Panlibus Blog

Archive for July, 2005

Putting libraries on a map

libmap.jpg
At the Talis Research Day on 19th July I demonstrated an example of how mixing together the Silkworm Directory Service and the Google Maps API could be used to produce a new way to deliver a public interface into the OPACs of the UK. This demonstration has now been made available to be tried out, here.

The subject of the Research Day was the Silkworm Project, and the way that in the emerging Web 2.0 world, systems using Web Services will be able to simply interact with other systems emulating the current Web 1.0 world where people have been able to simply interact with systems. All this system to system stuff is very powerful in concept and implementation, but damned difficult to demonstrate as it is mostly hidden under the hood.

This demonstration application mixes together a development versions of the Silkworm Directory and Access Services, with the Google Maps API. By selecting an area on the map, library type, and library system supplier, from the controls, the application will display pointers on the map indicating library locations. Clicking on an indicator will open a window containing details of the library, a link to its information page, and a search box. Entering a search will take you directly to the results page in the relevant OPAC.

The Silkworm Directory Service [previously discussed and here] is used to provide the location, linking, and system type information. The Access Service is used to direct the search and handle protocol differences between different OPACs. Although this demonstrator is only using data for a small subset of UK libraries, around Birmingham and Worcestershire, it includes data for three Talis customers and a couple of non-Talis systems.

Go play with it, and then join the Silkworm Forum thread and let us know what you think of it, and the issues and possibilities such use of Directory Services raise.

If you want to find out more about Project Silkworm, visit the web site and have a read of the Silkworm White Paper [pdf].

Map Wars – Let battle commence!

Goliath, in the form of Google Maps, who has been on the field for a while, was joined yesterday by Virtual Earth from MSN. Not a David, but another Goliath. Like a pair of Sumo Wrestlers they are poised facing each other, stamping their feet and snorting sexy new interactive mapping features at each other.

Google with a head start has already taken the UK and Japan, but it won’t be long before Virtual Earth is right behind. Already Google has fired a defensive shot, by introducing the ‘Hybrid’ mode (an overlay of major roads on to its Satellite view) – a default view for Virtual Earth. Google has had time to collect an enthusiastic band of followers to its camp, who no doubt will take pleasure in highlighting Virtual Earth’s perceived inadequacies, not least hinting at the world domination tendencies of its parentage. There will of course be the Virtual Earth band of acolytes sniping at their competitor and singing the praises of their champion, not least hinting at the world domination encompassing tendencies of its parentage!

So do we care? In the viewers of the Robot Wars TV show sort of way, of course we do. Watching the enhancements roll out the apposing development shops will be fascinating. From my purely personal point of view Virtual Earth seems to have introduced a quality feature set, with things like scratch pad, dynamic overlays of local search results, double-click zooming, etc., but it looks boring. Google’s maps seem somehow clearer & brighter, and their 3D shadowed map pins give the whole thing a feel that it passed through the Marketing department’s graphic team before it was released. Of course there is the Google Maps API, but how long will it be before VE-Api hits the streets? Not long I wager.

So do we care? Yes we should, as even in the case of one of them totally winning out it will be a much better product because it had to fight off the competition by delivering better features to developers and consumers. I suspect we will hopefully end up with on-going health competition for a long time to come. Resulting in a situation very similar to the outcome of the Browser Wars [with FireFox becoming the IE up coming feature list by proxy].

So should we care? No not really. When the dust settles, on-line mapping services will become just a commodity. They both are implemented in a very similar way, obviously the API’s will be different but how long will it be before someone comes out with an open source generic mapping API that will sit in front of both?

So sit back and watch the battle, it will be fun. What I’m waiting for is the first one to release the ability for me to mix my content (such as libraries) with the content that is available from other sources including Google & MSN. Now that would be cool, powerful, and very Web 2.0!.

Building the team

As Dave Errington points outthe search for talent is such a tough road“. If you could just go get the right people, life would be so much simpler and productive… or would it? You often produce a bland dish if you add all the ingredients together at the start.

Anyway, less of the philosophy. The point of this is to welcome Dave’s announcement that the team at Talis will be joined by Dr Paul Miller.

For those that track his blog CIE Thoughts you will know Paul for his insightful opinions on a broad spectrum of issues in the information environment.

He will be a great addition to the team, introducing yet another flavour into, and hopefully challenging, what we are doing and helping to get the message out there.

Welcome Paul.

The downs and ups of remixing

The mixing and remixing in a Web 2.0 world, using web services to deliver data & functionality and AJAX tools to mix them on the browser-top, is a powerful and liberating experience.

