Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 7, Number 10: September 2007


Making it Work

Some of you know I suspect this section needs to be a separate ejournal—something that can’t happen without sponsorship. Why separate? Because there’s too much material for a section (the items covered here barely dent my backlog), because it’s an area that should continue to grow and diversify as we move from hypewars to the sometimes small changes that move the field forward, because there’s plenty of other stuff to cover in Cites & Insights. And because doing a really good job in this area requires more time and focus than I can provide when it’s just a piece of Cites & Insights.

As I work on these sections, I find that it makes sense to quote significant portions of the sources—and that commenting on posts as much as six or seven months old can be worthwhile. Unfortunately (for MiW as a section), that means space becomes even more of an issue. For example, when I began this month’s episode, I thought I’d deal with three little groups of posts that represent maybe one-quarter of what I have on hand (but in three specific areas). Turns out that, to keep this section at reasonable length, I’ve dealt with one of those little groups—by far the smallest of the three.

What we have here, then, is what might be one of four to six sections in an issue of Making it Work (if that’s the final name).

Successes and Failures

Crossing two continents and two blogs, we begin with a discussion that speaks strongly to locality and feasibility. In a sense, it’s about failure—but it’s also about possibilities, ones that may make sense only for certain libraries and their parent institutions.

Peta Hopkins posted “Branded environment—campus collaboration” at Innovate (inn0vate.blogspot. com) on March 19, 2007. She starts by referring to a March 6, 2007 post by Brian Mathews at The ubiquitous librarian (theubiquitouslibrarian.typepad.com/), “More on the branded environment concept.” Portions of Mathews’ post:

A few weeks ago I mentioned the potential of creating a branded environment. I have an example now of how we’ve failed our students in this regard. A patron who is a friend of the Library wanted to start a book club. We supported her giving her space and permission to post some flyers in the elevators and then pretty much got out of the way.

She started the book club using a Facebook Group and got about 20 members to join. Yet now she is taking it off FB and moving it to Google Groups. I asked her why and she responded:

“We think it will be easier to discuss things, for one thing... facebook doesn’t really give you a lot of room so it’s hard to read replies. Also, a lot of people don’t check facebook regularly so we miss out on getting people updates easily. Those are the two main reasons... it just seemed that Google groups would work better.”

I like that they are evolving as they assess their needs but I wish that we or someone else on campus was able to provide an online space for them. This is what I mean by creating a branded environment. A collaborative space with lots of tools that students can use to be productive. Merging the campus portal concept, with registration, the library, the course management system, some social software, etc. NCSU captures this spirit by giving students blogs and wikis, but I’d like to see a bigger enterprise, a central place with lots of tools and information that students actually use…

That’s what I mean about creating a branded environment. I don’t think it’s something that a library can do alone, but requires participation with others on campus. Giving them content is easy, but giving them tools to do stuff, that’s the real challenge.

Did the library fail its students in this case? For smaller libraries (whether public or academic), an appropriate answer might be “Huh?” The kind of library-based collaborative digital creation environment may be so far outside reasonable capabilities and expectations that it’s not even worth discussing—and perhaps not within what the community would consider the library’s reasonable bounds. At fairly large academic libraries (Mathews is at Georgia Institute of Technology—Georgia Tech—a large [16,000 students], well-respected polytechnic university), such an environment might make as much sense as digital creation workstations do in many public libraries these days. (Just to be clear: I believe digital creation workstations make sense in larger public libraries and some smaller ones—it’s part of encouraging community participation and helping the community tell its stories, a natural extension of local library services.)

Peta Hopkins is at Bond University, a private university in Australia (Australia’s oldest private nonprofit university). It’s considerably smaller (about 1,800 students). Most of what Hopkins has to say about possibilities at Bond, partly reformatted for space reasons:

Various groups on campus at MPOW have talked at times about providing blogs and wikis or other collaborative spaces. And in fact some of us are using various blog platforms and wikis outside of the ‘branded environment’ that Brian refers to. Why? Because we just haven’t got anything like this on campus -- yet! (Ever the optimist).

Currently the developments in this area that I know about are:

* a blog server set up as a pilot for “teaching and learning” use only using WordPress - several student blogs were established and were included as part of the assessment for a course. Previously students were asked to set up a blog on any blog platform/host they liked.

