What Do I Do?

I put my super-amazing cloak of denial and after a short shower, I emerged as I’m Not Entirely Worthless Man. It’s been a three-day weekend. Everyone in the house but I gets to enjoy a two-hour work or school delay. I wish I could throw rotting cabbage off an overpass. Sometimes that seems to be the appropriate response to four hours of freezing snow, a near-inevitable government shutdown, and 3/4 of a family getting to sleep in an extra two hours.

So I’m on my way to work. That’s where I do the stuff for the library. For those of you who haven’t visited a library in awhile, it’s the place with lots of books. Ours has been around for over 120 years – a federal mandate to support the geological and topographical mapping of the entire United States.  Maybe you’ve heard of us: The United States Geological Survey. Our website says we have the largest earth science library in the world. This is true, I suppose, but more amazing is our collection of maps, over 400,000 of them, from physical models of Antarctica to drawings of obscure lakes in Wyoming.

I don’t work with any of those. In fact, I don’t even pretend that what I do is a traditionally librarian-based thing.  By non-library folk I get told a lot “you must get a lot of time to read”, and by library-folk, “so if you don’t do cataloging or reference desk, what do you do?” For the last 14 months I’ve been working on a special project: to create a computerized bookshelf for all the library’s “digital” stuff.  For a quick look of the beast I’m adopting, look at this site.  It’s not mine, and looks fancy and glossy and nice, but let’s just say, well…

Pretend you’re at a drivethrough window, let’s suppose Taco Bell, because you can’t go wrong with a diet of 1/4 the meat and 3x the salt. Anyway, you drive up, and the guy says “May I take your order?” and you say “I’d like 2 soft tacos and a large Mountain Dew.” The guy says “Would you like a churro with that?” and you say “Sure.” “First window please.”  And you drive to that window and wait and wait and wait and wait and… Finally you pay, they hand you your food: you chose the spicy sauce, of course, because you like to live on the edge. And you drive off, thinking “That sure was a long wait. Wonder what that was about?”  What you didn’t know is your local Taco Bell keeps all its food, cups, tortillas, sporks and everything in a seven-foot heap in the middle of the floor. Mmmmm. The delay? The Taco Bell Window Guy had to dig through the mound of stuff to find you the yummy partially-beefy goodness you desired.

That’s our current digital library. Kind of like asking your teenage son to find a pair of matching socks. You’ve seen his room before: you don’t want to know what it looks like today. What you need are socks on his feet.  What he needs is to clean his room so he can tell rotting banana skins apart from month-old gym clothes.  Some day you’re gonna snap and say “Clean your room, or no more allowance for you!”  That’s what I’m doing. I’m cleaning the digital room, so to speak.

To complicate matters, let’s say your local Taco Bell keeps all its tacos in one heap on the floor, but if you want sporks or cups or napkins, you have to call the other Taco Bell, the nicer one across town, where they also have a huge heap of paper and plastic supplies in the middle of their floor.  You send a runner over to the other Taco Bell, where you pick up the paper supplies, then zip back to your own Taco Bell to assemble a complete bag of stuff. Of course, the runner gets caught in traffic for 10 minutes on the way back. Eventually the customer gets his food, but it’s taken awhile, and is probably missing the churro you spent the extra $1.09 on.

That’s part two of my mandate. We have magazine articles (actual pictures of every page of these spiffy articles) all stored in a great heap, on a series of computers across the nation.  In order to make the experience more friendly, we also have information about these articles (Author, Title, Journal name, etc.), which we library geeks call metadata, stored on a completely different series of different computers.  I need to build a nice shelf for all this stuff, put it all in one store, and, I guess, clean up our fast food service.

Now, to complicate matters, I don’t actually do all this work, but I plan it, select the software, and mobilize a team of incredibly patient computer nerds, who do all this work.

I don’t know if that makes any sense, but that’s the best I can do to explain my current job: to make online stuff accessible for scientists, hydrologists, earthquake-ologists, and every other -ologist you can imagine.


3 thoughts on “What Do I Do?”

  1. (1) **I** didn’t get to sleep in an extra 2 hours; I had to ride to work when you left, since we only have one car. 😛
    (2) Taco Bell: that’s a great analogy. I totally get it now.
    (3) Are you worried about the gov’t shutdown for personal reasons, or just the generally depressing fact that our political leaders can’t put aside politics to get business done? If it’s personal reasons, you should know that the last time there was a shutdown (1995), there was a 6 calendar-day furlough in November, and a somewhat longer one from 12/16/95 – 1/6/96. Those folks just got a little longer winter break (21 calendar-days). 🙂 If it happens this time, which it seems like it will, I doubt it would last even that long. It’s a political game of chicken: someone has to give in sooner or later. They’re not going to let it go on too long. Both sides have to do their posturing, and they’ll both end up framing it as if their side “won”. In the words of George Carlin: “Don’t sweat the petty things, and don’t pet the sweaty things.” In this case all the politicians are both the petty things and the sweaty things.


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