Monday, 12 June 2017

The user experience of online research in public libraries ...

The Madeleine Smith case has got under my skin, not so much as a 'did she do it?' type of event but as a vehicle for investigating how some things happened, such as how the news travelled around the world/

Currently I'm using the digitised news reports in Trove and PapersPastNZ to look at how the news of the case got from Britain to Australia (interestingly it seems also to have been big news in America, and that's something else I need to follow up on).

There's also the interesting question as to whether Wilkie Collins, the well known nineteenth century author of detective stories ever met Madeleine Smith.

It's not completely improbable - after acquittal Madeleine Smith move to London and later met and married George Wardle, who was William Morris's business manager, and given the literary and artistic circles both moved in it's possible, but it's equally possible that if they did meet, Wilkie Collins did not realise that Madeleine Wardle was the one and only Madeleine Hamilton Smith, though as a lawyer he was well aware of the case, with echoes being found in Lydia Gwilt's account of the poisoning of her husband in 'Armadale' and also in 'The Law and the Lady'.

However, this is not really what this blog post is about. It's about working in public libraries.

Most, but not all of my background work has been carried out in Albury public library - J goes to a life drawing workshop at Albury art gallery on a Sunday afternoon, and because she takes portfolios, paper and other drawing materials with her, all of which are fairly bulky, I usually drive her and drop her off outside the gallery and then go park the car.

Now Albury, while a fine town, is not the most scintillating place on a Sunday afternoon, so I've taken to taking copies of the digitised newspaper articles and my notes to Albury Library and working on them there for a couple of hours.

I usually take a computing device of some kind as well as good old pen and paper - I keep my notes in Evernote as well as copies of the digitised articles, and of course having a browser means being able to check things. Albury library provides free wi-fi that's reasonably zippy, nice big tables to work on and spread out, so it's a nice sunny place to work - the only downside is that they don't provide power sockets.

So, for the first few weeks I took the Alcatel Pixi tablet and keyboard combo that I used to use for work, that had more than adequate battery life, and that was pretty good - evernote client, firefox as a browser, the wikipedia app on the desktop and Markdrop to write notes and same them to Dropbox.

All good, and perfectly usable.

But yesterday I took my old macbook air with me. It's six years old, and apart from a single stuck pixel on the screen, works fine. Battery life is not its strong point - it never was, but I reckoned that fully charged I could get a couple of hours out of it.

On this occasion I took it because I wanted to write up a lot of my scribbled notes and annotations and the keyboard is simply a lot nicer to type on than the Pixi's bluetooth add on - I was using TextWrangler to write up my notes in Markdown, so nothing exotic - just straight forward characters and markup.

And the experience was a revelation - not because of the keyboard but because how well the Apple environment coped with the library's wifi hotspot and managed the sign in process - recognising it as a hot spot, opening a nice sign in window in reponse - simple and seamless, unlike android's sometimes painful sign in via browser - let's guess which tab to use.

Otherwise the experience was fine, but it was the apple slickness that made it a seemingly simple operation.

Now probably next time I go I should take a different machine, the obvious one being my Xubuntu netbook which also has a nice editor (or being linux, several nice editors, but these days I prefer gedit to kate). After all everything I'm doing simply involves an editor and a browser (and admittedly google print on one occasion), but it would be interesting to try and compare the user experience.

And it's the user experience that's key here, not that you can't do the same thing on a different platform, but just how pleasurable the experience is and how high a bar it is to getting work done

In the ideal world, I ought to compare a windows machine as well as just linux, which is kind of a minority sport.

However, while I've been thinking of getting myself a small Lenovo Yoga (or its Dell equivalent) to sort of replace the Air and its poor battery life, the tax refund fairy hasn't come calling yet, and I don't have highly portable small format machine to compare.

J's HP laptop might be a possibility, but it's a bit of clunker to carry round and it's currently stuck on Windows 7, so I'm afraid that the only comparison at the moment will be with linux...

