Monday, January 12, 2009

Trendspotting wrapup

So part 2 of why I'm so hopeful about usability and libraries today is that I went to the excellent Trendspotting workshop put on by the Connecticut Library Consortium on Friday. Yes, it put me further behind in work. Yes, it was worth it.

Overall, what I saw was a new understanding of (and more importantly, work towards fixing) usability issues when it comes to the online resources that libraries provide their patrons. The elephant in the room was the ILS.

Marshall Breeding led off the day by suggesting that the open source ILS is still not an overly popular (or mature) solution to the issues with difficult-to-use and harder-still-to-change proprietary vendors' ILS'. He seems to imply that libraries seeking an ILS should still go with the traditional corporate vendors - but in doing so, that they should try to figure out which commercial solutions are most highly ranked among their existing library customers.

I like and respect Marshall and appreciate the work he's doing (and has done all of these years) in compiling ILS ratings, but a larger feeling I had was that he didn't give open source a fair shake. When there were mixed ratings of an open source ILS, his interpretation of that instance was that open source wasn't ready for primetime. He didn't make the same assertion with the commercial vendor systems. Despite the lousy ratings that Sirsi/Dynix got, for example, he didn't say that clearly the closed source vendors are no good anymore - are "overmature", "has beens", or anything of the like. He did point out the negatives with the given vendor, but didn't use it to dismiss the concept of a closed-source ILS. I could get more specific with my critique, but you get the idea.

Open Source has a lot of serious and significant promise. It's a totally new paradigm, though, and that shift can be tough to make. Still, a lot of folks will say that open source is out of the reach of many libraries since they don't have developers on staff. What I'm saying is that the next gen workforce of librarians will have IT literacy at a level which allows them to easily work with open source. It won't require dedicated C++ programmers.. Heck, it's definitely not harder to learn PHP than the TAndem Command Language that mainframe operators of the CARL ILS used to have to master to make those systems do backflips (sometimes even to operate!) So I don't think that open source should be seen as something completely out of the realm of consideration for any library or consortium considering migration to a new ILS.

Fortunately, my hope was restored when Joseph Lucia came on stage to explain the deeper implications and promise of the Open Source movement for libraries. He spoke of the philosophy of "the commons". A library is generally a commons and it should be committed to supporting that which is for the collective good of the community. Open Source software / systems fit this concept. So shouldn't we - as librarians - commit to working in Open Source "space", no matter what challenges may arise along the way?
Certainly, the idea that the very community that uses a software product can get its hands into the development of that product - that they can port it to their distinct needs, then share the work that they've done in case another group/user has similar needs and wants to build on it - is a powerful one.

Then he talked about the Open Source VuFind project, which is huge - it would layer on top of and bring together for the user all of the library's online resources. It's open source, too! Here's the description of the project from the VuFind website:

VuFind is a library resource portal designed and developed for libraries by libraries. The goal of VuFind is to enable your users to search and browse through all of your library's resources by replacing the traditional OPAC to include:

  • Catalog Records
  • Locally Cached Journals
  • Digital Library Items
  • Institutional Repository
  • Institutional Bibliography
  • Other Library Collections and Resources

VuFind is completely modular so you can implement just the basic system, or all of the components. And since it's open source, you can modify the modules to best fit your need or you can add new modules to extend your resource offerings.

Live Demo

David Lindahl came next (after a nice lunch) and also made my heart leap with joy about the possible future of library systems. Again in the open source environment, somewhat similar to VuFind is the more embryonic (but holding out great promise - ideally to be released this summer) XC - eXtensible Catalog project. It will include a Drupal toolkit to integrate library resources into a Drupal-based website, I might add. From the XC website:

The eXtensible Catalog (XC) Project is working to design and develop a set of open-source applications that will provide libraries with an alternative way to reveal their collections to library users. XC will provide easy access to all resources (both digital and physical collections) across a variety of databases, metadata schemas and standards, and will enable library content to be revealed through other services that libraries may already be using, such as content management systems and learning management systems. XC will also make library collections more web-accessible by revealing them through web search engines.

Since XC software will be open source, it will be available for download at no cost. Libraries will be able to adopt, customize and extend the software to meet local needs. In addition, a not-for-profit organization will be formed to provide the infrastructure to incorporate community contributions to the code base, encourage collaboration, and provide maintenance and upgrades.

Finally, Roberta Woods, from NELLCO, (she works at the Franklin Pierce Law Center Library) spoke about the NELLCO project (and FPLCL's participation in) - their "Universal Search Solution". We are one of the member libraries who is part of this project, so I was already aware of it - though I hadn't known of its genesis or other details. Heck, I'm not even 100% sure who the institution-level "project manager" for our site is officially. But that says more about us than the USS project. The concept is to make a search that works across all of the law resources a library has, regardless of which vendor provides that resource. (e.g., Westlaw, Lexis/Nexis, Hein's, Gale, whatever...) This includes your law library's catalog, as well. They use OAI and an OAI-PMH harvester to pull together the resources and index them. Then the user searches the index. The results of the search lead the user into the resource, e.g., the article in the database (in the database's native format at that point). The point is to improve the user's experience and enhance the discovery of law resources, which can be so expensive to purchase, they often require justification. Usage can be low when there is low discovery, hence USS...

Then there was a short final session of interest to Connecticut librarians. Sharon Brettschneider, the Director of the Division of Library Development for the Connecticut State Library, spoke about the Statewide ILS Committee, which formed this summer to look into the possibility of procuring an ILS for all of the state's libraries. It had started out as a look at redoing the reQuest catalog - which is more of a union catalog of all of the CT libraries' holdings. This yielded feedback from libraries - especially the smaller, un-automated, or under-automated ones - about the desire for a statewide ILS. The project is in an exploratory phases, particularly given state funding constraints, but it looks like everyone's seriously considering the option. Then Ben Ide, from the University of Hartford, spoke of his library's upcoming migration to the WALDO Open Source ILS solution.

So there you have it - all ILS, all the time, but now, through open source, the ILS can better extend and integrate with other library websources.

[from CLC's website]

Presentations and Resources from Trendspotting IV


Marshall said...

It should be noted that in this presentation I was primarily summarizing the preliminary results to my recent library automation perceptions survey. In the presentation I wasn't necessarily advocating for either the open source or commercial approach, but reflecting on what libraries were saying in the results of the survey. I hope that I emphasized that both commercial and open source approaches to library automation are viable. It turns out that in this survey that the most highest rated products were proprietary and that I was surprised that some of the open source systems received more modest satisfaction ratings.

sharon said...

An excellent summary of the day's proceedings. Thank you!

I think the fact that we still hear the objection that "most libraries can't afford to have a software developer on staff" means that we're still thinking in terms of our own individual library in the sea of 169 individual and independent Connecticut libraries. I don't know how we get past that, except to study the Georgia model and try to understand how they overcame whatever resistance they encountered.

Ben Ide said...

We haven't got a software developer on staff (and probably never will). This, however, hasn't stopped us at the University of Hartford from switching to open source.

What we did is teamed with another consortium (WALDO) -- but only for pricing and a say in development. We still get our own OPAC/ILS; we still remain individual and independent.

It a good model, really. Of course, all of the libraries in WALDO are academics and are moving from the same commercial vendor to the same flavor of open source, supported by the same third party host. That commonality goes a long way. Perhaps that's why Bibliomation has also had such success with their foray into open source ILS.