Category Archives: library systems

Planning a Website Re-Vamp, Part I

Before I started working in the Sonoma State University Library, I knew re-designing the Library website was going to be a priority. Everyone made it clear to me during the interview process that they weren’t happy with the site and that it had historically been one of the bigger challenges in the Library. Fixing the website was one of the Library’s strategic directions for the coming year and was the first task they had in mind for me when I started in September 2013.

So how did I take on that task? What did we do and what are we planning to do? I’m going to share my answers to those questions here in a series of blog posts. I’m happy with the approach that we took and I hope that my experience might be useful to some of you, especially if you’re in the position of managing a website without a ton of web experience in your skill set. I’m going to share the steps I took, the documents and reports I put together, the tools I used, and my techniques for overcoming some of the bigger challenges, which, as I’m sure you know, are rarely technical and are more about building shared understanding and meeting people’s needs. I don’t pretend that I did this perfectly, and I hope you can learn from my mistakes as well as my successes. I hope I can learn from my mistakes, too; in fact, part of writing this is so that I can take a step back and see where I might have done things differently.

Creating a useful website for a Library is a different beast from creating a business website. We have unique goals and priorities that don’t center around “conversions,” “subscribers,” “sales,” and all the other business terms that are usually used in writing about the web. I want to write something that will help other people who aren’t in traditional for-profit institutions to translate some of the business-speak so that it works for them and their Library and education-centered needs.

We are by no means finished with our “website redesign,” and in truth we probably never will be. Creating a useful website is a process that involves a lot of trial and error, tweaking and changing things as we go to better meet the needs of our patrons. We called the first phase of the project a Website Re-Vamp rather than a Redesign because we didn’t touch on the design portion of the site in this phase. I wanted people to understand that it was a small, first-pass project, a spruce instead of a remodel.

People had two main issues with the site that were laid out in the strategic directions, after hiring a Web Services Librarian (a.k.a., me): they wanted to reduce the number of clicks and reduce the number of silos on the site. Reducing the number of clicks it takes to get to useful information is a common goal. People have come to think that the more “clicks” a user needs to make, the worse a site is. One of the things I wanted to help people understand is that it isn’t necessarily the number of clicks that are the problem, it’s whether those clicks are taking them closer to their goal or making them feel frustrated. It’s quality not quantity, man.

The silos issue is harder to deal with. If you’ve worked in a library, you know all about the silos problem. So much of our content comes from different places and is stored in different digital homes. We have databases and catalogs and digital collections, we have metadata that don’t play well together, and we’ve made only baby steps toward bringing our content together in one easily searchable place. It’s hard to manage and difficult for our users to understand. This problem isn’t one we could solve with a website redesign, but we can make an effort to help people better understand our content and how to find it.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to walk through phase I of our project, which started in October 2013 and wrapped up in August 2014, just in time for the Fall semester to start. Some of the things we did include user testing, surveying, and card sorting, implementing version control, redesigning our information architecture, and redesigning the homepage.

Next week I’ll share the Project Scope document I created for our faculty and staff, and talk about how we decided on the scope of the project and how we communicated about what we were planning.

The Catalog is Dead

In the five years I’ve been a part of libraryland, one conversation seems never to die: How can we improve our online catalogs? There are so many ways to approach this question, from a user-interface perspective or a metadata perspective, a software architecture perspective or a task-based perspective. But there is an assumption at work that not enough people have raised, and that I think deserves more consideration. Do we even need our online catalogs anymore?

The primary issue raised around our catalogs is their general user unfriendliness, from the terminology that we use to the overload of hard-to-decipher information that displays. Because of how library metadata is organized and silo-ed, our catalogs don’t provide access to the entirety of the resources available, and while modern discovery systems go some way toward alleviating that problem, they aren’t perfect and often just add to the chaos in the discovery landscape (especially since we’re all so keen to brand them and give them unique names).

