RIP, Robert Altman

I was at the reference desk this afternoon when I heard one student say to another, "Oh no, did you hear? Robert Altman just died." Then one of my colleagues stopped by the desk and asked if I’d heard. We both said words to the effect of "He’s one of my favorite directors ever." I watched A Prairie Home Companion a few weeks ago, and noticed that it seemed uncomfortably like a goodbye; maybe it looks that way more in retrospect. It’s hard to say what I love so much about Altman’s movies (I still haven’t seen all of them), but if I had to pick something, it would be his way of setting up a scene and then lingering unexpectedly on a face in it until you realize you’ve never fully seen a face before. There’s a strange sense of watching a quiet but incredibly rich moment in the character’s life, almost as if one were eavesdropping. Like Lily Tomlin sitting in the crowd in Nashville, or Emily Watson leaning back in the bathtub and smoking a cigarette in Gosford Park, or Neve Campbell playing pool in The Company, or practically every scene in the saloon in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which is probably my favorite.

I think I’ll be watching McCabe and Mrs. Miller again soon. Rest in peace, Robert Altman, and thank you.

That uncharted-territory feeling

For my Information Resources and Services class, our final project is an annotated bibliography of research into the information-seeking behavior of a particular group. My initial idea was to choose voters as the group I’d research; I figured that, since information about candidates and ballot initiatives comes from such a variety of sources, and since the question of how people inform themselves during election seasons is such a perennial one, there’d be a lot of studies on the subject.

Turns out, hardly anyone in the infosciences has written about voters and their information-seeking patterns. I found a bunch of articles in political science and advertising journals on the impact of campaign ads and the rationality of voters’ choices, but that isn’t quite what I’m after. Nor are the handful of articles on how librarians can better provide election information to their patrons (this bibliography is very specifically supposed to be about how people look for information, not how to get it to them). The professor just told me that nobody in her previous classes has worked on this topic before. Which surprised me, considering that there are a lot of very politically aware librarians out there.

So then I thought I might focus on community groups instead, but that looks like it might turn out to be another blind alley. I considered changing my topic to scholarly information-seeking, since I’ve already done some thinking about the process of scholarly research. Yesterday it occurred to me: what about independent scholars? Has anyone written anything on what the information universe looks like to those who aren’t affiliated with a college or university but are still pursuing scholarship? I got all excited for about half an hour and then found … practically zilch. Back to the drawing board, it looks like.

The downside to all of this is that I’ll probably have to switch topics. But the upside is that I seem to have identified a couple of wide-open research areas. I recognize, with a certain glee, the feeling of stumbling onto relatively uncharted territory that I’d previously assumed had to have been charted. I think the logical next step — once I have some research methodology coursework under my belt, because I’ve never done a user study before — is to start thinking about how I can write those articles that don’t yet exist.

Children’s books week

And, while I’m on a roll: Happy Children’s Books Week! I read so many books as a kid that it’s sometimes hard to remember which ones I liked best. But my favorite author was Joan Aiken, who wrote a whole series of novels set in a kind of alternate-history England in the 18th century. Years later, I realized that her fictional England was the result of the premise "What if the Stuarts had stayed in power instead of being ousted in 1688?" (There’s a Pretender to the Throne in these books, and he’s not a Stuart but a Hanoverian, i.e. a member of the royal family from which George I et al. came. A character in Black Hearts in Battersea, one of the early novels in the series, lurches drunkenly into a room singing "My bonny lies over the North Sea, / My bonny lies over in Hanover, / My bonny lies over the North Sea, / Oh why won’t they bring that young man over?")

Even though the history went over my head at the time, I loved those books intensely. The heroine of the series is a girl named Dido, who first appears in Black Hearts in Battersea as a bad-tempered guttersnipe, befriends the hero, Simon (who turns out to be the lost heir to a Duke), and is lost at sea at the end of the novel. But she turns up again in Night Birds on Nantucket, a spoof on Moby-Dick that involves a demented Quaker whaling captain chasing a great pink whale. She gets taken to South America, meets the reincarnation of King Arthur, and thwarts a seriously creepy set of villians in The Stolen Lake, and returns to England just in time to foil a plot against the new Stuart king in The Cuckoo Tree. I’ve still got most of those books; they’re among the very few from my childhood that I wouldn’t let my mother give away to younger relatives.