 * trial of ‘campus pack’ a Blackboard plugin that provides blogs and wikis within the locked-down environment of Blackboard

[…and two library blogs, a potential “blaws,” discussion of blogs and wikis, etc…]

An ICT strategic framework refers to blogs and wikis as desirable collaborative/learning tools. And as it stands there are some great ideas and projects that could benefit the University if these were hosted under a branded environment. But at present they are scattered on the web.

OK, so if we could provide this kind of branded platform what other great ideas would our community come up with?

[Bullets combined]  Reflective learning journals. Documentation wikis/blogs. Book discussion groups. Wikis that could be used to share/develop procedural documents. Project Planning sites for student projects [or for staff]. Personal blogs for students wanting to write about their learning or student experiences. Student association blogs. Research centres writing about their research activities, or podcasting. Staff writing about their personal research or teaching experiences or their area of expertise. Space for collaboration with the university’s partners - one group I’m involved in is using a wiki provided by another institution to do action planning and organise a workshop/seminar. University Club menu and specials blog (instead of clogging up our email inboxes). Collaboration on conference papers - last year I tried this with a colleague using Writeboard. Content development - get some inspiration from Wikipedia. Write an online book.

I could be using this kind of branded environment now. Here are a few more thoughts on the concept.

* Policies are important to address concerns about what sort of content is made available to the world - but others are doing it, it’s not insurmountable, and in fact there’s this pbwiki site I know about where some of this has already been pulled together.

* A mix of open access/closed access is essential to meet needs of various ideas and uses

 * A rollout of RSS feed aggregator and the information literacy skills to the majority of the community would really help - perhaps a feed aggregator within Outlook to harness the huge dependence on email

 * Mashing up some of this content would be really cool. Mix’n’match feeds to get a snapshot of what’s happening on campus in a daily fix

* Syndicating some of this content to show it off on relevant parts of the website means fresh, regularly updated and targeted content

 * It’s bigger than just one area of the University can manage

Hopkins closes by quoting Mathews’ final paragraph. Both agree: This is not something [most libraries, even large ones] can do alone. Unstated, and I really don’t have an opinion: Is this kind of branded, web-based collaboration environment something any public library should be trying to achieve? Would it be used enough to justify the investment? Is it something a community would expect the library to do or appreciate as part of the library’s mission?

No answers. I think the questions—and the discussions—are sufficiently intriguing to include as possibilities.

If You Build It, Will They Come?

That’s an applicable question for the branded environments proposed above—and it’s a question that applies to most innovations to increase community participation. For commenting on public library blogs, the current answer is “not very often, with a few exceptions.” For tagging and user reviews and the like, there aren’t enough cases or history to draw any solid conclusions.

Leaping to a third continent and back to a fairly large academic library (University of Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, UK, with about 20,000 students), we have several posts by Dave Pattern at “Self-plagiarism is style” (www.daveyp.com/blog/). Pattern’s library added five “tweaks” to its online catalog: “did you mean?” spell-checker suggestions for failed searches; “serendipity keyword” suggestions for failed searches, “people who borrowed this also borrowed…” suggestions; books with similar subject headings; and other editions of books.

Before proceeding with the results, I should say that Pattern offers exceptionally clear and detailed notes (linked to from a March 10, 2007 post) on what each of those five tweaks is actually doing. The “serendipity keyword” tweak is particularly interesting. The “people who borrowed this…” explanation includes comments noting that this feature raises real privacy and confidentiality issues in the U.S. (and some possible ways around that). The last two tweaks are becoming fairly common in advanced interfaces, which doesn’t make them less worth tracking.

So how did it go?

Pattern reported on early results in an April 3, 2006 post (with the same title as this section). At the time, “other editions” and “serendipity” didn’t amount to much—six and 14 “clicks per weekday” respectively. “Similar subjects” was at 36 clicks per weekday, but rising consistently. (None of the tweaks had been promoted.) Then there are “also borrowed” and spelling suggestions, averaging 154 and 222 clicks per weekday respectively. Those are pretty solid figures even for a large university library. Pattern’s conclusions? If your catalog doesn’t provide spell checking, ask why—or do it yourself. He’s fond of “also borrowed,” but that really does raise questions for most libraries. The other features didn’t pop up as often, so it’s not surprising they weren’t used often. Finally, it’s worth quoting this paragraph:

There’s been quite a bit of discussion about Web 2.0’s “permanent beta” and whether or not we should be using our patrons/borrowers/students to test out new features within a live OPAC.  However, if you can monitor the usage and solicit feedback, then it allows you to roll these features out and (if necessary) quickly remove them, or make them optional.

