Custom Zen: Enlightened Information Retrieval

By Teresa Koltzenburg | Last week, you may have read about some new collaborative efforts (check out the District Dispatch's second podcast, intro music and all!) and Web 2.0 tech tools launched by some creative ALA staffers and the ALA Library. One of them is the Librarian's E-Library, "selected resources on Libraries and Librarianship from the American Library Association (ALA) Library and a growing list of volunteers."

Librarians E-Library Karen Muller, ALA Librarian and Knowledge Management Specialist, used the Google Co-op Custom Search Engine (CSE) to build the tool and explains the goal of its use is "to be able to focus searches of web-based materials...," adding that, "Although many of the sites [included], particularly the association sites, have 'business information,' they are rich resources for articles on the range of library activities—collection management, security issues, preservation, reader services, service to special populations, management, statistics, etc. At least at the outset, all the sites are live, active sites that are information rich."

According to Karen, Stephen Abram's recent post on new directories for Google CSEs piqued her interest, noting "the possibility of setting up a means of retrieving more focused results on an exploratory web search appealed." With a little grease from Google's tool, Karen "explored the possibilities of creating a CSE for library resources ... and did it."

Exploring in a more focused way, retrieving more focused results, finding just what you (or your patrons) are looking for = fuzziness feelings for information professionals. Although it's sometimes hard to keep up with all the search tools available, inside and outside of libraries, at least they come in the form of fluffy Clusty Clouds, conjure visions of educational iconography of yore (I'm talking about LibWorm here), and are wonderfully Web 2.0 and literally L2 Friendly.

Library Zen Logo Creator of LISZEN—the fairly new SE on the block—Garrett Hungerford used the Google Co-op tool for his CSE, which searches library blogs. Garrett also authors the accompanying blog, Library Zen; maintains the wiki (that, among other things, lists all the blogs being searched in the LISZEN search engine); and somehow manages to keep up his studies in library school at Wayne State University in Detroit and work at West Branch (Michigan) Public Library, where he has worked for the last decade.

Garrett took a bit of time out his busy schedule last week to tell me about his vision for LISZEN, Library Zen, and the newest addition to his project: LISZEN Trends.

TK: Tell me a little bit about your background. I know you work in a library and you're an LIS student.

GH: Yes. I actually started at the West Branch Public Library about ten years ago, so I've been there for a while. I started out as a page, and I worked way my way up to—once I graduated—to network management. I went to Saginaw Valley State University, where I earned my business degree. I had originally gone there for computer information systems, but I decided against that—after I found out that I didn't really enjoy programming all the time. It's more of a hobby. I didn't want to kill it.

This is my first semester at Wayne State, where I've been taking all Web-centric [online] courses, so I could be up at West Branch. It's about three hours north of Detroit, so it's a little bit of a commute for the days I have to go to class.

TK: Tell me about your project: the LISZEN search engine, the Library Zen blog, and wiki. What about the blog?

GH: I created it not even three months ago, so it's a relatively new blog. I had a former site, “Shift Left,” which documented things I learned while I was an undergrad. I wanted to start something fresh, that was more library related, and I wanted to be able to share the things I learned in grad school and suggestions along the way.

So I started designing it in June, and I launched it on the 17th of September. It's taken off more than I imagined, but I think that's due to LISZEN. The blog allows me to share ideas and get feedback. The wiki provides information about the blog and about LISZEN. Mostly, it's used to quickly update the site with the sites that are available or searched, so a lot of people can submit their own blogs; they can see if they're included in a search. And you can easily run a search—type in your name and find if you are, but it's kind of a convenient list for myself and, I think, others.

TK: A lot of bloggers seem to use Technorati, so why did you create another blog search engine?

GH: Well, there are two things to that: one is that Technorati works through feeds—that's how it gets its information. And LISZEN gets its information from actually searching the page. The other thing is it's a niche just for the library community, whereas Technorati is the whole blogosphere. It really cuts down on the amount of information you need to sift through to find.

TK: What value do you think a library blog search engine has, for librarians—which might be kind of obvious—but also for libraries in general and further on out, for users of libraries?

GH: For librarians, it definitely has the most value. They can use it to quickly search for relevant information. But I think it doesn't really directly affect the library users, except for the fact that librarians can use what they find to be better educated about a certain topic. It provides that service for librarians.

I didn't create this for people that are going to walk into a library and try to find a book. But you may be able to find out about what certain libraries are saying about a book. It's much more focused on librarians than anyone else.

TK: Are there any criteria that you specify for library blogs to be included?

