Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thing 5: Collaboration

xkcd cartoon: "Far Away"

We're getting to the time of the academic year where collaboration - and asking questions - is getting to be more and more relevant. So today's Thing is about collaborating online (and also some times when it might not be the greatest solution)



There's a couple of different things going on here. One is that sometimes we want to be able to access a document from multiple places easily. (Google Drive, which will be the focus of an upcoming Thing, is a great tool here). Sometimes we want to be able to write a document but share it easily with other people - for example a handout or presentation notes. And sometimes we want to work with other people on something, whether that's a paper, a presentation, or a project.

And at other times, we may just have a quick question for someone (a professor, someone else in our class, a librarian, a friend.) 

Fortunately, the Internet can help!



If you use UMF's email (or Gmail on your own), you've got a way to collaborate built in. Several of them, in fact. The most basic is Instant Messaging, where you can have a text conversation with one or more people, and sort things out. You can also share documents through Google Drive (and you can have a chat on the document's page with other collaborators.)

I use IM all the time at home to collaborate on a project that involves a dozen people across four time zones - we use both IM and email for quick questions and also for more social conversations.

If you're not familiar with instant messaging, here's a few tips: 
  • Set yourself to "Available" and then find the person you'd like to chat to - some help from Google can get you started. You can also get help on group chats.
  • People can set their own availability (or status notes).
  • If you're focused on a particular conversation (like working on a specific assignment), it's polite to let people know if you need to step away for a minute or two.
  • If it's a casual conversation with friends, things are usually less formal (people may drift away, wander to the kitchen to make dinner, whatever.)
  • There are chat apps for smart phones, and many people use shorthand or brief responses, but you don't need to. Like conversations, chats will find their own flow.
  • You'll sometimes see people indicating emotions with emoticons, emoji, or by indicating an action like *hug* or :hug:
  • You can also format text - if you put *asterisks* around something Google Chat, it will make that word or words bold. If you do _this_, it'll put it in italics, and if you do -this- it'll strike it through.
Did you know the library has a chat feature? 
During a number of hours each day, you can reach one of the librarians on duty through the chat widget on our homepage. When the little yellow light bulb is lit, there's someone on the other end ready to help you with your library questions.

We can help point you to a resource, give you more information about library tools and options, and answer a lot of questions without you ever leaving your home.

Collaborative documents:
Google Drive also gives you access to shared documents. We'll come back to other features of Google Drive in the near future, but you can create a document, share it with other people, and all make changes at once. (Each person will have a different color icon.) You can see exactly what people changed.

Google has more help on collaborating on documents, of course. Besides editing, you can leave comments, or you can share a document without giving people editing permission. It is an incredible tool for working with other people.

Video chat
If you like actually seeing who you're talking to (and have access to a computer with a webcam, microphone, enough network speed, and enough quiet) you can also do video chats. Google Hangouts are one option, but so are tools like Skype. Video chats are just what they sound like: a chance to see and hear the person (or people) you're talking to.

Which is best?

Honestly, there isn't one best. It can be very hard to get tone of voice by chat or email (jokes and especially sarcasm or irony can come across very oddly). On the other hand, a chat or email chain gives you a written reminder of what was said, which can be very useful in some projects.

Some people also have different preferences: I do a lot of my conversations in email, some in IM, and very very few by video or phone for personal projects (because I'm often watching something on Netflix, knitting, cooking, or otherwise multitasking, and they don't mix as well with video/phone.) I know people who are the total opposite, though - they have video chat on all the time. 

Of course, there are also some times when face to face works best. The usual advice is to have face to face conversations for things where there's a lot of emotion involved (if you're upset about something, or frustrated, or need to figure out a better way to work, that's a good time.) And like the comic says above, sometimes *hug* just isn't enough.

Things to try:

  1. Try a method of communication you haven't tried before - or haven't used recently. You don't need to use it for a big project, you can check in with a friend.
  2. Try creating a document and sharing it with someone else (give them editing rights.) Maybe swap interesting recipes for the holidays. 
  3. Talk to the people you collaborate or work with regularly to find out their preferred communication method. (If you have an online contact book, you can use the notes field to remind you.)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

14 Things: Links for November 7th, 2013

I was having lunch in the snack bar yesterday when I saw the table signs talking about seasonal affective disorder, and that made me think of a couple of things worth sharing here.

