Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Don't panic! Or, further thoughts on the mobile challenge

Two weeks ago, I posted some notes on the CILIP executive briefing on 'the mobile challenge', where I presented the effort of my library, the quick-wins 'UBA Mobiel' project. Those notes concentrated on the talks on the day. Now that it's had time to simmer (and a quick autumn holiday), I want to add some reflection on the general theme.

Which basically boils down to Don't Panic (preferably in large, friendly letters on the cover).

Is there really such a thing as a 'mobile challenge' for libraries? Well, yes and no. Yes, the use of internet on mobile devices is growing fast, and is adding a new way of searching and using information for everyone, including library patrons. The potential of 'always on' is staggering. And it is a challenge.

However, it is also just another challenge. After twenty years of continuous disruption, starting with on-line databases, then web 1.0 and web 2.0, change is not new any more. Libraries are still gateways to information, rare and/or expensive (the definition of expensive and rare depending and varying on the context, also changing of course). And the potential of the paperless office may finally come to fruit with the advent of the iPad, but meanwhile printer makers are having a boon selling ever more ink at ridiculous prices.

So, what to do?

There are three ways to adapt. On one side are the forerunners, with full focus on the new and shiny. Forerunners get the spotlights, and tend to be extroverts that make good presentations. However, not everyone can be in front - it would get pretty crowded. It takes resources, both money and a special kind of staff. Two prominent examples given at several of the Cilip talks were NCSU and DOK Delft. Kudos to them, they're each doing exciting stuff, but they are also the usual suspects, and that's no coincidence.

On the other extreme, there's not changing at all. For the institution, a certain road to obsolescence. For a number of library staff the easy way to retirement. Fortunately, their number seems to be rapidly dwindling, but nevertheless, finding the right staff to fulfil the jobs at libraries or publishers when the descriptions of these jobs are in flux was a much talked about topic, both in the talks and in the breaks.

In practice, most libraries are performing a balancing act in between. And it is perfectly acceptable to be in the middle. Keep an eye on things. Stay informed. Make sure your staff gets some time to play with the toys that the customers are walking around with, and if they find out what's on offer in the library is out of sync, do something about it.

[from tuesday tech]
Which is pretty much what we did with UBA Mobiel. Nothing worlds hattering, not breaking the bank. We're certainly not running in front, but we're making sure our most important content (according to the customers) is usable. This way, when the chance comes along to do Something Utterly Terrific (Birmingham) or merely a Next Step Forward (upgrading our CMS) we know what to focus on.

The response on our humble little project has been very positive. We may have hit a nerve, and I'm really glad to hear that it is inspiring others to get going. Go-Go Gadget Libraries!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Becoming upwardly mobile - a Cilip executive briefing

Cilip office
Cilip office in Bloomsbury, London

On September 15, Cilip (the UK Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) and OCLC held a meeting on the challenge that mobile technology proves for libraries, called Becoming upwardly mobile Executive Briefing.

The attendees came from the British Isles (UK and Ireland). Some of the speakers however came from elsewhere. Representing The Netherlands, I presented the UBA Mobiel project as a case study, which went well.

The mere fact that I was asked to present our small low-key project - which in the end cost less than 1100 euro and 200 hours - as a case study along the new public library in Birmingham with a budget of 179 million pounds sterling shows how diverse the subject 'the mobile challenge' is.

Thus the talks varied widely, and especially the panel discussion suffered from a lack of focus. It was interesting nevertheless.

Attendees were encouraged to turn their mobiles on and tweet away, and a fair number of them did. See Twitter archive for #mobexec at twapperkeeper.

1. Adam Blackwood, JISC RSC

A nice wide-ranging introduction in a pleasant presentation, using lots of lego animation. In one word: convergence. To show what a modern smartphone can do, he emptied his pockets, then went on from a big backpack, until the table in front of him was covered with equipment, a medical reference, an atlas and so on. "And one more thing…".  The versatility of the devices coming at us means not only that current practices will be replaced, but also that they are going to merge in unexpected ways. Reading a textbook online is a different experience from reading it on paper, for instance. Augmented reality (in the broad sense of the word, not just the futuristic goggles) is a huge enabler that we should not block by sticking to old rules (such as asking to turn devices off in the library or during lectures).

As for the demoes, it's a bit unfortunate that it always seem to be the same that are pointed to (NCSU, DoK), though they're still great. Using widgetbox to quickly create mobile websites was new to me, worth checking out further (the example was ad-enabled, hope they have a paid version, too).

All in all, a great rallying of the troops.

