Challenges for the digital librarian

In an increasingly complex, ICT-intensive world, digital libraries face multiple challenges, but perhaps the greatest is to achieve a recognised and indeed indispensable presence within the workflow of their user communities. With the increased emphasis on Web 2.0 technologies, digital library developers will need to be agile to ensure that they demonstrate both ease of interoperability across disparate end user systems and added value in terms of the content they can deliver. This session will reflect on key strategies to achieve long-term success within this scenario. On the panel here at the JISC conference in Birmingham are:

Ian Dolphin, Head of eStrategy & eServices, University of Hull – Session Chair
Peter Brophy, Director, Centre for Research in Library & Information Management, Manchester Metropolitan University
David Kay, Director, Sero Consulting

Read on for the debate


Peter Brophy – what’s the problem?

A challenging environment: Web natives (prefer that term to ‘the Google generation’ as do not want to embed the word Google too heavily) some of our students never knew life before the internet, it’s just part of life as they know it and think we’re all out of date. They text rather than email because with email they have to go somewhere to get it rather than it just appearing in front of their face. But they are only part of the equation and are not necessarily up with how to use the technology.

Ubiquitous broadband: nearly there though not quite there yet – more video, audio, virtual worlds – so how do you plug something called the digital library into this sort of bandwidth?

Browser as the new PC: software as a service and applications on tap – all the data and the software behind it is remote and held somewhere else and I can access all my personal data from wherever I am. All sorts of implications arise from that.

Mobile devices: anytime, anywhere – now becoming the norm, within two years the mobile phone that comes as standard will have audio and video, GPS, built-in java and so on. Mobiles outnumber PCs by 3-1. They are the things that our students use all the time.

MyStuff/OurStuff: the world is now multi-way, not one way. Huge amount of creativity – our users create as much as they consume and want to share and collaborate. Creativity-to-communication-creativity. Not the old linear delivery path. Embedding what we want to deliver into the workflow of the people we serve.

MyView/OurView and social connectedness: people more and more defined by the communities they are in on the web. People very quickly start to use their own language and way of talking to each other, a bit like a research group always has. How do you get into that?

David Kay – The LMS study

Against that background we did the JISC/SCONUL Library Management Systems Study (March 2008) – an evaluation and horizon scan of the current library management systems and related systems landscape for UK Higher Education.

100 libraries participated in the survey we did, which is close on 60% of the UK HE library community. We think it’s representative of what’s going on.

The study had four elements we tried to correlate:

Horizon scan – seemed to be little dissent about what’s going on. It used to be controversial but now very little dissenting opinion that what’s happening out there is important for the profession and for students

Library survey analysis plus statistics from 100 UK HE libraries (this can be found in the appendix of the report)

Vendor perspectives, including interviews with the ‘Big 4’ (these are the vendors of nearly 90% of the UK management systems) – and there are some revealing comments in the appendix of the report

Reference group feedback, plus a practical guide for librarians – short piece that distilled the report into 12-14 pages

The big picture: we see not just phrases like web 2.0 but library 2.0, librarian 2.0, and what about patron 2.0? Have we got a new breed of users? Of course, but nobody is quite sure if the Google generation are information literate as well as being information rich. I think the bulk of the issues are not technical issues but re professional issues and about how we should treat are users and how seriously we should take their aspirations

Google and the blue horizon

We must not be suckered into thinking that Google as a company has all the answers we need
How long will it last?
Will it lead the next step change?
What are the library differentiators?

User demographics
Have to bear in mind that widening participation and increase in foreign nationals and distance learners may change the parameters. Not to do with the Google Generation – these are other factors – it’s not a homogenous set of people.

So can we hold the tide back or should we make a run for it? The key thing is probably understanding where our systems actually fit relative to the customer. They want it to be easy, quick, recognisable and flexible. The challenge is are we the destination or the point of departure for where they’re going?
The more we read it seems that we are at both ends. Are we alongside the VLE or VRE? Within Amazon or Google? In terms of user workflows or learnflows we need to think about how we can provide them in a seamless manner in a networked world. The issue of curation is crucial.

