A Song of Fog and Smoke

Lately the mornings in Pittsburgh have been chilly and lovely with fog.  Seeing the nearby hills obscured by fog makes me wonder what it must have been like to live here when things were instead obscured by smoke from industry and coal burning.  Luckily, my favorite of digital collections, Historic Pittsburgh, has digitized images of Smoke Control Lantern Slides from the 1940’s and 1950’s, before and after smoke control ordinances were passed in Pittsburgh:

Carnegie Museum of Art Collection of Photographs, 1894-1958, Carnegie Museum of Art. http://digital.library.pitt.edu/images/pittsburgh/cma.html
Smoke Control Lantern Slide Collection, ca. 1940s-1950s, Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh http://digital.library.pitt.edu/images/pittsburgh/smokecontrol.html
Smoke Control Lantern Slide Collection, ca. 1940s-1950s. Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh. http://digital.library.pitt.edu/images/pittsburgh/smokecontrol.html

And nowadays…

Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Polish Hill

Image from Google Street View
Image from Google Street View
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Then and Now.

The Post-Gazette has a great interactive site where you can see photos of Pittsburgh past right next to those from Pittsburgh present: http://multimedia.post-gazette.com/ThenNow/.

Photo by George Kukic

Please forgive the title of this post; I couldn’t resist. 🙂


We can do it

I’ve been tracking IT and web design-related jobs in libraries for a while now, but this is the first one I’ve seen that stands out as being so focused on user experience, they even want a terminal degree in HCI or a related field. And just yesterday I was reading the most recent issue of Library Hi Tech (v.29:no.2), which focuses on usability testing. One of the articles in that volume discusses the quality of research being done on user needs in the LIS field. The author, Elke Greifeneder, concludes:

These papers show that the quality of user research in our field is rising, that researchers know how to label and use methods appropriately, and that they are using a greater variety of methods. Finally, researchers seem to acknowledge that user research requires one small step after another. Instead of painting a big picture with a single user study that has many research questions, they do multiple smaller in-depth research projects, which can be interconnected like one big picture puzzle that might, in the end, give a better impression of how our users actually behave and what they really need.

Isn’t this exciting? I hope to see more jobs like the one Purdue has posted. To me, it’s a sign that libraries are finally moving towards seriously integrating UX into all our digital products and services. Maybe one day more than 28% of the major databases we subscribe to might even be accessible to people using adaptive technology?

Random resources

The International Association of Yoga Therapists has bibliographies online relating to various health issues and yoga. It looks like the freely available ones haven’t been updated since 2006, but the variety of sources they include makes them a good starting point for research. There’s also a digital resource library with downloadable full-text of user-posted conference presentations, handouts, and papers.

And via a list-serv posting, I came across this “StreamNet Library: Fish Data for the Northwest“. According to their mission statement, this library serves…

“the scientific community of the Pacific Northwest and those working in cooperation with the region’s fish and wildlife recovery efforts, who are not otherwise served by a specialized library. We also serve the General Public who are interested in the issues surrounding the Columbia Basin and Salmon Recovery Efforts.[…]
The Library provides access to technical information and research on the Columbia River basin fisheries, ecosystems and other relevant subjects for states in the Pacific Northwest.” 

How cool would it be to be a fish data librarian?


dream project!

http://retrographer.org/ – “Dane, a senior at Carnegie Mellon University studying design and human-computer interaction, has created the Retrographer Project designed to geotag historical images of Pittsburgh. “Geotagging” adds latitude and longitude data to an historical image so that its geographic location can be identified on a map.” It does seem like it still needs work, but I’m glad someone is doing this.

Not only am I mildly obsessed with Pittsburgh history,  I also recently started geocaching.  Ever since I read this book I’ve been wishing that someone would make an online version that would juxtapose Pittsburgh of today with Pittsburgh of the 1970s and the 1800s. Well, “Retrographer” seems like just the sort of thing I was imagining.

I’ve never done any “geotagging”, but I have recently become hooked on geocaching.  I think it’s fun because it gives you extra incentive to explore your city and its surroundings, and finding the caches can be tricky, and thus rewarding.  I already liked walking in the woods, now I can just find hidden treasure while I do it. And right when my bff and I started doing this, I was reading about the history of Schenley Park, my favorite park in Pittsburgh.  I immediately started imagining caches I could create that would share some of the history of the locale where the cache was hidden.  I like the thought of creating collages out of historical photographs and text, so the contents of the cache would be like a mini-artistic homage to what was.

Another recently publicized project that combines Pittsburgh history with archival material and geography is Public Record, a “multimedia documentary project that Justin Hopper [turned] into a [walking tour of downtown] you can take with your iPhone, cell phone or MP3 player” (Post-Gazette).

While I’m really into these geo-projects that make use of technology like mp3s and digital maps, I also really like the simplicity, slowness, and tactility (yes that is a word, i just found out) involved in creating a physical cache and finding a physical cache using only a GPS reader as your technology.  While it’s cool to use digital media to experience the history of places, there’s something ironic about using a form as intangibile as digital media to recapture the most ephemeral thing of all – history! I’m not implying that the creators of the aforementioned digital projects are unaware of this tension or that they’re not exploiting it (in the positive artistic sense).  I think, though, that when I create homages to history I want them to be graspable (apparently this too is a word).  I want people to be able to stand with something – even if it’s just an image – in their mittens and say “This was here, but now it’s not anymore.”

ice skating on panther hollow pond
ice skating on Panther Hollow pond in Schenley Park


So much global positioning to do, so little time.

