28 June 2006

Full of anger and disapointment

The ACT government is closing my childrens primary school - Cook Primary School - amongst 38 others on terribly dodgy terms. I've started "Backwards 2020", a blog about the "Forwards 2020" proposal by the ACT government, a disaster not only for our local school but for government education in our state. Please spread the word.

I'm too angry to write well about this now, but you know, we came to Canberra and specifically moved to Cook based on the reputation of the education at this school. The proposals are not about quality of education, but about knee-jerk reactions to political budgets. What a way to ruin what so many has worked hard to achieve. More later.

21 June 2006

Hey, that's me!

Donna has written a post on what people should expect when working with her, and let me tell you right now that that is exactly what you should expect working with me, too. I wish I had written that piece first though; now I just feel like a "me, too", but no wonder I struggle in public service, eh? :)

20 June 2006

Library stew : Have you checked your library values lately?

Why are librarians and their supporters (and I count myself as one of those) closing their eyes to the impending doom which is the shift in our modern cultures from physical to virtual knowledge?

Well, I don't know about you, but here's my story. First of all, I was attracted to the library as a moth to light a few years ago due to the vast amount of metadata and hidden knowledge within. My big passion back then was Topic Maps which is a standard for better navigation through vast amounts of metadata. A few of my personal interests also drove that metadata passion, like my obsession with Claudio Monteverdi; I wanted to create a portal for all things Monteverdi, his life, contemporaries and otherwise.

So what does a moth like me think about that shining light that draws me? You would think that by watching my fellow moths flying about that I would get the hint, but I'm not smart enough to admit that the light can be rather deadly; I'd rather just go there, never to distract my furious flapping of wings with silly things like contemplation.


A lot of talk has gone down on the recently created Next Generation Catalogs for Libraries mailing-list, most of it deals with how we should deal with the OPAC issues such as what it should do, how it should do it, who's it for, how do we promote it, et cetera. A lot of the discussion has revolved around "here's what others are doing, we should do it too!" Which is wrong.

I keep pestering people about this stuff, but please at least consider what I'm proposing; test your users! I know this may sound a bit stupid, but how can you be so sure that the systems we give to our users are the systems they want? Have you tested to make sure that what others are doing is what our users want us to be? I know it says in various mission statements what we and our patrons are all about, but I fear that they have not been updated for a while, resting in isolation on some very old and conservative ground rules for what a library is all about. Usually they look a bit like this ;

The library actively supports learning, creative and intellectual endeavour and the dissemination of knowledge, ideas and information.

This is a fantastic statement which you can fill to the brim with all sorts of activities, systems, culture, people and organisations. it is one of those statements which makes me proud to be working for a library! Seriously!

But let's get to the meat of the matter, and look at a typical set of library mission statements (picked at random from around the world [kinda] and anonymized [certainly]) ;

  1. We are to ensure that a significant record of our country and our countrymen is collected and safeguarded
  2. We shall meet the needs of our users for rapid and easy access to our collections and other resources
  3. We shall demonstrate our prominence in our nation's cultural, intellectual and social life and to foster an understanding and enjoyment of the library and its collections
  4. We are to ensure that our nation's people have access to vibrant and relevant information services
  5. We are to ensure our relevance in a rapidly changing world, participate in new online communities and enhance our visibility

By the numbers

1. is fine and dandy; it is an important part of the library's undertaking to preserve stuff, a lot of it probably useless to 80% of the people, but that's not the point here. Far too often though, the library is given tasks of archiving the type of stuff that nobody else cares about, which in fact goes against the common notion that libraries should provide access to stuff of popularity; how can we when we're to spend 80% of our time dealing with obscurities? Anyways, point 1 is fine.

2. Did you notice the words "needs" in there? It did not say "functionality", "what we think they want" or even "library values." Think about it for two seconds, and then tell me wheter you've tested your users needs lately. Oh, and this one also mentions "rapid" and "easy access", two things library systems has along track-record in not doing.

3. This is the one I call the "snob directive", and I shan't dive too much into it, but it does promote the idea that we're to "foster an understanding" of what the library is all about to all of society. But do we truly know that ourselves?

