Meredith Farkas' Top Technology Trends

Hi folks! I’m one of the Top Technology Trends newbies. I am the Distance Learning Librarian at Norwich University in Vermont and I usually blog at Information Wants to be Free. Unfortunately, I’m set to speak at another session that is at the exact same time as the Technology Trends panel, but I thought I’d contribute my trends virtually.

I thought I’d try something a little different for disseminating my trends. I know that I like examples and I’m a very visual learner. So, in addition to the text version of my trends (which contain links to examples), I created a Flash movie (screencast) of my trends with narration. I figured it would be the closest thing to actually being there and you can actually see the applications I’m talking about. You can watch the embedded video just below this text, or you can click on this link (recommended) to watch the full-screen version of the video.

[kml_flashembed movie=”http://blip.tv/file/get/Librarianmer-MeredithsTopTechTrends705.swf” height=”225″ width=”300″ /]

Open Source for the Rest of Us
Open source software used to only be an option for libraries that had significant in-house technical support. That has become far less the case in recent years, and yet open source is still a dirty word, or at least a scary word, in many libraries.

I was recently approached by someone from a large public library who said that they were interested in purchasing wiki software and wanted to know what my recommendations were. Honestly, I could not think of a single enterprise-level wiki that I consider any better than the free and open source options out there like Twiki and MediaWiki. The main thing you’re paying for with these enterprise wikis is the tech support. If you have someone on staff with tech skills, or if you don’t want to do anything particularly exotic with your wiki and can read directions, the open source options are the best out there. The same goes for blogging software. Even open source content management systems have become pretty sophisticated and relatively easy to implement. Commercial doesn’t necessarily equal better and open source doesn’t even always equal “more work” as it used to. Sometimes it’s free as in kittens and sometimes it’s really free as in beer.

Even the open source catalogs have grown up. Do a few searches in the Nelsonville Public Library’s open source Koha catalog. Pretty impressive, huh? Does a lot better than the clunky and expensive catalog at my library! You don’t even need to have a coder on staff to implement this, since there are companies like LibLime and Equinox willing to take on the maintenance burden (for a healthy fee of course). Why would you want an open source library system if you still had to pay for someone to maintain it for you? Because you can benefit from the open source development model. The beauty of open source software is not just the cost savings, but that anyone can improve upon the product. Someone at another library may see the same flaws in Koha that you do, but they may be enough of a coder to create an extension that you can also benefit from. Instead of depending on a faceless company for development, you can benefit from the ingenuity of the community; a community that has the same interests you do in seeing the system be better.

But it’s clear to me that many people still think open source is something for serious techies, given the awe-struck media frenzy that followed Jessamyn West’s video showing her installing Ubuntu on some computers in a rural library. Many of these operating systems are getting easier to install and hardware manufacturers are getting much more cooperative in designing hardware that will work with many open source operating systems. But even if you’re not installing Ubuntu or Mandriva, there are many free or open source applications that have the same functionality as the desktop applications your library paid a small fortune to license. I use PDF Creator instead of Adobe Acrobat. I use Audacity to record sound http://audacity.sourceforge.net/. I use GimpShop instead of PhotoShop (which is not nearly as fully-featured, but good for small jobs). I typed these trends in Open Office, and I find that, for the basic tasks most people do, it’s just as easy to use as the Microsoft Office tools. In some cases, open source applications are far better than the commercial ones. Especially for cash-strapped libraries, it’s crazy to keep spending money on expensive licenses for commercial desktop software without at least considering the open source alternatives. None of these take a “techie” to install or learn how to use.

Here are three things you can do today to get more comfortable with the idea of open source in libraries: do some searching in the Nelsonville Public Library catalog, check out some of the open source alternative applications, and read about how the Howard County Library in Maryland switched to Linux years ago.

Capitalizing on User Contributions
Lots of online tools have been developed to capitalize on the knowledge and behavior of their users, but it seems like libraries are just starting to jump onto this important trend. There is so much useful knowledge just locked up in our and our patron’s heads. There is so much we can learn from the behavior of our users. And finally (FINALLY!) libraries are getting it.

Many libraries have created wikis for internal knowledge sharing. This is an important thing. Tell me if this sounds familiar: someone abruptly quits an important job at the library. Nothing about what they did was documented. Someone is forced to learn how to do their job from scratch. It doesn’t have to be that way. Wikis allow people to document what they do and what they know. It allows us to collect information more effectively than sending e-mails or taping a scrap of paper to the reference desk. If all of our colleagues shared the references they commonly use with patrons in their areas of expertise, we’d all be much better reference librarians. It would be like having all of your colleagues’ expertise at the desk with you every time you had a question.

The Ann Arbor District Library, the Hennepin County Public Library and the University of Pennsylvania are all bright shining stars in the effort to capitalize on user knowledge and behavior. Ann Arbor is using circulation information to show patrons what other folks who checked out the book they want also checked out. Sound familiar? They are also allowing users to assign tags to the catalog. They’re not throwing the Library of Congress Subject Headings out the window; they’re offering users more. Our patrons just don’t think in terms of Library of Congress subject headings and it would be nice to also have terms in the catalog that they do use.

The Hennepin County Public Library is letting users write reviews of books in the catalog. It’s pretty cool to be able to look at a book’s catalog record and then see what your friends and neighbors thought of it. Hennepin library users can also create book lists where they group books together on a specific topic and can also add annotations. Why not use your patrons’ own reading experiences as a readers’ advisory tool?

