Sunday, October 4. 2015
A few weeks ago, I came to the startling and depressing realization that we had screwed up. It started when someone I know and greatly respect ran into me in the library and said "We have a problem".
I'm the recently appointed Chair of our library and archives department, so being approached about a problem isn't surprising. However, the severity of the problem was.
Here's what happened: the person in question had asked for a group study key at the circulation desk, and handed over the university photo ID card to check the item out. The library staff person noted that the name on the photo ID card didn't match the name in the library system. Even though the photo was an exact match, the staff person refused to check out the item to the patron.
The next day, after the person who suffered that indignity approached me, I was able to update the name for the account in the library system in about a minute. While apologizing profusely. And I had to explain why our system had failed this person. A few years back we were able to start automatically polling our university's LDAP server for new university accounts and immediately create the corresponding library system account, with a unique barcode, and update the LDAP account with that new barcode. That removed an entire set of (essentially duplicated) paperwork that new students and faculty used to have to fill out to get a university photo ID card, as well as reduced the amount of personally identifiable information held in our library system to the bare minimum of name, email address, and university ID number.
However, we have never been able to poll the university LDAP server for updates. Admittedly, my primary interest in updates was to synchronize accounts when students become alumni, or staff retire, etc., but in retrospect the ability to synchronize name changes (and email addresses, which are often derived from names) is blindingly obvious and absolutely necessary. When a person goes through the effort of changing their name, they are changing their identity in a very meaningful, significant fashion. To have the identity they have consciously abandoned resurface in various systems is (at best) frustrating, but can also be utterly demeaning. This is not the experience we want for our patrons.
In retrospect, at least two problems have surfaced with this incident:
I've held initial conversations with our university IT department to try and figure out strategies for closing that synchronization gap. In the short term, I'm willing to handle identity changes in a purely manual way (having the Registrar notify me when a change needs to be made). We have also reminded staff to defer to people rather than systems, as the people who make and maintain the systems are fallible (mea culpa).
In the slightly longer term, I'm building the synchronization piece so that we can trigger an update for an individual account at any given time. And I'm posting this in the hopes that it might prompt you to consider your various loosely-coupled systems and the identity management for the accounts within, just in case there are some synchronization gaps that you might be able to close. Because our patrons deserve respect, in person, and in the systems we design to serve them.
Wednesday, April 15. 2015
The following post dates back to January 15, 2007, when I had been employed at Laurentian for less than a year and was getting an institutional repository up and running.... I think old me had some interesting thoughts!
The author advocates an approach to university curriculum that re-emphasizes the student's role in the search for truth and knowledge by providing essential critical thinking skills and treating undergraduate students as full participants in the academic discussion.
The academy is a place to develop critical thinking skills, and a place to develop those skills by participating in discussions seeking truth and knowledge. These conversations may occur between students in informal spaces; they may be facilitated by a professor and take place during a single class session or over multiple sessions during a course; or they may take place over centuries (most commonly through the medium of the written word).
As a university, we recognize the value of all of these conversations in developing citizens with well-honed critical thinking skills. However, I would argue that our focus (at least at the undergraduate level) has been on the level of single and multiple class discussions. Students are often assigned course work for which the only intended audience is the professor or marking T.A.; the audience for presentations is normally just the rest of the class. A typical unit of work is the “essay” (from the French: essayer, meaning “to try”).
(Rhetorical question alert!) But what are the students trying for? Typically, they are trying for grades; some for an A, some simply to pass. But are they trying to contribute to the greater academic discussions? Where do those essays go in a month, or a year? Do students see their papers as parts of a greater continuum of the academic discussion, or do they see them as a means to an end? Are students exhorted to aspire to publishing their papers on any scale? What effect does the treatment of course work as an ephemeral entity, rather than a permanent contribution to the field of knowledge, have on the motivation of students to excel in the application of their critical thinking skills, to be creative, to write high quality papers? Does the knowledge that their days and nights of hard work going to quickly be consigned to the trash bin cause students to treat the work of the intellectual giants that preceded them with a similar disregard?
I initially started worrying about this because of a third-year assignment that simply cited “Google” as its sole source. The sad confusion of search tool with source immediately raised my concern about the student's ability to evaluate alternative sources of information and opinion for authority. I doubted that this student had completed the Library's introductory tutorial on searching and citing sources, and that reinforced my desire to encourage programs to make this course a mandatory requirement. During a casual conversation with Dr. David Robinson, he disclosed that he assigned basic literature research tasks to every one of his courses because he could not guarantee that his students had learned those skills outside of his courses. I continued to reflect on this problem in the attempt to develop an approach to motivating the student to want to participate in the overarching discussions – and that is where the idea of “research across the curriculum” came to mind.
