Thursday, June 20, 2013

30th Year Reflections/49: Walks

“Ben’s Place was the back room of a dark hotel in Knightsbridge and the three men had met there an hour ago. A notice on the door said ‘MANAGEMENT STRICTLY PRIVATE’ and inside was an ante-room for coats and hats and privacy, and beyond it lay this oak-panelled sanctum full of books and musk, which in turn gave on to its own rectangle of walled garden stolen from the park, with a fish-pond and a marble angel and a path for contemplative walks.” — John le CarrĂ©, Smiley’s People

Walking is an important part of my daily work (and life). I don’t have a “Ben’s Place” for secretive meetings like George Smiley (I also don’t have a lot of secretive meetings), but I do have a very large campus—complete with the Mississippi River and adjacent parkland—at my disposal for such contemplative walks.

My day starts with a walk, albeit short, to the bus stop. I use this time to help order my work. Sometime near midday—on a “normal” day—I’ll take another walk to clear cobwebs, stretch legs, let my mind wander, think on some specific item, exercise, or any combination thereof. In the early evening my workday concludes with short walks to and from various buses, home, and a review of the day. All together in the course of a regular day I may walk an hour or more.

And then there are the irregular days, when meetings draw me to the other side of campus; or when a particularly knotty problem or troubling event launches me from my chair into the external regions. I just finished one such walk in the middle of working on this post. It was occasioned by sense of discontent, ill-at-ease and worried for the well-being of two colleagues. It was a short walk, no more than fifteen minutes, but it did a world of good. I told my office companion that I was “heading out for a walk around the block.” (I try to give her a heads-up when leaving for a campus meander. Now that we’ve worked together for a while she usually has a pretty good take on why I’m taking a walk, but not always; I don’t want her to worry.) Along the way my path crossed a parked ice cream truck. Nearby, a small group sat in the shade, enjoying their frosty treats. I avoided the temptation and kept moving. Farther on I bumped into another colleague. She was out walking for much the same reason as I, letting loose a safety valve and saving herself from a stressful meeting aftermath. In those short minutes I thought of four or five more things to write about. It was a productive and healthy break.

My institution encourages us to walk. They provide a way of adding this activity to our wellness portfolio and the means, through provision of a pedometer, of measuring our success. Our individual daily goal, once up to speed, is 10,000 steps a day (the equivalent of about five miles). At the moment I’m not wearing my pedometer. I got out of the habit during the long and nasty winter. Now that warmer weather has arrived I need to make it a daily discipline of strapping on the pedometer and getting in my steps.

Walking, for me, is mostly a solo affair. Rarely do I engage a colleague in a tandem stroll through the campus. When such occasions do arise it is usually coming to or going from a meeting. And in those cases the talk seems to center on work, or the meeting to come (or just past). I use my solitary walks to get away from work, or to come at work from a different perspective. I walk too fast for some, too slow for others. We each have our own pace, our own stride. There are times for marching together and times for private rambles. This is how it should be.

Most likely, I will never match my brother’s feat of hiking the Appalachian Trail. His was an entirely different adventure. Yet both his cross-country trek and my daily jaunts share something in common: they are both voyages of discovery.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

30th Year Reflections/48: Metadata

“Each time, making minor electronic adjustments to documents aired juicy details not meant for public disclosure — such as the true author of a file or sensitive data hacked from a final draft. The pitfalls of such hidden ‘metadata’ have been long known in computer-savvy circles, but these high-profile leaks are driving new efforts to keep a lid on metadata.” — Associated Press

Metadata is the new buzz word, at least for the news media. In the midst of all the reporting on the latest security leak, compliments of Edward Snowden, reporters and correspondents right, left, and center have uttered the word “metadata” in almost mystical tones. I have found their newfound reverence somewhat amusing. I would be tempted, given the chance, to put fifty reporters in a room (or better yet, the “talking heads” of television) and give them a very short quiz: define “metadata” and describe its use and importance. I’m almost certain the answers would be all over the map and many of them incorrect.

I’ll set aside my critique of the news media, but note their correctness in attaching a sense of awe to these hidden bits of the electronic world. Metadata is very important. It is part of the (sometimes) hidden infrastructure that orders our automated world. It helps drive and feed vast search engines, allowing us to discover (and be overwhelmed) by all the items that land on our desktop day in and day out.

