wikipedia on the brain

I can’t stop thinking about Wikipedia lately. Again.

About two years ago, I got all fired up when I read about the gender gap among editors on Wikipedia (aka Wikipedians). I’m not sure what article it was specifically, but something like this piece in NYT ‘Define gender gap? Look up Wikipedia’s contributor list‘.

‘No way,’ I thought, ‘I am going to get out there and start contributing.’ So I created an account. And poked around a little at the back-end of things. This is where things stalled. Sure, I was comfortable enough with basic wiki mark-up, but there’s a whole lot of policy in place at our favourite ‘free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.’ But beyond that, a peek at the ‘talk page‘ behind any article reveals a whole universe of perplexing Wikipedian culture.

At least they have a behavioural guideline stating ‘Do not bite the newcomers‘?

I edited a little, but not much. Yet my interest in Wikipedia and desire to contribute remained.

Then I went off and had a baby, took another year’s mat leave, and returned to work at Brock last month.* And then happened upon this article by Adrianne Wadewitz, ‘Teaching with Wikipedia: The Why, What, and How.’ Yes!

So now, here I am — all fired up again. I read up on the Wikipedia Education Program — there’s a way for me get involved! I start doing some digging around Brock: is anyone already getting their students to work with Wikipedia? How might we work together? I’m still trying to find out (please contact me if you know of anyone…). With the traditional undergrad research paper going the way of the dodo, perhaps Wikipedia assignments are an option to explore?

And then the stars aligned & I caught wind of  ‘Wikipedia, Scholarship & Pedagogy‘  at University of Toronto Scarborough (More details here ).** With Dr. Wadewitz as keynote. It was an impressive event with a great talk (her slides are here) & active debate from faculty who had experience using Wikipedia in the classroom, and those interested in doing so. Attendees also included students who are involved in the Wikipedia Education Program as ‘campus ambassadors,’ supporting instructors with these assignments.

So, what are my next steps?
Step one: Edit (more).
Step two: Become a campus ambassador. I need to get more experience editing in order to be useful to faculty and students.
Step three: Have some conversations at Brock to find out who is already doing this, who is interested. Maybe host a similar event in the not-so-distant future?

That’s the plan.

* That’s my excuse for not having blogged in so long. And I just gave the blog a wee makeover & it’s still ‘under construction,’ so please pardon any mess  :)

** Thank you to the co-hosts Centre for Digital Scholarship & UTSC Library’s Digital Scholarship Unit, and organizer Leslie Chan for permitting me to attend.

conference report: Access Conference 2012

Sculpture on a McGill student that I snapped on Sherbrooke St. Details unknown, but welcome!

Sculpture of a McGill student that I snapped on Sherbrooke St. Details unknown, but welcome!

I attended my first Access conference last month. Access Conference 2012 , “Canada’s premier library technology conference”, took place in Montreal over October 19-21. Um, I was impressed.

I’ve shared my complete notes here, but I’ll also reflect on a few highlights and take-aways below.

A Different Kind of Conference

Attending this conference was a good reminder for me that I’ve really only been to a few different conferences in my career as a librarian thus far, and that I should continue to look beyond the ones-I-always-go-to and push myself to attend ones that look like they’ll be a bit of a stretch for me, content-wise. When considering attending Access, I reviewed the programme and worried that it would be too technical, or just beyond my realm. As it turns out, they had the full spectrum and the majority of the conference was entirely accessible (*wink wink*) for me.

I really appreciated the ‘human touch’ that the organizers brought to this event. They went above and beyond to make it a great few days in Montreal, whether that was in the form of a Sunday morning bagel run, an organized morning walk & run up Mont Royal, or the Google Map with recommendations for the best latte in between the conference location and hotel. Dude, I want one of those Google Maps for OLA & I lived in Toronto for several years — I just don’t know the Front St. area & always end up eating at the over-priced hotel or chain restaurants.

The high calibre of presentations was impressive. I don’t know if this is as a result of their newly instituted peer review process, or just the Access tradition. The speakers were knowledgeable, prepared, and a strong presence at the front of a room of 200+ . In a single stream format, we moved smoothly from grand ideas to more modest pilot projects, valuing them both. If there was one drawback to the single-stream style, it would be that attendees tended to sit in the same spots & with the same people — you don’t get those smaller-scale conversations or mixed-up mingling from attending different sessions together.

