Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Some more stray thoughts about online catalogues

There was an article in today's Guardian about the Dyslexie font which is designed to be bottom-heavy to help people with Dyslexia: the idea is that the asymmetry of the characters makes it harder for them to dance about for the reader. Coincidentally, a conversation I'd had with somebody last weekend had set me thinking about how a library could present appropriate parts of its stock to dyslexic readers.A gallery display of book covers is an obvious format but wouldn't it be nice to have the accompanying text for that section of the catalogue in a Dyslexia-friendly font? I expect it's do-able; it would be interesting to see someone give it a go.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

QR and literacy campaigns

Project-Q in the Netherlands is a nice, simple example of the use of QR codes to support a literacy campaign. I know QR codes are old hat and ho-hum to some but as a cheap and easy way to add a few more strings to a bow they're pretty useful and I don't understand why we keep on not using them.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

"Not another bloody review!"

Some interesting stuff coming out about the Sieghart Review of English publish library services, including this one in The Bookseller. The general tone of the analysis sounds pretty good and some of the suggestions mentioned would be very encouraging if ever acted upon. We'll wait and see if and when the review gets published.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Words and pictures

November is Picture Book Month, one of very many international initiatives for encouraging reading and literacy. Some of these are set up formally by organisations like CILIP, The Reading Agency and the ALA while others, like this, emerge from informal association and get a momentum of their own.

Picture books are great and even in these austere times we have lots of them in our libraries. The combination of words and pictures helps young readers to associate words with ideas. The pictures encourage "Can you see..." and "I wonder what..."and the "What do you think happens next?" questions that make sharing a story such fun. And the artwork is often brilliant. So I like picture books.

I always puzzled — still do, in fact — about librarians' antipathy to comics. We were brought up reading comics; my dad reckons comics taught him how to read and I was one of those horribly precocious little kids who read "The Bash Street Kids" before I ever saw the cover of a "Janet and John" reader. And yet the only comic you ever saw in the library when I was a kid was "Look and Learn." All those stories with pictures and their captioned narrative links and speech bubbles to tell you who's talking were somehow "not quite the thing." Later on when I started working with and in libraries I saw the same thing. The two biggest selling children's books every year were The Guinness Book of Records and The Beano Book and while we bought the first by the bucket load if anybody ever donated a copy of The Beano Book or any other comic annual it went straight into book sale. One of my friends tried to slip some into one of the collections he was managing and was told very firmly that: "We don't buy annuals." Given that the accession shelves were groaning with expensive yearbooks destined for the reference library he wasn't best chuffed at this.

We do have comics in the library these days but they're either dressed up as "graphic novels" or put somewhere in the 741s amongst the non-fiction. Personally, I think there's a distinct difference between a collection of comic and a graphic novel. It's not necessarily the format or the genre, it's the structure of the storytelling. One's not better than the other, they're just different, albeit very close relations. It's lovely to see graphic novels in libraries and I'm all for the study of graphic arts; I just wish we could also celebrate comics without having to sneak them in by disguise.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Stray thoughts on the library catalogue

This is a frustrating time for me, I admit: we're in the process of recommissioning our OPAC and I can see all sorts of possibilities with the new version but I have to take a few steps back because it's somebody else's baby. A couple of years ago my rôle changed from library systems development to more general corporate systems management and support so it's my job to make sure the system underlying the OPAC works but the development work is somebody else's to do and I have to be careful to get in the way.

I'll jot stuff down on here once in a while just to get ideas out of my system.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Project Gutenberg catalogue records

A belated tip of the hat to Steve Thomas at the University of Adelaide for providing MARC records for Project Gutenberg titles. This is immensely useful and helps us add some real depth to the online elements of our catalogue with very little effort on our part (and nothing but admiration for the colossal amount of effort that people have put in to make this project such an incredibly important, useful and entertaining resource).

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Doorbells of despair

Back in the old days, Oh Best Beloved, when your parents were still young and didn't have mortgages, I used to work with council one-stop-shops. At one place I worked the need for a separate customer services service was self-evident as everything about the corporate culture and customer journeys screamed out that it couldn't keep the public far enough away for its own comfort. Its council offices had the nearest I have seen to a moat filled with crocodiles that could be practicable in a 20th Century building.

