Animal Recordings. Dotcom.

Eat my educational interactives baby! The Cornell University Lab of Ornithology project I designed won second place in Science magazine’s 2006 Visualization Challenge.

Plus, we were on the front page of Der Spiegel last week, so Germans love us!

What does this mean for you? It means you can now go online and visit the world’s largest collection of animal sounds and video. Listen to animal recordings and watch videos for free. Explore the crazy world of animal behavior.

Right now you can use Realplayer to listen to sounds, or you can download our plugin that lets you watch and manipulate spectrograms in real-time. Which has never been done before, incidentally.

So, to summarize, alligators, elk, robins, and whales, all online and free. Good? Go nuts. Version two should be out in a few months.

Bad physical interfaces: Photo evidence

Those things I was complaining about in London? I’ve got documentation. I just started uploading the ten gajillion photos we took when we were overseas. There are more to come, but here are two fun ones involving British hotels and some baaaaad interface design.

The first is our web-enabled tv that showed a 404 page not found error whenever you turned it on. Someone installed something weird and Windows-based on it, and apparently it went all wrong. Like British TV isn’t strange enough.

And then there was the hairdryer, conveniently located and unmovable from the desk drawer.

Liveblogging Fundamentos Web 2005: Part Two

One of the big questions I have about web design for accessibility is, how can I design for one audience without isolating another? Obviously, there are basic things I can do to make our web applications more accessible, by including alt tags, skiplinks, and labeling form fields. But our users have a higher level of disabilities than most due to the nature of our content (birding is of wide interest to the blind and our users are often older, and therefore more likely to have disabilities) and I want to make sure our site is as useful to as many people as possible.

The problem is, if I take steps to make the site accessible to one group, say our partially-sighted users (hi dad), by increasing the text size and contrast, I risk not serving users with cognitive disabilities who respond better to an interface in which only the important elements are emphasized using contrast and the text is not large and overwhelming. Similar arguments apply to designing for young users, who are also one of our main user groups.

The terrible reality is, some solutions can help people with certain disabilities, but exclude others. This puts organizations in a position where they must, often not consciously, choose only certain disabilities to address, such as the charismatic blind man with a dog, and ignore users with different and perhaps competing needs.

I can see why the process of creating web accessibility guidelines is so difficult. The perspectives involved are broad and often divergent. This isn’t like web standards, where you can just close your tags and call it good. Real people will be discriminated against if you screw up. The responsibility is sobering.

At the Macaulay Library, we are proud to provide spectrograms of our bird sounds that are accessible to the hearing-impaired. However, the software to view the spectrograms requires a multimedia plug-in that is annoying to blind users.

What should I do? Do I assume blind users aren’t interested in these spectrograms, and design an interface using Flash and other inaccessible technologies? What if a blind user wants to show a spectrogram, which is a valuable educational tool, to a sighted friend or their child? Even worse, it isn’t possible to even generate spectrograms without using QuickTime and Flash, so the choice has been made for me. Without even making a choice, I’ve created some happy deaf people, and some pissed off blind people. Can I provide an alternative way for the blind to use this feature? Nope. The technology prevents it. Can I provide a larger version of the spectrogram tool for users with manual mobility problems? I could, but it would hold back the entire project while I designed it and no one would be able to use it.

These are dark choices, my friends, and they are often made under pressure of time and money. I’m glad to have the opportunity this week to spend time thinking about them. Thanks to work for sending me here.

Liveblogging Fundamentos Web 2005: Part One

Leader dog imageThe conference is in a combination of English and Spanish, with simultaneous translation headsets, so there’s a strange aural halo of chatter going on in the background. I’m providing my own simultaneous translation by blowing my nose every five minutes or so. Stupid cold.

Right now John Slaton from the University of Texas Accessibility Institute is speaking. I got a chance to speak with him for a few minutes before the presentation and was glad to hear about his work. I wish more Universities would have this kind of focus on making materials available to everyone. Granted, universities are much better at this sort of thing than most institutions. There’s usually an office somewhere, often in the basement of the library, which helps students with disabilities. Still, it’s neat to hear from a school that has taken a national role in developing accessibility standards. Hook ‘em horns.