Ok, but what did I learn?

Enough of the meta stuff, on to the content: I appreciated that this conference filled in some gaps for me. I mean sure I’d heard about “big data” and read about all sorts of digital humanities projects, but my understanding of these ideas was pretty abstracted. At Access, I was able to be immersed in them for ~45min and come out finally able to wrap my head around them.

Lisa Goddard’s Adventures in Linked Data presentation was a glimpse into the complexity of a semantic web project coming out of the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory, complete with machine-readable definitions for the relationships between people and texts and places … I don’t think I can summarize it very well. But she made this type of work visual and meaningful for me.

I also appreciated Alistair Croll‘s discussion on Big Data, Answers, and Human Rights. Not only did he clearly explain Big Data, he also identified some significant ethical issues around how we use this data or the inferences we draw from it. Looking at big data’s potential through a human rights lens, Alistair highlighted the precarious relationships between prediction and prejudice, and personalization and prejudice.

Mike Kastellac pretty much blew my mind with a description of the new Hunt Library under construction at NCSU. They are really pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a library, and what sort of work, study, and play we support in our spaces. He suggested that the library’s traditional services focused on ‘supporting the consumption of documents,’ and while we still need to attend to this, we cannot ignore the growing needs of what he called ‘the technographic paradigm.’

In a similar vein, Marc Comeau, Riel Gallant and Michael Groenendyk of Dalhousie shared their early results aftera brief stint of offering 3D printing and scanning in the library … (wait for it) at the help desk. It sounds like they’ve already made some interesting connections with certain faculties and user groups, and they made a pretty convincing argument for the feasibility of this service in an academic library. Fascinating.

Finally, the conference wrapped up with a very thoughtful keynote presentation from Bess Sadler of Stanford ( an adapted version of her talk available on her blog). I won’t even attempt to summarize a talk with a title like Brain Injuries, Science Fiction, and Library Discovery, save to say that she drew some compelling connections between the impact of emotion on decision making, and how this could look in our online library interfaces.

As you can see, I struggle to extract a few pithy quotes from this conference experience. Truthfully, it was a real exercise in thinking deeply and pushing outside my comfort zone for 2 1/2 days & I’m grateful for it.

UX in Ontario Libraries Network: inaugural meeting

'We Are Not Our Patrons' pencil

'We Are Not Our Patrons' pencil, photo by Colleen MacKinnon

User Experience. It is without a doubt a buzzword in the library world these days.

Last Friday, a small group of interested librarians showed up for the inaugural meeting of the UX in Ontario Libraries Network (generously hosted by U of T’s iSchool). It was organized by Robin Bergart of University of Guelph Library, Shanna Pearson of Seneca College Libraries, and well, me. We drafted up a little mandate for our group:

  • To share experiences of UX at our home library (research methods, recruitment methods, results, etc.)
  • To develop our knowledge of UX design and research methods through invited speakers, book or article clubs, field trips, etc.
  • To form a network for continuous exchange of ideas, sharing knowledge, posing questions
  • To support libraries with no designated UX staff member in their efforts to learn about and implement UX activities

Of the three organizers, I am the newest to UX — I’ve been interested for a while, but really became a convert with my recent (and ongoing) involvement with the implementation of a web-scale discovery service (I blogged about it here). I found the UX design process an ideal way to focus our work on user needs, and the approach has carried over to how I look at my other projects these days. Speaking of discovery though, ‘SuperSearch’ is live and in beta!

The meeting on Friday was an opportunity to speak with other librarians bringing the UX approach to their work, whether it is in their job title (as it is for Robin and Shanna) or more of a personal interest. We had representation from the public, college, and university sectors which brought a great variety of perspectives to the conversation.

The day opened with with a framing of UX by Robin. She talked about how empathy is the cornerstone of this field, and that a sound understanding of our users is the basis for developing collections, library programs, instruction, facilities and so on.