The most frequent customers were council housing tenants, or hopeful tenants-to-be. The customer experience was painful. They had to:
  • Know that they had to go to the council offices for a particular service and not one of nineteen other offices scattered around the town;
  • Know which floor to go to;
  • Know that when they got out of the lift at that floor they had to turn right and go through the big, wooden, unmarked door;
  • Know that once inside the reception room (not a lot bigger than a telephone booth) they had to ring the appropriate door bell for assistance;
  • Know which of the six doorbells on the wall to use, which wasn't obvious as they were hand-labelled with the names (or even initials) of the housing teams, not their function.
If you picked the wrong doorbell you were tutted at and left to your own devices to have another guess.

I'd hoped those days were long gone but looking round at public service web sites I begin to wonder. The vogue now is for pages to be stripped down bare save for a small number of icons taking you to the services you are most likely to want.

I have a few issues with the more extreme instances of this:
  • Where's the information telling the user who you are and what you do? Not a mission statement (God help us!) but a simple narrative explanation of your function. Don't assume that because you know then so does everyone else.
  • Where's the support? What if these icons and labels mean nothing to me? What do I do? Who do I ask for help?
  • Who says these are the services I am most likely to want? You don't know me, you don't know what I want.
  • Who says these are the services that the average user is most likely to want? Customer insight might be able to tell you which of the existing options the customer is most likely to find and use but that isn't necessarily the same as "want." Is a page popular because it is useful or because it's easily accessible (or least-inaccessible)?
  • Beyond the metrics, who determines which services are promoted? Is it the comms team? Is it the web team? Is it the service? Is somebody waiting for the research to demonstrate a demand for resources that have effectively been hidden?
But most of all, whenever I see one of these web sites I have to ask myself: have we really gone back to the customer having to guess which doorbell to ring for attention?

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Net neutrality: why worry?

Net neutrality is a topic creating quite a lot of heat at the moment, due to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's taking a look at the topic and scaring people silly in the process with the implication that there'd be the development of a two-tiered internet with them as can pay going down the line at a premium rate and the rest crawling along as best can. (CNET provides as good a summary as any.)

So what? It's a fuss in a foreign land, isn't it?

Sadly not. It'll affect us however much we may imagine or hope that it wouldn't.

So what would be the effect and why should we care?

The way I see it, the nearest practical model for how the post-net neutrality world would look is cable television. Back in the day when cable TV first came out it was full of all sorts of community engagement. There were local and hyperlocal channels; there was space for the esoteric, the informative and the downright baffling. Much of it was done on the cheap and looked it.Then there were years of consolidation and corporate buyings-up and now I could watch NCIS and CSI: Miami simultaneously on six different channels; or endless hours watching folks in nowhere towns somewhere in America shouting at each other for no apparent reason; an interminable churn of mid-Atlantic reality wannabees being vile to one another; and a carousel of Westminster Village news feeds. None of it is local. All of it is peddling the same corporate narrative. News or features about anything within a hundred miles of where I live is limited to the local half-hour news programmes on weekdays and the ten minutes where the skateboarding ducks used to be after the weekend news.

I quite liked the Internet when it was like the Wild West. We can't go back to those days but that doesn't mean it has to become just another adjumct to the Wall Street Journal.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Data sharing between libraries

We're at the stage in the evolution of the AGMA library consortium where we're starting to work through the practical — and legal — implications of shared services.

  • Sharing our catalogue data is relatively easy: the data standards are well-established and most the data itself is published in the public domain on library OPAC's, etc. Which doesn't mean that it was all plain sailing and we've not got some more work to do. 
  • Sharing borrower data is obviously fraught with all sorts of information governance and data protection issues on top of the problem that there isn't any data standard save that imposed by the structure of our shared LMS and the commonalities we've discussed and agreed on a case-by-case basis.
  • Virtually every circulation dataset is a back door into the borrower data.
I've been thinking through some of the questions we need to be asking ourselves on this journey. It's still early days so isn't exhaustive; at this stage I'm trying to work out what we need to worry about at a general level prior to starting work on a risk analysis.

Purpose Type of Information Recipients Data Controller Notes/queries
Membership information including contact details –voluntary service, customers will be asked if they want to opt in
Customer name, address and contact information, DOB.

Disability, ethnicity and other demographic details

Family relationship details

Lending history
Library staff (including all other authorised Spydus users) of approved Authorities within the scheme Local Authority
(Data Subject’s Local Authority will be the data controller)
Which data is to be shared? Is it all or nothing?

  • If partial, which parts and how managed?

Same question applies to who the data is being shared with

  • What would be the position of volunteer-managed community libraries?

How do we switch sharing on/off?

  • What happens if a customer changes their mind? How are they “quarantined?”

What happens to the data held in loans, charges and reservations?

What happens to any outstanding loans, fines and charges?

Who owns (and is responsible for) the data?
Loans information Details of the loan including borrower, item, location and status of loan.

