Monday, April 28, 2008

changing spaces in academic libraries

Over the past few years, I haven't been much interested in library buildings and their interior spaces. My feeling has been that the revolution is happening online and that building new libraries, renovating existing ones, and filling them with fancy furniture are just high ticket distractions, designed to please the eyes of donors and add feathers to the caps of administrators as much as to address real needs.

I must admit, however, that throughout my career, I've enjoyed working in a couple great library buildings nestled in forested areas in Oregon: Watzek Library perched up here on Palatine Hill in Southwest Portland and the recently renamed Barber Library at Central Oregon Community College, which sits among ponderosa pines on the COCC campus on Awbrey Butte in Bend, OR. There, I had a view of Mt. Jefferson from my office. Even back in Wisconsin in grad school, I had an affection for the dreary stacks of Memorial Library. I've always liked the library as place, even if sometimes I've taken it for granted.

I came across this piece in The Economist by way of Lorcan Dempsey. It's a fascinating discussion on the "nomadism" enabled by computer networks and how that is breaking down traditional patterns of where people live and work. The article describes nomadism as an approach to work that is one or two steps evolved past telecommuting with a fixed home office and a fast Internet connection.

One major point in a section that discusses architecture (that Dempsey highlights) is that specialized spaces are not as important anymore because of ubiquitous, networked technology. It used to be that spaces had to be specialized: you worked in your office because it was close to files that you needed, work colleagues, a phone line, etc. In the networked world, specialized, compartmentalized spaces like cafeterias, offices, meeting rooms are going out of style for multi-functional spaces. The traditional library is a good example of a space that had a fairly specific function (information storage and retrieval).

There's also a sense that there is a higher expectation for aesthetics in these newer, multi-functional spaces:
The new architecture, says Mr Mitchell, will “make spaces intentionally multifunctional”. This means that 21st-century aesthetics will probably be the exact opposite of the sci-fi chic that 20th-century futurists once imagined. Architects are instead thinking about light, air, trees and gardens, all in the service of human connections.
For a long time now, there has been a lot of discussion about redeploying library space in the digital age to make it more flexible and usable for a variety of purposes. As the footprint of library stacks slowly recedes, the library can expand into other roles: cafe, meeting place, group study, teaching and learning center, etc.

In a future vision of the library, "lending out" flexible multi-purpose physical space becomes just as important as lending out books. Whereas in the past, academic libraries and stacks had a kind of dismal if sometimes charming, utilitarian quality, the new expectation is that libraries will be beautiful, comfortable, and social places.

Once the goal is a comfortable and beautiful space rather than one that serves as a utility for information retrieval (library stacks), expectations become much higher and harder to meet. For instance, the library is trying to become a cool hangout, it's going to be competing with other places on campus like the student union that want to be the same thing. When the library tries to become an art gallery or a cafe it really moves into new territory. Do librarians even have the training for this kind of thing in planning, architecture, interior design, etc? Maybe we need to find ways of bringing in that kind of expertise.

In academic libraries, I don't think we've really grasped the ongoing strategic importance of offering flexible library space as a key service. When it's time for a new building or major renovation these ideas are brought to the forefront, yes. But shouldn't space configuration and deployment be an ongoing part of library work? Shouldn't we be reorganizing and adjusting the layout and look of our buildings as regularly as we reconfigure our virtual spaces?

At Watzek Library, we have many aspects of our building that we'd like to adjust. Potential changes on the radar include:
  • a new spot for the recently acquired William Stafford archive
  • a combined IT/library computer lab space
  • office space for new staff
  • reposition reference/instruction librarian workspace so that it is more accessible to students
  • a broad shift in the collection to accommodate slow and high growth areas
  • move audiovisual materials from behind closed stacks
  • trim the space taken up by print reference books and journals,
  • reduce our traditional A/V machinery (VCRs, DVD players, etc.) because more happens via the network
  • bring in other service units like the visual resources center and a faculty teaching/learning center
These kinds of changes should be able to made flexibly and incrementally on an ongoing basis. Many of them are the result of forces happening in the quickly changing virtual environment. They shouldn't be things that need to wait around for a major building renovation.

The reality is that these we tend to get somewhat immobilized because of the costs and planning involved in moving physical objects. Highly modular building design and furniture might really help. But the problem also exists because we're just not used to doing this sort of thing as part of our regular work.

Friday, April 18, 2008

an Academic Flickr

I couldn't agree more with this post by Peter Brantley, in which he is discussing a conversation with Raymond Yee. In it, he calls for an 'academic Flickr'.