But wait, as the infomercial would say, there’s more! Pattern left the logging running and reported on 11 months of use in a March 10, 2007 post. That post is full of charts and graphs, so this brief summary certainly isn’t as interesting (or colorful!) as the post. The daily averages across 11 months aren’t much different—a little lower for serendipity, a touch higher (16) for other editions, a little lower for similar subject, a lot lower for “also borrowed” (70) and “did you mean” (126). But, as the first graph makes clear, that’s misleading: It includes several months (summer and holidays) in which the library gets very little use. Looking at the highest month (either October or November 2006) for each tweak, I see almost 6,500 clicks for “did you mean,” almost 4,000 for “also borrowed” and almost 2,000 for similar subjects—all usage levels that say these tweaks are apparently helpful to large numbers of users. Other editions at around 1,000 is not huge but still interesting—and as for serendipity, well, it’s inherently an odd one, and only seemed to hit around 300 in its peak month.

I wouldn’t argue with Pattern’s conclusion, with the possible exception of the problematic “also borrowed” implementation: “Even with the least used tweaks, there’s more than enough usage to justify the development time, so I’m extremely happy with the graphs.” I commented on how nice it was to see real figures—and Pattern responded with more information. First, overall usage levels in those peak months—about 11,000 students visiting the library, about 8,000 checking out books. Second, “did you mean” clicks as a percentage of failed keyword searches—an impressive 14%. Neat features that people demonstrably use—how can you ask for better?

Pattern revisited the situation on August 15, 2007. Comparing May-July 2006 vs. the same months in 2007, “did you mean” use went up significantly—but “also borrowed” zoomed, easily three times the usage of the previous year. Oh, and overall circulation is up as well. The high level of use of “also borrowed” makes me wonder whether it would be worth someone’s time to investigate methods of doing something similar that don’t endanger borrower confidentiality. I (for one) am unwilling to cede that principle, particularly in an era of NSLs and a government that asserts it is impossible to challenge its “security” operations in court and that the Executive branch is Constitutionally permitted to do whatever it wants, period.

To close this discussion, here’s the last paragraph in Pattern’s August 15, 2007 post:

Interestingly, I don’t think we’ve ever had a student go up to a member of staff and say “I’ve found the suggestions really useful” or “thank you for adding spell checking”. I wonder how many complaints we’d get it we turned the features off?

Library 2.0 Usage Results

Dave Pattern has demonstrated substantial use of some online catalog “tweaks”—only one of which (also borrowed) could be considered “Library 2.0” in any real sense. Jeff Scott  is a manager at the City of Casa Grande Public Library (CGPL) in Arizona, a library potentially serving about 30,000 people.

CGPL has several “library 2.0 uses,” developed beginning in September 2006 and rolled out in January 2007. In a May 7, 2007 post at Gather no dust (gathernodust.blogspot.com), Scott reports on usage from January to April 2007 and compares use of some traditional methods and Library 2.0 methods.

The library does audio notes on programs in three topic areas, available on their phone system and as podcasts. In those four months, 15 people listened to the phone messages—and there were 145 downloads of podcasts. They have a library photo album on the library’s website and photos on Flickr; the former had 12 photos viewed 125 times during the period, while Flickr had 638 views of 169 photos.

As for mobile communication, the library has all of two Library Elf subscribers—and while it has Twitter followers, “I don’t think we have any local subscribers yet.” That may be a promotion issue.

There’s more, including the following, cited verbatim with no discussion:

Blog versus email versus web versus paper

Number of bookletters email subscribers: 442

Number of patrons on email distribution list: 598

Number of blog subscribers: 10

Number of people who look at content via the web: 48,989 from January to April

Number of people who read our events via the Community Services Brochure: 30,000 (mailed to each home during the summer and sent in each newspaper in the Fall and Spring, effectively canvassing every home in my community.)

From this I can gather that more people would prefer to receive information via email after they check the website. I think paper and people trump everyone.