2. Brian Gambles, Birmingham

A talk about the new public library in Birmingham. An ambitious undertaking, inspired by amongst others the new Amsterdam public library. The new library should put Birmingham on the cultural map, and itself become one of the major touristic attractions for the city, opening in 2013. It's also meant to 'open up' the vast heritage collection (the largest collection of rare books and photography of any public library in Europe). And to pay for it, they'll have to monetize those as well.

A laudable goal, great looking plans, I wish them luck in these difficult times.

The library is not just the books (the new Kansas city library sends all the wrong messages). The mobile strategy comes forth from the general strategy: open up services and let others do the applications. Open data, etc. They are working with apple to get on iTunesU for instance (partnership with the uni). Get inspiration from cultural sector, many interesting & much downloaded apps have come from museums. Notable especially is the Street museum of London (flash-y-website, direct iTunes ap link)

Also, can't afford to hire enough cataloguers for the special collections - open up this as well, let crowdsurfing as a helpful tool. Surprised that there are people that like to correct OCR texts, which he thinks is a dreadful chore. So let's use it.

3. Panel discussion.

This wasn't as good as it could have been unfortunately, due to the wide range of the topic. Still some interesting points:

Adrian Northover-Smith from Sony of course very much pro e-ink devices and against the iPad. It's a cultural challenge for the company that their e-reader customers are female and older, most of their wares are peddled to young males. In a way, not dissimilar to libraries adjusting to the new 'digital native' generations, especially those catering to students.

Q: mobile use for people with visual impairment? A: epub format allows for more formats, larger letters, reading aloud. In some studies (art, fashion) up to 30% of students are dyslectic, and they're helped greatly by different presentation from the content. (DH: this is yet another field in which rights are the big hurdle, given the skirmishes over audiobook vs text-to-speach rights...).

Simon Bell from the British Library talked about the challenge of mass digitization. The definition of availability is shifting, and digital born data is especially volatile. Mobile access is just another form of presenting content, the content comes first now.

Jonathan Glasspool from Bloomsbury Academic talked about the publishing point of view. He presented a new platform for online publishing, using CC licenses to allow non-commercial use online. I'm curious how this compares to the European OApen project in which our uni participates.

In his view, the main challenge today is that the industry needs a new type of people. Bloomsbury has weekly voluntary 'elevenses' sessions, where staff can brief each other on new ideas and online uses they found, which seem to work well as a motivator.

Simon Bains and bevanpaul noted via tweets that there seems to be a big divide between those focussing on generating content versus those interested in new platforms, and I agree. You can't have one without the other, it's a chicken & egg situation. On the other hand, the reality is that the size of the problems are so big that to get anything done, focus is needed.

Brian Gambles mentioned that railway ticket machines were recently redesigned to deal with the visual impaired, resulting in a design that's much better for everyone. Better to incorporate it from the start: "accessibility should be in the DNA of new products".

4. Jeff Penka, OCLC worldwide

As I was preparing for my own talk, only a few notes. The main point of technology is barrier elimination for the user. We tend to think in systems, in details, jargon and acronyms: ILS, OPAC, SFX. The user just thinks a button should be "Get it". See also the importance of 'one-click' shopping in the Amazon and iTunes stores: such a seemingly small step key to dominance.

The worldcat mobile interface is very 'beta' - every 2-3 days a new release, to try things out. Expected to stabilize in spring 2011 though. An interesting remark: OCLC believes that a mobile interface should not come as an extra, at a high cost. Rimshot! Too many vendors are trying to squeeze their clients by doing exactly that.

5. Driek Heesakkers on Uba Mobiel

Download the presentation (licensed under creative commons BY-NC-SA).

Then it was my turn. I presented our small 'agile' project. See the presentation. It will be described in more detail in the upcoming book 'Catalogue 2.0' - A little ironic, as one of the themes of the day was that the catalogue is much less important to the users as it is to library professionals.

To summarize: by giving space to enthusiastic early adopters amongst staff, in the form of a low-overhead, fast-moving project that focuses on possible quick wins, a library can bridge the gap for the current transition period. In the long term, vendors will come up with solutions that present content (whether a catalogue, website or digitized objects) equally well in a mobile content as in others. This will take a while though, and in the meanwhile we can't afford that our services are (nearly) unusable on a mobile device.

Basically, the message is "just do it" - it will be easier than you think!

6. Benoit Maison on Pic2shop

A highly specialized topic. The pic2shop application offers an interesting way of merging functionality that web apps can't access (in this case, barcode scanning) with regular web apps. In the case of their worldcat enabled scanner, a user can scan a book (in a bookstore I presume), the app then passes the code on to an external website which does something useful with it (looks it up in worldcat) and the app displays the result from this website inside the app interface. To the user it's transparant, for the developer it's relatively light-weight.

