Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Library Management Systems — a new approach

Ken Chad's published his notes on some of the work being started on moving forward from the UKCS to a new, possibly less monolithic, way of identifying what libraries need from their systems (not necessarily just the "traditional LMS"). You can read them here.

It's early days yet but even at this scoping stage it feels like there are a lot of potential positives to come out of this.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Library technologies on the wish list

Ebook Friendly recently posted its "8 technologies we would love to see" and it's an interesting — and not unrealistic — selection, Although part of me worries about the way that technologies are applied, or not, within public libraries I could see some realisable practical benefits to most of these (3 and 8 if you're wondering about the exceptions).

Of course, funding and support (operational perhaps more than technical) would always be an issue but there are circumstances where the return on the investment could be more than just "nice to have." The ideas for creating digital interfaces for print books are particularly intriguing because I can see in them the basis for a new generation of tools for helping people with visual impairment: as well as the functions available in modern CCTV readers — changes in size, contrast, colour, etc. — it could bring in new options such as changing the font to one of the reader's choice, perhaps one with a heavier base leading. Many of the reader advisory functions could easily be made available in audio format. And could you imagine how useful and empowering it would be for a completely blind person to have a talking bookmark that would be able to walk them through the geography of the shelves directly to the talking book that they want (especially if it could find the book even if it had been mis-shelved!)

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Clogs and shawls

Fiction genres are sometimes a bit bewildering, especially when they are very-locally defined. Negotiating the thin-but-lethal minefield that is the boundary between Science Fiction and Fantasy is a tricky thing, as is the argument with the reader as to whether or not that Thriller is really Crime Fiction. But it is the local genres that bemuse…

When I first started working in Rochdale Library Service I bumped into Family Sagas for the first time. I had no idea. I'm not alone, many of my colleagues had the same experience. When my partner came to work for the library service she was told to shelve the family sagas in "that bay over there."
"How do I know which are family sagas? Do they have a sticker on?" 
"No. They have a dirty-faced woman with a shawl and a baby on the cover." 
"How about this one? There's no baby." 
"She's got a dirty face and she looks sad so the baby must have died."
I think the strangest thing about this is that for twenty years you could rely on there being enough new titles with dirty-faced women and babies on the cover to keep that bay stocked up aplenty.

Friday, 28 August 2015

LMS development

I've been invited onto the group Ken Chad's pulling together to have a look at what comes after the UK Core Specification for library management systems, which is a flattering and interesting opportunity to try and put something positive into the library pot. At Rochdale we've no plans to change our LMS any time very soon so you may wondering why I'm bothering to get involved and potentially get some additional homework. The answer is: enlightened self-interest. The suppliers I'm working with have finite development and support resources and I would prefer to have them working on something that would add value for us looking forward rather than addressing scores of variations on the theme of "requirements that libraries have identified as missing from UKCS." 

I'm not going to tell any tales out of school but the first telephone conference meeting this morning felt really positive. The more so given the size, scope and — let's be honest — vagueness of the job in hand. So that bodes well.

If all that comes out of the work of this group is that libraries and suppliers aren't diluting scarce resources with redundant requirement iterations then that would be no bad thing. More than that, it's been interesting to see how quickly the idea of replacing or revising the UK Core Specification for library systems has evolved over the past few months from a change of specification into a change of methodology and this seems to be a group that could pick up on that, with the potential for some very useful medium-term benefits.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Deck of cards

One of the things I'm wiggling round inconsequentially like a loose tooth in the back of my head at the moment is a set of notes and checklists on the general theme of "doing stuff" aimed at somebody without the scars of experience who's got that rabbit-trapped-in-headlights feeling about a piece of work. It would be a hotch-potch of things I've learned over the years at work, things I wish I'd known before I'd done some pieces of work and things I've watched and marvelled as other people worked their magic. Essentially, a basic, interdisciplinary toolkit for somebody struggling to know where to begin.

