We Are Back! — The Fall 2021 Semester Commences!

We have been doing a lot of back-end plumbing work over the Summer and will be relaunching our website with totally new tooling in the days ahead.

Exciting new features will include Visual Meta to support robust automated citation of our work.

Stay tuned from here out for regular updates!

Visual Meta for the Web

Part of our redesign will be the incorporation of Visual Meta into our pages.

What is Visual Meta you might ask? It is meta-data containing authorship and citation information allowing a page to effectively identify itself to reference managers.

But unlike older systems like COINS or HTML header meta-data tags, Visual Meta is a viable part of a document that a software application or human reader can easily locate and extract. And when printed, it can be scanned in and converted back to data via ORC technology. This makes it remarkably robust and superior to the automatically generated headers footers added by most browsers when a web page is printed.

Visual Meta is an open standard that at minimum contains a self-citation block, but it and can be augmented with additional content like glossary entries, so what we can do with Visual Meta is limited only by our imagination!

Webmaster’s Log — May 1st, 2021

CSS Improvements

We are happy to kick off the month with an updating of our style sheets that brings with it the elimination of a longstanding css bug that had marred the sidebar of our website. This is an interim fix while we work on a major design that will be going live in the weeks ahead.

“Time Enough at Last” – Libraries Are An Essential Service During The Lockdown

Burgess Meredith The Twilight Zone

Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment, Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents or wives or clocks or anything else. He’ll have a world all to himself… without anyone.

The best laid plans of mice and men… and Henry Bemis… the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Bemis, now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself. Mr. Henry Bemis… in the Twilight Zone.

“Time Enough at Last” • The Twilight Zone • Season 1 • Episode 8 • Teleplay by Rod Serling

We now live trapped in the classic Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough At Last”, in which a beleaguered banker has the good fortune to survive a nuclear holocaust that finally leaves him with all the time in the world to explore the treasures of a vast Library only to suffer the tragic reversal of having his eyeglasses broken making it impossible to access the written treasures at his feet.

Only instead of atomic annihilation, we face a global pandemic that has placed our libraries off limits leaving millions of citizens cooped up at home with all the time in the world to read; while countless books lay untouched under lock and key.

Thus we are all Henry Bemis, blinded not by our own nearsightedness, but by the shortsightedness of well meaning politicians who think it is essential to be able to get a candy bar at CVS that could change your wasteline, but not to be able to able to get a book at the library that could change your life.

Surely, we can safely let library patrons search the “virtual stacks”, put “local holds” on materials most important to them, and then let them stop by their local libraries to pick up the volumes or arrange a no contact delivery of the reading material.

From that point on, the readers could hang onto the materials at home along with all the other unreturned materials already in circulation.

The cost of such a program would no doubt be more than offset by the self-education and mental health benefits of having something to read during the lockdown.

Even if only one life might be saved by indirectly preventing a desperation driven act of suicide or domestic violence, can we really afford to say that Libraries Aren’t Essential?

A Tradition Suspended

Jan van Grevenbroeck, Venetian doctor during the time of the plague. Museo Correr, Venice

Normally we would kick off the month of April with some serious humor.

We would take the occasion to push the envelope of current trends and lay out an all too plausible near future scenario.

Ideally, it might serve to trigger a classic satisfying April Fools double take while surfacing the logical consequences of some of our most cherished unquestioned assumptions.

Sadly, this is not the year to make use of this rhetorical devise, lest it add to the pain we are all experiencing.

Watch this space in the days ahead for some more somber reflections on the impact of the pandemic on University Futures.

Happy New Year 2020!

We have been doing a lot of infrastructure work behind the scenes over the last few months and are well underway on the process of converting this website into a single page web application.

This will take us from our current model of framing our WordPress blog and a static snapshot of our bibliographic database, to a much more deeply integrated solution, drawing live data from WordPress and Zotero.

We will go live with this major redesign as soon as we complete it.

Meanwhile, we will be blogging far more frequently as we start to build our numbers.

Generic PDF File Names Considered Harmful

As we continue to expand our bibliographic datastore, we have noticed an appalling lack of thought going into the names of PDF files offered for download over the internet.

While individual authors may only be working on one book or paper at a time, in aggregate there are countless such projects being authored globally.