4. is really just an IT version of point 4, and probably where libraries currently are the most stuck; we offer them bucketloads of crappy information services, and I'm suspecting that this is because it's too hard to do point 2 properly. In reality, why are these two even separate? They are essentially the same thing! The only reason they probably are separated is because 20 years ago IT and real-life merged pretty poorly; it's time to perhaps update and remove this point alltogether.

5. is a bit of rehashing what the other directives have said with an ephasis on "online" and "new" and "up to date" and that sort of thing. The keyowrd here is "relevance" though, and let's think about it for a second; how are we to be relevant to people? Doesn't that somewhat imply we - golly gosh! - test our users needs?

Too much

There's too much second-guessing our patrons needs, too much focus on "library values" (which usually means a good session of commitee charades!), and way, way, way too little testing to see if our assumptions are right, our foundation is solid and that we truly are relevant to our users. Why is that?

Are we too afraid the answer might be something that alters the purpose of the library? Is that what it all amounts to? Because, frankly, I'm getting to a point where "library values" are nothing more than conservatism for the sake of being conservative thrown around by librarians who can't seem to deal with huge change. We claim to be into blogging, wiki's and all that fadangled new whizmo-zing-tech stuff that goes on these days, and, you know, as far as I can tell we're into a lot of that and not into perhaps, you know, what we should be into? Have you tested to see if our users wants us to blog? Have you tested to see if they want a wiki? Have you tested to see if they want us to be Google? Have you tested a user lately?

Just a thought. Now go and test, and let us know what you came up with. I'm dying to know.

17 June 2006

Me, a librarian?

Hi, my name is Alex, and I'm a sort-of librarian-ish kinda person, grounded on the fact that I work for a library. I won't actually say I'm a librarian (nor should I, given my lack of librarian education), because people would get all sorts of wrong ideas about me (well, more wrong ideas about me), but there's all sorts of fun stereotypical traits curled up in the librarian notion, so why not poke a stick in it to see if it rustles?

A librarian is someone who has great knowledge about books, wears glasses, is probably an older lady, and classifies their breakfast by the Dewey Decimal System. Oh, and she reads a lot! So, in the spirit on self-inflicted pain and memes, here's my "Me, a librarian?" meme, where I explain how I'm not a librarian at all ;


  • Have glasses? Yes, but they are too cool to be regarded as 'librarians' glasses. They're also broken, and I wear padding and / or bits of tape on my nose so I won't get headaches. Yes, I should get them fixed.

  • Gray hair? A couple here and there, but not as worrisome as the beginning lack of hair.

  • Old? Ouch! Probably not?

  • A lady? Only when provoked.

Right, so I don't look much like one. let's move on to the next stereotype.


  • The last book I read : Mastering SQL, 4th edition

  • No, I mean like real litterature : Terry Pratchet's "Lords and Ladies"

  • Oh c'mon, like real serious litterature : Monteverdi : biography

  • Ok nerd, that was just a bit too serious. How about a good novel? Nothing comes to mind.

Uh, ok, so I read stuff that's mostly uninteresting to the general public. Surely there must be some librarian stereotype I can squeeze into?


  • Lift books around? No, but I occasional lift a laptop with eBooks on it.

  • Answer questions about information? Not in the "Hi, how can I help you?" way. I'm more in the "Over there's the reference desk" category.

  • Can think of nothing better than throwing Dewey Decimals into normal social conversations : I couldn't tell you a Dewey code to save myself.

  • Knows the MARC field number for subtitle : Hmm, possibly 245 subfield b?

I don't do much typical librarians work either, it seems. What about philosophy, then? Eh? Eh?


  • Know what 'epistemology' is? Yes, and I do throw that word into normal social conversation as often as I can.

  • Does the library contain books? Only as items part of collections, but there is all sorts of objects in our collections.

  • The library is all about lending books to people? Hell no; it's all about preserving and giving access to culture.

  • The future of the library is? Worrisome; there's so much the libraries do that nobody else cares about, stuff where there is no commercial nor general interest. We do things because we understand the cultural knowledge that comes through preservations of all sorts of things, not just books. We also recognise that the market-driven capitalist governments would pull the plug on our funding if they knew we existed.

Saved by the last section, I reckon.

So, how much of a librarian are you?

9 June 2006

What is a library project success?

The hot library topic of the week have been the creation of the NGC4Lib -- Next Generation Catalogs for Libraries mailing-list. It's already had a flurry of emails, almost all of the really good. But.