1) Did you know the library has a sun lamp? 
 It lives in the Browsing Room, just opposite to Access Services on the first floor, and there's a binder with instructions in it. (Please do read the information before using.)

2) Do you find working in front of a computer at night keeps you awake? 
There's actually a reason for that - computers generally use a cooler light that's like daylight during the day, but that helps keep us awake at night.

There's a free application (for Windows, Mac, and Linux) that automatically adjusts the quality of light at night so that it's less disruptive to our bodies, making it warmer in color when the sun goes down. The app's called f.lux, and you can download it and get more information about the research behind it on their website.

3) One useful tool: 
A week or two ago, I was helping someone with scanning text, and for various reasons went looking for some OCR (Optical Character Recognition) resources - basically, that's the term for "takes the text in the image and makes it into text you can edit again".

Now, GoogleDrive will do its best to OCR the text if you upload a scanned image of text, and so do some tools like Evernote that we're going to be discussing in one of the upcoming Things, but sometimes you need something focused on that one task. If you do, here is a great round-up.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Thing 4: Wikipedia comic: "Misconceptions"
Wikipedia is an incredibly complicated topic. Some teachers forbid anyone to use it at all in their research. Other people (quite accurately) talk about some of the issues in Wikipedia culture and current process that are making it less useful than it could be. (And while I've picked an xkcd comic here that highlights what Wikipedia can be great for, there are others that highlight some of the issues, including this one about the danger of the citation ecosystem and this one about the dangers of trusting apparent citations.)

However, there are times when I find it an incredibly useful starting place (never my only source for research), and today Thing 4 is going to give you a quick overview, talk about some ways to use Wikipedia, and then give some screenshots to show you parts of the site you might not have clicked on.

A quick overview: 

What's a wiki? Wiki is a term for a particular kind of online tool that allows people to collaborate on information. It uses some specific markup language to create links to other pages on the wiki and to other sources, and you can also format information in different ways. Pages can be grouped together by categories, and there are also ways to make tables, include images or other documents, and search for a specific topic or term.

Some wikis are huge (Wikipedia has over four million pages in English), but many people use wiki software for smaller projects like coordinating within a department, documenting how things work, or keeping track of different kinds of information.

First tip: Many of the possible issues with the information in Wikipedia are an issue in other kinds of sources too - they're just less obvious. Just like there are great books out there and lousy books, or excellent peer-reviewed articles and quick fluff news pieces, you need to evaluate the actual content before you use it in your research.

What's Wikipedia? Wikipedia has been running since 2001. It is a volunteer project with over 77,000 active contributors. Like any really huge project (that's about 10 times the population of Farmington!) it has rules and policies to help things run smoothly. You can learn more about that on the About page for the English Wikipedia.

Of course, with that many people working, there are sometimes differences of opinion, and sometimes a rule or policy gets put into place that works really well for some topics but not for others. Plus, because it's done by volunteers, some entries have really amazing information, and others have almost nothing. Some topics also lend themselves to having a verifiable reliable source than others, too.

Second tip: You don't need to understand all the specific policies and guidelines to use Wikipedia as a resource, but it's good to remember there are some, and that they may lead to decisions that don't make much sense to the casual reader or user.


How can it support research? 

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia - and you should never use an encyclopedia as your only source for academic research. However, you can use it to get a better sense of a topic and help your research process. I use Wikipedia all the time to:
  • Get context for a historical event (when and where it occurred, who the major figures are.) 
  • Find the terms used within a specific field for a particular topic, so I can do better searches in other research tools. (As a reference librarian, I often get asked about subjects where I don't know the jargon of the field well.)
  • Look at the references for an article to find relevant primary and secondary sources on the topic so I can read them and make my own decisions about what they say.
  • Learn more about an area or region (population, major features, more than just where it is.)
  • Check the spelling of a name. 
  • Figure out what the next book in a series is. 
  • And of course, to find out about random topics that come up in conversation. 
I also find some tools, like the "On this day" and "In the news" sections featured on Wikipedia's front page to be a good way to brush up on current topics of interest or historical trivia. 


    Let's take a tour: 

    November 7th happens to be the anniversary of the day that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were probably killed in Bolivia in 1905, and the entry allows me to show off many of the interesting tools of Wikipedia. There'll be lots of images in this part, so click on the 'more' to get the images. If you're already familiar with the basics of Wikipedia, you can skip down to the Interesting Tools for the parts many people don't know about