November 12, 2009    |   Vol. 2, No. 39    |   ISSN: 1943-1457
Above the Fold
A weekly newsletter for the changing world of libraries, archives and museums

In this issue:

The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English  (External site)

World Affairs   •   Fall 2009

Deconstructing Babel. Linguist John McWhorter ponders the loss that occurs when a language "dies." He says rather than a cultural loss, it's an aesthetic one, citing the click sounds intrinsic in some tongues or the intricate grammatical underpinnings of others. This is a thoughtful essay on an inevitable process, and McWhorter sums it up nicely: "At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together."

I enjoyed this. The examples of language aesthetics are captivating. The one paragraph explanation of how geographic separation creates individual languages is convincing. The notion that cultural worldviews are separable from language is persuasive. The essay stands in contrast to others we've featured here that focus on desperate efforts to save little-used languages. ( Michalko)

How Great Media Companies Fail on the Internet  (External site)

Digital Tonto   •  October 22, 2009

Worst practices. New media consultant Greg Satell cautions against treating new media ventures like old ones: "The problem is that best practices in Offline Media can become worst practices Online." Sometimes it's useful to be reminded that in undertaking new media projects successfully, we need to radically change our management style and expectations.

This is short. And the bulleted aphorisms are resonant, e.g. old media suffers from "Strategic Rigidity," while in new media you have to be prepared to "Muddle Through." My problem with these sorts of observations isn't that they are off the mark but rather how facilely they gloss over the difficulties of organizational change. Perhaps the prescription should be to start a new company alongside the old. ( Michalko)

When Folly is Forever  (External site)

The Wall Street Journal   •   October 22, 2009

Failure to forget. Author Viktor Mayer-Schönberger says that cheap digital storage has made memory the norm and deletion the exception: "With the help of digital tools we — individually and as a society — have begun to unlearn forgetting." His remedy would be a complicated scheme of data expiration dates — is this practical, or is there a better way?

This is a book review that doesn't necessarily substitute for reading the book, as do some reviews. But it fairly describes the point of the book, which is that the effort of remembering imparted a value judgment with the corollary that remembering everything may confuse value and impart a chill on expressiveness. I like the idea of being able to have a "forget-by-date." I understand there is work being done along these lines at MIT for email but haven't located the reference. ( Michalko)

Why Are Web Sites So Confusing?  (External site)

HBS Working Knowledge   •  October 19, 2009

Finding the shortest distance. Grocery chains specialize in "search diversion" — routing you through the entire store to find the milk and bread — in the hope you'll be enticed into higher margin purchases. And in today's hypercompetitive digital economy, many Web sites do the same. We need to stay vigilant each time we add a feature to ensure we're not creating search diversion in our own sites.

This is a précis of the full article (which I have not read) and contains a link to it. The argument that savvy Web marketers practice strategic diversion is anecdotally persuasive to me, although I'd love to see evidence other than the reference to Google's sponsored links. In the process of describing the diversion phenomenon, the authors manage to bash the precision of library searches. They assert that it denies the searcher the serendipitous discovery. Yeesh. Another small but misguided defense of browsing the catalog. Virtually no one does that. Discovery happens elsewhere. Selection has happened by the time someone is a in a library catalog environment. ( Michalko)

Rare Books Don't Always Live in Glass Cases  (External site)

The New York Times   •  November 1, 2009

National treasures. There are dozens of U.S. libraries open to the public that house unusual collections of rare books and antiquities. Check out these examples and plan to visit one next year.

Many of you reading this don't need to go visit a rare book collection. You have one. What's interesting to me is that these libraries are working very hard to make their rarities useful. At a recent symposium, Don Waters, Program Officer, Scholarly Communications, at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation argued that while library special collections may convey distinction on the institution, distinctiveness is maximized only if we ensure that the materials are used and useful.
I took Don's remarks particularly to heart because I was one of the earliest library observers (in 1996) to assert that in a world of digital surrogates, special collections were likely to become distinguishing assets for the libraries that had stewarded them and the institutions that housed them. ( Michalko)

Lobbyists Beware: Judge Rules Metadata is Public Record  (External site)

Ars Technica   •  October 29, 2009

Metadata unmasked. We've all heard of special interest groups authoring certain portions of legislation to benefit their cause, but now a document's source information, captured in metadata, has been ruled in Arizona to be just as much a part of the public record as the document itself.

This isn't about the kind of descriptive metadata that we produce in libraries, archives and museums. It's the "administrative" metadata that accompanies digital objects and is often produced by the use of the digital objects. Very interesting that the courts consider the object and all the associated metadata as an integral record. ( Michalko)

The Conversation Prism: Making Sense of Social Media  (External site)

Wikinomics   •  October 27, 2009

The rainbow conversation. Zoom in on the colorful Conversation Prism for a visually stimulating exercise in the taxonomy of social media.

This issue's essay question: "The taxonomy also marks a key milestone in the evolution of social media. A key indicator of the maturity of a discipline is the ability to create a meaningful typology." Discuss. ( Michalko)

20 Places to Watch Free Movies Online  (External site)

Open Culture   •  November 6, 2009

Bring the popcorn. Who knew there were so many free sources for classic films, documentaries, international cinema and more?

It's quite a list. I've mentioned Babelgum here before. I didn't realize that the National Film Board of Canada was online and serving up movies. They produce great documentaries. I will be checking it out. And they have an iPhone app. ( Michalko)

OCLC Programs and Research advances exploration, innovation and community building for libraries, archives, and museums.

Above the Fold is a Web-based newsletter published by OCLC Programs and Research. It has been developed to serve a broad international readership from libraries, archives and museums. News items are supplied weekly under contract by Suzanne Douglas, Ibis Communications Inc. Programs and Research items are supplied by staff in RLG Programs and OCLC Research. Please send comments and questions about this or other issues to rlg@oclc.org.
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