Thursday, November 26, 2009

How to represent The Reference Collection - Part Two

I've been playing around with a particular idea for some time now that a university course is, at its core, a reading list with some texts selected by the instructor and some selected by the student (through the exercise of writing an essay). Following this and some other thoughts I had about e-reference materials, I wondered if the library's subject page and/or subject guide page could be managed by bibliographic software, such as Zotero.

There are some glaring problems with this scenario, one being that an index - the primary resource that libraries offer their users - cannot be readily represented and understood as an OpenURL. Unless I am not aware of a workaround, I don't believe there is a way to create a link to my verison of the MLA that can be useful to someone else who may have access to another version of it elsewhere. This is important to this particular mental exercise, because my ultimate goal was to envision a scenario in which an academic library's web pages could effectively be re-used by someone at another institution, albeit with different access rights to the content. (addendum: actually my dream scenario is that a user could add an index to their own personal library in Zotero or whathaveyou) I know - its a crazy goal that's hardly realized with article citations at this point.

So while this train of thought goes off the rails at this point, it did bring me to some further realization.

The software that many libraries use to manage their 'e-resources' can be conceivably be re-purposed. If a librarian hand-selects from a list of indexes, reference sources, and (e)books we tend to call it a subject or research guide. If a professor or librarian creates one for a particular course, its called a 'course page'. And if any library user can create such a page for themselves, its called a "my.library page."

The University of Toronto Libraries is ahead of the curve with cloud computing, which means files and programs live on the Web rather than on our hard drives. Their tool, my.library, provides students, faculty, and staff with personal Web space so they can collect e-journals, citations, Web sites, and other online resources. Users can customize the interface appearance; create folders, headings, and notes; store their search preferences; and receive weekly alerts from publications in their field. The University of Toronto Libraries are also encouraging faculty to use this tool as a way to create online research guides. I imagine the next 2.1 step would be to tap into the “research community” potential, enabling more shared and collaborative features.
  1. Brian S. Mathews, “Looking for What's Next: Is It Time to Start Talking about Library 2.1?,” Journal of Web Librarianship 3, no. 2 (2009): 143,

Eric Lease Morgan developed the mylibrary concept ten years ago and I'm not sure whether UofT's my.library service is based on the original mylibrary code. Despite the richness of its functionality, there aren't many libraries that make use of mylibrary.

I seem to recall Morgan stating his observation that only a minority of library users tend to customize their mylibrary web-experience (I have no idea how many UofT users make use of their mylibrary service). I suspect one reason why there may be low user-uptake to mylibrary is because users aren't particular driven by the need to keep track of more than a couple library indexes, if that. Indeed, one way of interpreting the move to Discovery layers within librarianship is the slow realization that our users are 'article-focused' and not 'index-focused'. While it appears that UofT's mylibrary appears to allow users to add non-indexes and non-ebooks to their accounts, without the ability to re-use or export these citations into a bibliography, its difficult to see UofT's mylibrary used in a capacity other than for generating research guides.

Which brings me to the other trend that runs counter to the mylibrary space: the ubiquitous "learning management systems" such as Blackboard and WebCT on university campuses. These systems are closed-gardens that demand user-privacy for both students and instructors and this expectation has hindered the integration of library resources into these spaces.

OK. So let's recap.

How should we represent "reference works" on a library's web page?

If we use static text for our subject guides (e.g.) we can annotate the description to our heart's content but all link and location maintenance will have to be done by hand, duplicating the work already done to keep the catalogue record up to date. As well, the opportunity to add additional functionality such as sorting by coverage date is passed-up

If we use links to each item's catalogue record, we can take advantage of less duplication of effort for maintenance but users might be frustrated that when a link that they think might take them to the item only takes them to a description of that item or they might get annoyed that they have to find another link within the catalogue record in order to access the item. As well, the library catalogue doesn't lend itself well to selecting and presenting a user-selected collection of items (addendum: especially non-book items like free materials on the web).

While we could create a separate web-database of licensed e-resources, it would have to be built in a way these items could be then be integrated into research guides that can also recommend print and "free" web-resources. Bibliographic software can handle all these resources well with the exception of databases and indexes. MyLibrary software can handle databases and indexes well but may have difficulty with citations and print materials.

I think I'm farther away from clarity than when I started this process. Sigh.


Stephen Francoeur said...

Hoping that this may be somewhat inspiring: Dan Chudnov made an interesting presentation at NASIG in 2007 in which he wondered what it would look like if library content were presented en masse to the user along the lines of how iTunes offers up your music library.

Mita said...

Dan's talk was very much a catalyst for this line of thinking. Glad you see that you picked up the thread!