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Documenting artefacts

I gave up on the work thing about eighteen months ago, but I've recently volunteered for a project documenting a large number of nineteenth century artefacts in an old pharmacist's shop where (a) the owners never threw anything away and (b) sometime in the mid sixties the old man gave up and, unable to sell the business, the family just locked the door and left it.

The actual job itself is quite simple. The people I'm working for use Inmagic for collection management, and what I'll be doing is working through the shelves of the pharmacy documenting/describing each object using a controlled vocabulary (ok, possibly more a folksonomy than a standard controlled vocabulary), and attaching an image.

All done as an excel spreadsheet and imported into Inmagic in as a csv file.

The downside is that as a volunteer, I don't get to play with Inmagic or do the data ingest, but the upside is I'm a volunteer - I just do my thing a couple of days a week, and get to go home when I want.

The actual model of doing it this way is really quite robust and provides a really good methodology for fieldwork and documenting artefacts in the field - all that's needed is a laptop - any laptop running an OS that supports something that can create csv files. No need to worry about 3G connections or anything else.

Such a method is not unique to Inmagic of course. When I was involved in the ANU DataCommons we sought to build a generic solution that was agnostic as to the sort of data we uploaded, purely as the Data Commons was designed as a content agnostic repository.

Change the rules slightly, parse the data on upload according to some set of rules and it could have been turned into a collection management solution.

And this got me thinking about what we've been doing with the whole digital object management thing.

In universities at least the focus has been on building collections of documents - mostly research papers and preprints, but the thing is, because these are textual documents they are self describing - we can extract titles and abstracts, build metadata records and do something a bit like good old fashioned library cataloging.

At  the same time archival services  use much the same technology to index and publish electronic representations of historic documents, in the main because the archivists already knew what the content was and this allowed them to build large collections as well as using specialist tools such as Omeka to build collection specific sites.

Enter data.

Data is inscrutable. It consists of arbitrarily structured information and without a decent description you are sunk, purely because the structure is arbitrary - it has meaning, but you need to know the structure to understand and interpret (and indeed reuse) the data, which is why in these days of computational analysis all the code and tools used needs to be documented and saved with the object.

If that's true of data, it's even more true for documenting artefacts.

One glass bottle looks much like another, but actually documenting their size and characteristics tells us things.

To explain, think about 330ml beer bottles.


  • some are brown, some are green
  • some have long necks, some short
  • some are squat stubby shaped and some are more classic bottle shaped
  • some are generic, some have a brewery name moulded in
  • some have a manufacturers product code on the base, some don't
in other words, not all beer bottles are the same. And because different bottles can be tied to different breweries, you can start to make statements based on frequency and distribution about people's beer preferences.

This of course works better for nineteenth century bottle dumps, when beer wasn't routinely shipped halfway round the planet,  than your neighbourhood bottlebank, but even so you could probably discover some interesting things. 

(In fact this might be a really interesting project to do on somewhere like Fiji or Samoa to trace changing trade patterns, much as people have used grecoroman amphora types to trace trade patterns in the early Mediterranean.)

However, the point is that when we document things we implicitly classify them, and it's the classification that turns a list of artefacts into something interesting, which of course means we need to capture the classidication model as well ....

Monday, 22 May 2017

Ah, windows updates and human factors

After the WannaCry debacle I thought I'd best check that J's old HP laptop that used to be used for work was fully patched.

It's been used infrequently over the last year or so, so I thought it might be missing some important updates.

I wasn't seriously worried about WannaCry as it had never run SMB services and was turned off during the rampage, but it's stupid not to patch machines after an incident like that.

Well when I checked it I discovered human factors had been at work here - it was set to check for updates at 0300, but J always left her laptop switched off overnight, so consequently it had never, ever checked for updates. Definitely an Edvard Munch moment!

On top of that windows update was knackered such that it just flailed and looped when I ran it manually.

Reading the KnowledgeBase articles it could either be that the update servers had moved, or that the download directory was corrupt. Either ways, running the trouble shooting tool and swearing under my breath seemed to fix that.

So, three quarters of a gigabyte later we're patched.

