Archive for August, 2011

Peeping THOMAS: A Little Look at a Big System

AALL Meeting Reflections

There was a packed house for Peeping THOMAS.  This was not surprising for a presentation by the people who help make THOMAS what it is.  Presenters Bob Gee, Tammie Nelson, Christine Sellers, and Andrew Weber took what could have been dry statistics and charts, and told us the story of The Life of THOMAS: past, present, and future.

We began with a brief background on the history of THOMAS: launched in 1995, built in a mere six weeks.  Not bad for a site that provided the public unprecedented access to all manner of legislative materials.

The story continued with discussion of the former and current technical challenges of THOMAS.  Data coming from several different sources, balancing short-term and long-term goals, and the final decision to have a user-centered definition of priorities.

But the question is: Whose priorities?  Students in middle school and high school?  Government officials?  Law librarians?  The public?

The OpinionLab feature helps provide the answers, by allowing THOMAS users to submit  anonymous feedback.  Of course, this feature is still available: just look for the “Feedback” button in the lower-right corner of your screen.

And as it turns out, many people are interested in weighing in on the good and bad of THOMAS.  Comments can range from “Very good!” to “This sucks!”… in one day.

One of the first and most successful “fixes” as a result of the OpinionLab was changing the timeout feature on THOMAS from five minutes to thirty minutes.  This increase dramatically reduced complaints about premature timeouts.  This was only one of several examples showing how user comments and questions led directly to concrete changes in THOMAS.

Despite this “moral of the story,” the presentation never felt preachy or commercial.  The presenters were just genuinely excited about the topic.

One interesting portion of the presentation was a “before and after” look at searches and the results.  That is, we saw the way a search results page used to look, and how it looks now.  The differences are simple yet dramatic: a clearer way of showing the user where they are and what is being displayed.

Overall, the presenters handled their time well.  Their presentation was well-organized and informative.  It was interesting to see how some of the feedback numbers improved over time, and the tone remained explanatory as opposed to a commercial for THOMAS.

Although I appreciated the fact that the presenters opened the floor for questions during the last 20 minutes of their hour, this tactic appeared to be less useful than they might have hoped.  When people came to the microphone to speak, it appeared that the questions all touched on issues with which the presenters were quite familiar.  Indeed, the presenters were generally nodding with recognition before the questioner’s first sentence was completed.  But really, this is a good thing—it shows that the THOMAS folks already have a good idea of what the law librarian portion of their audience needs and wants.

If you are interested in more information on Peeping THOMAS, presenter Andrew Weber posted his own post-meeting thoughts over at In Custodia Legis, including a link to the presentation slides.

Stephanie Ziegler is a reference librarian at the Moritz Law Library, Ohio State University

Create a Positive Professional Image

Even though you have brilliant skills and produce fabulous results, outdated perceptions of and expectations for law librarians can interfere with your contributions to your institution. Join Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts, organizational consultant and professor of psychology, culture, and organization studies at Antioch University, for the September 22 AALL webinar, You are the Profession: Creating a Positive Professional Image, at 11 a.m. CDT. Roberts will take a look at image management, credibility, and influence. She will discuss management tactics, techniques to move from the side-line to the center, and owning your professional identity.

Register by September 14.

Library in the Clouds: Cloud Computing and its Impact on Library Services

AALL Annual Meeting Session Review
Library in the Clouds: Cloud Computing and its Impact on Library Services

Presenters:
Erik Mitchell, Wake Forest University, Z. Smith Reynolds Library
Andrew Pace, OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc.
Roy Balliste, St. Thomas University Law Library

I have a firm conviction that library websites need to be easy and frequent information sources for users of the web. As a cataloging services librarian, I know that our current library systems are silos and not very user friendly. However, I don’t have a clear idea how we make the transition, and wonder how cloud computing fits into the picture. For that reason, I attended this program hoping to understand a little more of the “how” of libraries’ transition to a more relevant web presence. The expected outcomes of this program were (1) to enable participants to identify the advantages and disadvantages of cloud-based solutions for their library, and (2) to hear about and evaluate the library management functionality of one vendor’s product, OCLC’s Web-Scale Management Services (WMS).

Erik Mitchell provided an overview of cloud computing, its importance for consumers of information, and its already extensive use, i.e. Google Docs and Dropbox. He defined cloud computing as the act of “storing, accessing, and sharing data, applications and computing power in cyberspace.” Two related concepts essential to making this happen were (1) web services – software systems designed to support interoperable machine-to-machine interaction on a network; and (2) application programming (API) – specifications for allowing programs to exchange data.

Cloud computing can be financially advantageous for libraries as you pay for what you to use and spend significantly less for local IT services and software.
One downside, however, was the possibility of service interruption due to power outages. Mitchell reviewed several cloud based applications such as Salesforce.com which might be adapted to libraries.

Mitchell identified several factors which might slow the transition to cloud computing including the trend of open source software for library management systems, which is basically a different business model for the same technology already being used. Libraries also may not have the knowledge base for selecting, implementing and managing these services. Mitchell ended his portion of the program by encouraging us to take individual steps toward cloud computing, such as using Google Docs.

OCLC’s lead person in developing Web-Scale Management Services, Andrew Pace, discussed the benefits of this product. His definition of cloud computing was “web-based application with shared data and services.” Pace identified a major benefit of cloud computing as the “web-scale” aspect. Web-scale refers to how major web presences develop systems and services to scale as usage grows, eventually developing “large gravitational hubs.”

