October 20, 2010

Information in Context

Last week after SMUG, I attended the DC meet-up of Chris Guillebeau's Unconventional Book Tour. (There's Chris in the picture to the right, which I took with my phone. While it is not of great quality, I actually own the rights to it, unlike most of the images in this blog.) It was a great chance to hear more about the Art of Non-Conformity project and meet some of Chris' 'small army of remarkable people' in DC who are leading non-traditional lives. One remarkable attendee shouted out "#AONCDC" and, Presto, we had ourselves a list of remarkable people to follow-up with after the reading.

I about made a fool of myself when I met Chris, what with being starstruck and wanting to tell him my Guinea story and all, but I managed to recover enough to answer his "What do you do?" with "I'm an embedded librarian." From there, though, things unraveled a bit and I almost left him with the impression that embedded librarians are like embedded reporters, which they are not. Chris said it sounded like I worked for the CIA or something, which led me to say, "No, think of it more as a librarian without a library," to which he replied, "So you're the Book Lady," to which I replied (re-establishing my credibility as one who can think on her feet), "No, more like the Tag Lady."

The main idea of Chris' blog and book is that you don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to. When I wrote him a fan letter, one of the things I said was that, "This book came to me at just the right time, or maybe it's just that good." Truthfully though, the reason I got so much out of the book and started following Chris is that the information was put in context for me just the way I like it: in the form of a book review, by someone I admire and whose recommendations I trust (that person is the inimitable JD Roth).

Flash sideways, Lost-style, to a big database project I was working on during the time I read Guillebeau's book. Not only do you not have to live your life the way other people expect you to (although we sometimes need reminders and encouragement to embrace this), you also do not have to organize information the way other librarians expect you to, especially if your guiding principle is always to put information in context.

I was tasked with taking a richly structured federal interagency database designed for public input, figuring out why it was impoverished in terms of records, and then writing a "concept paper" for a new design. I did it. (Not that I didn't procrastinate as per my standard practice, but I did it and it was even, dare I say, fun!) The new design is about as far as you could get from anything I learned in library school about how to organize information (except that HTML is involved and it helps me organize thoughts). However, my guiding principles for it were to put the information in context (I am sure that came up once or twice in library school) and to put users' needs in front of my own, knowing I will be the one to implement the design I proposed.

Instead of records in a database, we will have individual web pages for each case study included. Instead of a fancy interface with scroll upon scroll of drop-down criteria for searches, we will have three simple gateways that list all records by one organizing principle (chronology, geography, topic). I will have to code all the pages, and I will have to list each record three times to ensure that they all end up in the appropriate place on each gateway, but this design will provide a better user experience by scaling back all the architecture that scared away the original users. We will favor browsing over search, since known-item searching is not a high priority for users of this database (rather, it's more of a serendipitous user experience as people will be using it to find out what is going on in this area in general, and not looking for specific program data).

It took me a while to embrace the new database concept because voices from library school were telling me to use some complex code or machinery that really wasn't necessary for this particular project. Many things here are like that, and may not even seem like library tasks to the outside world (or the inside world, for that matter). But I will approach each project as a librarian, and each project will be better for it.

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