permanently inked…by science!

I came across this blog of science tattoos that Carl Zimmer has started, via Popehat. Many of them are breathtakingly beautiful, like this one of the CERN bubble chambers. I don’t have a tattoo, though I’ve often toyed around with the idea. Ever since working with tidal rhythmites and lunar cycles in high school, I’ve been drawn to graphical explanations of the spring and neap tides like this one from chapter 4 of “Our Restless Tides” at (also, the word “syzygy” is way cool).  But I’ve just never quite found the right image that I would want to have permanently affixed to my skin. Still, those images have gotten me thinking about that again. Maybe I could get “QB 414” tattooed, the call number for the theory of tides.

Anyone out there with cool science, library, or science library tattoos?


Carleton’s Computer

The library has recently worked with the archives to digitize our run of the alumni magazine, currently called The Voice. I was helping to spot check the digitization, metadata, and OCR when I ran across a great article: Carleton’s Computer in the September 1963 issue (sadly not available electronically outside of Carleton).

I love everything about this article, from the fantastic picture of a family looking at a printout from the computer, described by the caption as examining it with “apparent glee” to the note that it is not large as far as computers go, only 2400 pounds, to the 3 paragraph long definition of a computer, to the discussion of how it can be used in the college outside of the math and sciences.

But the best part is the final sentence: “People are coming more and more to realize that the computer, like the library, is an integral part of the academic community.” I’m reading this article, that was scanned by a computer, then described by a librarian, that is being disseminated by computer, because of the library, that talks about how the computer is now becoming as important as the library.

Becoming a librarian

I wrote a post on my other blog (Tragic Optimist) a week ago about the path that led me to librarianship, and it occurs to me that it might fit well here, too. I’m never quite sure when it’s better to copy and paste, and when it’s better to link, but I think when it comes to reading blog posts – which I do largely in an RSS reader, I prefer when people re-post things rather than making me lift my finger and click the link – yeah, I’m lazy that way.

So here it is, in an ever so slightly revised form, the gripping story of how I learned to stop going into the field and start loving the life of a librarian (the original post is here).

When I came to Carleton as a freshman, I already knew that I wanted to be a geologist, and I just figured that I’d go on to graduate school right away, get my Ph.D, ???, profit! But as much as I loved the research that I was doing – and I did, I still love going into the field and hitting rocks with hammers – as I approached my senior year, the idea of going to graduate school and getting a Ph.D started to leave me cold.

So I started to think about what else I liked doing, and settled on informal education – I’m still not entirely sure where I came up with that phrase, but there it was. I had led a few field trips, and I had helped teach high school students about doing geologic research in my summer job, so I did know that I loved teaching, I just didn’t want to be in a classroom. Unfortunately, I didn’t really know how to get that kind of job, and it being ‘97 with the dot com bubble still inflating at a furious rate, the software companies in Minneapolis were hiring anyone who had seen snippet of computer code. So I took a software programming job, thinking maybe I’d eventually move into doing developer training at a software company.

I worked as a programmer for a short while, but it was boring. BORING. True story – I was doing a good enough job coding that they let me do some code design. I literally wrote documents spelling out the lines of code that needed to have the letter ‘D’ changed to a letter ‘P’. I found the code that needed to be changed, and wrote out what the new code was supposed to be, but because I was the “designer”, I didn’t actually make any of the changes. Some poor, newer coder had to take my documents and follow my design to make those changes. There was little joy to be found in that, though I know the work would have eventually gotten more challenging. When an opening came up on the customer support team, I jumped at the chance. This was the team that would investigate and research why code wasn’t working, and then fix it. There was actually some satisfaction to be found in fixing things and getting them to work. But I found that what I loved the most was doing the research, figuring out how the software was supposed to work and explaining it to our customers. I started to move into Knowledge Management, which sounds super cool, but is really just keeping track of information that people have and documenting it so that if that person leaves, you don’t lose their knowledge. I even got the title of Knowledge Engineer for a bit, which is certainly the loftiest title I’ve ever held. (Embarrassingly enough, I accidentally misspelled “Knowledge” on an application later on when listing my title.) I learned that the best training for knowledge management was to go to library school. Who knew?