Consider, for a moment, the metadata attached to this post. It was created using Microsoft Word 2010; named “Post48.doc”; exists in the “backward compatible” format of a Microsoft Word 97-2003 document; located in a certain sub-directory structure on my laptop’s hard drive; 32,768 bytes (for the moment) in size; created June 13, 2013; modified and accessed at certain times since creation; attached to various groups or usernames; contains 315 words (at this point in composition); took 29 minutes of editing time (to this point); allows or denies certain permissions; includes other metadata fields such as: subject, tags, categories, comments, authors, last save by, revision number, version number, company, manager, last printed—all metadata provided simply by viewing the properties attached to this document. Opening other features in Word such as “Track Changes” would provide another realm of metadata. And all this before I cut and paste this post into my blog software, at which point another raft of metadata will be added to this text. Welcome to the relatively unknown and unexplored world of metadata.

I am not a metadata expert. But I have some sense of how important this “data about data” is for our brave new world. As I write, at another work station in our office, metadata is being manually attached to scanned images uploaded into a data management system. Some of this data relies on controlled vocabularies, providing a uniformity of use and understanding. Even before arriving at that workstation those images were automatically tagged with metadata by the scanning program used to create the electronic file (and by the network on which those files were saved). Our manually entered data (and perhaps some of the automated data) provides additional information and points of access to each of these images. Using correct descriptive metadata will insure better results when researchers enter their search terms into a search engine. We want people to discover our stuff. Metadata provides a key to this discovery.

For those in the profession, there’s not a lot that is new here. We’ve lived and worked with metadata since the beginning of library-land time. What is new, and something we might tap into, is this sense of novelty expressed in the popular media. Snowden, the NSA programs, and earlier manifestations of public surveillance such as the Patriot Act, give us a conversational opening, a way to do what libraries and librarians have always done: provide the ways and means for developing an informed citizenry on the meanings, threats, and promises of metadata in our daily life together.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

30th Year Reflections/47: Presents

“I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.” — Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Every now and then it happens. It happened this week: Christmas in June. I speak of those moments of pure joy, of jaw-dropping beauty, of moments that take your breath away and then leave you “giddy as a drunken man.”

In this case it happened three times in one day. One should be so fortunate to have such times every day. But realist that I am, I know that such cannot be the case. Not every day comes wrapped with a bow, with unexpected pleasures waiting around the next corner, ready to spring on us in unalloyed delight. These are the simple pleasures that come with the job—some scripted, others not—that cause us to pause and thank our lucky stars. Such moments are not limited to my special arena of special collections and rare books, although I do believe the odds are improved, if ever so slightly, because I get to work with such amazing stuff, in the company of very good people.

The specific cases of which I speak, and which gave me such a tickle, involved a visit from a rare book dealer, a short note from an intern, and another visit from two extraordinary book artists. The appointment with the book dealer had been on the calendar for some time. It was his first call to our shop in years, and my first acquaintance with him. His arrival was accompanied by somewhat comical circumstances in the form of numerous phone calls asking for directions. At one point I felt like an air traffic controller, gently guiding him in to port. Safely arrived, and in good spirits, he began to spread his wares before me and my intern. In turn, we looked at each volume placed before us, oohing and aahing at the type, the binding, the prints, the beauty. When all was said and done, I indicated that I would take the lot. (Fortunately, I was in a position to do so, and as I explained to my intern later, each piece fit nicely within the scope of our collections.)

My afternoon visit with the book artists was in the same vein, this time accompanied by another colleague. Together we looked at spectacular work, carefully and lovingly crafted. At the time I didn’t commit to any purchases, but I have their catalog and will look at it thoroughly with a hope to add a few of their works to our collection.

The final tickle came in the short note from my intern. Earlier in the day we worked on formulating her learning objectives for the summer. I worked on one draft, she another. She shared her draft with me, and I, taking her thoughts and words and wrapping them in my own language, shared them with her. Her one word response to my version made me giggle, much in the way of Scrooge on Christmas morning: “speechless” (to which she later added in conversation, “I guess that’s why they pay you the big money.”).

Her comment, my reaction to her comment, our shared reactions to the book dealer’s visit, and my later time with the book artists, all point in the same direction. There is joy in our work, even in those moments we might consider mundane, that are there for the taking, waiting to be discovered. My error—and perhaps yours as well—is failing to look for those moments, to savor them for all their worth, to use that energy to the good as we move through the day. Our default position, more often than not, is to wallow in our woes, complain about workloads or recalcitrant colleagues, or whatever ails us. Those moments of joy point to a more excellent way. We need to make them a regular feature of our work.