Robin then split us up in groups & led us through an Empathy Map exercise, asking each group to select one specific user group and use our collective wisdom to develop a persona. For many of us, this was a valuable lesson in identifying what we in fact *didn’t* know about our users, whether they be incoming grad students, international students, or upper-middle-class moms.

Next, Shanna sent us out into the wild (ok, Robarts) with the goal of experiencing a key UX methodology: observation.  Armed with an observation checklist (adapted & abbreviated from the Customer Service Walkabout by Joan Frye Williams), we paired up and selected an area of Robarts library to sit and watch. This was a short exercise, just 15 minutes, but I can see how that’s all that is really needed to gain terrific insights that we otherwise miss when breezing by our various service points. The group re-convened to share our observations over lunch.

For me personally, I can see how I could use a little more practice in observation — perhaps trying it out in environments outside the library world a few times. I imagine the hardest part is to sit down and observe the goings-on in your institution with an open mind — without thinking “x user group just doesn’t want this service” or “I’ve been telling the y department about that problem for months.”

After lunch, we were fortunate to have our guest speaker, Dr. Jenna Hartel, share her presentation ‘An Introduction to Ethnography and its Use in Libraries.’ Jenna helped to draw out the similarities and differences between the fields of ethnography and user-centred design. She clarified that user-centred design has a prototype at the centre (such as the library website, or help desk), whereas ethnography is more open-ended inquiry (something like ‘how do undergrads do research at Brock?’).

She also walked us through some major concepts in ethnography and encouraged us to ‘go get the seat of our pants dirty’ via research in situ, in the spirit of American sociologist Robert E. Park. She shared some key studies in libraries applying ethnographic methodology, especially the landmark work Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester led by Nancy Fried Foster. There was so much more, but I will do a disservice to Jenna by trying to sum it up in a few sentences. Lucky for us, she’ll be presenting at the 2013 OLA SuperConference!

An interesting topic that emerged from the day was situations in which UX research was conducted & lessons learned from the users, but the recommendations were not implemented by the department or institution. Tricky. This reminded me of a great piece by Aaron Schmidt, Is Your Library Ready for a UX Librarian? He makes some valuable points about fostering institution-wide buy-in for UX as a process.

Lots of food for thought coming out of this meeting & I’m looking forward to a future gathering. We’re still in the process of sorting out what this network should look like & how it might operate. Either way, it was a great opportunity to chat UX for a day.

big news in my corner of the universe

Two Cows

Two Cows by Martin Gommel, via flickr

Just a brief post to share two pieces of news that impact our work at the library at Brock.

Brock University signs Access Copyright license.

It was announced on July 5th that we have signed on to the Access Copyright model license. More details, including the email message from the Provost and fact sheets are available on the Copyright page :  http://brocku.ca/library/campus-copyright-information . This was disappointing news, especially following the letter that we librarians submitted urging the University not to sign:  http://bufa.ca/files/files/BUFALibrarianLetterforAUCC.pdf . Following the announcement, Sam Trosow tweeted:

Brock buckles on #ACDeal  … ignoring well documented call for rejection from librarians …

Well, that’s it on that front I suppose. It is interesting to follow Sam’s list of institutions opting-out of the deal.

SuperSearch beta launch: Web-Scale Discovery at Brock!

On a more positive note, I’m pretty excited that about this beta launch since much of my work these days has been focused on this web-scale discovery implementation project. It’s out there now & we are soliciting feedback from any and all users. You can read our  news brief, or try it out here (guest access enabled). There are known issues of course (we called it ‘beta’ for a reason) & we hope to have many of them sorted out in time for a splashier launch in September.

This is a big step forward for our team and man, has it been a lot of work to get to this point.

conference report: OLITA’s Digital Odyssey

Two weeks ago, I attended my first Digital Odyssey, an annual one-day conference organized by OLITA (check out the full program here). This year’s theme was Liberation Technology, and included various explorations of the relationship between information technology and the pursuit of social justice.

I was intrigued by the term “liberation technology” – I’d never heard it before. It’s a clear reference to liberation theology, a radical Christian movement originating in Latin America in the 50s and 60s (wikipedia page, decent summary from BBC). Many years back, I did a year-long internship with Franciscans International in Geneva and became more familiar with this history.