Thinking about that "trapped" feeling where you can't see where to go next, or the only way is somewhere you don't want to go — particularly creative block and group-think — it occurred to me that there ought to be some tool that could help. Something a bit more proactive than "go and do something else for half an hour" that could combine displacement, suggestion and challenge. And it turns out that there is: the original out-of-the-box thinking. The usefulness of tools like Oblique Strategies and Distant Early Warning isn't in the apparent power of divination so much as the introduction of a random variable that disrupts the state of thought. I'll certainly have a play with that idea.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Figure skating

One of the things that has become horribly apparent over the past couple of years is the abject lack of any evidence-based government data that would lend themselves to a statistical analysis of the decline of the national public library service.

There are no official figures in the public domain for anything that's happening out there: not for visits, or use of libraries or even — God help us! — for the number of publicly-funded public libraries run by local authorities in this country.

This leads to nonsense like the recent claim that there's been an increase in the number of libraries despite all the cuts over the past few years. Anyone wanting to know the number of libraries is better off going to Ian Anstice's Public Libraries News blog than any official government site or press release. All kudos and good karma to Ian for doing the work but this isn't a good state of affairs for a democracy or open government.

One reason often cited for this lack is that the figures are available but only from CIPFA, which charges a hefty fee for their use. And that fee pays for just the figures for one library authority for that year's figures, so pulling together a national picture becomes an expensive business.

Which it would.

If that was the way you were doing it.

But it shouldn't be:

  • The presentation and analysis of those statistics are CIPFA's property to do as they will with. Which is fair enough as they've done that work.
  • The data that informs CIPFA's statistics are available within each and every library authority in the land and is collected each year — at no small expense to you the taxpayer — by local council staff then copied into a spreadsheet that's parcelled up and sent to CIPFA. 
  • There is absolutely no good reason why that data — not CIPFA's subsequent work with that data — can't be put into the public domain to be worked on by decision-makers, lobbyists, "Armchair Auditors" or just people who like playing with numbers. 
The easiest way to do this would be for each local authority to submit a copy of each year's data — perhaps as a CSV file — to a dataset in or similar. This would then be in the public domain and available for proper analysis of services and trends. It wouldn't cost anything very much to actually do: the data's available, it just needs somewhere to go. And it would be a damned site cheaper than having each local authority have to go through the administrative processes required to deal with a Freedom of Information Request asking the same questions as those on the CIPFA spreadsheet. Or even multiple requests for that data. Once it's in the public domain FoI doesn't apply.

So it would be possible to have an official, verifiable benchmark figure for the number of public libraries in this country at the beginning of the financial year and the net loss/gain at the beginning of the following year.

Which could be why it isn't happening.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

UKOLN Informatics

Sad to hear of the closure of UKOLN Informatics. This unit set in train and/or encouraged a wide range of digital and e-library (for those of us of a certain age) initiatives over the years, particularly in the late nineties and turn of the millennium. It's a relief to see that some of its progeny have found good homes but a shame that the doors are set to close. Many thanks and good wishes to all concerned.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Core specification or core specifications?

Thinking about the prospect of a revision of the UK Core Specification, I got to wondering whether or not it should be a single, monolithic beast.While it's useful to have something to act as a basis for a formal Statement Of User Requirements at the start of a procurement process perhaps its singularity could cause a problem as much as a solution.

When I did the lessons learned with my manager after Rochdale procured Spydus we both thought that we'd got the best of the available options but it would have been good to have been able to have some of the nice bits of functionality of some of the other systems on top of that. Of course, we were procuring a single library management and the idea of a best-of-breed pick'n'mix of bits of systems wasn't — and probably still isn't — a practical option for us. But it's an appealing idea and it would be a shame if a revised UKCS closed the door on it unnecessarily.

