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One-Trick Pony Does Web Sites Well;
Insists Public Libraries Must Too

Scanned drawing of 
nineteenth century circus horse and rider

The Vision & Strategy behind Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Online Exhibit, "Bridging the Urban Landscape," with Some Implications for Public Libraries. Presented by Barry Chad, Senior Librarian, Pennsylvania Department, at the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA) and the Library Administration and Management Association (LAMA) conference, "Transforming Libraries," Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 14 October 1996.

I am speaking to you today because I created a Web site. Big deal, right?

Web sites are a dime a dozen.
Like my friend Bill says, I'm a one-trick pony that is trotted out to do the one thing he does well.
And therein lies half the story:

First Half

"Bridging the Urban Landscape" is a site that is done well: it combines information, personality, a flexible design, ease of navigation, breadth, depth and detail. That is not to say it doesn't have problems that need to be ironed-out.
"Bridging the Urban Landscape" is the hypertext equivalent of those Advent or Hanukkah calendars that you pry up the date and you're either rewarded or puzzled by what you find. The exhibit intends to arouse curiosity, invite nostalgia, answer questions, make the Department's collection available worldwide, save wear-and-tear on the original documents, act as a surrogate if the originals are stolen, and, last but not least, promote this wonderful city.
The exhibit exists for you to explore. Please do.
The exhibit is incomplete. It is essentially version 1 when, by now, I should be on version 5.
It is flawed, I know. It can be improved: I know how.
But time--that is the key element. Over 2,300 hours have gone into "Bridging the Urban Landscape" to date. Frequently twelve hour days. The distinction between "my time" and "library time" disappeared. My commitment to the project's success reinvigorated my sense of being a professional.

Since this is Pittsburgh, I suggest you pick up a six pack of "Iron City" and surf the exhibit. It will explain itself.

There are over 80 distinct neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. What is known as the North Side was itself once a city, the City of Allegheny. We have been here as "Pittsburgh," at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, since 1758. That's over 200 years of history. There are over 30,000 images in the Pennsylvania Department's collection. Our vertical clipping file goes back to the turn of the century and numbers some 330 file cabinet drawers full of ephemera, newspaper clippings, facts, figures, letters, pamphlets.... This collection of cross-related and inter-related materials cries out for hypertext--for the making of electronic links and connections which, until now, librarians have always done in their traditional manner of index cards or through the power of their synthesizing and capacious memories.

A rudimentary plan pre-existed the construction of the exhibit. The Department had talked about doing a book utilizing the resources in the collection. We had constructed an outline for such a book; and, it was on an electronic equivalent of this book's framework that we strung our content. But that is it as far as "planning." Once those initial steps of exploring the Net, of seeing how others were doing things and of constructing an experimental homepage were taken, back in October of '94, "Bridging the Urban Landscape" began to evolve its own dynamic--possessing indeed a life of its own. The demands of design, organization, navigation, the capabilities of the technology, the demands of the content itself drive the ongoing exhibit as much as any kind of intentional plan imposed upon it.

It is easier to talk about what remains to be done than what has already been done. For example,

  • the rest of the neighborhoods;
  • expansion of the neighborhoods already online;
  • oral histories;
  • full-text (where copyright permits) supplanting the brief teasing snippets of text currently available;
  • mark up of text in the Standard Generalized Markup's Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) language so that it is more effectively searchable;
  • a site, now under construction, on "Pittsburghese" (the language of the natives) that allows distant speakers of Pittsburghese (who have removed, say, to San Diego) to actually hear their native tongue spoken by native speakers;
  • a section on Pittsburgh street names, giving the history of the street name with links to biographies of the people for whom the streets were named, links to historic images of the streets themselves, and links to articles about the streets;
  • the Department's collection of Pittsburgh's city directories (1813-1975) searchable by name and by street;

    and, perhaps,

  • an online game about Pittsburgh, whose goal might be to acquire enough money either to buy the Pirates or graduate from Carnegie Mellon University.