I googled a little to see who is using this term and how. Many write-ups point to a 2010 article by Larry Diamond for the origin of the term. And it looks like Stanford has a Program on Liberation Technology — they define the field like this:

Lying at the intersection of social science, computer science, and engineering, the Program on Liberation Technology seeks to understand how information technology can be used to defend human rights, improve governance, empower the poor, promote economic development, and pursue a variety of other social goods.

I also came across an interesting little blog post by Mary Joyce distinguishing between liberation technology and digital activism. This was useful in helping me reflect on the OLITA conference. So yes, let’s get back to the conference.

A highlight for me was Fiacre O’Duinn‘s presentation Inside the Black Box: Hacker culture, librarians and hardware. I’ve heard many people speak excitedly about hacker spaces, but this is the first time I’ve heard a thoughtful consideration of where there is ‘room for improvement.’ Fiacre discussed many issues including gender, the isolated and “uniquely invisible” location of hacker spaces, and the outsourcing of physical labour to places where human rights standards are poor. I took away a few key thoughts (forgive my poor paraphrasing, Fiacre was much more eloquent):

  • In libraries, we have the social capital to break laws. We need to do it early and set the precedent.
  • Making something open source does not make it hackable. People need to understand, then be supported and encouraged.

All four thunder talks were impressive. I found Rebecka Sheffield‘s discussion of ‘citizen archivists’ to be especially memorable. She filled us in on a National Archives (USA) project crowdsourcing the transcription of historical documents: http://transcribe.archives.gov/. In her brief talk, she raised issues of inclusion and exclusion, and how both are present in this project. It’s a pretty fascinating website & worth a look.

The conference closed with a very strong talk on digital copyright in Canada by Carys Craig, a law professor at Osgoode Hall. She argued quite compellingly that we need to resist the property metaphor and ownership narrative when discussing copyright. Instead, she insisted that authorship is an expressive act that is social in nature — therefore, copyright is actually about the regulation of speech, not property.  Moving from theory to legislation and licensing, she had two strong statements that had special resonance for me:

  • We should not herald the passing with C-11: It features the addition of piecemeal exceptions rather than what is needed: a broadening to allow for a more principled, common sense approach.
  • Resist the AUCC model license : there is no need for it. She called upon librarians to speak out, be involved, and be vocal.

I left this talk feeling pretty fired up, which was great!

All in all, a very strong day and a great opportunity to meet colleagues across sectors (sometimes I get a little too siloed in the academic library universe). My full notes are here.

help! replacements for meebo?

Angela Hamilton broke the story for me. Late Sunday night, she tweeted mysteriously that Meebo is “going away.”

Sure enough, I investigated on Monday morning and, following an acquisition by Google, four of five Meebo products are being discontinued effective July 11th.

meebo-widget

Here at Brock, a number of liaison librarians use the handy little Meebo Messenger chat widget in their research guides (and elsewhere?) to offer virtual reference for their subject areas. For example, I’ve got that little guy on the left on all of my LibGuides pages.

Keen E-Learning Librarian that I am,  I promised my colleagues I would come up with a short-list of alternatives. This service is pretty important for some of our librarians, especially those who support substantial distance education populations.

I should say though, our situation is not as dire as other libraries who use Meebo for their entire virtual reference service. Fortunately, we’ve got Crafty Syntax Live Help in place for that. (Be warned: if you click on that link, the creepy eyes dude may haunt your dreams.)

I got cocky. I’m coming up short. Can anyone out there help me out?

Here’s what we’re looking for, in order of priority:

  • free!
  • offers an easy-to-embed chat widget, ideally doesn’t open a new window for chat
  • doesn’t require a sign-in or account for the user/ student
  • some sense of being a reliable or stable service (am I deluding myself with this one?)
  • ideally web-based client for librarians, but desktop is doable

I haven’t yet found anything that meets this criteria. There are a few sites and blog posts out there on alternatives to Meebo, but few of them offer widgets and many of them require the user to have a particular account (e.g. Yahoo, MSN, AIM) & require the chatters to have ‘added’ or ‘friend-ed’ each other. Blarg.

