2008 National Forum: A Homegrown CMS

With all the commerical and open source content management systems on the market, why would a library still choose to build their own? In 2006, the University of Houston Libraries did just that. Rachel Vacek discussed their rationale and effort in Putting the Library Website in Their Hands: The Advantages and Challenges of a Homegrown Content Management System.

(Note: Rachel indicated her slides will be available on rachelvacek.com, but were not there as of this writing, or I didn’t go deep enough into her site.)

UHL chose to develop their own CMS primarily because they wanted a system based on their vision of what a CMS is and should do, rather than modifying someone else’s. UHL feels that the CMS should be a growing and changing system. They felt that by building their own system their staff would be able to fix problems and incorporate customer feedback more quickly. They felt that by building their own they could build more custom modules. They felt that by building their own they could make greater use of microformats and metadata then many of the existing solutions offered. Their current version took about a year to build.

Much of the presentation focused on the demo of the adminstrative backend.  (Note: the backend currently only works with Firefox) Rachel created a virtual library (subject guide) using an interface that had iGoogle / gadget functionality, including the ability to move content modules between the predefined three column format. One feature I liked was the ability to incorporate incoming RSS feeds into an aggregated subject/news feed. There was also in indication that there is the ability to  share the content out with other system through syndication, although specific examples were not demonstrated.

The system also allows content to be imported and integrated. Content currently and soon to be integrated include LibrayFind, Archon, Serials Solutions, Wordcat, Flickr, WordPress MU. and LibraryThing comments and reviews. Work is also being done to pull in Delicious. They also hope to use the Worldcat API, a metadata search engine, the ability to add media, making it easier to move modules, and creating a platform for customer contributed content.

Rachel indicated that efforts are under way to release their code as open source sometime in 2009. Having gone through the process of releasing an open source application at a University myself, I appreciate the challeneges in doing so. However, the concern I expressed to Rachel was the fact that they were using ColdFusion and not a more ‘open’ codebase such as PHP.  (Will not open the ColdFusion debate here…)

Lastly, Since Rachel came onboard in Houston after the project completed, she referred many questions back to Karen Coombs.

2008 National Forum: Using Library Labs to Shorten Service Lifecycle

Libraries expend a majority their limited human and financial resources to bring new products and services to their customers. However, libraries STILL have the tendency to wait until these products or services are ‘prefect’ ready before they are officially released. The rapid change in technology and the pressures of external ‘competition’ is requiring libraries to shorten their service lifecycles.

The number of libraries discussing the concepts of agile development, perpetual beta, and rapid prototyping is encouraging. The one thing that all of these approaches have in common is including customers as active participants in the development and/or testing of new products and services.

To that end, a growing number of libraries have been building “Library Labs,” which are based on the Google Labs concept.

This approach to service development was discussed in the presentation “Building a Web-Based Laboratory for Library Users” by Jason J. Battles and Joseph (Jody) Combs.

The project started out at Vanderbilt, but was replicated at Alabama when Jason took a position there. The Vanderbilt University’s Test Pilot site was launched July 2006. The University of Alabama’s Web Laboratory went live in November 2007.

A Library Lab creates an environment for users to experiment with new services. It is a showcase for projects under development or consideration. There is really no limit to what can be put on the site, nor is it limited to just technology solutions.

Jason and Jody emphasized the marketing potential of a Lab site and how it can be used to publicize the existence of new products and services and to demonstrate how they are useful. Their services provide feedback links on both the Lab pages and on the prototype pages as an easy way to gather, store and search user feedback and to solicit suggestions for new services.  Their Lab services are also used to identify and recruit for usability studies and focus groups.

They also reiterated several times that a Library Lab allows academic libraries to introduce new services at any time, not just during the three week window between semesters or when the services are ‘perfected.’

In short, the creation of a Library Lab allows a library to invest just enough resources to see if the idea is worth investing in. It also allows a library to let go of unused services in a dignified manner.

2008 National Forum: IT Management: There is Too Much Stuff

This past Spring, our library ‘completed’ what was a fairly significant reorganization. The library formalized relationships with several strategic partners which had been residing in our building. One of the outcomes included bringing together three independent IT departments, which I have been responsible for pulling together.