Before we go out and define what such future systems should do and be like, we need to give careful consideration to how these systems are measured in terms of success and failure. Make no mistake about it; we're in the library world now, and there are no normal rules here like "project success is determined by resources and time spent creating it, budget for maintainence, and return on investment." Currently libraries fake these factors more than anything; if something isn't delivered on time, no one gets fired. If a project doesn't satisfies a given set of requirements, no one gets shafted. If a project is functional but completely useless, no one gets kicked up the backside. That's just the way of the library world, mostly funded through academic and / or goverment channels. And of course, there is no return on investment, as it is measured in patron-positivism, a magical force that comes and goes with the feelings of the librarians that run the project.

Now, I'm not writing this to give librarians the blame for anything here; it is of course hard to claim return on investment when the return is measured in something as flakey as "patron feelings." It's just not doable. In fact it is symptomatic for rules and measures brought upon the library world by government systems that has no clue to what it is that we're really doing; it is terribly frustrating! And it's an important point in so much that even when we would love to do X, we can only do Y, because Y fits the balanced scorecard and X doesn't. Needless to say, I don't like Balanced Scorecard, not because that system can't help when implemented right, but because it is hard to implement right (which is why there's bucketloads of friendly consultancy companies that specialises in helping organisations out with it all; if it's a consultancy business, it's the wrong model to use in my eyes ... and I used to be a consultant, I should know!). Other libraries have other measurement and management systems in place, and I don't think they're all that different.

It comes back to government funding models; "we give you X if you can prove yourself in Y and Z, with a return of G, a deficit of H and turn-over of J." The trouble is of course that libraries are not easy to classify; we land in the shady areas of most government models, as we're collectors, preservists, archivists, public access granter, lender, national institution with constitutional tasks (collecting, archiving for example), academia, special interest research, broad interest supplier, service provider, intellectual property aggregator, funds granter, practicioners of copyright and rights, educationalists, conference and concert and presentation organisers and holders, and even more stuff! We do so many things that we're stuck in a political minefield!

So how can we measure the success of the OPAC, for example, not to us internally (where success is measured by librarians, and success is rewarded by being given more projects. Hmm.), but to the outside world? How can we create systems that gives us success in raising awareness of the need of libraries? That's my important question of the week.

8 June 2006

Some confusion : lack of blogging? No!

Hi all; it seems that I've screwed up (by not knowing all the nooks and corners of Blogger.com), so I suspect a lot of you have subscribed to my feed looking like this ;


And the reason there's been so quiet from me is that I've been rambling off at ;


The auto-detect links were screwy, but the link above should always redirect you to the right place. I'm hosting my blog on my own site but using blogger.com as a manager, so the shelterit.blogspot.com address was only there from when I was setting the system up. Sorry for all this, guys.

6 June 2006

Extra, Extra - Read All About It: Nearly All Binary Searches and Mergesorts are Broken

Official Google Research Blog: Extra, Extra - Read All About It: Nearly All Binary Searches and Mergesorts are Broken, just a little note of importance to developers and scare for the rest of you: even the smallest piece of code can have bugs that go unnoticed for 20 years.

4 June 2006

Musical journeys : Lamento delle Allesandrino

I've been thinking about my journey through music a lot lately. It was probably sparked on friday at my birthday lunch at work where someone started talking about music, a subject I don't go into too often. Let me explain why I don't too often talk about what I would love to talk the most about.

I love baroque music. No, I don't just love it; I adore it! Live it! bath in it! If you don't know what that means straight off the top, then you're part of my reasons for not talking much about it; it's one of those things that not a lot of folks really know much about. "Classical music, right?" Um, no. Not at all. Not by a long shot.

Some times I review the odd baroque concert or rare CD I've come across. I don't write about these things because I think my readers care, but because I'm passionately in love with it. In fact, I''m pretty sure that most of my readers can't tell a Ninfa from a Ninja on a good day, nor give me recomendations to the best recording of any of Galuppi's motets, Bencini's vespers (Did he compose in Roman, Venetian, French or Austrian style? Answers after the break) or Monteverdi's secular works. (And if you could, I'd love to hear from you!) And what do you know of Cavalli, and what was the Monteverdian influences on him and Heinrich Schütz? I'm not telling you this to insult nor show off my elitism. In fact, I hate snobs, especially within "classical" music. Which is why I don't often talk about my love of this music, because the danger of sounding like one is huge!