I’ll share my best suggestions so far:

yahoo-pingbox1Yahoo Messenger Pingbox

WARNING (Jan 8/ 2013): **Pingbox was discontinued by Yahoo in December 2012**

This actually looks promising, even though I don’t love that it’s Yahoo (I’d have to create a personal Yahoo account, as I’m sure others would).

It meets all criteria really, except that I can’t exactly make it work with the web version of Yahoo Messenger: it never seems to recognize when I’m online & available.

I quickly downloaded Yahoo Messenger for Mac on my laptop (could never do that on my work machine of course!) & it worked perfectly! So, we’d have to ask Systems to put Yahoo Messenger 9.0 on our desktops for this one to work.

digsby-widgetDigsby

I don’t know much about Digsby & have never used it, but it seems to have positive reviews. I couldn’t experiment with it on my laptop because they don’t have mac or linux versions. I’ve submitted a ticket to get it on my desktop (sigh) — I’ll update when I know more. [enter curses about the hampering of innovation here]

It appears to offer a sweet little widget and that Digsby kid is cute (complete opposite of the Crafty Syntax creep).

They were bought out by Tagged (?) this spring, but all communication suggests that the service will continue to be supported.

So yeah, that’s all I’ve got.

I got excited about a Google Talkback Badge, but have since learned that it’s no longer supported by those folks at Google? Darn.

Suggestions, feedback, “oh my god, don’t pick X — it’s the worst!” — all welcome.

trying new things

Talking to myself

'talking to myself' by aindhy


Today, I presented in my first webinar!

The two-part webinar on Localized Video Production was hosted by OCUL (Ontario Council of University Libraries), and organized by Jacqueline Whyte Appleby. The concept was smart, and I think it worked quite well. Jacqueline put out a call to OCUL librarians soliciting anyone interested in offering a brief webinar presentation sharing what they’ve learned about in-house video production.

The result was a series of diverse topics and a window into the work happening in other libraries. Personally, it provided me with a list of contacts to follow up with on various video issues and questions. I was impressed by the unique approaches happening across OCUL — far beyond your typical database demo.

My topic was ‘Beyond A Basic Upload: Taking Advantage of YouTube’s (new-ish) Advanced Features‘. I’ve shared the slides via Google Docs — my notes are pretty comprehensive & I hope they help make sense of the image-heavy slides.

It was a good experience, though I must say that the webinar format is a strange one. You don’t have any in-person feedback to gauge how the presentation is going for your audience. Apparently some listeners had trouble hearing me, so I mostly yelled the whole thing. Oiy.

I also didn’t realize until I started the presentation that I would be hearing myself speak through my headphones (with an ever-so-slight delay). It was hugely distracting and strange. I would look into correcting that if I do something like this again.

Anyway, preparing this presentation definitely got me thinking more about our videos and optimizing our usage of YouTube as a platform. There are many simple tweaks with good potential for impact.

conference report: Great Lakes THATCamp

Great Lakes, No Clouds

"Great Lakes, No Clouds" by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

This is the conference report submitted to my colleagues about the Great Lakes THATCamp I attended April 20-22, 2012 in London, Ontario.

A little background: THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) is, in their own words, “an open, inexpensive meeting where humanists and technologists of all skill levels learn and build together in sessions proposed on the spot” (http://thatcamp.org/)  You can find a  nice overview of THATcamp and the concept of an unconference on this About page.

This was my first unconference and I’ll admit I went in with considerable curiosity. In the end, I was very impressed with how the event unfolded. Scheduled workshops ran on Friday, and Saturday was a full day of sessions which we scheduled on the spot in the morning based on the group’s ideas and expression of interest. The process by which this scheduling occurred was very effective, and I’d be happy to explain in more detail if anyone is interested.

Since the unconference is participant-driven, there is no passive attendance. In order to attend #glthatcamp, I submitted a topic proposal: “nature of community in online forums.” It turns out there was a substantial interest in this topic, so I loosely moderated a discussion in the afternoon. I was impressed by the mix of participants: there was substantial librarian representation, but also graduate students, faculty members, public librarians, and even a toy inventor.

Highlights & Take-aways:

At the Libraries as Hackerspaces workshop, there was a very engaging discussion around the role of public space, gender and technology, and the logistics of operating a hackerspace.