Web pages are fun. They are the most incredible instant gratification. And what is more, they are the province of the amateur, that is, of the person who loves what they are doing. Look at Disney and Sony: glitz, whistles and bells, and empty. It is the democracy of the technology of the Web which allows students at John Brashear High School (and around the world) to construct the most wonderful electronic hobby horses--wild with content--and ride them with skill and imagination.

Second Half

The other half of the story and why it is important for me to be speaking to you is that I am a librarian and believe it is critical for you to hear what I learned in the course of doing this marvelously open-ended project.

Vision and strategy: I do not understand the distinction between these two terms. If the vision is viable and tough enough it finds and provides its own strategy. The vision which took hold of me two years ago still animates me.
Let us get the nominal topics of this talk out of the way: vision, strategy and collaboration.

  • The vision is to have been set on fire by a conviction that a new and extraordinarily powerful method of organizing, presenting and conveying information has appeared among us.
  • The strategy is twofold:
    the time, that is, the time necessary to fully enter into the vision, embrace it wholeheartedly, and follow where it leads,
    and, a technical support staff that is there when you need them. Bob Carlitz, the Principal Investigator for the Common Knowledge/Carnegie Library collaborative grant, as well as other Common Knowledge staff were always available when the machine failed, when I did something stupid, or when I needed it explained to me for the hundredth time how the images on my screen actually got out onto the Web.
    Bob even showed up on New Year's Day in '95 when I called him.
  • Collaborations are more than money, they are commitment, they are communication and they are the establishment of community between institutions and even within institutions. That is the binding force that the new technology of servers and browsers and web sites offers an institution. Though institutions may have different missions, it is the technical how-to, the cross-fertilization, the sense of discovery that will bind them together with a new underlying strength.

    But perhaps the most ideal collaboration is one between IS and LS.
    Later in this conference you will hear from Howard Besser. When, a number of years ago, he taught a class at Pitt's School of Library and Information Science on digitization, he paired off IS and LS students to work as teams. Years later, I still think of this as a radical and brilliant strategy for deepening and broadening the skills of the profession--bringing together in a hands-on relationship two closely-related fields that might otherwise only meet across a table when negotiating the purchase a pre-packaged vendor's product.

    For libraries to empower themselves in our information-based society, their automation departments should be more than mere tenders of machines, they should be innovative programmers and creative technical experts who support the needs of librarians working with the public--partnering to provide information in the way that the public has already come to expect. When it comes to the relationship between automation and public service, in no way should it be a matter of the tail wagging the dog. The stakes are too high for all concerned.

What happened to me in the process of "Bridging the Urban Landscape" was learning--learning like I had never experienced before--a potent, creative mix of the librarian's undervalued skills of (and obsession with) organizing information and the technical resources to facilitate that organization in ways demanded by today's patron.
Those who staff the reference desks know that the patrons are demanding customized information. They want all the boards of directors (current) for all the hospitals in Westmoreland, Allegheny and Washington counties and they want it faxed to them now. They want the salaries for cable installers, chemical engineers and rare book librarians in each county of Pennsylvania over the past ten years and can they access it from their home computers. Patrons already expect us to have this information at our fingertips.
Are we going to buy this information from vendors or are we going to produce this information ourselves? Produce versus purchase.
But we need the time to do it.
Librarians must assume more of the role of information gatherers and information packagers as well as information providers. "The web is not delivering edited personalized information dynamically culled from users' requests. Instead, it is pulling up a Dumpster of useless and duplicated data."(1)

If librarians do not step into the breach to fill the information demands of their communities, then the big boys will. Even Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, with its beautiful building may one day be just an information kiosk with cookie cutter databases replicated across the country and around the world.
Look at the current Library of Congress/Ameritech grant that is making the rounds. You get what? $70,000 to outsource your documents to a vendor who will scan them in for you? You pay a cataloger to catalog them according to LC's standards and your unique collection gets linked to American Memory--totally bypassing the incalculably valuable learning experience for library staff.

And the icing on the cake is that LC co-opts the central strength of all these small to middle-sized libraries, their unique regional history collections. Believe me, the Library of Congress would be better off getting their own house in order and putting online all of Harry Houdini's collection from their vaults. And that's 10,355 items, by their own count.

