22 April 2009

A Fable

(This is a work of fiction. No resemblence to any real organization or people is implied, or should be inferred.)

Once upon a time, there was a business that really valued its employees. Although the business was small and struggling, each year it gave awards to outstanding employees. Those who won the awards split a small honorarium.

Then came bad budget times, and money for the honorarium was cut. This presented a problem, because the business really, really valued its employees, and wanted to continue demonstrating that with the awards. But where to find the money?

The Board of Directors really valued the employees...but not enough to chip in $25 or so apiece to fund the honorarium.

The CEO really valued the employees...but not enough to cover the honorarium out of his or her own pocket.

Upper Management really valued the employees...but not enough to take up a collection among themselves to fund the honorarium.

All seemed lost, until someone in Management said, "I know! Let's ask the employees to fund the honorarium. That way, the business gets credit for awarding star players, the employees will know exactly how much we value them...and it won't cost any of us one red cent."

Someone else said, "Oh, the employees aren't that stupid."

The first person answered, "Oh, I think they are."

And guess what? They were!

...And they all lived happily ever after.

08 April 2009

Computers in Libraries

Here's my report on the Computers in Libraries Conference in Crystal City, VA. I attended on Monday March 30, 2009 and Wednesday April 1, 2009.


The first session I attended was Digital Preservation, E-Government, and ERM. The presenters were from MERLN: the Military Education Research Library Network. They have a website that indexes government documents relating to international matters; i.e. under "Iraq" they have everything that the various Federal departments put out about US involvement with Iraq. Their database started with the second Bush administration. In addition to government documents, they also index several journals and popular news sources.

Their biggest challenge came with the 2008 election. Until then, all their listings were links to content on other government websites. With the new administration on January 20, all those websites would change, and suddenly the MERLN site would be nothing but dead links.

Responding to this challenge, they downloaded and archived all the government documents to which they had previously just linked. That effort, involving tens of thousands of documents, was finished well before Inauguration Day.

In designing a user interface for searches, the MERLN team were guided by these principles:

-Give users what they want.
-Don't startle user with changes
-Limit how much metadata you show users
-Be flexible
-Ongoing usability testing
-Never limit to one product or one way of doing things

"What do users want as an interface for databases? Hint...it starts with G."

Presentation slides (Powerpoint) are here.


My next session was Digital Rights Management (DRM), Copyright, and Creative Commons. In this session, presenters talked about Librarians' changing roles in the world of Digital Rights Management. Libraries and Librarians are faced with two sometimes-contradictory missions: as Librarians, we want to disseminate knowledge & information freely; but as agents and customers of publishers and database vendors, we want to control access to the same knowledge & information.

Slides are here.


Following lunch and a visit to the exhibits area (where I saw a familiar face at the Sirsi booth: former AACPL staffer John McGarty), I proceeded to Moving Libraries to the Cloud. This was a fascinating presentation by Roy Tennant and Andrew Pace of OCLC on their efforts to assist in moving library applictions & services to the internet.

The benefits include: low cost, don't need local resources & staff to maintain them

Among the major drawbacks to this approach are: dependence on network connectivity & speed, loss of control

Amazon offers S3 (storage) & EC2 (computing power)

Cataloging is moving toward a cloud-based model - allowing wiki-like editing of Worldct records - fix something as soon as you see it, and changes propogate to all member libraries

API Programming allows output from one program to be read by other programs in a structured manner - so output from several different programs can be arranged to suit user (ie pass ISBN to Amazon to retrieve & display cover)

According to the presenters, libraries (like most organizations) spend 70% of time building systems & infrastructure, and only 30% on their core mission - by moving applications & services to the internet, the team hopes to reverse that ratio

Example: Why should IT run a mail server, listservs, spam filters? Move all that to GMail so IT can concentrate on other matters.

More information, including various library-specific web apps, is at the team's website worldcat.org/devnet/.