The fact is that when a person is looking for information, they aren’t likely to go to the library first. We might have just the resource they’re looking for, but if that resource doesn’t surface in a Google search, they aren’t going to know about it. Students might be more likely to turn to the library for information, largely because they’re encouraged to do so by their professors, but they’re still much more likely to start online, outside of the library’s web presence. Clearly, what we need to do is to get our information out of our little corners of the web and into the wider web.

This is the promise of linked data. Yes, it’s The Buzzword of 2013 already. Every conference I attend has double the number of linked data presentations as the one before. And a lot of people still seem kind of fuzzy on what a linked data system would look like for libraries. I think part of the problem is that we’re still thinking about our System, and the promise of linked data is that the closed library discovery system could finally disappear.

I’m not saying our internal management systems would go away. Obviously, we still need those. But our users don’t need those, at least not for discovery. If we use linked data principles to describe our holdings, ALL of our collections and not just the items that are in our catalogs, that information will finally be able to be surfaced through web searches. Imagine searching for a book title in Google, and seeing not only the familiar Amazon link that pops up, but also a link to your local library, with a call number, availability information, and maybe even a link to Request an item, right there from the search results screen. Imagine searching on a subject topic using your favored search engine, whatever it might be, and finding a handful of resources at your local library right near the top of the list, including books, available journal articles, and archival material.

So far the focus of discussions around linked data has been on putting bibliographic metadata on the web. And that’s great, but once that’s done, it’s done. We don’t all need to do that. What we need to do is put our ownership information on the web. We need to link our ownership and availability information to a centralized bibliographic database (or a few), and make it available on the web for indexing by search engines.

Why do we still force our users to come to our special web sites to find what they are looking for? Why do we still keep thousands of copies of the same bibliographic metadata in thousands of databases around the world? Our data isn’t findable or usable right now by the people we’re ostensibly collecting it for. Our primary concern, as we talk about updating our metadata and our systems and our bibliographic framework, is how can we get all of this wonderful stuff that we own, and provide to people for free, out on the web where they are already living and working. Let’s stop trying to reinvent our own little corner of the web, and join in the game where everyone else is playing.

The Library of the Future?

During the closing keynote speech at LITA National Forum this year, Sara Houghton encouraged us to engage in a little thought exercise. She wanted us to imagine the ideal library of the future, without the limitations of what we believe is possible or what we’re currently doing. We should, she suggested, set aside some time to think about what we would like a library to be 20 or 30 or 40 years from now.

There are many different kinds of libraries, and what they’re going to be in the future will be vastly different from each other. My experience has been in academic libraries almost exclusively since I entered college at 18 years old. I’ve worked in academic libraries since 2007, and yeah, I have a lot of ideas about what the ideal academic library of the future should be. I work in technical service (metadata and systems), so I do tend to think about how the background systems will enable public facing services. But here, I don’t want to be limited by what I think the technology can do, so I’m focusing more on what we collectively will do, in the big picture.

To begin, I do believe that the library of the future will still inhabit a physical space. Our libraries will be beautiful, welcoming, well-lit spaces where students will come to work independently and in collaboration with other students. Library spaces will be flexible, to accommodate groups working together and students quietly reading and studying. Our library spaces will still hold physical collections, and patrons will still come into the library to access those collections, though they won’t be as large, or used in exactly the same ways. Our physical collections will likely be historical collections, special collections, and archives. Print collections may or may not circulate, and librarians will be on hand to help students new to primary source and historical collections access and interpret the materials they are working with (for example, historical government documents and maps, which won’t be searchable and manipulable in the same ways students are used to working). Physical collections will more likely than not be unique to a library, and will likely also have been digitized (or be in the process of being digitized).