Using Wikipedia to extend digital collections

This one’s distinctly unusual and I’m mostly referring you to a fairly long article with that title, by Ann M. Lally and Carolyn E. Dunford in D-Lib Magazine 13:5/6 (May/June 2007). Lally and Dunford both work in the University of Washington Libraries. The paper describes the UW Libraries Digital Collections (more than 120,000 imagest, texts and audio files, mostly about the Pacific Northwest) and how they’re linking it to Wikipedia. Briefly, they analyzed the collection using Contentdm, developed a subject list and looked for relevant Wikipedia articles. When they found such articles, they would add external links to the appropriate UW online collections and concise summaries of what was there and relevant. In at least one case, UW librarians wrote a new Wikipedia article as part of the project.

The article provides excellent detail on what was done and the results. “Analysis of server statistics indicates that Wikipedia is indeed driving more traffic to our site”—and that trend is steadily increasing.

This appears to be a classic case of getting the resources where the users are, particularly when they’re digital resources likely to supplement some other material. The article concludes:

Web 2.0 technologies offer librarians a great opportunity to enhance the authority of resources that students use on a daily basis, and to push their knowledge and expertise beyond the traditional boundaries of the library. We now consider Wikipedia an essential tool for getting our digital collections out to our users at the point of their information need. We view this as a very low cost way to enhance access to our collections, as well as an effective way to participate in the creation of resources that are used by millions around the world. We will continue to explore how we can take advantage of the opportunities that Web 2.0 technologies offer us when marketing our digital and physical collections.

Other Success Stories

Lorrie Ann Butler and Susan Kantor-Horning wrote “Online library card registration enables free passage to digital gems” in the May 2007 Computers in Libraries. Contra Costa County Library serves a large commuter population, so library hours may not be convenient. The library implemented online library card registration and access to their licensed databases; the story discusses the process involved. The system went live on July 1, 2006. Since then, some 3,500 patrons have registered remotely for library cards, with another 4,000 using the in-house online self-service registration system. In a system that potentially serves a million patrons, those may not be huge numbers—but they’re people who might otherwise not be served. As the writers conclude,

The online library card registration system is proving to be a fully developed product of high technical quality. It has helped to align our library closer to the organizational goal of focusing more on our users and what they want. This service is one example of how the Contra Costa County Library is using new technologies to deliver traditional and new services to its customers.

Also from the traditional literature (and available online), Antoinette Powell talked about “That bloggin’ pneumonia!” in a June 1, 2007 Library Journal BackTalk piece. Powell is music librarian at the Seeley G. Mudd Library, Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin. Her director asked whether she wanted to do a music blog—and at the time she felt she was too busy. Some other library blogs were launched without much activity. Meanwhile, Powell attended a conference session where she was advised that a library blog shouldn’t be just a bulletin board.

That’s exactly what we were doing wrong. All along, we had thought simply that “if we build it, they will come.” We were mistaken. People can find out all the latest library news on the homepage. Why should they click again to a blog that says pretty much the same things?

She took this observation back to a staff meeting and they decided to change their blogging—collapsing multiple blogs down to two and spreading the load by giving all staff members the power to post (making it clear that posting wasn’t mandatory).

Once freed of any obligation to post—and without having a separate blog that would rise or fall on her efforts alone—Powell found lots of things to blog about: “Once dreading the idea of blogging, I found myself logging in two or three times a day.” Since then? There’s a Flickr page for new CDs. “We know the word is getting out.” (I would note that, for some smaller libraries, the blog is the library home page—and if there’s a blog, people shouldn’t need to “click again” to it—it should come to them via aggregators. Still, this is a case where less is more: Where one multiauthor blog appears to meet this library’s needs and abilities better than several specific blogs.)

Laura Crossett is the branch manager at the Meeteetse Branch Library—a library serving a town of 351 people in Wyoming. She wrote about “usability!” on June 8, 2007 at lis.dom (www.newrambler.net/lisdom/). It’s a long, fascinating post that needs to be read in the original, about the process of usability testing on a shoestring—two people at each of two other libraries in the system, testing the new library webpage Crossett’s working on. She learned a lot from this tiny sample, coming up with eight changes she plans to make. Her conclusion:

Doing usability testing–even in the small, podunk kind of way that I did it–was hugely helpful. It seems obvious now that people might confuse a catalog search box with a regular search box, but I never would have guessed that on my own. When I’ve made some changes to the website, I may try it out a few more people and do a final tweaking, and then, I think, we’ll be ready to go live.

