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The Cloudy Librarian

Am I a library traitor? Seduced by Netflix

I just became a Netflix member and purchased a Roku box to stream directly to my TV.   Result? I no longer go to my public library for movies.  I also recently moved to a town with a very small library that does not get the newest books fast enough, and there is a lovely independent bookstore downtown, so I’m buying books as well.   Granted, I donate them to the library after I read them, but I buy them.

What is happening to me?  I’ve been a zealously loyal supporter of public libraries since I was big enough to reach the circ desk.  But I simply don’t have the patience anymore.  As Emily White recently wrote in her controversial blog post on music sharing, I’m willing to pay for convenience.  I too yearn for a Netflix/Spotify-like  “universal database”  of all books, music, and movies – and yes, scholarly journal articles — in one easily accessible place.  I don’t need to “own” all this stuff – I just need to be able to access them whenever I like and keep “playlists” of what I love.

I’m ready for the Galactic Library.  Whoever can deliver it to me will earn my undivided loyalty, and my dollars.

Best Academic Library Websites 2012 – Part I

I have begun a quest to discover the most intuitive and usable virtual library spaces.   This post is the first in a series highlighting some of the best academic library sites as I stumble across them. Here are two questions I ask myself as I look at a site:

1)  If  I was an undergraduate who slept through high school and has no idea how to research a paper, would this library’s web site help me?  If I didn’t know what a database was, or what the heck APA is, or what a “catalog” is, would I know where to start and what to do?

2)  If I were the kind of person who does research at 2:00 in the morning and wants to be able to find everything I need virtually without having to ask for help, can I do that?   Yeah, it’s great that I can “Ask-A-Librarian,” but I want to find it on my own!

Here are a few of my favorites so far:

1)  More and more libraries are using LibGuides as their library’s CMS.  The Colby-Sawyer College Library’s  website is a good example of a LibGuide site that welcomes novice users:

Colby-Sawyer homepage detail

Colby-Sawyer library homepage detail

–I also like the “Confused? Watch this 2-minute video” for off-campus access.  A great walk-through of the login process for the off-campus user!

2)  In addition to the usual “search for books” and “search for articles” widgets, the DeSales University library’s homepage has a nifty image link that simply asks “Need to write a paper?”

DeSales University homepage detail

DeSales University homepage detail

3)   Here’s a great “How to find fulltext” page from the College of Saint Elizabeth’s Mahoney Library. This untangles a complicated library problem!

4)  Saint Peter’s College library  has a great “For Faculty FAQ” page.

Too often we forget that our faculty need intuitive virtual libraries too!

Faculty FAQ page detail

Faculty FAQ page detail

Have a favorite library website? Please leave a comment and share!

Libraries and the campus Web portal: how are we doing?

Campus Web portals are nothing new.  Emerging over ten years ago, they have been widely adopted by institutions of higher learning as a means to provide convenient, single sign-on access to campus services such as webmail, financial aid, course management systems, and more.  The portal replaces the college website — which in many cases is turned into an “enterprise” or marketing site — and is the primary means of accessing campus information for students, faculty, and staff.

In principal, portals are the ideal place for students and faculty to discover library resources.  They operate on a dynamic “push” concept, where chunks of highly personalized information can be “pushed” to just the people who need it.  For example, a nursing major might see the CINAHL database on her library resources “channel,” while a history major would not.  Circulation information, such as fines, checkouts, and holds, can also be displayed on a student’s portal page. The potential of the campus portal for library resources was recognized by EDUCAUSE as early as 2001 in a report that encouraged libraries to actively engage in campus portal development.

In my experience, that potential has yet to be realized.  I have worked at two institutions with campus web portals: one used CampusEAI’s portal product, and one was built on Microsoft’s Sharepoint server.  In both cases, the library has found it challenging, to say the least, to develop truly dynamic, customized links to library resources.  These are some of the difficulties I’ve experienced being behind the portal:

  • Technical glitches:  The secure (https) nature of portals necessarily convolute EZProxy access to library subscription resources.  For several weeks after my library migrated to the portal, EZProxy access was almost entirely inhibited, and we had many frustrated users.  Those problems have been somewhat remedied, but off-campus users still frequently have difficulty getting through.  Access is worse on certain browsers — Internet Explorer in particular is notorious for their security messages that many patrons do not know how to bypass or disable.  Linking to non-https external resources (i.e. LibGuides) can also be problematic, as users are taken out of the portal environment and often cannot easily find their way back.
IE security warning

