Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Surfing the web at work

The invention of internet and its use in the workplace has been, for the most part, both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it is a wonderful tool of research and for connecting with various sources and professional colleagues. A curse, at least from management's perspective, because it can become a great distraction, taking valuable time away from the drudgery of work, first email, now youtube, facebook and so on.

I recall when I first began accessing the internet in the early 1990s, with my Mac SE, my 2400 baud dialup modem and "gopher" as my way of navigating the net. This was in the unix based, pre GUI (graphic user interface) era, like the stone age compared to now, where everything was in text format only (hence not that slow even with a 2400 baud modem). Other than finding various sources of information, mainly library or government based, the main features were email and discussion forums either as listservs or on usenet. Yet it could still be quite fascinating and time consuming to discover all that was out there in exploring the internet.

Of course the internet has expanded greatly since that time. Many more people have access to the internet, and now it is possible for virtually everyone to themselves become sources of information through creating their own websites or blogs, such as this one. We can watch television shows, movies or short videos on the net (perhaps eventually leading to the demise of cable television), make phone calls, listen to most radio stations, lectures and various talks, archived music or concerts. We can get instant machine translations, download books onto our portable ebook readers, order from most companies, or put our own company on the web. The list goes on forever of the many conveniences provided by the advancement of internet technology over the last two decades.

As catalogers we spend most of our time before the computer monitor, using an electronic database, OCLC, to find records of books we have received which need cataloging -- if found, we then send those records on into our own electronic library database, with necessary modifications; if not found, we create a record in OCLC for the item, which is then made available to other OCLC users.

When I first began cataloging, OCLC and RLIN were the two main databases. Most catalogers used OCLC, but at that time we could also use RLIN. I found RLIN often had records for Vietnamese books which were not in OCLC, because libraries such as the University of Michigan were creating their records there, but not in OCLC. All this changed with the merger of RLIN into OCLC a few years ago.

However, while OCLC is now the only cataloging database used, one can still find more complete information about a particular record by using the web. I often go to the web to check the records of other libraries listed in the OCLC record of holding a particular item to see if they might have a more complete record than what is posted in OCLC. In the older versions of OCLC, I would check holdings and then go to the websites of the libraries listed. With OCLC Connexion, I just go to Tools then click on Find libraries. From there I see the libraries listed and by clicking on the respective library am usually taken directly to the record, or I am just taken to the library website and then type in the title. I often find more complete records this way than what is in OCLC, in particular subject headings and call numbers. If the records seem good I will then copy and paste the call number, subject headings or other additional features into the OCLC record before sending it on into our library database.

I also occasionally use machine translation programs, such as Alta Vista Babefish, to get a clearer idea as to what the item I have is about. Of course these are very primitive translations, but helpful for getting the general gist of the book. Another place I sometimes go is to the website of the book publisher where often brief blurbs on the book along with other basic publishing information are posted. I sometimes will type the title or author of the book into Google and find information that way, even in some cases blogs written by the authors of the books I am cataloging.

Those are a few practical ways to use the internet in cataloging. What about the diversionary aspect? I won't go into how one can get sidetracked by email, for example. A good manager would recognize that some of this just has to be accepted as email is -- at least here -- a way for workers to communicate with each other. But I also like to listen to music, the radio or even videos while working. Of course, if it is a video I can't be watching it, but I can listen as long as I don't get too distracted. Sometimes I will listen to Don Rickles on Youtube, KPIG radio, Fresh Air on NPR, webcast class lectures from UC Berkeley, music from Pandora. I have become accustomed to listening on the headphones at work. I know for some people this would be too distracting, for me, it helps make the time spent at work a little bit more enjoyable. I have to be careful, of course, not to let myself get so involved in listening that I take my mind off the work at hand. That is why I prefer music, comedy or light interviews to anything more heavy as listening material.