Loans history
Library staff

Specific customers can see all details of their loan(s)

All customers can see some details of the loan(s)
Local Authority
(which?)
This is the crucial element to be managed:

  • It is the purpose of the data-sharing agreement
  • It is the bridging element between the personal customer data and nearly all the other data sets

There is a hierarchy of viewing permissions

If a customer has said “no” to data-sharing, how is the borrower data in the loan, charges and reservation records expressed?

  • If the customer changes their mind about sharing their data, is it automatically redacted from these records?

Who owns (and is responsible for) this data?

Whose loan policies?

  • Applied from the lending library?
  • Including fines and charges?
  • How do exceptions apply?
  • “Non-default” borrower types and collections
Overdue/pre-overdue notices Contact details including borrower name, address, telephone and email; loan due dates and items involved Library staff

Specific customer
Local Authority (which?) Derived from loans data and subject to same questions

It would make sense to aggregate these to improve efficiency and save costs (see notes on charges, etc.)
Reservations Contact details including borrower name, address, telephone and email and items requested Library staff

Specific customer
Local Authority
(which?)
All the questions for loans apply for reservations (which are effectively loans-in-waiting)

Whose charge régime applies?

Would the Data Controller be the “owner” of the customer record, the library that placed the reservation or the library it will be picked up from (if a different library authority)?
Requests Contact details including borrower name, address, telephone and email and items/articles requested Library staff

Specific customer

ILL system (bibliographic and/or article data only)
Local Authority
(which?)
In nearly all respects as reservations, just more complicated charges

[The operating procedures would probably need modifying in the light of the shared lending environment.]

This will need to be revised in the event of a fuller integration with UnityWeb or equivalent third-party systems
Notifications for any reserved items Contact details including borrower name, address, telephone and email and items requested Library staff

Specific customer
Local Authority
(which?)
Derived from reservations/requests data and subject to the same questions

It would make sense to aggregate these to improve efficiency and save costs (see notes on charges, etc.)
Charges/fines/fees Contact details including borrower name, address, telephone and email; details of the transaction that generated the charge Library staff

Specific customer
Local Authority
(which?)
Derived from loans and reservations/requests data and subject to the same questions

How will these be managed:

  • Payable only where incurred?
  • Payable globally?
  • Impact on traps/alerts (whose parameters apply?)

In the event of recovery, who legally owns the charge?

In the light of the above, what would be the effect (if any) of aggregated notices?
Catalogue/ discovery records — bibliographic data Title-level catalogue data Library staff

Library customers and general public
Local Authority
(which?)
Bibliographic data – already shared data

Don’t forget that there is a link to the borrower record from the review/rating in the bib data in Staff Enquiry

  • Potentially links to more than one Data Subject, so which would be the Data Controller for this catalogue data?
  • Shared responsibility? How?
  • Similar questions are required of other customer-created content such as tags (these are lost in the current versions of Spydus 9)

(Not all data are published for the public)
Catalogue/discovery records — holdings/item-level data Catalogue data, including electronic holdings Library staff

Library customers and general public
Local Authority
(Which?)
Holdings data

Links to personal data via loans/loan history and status/status history

  • Potentially these link to more than one Data Subject, so which would be this Data Controller for the catalogue data?
  • Logically should be the owner of the holding item

(Not all data are published for the public)
Management Information/ Business Intelligence Reports detailing usage of service, per location Library Managers Local Authority
(Data Subject’s Local Authority will be the data controller)
Essentially should be summary data, though we’d need to have safeguards against breaches caused by very small sample data

Proper safeguards and risk analyses are required before making this data available to third parties
Demographic breakdowns Library Managers

Designated authorised analysts
Local Authority
(Data Subject’s Local Authority will be the data controller)
Most would be summary data, though we’d need to have safeguards against breaches caused by very small sample data

Some data (e.g. lists of postcodes) are granular enough to easily identify Data Subjects so safeguards need to be in place on the use and presentation of this data are required before making this data available to third parties
Marketing databases Library Managers

Designated authorised marketing staff
Local Authority (Data Subject’s Local Authority will be the data controller) Is the “I agree to receive marketing” (or equivalent) field global or local?

The selection of data explicitly must be limited to those customers who have agreed to contact so as to comply with Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations.

Proper safeguards and risk analyses are required before making this data available to third parties
Stock management data Library staff

Designated authorised third-party service providers
Local Authority (which?) Nothing pertaining to Data Subjects should be included in this data.

Stock ownership should be straightforward.

