User stories imageIt’s intriguing how long it takes for a concept to rise and fall and the persistence of some ideas in the face of evidence that contradicts them.  Digital natives, the idea (suggested by Marc Prensky) that younger people are intrinsically able to function effectively in a digital world, by dint of being born at a time of digital abundance, is an idea that has spread out from the academic world and now seems established in the minds of many, for example quoted in this article from the BBC, and in this piece from Goldman Sachs taking data from Pew Research.  Yet within academic research this concept has been shown to be a myth.  A new paper by Kirschner and De Bruyckere ‘The myths of the digital native and the multitasker’ (abstract available at reviews much of the recent research and concludes that there isn’t evidence that younger people are digital natives.  In their words

“though learners in this generation have only experienced a digital connected world, they are not capable of dealing with modern technologies in the way which is often ascribed to them (i.e., that they can navigate that world for effective and efficient learning and knowledge construction).” (Kirschner & De Bruyckere 2017)

So Digital Natives – it’s not a thing.  It’s more complicated.

I wonder whether part of this might be a misunderstanding by non-academics when taking concepts from the academic world.  The ‘Scientific method‘ where researchers create a hypothesis that they test and then refine or change as a result of testing seems to confuse lay people into thinking that academics are always changing their minds, when it’s a process of enquiry where knowledge moves forward by theorising, testing and refining.

So it makes me wonder about typology, a process of categorising things into types.  Another example from recently suggested that there’s a linguistic method of distinguishing between Baby Boomers and Millenials by noting how they respond when someone says thank you.   Baby Boomers (defined as people born 1946-1964) are likely to say ‘You’re welcome’, while Millenials (1982-2002) are likely to say ‘No problem’ and there’s the suggestion that saying the ‘wrong’ response could be seen as annoying.  It interested me as I’m likely to respond with ‘No problem’ yet theoretically sit in the earlier category but am conscious that I probably wouldn’t have used ‘no problem’ when I was younger.

Typology is particularly prevalent in work around personality types and you see it most frequently in psychometric testing.  Much like digital natives it has become quite pervasive and established, with tests like Myers Briggs being regularly used.  Yet psychology researchers have moved away from this approach in favour of thinking about personality traits such as Big Five now.  Although practitioners seem convinced of the value of these psychometric tests the research pretty consistently sheds doubt on the validity, describing them alongside learning styles, as neuromyths. (e.g. eDekker et al ‘Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers‘ Frontiers in psychology 2012).

But it is fascinating how these theories get embedded and adopted and then become difficult to shake off when the academic world has moved on to something else, has abandoned that theory as it doesn’t seem to fit the evidence.  The attractiveness of typology is also interesting.  I can see how there is a convenience factor at work here of grouping into types and I see it in the tendancy in web analytics for ‘segmentation’ and the use of personas in UX work to stand as a representation of a ‘user type’.   But…  this all increasingly suggests to me that when you are looking at categorisation you are looking at something much more fluid, where users might move from category to category, depending on numerous factors – what they are doing maybe, and we’re using the categories as much as a use case to test how a product might work for that scenario.


Libraries have long been contemplating the implications of a shift from print to digital and underlying that thinking is the perception of print and digital being very much a binary choice.  But is that necessarily the case?   A research project into ‘next generation paper’ reported by the University of Surrey and the Open University envisages some form of hybrid between print and digital, where links or buttons exist within the physical paper to connect to digital materials.

The concept of interactive paper has been around for a while as this article from the New Scientist from ten years ago shows.    So does this type of technology fundamentally change the way libraries need to think about print?    Does it provide print with a new purpose and greater longevity?  Combining the convenience of a portable format of material with a means to link directly to digital content.  Is that anything better than a smarter QR code?  Does it just replicate the inflexibility of printed material that can’t be updated with new links or changed with new information? Or could it be a route to maintaining the relevance of the printed document by linking to the latest information in digital form.

For libraries it potentially makes a stronger connection between print and digital content with maybe a need to describe the relationship between the materials in a different way.  They are related to each other and also depend on each other.    An interesting development and it will be interesting to see how and if that technology starts to appear in the mainstream.


The announcement yesterday of Olso public library’s new open-source linked data discovery interface comes just a few days after JSTOR unveiled their new prototype text analyzer. JSTOR’s text analyzer takes a piece of text or image and then extracts meaning from it, before finding recommendations from JSTOR for resources that might be relevant.   It’s a simple process and there’s a neat interface showing the results on one side, with an easy route directly to the PDF of the article.  The left hand side of the screen picks out the entities analysed from your text and gives a slider feature to let you adjust your results by giving more weight to some concepts than others.