GH: The only real requirement is that the blog has to be related to the library field. I have been going through all the submissions personally, so if it's a blog that's ten percent library related and ninety percent about a vacation to Tahiti then it's not something I add. Mostly, the majority of the blogs right now are individual's blogs, but I'm planning on adding academic, special library, those types of blogs in the future.

Really, it comes down to anything that has useful information about libraries, and I really like to get librarians' ideas. I think something ironic in our field is that we're all about information science, but sometimes it seems like we don't like to share ideas. It just seems like we're all fearful that it's going to get rejected. There a lot of anonymous bloggers out there, which I think is a good thing to have. There is also a lot of great constructive criticism.

When I first launched LISZEN, I started out doing the Purple Library mini series [a "mini-blog series" inspired by Seth Godin's book The Big Moo: Stop Trying to Be Perfect and Start Being Remarkable]. I kind of used Godin's book and applied it to libraries in some ways. I just got some great comments back and it made me want to share information, so I think this kind of trend of getting libraries to start blogs is a good thing, because it allows them to share ideas, but then I think they'll get some reactions, and I think that will open them up. It has for myself; I think I'm a little more open about how I talk about libraries than I used to be a few months ago.

TK: So how does this all work?

GH: The search engine is powered by Google Co-op, which the custom search engine that is a modified Google Web search engine within your Web site. LISZEN is just an HTML page with not a lot of code, actually. But WordPress is what runs the Library Zen blog.

TK: Why WordPress?

GH: Well, I looked at number of different platforms to use for LISZEN during the planning stage. I looked at Drupal, Typepad, and Blogger. I used Blogger for a long time before, but WordPress really gives you the ability to customize a lot more, and I really, strongly support the open-source community, which WordPress is part of. It just seems like the members of that community are very passionate about what they do. It's been a great tool so far. It's updated all the time.

TK: You said you started in June and launched in September—how much work was it to do all this and then make it all talk to each other and work together?

GH: Well, it wasn't the whole summer. Even though I started when I said I did. In July, I'm actually responsible for the Teen and Children Summer Reading program at the West Branch Library, so the whole month of July was out. The logo was a competition. For the logo I really wanted something that was kind of “library 2.0,” if I dare use the expression.

TK: You can dare here.

GH: You've seen the classic library logo, where it's just the blue guy reading? So I wanted something that was a bit more for the 2006 rendition of him. The logo was only part of actually getting things running. The template didn't take too long. I'd say it maybe took twenty days of really working—I could have condensed it to twenty days if I wanted. And LISZEN wasn't actually even up when I launched Library Zen. I originally was going to have LISZEN be the podcast version of Library Zen, hence the name "LISZEN." But once Google came out with Google Co-op and allowed for customized search engine development, I thought, "Wow. I could really use this domain name for a great tool that Google has put out."

TK: Do you have plans to do podcasts?

GH: I kind of decided against it, but I haven't ruled it out. It's something, if I wasn't in grad school, I would look at more seriously.

TK: What are your goals/plans for this project? You're getting some high-level recognition from CNN and School Library Journal

GH: My mom was much more excited about the CNN mention. I was excited about it being in School Library Journal!

For goals, one of the things I wanted to launch is LISZEN Trends, which kind of supplements where LISZEN lacks. [LISZEN Trends is in beta and viewable now.] Because LISZEN is kind of the archival, "find old information" tool—I mean, it's usually about two days behind. For instance, I did a test with The Shifted Librarian blog; I saw something that she posted, and I did a search for it to see if it came up, and it didn't because it was only a day old. But then there was another post that was right under that, which was included in that search. So I want to try and create something that has more current information that librarians can use to post and share quickly and in real time.

And I really like to get back to some of the Purple Library stuff that I had done earlier. I'm a big fan of Seth Godin. I really like his quick ways to look at things, and my writing about libraries was kind of inspired by that.

And then, way down the road—since we have the archival tool and the social tool with LISZEN Trends—I'd also like work on a platform… One of the things I discovered during my first semester at Wayne State is there are a lot of students who are required to write a quick little blog, on which, usually, originally has a lot of good information—people finding sources and putting together their ideas. But those don't really get searched and found, and don't really get kept up, but those blogs still have those good ideas. So one of the things I'd like to do is create a platform that professors, instead of saying, “Go to Blogger” or another platform for blogs, they could tell students to go to a LISZEN-supported site, where students could put up a little, quick blog, and it would immediately be searched by LISZEN. It would help me by not having to add sites all the time, and I think, also, harnessing the idea so students can use it. That's down the road

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