The only major irritant is that as windows update was knackered we've also missed out on the free upgrade to Windows 10 despite creating a reservation ...

Monday, 17 April 2017

Facebook ...

Facebook and I have never got on.

While I've had an account for years I've only really used it for authentication services. I've never seen the point of Facebook, preferring twitter, blogger and wordpress, plus reading my news via rss.

Since moving to the country that's been changing. Turns out a lot of cafes and small restaurants use Facebook to announce menus, and specials like a Friday night pizza and beer evening with a band, not to mention small specialist backyard operations like small scale plant nurseries, or the man who makes traditional ie strong farm and garden tools as a hobby and sells them on the side.

So, reluctantly, I'm less of a refusenik, but I still don't really see the point ...

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Faxes ...

For long after everyone else has stopped using faxes I've maintained an online fax account.

Not any more, it's gone. You would think it should have died years ago, but every time I've gone to delete it it's suddenly proved stupidly useful.

Builders use faxes to send orders and sketches, lawyers still use faxes due to their end to endness - ie you can get a receipt and a record it's been received at the other end (yes we know about read receipts and email but these are not universally implemented) and doctors offices still use them to send confidential documents for much the same reason.

And of course, if you need to test something, or indeed sign off on an order to a builder, or get a copy of your medical file from overseas, you need a fax machine, or in my case, something that emulates a fax machine. And suddenly it's clear why many multifunction printers still have fax options, and why office supplies superstores still carry fax machines -  they're still in use out there on the outernet ...

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Instant on

Following on from my last about the instant on of Chromebooks compared to almost anything else, I was playing with J's HP Beats Audio laptop (purchased late 2012 at the start of the Windows 8 debacle when it was the only Win7 device left in the store) trying to get an old Wacom tablet to work.

The laptop is still on Windows 7 so I thought we might be in with a chance - we weren't. But when I gave up and shut it down I noticed a second power on button next to the 'proper' power button.

So I pressed it.

And it booted up into a customised copy of firefox running in a little linux kiosk environment. I'm guessing there's some jiggery pokery on the circuit board that boots from the main disk if the big power button is pressed, or from linux, either from a separate partition or a little  bit of SD ram if the second button is pressed.

The nice thing about it is that it is instant on - not quite as fast as a Chromebook, but not far off it, and with a recent browser, good enough for gmail, outlook, evernote, zoho docs or almost anything else you can think of.

And it's instant off as well, making it idea for checking mail, writing a quick note or whatever.

Nice one HP !

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Chromebooks vs tablets

Despite the fact that I'm writing this using gedit on a Linux laptop, I'm increasingly finding that I'm using my chromebook in place of either of my two Android tablets.

Don't get me wrong, tablets are good lightweight devices, and when I'm away from home I find the small form factor of the 7" device, as well as good battery life makes it an invaluable companion device.

At home, however, I surf the web, interact with websites and write things and also edit spreadsheets. And it's a hell of a lot easier to work with spreadsheets and text on device with a keyboard.

It so happens that beacuse I use gmail to read mail, and inoreader to read my rss feeds I can use browser based applications as straight alternatives to locally downloaded apps, and with a reasonable network connection offloading a lot of the processing is feasible.

A chromebook isn't the only possibility. I could use my MacBook Air - the form factor's about the same and web based applications run just as well on it, and of course I could use something like TextWrangler or FocusWriter as a lightweight writing tool for offline work, and certainly the Air would be  (and is) the goto device for anytime I'm offline.

But compared to the Air, the Chromebook offers instant on and instant off - checking a link, or something on wikipedia means that you can work the way I work with a tablet when I'm reading or researching something, as an electronic scribblepad cum library search device, and instant on means I don't need to have it powered up, or indeed be constantly in search of a power socket. (Don't get me started about my windows laptop, despite the improvements with Windows 10, the boot process is elephantine to say the least).

And this means I can work from the sofa, the back deck, basically anywhere I can get a decent signal.

And using a linux laptop? Well sometimes one needs a general purpose computer with a little bit of grunt to run a bit of perl or python ...