I’ve not been able to find any detailed description of how it works but it looks very much like some form of semantic search feature, with processes in place to analyse the concepts in the submitted text and match them against the index of concepts from the JSTOR database.  In a lot of ways it isn’t dissimilar to the DiscOU tool we used in the Stellar project (and that development made use of semantic technologies, with entity recognition, semantic indexes and a triple store).JSTOR text analyzer screen shot of rsults page

Oslo’s linked data library system is a different approach, but again with linked data at the heart of the product.  It’s open source and looks to be making use of Koha the open source library management system, so essentially acts as an add-on to that product.  It has much the same clean look and feel of some of the latest commercial discovery products, with facets on the left and the main results on the right.  It will be interesting to see how it develops.

It’s particularly interesting to see this new development and it’s a contrast to the approach from Folio who are building their open sourcce library management system, but currently seem not to be aiming to include a discovery interface.  Makes me wonder about the potential of this development as the discovery interface for Folio?.

Interesting news this week that Elsevier have bought Plum Analytics from EBSCO.   It seems to be part of a trend for the big content companies to expand their reach by acquiring other companies in associated fields.    There’s a fascinating blog post from Roger Schonfeld from Ithaka ‘the strategic investments of content providers‘ that discusses what this might mean for the library sector and why these companies might be looking to diversify.

I’d probably reflect that library sector technology companies have a long history of mergers and acquisitions – a glance at Marshall Breeding’s chart on how companies have evolved over the years quickly shows how companies seem to change ownership or merge with great regularity, it doesn’t seem to be an especially stable marketplace.  Yet libraries typically keep library management systems for quite long periods of time, ten years doesn’t seem unusual, and often upgrade with the same vendor, but maybe that slow turnover of systems might be related to the mergers and acquisitions as parent companies realise that their investment in a library systems supplier doesn’t provide quite the level of return they wanted?  But recently there’s been a large number of systems procurements, particularly in academic libraries.  A look at HElibtech’s procurements page shows a lot of recent activity.

With EBSCO’s involvement with the FOLIO open source product and Proquest’s acquisition of ExLibris, I wonder if that means Elsevier is looking for a suitable library systems or discovery product?  Or does the acquisition of Plum Analytics mean that they are looking more at the world of citation systems, altmetrics and bibliometrics?



I think it was the quiet concentration that made the first impression on me.  Going into a room where a group of library staff were busy carrying out a cognitive mapping exercise.  Everyone was engrossed in the activity, heads down, trying out a technique that was new to most of them.

This was part of a different type of staff meeting – with @mirya and @d_r_jenkins running a great session on UX and ethnography and intoducing people to three different UX techniques: cognitive mapping, directed storytelling and love-letters/break-up letters.  With only an hour to run the introduction and try out the techniques it was quite a short time, but enough to give people a flavour of the power of these approaches.

It’s been a bit of a journey to get to this point.  About eighteen months ago we identified ethnographic techniques as being potentially immensely valuable and something we needed to know more about, experiment with and use as part of our UX practice.  The UXLibs conferences and the presentations and blogs about the topic got us up to speed enough to see the potential and to start to talk to people here about it.  Primarily we’ve been looking at the approaches from the perspective of how they can be used in our digital service development work around websites but the wider potential is clear.  The Futurelib initiative at Cambridge has been really useful to demonstrate the potential of the techniques.  So when the chance came to send some people to a UX day organised by a neighbouring institution with Andy Priestner (@andytraining) that was a great opportunity to spread knowledge about the techniques across the library.

We’re already using these techniques in online sessions with students looking at the future direction of our library websites as part of our digital services work.  Our Research Support team are using them with research students in face-to-face sessions.   And the session with library staff quickly brought up some other examples where people soon started to see other work where they could be used, in work with tutors maybe.

It was great to see such engagement and enthusiasm with the approach and really interesting to see the different maps that people  drew in the cognitive mapping exercise.  Given that we are a group of staff using a standard set of equipment (PCs, ipads for example) and tools it was remarkable how much variation there was in the maps.  That gives a lot of food for thought for the digital capabilities project that is just getting started.




The news, reported in an article by Marshall Breeding in American Libraries, that EBSCO has decided to support a new open source library services platform is a fascinating development.  To join with Kuali OLE but to develop what will essentially be a different open source product is a big development for the library technology sector.     It’s particularly interesting that EBSCO has gone the route of providing financial support to an open source system, rather than buying a library systems company.  The scope and timescales are ambitious, to have something ready for 2018.

Open source library management systems haven’t have the impact that systems like Moodle have had in the virtual learning environment sector and in some ways it is odd that academic libraries haven’t been willing to adopt such a system, given that universities do seem to have an appetite for open source software.   Maybe open source library systems products haven’t been developed sufficiently to compete with commercial providers.    Software as a Service (SaaS) is coming to be accepted now by corporate IT departments as a standard method of service provision, something that I think a couple of the commercial providers realised at quite an early stage, so it is good to see this initiative recognising that reality.  It will be interesting to see how this develops

Analytics seems to be a major theme of a lot of conferences at the moment.  I’ve been following a couple of library sector conferences this week on twitter (Talis Insight #talisinsight and the 17th Distance Library Services Conference #dls16) and analytics seems to be a very common theme.