Much of what we’re hearing right now from the W3C is "real soon now" about their next set of accessibility standards. Which is understandable considering the scope of this project. It sounds like there is a good understanding of the weaknesses of the current standards, especially regarding new and different combinations of technologies. The old standard assumes you are using just HTML, which is actually fairly unusual these days for large dynamic sites. At my library, we’re using Java, JSP, Struts, and some nonessential JavaScript. All of these languages are pretty tangential to the existing guidelines. There might be a new working draft announced tomorrow. Pretty cool. These are good folks, give them a break.

Librarians in London

Hi there. We’re still in London. Chris is out of his conference and since he’s never been, and I’ve only been briefly, we’re doing major tourism. Which seems to involve extensive time spent exploring the wonders of London transportation. You do not arrive at places quickly here, in spite of the clean trains and cute two story buses. We keep making big plans and ending up spending most of the day trying to get to them.

A new better and cheaper US chain hotel (thanks hotwire!) has improved conditions considerably. Can’t say I miss the cigar-and-mold smell of the first hotel. Still, our current shower has three knobs and a button. I also took a photo of the Internet Explorer 403 Page error that appears whenever you turn on the tv, and the hairdryer which is intuitively located in (and immovable from) the center drawer of the desk.

Strange things seen:
A teenaged dancing string quartet busking in Covent Garden
Two women riding horses through the street in full English riding getup
A bobby carrying a submachine gun
A woman in full burqua walking two steps behind her husband
A jogger running through Hyde Park while smoking a cigarette

Strange things eaten:
Turkey and Stuffing crisps
Prawn saag
Brown sauce
Welsh goat cheese

New Site!

It all started at the South x Southwest conference this spring. I sat behind a fellow who had written a piece of weblog software called WordPress. The very mention of WordPress made the open-source and webstandards geeks at the conference go all gushy, so I figured it had to be pretty good software. Well. I installed it for a project at work and my heart went pitterpat. Great interface, tons of plugins, complete control over templates, open source, and a slick layout converted me.

Blogger has been good to me, but I’d like to experiment with this software. I’ll keep my old weblog up so your links will work (you will always be able to click on archives 2003-2005 in the right column to get to the ancient stuff), but this change of venue means you’ll have to update your RSS and bookmarks. I’m going to start writing about the books and media I’m consuming, in addition to the usual collection of rants, antecdotes, gloating about my cool job, and library related things.

Soon, I’m going to start writing about some of the nifty things we’re coming out with at my workplace, The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I’ve been able to watch and help build an insanely complex audio-video digital library over the last year, and I think there might be some stuff of interest to you guys from what we’ve learned in the process. We’re doing a big launch at the end of the summer, so I can show you the payoff then.

Thanks again to everyone who has posted and helped this site out along the way. Grouchy librarian kisses to all of you.

More on lousy digital library design

Thanks for all of the kind comments on the previous post. They really helped balance the freaking out I had to do when a kind well-meaning soul posted this link as an example of a REALLY GOOD children’s website.

Ok. Let’s go through this again. Slowly. This time I’m going to spell it out.

Anyone can make a website. The web is the most democratic publishing forum ever conceived. But, unfortunately, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you are the best person to do it. It is an unpleasant fact that most library websites, most digital libraries, most catalogs and electronic collections are badly designed.

And by badly designed, I mean this. Ugly. Ill-conceived. Verbose. Inaccessible. Acronym rich. Confusing. Lofty. Unnecessarily complex. Deprecated. Self-absorbed. Low-quality. Pointless. Patronizing.

Are you still with me? Remember, I’m being a bitch so that you don’t have to.

There is a tendency in the library community to blow sunshine up each other’s asses, as though our intent to do good were enough. As though our good works shouldn’t be held to the same standards as commercial products because we are Nice. People don’t seem to criticize each other’s work in this profession. Which makes for a perfectly lovely working environment where you can find yourself producing piles of junk because all you have heard is happytalk from supportive colleagues. And that’s not Nice. Nope. Not at all. That’s painful and embarrassing and rather cruel.

You would tell a friend if she had toilet paper on her shoe, right? Gentle criticism (not my specialty, obviously) has a place in any relationship, especially when the stakes are high. When your TP-shoed friend is about to go up on stage in front of a bunch of elementary school kids, they probably aren’t going to listen to her charming and educational speech. They are going to see the toilet paper and turn into a pack of hyenas.

And it’s a shame, because the Internet Children’s Digital Library (and the gajillion sites like it with smaller budgets) have the potential to become popular resources if they will only make the connection between quality of content and quality of interface. Like so many digital collections, they have great ideas, like sorting books by color, but they don’t have the skill or the perspective to realize these ideas. And they don’t have the humility to hire someone who does. So up they go in front of the auditorium with a big wad of TP dragging behind them.