He's right on the money when he emphasizes the importance of an open interfaces that permit reuse:

What I realized through the course of my conversation with Raymond was that the most critical aspect of a new Flickr like service is not really an attractive user experience. Certainly, that's essential to help find images and associate data with them; it's also what makes an application desirable enough to initiate use. However, what will make the application ultimately successful is the availability of open services that permit re-use: mashups that encourage integration with other services and content.

It is this feature - the ability to disintermediate the content, at least partially, from the restricting frame of the application - that is the most fundamentally important virtue of Flickr, and should be for any application that is premised on widespread internet adoption and use. Support for re-use enables a plethora of user experiences to be designed and developed. The needs of mobile users are distinct from highly interactive uses in in-world education, and in turn vastly different from many research imperatives.

This reminds me of a comment by Richard Wallis at Talis about a "reading list" (UK speak for course reserves) product that they were coming out with that he (somewhat boastfully) noted, doesn't even have a user interface. It simply provides data feeds and APIs for syndication/integration of content in other contexts like the course management system.

Really, you'd get three main things with an 'academic Flickr' that you don't get with the kinds of curated digital collections done now in libraries:
  • network effects of a shared web scale database (shared tagging, comments, search, etc)
  • a great best of breed user interface that allows convenient uploading, tagging, organization, image editing, and licensing of content
  • an open API to permit reuse of content
Our experiment with accessCeramics on Flickr aspires to take advantage of all of these things. Of course, Flickr has shortcomings (especially in the concept of longer term curation) when used for an academic sort of project like ours. That's where 'academic Flickr' could come in.

Monday, April 14, 2008

OCLC's competitive advantage

In a previous post, I mentioned the "cloud computing" aspects of the platform when used in the form of WorldCat Local or WorldCat Group to replace an ILS based catalog. A couple weeks ago, I got some more thoughts together on this, but some other distractions pulled me away.

Last year, as part of my work with the Orbis Cascade Alliance's Catalog Committee, I got to survey the market for next generation library catalogs/discovery systems. In my mind, OCLC's WorldCat Group/Local option stands out against both the open source and commercial competition. Why? Because of network effects.

Competitors making products like ExLibris's Primo and Innovative Interface's Encore simply don't have access to the data that OCLC does, and neither does the open source community. OCLC's holdings data lets them do relevance ranking by the number of libraries that own the item. Its global database allows the potential of expanding a search beyond a single library or group of libraries to a global database with built-in ILL. WorldCat offers records that are updated and improved over time by shared cataloging, and the possiblity of enrichment of those records by web-scale social networking (reviews, tags, etc.). WorldCat is a living organism that can't simply be replicated on someone else's server.

These advantages are byproducts of the cataloging and resource sharing networks that OCLC has had in place for years. They are more about a community committed to sharing resources than about technology.

It's also about exclusive access to data, which fits in nicely with Tim O'Reilly's Web 2.0 tenant, data is the next Intel Inside.

Another way to think about this is that OCLC is in a position to be a sort of EBay for libraries. EBay is valuable precisely because of its wide user base. It is the dominant player in online auctions because it offers the widest possible marketplace for buyers and sellers. That same comprehensiveness and global scope also has value when building a search system for books and doing resource sharing.

Traditional ILS vendors have little tradition of sharing data between their customers. I really can't imagine Innovative Interfaces putting together any kind of product that involves mixing customers data (that weren't part of a consortium doing direct business with them). The whole idea of mixing customer data seems like it would run counter to traditional notions of enterprise level systems, and would really be hard for a longstanding software company to grasp (though I have to point out that Talis is very much an exception). Most customers buying enterprise software wouldn't want to share their data with peers anyway, right?

But that is really a non-issue for libraries, and precisely what this Web 2.0 world calls for, and what OCLC has been doing for a long time. OCLC has this valuable data, and great potential to develop things with it, as well as a general current towards network-level computing moving in its favor. When libraries compare OCLC's products with that of a traditional ILS vendor, they need to see that the OCLC product is more than technology. Rather, it is an extension of a community, a network. The commercial vendors just can't offer that.

OCLC doesn't really have a monopoly on bibliographic data. But they definitely are one of the largest players out there, and their data could put them way out ahead. They are in a position to create an impressive platform with their line of products. As they do this, they should build it so that it's open enough that other companies and organizations can build products on top of it.