Stock usage more problematic:

  • Global usage figures recorded against bibliographic/holdings data?
  • Local usage only?
  • How would (if at all?) third-party stock analysis systems like CollectionHQ differentiate between local and extralimital use?

In the early days at least there will be pressure to be able to provide evidence that stock is being used “fairly” with local library customers having first dibs for local stock
Ad hoc data requests Library Managers

Designated authorised third parties
Local Authority (Data Subject’s Local Authority will be the data controller) Most would be summary data, though we’d need to have safeguards against breaches caused by very small sample data

Some data (e.g. lists of postcodes) are granular enough to easily identify Data Subjects so safeguards need to be in place on the use and presentation of this data

Proper safeguards and risk analyses are required before making this data available to third parties

FoI requests would be subject to the proper exclusions
SIP2 data Data used for interfacing between Spydus and third-party systems Library staff

Specific customer
Local Authority (Data Subject’s Local Authority will be the data controller) The particular case at the moment would be where data held in the customer record determines the access or not to third-party systems and services.


  • Would the data be determined globally or locally?
  • Standard use of data fields?
  • Standard coding sets?

I'd be interested to know if/how this analysis sits with the experience of established consortium libraries, especially if I've missed something that could cause us problems.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Library audiences: talking to the other 54%

A couple of months back I had an interesting Twitter conversation with some local government comms folk which got me wondering why so few English public library services have much in the way of child-centred content on their web sites. I asked the very splendid Ian Anstice if he could canvass for examples of good practice on his Public Libraries News site. The good news is that he got some positive responses, including Devon's "The Zone" and Stories from the Web; the bad news is that there are so very few examples. Ian's musings on this point are here.

For me there are a few contributory factors to this famine:

  • The web is still seen as largely "something other" to the public library's service offer. At best a way of promoting activities in the library and somewhere to keep the catalogue and the e-books; at worst an abstraction of resources from beleaguered libraries. (There are plenty of exceptions to that rule, thank Heaven!)
  • If you're doing it right it's going to take time and people to do it. These are increasingly scarce resources.
  • It's difficult to reconcile the needs of a children's page with those of a council's corporate branding, particularly if the brand requires a single monolithic corporate voice.
  • It's a complex and sometimes unforgiving audience: what's great for a five year-old may be acceptable to a seven year-old but puerile to a nine year-old and beyond the pale to an eleven year-old.
  • There's often a confusion as to whether the audience is the child or the parent. Ironically, the younger the intended audience the older the people you're going to be talking to.
Despite these problems there are still some things that can be done without too much expense and hassle.

Customer-created content
There are easy ways of adding children's voices to your content:
  • If your OPAC includes the facility to publish readers' ratings and reviews, actively encourage children's reviews. You might need to do it for them; if so, an ethical solution would be to set up a dummy customer account specifically for posting them.If you have children's reading groups, encourage the groups to post their reviews, too.
  • You'll probably already include links to writers' web sites with the rest of their works in your catalogue; why not also include links to appropriate fan sites?
  • If your children's reading groups have their own web pages link to them from your site.
  • Many OPACs have the facility to build saved lists and incorporate them into URLs to create canned searches. Canvas ideas for reading lists, "top tens" and the like and build them into links in your site. If you can present these as carousel galleries of books covers - yay!!!
  • If you have good working relationships with schools and youth workers, get them involved, too.

    Changing rooms

    If you can't have child-centred pages on your council's web site, can you provide separate versions of your OPAC for children?
    • The basic model would just be to have a version of the OPAC that's limited to the children's collections (this is where we're at in Rochdale at the moment).
    • A modification of this would be to change the wording for this version's home page and search forms (which could probably do with simplifying anyway). You'll need to be pretty clear about which particular audience(s) you're addressing here. You might want to do a CBeebies/CBBC split.
    • If you have a useful working relationship with your comms people and if your corporate brand is either flexible enough to deliver or allows permissible exclusions in particular circumstances, then you could do some interesting work on the stylesheets, etc. to make the look and feel more friendly. This isn't necessarily about using primary colours and Comic Sans (catalogue records look really horrible in Comic Sans, I've tried it). It's usually about: 
      • Simplifying elements, or eliminating them altogether. Is the link to the corporate web site useful to a nine year-old?
      • Adding pages specifically aimed at your audience. The obvious ones would be your help pages.
      • Illustrating ideas and instructions with graphics.
      • Perhaps even having its own character-based branding (like Bookstart Bear).
    These are just a few potential quick-win options. Given time and resources there's a lot more that could be done but I think there's a danger of ignoring the basics in pursuit of the cutting edge and sexy.