Having the library on a secure site can cause problems

  • Not managed by the library: when the library’s website migrates to the portal, site administration often moves to the institution’s centralized IT department.  This makes sense since the portal is an institution-wide interface and should be centrally managed.  But with library resources and services living primarily in virtual spaces, librarians need to be centrally involved in their development and maintenance.  Institutions that adopt portals need to ensure that the library-IT relationship is closely integrated and collaborative if we are to provide relevant and useful services.  In my experience, this has not been the case.
  • Inhibits knowledge sharing:  I’m concerned about how portals are increasingly inhibiting knowledge sharing in the LIS community.  With more and more of our web pages, documentation, and innovations hidden behind password-restricted sites, we are less able to learn from each other.  There may be colleges and universities out there who are doing an amazing job of embedding their services into portals — but because I can’t see them, i can’t learn from their example.  We thus are becoming more silo-ized and isolated from each other.  My open-access-loving librarian nature rebels at this state of affairs. 
  • Duplication of interfaces:   Library web sites are already far too complex, offering users a bewildering choice of access points.  The discovery layer, the catalog, the A-Z list, the database list, the intitutional repository …. no wonder our users give up and flee to Google.   Complicating things further, many libraries that have migrated to portals simultaneously maintain a presence on the public-facing institution website.  We do this because we don’t want to entirely disappear behind a password: we want prospective students and faculty, as well as our library colleagues, to be able to find us.  But this inevitably leads to complications. For example, since the OPAC resides outside the portal, how do we maintain links from within the catalog?  How do we link to library hours or even library home, when we have two library homes depending on where the user began?
The MySNHU portal

The Portal at SNHU

Conclusion:  Because the portal is “where students live,” it follows that it is also where library resources should reside. But ten years into this experiment, how are we doing at getting library resources into the portal? In my experience, we have not done a very good job. This is not always our fault: we are stymied by limitations and restrictions that are often at the institutional level. I haven’t yet given up on the promise of the campus Web portal, but until library staff have truly collaborative and equal relationships with IT, we will not be able to provide the best service to our patrons. We still have a long ways to go.

IUG 2012: Javascript for the WebPAC, Google analytics, and more

Chicago IUG

Chicago - the view from the conference hotel

I came away from this year’s Innovative Users Group conference with lots of good, practical information that I can readily put to use at my library.  Here are four sessions I found especially helpful:

1)  Beyond WebPAC Pro: Bending the Limitations of the Web Catalog with JavaScript

Presented by Jason Thomale and William Hicks from the University of North Texas, this session demonstrated how to customize the WebPAC using JavaScript and JQuery.   Have you ever been hopelessly frustrated by Innovative’s server-side WebPAC tokens, those pesky little pieces of inaccessible HTML code that you can’t edit?  Well, using what they call “a massive hack,” Jason and William have come up with a clever yet surprisingly simple solution: they manipulated the HTML code with JavaScript and JQuery as it renders in the browser.  The result is a pleasing, intuitive, and much more user-friendly OPAC interface.

Detail of UNT WebPAC showing homegrown music instrumentation search tool

2)  Print Templates 101

Carla Myers and Shad Harder from the University of Colorado Colorado Springs provided a terrific introduction to Print Templates in Millennium.  As a new user of print templates, this was exactly what I needed.  The best part of this session was the LibGuide that they created that has explicit step-by-step instructions (including lots of screenshots) on how to create, edit, and use print templates.   If you are somewhat intimidated by those Java expressions in iReport, I highly recommend this resource!

Print Templates LibGuide

Print Templates LibGuide detail

3)  Create Lists: Beyond the Basics

Richard Jackson’s advanced class on Create Lists was invaluable.  I finally understand how to use regular expressions in Lists!  Richard explained complicated Boolean concepts using simple language and clear illustrations.  Check out his slides on the IUG  conference site, and also his very useful handout on regular expressions in the IUG clearinghouse.

4)  Google analytics: Beyond the Code

After attending this session, I’m definitely going to be adding Google analytics to our WebPAC.  Robert Sebek from Virginia Tech provided lots of detailed information on how they are using Google analytics to track user behavior in their OPAC.  Here are some of the ways they are using the data:

  • Outgoing links show how many e-books are being found in the catalog.
  • Referring sites show where users start from: the library home page, Summon, etc.
  • Search engine queries can be identified – what words are being used to find the catalog and/or library home page.
  • Can see how many users are searching for article titles – and by adding a bit of Javascript to the WebPAC, those searches can be re-routed to Summon!
  • Search terms can be analyzed and common mis-spellings identified.  These can then be “corrected” by enhancing catalog records with added entries (i.e. 246’s).

Robert’s slides contain a wealth of information and can be downloaded at the conference website.


Thanks to all the IUG presenters for a really useful conference – you have given me lots of great ideas, and made my job much easier!

Should we be in the Cloud? Musings on OCLC’s WMS

Recently I heard through the grapevine that several regional academic libraries are either seriously considering, or are already migrating to OCLC’s WorldShare Management Services (WMS).