The Storyboards are Visual Writing workshop was run by James Caswell, a professional storyboard artist and instructor in the Sheridan animation program. I plan to apply his suggestions to future video/ screencast planning, and perhaps even get brave and attempt some animation. He insists what it really takes is practice, not talent.

In the What’s wrong with the Digital Humanities? session, there were interesting parallels to the discussion of e-learning and the fading ‘e’ (DH and the fading ‘D’?).

It was wonderful to share my fascination with the information behaviour happening in forums and hear other share their ideas, thoughts & experiences in the session on Nature of community in online forums.

The final session on digital literacy included mostly faculty talking about their challenges integrating digital literacy in the curriculum, and the need for digital competencies both for fellow faculty members and students. The role of the library and librarians was discussed, and the group was interested to hear about our faculty workshop offerings.

Read my full notes in this Google Doc (open for commenting).

not a sexy topic — not gonna hide it

Spring

Spring by just.Luc

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the web-scale discovery implementation project that has taken over my (work) life.

Following a conversation with Bill Denton at the Great Lakes THATcamp this past weekend, I was convinced that some sort of project management software/ system would help us to monitor our progress and manage the details of our work. Thus began the search. I’ve explored a few options & thought I’d share my thoughts so far (organized chronologically: what I looked at first, next, and so on).

For the record, I’m a little peeved to be spending time and effort selecting a PM system, when I’d rather be doing the bleepin’  project … BUT I want to be thoughtful before investing much more time in populating a PM system & imposing it on my eight team members.

And yes, this is a far-from-sexy topic. So, maybe this is just an utterly self-serving post in an attempt to help me make a decision. But any input is more than welcome!

Basecamp:

Pros:

  • This is the one Bill recommended & used in their implementation of VuFind at York. Other colleagues have used it or heard about it & reported only good things.
  • It’s slick & pretty darn intuitive.
  • Makes it easy to capture detail & attach tasks to individuals and deadlines.
  • I like it because it seems to involve little-to-no learning curve (ideal since we are in knee-deep in the actual work right now).
  • It’s web-hosted and simple: (almost) everything is displayed on one page.

Cons:

  • 45-day free trial, then costs the project owner $20/month for the basic account (10 projects, 3 GB storage) & unlimited team members. This is not in the project budget. Can it be justified? Is it necessary? I can’t be sure unless I’ve explored the options, so…

One-Page Project Manager:

Pros:

  • Our library systems department currently uses this, so I have access to some help in setting it up.
  • While it is completely confusing at first, once you’ve sorted out how to translate it, it offers a really nice way to see your project’s progress over time.
  • I appreciate the use of a simple, one-page Excel spreadsheet.
  • It’s free — the creator sells books on the process, but I don’t feel the need for it (is that bad? Sorry Clark Campbell , I promise to credit your copyright on every spreadsheet).

Cons:

  • As mentioned above, confusing at first! Not self-explanatory at all, and will require a bit of time investment to bring team members on board, and any external folks we share this with.
  • Doesn’t capture detail such as issue-tracking (we’d have to find another way to do this).
  • I don’t love the idea of using an Excel spreadsheet & dealing with issues around version control & difficulty opening a document if someone else is viewing it. I don’t think Google Docs could handle this crazy spreadsheet :(
  • Likely because of copyright concerns, I can’t find much online to help me learn how to apply this process. The creator has some free templates for download, but no explanation or support (makes sense, he’s trying to sell his book). I did find one presentation on Slideshare that helped me make some sense of it all.

SharePoint:

Pros:

  • We already have access to this software in-house, web-hosted.
  • It will do a decent job managing the organization of tasks & deadlines.
  • It plugs in neatly to existing institutional systems for all team members (ie/ Microsoft Exchange Calendar, Outlook etc.).