I will credit Dr. Laurence Steven with the idea of motivating higher quality undergraduate work through the expectation of publication. In his fourth-year Literary Criticism course in 1996, he told students at the outset of the class that he planned to compile and publish the complete set of our final assignments. Even though the press run was undoubtedly under 100, the commitment to taking our work seriously positively influenced our efforts to produce high-quality assignments.
Emphasizing the academic discussion
The overarching message we can send to students is: “We take your effort seriously, and will help you contribute to your chosen discipline.”
Publishing offers the carrot of fame and the stick of exposure. I cannot help but think that the expectation of publishing your work will improve the quality of that work.
We obviously cannot expect a first year student to publish their work in a traditional academic journal. However, the Web has given us an alternative publishing method that can be controlled to meet the student's comfort level: publishing visibility could be limited to the author herself, to the professor, to the class, to the program, to the university, and to the world. If we created a simple Web-based repository, we could allow a student to first work on drafts of their assignment, then open it up to their professor or a TA for initial review, then open it up to the class to exchange their work with their classmates and participate in peer review. Outstanding work could be surfaced at wider levels of availability. Of course, given that the student retains copyright over their work, they would be free to republish their work as they see fit (on a personal Web log, on a discipline-related mailing list, to an academic journal, etc). This opens up an opportunity to discuss intellectual property issues and the characteristics of various publishing mechanisms.
Through the course of a student's career, this Web-based publishing mechanism would serve as an electronic portfolio of their work. If a student chose to make their work visible outside of the class, they would be able to track citations to that work over time - particularly if professors chose to surface the work of previous students in a given class as optional or required references in addition to traditional sources. We know that one of the primary uses of the Laurentian University Archives today is by students seeking the fourth-year papers of previous students in their disciplines so that they can find work to build upon.
At the fourth-year level, we could strongly encourage (to the point of making it an unstated assumption) that fourth-year work should be published in some fashion. The publishing schedule of traditional journals makes it unlikely that a student could achieve publication within the normal class schedule, however we could commit some resources to assisting those alumni who want to polish their fourth-year papers for journal publication (without necessarily requiring a complete graduate program). Assuming that the J.N. Desmarais Library goes forward with the Laurentian University Institutional Repository, we could offer that as a venue for publishing fourth year work (or exceptional work from previous years).
If there are doubts that fourth-year work is of publishable quality, I would like to refer back to an evaluation (???) of the fourth-year papers that are held by the Laurentian University archives. Many of these papers were found to be of a quality comparable to Master's theses (the hypothesis was that that the lack of graduate programs resulted in higher-quality undergraduate work).
Monday, March 2. 2015
Update 2015-03-03: Clarified (in the Privacy section) that only NRCan runs Evergreen.
I attended a meeting with Library and Archives Canada today in my role as an Ontario Library Association board member to discuss the plans around a new Canadian union catalogue based on OCLC's hosted services. Following are some of the thoughts I prepared in advance of the meeting, based on the relatively limited materials to which I had access. (I will update this post once those materials have been shared openly; they include rough implementation timelines, perhaps the most interesting of which being that it the replacement system is not expected to be in production until August 2016.) Let me say at the outset that there were no solid answers on potential costs to participating libraries, other than that LAC is striving to keep the costs as low as possible.
Basic question: What form does LAC envision the solution taking?
Will it be:
The answer was "yes, we will be adding records and holdings to WorldCat, and yes, you will be able to search a WorldCat Local instance for both LAC-specific and AMICUS as a whole" - but they're still working out the exact details. Later we determined that it will actually be WorldCat Discovery--essentially a rewrite of WorldCat Local--which assuaged some of my concerns about the current examples we can see of other OCLC-based union catalogues.
Privacy of Canadian citizens
The "Canadian office and data centre locations" requirement does not mean that usage data is exempt from Patriot Act concerns. Specifically, OCLC is an American company and thus the USA Patriot Act "allows US authorities to obtain records from any US-linked company operating in Canada" (per a 2004 brief submitted to the BC Privacy Commissioner by CIPPIC). Canadians should not be subject to this invasion of their privacy by the agents of another nation simply to use their own national union catalogue.
The response: The Justice, Agricultural, and NRCan agencies use US-hosted library systems (the latter running the open-source Evergreen, by Equinox). However, one of the other participants from a federal agency reported that they had been trying to update to Sierra from their Millenium instance but have been stalled for two years because whatever policy allowed them to go live with US-hosted Millenium is not being allowed now.
LAC claimed that, due to NAFTA, they are not allowed to insist that data be held in Canada unless it is for national security reasons. They noted that any usage data collected wouldn't be the same volume of patron data that would be seen in public libraries. They did point out that Netherlands sends anonymized data to OCLC, but that costs money and impacts response time. Apparently the OCLC web site, they claim not to have had a request under Patriot Act.
Privacy of Canadian citizens, part 2
I didn't get the chance to bring this up during the call...
LAC noted in their background that modern systems have links to social media, and apparently want this as part of a new AMICUS. This would also open up potential privacy leaks; see Eric Hellman on this topic, for example; it is also an area of interest for the recently launched ALA Patron Privacy Technologies Interest Group.
