Evergreen/Sitka in practice, practically

Before I went and gave my endnote talk at the Prairie Partnerships conference in Regina Saskatchewan, I got to pop in and see a talk about British Columbia’s Evergreen/Sitka project. The talk was split into explanation of how the project came about and then some actual demo-ing of the back end of their customized install of Evergreen. It was a great presentation. Not only was it packed with the sort of numbers and data you could take back to your director, but it made an open source ILS seem like a totally sensible and practical approach to system-wide ILSes which, of course, it is.

The BC libraries were doing a combination of some of their own modifications and working with Equinox to provide additional support and services. BC Libraries have a few computer science types on staff doing a lot of local coding. Their system runs on a single server [no big servers in every library basement!] and remote libraries connect to it via the internet without any significant lag at top load of almost 550 circs a minute!

Sharon Herbert and Sabina Iseli-Otto gave the presentation and here are just a few things I have from my notes.

  • Link to the Sitka project page. They rebranded the project SITKA from BC Pines to give it a more local BC flavor. This is just a small point but one that bears repeating, you can call your ILS anything you want. You don’t have to tell your patrons “Hey look it up in the web opac bistro portal…”
  • In addition, each separate library that is using the system will have their OPAC have its own “skin” so that it looks the library it’s a part of. You can see the skins here: Fort Nelson, Prince Rupert, Powell River. This is not big stuff but it can definitely make an online catalog
  • Searchable version of the catalogue.
  • The women on the panel recommended people read Marshall Breeding’s Library Technology report about Next Generation Library catalogs where he says that the numbers are indicating that libraries currently have “more uncertainly than trust in their library vendors”
  • The OPAC project is just part of the general strategic plan that BC Libraries are doing which includes a One Card program a build-a-website using Plone, chat reference and other features.
  • One of the fear-allaying things that they talked about was the age old “what if the internet is down?” problem. While I feel that, in 2008, making plans about what do do when your library has no internet is a little like making plans for having no electricity, it does happen and it’s useful if an OPAC can function somewhat and also gracefully recover. According to Sharon Hebert, Sitka’s ability to do this is actually fairly impressive.
  • The women stressed “gap analysis” as part of the project rollout, evaluating what is missing from what they have, and making plans to build or buy it. Apparently a known downside to Evergreen is its inability to do something (can’t recall) with serials? Not only is the BC team going to identify and try to rectify this problem, but the joy of open source means they’ll be fixing it for everyone.
  • They estimated that BC libraries spend upwards of 750K in “operating and licensing” costs for existing OPACs. With licensing down to, well, zero, this frees up a lot of cash to pay programmers and support servers and other infrastructure. The goal is to have no libraries be paying more for Sitka than they pay for their existing ILSes.

The big elegant point where was one of competence and capability. As they said “As we demonstrate successes, others come around.” This was clearly a presentation designed to show the possibilities and the capabilities of something that to many seems like far off fantasy-land ideas but they’ve made it very real and very practical. I’m glad I got the time to see this before my talk.

Harvard’s Theatrum Catalogorum

A few people from the Early Modern Studies Group at Harvard have created the Theatrum Catalogorum which collates “library catalogs from every major European country” The next version should countain North American catalogs as well. Of particular interest is the fact that these catalogs are not just linked, they are annotated somewhat. While most of these notes are jus tinformation for English speakers on how to search the catalogs, library geeks will enjoy some of the meta-commentary such as “Many early modern holdings probably lost in an eighteenth-century fire.” or “Don’t bother looking in 1930-1991 or 1992-present catalogs.” [thanks pk]

four concrete ways the OPAC can NOT suck, and you can help

Peter from OhioLINK has a nice post with four different ways you can extend an online catalog to make it less sucky. Read: Schemes to Add Functionality to the Web OPAC. [lib]

Hello Wall Street Journal readers!

Or, if you don’t know what I’m taking about, go read this story: Discord Over Dewey. It’s loosely about the Arizona library that decided to get rid of Dewey and make the shelves more bookstore-like, you know the one, but it gets bigger. To quote the article

[T]he debate, say many librarians, is about more than one branch’s organizational system. It feeds into a broader, increasingly urgent discussion about libraries, where a growing number of patrons, used to Google and Yahoo, simply don’t look for books and information the way they used to. Some are drawing on cues from the Internet in proposals for overhauls of cataloging systems, but others are more hesitant, saying that the Web’s tendency to provide thousands of somewhat-relevant results flies in the face of the carefully tailored research libraries pride themselves on.

And if the Wall Street Journal can end a sentence with a preposition, we know the times are changing, right? I’m quoted a little in the article. I had a nice long chat with the writer — as with the NYT piece — and just a tiny bit of it got quoted which I think confuses a few issues, but hey it links here so I can spell them out now in more detail.

  1. The difference between research and looking for information for other purposes. There are much stricter requirements for research — what’s citeable, what’s a good source, what’s authoritative — and a lot of the agitation has been about less-authoritative sites being used more and more not just for people looking up things that interest them, but also for research or attempted research. Is it okay to cite Wikipedia as long as you can prove that you understand that it’s not authoritative? Isn’t there research value to saying that some fact is in Wikipedia, even if it’s not necessarily the same value as that thing being true?
  2. The age gap. People not raised with Google are often more okay with their searches being iterative processes that take longer. Some aren’t. Similarly, younger users are often impatient with iterative searching or the very familiar “try these sources and let me know if they’re okay and if not we can find some others” approach.
  3. Google slicing. I was making a point that because Google is so popular, people forget that information can be indexed by different things than Google decides to index it under. So, searching for content by filesize, by “most recently added to the catalog”, by date added, these are all things Google could do but doesn’t. The problem is that we are forgetting that there are other ways to determine relevance, or relevance to US.