So please, for the love of your fellow academics who collect digital artifacts, do not name your book, book.pdf, your dissertation, dissertation.pdf, your thesis, thesis.pdf, your paper, paper.pdf, or your program’s manual, manual.pdf, if you plan to post it on the Internet.

Choose a file name that incorporates several semantic elements like your last name, the date, the file’s version number, topic, key title excerpt, or (for a more opaque solution) a cryptographic hash of the file contents.

Modern operating systems have no difficulty with longer file names and a sensible name will be deeply appreciated by your readers.

Likewise, if you have written a lot of papers, names like paper-17.pdf are just as problematic since web browsers and operating systems often automatically transform conflicting file names using just such a numbering scheme — or even worse using a scheme that employs the word “copy” to signify “file name copy” as opposed to “file contents copy”.

Thus, your reader won’t know if something like paper-17.pdf in his or her download folder is your 17th paper, or a paper that was written in 2017, or their 17th copy of paper.pdf, or a renamed copy of the 17th unique file originally named paper.pdf, or their 15th copy of a file originally named paper.pdf that had been previously automatically renamed to paper-2.pdf because someone else’s paper.pdf had been previously downloaded in the same location. (This is probably rather confusing, because, well, frankly it is! Which is our point.)

Even worse, browser level renaming can be combined with OS level renaming to produce horrors like paper-3 copy 2.pdf in the same directory as paper.3 copy.pdf with two dimensions of ambiguity. Likewise book.1.pdf and book-1.pdf might represent identical files downloaded in different browsers to a directory with a different book.pdf already present!

Similarly, programmers are often guilty of naming their manuals manual.pdf and then using a numerical extension to designate a version leading to ambiguous names like manual.2.pdf which might be a version 2.0 manual or a second copy of a version 1.0 manual generated by a web browser after a redundant download. Is a manual.2.1.pdf a copy of a version 2 manual or an original version 2.1 manual?

Why should we be forced to open a file to read its internal title when an unambiguous program_name-manual(version_number).pdf naming convention would eliminate any doubt.

Furthermore, when devising a naming scheme, note that lots of books and papers are written in any given year, for any given conference, or on any given high level topic — so names like 2016-book.pdf, ai-book.pdf, and chi-2018-paper.pdf are almost guaranteed to come into conflict with other downloads.

When a generic file name invites its renaming to something like paper-3.pdf, it is far more serious than just an annoyance to the reader trying to remember what the paper is about.

Generic file names create a clear and present danger that your book or paper will look like a copy of something else — leading to its being accidentally deleted and lost forever!

The Invisible Library

The University Library Catalog is perhaps the most underutilized and underdeveloped resource at our disposal. While we can readily search for catalog entries based on their constituent fields and even browse some collections in “shelf order” with images of dust jackets, the accessible catalog is but the tip of a potentially invaluable sea of metadata and associations.

Moreover, the set of titles present in the formal catalog of the library proper does not always include non-circulating and often uncatalogued departmental holdings, nor the private collections of inividual students and faculty along with transient titles accessed online or through interlibrary loan that make up the true “working collection”. To begin to automatically assess the scope of this Invisible Library one could scan the bibliographies of student and faculty publications and compare them with the traditional catalog proper to find cited work not in the permanent collection.

If we could further enrich our analysis to capture frequency, nature, and importance of use, we could begin to isolate key titles for future acquisition; as well as identify low value unused and underused portions of the collection, whose retention serves no active function other than contributing aggregate collection size statistics.

Working in the other direction, one could begin mapping out the subject matter expertise of borrowers with an eye to soliciting collection development guidance and facilitating expertise matching to proactively suggest co-authorship opportunities.

Likewise, there is no reason not to regard each title and associated subject entry as its own chat room and discussion forum, further enriching the catalog with links to locations, people, organizations, artifacts, experiments, questions, concerns, and all manner of related entities.

In short we call for making the library catalog a true Knowledge Graph in the richest possible sense.

A Quick Project Update

We have a lot of new incoming resources that we are reading and will be adding to our Bibliographic Database in the weeks ahead. To that end, we are working on a update to our Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC) that should improve its functionality and aesthetics.

We are also thinking about how best to make our OPAC operational offline in anticipation of its eventual integration into a standalone Founders’ Quadrangle Notebook application.