and got nothing. Somebody posted something about Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which must be the most taken-for-granted good beer out there by now, and proclaimed Front Royal a beer wasteland. This same listserv downplayed the interesting beer options in New Zealand when I went there in May. In both cases they were wrong.*
Now, there's nobody in or around Front Royal making and bottling good beer, but there are certainly folks distributing and selling it. Products from Brooklyn Brewery, Bell's Brewery, Unibroue, Southern Tier, and semi-local St. George, most famous for letting the Tuppers make Hop Pocket at their facility, are all available. If you go there, check out J's Gourmet and Vino E Formaggio.
And on the way back to DC I stopped off at the Gainesville, VA Wegman's. Now there's a grocery store that understands good beer.
If you enjoy craft beer we truly live in a golden age. There's no better time to be alive, because good beer is everywhere. Thank formal and informal networks of brewers, thank effective supply-chain management, thank the interwebs... good beer has become globalized and democratized. And that's a very very good thing.

* Free advice: seek out Epic Beer's Armageddon IPA and Mayhem Pale Ale if you're in New Zealand. NZ brewers are increasingly influenced by the US, which means hops and Belgian yeasts are prevalent, and US beers can hang with the best of them.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Retail Librarianship

I find myself, quite suddenly, in a position of some authority where I work, which includes hiring library staff (no, we're not hiring now, unless you want to be director, and you don't, trust me). While I'm interested in where you got your MLS, what your favorite class was, previous library experience, and other such things, I find myself coming back to one simple question: have you ever worked in retail or a customer service position?
Look, don't get me wrong, I care about the degree that put you tens of thousands of dollars in debt, but I'm more interested in if you folded sweaters at the Gap one summer. Why? Because regardless of where you work in a library, you're going to interact with other people. Even the Technical Service gnomes. And other people can be jerks. You probably knew that. Handling those jerks, being diplomatic about it, takes a certain kind of skill. It's a lot easier for me to teach you how to use the ILS than it is to teach you that.
So I understand if you want to hide your sordid retail experience on a resume or CV, but for an in-person interview, I want to hear all about it.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Beer! A Salute to Harpoon's 100 Barrel Series

If you've been following craft beer news lately, a few trends stand out. You may have noticed more 22 oz. bottles (sometimes called "bombers") for sale at your local beer shop, and you may have noticed that those bottles tend to contain beer with a higher than average alcohol content, often between 7% to 11% alcohol by volume (ABV), compared to 3% to 5.5% ABV from the larger breweries such as Miller.* The high ABV beers pose something of a problem if you work mornings as 22 oz. of a 9% beer can add up. You could share with a friend or family member, or do what I do: cap the bottle with a stop (wine stops are less effective than plastic ones, but will do in a pinch) and come back to it the next day.
The good folks at Harpoon, however, have come up with something else: good beers in bombers with more manageable ABVs under the 100 Barrel Series. Harpoon, I salute you! In particular, I salute the Single Hop ESB, which features, for the first time in a commercially brewed beer, the Delta hop, a hybrid of the British Fuggle and the American Cascade. For a good example of each of these hops, I suggest Shipyard IPA for the Fuggle and Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale for the Cascade. Crossing the two, at least as expressed in the ESB, it appears that the Fuggle won out, as the mouthfeel is a bit earthy, lacking the citrus tang of Cascade. No shame in that, and not a surprise given that the Cascade is itself a Fuggle crossed with an obscure Russian hop. Clocking in at 5.8% ABV, the ESB comes as close to a session beer as you'll find in a bomber, which means you can drink the whole thing in a sitting and not regret it the next morning. In fact, a great many 100 Barrel Series beers clock in at under 7%.
This bottle happens to be the maltiest beer in my house, so I paired it with bratwurst and braised cabbage, treating it like a Marzen. It worked quite nicely. Well done, Harpoon!

* Some may point out that Heineken and malt liquors have come in bombers for some time, but I'm not talking about those, at least not now.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Moneyball and Libraries

Moneyball, soon to be a major motion picture, wasn't written by a computer, like some people think. Michael Lewis, writing in the New York Times Magazine, studied the operations of the Oakland A's baseball team, and it's general manager (GM), Billy Beane, in particular. The A's couldn't, and can't, financially compete with the Yankees, getting outbid for free agents or scouting international players, but Beane figured out that some skills were underpriced. He then drafted and signed players who had those skills.* The result: Beane took over as GM in 1998 and the team had winning records from 1999-2006, making the playoffs in five of those seasons. Why haven't the A's made the post-season since 2006? Other teams caught on and began to value the same skills as Beane. Case in point, the aforementioned Rays. In sum, Beane exploited market inefficiencies to successfully run his team.

Libraries aren't baseball teams, but if they were, mine couldn't compete with others in the area. We don't have the resources. And this is where moneyball comes in. There are market inefficiencies for libraries, that librarians and library staff should be exploiting them. A couple stand out.
First, we are surrounded by a wealth of data about how libraries are used, how many books get checked out and if a run of call numbers is particularly popular, when the building sees the most foot traffic, which databases see the most use,... I could go on. All of these are measurable, and decisions on resource allocation should be data-driven. Let's go out there and collect that data. It's free, and under-utilized.

Second, and also free, librarians should be educating patrons (and faculty and students, in that order, if you work in an academic library) about the free scholarly resources that exist online. In particular, I'm thinking of the Directory of Open Access Journals. Compared to the cost of databases that aggregate journals and their articles, open access can't be beat on price. They don't cost libraries a thing. They are priced inefficiently, but never mind that; get those DOAJ titles into your catalog, or link to it from your library's homepage, or promote it on a blog, or tweet it, or all of the above.

That's two to start with, but I'm sure there are more out there. Let's start a discussion, shall we?

* For those interested in baseball, the underpriced skills mentioned above were the ability to get on base (as opposed to the ability to hit for high average), defensive excellence (which also plays a role in the recent success of the Tampa Bay Rays), drafting pitchers with college experience, and utilizing statistics called sabermetrics.
And yeah, I'm going to link to Wikipedia. I vetted both those entries and they look fine to me.

A Manifesto

Libraries and beer. Beer and libraries. That's what most of this blog will be about, and I'll tag the posts appropriately.
I'm an academic librarian in Washington, DC, which happens to be a great city for drinking beer.
I'm married, have a kid, two dogs, and a house. All of those things may make an occasional appearance here, or not.