There are four sure ways to hold a conversation in a social setting; the weather, TV, sports, and music. I love the weather on a scientific level (how it works, for example) but hate that idle chit-chat that means absolutely nothing to most non-farmers of the world. TV? That thing in the living room that a lot of people waste their time on? No thanks, don't watch it. Sports? Umm. No. No way; hate the thing. (Well, I love a fun game of soccer down at work every wednesday, but as soon as there is money involved the fun goes out) That leaves music, which isn't pop, rock, blues, jazz, acid, techno, classical, dance, metal, folk or any other musical style known to most people. (You can tell I'm fun at parties, right? In fact I've developed special skills in faking social settings, but that's another post some other time)

So how did I come to this point? Well, I have known to have listened to David Bowie (Let's dance album) and Thompson Twins (most albums) in those early teen years before I developed a brain. But then I started to get a grip on a few items that stuck. And here's some highlights of my musical journey ;

Through my father and also my best friend I bumped into Al Jarreau who took me to soul and jazz, and a lot of my jazz roots I found through this, such as Yellowjackets, Miles Davies, Weather Report and Chet Baker. I also found some Quincy Jones, Brothers Johnson and Rufus with or without Chaka Kahn. Oh, and Stevie Wonder, of course, from his 'Hotter than July' days and earlier. That was all great soulful, funky, jazzy stuff.

At the end of high-school I worked with Bernard Jones, a professor of metaphysics at Leiden University at the time and a great inspiration to me, who introduced me to Eric Satie who became probably one of the most important influences in my life (and Satie is quite non-mainstream, even within classical terms). (He was also the one who got me hooked on Frank Herbert!, but that's a different litterary journey) I remember walking into the classical section of a music shop downtown Oslo asking for Satie compilations, saying it was my first step into classical music, in which the guy behind the counter was truly baffled; wouldn't I like some music a bit easier on the ear, and not so crazy/abstract/quirky? At roughly the same time a really good friend of mine took me to see my first operas (Janacek's "Janufa" amongst other Verdi stuff) which certainly sparked an interest which is still burning today.

Another very important musical path was my introduction to Jan Garbarek by a collegue of my mum. It was an amazing revelation to me; blasted my world, and I still play it a couple of times a week! The opening track became my life's theme music. Just before I left for Australia I saw Garbarek at the park and wanted to say thanks, but didn't strengthen up to it. I should perhaps mention Bendik Hofseth in the same breath (norwegian saxophonist and composer), although he came into my life a little later. (In fact, Bendik I met and even played with on a number of occasions)

After long time filled with mostly jazz, norwegian folk music and contemporary music, I slowly drifted towards music not so endrenched in noises and more towards tonality and minimalism (again, thanks to Bendik Hofseth and Garbarek here on the jazz side of things). But I also stumbled upon 'Book of Days' by Meredith Monk. I didn't see the ECM connection (same record label as Garbarek) until much later, but I was truly mesmarized at the link between the contemporary and the truly basic / classical. It opened my eyes to more vocal music when the voice does more than just project lyrical song.

A few years went by, and I moved in with my best friend Magnus, who's a complete JS Bach nutter! If it wasn't Bach, it wasn't worth his time of day. I didn't mind Bach, but hadn't really gone seriously down the "classical" path at this stage. And then one day ... everything changed!

In our sparse living room we had a sparse shelf with a sparse set of CD's. (My CD collection at this stage were tucked away in storage elsewhere) It was all Bach, except for one. And this one, this little exception to the Bach fanaticism was Monteverdi. Magnus is a damn smart boy, and we often ended up in talking about music. We obviously came from two different angles, and as friends do we decided to meet half-way. I took some of his Bach CD's and the Monteverdi one, and he listened to some of my more rare contemporary stuff (plus the Meredith Monk one, I think). Yeah, sure, Bach was good, technically it was brilliant, no complaints. But then.

Monteverdi. Remember my epiphany with Garbarek? Sometimes you hit upon music that was written for your heart, music that talks your language and explains everything that you've ever pondered. It felt like here was a composer who knew of my coming 300 years away, and planned for me to hear it; the longing tones, the underlying dissatisfaction with humanity, harmonics that shook my spine ... everything just clicked.