A colleague at the DLS conference tweeted a picture 2016-04-22_1535about the impact of a particular piece of practice and that set us off thinking, did we have that data?, did we have examples of where we’d done something similar?    The good thing now is that I think rather than thinking ‘it would be good if we could do something like that’, we’ve a bit more confidence – if we get the examples and the data, we know we can do the analyses, but we also know we ‘should’ be doing the analyses as a matter of course.

It was also good to see that other colleagues (@DrBartRienties) at the university were presenting some of the University’s learning analytics work at Talis Insight. Being at a university that is undertaking a lot of academic work on learning analytics is both really helpful when you’re trying to look at library analytics but also provides a valuable source of advice and guidance in some of our explorations.

[As an aside, and having spent much of my library career in public libraries, I’m not sure how much academic librarians realise the value of being able to talk to academics in universities, to hear their talks, discuss their research or get their advice.  In a lot of cases you’re able to talk with world-class researchers doing ground-breaking work and shaping the world around us.]


wooden chart

Wooden chart tool created for a programme on data featuring Hans Rosling

One of the great things about new projects is that they offer the opportunity to learn new skills as well as build on existing knowledge.  So our new library data project is giving plenty of opportunities to learn new things and new tools to help with data extraction and data analysis.

MySQL workbench
After a bit of experimentation about the best method of getting extracts of library data (including trying to doing it through Access) we settled on using MySQL Workbench version 6.3 with read-only access to the database tables storing the library data.  It’s been a bit of a learning curve to understand the tool, the SQL syntax and the structure of our data but direct access to the data means that the team can extract the data needed and quickly test out different options or extracts of data.  In the past I’ve mainly used tools such as Cognos or Oracle Business Inteligence which essentially hide the raw SQL queries behind a WYSIWYG interface, so it’s been interesting to use this approach.  It’s been really useful to be learning the tool with the project team, because it means that I can get SQL queries checked to make sure they are doing what I think they are doing, and to share queries across the team.

In the main I’m running the SQL query and checking that I’ve got the data I want but then exporting the data as .csv to do further data tidying and cleaning in MS Excel.  But I have learnt a few useful things including how add in an anonymised ID as part of the query (useful if you don’t need the real ID but just need to know which users are unique and much easier to do in SQL than in Excel).

I’ve certainly learnt a lot more about Excel.  It’s been the tool that I’ve used to process the data extracts, to join data together from other sources and (for the time being at least) to present tables and visualisations of the data.  Filtering and pivot tables have been the main techniques, with frequent use of pivot tables to filter data and provide counts.  Features such as Excel 2013’s pivot table ‘distinct count’ have been useful.

One of the tasks I’ve been doing in Excel is to join two data sources together, e.g. joining counts of library use via ezproxy and by athens, or joining library use with data on student results.   I’d started mainly using VLOOKUP in Excel but have switched (on the recommendation of a colleague) to using INDEX/MATCH as it seems to work much better (if you can get the syntax exactly right.

The project team is starting to think that as we learn more about SQL that we try to do more of the data manipulation and counts directly through the SQL queries as doing them in Excel can be really time-consuming.

SPSS has been a completely new tool to me.  We’re using IBM SPSS Statistics version 21 to carry out the statistical analyses.  Again it’s got a steep learning curve and I’m finding I need frequent recourse to some of the walk-throughs on sites such as Laerd statistics e.g.  But I’m slowly getting to grips with it and as I get more familiar with it I can start to see more of the value in it.  Once you’ve got the data into the data table and organised properly it’s really quick to run correlation or variance tests, although it quickly starts to flag up queries about, which test to use and why, and what do the results mean?  I particularly like the output window that it uses to track all the actions and show any charts you’ve created or analyses you’ve undertaken on the data.

What’s next?
The team is in the early stages of exploring the SAS system that is used for our institutional data warehouse.  Ultimately we’d want to get library use data into the institutional data warehouse and then query it alongside other institutional data directly from the warehouse.  SAS apparently has statistical analysis capabilities but the learning curve seems to be fairly high.  We’ve also thought about whether tools such as Open Refine might be useful for cleaning up data but haven’t been able to explore that yet.  Similarly I know we have a need for tools to present and visualise the data findings – ultimately that might be met by an institutional SAS Visual Analytics tool.