The model I'm thinking of is Flickr. Flickr is a great global platform for photo sharing, but through their API, Yahoo also lets other firms get in there and add value to it. OCLC should be build WorldCat as an information ecosystem that allows the library community to have a healthy marketplace of technology products. (They sort of have this model going with ILL, but there aren't too many competitors out there to OCLC's ILL management product, ILLIAD.) OCLC's new APIs for WorldCat are a sign that they are moving in this direction.

OCLC's competitive advantage in holdings data and shared cataloging applies largely to print materials. They really don't have any such advantage in the realm of electronic information: e journals, digital collections, etc.. They might be going after this with acquisition of companies like Openly Informatics and the ContentDM software, but even so, they are not in possession of data that gives them a competitive advantage in the same way as their cataloging and resource sharing networks. Many companies like ExLibris and Serials Solutions have e-serials holdings data. And data about library digital collections is generally open for harvesting/crawling.

Even in print material, Google Books could be a viable competitor to OCLC in the library search arena, especially because they have the advantage of full text searching. They have lots of data that OCLC doesn't. It would even be possible now with the Google AJAX search API to create a Google Book Search that linked back to your library catalog for books held in your library.

Farewell INNREACH, Hello WorldCat

It was just announced that the Orbis Cascade Alliance is moving its Summit union catalog to an OCLC platform.

This is great news and a truly bold move for the consortium considering how comfortable it has been using Innovative Interface's INNREACH product. Indeed, INNREACH, has served the Alliance well over the years.

The replacement product might sound a bit confusing: "a consortial borrowing solution based on the integration of, VDX, WorldCat Resource Sharing and a new circulation gateway. " Here's a primer

  • is the search interface and global bibliographic database and can be scoped into group (union) and Local catalogs; the Alliance will be creating a group catalog that will act like a union catalog for its member's holdings, but some members may opt to buy WorldCat Local.
  • VDX is a product that handles materials workflow between libraries
  • The "circulation gateway" is a yet-to-be developed product by OCLC that will connect VDX to the circulation systems of various ILSs, in our case III
  • WorldCat Resource Sharing is OCLC's system of moving ILL requests between libraries

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Liberal Arts Colleges: A Boutique Industry

Someone once remarked to me that the liberal arts colleges are a "boutique industry."

I've often thought that the success of liberal arts colleges in the early 21rst century has certain parallels with other successful industries where quality is prized over quantity. We have these kinds of industries all over Oregon, especially in Portland, and they are thriving. Hand-built bicycles, craft brewed beer, good coffee, even locally developed paint (I'm taking a break from using some Yolo paint right now).

David Brooks makes fun of the success of these types of businesses in Bobos in Paradise. The way he describes them is: they find a way to make something that used to be a kind of commodity item, a part of normal, everyday life, like coffee (which used to cost 5 cents and tasted about the same everywhere) and make it really fancy and expensive.

The article today in the NYT about fancy food at college campuses, I think, reinforces the tie between these pleasure, comfort and health-oriented boutique industries and that more lofty industry that is liberal arts higher education.

It's great that we're seeing better food on College campuses, especially for me since my campus is far away from all the good restaurants in Portland. But the fact that colleges can afford to cater to this kind of desire really reflects big endowments and big tuition (paid by people with big incomes). It's a sign that liberal arts education is just as much about a "lifestyle" as it is about learning, personal growth, etc.

When I was in school at University of Wisconsin in Madison, I shopped at Woodmans, and drank a lot of Leinenkugels, which was just $7.50 a case in 1989. I can barely pick up a six pack of Full Sail for that much anymore.

Innovative Interfaces abstains from DLF initiative

While waiting for paint to dry (literally) at 2 am, came across this.

At code4lib, we heard from Terry Reese and Emily Lynema about the DLF's initiative to create standards interfaces for ILSs to support external discovery services. An announcement from Peter Brantley confirms that a basic set of these has been adopted under the title "ILS Basic Discovery Interfaces: A proposal for the ILS community."

The proposal's goals are modest, but nonetheless set a baseline of functionality that most ILS vendors should be able to provide without a whole lot of difficulty:
1. Harvesting. Functions to harvest data records for library collections, both in full, and incrementally based on recent changes. Harvesting options could include either the core bibliographic records, or those records combined with supplementary information (such as holdings or summary circulation data). Both full and differential harvesting options are expected to be supported through an OAI-PMH interface.

2. Availability. Real-time querying of the availability of a bibliographic (or circulating) item. This functionality will be implemented through a simple REST interface to be specified by the ILS-DI task group.