Since there was a library science program at a local school, I enrolled and took weekend and evening classes while working. I even convinced my software company to help me pay the tuition. I thought I’d be a corporate librarian, maybe work somewhere like 3M. But within the first day or two of intro to library science, I realized that you can be a science librarian at a college or university, and it was like something clicked and I realized that this was exactly what I’d been looking for. I changed my focus and took classes specializing in reference sources and academic libraries. My luck continued, and a new science librarian position opened up at Carleton just a couple of months after I finished my MLIS. That was 4 years ago, and I’m still in love with this job.

It’s a little funny in retrospect. I keep thinking that if I went back to my high school reunion, I’d probably be voted “least surprising career”. Ann, in a library? Doing science stuff? Yeah, no surprise. My first multi-syllable word was “library”, all four years of college, I worked at the library and loved it. I even thought maybe I’d volunteer at a library after graduating, I loved it so much – it just never occurred to me that it could be a career. Only took me 6 1/2 years, and a circuitous route to figure it out.

If anyone is still reading after that long story.  I’d love to hear how you arrived at your career, especially if you work in a library-related field.

Things to think about as you approach a research project

I’ve been playing around with making a worksheet to use when I’m working with students who are just starting a research project. “Research” in this context refers to library research to find relevant articles, books, documents, etc, about a topic.

So here’s my first draft:

  1. What discipline or disciplines am I working in?

    Different disciplines have different ways of organizing and accessing their literature, knowing the discipline(s) that you’re working in will help you start in the right place. If you are working on a topic that spans disciplines, be sure to search in indexes and databases for both areas. You might also want to try a database that spans multiple disciplines.
    Tools: (Carleton link) Databases by Discipline

  2. What sources do I already have?

    Often students come to me with a topic that they found from an article or book that caught their attention. These are great tools for finding more sources as well as helping you frame the topic that you have. Take a look at the language used in any of your sources and see if you and use any terms for a search. Do your sources have a bibliography, or does it mention specific articles or books? Take a look at these as possible additional sources.

  3. What type of literature or information do I need?

    Like the question of which discipline you’re working on, this question can help guide you to the right places to search for what you need. Also think about who might collect or publish that information. If you need books, use the library catalog (at Carleton, the Bridge) or to find them. If you need data or statistics, is there an agency or organization that collects that?

  4. How and where will I search for the information I need?

    This will largely be dictated by your answers to those questions above. Will an open web search work? Will you use a disciplinary or interdisciplinary database? This is one of those areas where a librarian can be a huge help.

  5. How will I access the information that I find?

    Some databases will connect you directly to the full text of an article, some just to the bibliographic details. Carleton databases generally have a “Find It!” button which will point you to an article if the library subscribes to the journal. Will you have time to order books or articles that we don’t have through InterLibrary Loan (books generally take longer than articles to arrive)? Is the data you’re looking for freely available, or will you need to order it some way?

  6. What keywords or terms will I use to describe my topic?

    As you think about your topic, what terms best describe it? Authors often use different terms depending on the audience, so think about the audience that the information you need in intended for as you brainstorm your terms. Read through any sources you already have and pick out the terms that those authors have used. Look up those sources you have in a catalog or database and see what subject headings or descriptors are used to describe those sources.

  7. After running a few searches: What results am I getting?

    Are your searches generally turning up relevant results? Take a look at the best results and see if you can build off the terms and subject headings used for those. Does the search tool you’re using have a related items feature? They don’t always work, but they’re worth checking out.
    If you’re not getting good results, think about why the results aren’t good? Are the results too focused or narrow? Or are you getting too many results that don’t match your topic at all?
    Tip: Remember to mark or make notes of the results that are good, and the search terms that work, and the ones that don’t. No use reinventing the wheel, or trying to find that perfect article again if you go back to searching later.

