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Library Techies: Beyond the Dewey Decimal System

June 25, 2008

By Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times

Jun. 23–SEATTLE, Wash. — The modern librarian must be Twitter-savvy and able to manipulate the Web and aggregate RSS feeds as quickly as compile competitive intelligence.

In other words, a librarian must be good at social networking, customizing computer databases, filtering data and getting the facts.

That 21st-century paragon of the information professional was well represented here at the 99th annual Special Library Association’s (SLA) conference last week.

Nearly 5,000 specialized librarians working in such diverse areas as news, energy resources, military, engineering, chemistry and the law descended on the Emerald City to look at how their industry continues to evolve in a world dictated by digital bytes and the immediate access of information.

The opening session’s keynote presentation set the tone for the conference and was led by one of the Internet’s founding fathers.

Vinton G. Cerf, Google vice president and self-professed Geek Orthodox Chief Internet Evangelist for the search leader, looked at the past, present and future of cyberspace.

Cerf’s early contributions include helping to develop a packet switching network and TCP/IP protocols for ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) back in the 1970s, some of the key pieces of the Internet’s infrastructure.

Prompted by PBS interviewer Charlie Rose, Cerf offered a prediction that by 2010, 50 percent of the world (more than 3 billion people) will be online thanks to the continued innovations of mobile devices.

Rose conducted the proceedings in his easygoing style and made an auditorium full of librarians feel as though they were back in their living rooms.

Cerf primarily came to spread the word about the importance of the continued free sharing of knowledge via the Internet, a key concept familiar to everyone in attendance.

“The openness of the Internet has permitted a cornucopia of creativity and innovation,” he said.

In a cyber world where 10 hours of new video are posted on YouTube every minute, his greatest fear is that the software used to decipher the increasing amount of digital objects (in the form of everything from spreadsheets to videos) won’t be maintained and updated.

He can see a time when future generations have no idea who we were because they cannot decipher our documents or play our games.

Cerf, a science-fiction fan, was “driven to make fiction real” and concluded by discussing his latest work.

His projects include the Interplanetary Internet initiative with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (a standard to communicate in space and between planets) and solar-powered Internet cafes linked to satellites offering free Web access to anyone in the world. With dozens of instructional sessions and almost 300 exhibitors at the SLA conference, attendees found enough exposure to a variety of technology and innovations to give them an edge in the current specialized library marketplace.

Here’s just a taste of some of the presentations and products found:

The 10-month-old Courtroom Live (www.courtroomlive.com) displayed its browser- based, real-time, video-streaming service that offers access to 90 percent of the state court trials in the U.S. John Shin, managing director of the New York-based company, said the service grew out of wiring courtrooms for Internet access and finding a way to quickly deliver digital court transcripts.

With its wide selection of civil and product-liability trials — also archived — Courtroom Live’s current appeal is to legal firms for training and hedge funds looking for an edge in volatile markets. The clever piece of the service is a proprietary server setup that captures evidence presented in the court and displays it on a user’s screen alongside the video streaming.

Shin said the subscription-based service can be set up for as little as $2,000 per year.

It was a bit of an eye-opener to find out SLA is so hip these days that it has its own space in the Second Life virtual world. So it seemed a natural progression to find a couple of sessions devoted to the world of learning through computer gaming.

First, former laser physicist and now Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project manager Ralph Chatham presented his trials and successes in developing military training simulations for U.S. soldiers.

The DARWARS initiative back in 2004 led to the creation of the multiple video games that helped train more than 20,000 soldiers in 2006 alone.

Of his efforts, the Tactical Language Tutor is a culture assimilator that teaches Arabic by challenging users through language lessons. It also takes them into real-world scenarios using digitized characters and even keeps their skills sharp with a Pac-Man-style game.

Chatham’s first-person, multiplayer game Ambush is much more intense and uses the Unreal Tournament game engine to give soldiers a virtual three-dimensional look at hostile missions in Iraq and teaches them how to survive before ever driving on a real road in Baghdad.

Chatham’s enthusiasm with the video game as a learning tool comes down to its ability to easily teach complicated, nonintuitive behavior and the way it forces players to think about problems at a system level.

Next, Elizabeth Lane Lawley, the director of the Lab for Social Computing at the Rochester Institute of Technology, explored the phenomenon of how gaming produces the online rebound.

Basically, humans interact in a virtual world and then strive to turn digital back into tactile. Lawley said that explains the popularity of Nintendo’s Wii — a tangible way to interact with virtual worlds — and why Moo.com, a photo printing company friendly with social networks such as Flickr and Facebook, is so popular.

Lawley also believes game developers are a lot like librarians as they classify, disseminate and determine how knowledge is found.

The aptly titled session “Technology Free for All,” delivered in the round, gave news-media librarians a chance to show off some of their slickest helpers from the World Wide Web.

Derek Willis, a Web developer for the New York Times, led the way. Among his offerings were a tip on GNU’s free piece of software Wget (www.gnu.org), a way to download an entire Web site to a desktop, as well as the use of the Many Eyes site (http://services.alphaworks.ibm.com/manyeyes/home) from IBM used to help visualize data.

Believe it or not, libraries still use microfilm, and that gave professional genealogist Rick Slavens a reason to invent the ST Genie. The portable digital microfilm scanner plugs into a PC and handles 16mm and 35mm roll film along with 35mm slides. The device turns screens into 2,700-DPI images available in easy-to-read TIFF, JPEG, PNG and PDF formats. The device costs $1,095.

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