I was particularly interested in a term I came across in a blog post on innovation on the Nesta blog the other week.  Innovation in the public sector: Is risk aversion a cause or a symptom? The blog post talks about Organisation Debt and Organisational Physics and is a really interesting take on why large organisations can struggle with innovation.  It’s well worth a read.  It starts with referencing the concept of ‘technical debt‘ described in the blog post as “… where quick fixes and shortcuts begin to accumulate over time and eventually, unless properly fixed, can damage operations.”  It’s a term that tends to be related to software development but it started me thinking about how a concept of ‘technical debt’ might be relevant to the library world.

If we expand the technical debt concept to the library sector I’d suggest that you could look at at least three areas where that concept might have some resonance:  library systems, library practices and maybe a third one around library ‘culture’ – potentially a combination of collections, services and something of the ‘tradition’ of what a library might be.

Library systems
Our systems are a complex and complicated mix.  Library management systems, E-resources management systems, discovery, openURL resolvers, link resolvers, PC booking systems etc etc  It can be ten years or more between libraries changing their LMS and although, with Library Services Platforms, we are seeing some consolidation of systems into a single product, there is still a job to do of integrating legacy systems into the mix.    For me the biggest area of ‘technical debt’ comes in our approach to linking and websites.  Libraries typically spend significant effort in making links persistent, in coping with the transition from one web environment to the other by redirecting URLs.  It’s not uncommon to have redirection processes in place to cope with direct links to content in previous websites and trying to connect users directly to replacement websites.  Yet on the open web ‘link rot‘ is a simple fact of life.  Trying to manage these legacy links is a significant technical debt that libraries carry I’d suggest.

Library practices
I think you could point to several aspects of library practices that could fall under the category of technical debt but I’d suggest the primary one is in our library catalogue and cataloguing practices.  Our practices change across the years but overall the quality of our older records are often lower than what we’d want to see.  Yet we typically carry those records across from system to system.  We try to improve them or clean them up, but frequently it’s hard to justify the resource being spent in ‘re-cataloguing’ or ‘retrospective cataloguing’.  Newer approaches making use of collective knowledge bases and linking holdings to records has some impact on our ability to update our records, but the quality of some of the records in knowledge bases can sometimes also not be up to the level that libraries would like.

Library culture
You could also describe some other aspects of the library world as showing the symptoms of technical debt.  Our physical collections of print resources, increasingly unmanaged and often unused as constrained resources are directed to higher priorities, and more attention is spent on building online collections of ebooks for example.  You even, potentially see a common thread with the whole concept of a ‘library’ – the popular view of a library as a place of books means that while libraries develop new services they often struggle to change their image to include the new world.

One of the first Bird flocks and sunsetprojects I worked on at the OU was a Jisc-funded project called Telstar. Telstar built a reference management tool, called MyReferences, integrating RefWorks into a Moodle Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).  Well, that MyReferences tool shortly reaches, what the software people call ‘End-of-Life’, and the website world like to refer to as ‘Sunsetting’, in other words, MyReferences is closing down later this month.  So it seemed like a good time to reflect on some of the things I’ve learnt from that piece of work.

In a lot of ways several things that Telstar and MyReferences did have now become commonplace and routine.  References were stored remotely in the RefWorks platform (we’d now describe that as cloud-hosted) and that’s almost become a default way of operating whether you think of email with Outlook365 or library management systems such as ExLibris Alma.    Integration with moodle was achieved using an API, again, that’s now a standard approach.  But both seemed quite a new departure in 2010.

I remember it being a complex project in lots of ways, creating integrations not just between RefWorks and Moodle but also making use of some of the OpenURL capabilities of SFX.  It was also quite ambitious in aiming to provide solutions applicable to both students and staff.  Remit (the Reference Management Integration Toolkit) gives a good indication of some of the complexities not just in systems but also in institutional and reference management processes.   The project not only ran a couple of successful Innovations in Reference Management events but led to the setup of a JiscMail reading list systems mailing list.

Complexity is the main word that comes to mind when thinking about some of the detailed work that went into mapping reference management styles between OU Harvard in RefWorks and MyReferences to ensure that students could get a simplified reference management system in MyReferences without having to plunge straight into the complexity of full-blown RefWorks.  It really flagged for me the implications of not having standard referencing styles across an institution but also the impact of not adopting a standard style already well supported but of designing your own custom institutional style.  One of the drawbacks of using RefWorks as a resource list system was that each reference in each folder was a separate entity meaning that any changes in a resource (name for example) had to be updated in every list/folder.  So it taught us quite a bit about what we ideally wanted from a resource list management/link management system.

Reference management has changed massively in the past few years with web-based tools such as Zotero, Refme and Mendeley becoming more common, and Microsoft Office providing support for reference management.  So the need to provide institutional systems maybe has passed when so many are available on the web.   And I think it reflects how any tool or product has a lifecycle of development, adoption, use and retirement.  Maybe that cycle is now much shorter than it would have been in the past.



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