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.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Adding print holdings to the SFX menu

This is most likely going to be of interest to those librarians part of the OCUL consortium, but I thought you should know that Art Rhyno has written up a description how to Add Print Holdings & ILL Links to the SFX Menu in SPOT-DOCS.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Canadian Academic Library webpages

I captured and collected these screenshots of a subset of Canadian university library websites because I had the feeling that there were archetypes of such sites. I've tagged some elements that I thought were interesting and you are welcome to tag and make notes yourself.

In some cases I was interested in language (catalogue vs books, for example) so added tags of the exact wording used and in other cases, I added a more general tag (e.g. site map) if a particular element was present. I'm going to continue to work on the tagging and the markup in the next few days as I haven't finished all the libraries yet.

I also included a set the top 10 websites in Canada according to Alexa because it's important to remember that while librarians may take their cues from other library sites, our students do not.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

One profession, one book

The recent AskMetafilter question, What single book is the best introduction to your field? [waxy] should be required reading for the reference and collection librarians among us (hint: the LibX toolbar makes the title lookups not so painful)

I wonder if there is anyway to add these directly into a library catalogue's relevancy engine?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Check it out

Threadless T-Shirts - November Was A Good Month by Mike Sayre

Access 2007 Wrap Up - The Context of Objects

I can't remember whether it was Martin Holmes or Chris Petter but one of the speakers of the presentation, "Image markup and Web applications" at Access 2007 made a statement that resonated with me: "Archivists care as much about context as they do about content." For example, a photograph of a soldier is an object and the scrapbook that contains it provides a context. A scrapbook of a major is an object and other pieces of other veteran's collections provides a context. And so on.

Ray Siemens spoke about creating an "Professional Reading Environment" with tools that allow scholars to annotate, link and otherwise provide context to a collection of digital objects. Such work currently requires considerable efforts and Shawn Martin in the David Binkley Memorial Lecture, wondered out loud whether such specialized, single topic, grant-funded projects are sustainable in the long term.

One alternative model to these separated digital projects is UPEI's Virtual Research Environment as introduced by Mark Leggott. Using a common environment created with Drupal and Fedora, the VRE hosts a number of different research communities where scholars share data, use tools for analysis, and of particular note, can seamlessly upload their material into a institutional repository. (reminder to self: suggest an Access Conference digital repository for next year's hackfest)

I was thinking about the context of digital objects and collections while I was listening to John Durno and Martha Whitehead debate the importance of place in the definition of the library. One point that I think was missed by both speakers was this: what makes a library different from a collection of objects, digital or otherwise, is that a library is a *commitment* to a collection. My personal collection of books is not a library unless I make efforts that it will exist over generations. More than being a collection of objects or contexts, a library is essentially a promise to the future and librarians are a profession of eternal hope.