I returned to the conference on Wednesday. My first session was Mobile Practices and Search: What's Hot?. I learned that one of the new buzzwords is extelligence (vs intelligence): knowledge and information stored and available on the internet rather than kept in the brain. Mobile devices are excellent portals for accessing extelligence, and Librarians are in the business of making extelligence accessible.

There is a new top-level internet domain for sites optimized for mobile devices: .mobi Many libraries are putting out mobile versions of their pages.

Worldcat has a mobile version at www.worldcat.org/m/

DC Public Library has an iPhone app for accessing their catalog.

Some vendors are working on a function that would send call numbers from the catalog to a mobile device via SMS (text messaging) so that patrons don't have to scribble down call numbers before going to the shelves to find an item. If the catalog has mobile access, patrons can browse the catalog while standing in the stacks.

Some libraries are deploying services like our "Ask a Librarian" or "Ask Us Now" via SMS texting so they are available to mobile device users. I wonder if Ask a Librarian or AUN use SMS texting?

A pdf of the presentation is here.


My next session was Mobile Usability: Tips, Reserach, and Practice. The biggest tip I picked up from this session is that patrons can easily send text messages from their cellphones to an email address (i.e. reference questions to Ask a Librarian or a branch email address). All of the cellphone companies have this functionality built in. Messages are usually short (i.e. 160 characters). You will recognize them from the format of the return address: it will phone-number@cellphone-company.com. Replies should also be short in order to fit within the 160-character limit.

This functionality requires no additional software or effort on the part of the library IT dept. It is there right now. Libraries can (and should) promote this on their website (i.e. "Ask a Librarian is available thru your phone: send text message to this address.")

As far as I know, AACPL does not take advantage of this functionality.

Powerpoint slides are here.


On Wednesday we got a free box lunch. I suppose I shoudln't call it "free," considering what prices were for attending the conference.

My last session was Mobile Library Apps. First, folks from the University of Connecticut Health Center Library discussed their PDA Program - the library provides training & support for PDAs (which students are required to purchase.) The Library also has sync stations for updating databases, and negotiates contracts for databases. The main thing I learned from this presentation is that Windows Mobile comes in a bewildering number of variations, and which version you have matters a whole lot.

Slides from their presentation are linked on this page.

Then DC Public Library presented their iPhone app, which works with Sirsi/Dynix EPS discovery tool & could work with other Sirsi/Dynix tools. The app allows searching their catalog and placing holds, as well as branch names, hours, and contact info. Their IT department wanted to do this because it's fun, and also because everyone is dissatisfied with their OPAC. Other projects are in the pipeline: A Blackberry version, new OPAC interface. They hope to use the upcoming iPhone 3.0 software to allow patrons to pay fines & fees via their iPhone, etc.

There have been 2200 downloads, and 85 people used it to place holds last week. Took about 100 hours to create app - the whole package will be available for download for iPhone developers. DCPL can help libraries who wnat to set up similar apps.

DCPL SMS text messaging capability was added to catalog in mid-February. They use it for Notes & Announcements (hold pickup, overdue, etc.) there's also a link to renewal page. SMS is also used for PR for programs & events. Patrons opt-in on website registration page. Aimed at gen x, gen y, but also parents/guardians who are comfortable text messages to communicate with kids. Messages tailored to requirements of SMS - short, abbreviated, to-the-point. 1 text per item. No cost to library once all this is installed. Text messages are scheduled differently than emails and phone calls. Currently system generates about 100 texts per day. Uses email gateway to send text messages on back end.

In designing their iPhone app, they did extensive user testing with pen-and-paper mockups. Potential improvements include using the iPhone as a barcode scanner: for example, in bookstore a patron could take a picture of a book's UPC barcode, then place a hold on that title at the library.

The DC Public Library website is www.dclibrary.org.


I shared a Metro ride back to New Carrollton with Joanne Trepp, then returned home through the legendary B/W Parkway traffic.

And that's my experience at Computers in Libraries 2009.