Needless to say, there are pitfalls as well as advantages…

In favour of a modular UKCS:

  • Possibility of building "best-of-breed" hybrid systems
  • Potential for increased diversity in the market place
    • Contracts could be awarded to more than one supplier
    • Newcomers to the market could concentrate on doing one thing well rather than having to make a big commitment investing in developing a universal solution
Problems with a modular UKCS:
  • Which modules? One of the problems with the existing UKCS is that it presupposes the shape of the solution — there'll be a an acquisitions module, a serials module, etc. etc.
    • One of the things we tried to so when we were putting together our requirements was to get people to think about functional outcomes and outputs rather than bolt-ons or "modernisations" of the machinery they knew. I'd like to imagine something similar for a revised UKCS but that's easier said than done.
  • How would/could you specify the interaction between modular components?
  • Procurement processes hate shades of grey. A complex procurement — a bit of this, a bit of that — would be bloody hard work (a simple procurement like ours was a hard slog).
  • It would be more work for the suppliers — instead of a simple first-past-the-post competition for each organisation's procurement they'd be entering into a series of Nash equilibria.
  • It would be hard work technically:
    • How would the interfaces between system components be set up and managed? And who by? We have fun enough with SIP2 and EDI, enriched content and interfaces with third-party services and systems!
    • If the main part of the system is provided as Software as a Service, how would the rest of the functionality work with it?
    • What would be the maintenance and support arrangements? Could Service Level Agreements be constructed in such a way as to encourage collaborative working between competing suppliers?

The problems may not be insurmountable. The benefits may not be realisable. Either way, I think it's important that the possibilities should be explored.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Ideas and innovations in public libraries

The very excellent Ian Anstice has added a useful new page to Public Libraries News: a digest of reported "new ideas" in public libraries. Some are brand new and innovative; others are things that some libraries have been doing, unheralded, for yonks. Love them or loathe them, new ideas and innovation have been part of the business of public libraries for over a century and a half. Seeing so many of them stacked up in one place like this is breathtaking: you get some idea of the breadth of services delivered by the national public library service and some of the depth of thought put into developing, improving and supporting those services.

Have a look at the Ideas and innovations in public libraries page here.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

System permissions - stray thoughts

I'm doing some work at the moment on system permissions on a transport management system I'm responsible for, called Tranman. Partly because I looked at the way the security settings and permissions were set up and thought: "I don't understand any of this!" Partly because I'm concerned that so many people seem to have high-level permissions on this system. That last isn't a criticism of anybody: you make your suite of best guesses when you do your implementation and do a review later in the light of experience.

When a new system's being implemented many organisations work on the basis that a manager needs more permissions than the people they manage so managers' user accounts tend to accumulate more permissions the higher they are in the pecking order. In fiercely-hierarchical organisations like libraries this can be taken to the nth degree: when I came into the first library management I ever managed all the librarians had superuser access to the system!

In truth they don't need this: nearly all complex systems like an operational management system don't have a single hierarchy of permissions; they have a permissions matrix. The manager may need to have oversight of more parts of the system but they don't necessarily need to be able to get in and do the work. For example, the manager would need to be able to authorise orders and payments but they wouldn't necessarily be able to create orders and invoices; and for audit purposes there are good reasons why these should be either/or functions if at all operationally possible. (Where it's not operationally possible you should include the necessary warnings and safeguards in the standard operating procedures).

The general rule of thumb is that the user should only be able to access what they need to do their job and, ideally, should only be able to see what they can access: all those library superusers disappeared the first chance I got. This caused some consternation: "You can't give yourself more control of the system than your senior managers!" to which the answer was: "I just have." These days I work in IT and my line manager doesn't have access to any of the systems I manage: "What would I do with it if I had it?" And to be fair, the managers I work with these days tend to work on the basis that "working life's complicated enough so if you can declutter my space by removing those things I don't need to do myself, great." It improves system security, it streamlines the operation, they get a less stressful user interface and there's less opportunity for error, so why wouldn't you want to do it?

One of the things I've decided that I want to do with this particular system is to set up a permissions group for auditors that would allow quite a wide area of access but all of it view-only. The more I think about this the more I think this needs to be considered in the review of library specifications that Ken Chad's encouraging (more details about this in the LibTechRFP wiki).