Other childhood favorites: Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, especially the title book; The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; Helen Cresswell’s Bagthorpe family saga; and my much-beloved Faber Book of Children’s Verse. I was also an Edward Gorey fan at a tender age, thanks to the animated title sequences for Mystery! on PBS, but I didn’t discover his books until a bit later.

What were your favorite childhood books?

“Future of the Catalog” conference notes

My second systems analysis project is done, and now I have a bit of breathing
space (next week, thanks to Thanksgiving, is a no-classes week). So
here, a bit belatedly, are my notes from the ACRL-DVC Future of the Catalog
on the 3rd.

Thom Hickey, OCLC: OCLC and the Future of the Catalog

came in a little late, so I missed the first part of Thom Hickey’s
talk, which was a preview of new things OCLC is working
on. The part that really caught my attention was his demonstration of
the not-yet-live "WorldCat Identities," a project to create a page for
every person in WorldCat, part name authority record and part
Wikipedia. The identity pages will include associated authors, a
publication timeline, and a widget that displays audience level
graphically, so you can tell whether an author wrote for children,
adults, or specialized scholarly audiences. This project will go public
later this year, and they’re also going to roll out a new version of
FictionFinder. (I’ve been interested in FictionFinder since I first
heard of it a couple of years ago. I hope someday there’ll be a
PoetryFinder to go with it. For that matter, I think it would be really
neat to help build such a thing. Psst, OCLC! Want to hire me when I
finish my MLS?)

Turns out the slides for this talk are available on OCLC’s site (scroll down to "Thom Hickey").

Emily Lynema, NCSU Libraries: Endeca — Faceted Keyword Searching

The slides for this talk are up at NCSU’s list of presentations on the catalog (first link on the page).

This was an exciting talk for me even though I’d already
heard about NCSU’s new Endeca-powered catalog. Emily
Lynema’s demo focused on what she called "searching the way patrons are
used to searching," but also leverage information that patrons don’t
always see because it’s hidden behind codes. She showed us how Endeca’s
faceted search lets a user narrow down what they’re looking for without
having to keep re-typing in new queries or guessing at subject
headings. There are all kinds of features that make life easier; the
ones that especially impressed me were the spelling correction and "did
you mean…?" suggestions, a la Google. (Who amongst us hasn’t been
stymied by the combination of rogue typos and an OPAC’s inability to
recognize misspellings? If you haven’t, you’re a much better typist
than I am.) Other features: "limit to what’s available" (this is going
to be massively popular with time-strapped undergrads, I can tell), a
"browse new books by call number" feature, relevance ranking, and
facets for subject and LC classification (the most popular facets, thus

And they implemented the whole thing in less than six months. Yowza!

Tim Spalding, LibraryThing: Catalog/Share Your Personal Library

of people in the audience had heard of LibraryThing, though fewer
seemed to have used it (Tim Spalding did a quick poll at the start of
his talk). He gave an overview of how the "bibliosocial network" of
LibraryThing works, did a quick demo, and then went on to talk about
how tagging does and doesn’t overlap with traditional cataloging. He
presented a couple of standout examples of fiction-genre tags:
cyberpunk and chick lit, both of which pull together a good working
bibliography of their genre, and neither of which can be found in the
Library of Congress classification (did you know that the subject
headings for William Gibson’s Neuromancer include "Nervous system — Wounds and injuries — Fiction"?
Neither did I). Then he showed us a couple of examples of the drawbacks
of tagging: magic (Harry Potter, books on card tricks, history, fantasy fiction)
and leather (leather-bound editions, books on leather crafts, and erotica for leather fetishists). He also drew a parallel
between the LT author pages and the OCLC identity pages.

Karen Calhoun, Cornell University Libraries: The "Calhoun Report" on the Changing Nature of the Catalog

Calhoun (author of the Calhoun Report, available as a PDF from the
Library of Congress) talked about the future of catalogs, especially as
they become more and more integrated into other discovery tools. She
talked about the difference between the old "library-centric" model, in
which scholars’ information universes revolved around the library, and
the newer "user-centric" model, in which the user’s activities — gathering, discovering, sharing, and creating — are at the center, and
the catalog is one of many resources, lots of which are networked and
remote. She compared it to the difference between Ptolemaic and
Copernican views of the universe: now that the library isn’t the center
anymore, where does that leave us? Her answer to the "future of the
catalog" question was: dismantle, reassemble, reduce costs, find new
uses for data, reach out to new users.