The thrill of human/computer/library history

Libraries of the Future by Licklider book cover imageI’ve been reading a little about the history of the human computer interaction (HCI) field, and as always I love reading the prophetic visions of researchers from the early days. It’s really cool that Stanford has made available video clips from Douglas Engelbart’s 1968 public demonstration which featured the online system, NLS, the mouse, hypertext, object addressing, dynamic file linking, and “shared-screen collaboration involving two persons at different sites communicating over a network with audio and video interface.” No wonder the Human Computer Interaction Handbook refers to it as “sensational”. It’s always surprising how quickly some (if not many) people in the mid-twentieth century realized networked information storage and retrieval systems would be the “libraries of the future“.

This Vannevar Bush quote kinda gives me chills no matter how many times I’ve read it. 1945, people!

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient’s reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior.

The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only on the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.

Vannevar Bush. “As We May Think.” The Atlantic Monthly, July 1945.

college student using a clunky computer for word processing in the 80s mayberock on computerz

Web accessibility issues in academic libraries

Today I discovered the website of ATHEN, the Access Technology Higher Education Network. There are some great articles about web accessibility on their site, and reading them got me all worked up about library resources and how difficult it is to ensure that databases – and probably also fancy “next gen” OPACs – are accessible. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and coincidentally last week I helped a patron with a vision impairment. She was using a database and had used the “Zoom In” (ctrl ++) feature in IE to make the text larger. Unfortunately the screen display (frames? ugh) in the database couldn’t handle this and most of the relevant links just disappeared. Everything looked normal when we reduced the text size/zoomed out, but then she couldn’t really read it. I started wondering how many library databases are easily navigable via screen readers, if they can be interpreted by them at all.

So I did a basic web search and voila: Accessibility to Library Databases and Other Online Library Resources for People with Disabilities, from ASCLA, provides an overview of the accessibility features of some of the major vendors’ products, and/or links to their statements on accessibility. The wiki also provides links to advice for librarians when making purchasing decisions.  This page on database accessibility issues provides instructions and tips for using screen readers to access many of the major databases (a longer list than the ASCLA site provides).

Here are some excerpts from one of the articles on the ATHEN website. I think it’s good food for thought.

What constitutes web content? There are a few obvious answers to this question. The university’s main web site is a good starting point. A click or two of the mouse (or keyboard) can take users to the web sites of different departments, colleges, offices, projects, institutes, organizations, or other academic entities within the institution. Already, this constitutes thousands, or possibly millions, of pages of content. Adding to this list are things like online courses, supplemental online materials for classroom-based courses, library databases, library subscription services, campus intranet services, employee and student records, bookstore purchasing services, and the personal web sites of students and faculty. Some of these web-based resources are simple HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) files created by staff. Others are complex software products licensed from commercial vendors. In between these two extremes is an array of miscellaneous resources, such as word processor documents, slide shows, spreadsheets, videos, Java applets, etc. All of this is web content, and a holistic approach would seek to take it all into account.

With so much information and interactivity available now in a digital format, the sheer volume of resources that must be accessible is daunting, especially when including “legacy” (old) resources (Richards & Hanson, 2004). To make matters more difficult, higher education institutions do not have direct control over some of these resources. Institutions usually license proprietary learning management software, employee databases, bookstore “shopping cart” systems, library subscription services, web-based email services, online applications for grants and loans, and other products from third-party vendors. If these products have accessibility flaws, the institution can only hope that the vendor will eventually fix them, yet the institution is still required to ensure that it does not discriminate against people with disabilities. This type of dilemma is all too common.

Many libraries also play a direct role in ensuring the accessibility of course content. Some instructors select journal articles or other library materials as a part of the required reading, and may ask the library to make these available online through an online library reserve system. All too often, libraries simply scan in the file as a graphic and post it in Adobe Acrobat PDF format. The problem with this method is not the Acrobat file format, which can produce accessible files. The main problem is that no technology can directly translate a graphic into synthesized speech, as required by users with blindness. Someone must first process the page with optical character recognition (OCR) software, proofread it, and correct any errors before the content is ready for screen reader users. The relative success of OCR software conversion is dependent upon factors like the visual clarity of the original document (contrast, sharpness), the font type (fancy font faces are problematic), the orientation of the text (diagonal or sideways text is difficult or impossible), and so on. A different kind of problem arises when the document is nothing more than a copy of a copy of a copy, as is sometimes the case. The indistinct text can make reading difficult or impossible for users with low vision, and can reduce readability for all users, whether they have disabilities or not. Again, the long-term solution is for publishers to make their content available in accessible electronic formats, but when electronic versions are not available, libraries must anticipate that some students will need scanned copies of materials converted into text. The library may decide to perform this conversion in-house, or work with student disability services and/or outside contractors to accomplish this goal.

Bohman, Paul. “Cultivating and Maintaining Web Accessibility Expertise and Institutional Support in Higher Education,” ATHEN E-Journal Issue #2 (2007).

Further reading:
Web Accessibility Survey homepage, created by Axel Schmetzke at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Lots of citations, but last updated in 2008.

Learn about assistive technology – from the US Government

the National Center on Disability and Access to Education – best practices, articles, factsheets…and lots of good relating to accessibility and distance/online education.