It still amazes me, the results you can get from a small amount of [often javascript] code, and an XSLT transform or two, when pointed at a few web services.

But this brave new Web 2.0 world is by definition ‘a moving target’. Create your application with ‘the Internet inside’, come back tomorrow and find it appears to have evolved – all by its self!

I’ve been working on a Google Maps demo app recently. Since I ‘thought I’d completed it’ it evolved three times – without any input from me. Firstly, I suddenly couldn’t type in to an input box when using a Firefox Browser; then when demoing it to a friend I spotted that Google had added ‘Hybrid’ (an overlay of major roads on top of the satellite view) to their maps – this feature seemed more impressive to my friend that the mixing work I was trying to show off!; finally a service I use to resolve search links stopped working.

As the widow-dressers of the Web 2.0 shop-window, mixers & re-mixers are often demonstrating mostly Beta applications to an audience that probably don’t understand that it is only a tip of a Beta release iceberg and we often have very little direct control over what is below the water line. So when a service [like Google Maps] adds a feature that improves our application, we get the credit. But on the flip-side if a service upon which we depend fails, we get the blame.

Building Web 2.0 applications introduces a whole new level of failure analysis that we all need to address. Building upon a stable, reliable, scalable platform such as Silkworm will be the key. For those of us that ‘Get this Web 2.0 thing’ we can see the benefits. It may take a while for us to get our stable act together before the rest will be ready to accept those benefits.

Library Map live

libmap.jpg
At the Talis Research Day on19th July I Demonstrated an example of how mixing together the Silkworm Directory Service and the Google Maps API could be used to produce a new way to deliver a public interface into the OPACs of the UK.

As promised this fledgling library directory service is now available to play with live, here. With its, currently limited, data set it will be very useful for people living, or studying, around Worcestershire and Birmingham. The intention is to increase the data set by building on the Silkworm Directory, and Access services as they become established.

The application enables you to select the area you want to find libraries within, the type (Academic, Public, Public Library Branches), and system supplier,. These are then indicated on a Google Map which can be zoomed, paned, and changed to satellite view. Clicking on a map indicator opens a window giving details of the library, a link to its information page, and a search box. Using the search box you are taken directly into the library’s OPAC to view the results of the search.

Check out the Silkworm white paper and the Silkworm site for background Silkworm and the Talis Research view on Web 2.0, its ramifications and opportunities.

Blogging giving a library site the human feel

TheShiftedLibraian hails the Ann Arbor District Library‘s redesigned web site as ‘The Perfect Library Blog Example‘. The superlatives are well deserved.

The cross between a traditional library web site, a library blog, and the catalogue interface, produces a whole experience which is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. It’s clean simple visual style, coupled with the natural [personal] style of content which naturally emanates from blogging to their customers (as against broadcasting at them), delivers an interface which I think that the citizens of Ann Arbor, Michigan should be delighted to be part of. Using the blog commenting facilities, which their customers certainly are, gives the impression that the library is not only providing a service to, but is also part of the, community.

Just scanning the site gives you the feeling that there are humans behind it.

Great site, and yet another exemplar for what can be done, for the rest of the Library world to aspire towards and beyond

Redefining the library: The British Library’s strategy 2005-2008

The new British Library Strategy was published last month. So far, it seems, commentators (e.g. CIE thoughts and Information World Review (issue 215 July/August 2005) have mostly focussed on the digital aspects of the BL strategy. However this is really just a tactic to enable the BL to deliver its services more effectively. The strategy recalls the founder’s aims from the18th century for the original collections to be “preserved therein for publick use to all posterity” providing access to the world’s knowledge for “all studious and curious persons”. The new strategy redefines that for today and talks about serving an “unusually broad range of audiences with researchers, businesses, education, the general public and the library network…” Later on the vision states it more directly. “..we exist for everyone who wants to do research for academic, personal or commercial purposes”

An important underlying point I take from the strategy document is that the BL is clearly moving its focus to the end user. It is no longer the just the “library of last resort” and has “enrich the user’s experience” as its number one strategic priority. Part of that means that now ordinary citizens can use the reading rooms more easily than in the past. The library is also to “open up through the power of the web” and has launched a new online interface to its document delivery and image delivery services—“British Library Direct”.