Needless to say, the 2008 LITA Forum session entitled “Re-swizzling the IT Enterprise for the Next Generation: Creating a Strategic and Organizational Model for Effective IT Management,” presented by Maurice York, Head, Information Technology North Carolina State University Libraries, caught my attention.

Maurice described the evolution of IT services at NCSU Libraries, which, by the audience reaction, was one which many other libraries experienced (Maurice: everything does go on the home page, doesn’t it?….) In summary, the current state of IT management is that ”there is too much stuff.”

He outlined the various IT Business Models that his organization has used at one time or another. One or all of them should sound familiar:

  • The Fire Brigade. This is where the IT staff runs around with the lastest service request being the top priority.
  • Batten the Hatches. This approach is usually the result of virus or denial of service attack. All systems are lock down tight.
  • Don’t call us, will call you. This is the model used after a ticketing system is deployed. Staff send in their service request to the ticketing system and then trust that IT will get back to them.
  • Maytag repairman. In an effort to be proactive IT staff wanders around. The result is that everyone wants the staff member to do something. In reaction, the staff member simply stays in their office so as to not let anyone see them so they can get their work done.

He also discussed the various forces which impact how an IT department can be managed:

  • Organizational: Everyone is an IT customer. There are high expectations for service plus the desire for personalized and customized services. The challenge is that everyone within an organization can only understands their individual needs while IT sits in the middle and can see all the needs.
  • Technological: The proliferation of technology results in it being layering upon itself. Trying to learn all the new stuff, keeping up with training, and all the associated costs is an additional challenge.
  • Strategic: The IT department has to compete for organizational resources, including staffing. It is difficult to manage both long term goals and daily needs. However, there is a need to protect time to work on long term
  • User expectations: People expect that library systems to resemble Google, Facebook, and LibraryThing.

The presentation slides do provide some additional information, although it is hard to understand their context by themselves.

LITA National Forum 2008: Tim Spalding: “Library 2.0 is in Danger”

The 2008 LITA National Forum opened Friday afternoon with a general opening session remarks by Tim Spalding, founder and developer, of LibraryThing.com. Tim presented What is Social Cataloging and Why Should You Care?

(Blogging relatively ‘Live’ thanks to spotty ‘free’ wireless, a wired connection in my room, and a charged battery.)

I have to admit that I played around with LibraryThing a bit when it first went online, but not much since. My take is that for individuals it is essentially Facebook for book readers. For libraries, however, it can provide a fresh discovery layer for legacy catalog systems. There are seven libraries using LibraryThing for Libraries, including the High Plains Library District.

Tim started out with some updated statistics. LibraryThing now catalogs over 32 million books and is larger than the Library of Congress. Users can search for books using Amazon and 690 libraries. While at it’s core LibraryThing remains a personal cataloging system, there is a very significant social networking component. The largest active social group remains Librarians who LibraryThing.

Tim then provided a nice tour of the major features of LibraryThing using a ‘social cataloging ladder’ to highlight them. The one I found to be the most unique was the “UnSuggester” which displays books that you will not like if you like a specific book.

The comment that caught my ear during this comments was when he said “Library 2.0 is in danger.” After the presentation, I waited around and talked to Tim about this comment, and apparently I wasn’t alone. He appeared surprised that people though it was controversial. I didn’t think it was so much controversial as it was spot on.

As I interpreted Tim’s comments, his concern is two fold. First, Libraries are concentrating on what they can do with the 2.0 tools, but not what they can do best with them. Libraries are using wikis, blogs, and even Facebook pages simply because they can. They may not be using the tools in the best possible ways. Second, vendors are selling libraries on 2.0 features because libraries are asking for and licensing them. Libraries are telling vendors they want 2.0 features but they may not really know what they want to do with them.

The reason Library 2.0 may be in danger is that a library’s experience with what are essentially first generation Web 2.0 tools (My words. Do they even make sense?). I believe Tim is concerned that if libraries do not have positive experiences with the current generation tools, or how they are being used, libraries may simply bypass the next generation tools and, as Tim phrased it, “throw the baby out with the bath water.” (Tim, if you are out there, please expand, correct, or clarify via a comment!)

(NOTE: the audience was encouraged to submit to Tim one idea that you would like to see in LibraryThing. So, feel free to overwhelm him and email one of yours. His email address is not hard to find.)