It's an elegant concept. Might be useful for other specific device functionality that can't be accessed via web apps as well, though there are currently no plans for that.

The day ended with a session on augmented reality by Lester Madden, who did a good job I heard. Unfortunately my flight connection was too tight to stay for this one. The flight experience was pretty bad anyway... next time Eurostar for me!

Finally, for a little balance: on the same day, Aaron Tay wrote A few heretical thoughts about library, which deals amongst other things with the relative unimportance of mobile use at the moment. To a certain extent he has a point. It's not bad to stop for a moment and check if you're just following the pack.

A quiet moment

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Notes from CNI Spring meeting 2010

I was fortunate to attend the CNI Spring 2010 Task force meeting in Baltimore, USA. This was my second time at a CNI, the first one being 2007. Compared to my previous experience, it struck me how policy has come to dominate the program, where it used to be technology. Maybe it’s because the direction where we’re heading is clear - complex objects, enriched publications, open access - and the question is now how we to get there.

Because the fragmented setup of research and academia in the US differs greatly from the situation elsewhere, this made the meeting more US-centric, which was a tad disappointing. However, it remains an interesting, intense pressure-cooker, of which afterwards it’s hard to believe it barely lasted a day and a half. Worth the jetlag.

Two sessions stood out for me. First one was a presentation by Jane Mandelbaum from the Library of Congress on a collaboration with Stanford Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering (iCME), to create “Metadata remediation tools” (great name!): generating summaries, short titles and geographical data from wads of text.

iCME is located in Silicon Valley, has close ties with companies there - Google, Yahoo, and small start-ups - and deals primarily with algorithms to understand text, especially with taxonomies. (which seems to be exactly what Google is trying, too, according to Steven Levy’s april 2010 article in Wired).

Interesting, as we’ve tried this in my organization, and failed miserably. This was made to work, though it took two years (!) to iron out the wrinkles between two very different cultures.  Also, it’s not an equal partnership; most of the coding takes place in summer jobs, paid for by LoC. Main reason is the nature of LoC’s metadata, in which collections exist that differ greatly but are internally consistent, which makes them good candidates to refine algorithms on.
Results for LoC: apart from the code (rough around the edges, scripts rather than applications) and the generated geographical and other metadata, insight in the usefulness and value-for-money of metadata.

Software via the projectsite: http://cads.stanford.edu/

Example of unexpected results, visualization of keyword patterns: http://cads.stanford.edu/lcshgalaxy/more.html

An incubator-approach, outside regular channels, to quickly respond to trends. This presentation struck a chord with the audience, at moments there was an audible roar of keypresses as dozens of people typed in notable phrases in their twitter, blogging clients or notepads. One of those was when a quote from The Simpsons’ Krusty the Clown came up: "It's not just good, it's good enough!", another was the motto “there is no blame in trying something that doesn't work”. Clearly those struck a chord.

I like the setup: a small group, consisting of staff from all departments, including circulation and rare books, that spend max 5% of their time. Membership is limited to two years. The group runs 3-5 risky projects, categorized as “from trivial to easy”.

Examples: putting PD image collections on flickr and youtube, POD books from those flickr streams with Blurb, maintaining Wikipedia pages, iPhone app (made by a CS student). For mobile devices they use Siruna. Some projects were successful, some not. When projects finish succesfully, they are transferred to the regular organization; if that doesn’t work, they are killed off rather than letting them languish or peter out, as that would be discouraging.

Very pragmatic and useful - and worth copying!

Finally, the lively Twitter traffic is archived at twapperkeeper.com/hashtag/cni10s

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Red Room: workflow photo tour

(part two in a short series)

In response to questions on the RFID_LIB list, I created a short photo tour of the red room, focussing on the staff side of things: the types of crate used, usability issues we encountered etc.

I've used the full range of Flickr metadata to describe the issues, unfortunately the slideshow doesn't show descriptions by default, and notes not at all. So best viewed as set: Flickr Red Room.

Alternatively, when watching the slideshow, in the options turn 'always show description' on, and watch it fullscreen (bottom right).

The red crates are made of sturdy plastic. When it became clear that custom crates were way too expensive, we settled for industry standard parts in standard sizes, and we adjusted our shelves accordingly. Same for silkscreening the numbers, so we used industrial strength plastic numbers, which turned out very well, in half a year I haven't even seen one beginning of peeling. The lesson learned: don't try to be special, and look outside the box, err, book world.