Having registered I can get an article delivered by several routes including delivery to my PC in PDF format for £7.45 plus around £13-£16 for the “copyright fee”. Hmmm… that’s seems quite a lot so maybe I should request it at my local library and just pay the 60p request fee? It would probably be sourced from the BL but would take some while to be delivered (as a photocopy) to the local library for me to collect. Or if I am a student I might get it free from via the Inter-Library-Loan service of my university or college library. It too might be sourced from the BL. Will these “intermediaries” survive? Does it make sense for them to pay the BL on my behalf? Should a university subscribe to a journal that the BL subscribes to if articles can be so easily disseminated electronically directly to the end user? Will “enriching the user’s experience” mean weaving in BL Direct into my local library web presence? New “ web services “ technologies certainly could make that possible. Or should my local library resources be woven into or “remixed” with BL direct or into Google –or does it matter which? Maybe we should have all these possibilities?

New technology is exposing these conundrums. At the beginning of the strategy it is started that libraries have existed “to collect and organise information, make access to knowledge more democratic….” Compare this to Google’s vision: “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. It looks very similar but it makes no mention of “democratic”. Does democratic mean to those without a credit card? New business models will need to be found. There are innovative moves afoot in Scotland to look as smartcards as a way of providing “digital entitlements”. Will Scottish citizens in the future be able to get digitised articles delivered “free” as part of this entitlement? There is certainly some redefining of libraries to be done…

What’s in your fridge?

Chris Dent in his Fridge as Philosophy of Everything: A Manifesto introduces an interesting metaphor to help him promote the value of a service oriented architecture in systems design.

part of the goal in having a multi-piece/service sort of solution is so you can write giant swaths of code that you then forget about for the rest of time

because it is, in effect, encapsulated

not in the dogmatic oo sort of way, but in the it’s a refridgerator we never have to think about it kind of way

rking: you have a fridge, yeah?

do you ever think about it?

it does one or two things: it keeps food cool or frozen

if it breaks you buy another and put your food in the new one

you can do just a few things with the fridge: you can put some food in, you can take some food out

smart soa is about creating systems of fridges, both in terms of your code and your hardware

systems that are easy to replace, easy to maintain, and dramatically simple

Of course you need a bit of control about what gets put in the fridge, I definitely don’t include my kids in his metaphor. Except to say unless you open the door to put something else in, their folly stays well encapsulated!

Taking his metaphor a little further, my fridge has DID [Door-in-Door – a useful little door in the front of the main door that lets you get at the commonly used stuff, like milk, without letting all that expensive cold air pour all over the kitchen floor.] I see this as the fridge’s SPI (Service Provider Interface) – the ‘simple’ route to what you commonly want, without having to know or understand all the technology that goes to deliver what you want.

Measuring the real impact of libraries

One of the problems libraries have is actually proving how and to what extent they impact positively on their community and on society at large. Much of what libraries deliver falls into the category of intangible benefits: how do you measure the degree to which involvement in a summer reading programme impacted on a child’s learning and development – and over what period do you measure that impact? How do you prove that older people feel more included and less isolated as a result of library visits or housebound services?

These types of outcome are vital to a well-developed, inclusive society, and acknowledged priorities for this government, but are ‘touchy feely’ impacts which are hard to monitor and measure. We all know that libraries are unique as a safe, unthreatening, learning and entertainment-centred community resource, a vital resource for parents and children, a point of inclusion for various groups, and more recently a gateway to new information technologies. But there has been a sense of ‘if a tree falls in a forest and no-one hears it, does it make a noise’ about all this – if a library makes a contribution but it can’t be measured and proved, will that contribution be sufficiently valued: impacts which can’t be measured often end up being undervalued because their contribution is less conspicuous. Too often attention can get distracted by measures which assess throughput rather than those real, more challenging outputs, like increased knowledge and well-being.

On Monday I attended the launch of the findings from the recent Libraries Impact Project funded by the Laser Foundation, to look at this very problem. This initiative, supported by the MLA, was an attempt to make those intangible benefits demonstrable, by defining pilot quantitative and qualitative measures to better expose the contribution of libraries towards education, health, and the welfare of children and older people. This is important work, and the findings are promising, suggesting, as Professor Fred Bullock summarised, that there is an impact and it can be measured.

Project manager Ian Moore from PricewaterhouseCoopers spoke tellingly of ‘the power of the quotes’ – the impact of qualitative feedback from library users on the role of the library in their lives. In Gatehead they focussed on measuring the library’s impact on health, and found that a startling 48% of their customers used the library to find out health information, and 57% said the library contributed to their health and fulfillment. Not least among the benefits of the project has been the impact on the library’s profile within the authority – once the significance of their role in health education was exposed, libraries quickly became regarded as an important part of the health improvement team, with a new, higher profile with local government stakeholders.