3. Linking. Linking in a stable manner to any item in an OPAC in a way that allows services to be invoked on it; for example, by a stable link to a page displaying the item's catalog record and providing links for requests for that item. This functionality will be implemented through a URL template defined for the OPAC as specified by the ILS-DI task group.
The proposal is undersigned by the following vendors:
  1. Talis
  2. Ex Libris
  3. LibLime
  4. BiblioCommons
  5. SirsiDynix
  6. Polaris Library Systems
  7. VTLS
  8. California Digital Library
  9. OCLC
  10. AquaBrowser


  1. Innovative Interfaces, Inc.
Innovative Interfaces is clearly making a bold statement here by not going along with the crowd. Not sure what it is, though.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Open Source and the Cloud

Lately, I've been thinking about how the cloud computing model of providing software intersects with the open source model.

We've all gotten pretty comfortable with supporting Open Source apps that utilize a LAMP stack, Wordpress being a good case in point. This model works very well, generally speaking, but there are a couple problems with it, from the perspective of cloud computing.
  • First of all, if you use something like Wordpress, you regularly need to update your code and you need to deal with various compatibilities as you migrate systems. I really like applications that just kind of upgrade themselves over time, like GMail.
  • Second, applications that are installed as single instances on multiple servers can't leverage Web 2.0 style network effects like single installation, web scale applications can (eg Flickr, YouTube, (what, did, I just call an OCLC product Web 2.o?), etc.).
The recently released Omeka product got a lot of things right, I think. It's really a Web 2.0 digital collections system that allows for TWO-WAY interactions with collections.

We're eager to try it out here at Lewis & Clark. To get it up and running on our server, I had to upgrade MySQL from 4 to 5. This broke our compiled version of PHP. A newly downloaded version of PHP fixed things, but that broke a couple other components on our web site. A few hours later, all was well, but the point is, loading and running something like Omeka does still require some "heavy lifting" on a sysadmin's part.

The other element lacking in Omeka is the fact that its data isn't part of a larger system. Sure it's harvestable and can be syndicated through RSS, but it's not part of a greater, two-way information ecosystem.

So how should Open Source projects be done in this cloud computing environment? Code should be shared and improved by a community and those improvements should be tested and then applied to a centralized running instance of the application.

Google has just released a platform that would work well for this sort of model, called "Google App Engine."

Monday, April 7, 2008

NITLE Summit

Mike Wesch of "The Machine is Us/using Us" fame, gave a great talk at the NITLE Summit on the ways he believes digital technology changes learning. A major point was that the "sage on the stage" lecture model just doesn't make sense anymore. Knowledge is no longer scarce--the professor no longer has the kind of authority that they used to.

Not sure how much I buy the part about lack of authority. There were always ways to challenge a professor's authority in the past. To do so is still hard. To challenge a professor's knowledge and authority, you need much more than just information--you need knowledge and understanding of that information, and digital technology doesn't endow students with that. And the professor still sets the agenda for a course and hands out the grade. But the point about the lecture as a somewhat outmoded vehicle for instruction in higher ed is well taken.

On a more practical level, one thing that was striking about this guy was that he cobbles together his own learning management system out of freely available, open Web 2.0 tools: Zoho databases, WetPaint wikis, YouTube, Netvibes, etc. Bryan Alexander, in his intro to Wesch, referred to him as a "faculty member from the future." One might say that he represents the beginning of a third stage in the evolution of teaching technology:

  • from individually managed, desktop teaching tools like Word, Powerpoint that confine information to the teacher's personal information space and rely on the lecture to get that information across
  • to institutionally managed, server based tools like Moodle, WebCT, BlackBoard that can serve to share and discuss information within a particular course or institution
  • to systems that are managed at the network level and in some cases (like Wikipedia) serve to share knowledge globally

When someone in the room, which was full of educational technologists, among others, asked, "what can we do to help faculty like you", Mike's memorable quote was: "Get out of my way!"

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Lorcan Dempsey on The Big Switch

Lorcan Dempsey has just posted some thoughts on Carr's The Big Switch. I like this quote:
The 'big switch' is going to be a major issue for libraries over the next few years. They spend too much time getting their systems to work, and not enough time putting them to work.
Thanks to him for linking back to synthesize-specialize-mobilize.

Meanwhile, I must confess that I have yet to read The Big Switch, just excerpts from it on the web. I've put a hold on our library's copy of it (I think I know who has it checked out).