Thursday, December 04, 2003

The Communal Space of Ciabatta Bread

"The library is located just down the mall from the food court," the security guard tells me as he finishes his Subway" steak-and-cheese on ciabatta bread and puts down his Starbucks coffee cup. I thought the library was public space and yet the mall's security guard governs it. Is the library really public space? Or is it more like the food court: commercial space posing in sheep"s clothing.

In her criticism of mega-bookstores, Fialkoff confirms the position of the public library in the emerging quasi public/commercial literary venue: "The superstore has no mission other than profit. The library"s mission is to give people what they want, as well as what they don"t know they need, and what they can"t afford themselves." (Fialkoff, 1999 pg. 36). Fialkoff"s words don"t reassure me that the library is a true public place. I'm sure that the mission of the food court is quite similar: "give people what they want" and "what they don"t know they need." Of course, if a food court patron can"t afford a particular item, the steak-and-cheese security man is readily available.

Libraries have purposes other than those mentioned by Fialkoff. We could revisit Dervin"s taxonomy of "helps" for guidance but I'm far more inclined"given the late hour and my general state of preparation"to look to my local library for inspiration. When I visit the branch library I generally see people I know or at least recognize. I know where to find everything and I'm reassured by the friendly faces of the familiar librarians. I even find some solace in the handbills posted on the bulletin board because they"re all from my neighborhood: Landon Library is an integral part of Wortley Village. To borrow the words Laura Miller applied to independent bookstores, Landon "reflects the particularities of its community" and is "seen as a bulwark against homogenization." (Miller, 1999)

Unfortunately, I don"t get this same feeling from the main library downtown. And it"s not just the smell of the food court.

As the library enters this bizarre land of commercial/public/communal discourse about sanitization and homogenization, I have to wonder: where are the people? What are they doing and what do they want? If bookstores are places for socializing, do people go to the library to score?

Miller continues:

"In the bookstore, with its self-selected clientele, singles on the look-out know that not withstanding the bookstore's claim to serve the entire community, the others they meet are likely to be fairly similar to them in education and income, and at least share an interest in reading." (Miller, 1999 pg. 399)

In its drive to truly serve the entire community (unlike the bookstores) perhaps the library has become too general and too homogenized. Whereas some bookstores are white ("The Chicken Soup for the Soul Boutique") and others are black ("LiterXXXure"), libraries are just interminable shades of gray. And who really wants to associate with uniformity?

Perhaps library administrators should do away with the Dewey Decimal System and incorporate classification systems that people can identify with. Standing under the "700-740" with a lidded beverage probably isn"t as significant for socializing as standing under the "Gothic Vampire Temptress" sign while holding a triple-mocha latte with extra cherries.

As I leave the steak-and-cheese security man in the food court, I have to wonder what Starbucks flavour he was drinking. Is there a sign in the library that he would willingly stand under?


Fialkoff, F. (1999). Mimicking the Library. Library Journal, 124(3), 136.
Miller, L. J. (1999). Shopping for Community : the transformation of the bookstore into a vital community institution. Media, Culture, and Society, 21, 385-407.

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Documents or Passages

Like most IR systems, search engines are document focused animals. When I go searching for information using Google or AV, I generally get pages back; When I search in a bibliographic database, I get citations; When I search the OPAC, I get bibliographic information. Unfortunately, many of our information sources aren?t so discreet.

The other day I was searching the digital archives of the New York Times. ProQuest had conveniently broken the entire paper up into individual articles and provided them as PDF files. Newspapers, however, don?t work this way. When looking at the front page I'm interested in the entire gestalt: the articles, the headlines, the sidebars, and the pull quotes. What's far more interesting than the individual articles is the proximity of their headlines. A weekend paper with 12 related articles crammed onto the front page would likely be a far better information source than a paper with 13 related articles spread over 10 sections.

To this extent, Salton's concept of passage searching seems quite intriguing. While Salton suggest ignoring the bounds of a document by constructing weighting vectors on individual paragraphs, I suggest ignoring the bounds of a document by constructing vectors based on page proximity. With the New York Times we should forget about the concept of individual articles and index everything as 3-word n-grams as things appear on a page. Forget punctuation and gutters. Focus on the words.

It seems that many of our information sources are beginning to ignore the principles of the document. Are the individual documents of a discussion group important or is the entire thread important? What about the files on an SMTP server? How about a random walk of blogs? Should the blogs be counted as individual documents or should the link path of the walk count?

That said, I'm still unsure of a few comments. Clarke et al, for example, talk of "shallow (finite-state) patterns" to support a "context-free grammar and parser." What are they talking about? Another interesting concept is part of speech parsing. How it this supposed to work? What exactly is WordNet and why is it so revered?
Answers forthcoming.