Reference and Research Librarians will be an important part of the library services, though traditional reference desks may not. Students and researchers will have a relationship with their department’s librarian from the moment they enter the institution, and their librarian will be available in a variety of ways (email, text, chat, or whatever new communication mechanisms pop up) to assist with research, data organization and management, and as a liaison to other key services like writing centers and tutors. Librarians will frequently meet with students and researchers in their offices and in other locations on campus (computer labs, cafes, faculty offices). Librarians will teach information literacy embedded in the curriculum, from introductory composition classes to senior year thesis seminars. Rather than offering one-shot classes and hoping for the best, the information literacy curriculum will be built into the overall learning curriculum, and will expand over the course of a student’s time at the university, teaching the skills needed in a layered and integrated way. Librarians will also offer faculty workshops on data management and data and information literacy. Where possible, librarians will work collaboratively with faculty to enable faculty to teach information literacy to students, in a train the trainer model.

Most current resources will be accessed digitally, including monographs, fiction titles, journals, data sets, current government documents, and reference resources. All members of the university community will read on the digital device of their choice, and digital titles will be available in many formats to accommodate the technology used by the community.

Nearly all academic resources, like University Press monographs, journals, data sets, government documents, and reference sources, will be open access. The digital files themselves will rarely be hosted in the library itself or “owned” by the library, unless the library itself has digitized or published the resource. Users will be able to freely download these resources, read them on their device of choice, and annotate them however they wish. The library will serve as a curator of open access resources. Librarians who are familiar with the school’s fields of study and the resources required for teaching and research will build the library “collections” by curating links to resources hosted elsewhere, and providing access to resources hosted locally.

For titles that are not open access (contemporary fiction and non-academic titles), libraries will purchase (not lease) access to digital files, as well as a copy to be archived locally for preservation. Costs will largely be based on size of institution and download statistics, but cost models will be transparent and consistent. This will not be the bulk of future academic library collection development.

Funds that have previously been spent licensing access to academic journals will be spent instead on funding open access publication. Researchers at a library’s institution will apply for library grants to pay their own open access fees for publication. Libraries will also act as publishers, either in conjunction with a University press or on their own, if their institution doesn’t have an existing press. Libraries will host open access journals that are managed and edited by faculty, and will have publishing departments that acquire, edit, and provide access to journal and monograph titles in an open access model.

Libraries will also be the homes of subject repositories where feasible. Rather than merely collecting research, libraries will become the publishers of research in a global network of open access research publications and repositories. Libraries will also house institutional repositories, although these will focus almost entirely on preserving the administrative records of the institution, rather than the research outputs.

In addition to the Research Services and Publishing departments, libraries will have a Collection and Curation department. These librarians will be responsible for maintaining the physical collections, but also for curating links to appropriate resources. They will be responsible for ensuring access to external servers and managing relationships with other libraries and publishers. Additionally, they’ll be responsible for creating the metadata for locally hosted and published resources, digitizing local resources, and ensuring that access to local servers and digital collections is stable.

The ILS of the future will be almost unrecognizable from its current incarnations. They will integrate resources and metadata from the web, serve local metadata and resources back to the web, and act as workflow managers and statistics gathering tools.

Cataloging will be a very different activity, and will again consist of curating and collecting metadata from around the web to provide access, as well as creating local metadata for digital and print resources, and making it available on the web. Discovery will happen through locally-aware search engines. Users will set a library preference in their browsers or with their preferred search site that will prioritize the resources that have been curated by your library. But most library resources will largely be available freely, so discovery doesn’t necessarily have to happen through the library, and users can decide to prioritize a library entirely separate from their campus.

In the future, academic libraries won’t be stand-alone institutions, providing collections solely to their own patrons. The Library, instead, will be a global network of information, publications, and research, each library contributing to the whole by publishing, digitizing, and creating metadata. Our roles won’t be as gatekeepers, but as creators of scholarly resources and facilitators of scholarly communication. Our local services will consist of assistance to researchers, helping them gather the information they need to do research, and then helping them find the right place to publish it. Libraries, not for-profit publishers and journal aggregators, will power the scholarly communication engine. Our role will be not only to provide access, but to ensure preservation of the scholarly record, in all formats.