I’m frequently skeptical of claims that X or Y is true based on tiny samples—but there’s little doubt that a small number of usability tests, even ones performed simply and on no budget, can reveal a lot about weaknesses in a user interface. One interesting and maybe not surprising finding:

The question I thought would be the hardest–”Can you look for information about your genealogy?” turned out to be the one everyone got right on the first try. Everyone clicked on the Research tab, and then scrolled (or used the anchor tags) till they got to the genealogy databases.

Before moving on to a few instances of something less than success, it’s worth noting one key aspect of success—nicely put by Katherine (Katie) M. Dunneback at the end of “Achieving success,” a May 29, 2007 post at Young librarian (younglibrarian.blogspot.com):

The long and short of it is: achieving success is dependent upon how you define success.

Katie (that’s how she signs her posts) is talking about personal success, in the context of a “balance post” related to posts by Joy Weese Moll, Michelle Boule and Meredith Farkas. It’s an interesting post—but if I was discussing the whole post, it would be in a Balance section, not here. But that final formulation is vitally important when your library is working on new initiatives and evaluating existing services. I was struck by the same idea (maybe not in those words) as I was going through public library blogs: I couldn’t possibly say which blogs were successful and which weren’t, because success depended so much on local issues and definitions.

Your definition of success may not entail specific goals or benchmarks. It may be a matter of vectors rather than endpoints: Directions, not destinations. That’s always been true for my personal and professional life, and that’s been a fortunate thing for me (at least until recently). Maybe it should also be true for the initiatives you’re considering, recognizing that vectors can fail as readily as endpoints.

Failures and questionable states

I’m making this one semi-blind. It was a signed post from a public librarian on a library list, but I think there’s still the sense that list posts are somehow less public than blog posts. In any case, another librarian was asking for examples of library MySpace pages. This librarian noted that their library’s first MySpace page did nothing but attract hard-core porn links and was eventually killed—and the new one might be as well because there’s just no action. The librarian goes on to note the lack of any evidence that any of the “so-called Library 2.0 initiatives” the library uses—Flickr, blog, podcast, e-ref, de.licio.us, etc.—actually increases patron use of the library. There has been one big success: An email list (such as Listserv™) giving advance notice of library programs and the like. A list! Aren’t those dead?

Steve Lawson posted “How we done it…bad?” at See also… on May 24, 2007 (stevelawson.name/ seealso/). Full disclosure: The post is based on a discussion in the LSW Meebo room—and I’m one of the irregulars in that clubhouse. Some of what Steve has to say, and I’m sure you already know that I heartily agree we’d learn from more “failure” stories:

Perhaps we need more “how we done it bad” in our conference presentations. I’d like to see a “lightning talk” session at a conference, perhaps seeded with a few people who have 5 minute talks prepared on projects that just didn’t work out as planned: events where no one showed up, grant projects that never came to fruition, “innovations” that were just a pain in the neck, etc., etc.

A quick google search shows that I’m not the first one to think of “how we done it bad” in the library context, but I’d still like to pass an hour with a bunch of librarians trying to top each other with tales of how they messed up.

The comments are interesting, including one sad case where a librarian presented a useful failure example in a conference presentation—and got back comments from people who didn’t understand how you could learn from failure. That seems unfortunate.

I’ll end with a case that’s not clearly a success or a failure—but seems to be trending in the wrong direction: California’ statewide chat reference service. Sarah Houghton-Jan posted “The future for California libraries’ statewide chat reference” on July 17, 2007 at LibrarianInBlack (librarianinblack.typepad.com/), noting the odd situation with the statewide project. First there was funding for 1.5 coordinators. Then one-half. Now, no coordination staff at all—and no coordinated PR or staff training. When the post was written, even next year’s funding for the software was up in the air. That was settled—but still no funding for coordination. “Unfortunately, so many of us have seen such low usage as a result of the lack of funds dedicated to the project over the years, that we’re now convinced it won’t be used—no matter what.” There’s a lot more to the post and comments. It’s a troubling case. Without addressing the specifics here, I’ll close with two questions Houghton-Jan poses near the end of the post, questions that could be raised about other library initiatives of various “generations”:

Why implement something if you’re going to let it die?  Why throw money at something if you’re only going to throw half the amount the project requires to succeed?

And on that slightly negative note, I’ll stop.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 7, Number 10, Whole Issue 94, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at OCLC.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services, http://www.ybp.com.

Opinions herein may not represent those of OCLC or YBP Library Services.

Comments should be sent to waltcrawford@gmail.com. Comments specifically intended for publication should go to citesandinsights@gmail.com. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2007 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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