  8. What refinements should I make to my search in light of those results?

    Based on the results you’re getting, you may want to add more terms to narrow the result set. Or if you’re not getting enough results, you could add more synonyms, or try searching for a broader topic. You may also try a different search tool.

  9. How will I use the results that I’ve found?

    What topics do you need to cover in your research? Do your results cover what you need?  Are you getting an appropriate range of information?

  10. What am I missing?

    This is both a question of what sources you may still need for your project, but also the question of whether you might be missing other relevant sources due to the terminology or the search tools you’re using. Do a few more searches. Maybe try a cited reference search.  Are your results recent enough?  Or only from the past couple of years?  Is that a problem?

Remember that research is not a linear process. This list is in something of an order, but it’s not meant to be taken literally as a strict procedure. It’s really a matter of trying some thing, evaluating and learning from the results, refining your strategy, trying something else, and exploring lots of possibilities. It should be a fun thing – finding new information and thinking about what that might mean for your topic and project.

Remember also that the librarians are here to help.

Search plugins

I realize that this is not new news, but I just discovered and I’ve been playing around with creating plugins for our library. I’m posting them on my local page at work until I get to the point that we’re ready to promote them on the library’s website. I’ve made a plugin to search our catalog, one to search our journals/newspapers holdings, and one to search our list of databases. That last one was done mostly for my convenience, since I maintain the databases, so I’m always needing to get to one of them quickly. I also made off-campus versions of the plugins that go through our proxy server so that people can use them off campus. I’m not sure how well I explan the difference between the regular and the off-campus versions, but that’s why they’re not on the main library website yet.

I really like the The interface for creating a plugin is clean, and they host the plugin, but if you register (free), you can take responsibility for editing plugin. They maintain a list of all the plugins that have been created there, and they have clear instructions for adding them to a website to share with others. I used this favicon generator to create the Bridge icon for searching our catalog. For the other two, I just used the search page’s existing favicon.

As an aside, “plugin” or “plug-in”?

Best Government Document Titles

A list of the best government document titles.  Some are awfully sad, “WRA: A story of human conservation,” or “Government versus homosexuals.”  But most of the titles are just plain silly, especially if you don’t know the actual contents of the document.  I’m torn as to which is my favorite.  I’m particularly fond of “Cooking up solutions: cleaning up with lasagna.”  Though “Everything you wanted to know about transporting high-level nuclear wastes” might be a useful one to look at.  But you really can’t beat the Canadian government document “Who are the Zombie masters and what do they want?”  What indeed?

The Free Government Information site seeks to raise awareness of issues around access to government information – definitely a worthy cause.

Patent Searching

Patent searching intimidates me. I don’t do enough to feel like I’ve learned the system, and there’s such a specific vocabulary and classification system, that it can be confusing. To add to the confusion, you can do searches for patents from a number of sites, both free and subscription based. However, patent applications can have a lot of useful information, including references and illustrations.

Some places to search for patents:

  • free government site: U. S. Patent and Trademark Office search for issued US patents and published applications. You can search the full-text of the patents issued from 1976 – present. For earlier patents (1790-1975), you’ll need to use the patent number or classification. You can download the full patent for any of the years, those from 1975 and prior are tiff images. Note that published applications are those that have not yet been granted – be aware that the patent application may change in scope before the patent is issued. Check out their guides page for help based on your search needs.
  • free: Google Patents allows keyword searching on all US patents (but not patent applications).  When you find a patent, Google creates an about page, giving you a quick glance at the relevant parts.  Note that it takes a few months for new patents to show up in Google’s search, there may also be some errors in the character recognition of older patents.   The search help gives a good explanation of how it works.
  • free: CAMBIA Patent Lens search for US, European and Australian patents. This site was created to increase patent transparency and provide knowledge of the patent world. Take a look at their help page for search help.
  • subscription (Carleton username/password required for access): LexisNexis click on Legal Research, and then Patents.
  • subscription (Carleton username/password required for access): SciFinder Scholar for chemical patents.  When searching, filter the document type to Patent.  There are a number of specialized searches for chemical structures.  You will need to have the SciFinder Scholar client installed on your computer.