Of course there are details that I haven’t covered here. This is, after all, just a thought exercise. But if I were to use this vision as a source for strategic planning, I’d probably think seriously about how the library could become involved in scholarly communication and publishing at my institution. I’d put a lot of energy into re-modeling Research services. And I’d be actively engaged with the library community in building new models for metadata discovery and cataloging that are not based on local systems and local records. I’d apply for digitization grants to start digitizing local special collections. And I’d be actively engaged in global work to change the tenure model and reform copyright.

What is your ideal future library? Are there things in this vision of mine that make you cringe? That you absolutely can’t imagine happening? What do you think we should do now to create the library vision of your dreams?

Kindle Library Books

The inability to check out books from my library using my Kindle irked me from the first moment I started using the Kindle. When Amazon and Overdrive announced that they were finally partnering to allow library lending on the Kindle, I was pretty excited. Sure, as a librarian I know it’s far from a perfect solution, and I don’t love the way Overdrive lending works for libraries, and I think we could do so much better, but as a patron? I was excited to be able to check out books without having to trek to the library. Anything to make acquiring reading materials easier and less expensive for me makes me happy.

Last week, when I read that lending was finally being released, I practically hovered over the Oakland Public Library’s Overdrive page, waiting for the Kindle links to appear. And when they did, whoo hoo, I was ready to start checking things out. Which is when I encountered the most annoying thing about library lending of ebooks: Holds. Seriously. I understand that Overdrive had to work with a business model that publishers would agree to, and that making these things act as much like paper copies as possible was probably a necessity for library lending of digital books to happen at all. But the fact that a library only has a certain number of “copies” of an ebook, and that I have to get in a nice long queue to borrow them? Ugh.

But that’s my whiny patron self speaking. The wait for a copy is just a fact of life of public library reading that one has to accept. It’s the cost of free books, right? It’s honestly the reason I don’t use the public library as much as I’d like to. But in the interest of experimentation, I put a few books on hold, and waited for my notification email. And I got the first one today.

Let me tell you, after several years of hearing how terrible the user experience is for library lending of ebooks, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy Kindle borrowing was. I clicked a few links, and badda bing, there was my book. The only part of the experience that wasn’t intuitive is that once you click your checkout link, the book is placed in a “cart” and you have to complete a few more steps within a particular time period before the book is actually checked out to you. This seemed kind of nonsensical to me, but I’m going to give Overdrive the benefit of the doubt and say there’s probably a good technical reason, involving how data is sent to the Amazon servers or something, for this particular step.

So, from my non-librarian, patron perspective, borrowing a library book on the Kindle was painless. The wait to read popular books from the library is the primary reason I don’t use libraries more often, so I wish there was some way we could solve this problem with digital books, but I can understand that that might be a hard sell for publishers. Frankly, from a non-librarian perspective, I want to get books wherever and however I can, preferably without having to spend a ton of money on them, because I’m a book junkie and I just don’t make that much money. I’ll take whatever lending options I have, and I love not having to schedule in a trip to the library (or even a trip to the bookstore), because I’m a busy lady.

Kindle lending from libraries makes my librarian self, though, kind anxious and nervous about the state of the ebook landscape for libraries, and whether we’re painting ourselves into a bad corner with the steps we’re taking now. I understand the potential problems and dangers, I wish we had better options, I wish we were in a better position to demand better options. That’s why I’m working with the NISO eBook Special Interest Group, to at least attempt in some way to give libraries better options. In the meantime, at least this is a step toward making library use easier for some of our patrons. And that’s not a bad thing.