Designing for hyper-attentive cyborg children

cy childI got this in my email today:

What children can teach us: Lessons learned from the trenches of digital libraries“…developing digital libraries that support young people in querying, browsing, and reading scanned materials.”

It all sounds very impressive until you click the link. Look at that thing! It’s like getting stabbed in the eyeballs with suck! How can these people sleep at night?

This is a perfectly good children’s resource that is absolutely hidden from children. What is the focal point of the page? The word “Advanced” forgodsake. Why are there four search options? Do they actually think children care enough to distinguish between different search criteria? Who are these children? Can I have one?

I can’t even begin to list the mistakes they are making in this interface. Where is the content? I see three books. Why is there so much text? I don’t want to read that badly-formatted crap, and I’m a grown-up. Why is 98% of the navigation dedicated to links that are of absolutely no interest to children? Executive Summary? Yeah, my kid’s gonna click on that one. Why didn’t they hire a professional web designer? They make a huge deal about how kids “designed” the site, but they didn’t bother to honor those kids’ contributions by hiring a decent web developer. They’ve got more than 5 million dollars, they can afford it. In the time it took to write their complete curatorial policy (conveniently linked on the FRONT PAGE) they could have at least changed the default link color.

Once you actually find the content (just click “Simple Search” and chase the badly-written JavaScript pop-up around the screen until it works! It’s obvious! Cyborg children love to search!) the interface settles down a bit. The links related to the grant go away, and the library experiments with some innovative ways to find books, by color, length, etc. Good stuff. Except except except the graphics are so shitty and the labels are so poorly thought-out (“Real Animal Characters” rather than “Animals”, “Imaginary Animal Characters” rather than “Pretend Animals”) that it just all falls apart.

This site was designed for librarians, not for children.

another oneHumor me and compare it to (a favorite among the kids we researched in grad school). The big difference between the two is, on this site you can click absolutely anywhere and find something satisfying. You don’t even need to click. Information is conveyed by rollover sounds and animations. I’ve personally witnessed kids fight with each other over headphones in order to hear these sounds.

Look, I know I’m being an ass, and this is a great resource and these are good people and I’m going to get hate mail, but somebody has to say it.

It’s not enough that we are lovely librarians who care sooooo much about children. It’s not enough that we put all of this great content up on the interweb. It’s not enough that we are overworked researchers who will have to write tedious papers about the project to justify our tenure.

We need to run everything we do through a filter that asks: “If I click on this without a Master’s degree in Library Science, will it piss me off?” We need to acknowledge that design matters. We need to remove ourselves from our collections. We need to design websites that don’t mock the resources they contain. We need to do these things because otherwise all of our efforts are worthless. We need to design websites that don’t suck, because otherwise the kids that we care so much about are going to wander off and smoke crack. And it’s going to be our fault.

Moving, changing, constant rearranging

It’s official now, and I can finally talk about it here. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, yes, yes, yes, I’m buying a house. Well, it’s a theoretical house at this point, just a glimmer in the mortgage-lender’s eye, but someday soon, around the end of June hopefully, I will be an actual homeowner. It’s a big deal, but I think I’m handling it well. I’ve limited my panic attacks to one a day, and am reading this very helpful book called The 106 common mistakes homebuyers make, which is totally helping my anxiety.

decorative giraffes

Oh, and I’m changing jobs.

Starting February 23, I’ll be a web developer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Yup. Leaving librarianship for I.T. Not a huge surprise to those who know me, but possibly controversial considering I run a website called Librarian Avengers. The good news is, I’ll still be working in a library. The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds holds the largest collection of bird recordings in the world. As their web developer, I get to create an interface for the stadium-sized database holding their digitized collection. It’s a big fat moose of a challenge, and I’m looking forward to getting started. Among other things, it means that this weblog is getting archived along with the one I wrote in grad school, and will be replaced with something new and appropriate.

I was kind of nervous about announcing this job change here, because I didn’t want to deal with any “say it ain’t so, Joe” emails in my spam-riddled inbox from hardcore librarians who think I’ve betrayed the profession by jumping ship for a mostly interface design position. To you, I say: Buck up. There are still plenty of good, stylish librarians out there. I may not be a librarian in real life, but I’ll continue to play one on the web. And, hey, there’s more than one way to serve an information need, buddy.