For staff determining when to add to an existing crate, and when to pick a new, we use these rules-of-a thumb:
  • The display shows a filling % of each existing crate and the # of items inside. This is enough for staff to figure out if there's still room. If not, new crate. If there is:
  • in peak periods, when the number of empty crates becomes small: always add.
  • otherwise, it depends on the day on which the items in the existing crates were added. If the same, we add; if in the past, pick a new.
This way, we have the flexibility to deal with peak periods with slightly more than 1000 boxes; and in less busy times, we can avoid crates with content from multiple days, which makes the workflow for processing of items not picked up more complicated, or forces us to leave the whole box until all items are expired, causing delays for other patrons.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Red Room: self-service for a closed stack library

Recently, the Libraries of the University of Amsterdam (UvA, not to be confused with Virginia's UVa - yet another reason to avoid small caps for abbreviations!) and the Amsterdam Polytechnic (HvA) completed the introduction of RFID technology for security and selfservice. It was an interesting project in many of ways. And not just because it finished within budget!

European tendering was mandatory as the costs were well above the 200k€ limit. At first, I balked at this as a necessary bureaucratic evil. My personal opinion on this has completely reversed, however: with an unexpected outsider, Autocheck Systems, winning with a clear margin both in price and quality, this was a textbook case for the merit of the tendering process.

By clearly committing our demands to paper in a neutral way, prejudice is taken out of the equation, or at least reduced to a minor multiplier. The trick is writing good specifications.

Selfservice: for open and closed stacks

Public libraries have used RFID technology for over a decade now. This has created a mature market for open stacks. However, as an academic library, the vast majority of our circulation comes from closed stacks. Here, a different solution is needed, and when we embarked on this journey two years ago, turnkey products that are affordable for the amount of traffic did not exist.

We were hoping for a clever, high-tech solution, not limited to our own imagination. We wanted to tap the creativity of the vendors, bring on fresh ideas! But we most certainly also did not want to write a blank check.

The tender therefore was split up in lots. One for the mature technology, where the functional requirements were formulated clearly, and the scoring algorithm favoured price over extra features (to be precise, in a 7:3 ratio).

For the closed stack solution however, we described our situation, with detailed circulation figures. The nature of the solution - intelligent shelves, lockers, and so on - was left to the vendor. To judge functionality against cost, the vendor would have to supply a detailed description of number of staff still needed to run the closed stacks, and all the actions in their workflow.

Closed stack circulation: the old situation

In the old days, patrons would request materials in the online catalogue. The items would be picked up by the warehouse staff and brought to the backoffice to be checked and processed, and in piles on stacks behind the desk, sorter by patron name, accessible only by staff. A few hours or one day later, depending on the location of the items, the patron would come to the desk, and staff would retreive their material.

For this system, a large number of staff was needed. Not only because the patron was serviced, but also since in the absence of a proper tracking system, the piles had to be checked time and time again, to add new requests for patrons that had already more material waiting, to remove materials that had not been picked up, and to keep everything sorted on alphabet... There was clearly room for improvement. Self-service was only one aspect of the overall workflow.

However, there was one important restriction: privacy. A patron must only be able to borrow items that he or she requested, not items requested by others; and the name of the requesting patron must never be visible to others. In other words, the system must be fully anonymous. We've had run-ins in the past with professors that were spying on each others requested items...

To cut a long story short, we're very pleased with the end result of this project, for both the open and closed stack solutions. In the remainder of this post, I'll concentrate on the Red Room, the closed stack.

The red room

Autocheck Systems supplied the RFID technology and innovative workflow systems. The eye-catching design of the room is by Bureau Ira Koers and Roelof Mulder.

Red light district

Winner of the Great Indoors 2009 award - Trendhunter: showy red reading rooms - ArchDaily - Abitare (Italy) - ...

Some have called it the most beautiful circulation desk in the world... people love it or hate it, but it leaves hardly anyone untouched. Which is precisely what a library needs in these dark days, isn't it?

Patron's point of view
From the patron point of view, it works like this:
  1. Patron requests an item in the online catalogue;
  2. when the item is ready to be picked up in the Red Room, the patron receives an email with box number(s);
  3. the patron can also check the box numbers where requested items may lie by scanning the library card at an 'infostation' outside the Red Room;
  4. patron picks up the objects from the box, checks them out using selfservice machine inside the room and leaves (and when checking out is forgotten, the alarm at the entrance/exit of the room will go off).
The first weeks, we scheduled staff to stand by, but we stopped this when it became clear that patrons were just 'getting it' very well by themselves. Of course, staff is still available at the information desk nearby, which deals with various oddities that can come up, as well as patrons that need handhelding.