I’d say they’re displeased

I’m doing some research for a paper I’m hoping to write (in the next 10 days…) and I came across this quote that I can’t help but call prescient. I’m reading Julian Everett Allgood’s 2007 article, “Serials and Multiple Versions, or the Inexorable Trend toward Work-Level Displays” (yes, it’s thrilling), and he writes,

Probably the only current players likely to be displeased with this new central catalog [his proposal, which sounds a lot like OCLC’s new web-scale management scheme] would be the ILMS vendors. Had the ILMS vendors shown the initiative necessary to provide libraries with technologically enhanced ILMS systems and OPAC displays during the last fifteen years, libraries would not still be seeking solutions to display problems endemic to the automated catalog environment.

That sounds a lot like the things I’ve been saying for the past year. I do think many ILS vendors have made strides since 2007 in the display and retrieval of bibliographic metadata, and many are starting to think about how FRBR and RDA will impact online catalogs and the underlying structure of bibliographic records. But ultimately, when we start talking about real efficiencies, and the ways in which our networked world can save libraries tons of time through collaboration, well, OCLC’s central catalog sounds like a really, really good idea. And it’s perhaps unfortunate, from a free market kind of perspective, that they are the only people effectively positioned to do something like this, but, well, who’s fault is that?

I think there’s a lot of sour grapes going on in the ILS vendor world, and it sounds like Allgood thinks so, too.

The Presidents’ Panel

Perhaps I was a little harsh yesterday on the Twitter, when I was at the RMG Presidents’ Panel. Maybe I shouldn’t have said the Innovative rep was being petulant. Maybe that wasn’t very professional of me, but you know what? It was really unprofessional of him. I guess ILS vendors and their reluctance to provide services libraries really want is my big pet peeve in library land, and sometimes I can’t hold back my disdain.

The thing is, most ILSs were designed 30 years ago, and they simply have not been updated to take advantage of new technologies and new capabilities. They do not provide us what we really need to allow us to continue to grow and adapt and remain relevant. And they don’t seem to have much interest in doing so. ILS vendors remind me of most of the publishing industry: entrenched and bloated and standing at the precipice of change, too afraid to take a leap. And it drives me crazy.

The fact is, OCLC had a great idea. A truly innovative idea for libraries, in moving toward web-scale management, in changing completely how library systems work. Web-scale management isn’t about “the cloud.” It isn’t about relinquishing our hardware. It isn’t about clients that operate over the web. It’s about all libraries coming together, sharing our data in truly new ways, and becoming truly web-scale. It’s about libraries uniting to offer a real, meaningful challenge to our competitors in the digital age: Amazon, Google, Wikipedia. It’s about positioning ourselves as a meaningful entity in a world where web-scale is increasingly all that matters. It’s about cooperation, openness, sharing.

And ILS vendors are no freaking good at cooperation, openness, or sharing.

The thing is, libraries need something else. We need to be able to work together. Our current systems keep us in separate silos, creating our own individual records, replicating work, replicating knowledge. It’s old. It doesn’t work for us anymore, and ILS vendors just don’t seem to want to recognize this. They don’t want to make the massive changes we need, and maybe they aren’t capable of it. We need flexibility, and maybe they are just too bulky and cumbersome to be flexible. I don’t want to see companies fail, I never want to see that. But if they can’t adapt, they will, and I have no patience for people who sit around bemoaning change and how they’re being left behind.

So Innovative President guy, I’m sorry if I was rude, but when you sit at a panel and complain, rather than take the opportunity to explore new ideas, I have no sympathy. You position yourself against libraries, rather than with us, and I, for one, am sick of working like that. None of us can sustain ourselves that way. We have a unique opportunity right now to reshape how libraries work, how our systems and workflows operate, and what we are truly capable of. And I can’t help but feel that the ILS vendors are throwing that away because they are afraid of change.

I’m a new librarian, and there are still a lot of things I don’t know about how the massive organism that is Libraries work. But I can guarantee you that I’m not the only new librarian who feels this way. And one day, we’re going to be the people making decisions. We aren’t willing to settle for the crumbs you give us (and very expensive crumbs at that). We aren’t against you, we want to work with you, to build the best libraries we can. You have to want to work with us, too.