For Pace, the web as all about scale and finding ways to attract users. For instance, in retail the web matches sellers, items, and buyers: the more buyers the better for sellers, the more sellers the better for buyers. Libraries have not been “gravitational hubs” so far. However, with the web-scale concept libraries could be seen as the best access to a class of data. Intersecting circles of infrastructure, data and community diagram how this could translate to the library world. The changing information seeking behavior of our customers to cloud computing and the changing nature of our collections to electronic make this a natural progression. He also pointed out that moving to the cloud can reduce infrastructure costs from 70-30 percent of budget, leaving more staff time for creativity and innovation.

Roy Balliste discussed the ease and benefits of implementing OCLC’s Web Management Services at St Thomas Law Library, and their satisfaction with the product.

This session did add to my understanding of what increasing libraries’ web presences might involve, but included technical information which will take some time to sort out and understand. Having three different presenters did limit the extent to which each could fully explain the concepts and give examples. This was a popular program and the large room was overflowing with standing room only. A downside to the presentations was the inability for audience members to have the handout either in print or electronic to follow along with the discussion, as the presenters did not make them available ahead of time (or afterwards for that matter).

I would recommend Mitchell’s portion of the program for IT librarians who are seriously thinking about implementing cloud computing. However, if libraries were considering OCLC’s Web-Scale Management Services, a more detailed presentation of that product would be recommended.

Beverly Burmeister, Cataloging Services Librarian, Valparaiso University Law Library

AALL Reflections – The RDA Decision and What It Will Mean for Me and My Library

Throughout my library career, acronyms have simultaneously struck curiosity and fear in the nether regions of my mind.  It began as far back as library school, with a professor doing her best to explain the nebulous concepts of Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR).  I remember staring blankly at the convoluted slides on her display, asking question after question and rarely receiving a satisfactory answer.  It seemed that even the cataloging experts had a difficult time putting such things into words, and the professor radiated joy that as an older cataloger soon to retire, she wouldn’t have to be bothered with such things.  And with that I filed FRBR away in a dark place, avoided at all costs, forgotten and abandoned.

Enter librarianship and the associated trials and tribulations of metadata and authority control.  Suddenly FRBR was out of its dark place, this time joined by his friends Functional Requirements for Authority Data (FRAD) and Resource Description and Access (RDA). The concepts together proved no less unwieldy, despite having actual library experience under my belt.  Since the introduction of RDA, I have participated in countless webinars, tutorials, and programs on the subject.  Almost every single one of these experiences left me in a tailspin, driven less by my actual confusion and more by the lack of substantial content presented.  Programs presented more questions than answers, and besides the ah-ha moment of finally understanding FRBR, thanks to Barbara Tillett, there were few high points to speak of…

Until now.  Despite its lack of PowerPoint bells and whistles, the excitement throughout “The RDA Decision and What It Will Mean to Me and My Library!” was palpable.  A decision had been made – implementation is imminent.  What do we do now?  And with this program, I finally received some long awaited answers.

The first portion of the program was presentation based, with speakers Jean Pajerek and Pat Sayre-McCoy outlining the major changes of RDA, providing references to supplementary materials and giving their first hand experiences both in training their own staff in preparation for RDA and in implementing records within their own libraries.  Never have I heard such an honest, candid discussion – perhaps because the speakers weren’t restricted by traditional presenting methods.  Participants learned more of the mystery of those new 33x fields and ways real libraries were dealing with new content, the juxtaposition between AACR2 and RDA records both in bibliographic and authority realms, workflow changes and training tips.  Overall, it was so incredibly refreshing to see two catalogers, filled to the brim with experience and ripe to protest these changes, actually exude excitement at being part of the RDA movement, embracing the challenges of interpreting and incorporating these new rules.  RDA introduces freedom for local policies; simultaneously offering an international standard as well as the ability to create a library’s cataloging records with their specific users’ needs in mind.

The second portion of the program was question and answer based, with audience participation driving the content.  With an audience primarily composed of  technical service librarians, questions got down into the nitty gritty of the process, often inspiring discussion not only between the presenters and the questioner, but between the entire group as a whole, covering a whole host of topics – some ending in answers and some not.  Templates and macros were encouraged, solving a number of workflow issues concerning punctuation changes and new controlled vocabularies; at least until ILS vendors begin revamping interfaces with drop down menus and checkboxes.  Vendor relations are increasingly important, with flexibility and autonomy in machine displays at the forefront of desires.  Authority control is a key issue – many questions remain in terms of reconciling RDA and AACR2 authority records within your system, displaying these records to your patrons and weighing the need for privacy in authority controls. With resources such as the WorldCat Identities project and the Virtual International Authority File growing every day, how do we incorporate this burgeoning source of information into records, creating more robust content for our patrons?

Overall, the general air of acceptance of RDA overwhelmed me.  Where earlier programs became a breeding ground for complaints about these new cataloging standards, this program left its participants with a clearer understanding of the day-to-day changes implementation has in store for libraries and ready to overcome the implementation learning curve and embrace these new challenges on the horizon.

Ashley Moye is Metadata & Serials Librarian at the Charlotte School of Law in Charlotte, North Carolina.



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