I am outraged when I hear colleagues or professionals in other cultural institutions quip that they "don't do web pages." How short-sighted, how narrow-minded, how ultimately fatal. Hey, folks, it's either publish or perish. Sure we can outsource all our collections and let someone else have the fun, the learning experience of doing it while we continue to grunt and sweat under our day-to-day routines living, as it were, professionally hand-to-mouth, while the real advances in professional and staff development go a-begging. Here is the pearl of great price which we should hazard everything to acquire. That is why I say,

close Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh for a year,
close all the public libraries in America for a year!

We talk at this conference, as at another conference I've attended, about re-engineering the library.
No, that is not what we are doing: we are tinkering with it. And on the fly, at that.
We need honestly and profoundly to retool.
It is said that when the German Reformer, Martin Luther, rose in the morning, he would pray for an hour. If he had a particularly heavy schedule that day, he would pray for two hours. By suggesting that all public libraries in America close I am saying that the situation is serious and that libraries should, like Luther, energize themselves for the task ahead. Business as usual will prove fatal.

Even as I speak, Bill Gates and his minions are active here in Pittsburgh, buying up local photographic collections. Libraries have not wised up to the fact that the one thing they have and the one thing the Web is starving for is content. The majority of Web sites are "more concerned with the look of information and not the useability and value of information."(2). "The majority of what you find on the mostly handbills."(3) At a time when libraries are being pronounced passe and even the word "library" is being untimely ripped from the names of Library schools, it is non-librarians who are holding up the library as the most effective model for organizing information:

The most long-lived depository of information in concept is the library. A library provides a complete and updated search mechanism; it uses various 'see also' links to related ideas or concepts; it also is set up with the understanding that there is a greater, complete body of knowledge of which the library is a subset--but the greater collection of printed material is accessible if need be. Furthermore, the library is open to the entire public. Unlike a library, the web makes no claims of organization or thoroughness. Unlike libraries (even the most resource-poor), which boast more robust networks for sharing information, the web provides software 'crawlers' and other 'agents' that randomly stockpile huge quantities of disorderly data that is incomplete and inadequate to begin with. Unlike books in libraries, which include references, indices, and other alternative channels on which to search, most of the web remains haphazard and chaotic--undesirable qualities when talking about the value of information.(4)

We are warehouses, we are storehouses of information. We are keepers of books. We sit on a treasure trove of organized information for which the scramble to possess has only just begun.

I want to apologize to anyone in the audience with religious sensibilities. You may have detected throughout this tirade a current of religious imagery. That is because I have seen this new technology effect a kind of conversion in others, not just myself. But, the real impetus for and origins of the religious imagery is in the word "vision."
A vision is not something labored over, no matter what the management gurus say. It is something that is given, it is something that comes. Often unexpected, often unsought. As a librarian, the World Wide Web has skinned my eyes, and I have seen a new world, a world of universal information.
If librarians abdicate their responsibility in structuring, shaping and crafting that world, there is no shortage of non-librarians willing to usurp the role.

Even if the Web fails, even if it turns out be a commercial bust, it will, and welcomingly so to many, return to being the research conduit it once was. It is impossible to imagine libraries abandoning the Internet's incredibly flexible and creative methods of organizing, presenting and disseminating information.
It must be taken on faith that the technology of today will dovetail with the technology of tomorrow, and that the technicians and automation experts--extraordinarily clever as they are--will know how to refresh the hardware and software. Let it be their burden to keep on top of the changing technologies. Let administrators preoccupy themselves with obtaining the funds to accomplish the refreshing and updating. And let librarians--though increasingly computer literate--remain librarians, that is, organizers of information and become, instinctively, gatherers of information as well.

The Web is a phenomenon too dynamic to die. There should today be a shift to a new way of doing business--not just an oblique incorporation of the new into the old. The old wineskins will burst from the new wine. New wineskins for new wine!

* For Further Reading.
* Pertinent WWW Sites.

Barry Chad
Revised, corrected,
& sites updated:
4 January 1997.

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