As for the design of the room that leaves nobody untouched, it fulfills its purpose well: it looks quite glamourous, which invites the patrons to treat it with care; and it does not invite to linger, which is good as patrons are supposed to get their items, check them out and then leave the room, either to the many study places in the building or outside.

On the whole, patrons have quickly adopted the new system, and reacted very positively. Requested items can now be picked up during opening hours, seven days a week, every day except Sunday til midnight. The original manned desk was open during office hours, two brief evening windows and Saturday morning.

To our surprise, what our patrons liked even more was the email service announcing the availability of the item. Because this email comes not from the ILS, but from the system that handles the boxes (more about that later), it is sent out the very moment the material is there. In the early days of the system, a glitch caused the mails to be sent out a few minutes early - which caused angry patrons at the information desk requesting why their box was empty...!

There is occasional dismay on the loss of face-to-face interaction. That was to be expected. There are however still plenty of opportunities for human interaction, both on-topic and off-topic. For the former, our information desk is doing brisk business. As for the latter... coffee can be had literally around the corner.

Also for special materials
The Red Room has security gates, forcing a patron to always check their materials with the selfservice machines inside. The security gates of the Red Room check the EAS bit, the regular gates at the main entrance check the AFI. This strategy with two separate zones enables us to also use the Red Room for materials that patrons can only use inside the building, but are not permitted to take elsewhere. For these materials, the selfservice machine leaves the security bit for the outer zone protected.

For this to work however, the ILS needs to send the object handling status to the machine. This is not a part of the SIP2 protocol, as implemented by Aleph! Luckily for us, for materials which may not be taken home, the return date in the SIP2 string is always set to today (it's implemented in the system as 1-day loan). By checking this date, we can work around this limitation.

As any professional knows, RFID cannot provide 100% security. The truly rare material - 100+ years old, collectors items and such - is therefore not handled by the Red Room, but sent to the Rare Books department, where the security measures borders on paranoia, and rightly so.

This also relieves us from nasty dilemmas, such as where on this Blaeu Atlas would I glue this tag... with an estimated lifespan of one or two decades?

Internal workflow
Behind the scenes, the system is, as per Einsteins quip, as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Tagging happens on per-need-basis - with 3+ mln items on closed stacks, it would be impractical and needlessly expensive to tag all items in advance.

Requested items come in from the stacks. If not yet tagged, staff add and program an RFID tag first. In rare occasions, they add a barcode if the item doesn't yet have it. Even though barcodes have been added to all requested materials since 1985, still relatively frequently items pass by that apparently have not been requested in 25 years... another reason to tag only when needed.

After tagging (as well as several other checks), incoming items are sorted by patron name. This is printed on the slip that starts the process inside the warehouse, no interaction with the ILS is needed.

Finally the items are paired with one or more boxes. This is an RFID-supported process that takes place at one of two specialized workstations with a touchscreen and large RFID antenna.
The staff member takes a pile of items and puts it on the RFID antenna of the station. The item ID's are read from the tags. From the item ID's, the user that has made the request is queried from the ILS (unfortunately this is not part of SIP2 or other standards, so a custom webservice needs to be set up. A big thank you to Leiden University for sharing their code!).
The station then first check whether all items on the pile are requested by one patron. Some names are common, and where people work, mistakes inevitably are made. If not, the staff needs to take away items until only items from one patron remain.
Then, the system checks whether this patron already has materials ready in the Red Room. In that case, the staff is presented with a list of boxes. Staff can choose to add items to an existing box, in which case a little slip is printed with book title and ID, and box number to add it to.
Finally, if the item(s) are to be put in a new box, the staff takes an empty box. The boxes are visibly numbered, but also have a tag, so the box only needs to be put on the RFID reader, and the link is made.
The box, filled with the items, is put on a trolley. The request slips are removed - important as the patron's name is printed on them.

After some time, or when it is full, it's driven to the Red Room and the boxes are put in place. On returning, the staff member sends off the patron emails.

In the old days, ~20% of the requested items were never picked up. Retreiving these overdue items was a labourious process that the new system has greatly simplified. At off-peak times, staff print a list of boxes that can be emptied.

Conclusion: happy with lo-tech
In practice, after some initial quirks, the system has been working remarkably well. It's fast, and does not get in the way; it is indeed simple. In the end, lo-tech proved the way to go.

Unfortunately, this summer also saw the migration from our old ILS to Aleph. This makes it hard to calculate the actual staff saving, since the entire workflow has changed in many ways. Current estimates are however that the business case is sound.

Our tender documents are available on request (and have already been used by one other institution), and I'll be happy to answer any further questions.