Friday, October 19, 2007

Access 2007 Wrap Up Part Two - The Importance of Being Open

(This is the second of what I hope will be three wrap-up posts on Access 2007. Rather than a chronological recount of the days' events, I've chosen to highlight three themes and threads that I picked up. The first one is here.)

The Importance of Being Open

Jessymn West began Access 2007 with a talk that reminded the audience of the rural population that libraries serve and some of the challenges one faces in order to serve them with proper technology. As an aside, she said that a state-wide union catalogue would go a long way to ease some of these challenges.

We learned the next day that the province of British Columbia is pursuing such a project. Ben Hyman spoke of the history and the goals of the project. It was decided that the best means to provide a common interface for all the public library branches of BC would be to first provide a common back-end. And so they have decided to use Evergreen, an open-source library catalogue. They made the same conclusion as the panel of Associate University Librarians did in their panel, ILS Options for Academic Libraries: choosing open-source software is no more risky than investing in a commercial software solution. As if on cue, Laurentian University announced at Access that they would making the shift to Evergreen.

Recognizing that only strengths of library catalogue technology are the 'backend' or inventory functions, many librarians are creating their own front-end interfaces to go over top of the library catalogue. If this interface can handle non-book materials like articles, this interface is frequently referred to as a 'discovery layer', perhaps incorrectly as it is still providing a 'search' function. There are still no usability studies that demonstrate these new layers provide any significant improvement to the user experience.

One reason why development in this area is slow is because many commercial library catalogues are difficult to 'skin' in the first place (in computer parlance, this means adding a layer as opposed to removing a layer) and one of the Access "Thundertalks" was dedicated to the extensive workarounds performed in order augment the interface of the library catalogue. The inability to freely access and remix one's own data hosted in commercial software is clearly frustrating to many librarians.

Joshua Ferraro of Liblime, a company that provides service and support of open source software, believes that much of the friction that occurs between librarians and vendors is a result of a larger problem: that software is largely a service industry operating under the persistent but unfounded delusion that it is a manufacturing industry. He suggests that a closer partnership between commercial vendors and libraries based on open tools, standards, and data could improve this relationship and, presumedly, improve the library experiences of our users. I believe that Biblicommons is an example of this next generation enterprise.

Beth Jefferson of Bibliocommons spoke at Access and at its pre-conference and shared some of her research dedicated to improving the improving library catalogues in the public library sphere. Bibliocommons has developed an interface with partners in the public library community, that integrates with a library's existing catalogue software. One way that Bibliocommons is different from the other library catalogue interfaces and 'discovery layers' that I have seen, is that it has made the effort to integrate the tagging and ranking of items at the user account screen (books out, when books are due, books on hold, etc.) since it is at this point when the reader is 'ready' to share what they felt about what they've read.

There are several implications to how they've done this but I just want to highlight one: library catalogue interfaces will have be able to seamlessly communicate with the information at the back-end (such as circulation data and patron information) and this means that library catalogue must have open data channels. The longer the commercial vendors resist opening up access to what is *our* data, the longer the opportunity for open-source library catalogues like Evergreen will have to make into the library marketplace.

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