Though my library is still tied to our traditional Millennium ILS, I’m intrigued by the speed and eagerness with which our neighbors are flocking toward this web-based, cooperative library services product.  Many are motivated by financial pressures.  With WMS, libraries can streamline and simplify workflows, give up local server maintenance, and eliminate duplication of local holdings and authority control.

But lots of questions still remain.  Does migration to WMS actually result in significant cost savings?  And is there any loss in quality of service?  I think it is still way too soon to tell, but the early evidence seems promising.  According to an article in last month’s Computers in Libraries, the cost savings are tangible, and time saved is significant. The article details Pepperdine’s recent migration to WMS, and overall, they had a positive experience and are happy with the new system. Granted, they had already implemented WorldCat local, so the impact to patrons was minimal.

Here are some of the changes Pepperdine noted that cause me to salivate slightly:

  • No more logging into separate modules
  • No more pesky, unreliable clients — instead, access online from anywhere
  • No more duplication of local holdings — maintain in OCLC only
  • No more duplication of authority records — maintain in OCLC only

I can understand why our region’s academic libraries are taking a good look at WMS, and you can be sure that we will be following this trend with great interest.  In fact, I’m willing to go out on a limb and predict that in under five years, the majority of academic libraries will have emerged from their silos in favor of a web-based, cooperative system such as WMS.

Too many search boxes: a library website usability study, part 2

In our recent usability study we asked 5 undergraduate students to find resources and services on the library website.  In a previous post I shared my findings on how obscure language and jargon was preventing students from finding library services.   In this post, I’m going to focus on how students searched for library resources.

Students had no trouble performing known-item searches.  They easily found a book by title, and also did well at finding a database by name.  But when asked to find “books and articles” or to find “peer-reviewed, scholarly articles” on a given topic, they had difficulty determining the appropriate search tool.

Book search

Known item searching was no problem

Here are some of the behaviors we observed:

Students prefer familiar search tools, even if inappropriate

We asked students to find “peer-reviewed, scholarly journal articles” on health education. Only two participants used the databases subject list to choose an appropriate resource. The other students tried to search for health topics in databases they knew – for one, it was JSTOR, two others, EBSCO Academic Search Premier. One student clicked on the Gale Health and Wellness database, but then closed it, went back to the databases list and clicked on Academic Search Premier, saying “I would just go to EBSCO.”

I have two possible explanations for this behavior, both of which may be true:

1) The interface is more important to students than the content. Students who were comfortable in EBSCO were more likely to use that interface, rather than attempt something new.

2) Students do not understand that different databases search significantly different content. This hypothesis is bourne out by one student’s comment: “It doesn’t matter which one [database] we use.”

Nobody knows what our new discovery tool is for

We recently launched Encore Synergy, III’s discovery layer.  This tool searches across the library catalog and 30 bibliographic databases from a single search box.  We marketed this new tool extensively last semester with posters, instruction sessions, and on our website.

When we asked students to find a way to “search for both books and articles at the same time,” only one of them went to Encore.  The rest went to databases with which they were most familiar – Academic Search Premier, PsycINFO, and JSTOR.  Several interpreted the question as simply finding a way to facet in EBSCO to include book results.  Again, they did not seem to understand the type of content that a bibliographic database contains. And it did not help that EBSCO does have some book-like content such as reviews and book chapters.

EBSCO book facets

EBSCO has book facets

Students do not understand the difference between local and global collections

Students did not always understand the difference between physical items that are available to them in the library, and items they needed to request. This was evident in the following two examples:

1) We asked students how they could “borrow a book from another library.” We have a link to “interlibrary loan” on our website, but only a couple of students used it. Instead, one student used the Encore search box, and another the library catalog, perhaps thinking that these include books from other libraries?

2) One student, after easily finding a specific book title in the library catalog, did not seem to understand that the book was available in the library. Even though the book record stated “available,” the student filled out the request form.

Students can easily perform known-item searches

We asked two known-item questions: a book by title, and a specific database by name.  All students found the book easily, and 4 out of 5 found the database.

For the book search, three students used the library catalog, and two used Encore.  All typed the book’s title into the search box, and some added the author name, i.e. “Born Digital by John Palfrey.”  Four out of five students used the default keyword search option, one selected title search.

We were surprised by the many different pathways students used to find the CINAHL database by name.  Two participants typed “CINAHL” into the College website search box.  This was surprising — we had no idea library users were using that box to find specific library resources!  Other students went to the databases page and navigated by subject, and some just preferred to scroll through the list until they spotted it.  (Our database list is organized by subject.)

3 important lessons learned

1) We need to have fewer search interfaces choices, and need to make sure that the interface(s) students know how to use will get them to the content they need!

2) We need to better instruct students in how to choose appropriate resources.

3)  In this Google world, we need to do a better job indicating when a search box is for selective, not global, content.