This was about 7 years ago now, and it set me off on a totally new and different path than before. I've discarded most of my old CD collection (apart from a few select favourites) and started a new one. In Monteverdi I found the baroque era of music and many incredible people within. I'm not sure why basso continuo excites me so, or why the trio sonata makes my spine tingle, nor do I understand why some Vesper music give me all the religion I'd ever need or why monodic styles are so great. There are so much about this music I don't understand, and perhaps that's part of the answer; I can never ever hope to grasp the technical nor emotional scope of the era, and as such as an everlasting source of emotion and sorrow and tranquility and beauty.

I'm not a musical snob. I'm in love. And I'm sorry if I bore people with this topic. And yes, you guessed right; Bencini was a composer of the Roman style.

2 June 2006

The SOA quickstep ; the dance explained

Here's the skinny on the many sessions I've held about SOA lately.

When I started working for the library about 2 1/2 years ago, I started as a senior Java developer, and whinged about the infrastructure and development methodologies before I quickly jumped to another branch that does more "web things", meaning XML, XSLT, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, Apache stuff and a whole slew of other technologies, but more importantly, I got to do more design work and project management. And more importantly, we did things here more in isolation from the normal grind of applications. Which is good. Truly.

A very recent project threw me back into my old world, and I got a taste of battling with the infrastructure and development methodologies once again, and I got a bit ... hmmm, frustrated? Since then (this was about 6 months ago) I've been making secret plans with a couple of collegues to fix a lot of our development problems. In an environment such as ours we can't let slow processes, mammoth specs, silo mentality and molasses project management kill off any chance to innovate and be creative. But the more I found out, the more stuff I felt I needed to fix.

Back when I was working for Bekk Consulting (the most amazing bunch of smart people I've ever had the pleasure of working with in my life; I grew from baby to man in my three years there) we were slowly bringing in web services and those things that has slowly evolved into what we today roughly know as SOA (Service Oriented Architecture). I felt an urge to bring this to the library.

I reckon that the more you work with enterprise architecture, the more SOA makes sense. After you've had a few stabs at single-sign-on (with session and user management thrown in), distributed and load-balanced databases, serious MVC application development, code reuse (which normally means library development [JAR/WAR, DLL's, etc] with lots of copy and paste thrown in) ... after a while you start to think that the overhead you pay for things being converted down to XML (either RESTfully or through SOAP and the WS-* stack, over HTTP or otherwise) and back again is really worth it. Here's what SOA means to me ;

  1. Thinner applications: you don't need to include lots of libraries and wrappers to add functionality, which means that as the application gets deployed the memory isn't taken up by repeated code, but by actual data. You can spawn as many application deployment environments as you need, and proxy all web services into a funnel. Also, since each service is more focused you don't get a lot of overhead in the application that deals with pesky things not in the best interest of that service; they can be trimmed down to do exactly what it says on the tin, and won't suffer to featuritis.
  2. Sharing with partners: This enables us to create external services for anyone who wants to play with our data, such as our NBD/OPAC/cataloge data, our various smaller semantically modelled sites, our thesaurii and plethora of news and event items ... and blogging. Did I mention that we're trying to get folks here to blog? (See our implementation of Confluence further down; every person in the library will have a blog, and aggregation channels will be opened to the public as well)
  3. Technology agnosism: All applications and services can be written in whatever technology you prefer, be it Perl, Java, SQL/PL, PHP, XSLT, Ruby, C/C++, LISP, FORTRAN ... the only requirement is that the technology can throw XML over (in our case) HTTP. We can tailor the task to the best tool instead of forcing one hammer onto nails, screws and nuts. You don't need to think of specific technologies as strategic direction. You don't have to invest in more Java developers just for the sake of the infrastructure; you can pick developers with more diverse skills, and hire in short-term developers to convert legacy parts into replacable parts.
  4. Performance using tried channels: XML over HTTP means you can create and divert services through means of proxies, routers and other channels used for normal web traffic, use HTTP loggers and traffic analysis tools, do security easily over HTTPS and testing a service can be easily debugged through any browser. Our organisation has a lot more expertise in HTTP than in most other protocols, and finding people with such skills is also a lot simpler. Any developer today knows XML and HTTP, and any technology knows it too (well, I'd be hard-pressed to find some technologies that don't).
  5. Better business: Thinking about services more than simply functions (remember; SOA is not RPC [Remote Procedural Call] even if you do that too!) can lead to better support of the business areas and help them develop their business. Functional requirements will be based on use-cases more than application structure. Ontology sessions on a high level to spark understanding of the services, and it will be easier to get the overal picture and better understanding of what we can do, where we should travel, and what to kill off. (It's easier to handle all of this on a decoupled level than if we're dealing with mammoth applications!)
  6. Innovation: Once you've stopped thinking that application design is an excercise of constraints you'll start seeing how these different services can be joint together to form new services and applications. It's not because this wasn't possible in the past that makes this now viable; it's because you can prototype your idea in a matter of a day or so instead of a month or so. Some developer may have developed a Java application that does something interesting, but when asked to make it an abstract class we can reuse as a JAR file (meaning also documentation, testing, packaging, etc) the cost to do this usually stops it in its tracks right there. If his original application was exposed through a web service then we could prototype up that idea quicker than the developer could estimate the original project! We need to focus on all those things we don't have to do if we are to look to innovation.