Library assets:

  • unique collections
  • user clickstreams
  • vertical ‘business’ context
  • staff expertise – the power of the expert
  • local study environment

All these need to be leveraged to achieve collective critical mass

Peter Brophy – Challenges

OCLC report (2007): “The general public respondents surveyed do not currently see a role for libraries in their new social networked world”

1. Aggregation: it’s not just your content – we to find ways to deliver our content alongside the content provided by others. Find out what users are interested in and slip in the library content among that

2. Encouraging/enabling user generated content: if presenting library data we encourage users to provide their own commentary on this and get a dialogue going within that scenario – similar to some of the social networking services out there, getting people together and discussing

3. Embedding in other people’s services: example of University of Huddersfield and Amazon – enable a search on Amazon to show when books searched for are available in the library

4. Collaborative description

5. Supporting social learning: importance of academic conversation and critical that understand that when building library services and being part of linking people together and being part of their conversation

Need to think about what’s distinctive about libraries: information population (the unique stuff you’ve got and have paid for in order to make it available to other people); user intelligence (who they are, what they do, when they do it – it’s the critical thing we have and if we don’t exploit it we’re losing an opportunity and it may be the only one we have)

David Kay – Recommendations

  • Invest in vendor systems with caution not complacency – arguably now is not the best time
  • Review LMS contracts seeking increased value, looking at ways to improve services by implementing features around the core LMS
  • Focus on breaking down barriers to resources, involving single sign on, unifying workflows and liberating metadata for re-use
  • Develop SOA-based interoperability across institutional systems s he foundation for future services and possibly the decoupling of LMS components
  • Timely to look at consortia and partnership arrangements to increase critical mass – doing things together is crucial

The study highlights 5 areas of development for consideration and tracking:

Open data and platforms
Vertical search
Clickstreams and context data
Open source software
Universal resource management

JISC and SCONUL are encouraged to work jointly with the community to develop shared understanding of Library 2.0 and the potential role of the international framework. There is also a vital role in developing strategic engagement with the LMS vendors with a focus on business processes and user workflows

Questions and discussion

Ken Chad: what are the barriers to shared services and cooperation?

Sheila Corrall: my experience is that there is a lack of good exemplars to encourage people to move in that direction. Copac looks like a bit of a mess and the data hasn’t been cleaned up properly. People are put off because they haven’t seen anything to persuade them

James Clay: one of the problems with sharing things is that at a certain level it doesn’t work because you have to share everything and then you start to think why have colleges? Why not just have one college to cover the whole country? To join up systems you have to join up everything

David Kay: the easier departure may be to look at things like subject networks, where there is common ground and not simply a case of replacing something

Catherine Grout: we do have some shared networks in place – Intute, shared services such as Suncat – where we took the step to build something to be a shared service. I think the more interesting question is what are the most appropriate sorts of services to look at building now?

Martin, University of Exeter: what aren’t we sharing? There is a danger of losing sight of the more traditional aspects of librarianship. One of the big aspects for the US is the big consortial collections. In all surveys students complain about the lack of books whereas as a community we probably do have them, just not in the right place at the right time

Peter Burnhill, Edina: Digimap is a classic example of a shared service but it was a new thing – Digimap created a supply and a service and a demand based on something new. With Suncat and so on it’s harder as it’s not new and getting good leverage from the data is hard… we’re looking at an e-journals registry to allow others to map on that which is local to them. There are network levels services that can be genuinely shared but have to recognise what people are giving up to get to the shared level

Lorcan Dempsey, OCLC: Ken’s question is interesting and a place for three of those four vendors to go but it’s not necessarily a place to go in the UK as it is different from other environments. In N Europe have well-developed resource sharing apparatus and those organisations have done the sort of sharing activity which are typical of consortia arrangements. In the US there are a huge variety of consortia arrangements. But in the UK, whether this was not developed because of the historical position on the BL,  you do not have a culture of consortia activity. There are also huge costs to consortia activity. There are new areas – the focus on this study was on LMS, which may be the more difficult area to change. There are others which may be more ripe for a new approach such as the digital arena.

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