This talk covered so much ground that my notes got a bit
scattershot. Among the things I jotted down: the OCLC report on college
students’ perceptions of libraries
and its finding that "the library’s brand is books"; 48 hours is the maximum amount of
time the casual user is willing to wait for information; Cornell has created an "ontology of scientists" called VIVO; and the catalog’s future includes visual browsing interfaces like AquaBrowser.

Then we all had lunch, followed by a Q&A with the four speakers. The discussion went from the need for and problems of data-sharing, to the possible uses of tags in library catalogs, to the response to NCSU’s new catalog (largely positive, though the students have been quiet about it so far), to the question of why libraries shell out so much for our information systems when commercial systems outside our niche market have figured out how to do similar things faster. The final question was "If I were a 19-year-old college student, how would what you talked about help me find stuff?" Thom Hickey stressed giving the 19-year-old college students access, Karen Calhoun emphasized going where they are, Emily Lynema explained Endeca as "a less frustrating interaction with the system," and Tim Spalding got a big laugh by saying that when he was 19, he was most interested in getting a date — and that the social aspects of LibraryThing provide an enjoyable introduction to the world of books and learning, too.

All in all, a good conference. I’m hoping to catch up with the ACRL-DVC folks at the big ACRL conference in Baltimore in March.

Cenerentola review

I saw the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s production of Rossini’s Cinderella (or La Cenerentola if you use the Italian version of the title) with a friend last Friday, and she remarked, as we descended from the terrifying heights of the Amphitheatre level at the Academy of Music,* that she hadn’t seen anything as inventive at the opera in ages. Neither had I, for that matter. It’s a decidedly wacky production of one of Rossini’s giddier comic operas, and even though it took me a little while to warm to the production concept, warm to it I most definitely did. The e-mail notice I got from the Academy of Music mailing list said something about "inspired by Pop Art"; the set was a black-and-white striped floor and wall with screens hanging above it, on which were projected Roy Lichtenstein-esque animations. Everyone wore 1950s costumes; Cinderella shed her maid’s uniform to arrive at the ball, on a motorcycle, in gold lamé pants and movie star sunglasses. And Cinderella was accompanied in many of her scenes by a remote-controlled vacuum cleaner that followed her around like a pet dog. I found the screens a little busy and distracting at times, and I didn’t quite get the vacuum cleaner (Beauty and the Beast? a fairy godmother substitute?). But somehow it all worked.

I’m neglecting the singing, but Ruxandra Donose, who sang Cinderella, has a lovely rich voice and enough charisma to make her character — who spends much of the opera being long-suffering and put upon, and wondering why her stepfamily can’t treat her better — more than one-dimensional. I’d read all manner of good things about Lawrence Brownlee, the Don Ramiro, in the papers, and he didn’t disappoint at all. Among other things, he made all that crazy Rossinian coloratura sound easy. Their duet together in Act 1 ("Un soave non so che") was the point at which they and the production won me over.

It’s also a very self-consciously theatrical production. At various points the chorus (18 men in matching white suits) formed a chorus line and swayed in
time with the main characters’ singing, as if they were marionettes
being lifted on strings. I’d never noticed how many lines Dandini has about whether the whole thing will turn out as comedy or tragedy, but here he broke the fourth wall to offer the occasional meta-comment on the plot. The stepsisters made a few entrances from the audience (one of them turned up in a box!), and in his hilariously tipsy aria in praise of wine, Don Magnifico came perilously close to toppling into the orchestra pit.

In short, we were all a very happy audience by the end of the evening. Now I’m looking forward to going back for another opera or two later in the season. Hey, Philadelphia-area readers, anyone interested in going to see the OCP’s Falstaff in May? I’m thinking of getting a group together.

* The sudden moment of vertigo as we entered the amphitheatre reminded me of undergraduate days in Chicago, when I used to go to the Lyric in groups that always ended up in the nosebleed seats. It’s not the height so much as the steeper-than-45-degree angle of the steps down. Fortunately the acrophobia went away, now as it did back then, as soon as we took our seats.

Specialty search engines and specialized book (un)recommendations

Wow. Google is now letting people make their own search engines. Just a few days ago I was trying unsuccessfully to find a specialized search engine only for opera companies and performers and performances; now I can make my own. I wonder if I can get extra credit for my Information Resources and Services class if I build the kind of engine I wanted to use for our latest homework assignment? (Via Carnival of the Infosciences #59 at the Shifted Librarian.)