The University of Pennsylvania’s PennTags is a social bookmark manager for students and faculty at Penn. Members of the University can bookmark items from the Web or the library catalog and tag them with keywords that make sense to them. People can create annotated bibliographies using PennTags and save them as individual projects. These can include readings for a class or resources for a project. What’s really cool is that when something from the catalog is tagged, the tags, annotation and link to the annotated bibliography is included in the catalog record. This adds such rich user-generated information to the catalog record that can lead students and faculty to other related works that would be helpful in their research.

Social Software… Sustainably
I remember reading once that there is always a huge upsurge in purchases of Dalmatian puppies when Disney releases 101 Dalmatians for the big screen. Soon thereafter, there is a huge influx of Dalmatians placed in animal shelters. Lots of people bought Dalmatian puppies to make their children stop bugging them about it. Some were able to live up to the responsibility and take care of the Dalmatians, but others got rid of them when they realized that they couldn’t handle the responsibility and/or their kids lots interest.

I think the same has happened with blogs in libraries. For a while we often heard the refrain “every library should have a blog!” from prominent technology evangelists in the profession. And a lot of libraries listened, creating blogs for readers’ advisory, library news and much more. Like the Dalmatian puppies, I’ve seen a huge number of abandoned library blogs floating around on the Web. Many social software tools are ridiculously easy to get started with, but they take real effort to maintain on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Wikis need to be monitored, blogs need to be posted to, bookmarks need to be added. The library blogs that have survived and thrived are those in which the librarians built blog posting and maintenance into their daily workflow. The Champaign Public Library is a great example, plannings for their blogs much as they do for their reference desk shifts (Nanette Donohue, who manages their blogs, gave a great Webcast on blog management for Five Weeks to a Social Library).

I think we’re past the “every library needs to be using social software” phase, and now libraries are starting to think about social software in a much more level-headed and sustainable way. They are starting to put the need before the tool. They aren’t saying “we want a wiki! Now what can we use a wiki for?” They are starting to plan for how to maintain the technology before they implement it. They are developing policies for things like blog comments or for friending on MySpace so that decisions aren’t made arbitrarily. They are thinking about things like “will this company I’m putting my data on be here three years from now?” and “how can we backup our data?”

As a result, I think we’re going to see much better applications of social software in libraries; applications that meet real patron and staff needs and that will stick around more than a few months. Because it’s not cool just to have a blog, but it’s very cool to have a useful blog.

Going Where our Users Are or Letting Them Use Our Stuff Where They Want It
I’ve taught information literacy classes with freshmen, sophomores and juniors. And what I find without fail is that the majority can’t find the library Website. They’ll start at the University homepage and will then flounder around until I give them specific instructions on how to find it. This tells me that they do not visit the library Website and that is confirmed by our stats in Google Analytics.

So if our students are not visiting the library Website, where are they going? They’re going to Facebook and MySpace to socialize. They’re taking classes online using Blackboard, ANGEL and other course management systems. They’re watching YouTube videos for entertainment. They’re doing research on the Wikipedia. They’re often getting their news from an aggregator of some sort, be it Google Reader or MyYahoo!. So we can do two things. We can try to make our Websites more user friendly and more what our students want. And that may have some effect. But, we also need to go where our users are. We need to put our content where our users eyes go online. And we need to make it easy for them to take our content and get it how, when, and where they want it.

Lots of libraries have created profiles in MySpace, but so many of them are more a billboard for the library than a branch of the library. A lot of library MySpace profiles don’t offer students anything concrete; they just say “hey we’re cool! We’re on MySpace! Friend us!” The really effective MySpace library profiles are designed to be another branch of the library. The Brooklyn College Library, Ann Arbor District Library, Hennepin County Public Library, Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenberg County, and the Denver Public Library have all done a great job of developing a virtual branch in MySpace, offering things like a catalog search interface, event calendar, links to new books and movies, a news blog, links to databases, and an IM widget. They’re providing something really useful to young patrons and are making the library more visible in those patrons’ daily routine. Some people think it is frivolous to develop a library presence in such a space, but I think it’s no different than creating a library presence for online learners in WebCT. It’s just putting a portal to library collections and services where your users are. It’s good business.

There are so many great ways that libraries can be where our patrons are. We can put links to our collections in Wikipedia. There was a really great article in D-Lib last month about how some folks at the University of Washington added links to the library’s digital collections in the Wikipedia. We can create a library toolbar which lets our patrons easily access our collections and services from the top of their browser. We can put instructional screencasts into YouTube and other popular video hosting sites. We can provide reference services via instant messaging and get patrons to add us to their buddy list, which is often open while they work. The goal is to make the library more visible and to make it easier for users to access our stuff.

It’s also become easy to make our content more portable so users can get it how they want it. This is thanks to RSS, which separates the content of the page from the presentation and allows content to be syndicated in other places. Patrons can take RSS-enabled content and can subscribe to it in an aggregator or personal homepage, can have it send to them via e-mail or text message, and can even have it show up on their own Web site using an RSS to JavaScript tool. There’s a lot of content that can be syndicated using RSS, like new materials lists, catalog searches, library news, database searches, journal tables of contents, and more. With RSS, users can subscribe once and will get updated content for as long as they want to without ever having to visit the library’s Website again.

We all have spent so much time working to make our Websites as usable and accessible as they can be, so it can be hard to consider developing ways for your patrons to bypass all of that. But the goal is to get them to use the library, not the library Website. I’m sure some people had just as hard a time creating an online presence for their library in the first place when what they really wanted was for their users to come into the library. The trend is definitely for libraries to make their content and services as portable as possible and to put them into the spaces our patrons really do visit. The more we can be in their daily routine, the more likely it will be that they’ll take advantage of what we have to offer.