Opening up access to data is part of the federal government's stated mission. Canada's Action Plan on Open Government 2014-16 says "Open Government Foundation - Open By Default" is a keystone of its plan; "Eligible data and information will be released in standardized, open formats, free of charge, and without restrictions on reuse" under the Open Government Licence - Canada 2.0. I therefore asserted:
The response: The ACAN requirements document indicated a requirement that the data be made available under an ODC-BY license (matching OCLC's general WorldCat license); and LAC needs to get the data back to support their federated search tool.
I asked if they had checked to see if ODC-BY and Open Government License - Canada 2.0 licenses are compatible; they responded that that was something they would need to look into. Happily, the CLIPol tool indicates that the ODB-BY 1.0 and Open Government License - Canada 2.0 licenses are mostly compatible.
Contemporary features: are we achieving the stated goals?
The backgrounder benefits/objectives section stated: "In the current AMICUS?based context, the NUC has not kept pace with new technological functions, capabilities, and client needs. Contemporary features such as a user?oriented display and navigation, user customization, links to social media, and linked open data output were not available when AMICUS was implemented in the 1990s."
Canadian resource visibility
To preserve and promote our unique national culture, we want Canadian library resources to be as visible as possible on the web. This is generally accomplished by publishing a sitemap (a list of the web pages for a given web site, along with when each page was last updated) and allowing search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo to crawl those web pages and index their data.
To maximize the visibility of Canadian library resources on the open web, we need our union catalogue to generate a sitemap that points to only the actual records with holdings for Canadian libraries, not just WorldCat.org in general. For example, http://adamnet.worldcat.org/robots.txt simply points to the generic http://www.worldcat.org/libraries/sitemap_index.xml, not a specific sitemap for the Dutch union catalogue.
Our union catalogue should publish schema.org metadata to improve the discoverability of our resources in search engines (which initiated the schema.org standard for that purpose). WorldCat includes schema.org metadata, but WorldCat Local instances do not.
The response: There was some confusion about schema.org, and they asked if I didn't think that OCLC's syndication program was sufficient for enabling web discoverability. I replied in the negative.
Standards support (MARC21, RDA, ISO etc.)
I didn't get a chance to raise these questions.
What standards, exactly, are meant by this?
"Technical requirements including volumetrics and W3C compliance" is also very broad and vague. With respect to "W3C compliance", W3C Standards is just the start of many standards.
The W3C Standards page mentions mobile friendliness as part of its standards.
WorldCat.org itself is not mobile friendly. It uses a separate website with different URLs to serve up mobile web pages, and does not automatically detect mobile browsers; the onus is on the user to find the "WorldCat Mobile" page, and that has been in a "Beta" state since 2009. The "beta" contravenes the stated requirements for the AMICUS replacement service to not be an alpha or beta, unless you choose to ignore the massive adoption of mobile devices for searching and browsing purposes, and the beta mobile experience lacks functionality compared to the desktop version.
The adamnet and fablibraries WorldCat Local instances don't advertise the mobile option, which is slightly different than the standard WorldCat Mobile version (for example, it offers record detail pages), but the navigation between desktop and mobile is sub-par. If you have bookmarked a page on the desktop, then open that bookmark on your synchronized browser on a mobile device, you can only get the desktop view.
Linked open data
Linked open data around records, holdings, and participating libraries has arguably been a standard since the W3 Library Linked Data working group issued its final report in 2011.
Application programming interface (API)
I didn't get the chance to bring this up during the call...
OCLC offers the xID API in a very limited fashion to non-members, which is one of the only ways to match ISBN, LCCN, and OCLC numbers. LAC should ensure that Canadian libraries have access to some similarly efficient means of finding matching records without having to become full OCLC Cataloguing members.
Updating the NUC
I didn't get the chance to bring this up during the call...
In an ideal world, the NUC would adopt the standard web indexing practice of checking sitemaps (for those libraries that produce them) on a regular (daily or weekly basis) and add/replace any new/modified records & holdings from the contributing libraries accordingly, rather than requiring libraries to upload their own records & holdings on an irregular basis.
Monday, December 29. 2014
I noticed in Google's Webmaster Tools that our catalogue had been returning some Soft 404s. Curious, I checked into some of the URIs suffering from this condition, and realized that Evergreen returns an HTTP status code of
That led me to wonder what happens when you request a record detail page by ID for a record that doesn't exist in Evergreen. As it turns out, it currently returns HTTP status code
That, in turn, led me to wonder what happens when you request record details for non-existent records in other library systems. Here's what I found:
Overall, this is a pretty dismal picture of the state of some of the most commonly used library catalogue systems when it comes to compliance with basic web standards. Kudos to Blacklight and Vufind for getting it right--and assuming that my branch gets integrated, Evergreen should join them in the near future.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.