The question is can it be measured consistently at a national level, and that depends on having tools, processes and infrastructure to gather and synthesise the information. If there was one question in the air at the end of the day it was ‘how is this going to be taken forward?’. There are many library’s standing by ready to benefit from the improved sense of value, achievement and profile garnered by the pilot library authorities.

Feedback from FIL

Having hot-footed back from the Interlend 05 Conference in Swansea, I thought I would post on my brief sojourn there.

I was very grateful that the FIL committee invited me to speak at the event, and it turned out to be a very interesting experience for me, so I hope the same can also be said for the audience.

I was invited to present the findings of a report that Talis and The Combined Regions commissioned last year. The report entitled “A Review of the Future of Resource Sharing and Interlending” can be found on our website. The report is focussed on trends within UK interlending, and is predominantly concerned with the public sector, although the nature of interlending dictates that the HE sector was referred to throughout.

There were two key issues that resonated with the audience and which really stimulated some lively debate at the end of my session.

1) First of all, the report states:
“Because no single body or co-operative organisation is taking a national lead regarding ILL in public libraries, a plethora of uncoordinated initiatives is underway within the interlending sphere. This is not necessarily a disadvantage but does risk duplication and unnecessary competition. There is, however, no strategic context for development to which there is broad agreement. The major players who could be national leaders have taken policy decisions to be providers of services, or plead lack of funds to sponsor developments, or are simply waiting for someone else to step forward. This vacuum is unhelpful and potentially dangerous in terms of the future of development of ILL services in the public library sector.”
This vacuum was widely discussed by delegates. The general feeling amongst delegates was that unless DCMS stepped forward to take an active role in coordinating activity at a national level and across sectors – public and HE, then interlending activity in the UK, will continue to be difficult. A definite role there then for various library bodies..like FIL, CONARLS, SCL, TCR et al to start lobbying government to take an interest in resource sharing.

It makes sense to do it now, the timing has never been more important. Why? Because ILL has in the past beenlargely perceived as a backroom activity, not meriting attention at a strategic level. I think this perception has to change. With Google, Yahoo, MSN and other search companies now able to crawl over library catalogues on the web and display their contents (look at OpenWorldCat as an example of this), it is only a matter of time before web users start requesting access to some of this stuff! Suddenly resource sharing takes on a whole new meaning. It becomes a web front-end activity. So, perhaps if the UK Government were to actually engage in some joined up thinking as they have done in Denmark, we may see a really positive outcome soon to the current predicament we find ourselves in.

On the subject of Denmark, Poul Erlandsen gave a really interesting and informative Keynote speech on the current developments in Denmark, very refreshing to see resource sharing being backed at the highest level by government.

2) The second theme which really struck a chord – particularly with the public library members in the audience was the rift between public library ILL service and HE services. The Report exposed that some (but by no means all) HE and FE libraries were sending undergraduates (usually first year students) to public libraries to make ILL requests. Why? Because their own ILL policy restricts them from making ILL requests on the student’s behalf.

Couple this trend, with the fact that so many HE libraries are unwilling to have their holdings data displayed in union catalogues like UnityWeb to assist in ILL activity, and you get a huge burden on public libraries to satisfy requests, and incidentally they are also picking up the tab.

When this point was raised at the conference, some academic librarians questioned, whether undergraduates – particularly first year students – really needed to be making interlending requests. Surely, they could get what they needed from the range of resources available in their academic library? Its an interesting point, but as somebody pointed out, students do go home in the holidays and they want to try and get hold of materials sometimes from their closest point of access. Secondly, should we really be questioning why students are doing this? If they are doing it, then we should accept this and try and find ways to share the burden across the HE and public sector, rather than leaving the few to shoulder the burden of requests.

Again, I think more joined up thinking between HE and the public library sector could make a huge difference in resolving these issues. If we are truly meant to be a knowledge economy, and if we are placing greater importance on the acquisition of knowledge, we have to tackle these practical issues to stop impeding progress.

I can’t end this blog without saying that system vendors do themselves come in for their fair share of criticism. It is all very well to talk about collaboration, but where are the collaborative efforts of system vendors to make the systems used in interlending more interoperable? I had to hold my hands up to this one and say that we have been guilty in the past at not working with other suppliers in the community to ensure that workflow efficiencies could be achieved.

But, times are changing…and we issued a general invitation at the Conference to talk with any system vendor with a stake in resource sharing activity, to come and talk to us. And, we shall definitely be talking with like-minded vendors to ensure that greater service benefits can be realised.