behind the curtain

As you will remember if you’ve seen the movie (or read the book!), the Wizard of Oz is not the great and terrible voice that overwhelms the supplicants who come to the Emerald City. He’s actually just an ordinary man manipulating things behind a curtain.

In the past couple of weeks, I have been doing several things that have gotten me thinking about that curtain and what is behind it. I did a teleconference for the Education Institute in Canada that was basically an expansion of my Internet Librarian presentation on our website, and I did a webinar for Get on the Bus: Join the Online Social Library Community, which is Wyoming’s 5 weeks/learning 2.0/23 things program. There are few experiences eerier than sitting in front of your computer and talking over the telephone to people in other places whom you can’t see. You don’t have any of the normal cues you get from an audience, and you have no way to tell whether they’re following you at all or falling asleep or even there. You are doing education all wrong — with the exception of a question and answer period at the end, there is no interactivity. And yet I think we will see more education done this way, not less, and so it behooves us to figure out how to make it as good as possible.

But I also recently did an in-person training on EBSCO databases for a group of regional librarians. I called it EBSCO Behind the Curtain in part because I was thinking about the machinations of the database and in part because it gave me a good excuse to use an image that has ascended into the public domain. (You can see the results on the handout [.doc].) One of the biggest difficulties libraries face, I think, is that so much of our content isn’t visible. We have about 25,000 volumes here in my little library. You can wander the stacks and pick things up and flip through them, you can look at covers and tables of contents and indexes. You can get a sense of what is there. But for all the information contained in those 25,000 volumes, there is even more stuff that you can’t see — specifically, the contents of all our databases. So this time, I thought I’d start by asking the question I ask fifth graders when I go teach them about doing research: How does stuff get on the internet? Who puts it there? You have to know what there is to find before you can go about finding it.

So we talked about what there is in different places. What’s on the internet? What’s in the catalog? What’s in these mysterious databases? And, perhaps even more importantly, how does the tool that we use to find the stuff work? Many people have a dim idea of how Google works (looks for keywords, checks for popularity), but very few people I’ve asked can tell me what order the results are in when you search the catalog, and even fewer have any idea of how complex databases work. So we talked a bit about indexing and finding and item types and why different databases work differently. And I’m not really sure how enlightening it was, but it has gotten me thinking about how as technology trainers and librarians we can get behind that curtain and how we can show the machinations that take place behind it to the world.

I suppose a lot of the world doesn’t really care about those machinations and doesn’t want to — but they should. And we should encourage them to learn. As more and more of our data leaves the open stacks and hides behind the curtain of the internet, it is incumbent upon us to know what’s back there, and to know how best to work the system (the systems, really) to get it out.