Also, my new favorite time-sink is LibraryThing’s UnSuggester, which displays "anti-recommendations": if you like book X, you’re very unlikely to read book Y. There’s also a really interesting conversation at the LibraryThing blog about bridging the gaps between non-overlapping groups of readers and deliberately trying to read unsuggested books.

Election, librariana, offline weekend

I wish I had a dramatic election-day story, but mine was pretty anticlimactic: I went to my local polling place at 7:15 in the morning. There was already a line, but the poll workers said it had been longer at 7, when the doors opened. I cast my vote, jumped on the bus to Suburban Station and took the train in to work. There was much water-cooler discussion the day after, and much glee that we’ll no longer have Rick Santorum as our senator come January.

I’m too busy doing library-school homework to comment at length, but I loved Oso Raro’s "Whither the Library?" post at Slaves of Academe: part reflection on a seminar on the mission of libraries, part personal library history. I may not agree with all of it (the shushing old maid stereotype can’t die fast enough, as far as I’m concerned; and while, like Oso, I think helping to shape people’s intellectual development is one of the library’s key missions, the "edutainment" factor seems less prominent and less worrisome from where I’m standing), but still: go read! And an aside: I wonder how many people in the academic and biblioblogospheres have posted this kind of narrative of the place of libraries in their lives? It’s making me think about my own history with libraries. More later, possibly. 

And in other news, my friend R. is visiting this weekend, and our plans involve Rossini at the Academy of Music, gelato at Capogiro, and wandering around in Center City. Catch you all next week!

Probably superfluous PSA

Not that anybody reading this probably needs the reminder, but:

Don’t forget to vote tomorrow!

And if you need background information, Project Vote Smart is your friend.

Now back to your regularly scheduled topics…

Briefly noted

No time to blog, really. Owing to class projects and visiting friends and general busy-ness, this week and next are a complete madhouse — in a good way, but a madhouse nonetheless. However, I do have time to note in passing:

  • I spent yesterday at the ACRL Delaware Valley Chapter’s conference on "The Future of the Catalog: Destruction or Reinvention?" The overall answer to that question seemed to be "both, but more of the latter." I’ll try to post a more detailed report when I have time (which, at this rate, will be some time in 2008). A highlight: I got to meet Tim "LibraryThing" Spalding! It’s not every day that one gets to introduce oneself to someone with the phrase "I just wanted to say I’m a huge fan."
  • Speaking of fabulous bibliophile tools, I’ve just drunk several gallons of the Zotero Kool-aid. More on that later, too.
  • I’m not really a book conservation person, but if I were, this job at the Folger Shakespeare Library would be absolutely my dream job. It’s pretty damn close to a dream job already. Why do the fantastic jobs always show up several years before you’re ready to go after them?
  • Tosca at the Perelman was great fun. I ended up in one of the "boxes" (i.e. moveable chairs) on the side of the auditorium, practically next to the stage. It wasn’t the most polished production of all time, but it was quite respectable, and boasted an appropriately passionate Tosca and a suitably creepy Scarpia. Surprisingly (because tenors aren’t usually my thing) I liked the Cavaradossi best. Next up: Rossini’s Cenerentola next week or the week after.
  • Oh no. There’s now a Lush store in Center City. Between that and my Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab habit, I think this means I can kiss my disposable income goodbye.
  • I love the imaginary Shakespeare operas youse guys* have been coming up with in the comments to the last post!

* I knew I’d definitively left the South when I moved from a region where people say "y’all" to one where they say "youse."

Operatic trivia question of the week: Shakespeare librettized

Several nights ago, over dinner, a friend who reads this blog (hi, Christa!) posed the following question: How many of Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted into operas?

Off the top of our heads, we came up with five: Verdi’s Otello, Macbeth, and Falstaff; Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette; and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A quick scan of my Kobbé’s Opera Book yielded a few more: Berlioz’s Beatrice et Benedict (Much Ado About Nothing), Otto Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (The Merry Wives of Windsor), and Hermann Goetz’s Der Widerspänstigen Zähmung (The Taming of the Shrew). But there have to be others too obscure or too recent to make it into Kobbé (my edition’s from 1976). Wikipedia’s entries on Shakespeare plays list adaptations, but they don’t all seem to get everything.

We both were of the opinion that this was the sort of trivia question that would be perfect to toss out to the blog-readership, so, dear readers: what’s missing from the list? And also, a meme-ish question: if you were going to turn any of Shakespeare’s plays into a libretto, which would you choose, and what composer (living or dead) would you want to work with?