Cons:

  • It’s a complex, powerful tool that is not made *just* to manage projects, though I can see how you can make it work.
  • Learning curve: Due to inexperience and said complexity, it will require more time and effort for the team to sort it all out.
  • Clunky in contrast to pretty Basecamp.
  • From what I can tell, there’s not much in the way of online resources for learning how to use SP for PM :(

Project.net:

I just learned that Brock’s IT department uses project.net to manage their work & it looks like I may be able to get an invite to check it out. So, I haven’t gotten in yet, but will update when I have more info. Here are my thoughts thus far…

Pros:

  • Available in-house without additional project costs.
  • Interface looks pretty clean and straightforward.
  • Open source with user documentation on their wiki.

Cons:

  • Similar issues to SharePoint around complexity.
  • Learning curve?

Will let you know when we’ve made a decision. I know, I know… the suspense is too much :)

discovery layers: a primer

suppertime2

suppertime2 by haydnseek, via flickr

For the past few months, the bulk of my working hours have been focused on learning about discovery layers. At my institution, we are in the early stages of selecting, testing and implementing a discovery layer & I am currently chairing a 9-person team (eep).

It’s really an enormous project with implications across the library. I thought it might be helpful to have a brief primer on discovery layers with some links for further reading.

What is a discovery layer?

In my local context, when we say discovery layer, we really mean web-scale discovery. A nice (and only slightly technical) definition of web-scale discovery is,

A preharvested central index coupled with a richly featured discovery layer providing a single search across a library’s local, open access, and subscription collections (Hoeppner 2012).

So, technically the discovery layer is really just the user interface for searching (almost) all of our stuff at once: books, articles, and whatever else we decide to put in there. The ‘central index’ refers to that stuff.

If you really want to have a grasp on the vocabulary and current players, Athena Hoeppner’s recent article The Ins and Outs of Evaluating Web-Scale Discovery Services, referenced above, gets pretty technical but provides a strong state of the field.

Why a discovery layer?

We are attempting to do away with the silos of information (poor silos, they really get a bad rap these days). Whereas previously a user would have to search for books in the catalog and perform a separate search for articles in various databases, we are pulling our local content together with a significant portion of subscription databases to enable a single-search experience.

I know what you’re thinking: “So, we’re trying to compete with Google? Sounds like a losing battle.” Yes and no.

Yes, a discovery layer should provide speedy natural language searching. We know from studying our catalogue search history that our users come to our systems with assumptions about search functionality & are frequently frustrated and confused by the emphasis on controlled vocabulary.

And no, “selling” a discovery layer as Google-like will not hold water. Pete Coco said it well in a January 2012 blog post for ACRLog, Convenience and its Discontents: Teaching Web-Scale Discovery in the Context of Google:

First and foremost, what web-scale discovery borrows from Google does not make it Google. Searching Summon [a Serial Solutions product] for scholarly articles will never be like searching Google — not because Summon cannot approximate Google’s user experience, but because scholarly communications will never be like the things students use Google to find.

Pete’s article is worth a read: he addresses some benefits and limitations of a discovery layer, including a warning against an emphasis on convenience.

So, the discovery layer will cover everything?

As it stands, the central index will not (/never?) include absolutely everything.

In some cases, this involves a conscious decision not to include particular content that we determine to be inappropriate in this ‘search everything’ environment. For example, highly subject-specific/ niche databases might be a poor fit for a discovery layer & only serve to confuse your users. Tough call.

In other cases, it is because certain vendor platforms will not play nicely with databases from their competitors. I don’t want to gloss over the ‘vendor agnosticism’ concern here. It is an issue. And just like how we can’t access Google’s algorithm for determining relevancy of search results, the same is true for proprietary discovery platforms. I’m still thinking through the implications of this. Mita Williams, always eloquent, touches on this problem in a November 2011 blog post, Practice makes the profession.

Um, this was confusing. I thought it was supposed to be a ‘primer’?

Yeah. Sorry. Turns out that discovery layers are just really complicated. To be honest, it’s been a pretty overwhelming project.

But, I’ve found some sanity by adopting the user experience design approach as described by JJ Garrett in Elements of User Experience book. More on that in another post — I’ve become a real convert to this UX stuff.

~~~

Hey, what happened to the scoop?

So, I decided to scrap the scoop. I will still share monthly (or more frequent?) posts on e-learning, teaching, communication, and recent publications, but now that this has moved to my blog it no longer made sense to maintain the guise of a publication with issues etc. Same content = no more silly name.

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