I guess that last point was a bit longer than the others, but that is perhaps because that is where I see the biggest benefit, and is in the area that I enjoy the most. But of course, before we can feast on the flexibility a SOA gives us, we need to start building it.

Our first* step is Single-sign-on; a service for authentication, and a service for profile and session handling. We will start using the OSUser module from OpenSymphony (yes, we know it's a stale project and that AtlassianUser is the next generation, but it isn't available yet. We need to get started, and it does work well for what it is supposed to do) for user management and authentication, and have a database for profiles and sessions (basically, a session follows an authenticated users profile, meaning we can also share session info and profile info across services and applications). This means we're creating a ticket-based system for user, the same as for JIRA and Confluence from Atlassian, and integrating ourselves against these systems have worked really well.

* It's not really our first step; we've done several other services in our lab that will be more official as we go along; the APAIS thesaurus, a Lucene-based version of our OPAC (with tagging, comments, clustering and more!), a resource sharing database, the before-mentioned E-Resources application, and an upcoming harvester as well.

Watch this space; I'll try to blog what we find through this process, and write about gotchas and successes, especially as they relate to libraries.

Updates and downdates in busy rural Canberra

Boy, I've been so busy lately, which is why it's been a bit quiet here lately. Even my stream of emails have stopped, so if you're expecting something, it still may be on the way. Sorry all.

First, work is a lot of work. I'm doing bucketloads of Wiki and SOA / web services related work that hopefully will help out our infrastructure to the point where we can start talking about innovation again. Watch this space for lots of thinking, writing and swearing about these topics.

Secondly, as some might know, my wife is a three-years trained primary school teacher from New South Wales, but Canberra - bless its specialness! - requires teachers to be four-years trained, even when they already been a teacher for 7 years! So she's back in University, and this term there was a multimedia package that needed to be created as one of the tasks, so I've been helping out with this one ...

... plus all my other extra work stuff; one for the university of Australia, one for a conference in Norway on Patents and Software, the OZCHI conference website, a possible IA retreat in Sydney later this year, and a few other smaller bits and pieces.

Which means my days are; get up, get us all ready (me, wife, kids, dog) and out the door to our respective places (Alex [35 tomorrow] in the library, Julie [32] at the university, Grace [6] to the school, Lilje [3] into daycare, and Oscar the Cocker Spaniel [3 human years; 21 dog years; 45 pigeon years] to the backyard), work all day, come home, get dinner ready (Julie is mostly taking part of that these days; I only do the occasional one, lik eon mondays and the weekends) and eat it, get kids in the bath, clean up the house, kids in bed, dog dinner ...

... and then sit down again at the computer, working on all the other stuff until terribly late, crawl into bed ... rinse, repeat ... Were there any good movies on TV the last four weeks? Who knows?

Anyways, we're seeing the end of this madness, starting this weekend (which also is my birthday, so I guess that makes sense), so life will hopefully slowly return to normal. You'll be hearing from me.

PS. I had a birthday lunch at work today, and it was great; Even Paul and Rachel popped in for some laksa. Thanks to all for a good lunch! It was really appreciated.