In any case, I liked the article and it had good quotes from a lot of people, some you will recognize and a few you may not. They end the bit with a good line from Michael Casey “Librarians like to think that we’re indispensable,” he said. “While I think that is true to a point, I don’t think we should continue to propagate the idea that we’re indispensable by keeping a complicated cataloging system.”

Announcing Open Library

Someone asked me during one of my talks if I knew of any projects that were actually trying to open source cataloging records and the idea of authority records. I said I didn’t, not really. It’s a weird juxtaposition, the idea of authority and the idea of a collaborative project that anyone can work on and modify. I knew there were some folks at the Internet Archive working on something along those lines, but the project was under wraps for quite some time. Now, it’s not. Its called Open Library and it’s in demo mode. You can examine it and I encourage you to do that and give lots of feedback to the developers. Make sure to check the “about the librarianship” page

Imagine a library that collected all the world’s information about all the world’s books and made it available for everyone to view and update. We’re building that library.

accomplishments, small and large

So last week I helped one of the small libraries I worked with get their in-house library catalog actually online, like on the web. They use Follett and had to pay some ungodly amount of money for the “web connector” software to make this happen. The process involves installing a fairly non-standard web server onto whatever your server is and then using it as the interface to your existing Follett install. The manual says you need to have a static IP address to make this work and the cable company they use for Internet won’t give them one. So, we had to do a little haxie magic using DynDNS, a special port redirect in the router, and a little app that lives on the server and broadcasts its current IP address to the DNS server. I had an idea that this would work but wasn’t totally sure, so we tried it. Other than that, my basic approach was “I am not a good cook but I can follow a decent recipe” which is what we did for the install.

When I say “we”, I mean me and my friend Stan who is a local IT guy who comes with me on some of these more complicated projects for the cost of lunch and does all the typing while I answer questions and explain what’s going on. The software install took all of fifteen minutes but the Q and A session took nearly an hour. As it stands they’re probably still going to use the local version of the OPAC in-house just in case the Internet goes down. I’m not sure I understand this reasoning and told them so. I’m as cautious as the next person as far as having a Plan B for most catastrophic situations, but I worry that if you only roll out the most bulletproof solutions, you wind up never trying new things and you live in fear that you haven’t tested everything rigorously enough. This sort of fear, uncertainty and doubt means going with large-scale tried and true solutions and is a definite impediment to getting libraries to work with open source. Additionally, with the perpetual betaness of a lot of 2.0 tools, anyone can muster up a reason to say no to them. I’m still always looking for the angle that will make people say “yes.”

welcome to the social…. library?

John Blyberg talks about the social tools built into the new Social OPAC (SOPAC!) he’s rolled out — and released the source code for — at AADL.

paradise lost, in the form of an OPAC

“This think piece tells why the online library catalog fell from grace and why new directions pertaining to cataloging simplification and primary sources will not attract people back to the online catalog.”

an exciting time to be a librarian

I was reading American Libraries yesterday and enjoyed Andrew Pace’s column on the best of 2006 (eventually online here?). The short summary is that we’re seeing new degrees of openness from vendors as they attempt to deal with a bunch of librarian consumers-turned-creators asking for more and better ways to get at their data. The thing that I think is so neat about this is how far we’ve come in such a short time. Pace’s blog entry talks a little bit about Casey’s WPopac project and mentions how maybe we should toss the term OPAC since in 2006 it’s a little like saying “horseless carriage”

While I still work with libraries that have offline and card catalogs, I think it’s okay to say that they’re well behind the curve.

Other news in a similar vein is watching data get unearthed and made available. This can be bad like AOLs big dumb goof releasing their search queries but it can also be hot like watching torrents of library catalog data showing up online, only to mysteriously disappear. I’ve been keeping tabs on another big data project involving massive amounts of LoC data that I’ll post more about once it’s in a more polished form.

At the same time, I feel like we’re at a crossroads. Vendor-aligned people talk continually about how libraries’ adherence to strict privacy and data security methods are keeping us out of the social arena, keeping us from connecting with the Millennials who, we are told, don’t care about privacy. I had a long phone conversation with a researcher for a major library services vendor recently who was not-too-subtly drawing a distinction between privacy and trust relationships in libraries and privacy and trust relationships in social networks. I mentioned that despite their seeming ubiquity, social networks are far from achieving any sort of serious penetration where I live, even among Millennials. I asked what they were doing to ensure that their study included people who were actually not online, or socially networked. The response I got was not at all encouraging, in fact it was downright embarassing.

I think people flock to libraries and social networks for some of the same reasons. They’re free, they’re engaging, your friends are there. Libraries becoming more social seems to me to be a good thing. However I don’t think we have to do this at the expense of our core values, and I certainly don’t think we need someone to sell social back to us. The great thing, the truly wonderful thing, about all this new openness is that it creates choices for us, as libraries and as librarians. Those choices, unlike our past choices, don’t need to lock us into some terrible marriage with someone who does not have our best interests at heart and that is a wonderful thing. Andrew thanks, among other people, the complainers who have been agitating for better things all this time. So for me and all my other grouchy compadres, I’d like to say both “You’re welcome.” and “There is still work left to be done.”

The OPAC sucks, the video

The Laughing Librarian has done it again, this time on YouTube. Please enjoy “The OPAC Sucks.”