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Lorcan Dempsey recently shared a link to a presentation from University College Dublin ( about their experiences of using a consultancy to help develop a vision for their library website. The presentation is an interesting reflection on the process and some of the motivations behind why many libraries are grappling with the basic question ‘What should we do about our website?’

UCD identify feedback from users, the growth of their site, Web 2.0 and the increasingly wide range of library online presences  as leading them to the realisation that they needed a strategic view of the library’s online platform. The reasons behind using consultancy services include fairly common reasons such gaining access to expertise and a fresh perspective. It would be particularly interesting to know though whether the consultants had any prior library website experience and what selection criteria were used. For anything like this the choice of selection criteria is really critical for any tender. It is absolutely vital to make sure that the criteria reflect your priorities and there is sufficient granularity and weighting to ensure that you can shortlist and select appropriate suppliers.

The approach by the consultants was a fairly typical one with surveys, workshops and stakeholder interviews. It is quite intriguing that there was a lack of desktop research as that is often a strength of consultancy services. It is curious that feedback from the user survey was given more visibility than workshops and stakeholder interviews. There can be a tendency for stakeholder views to be given more credence.

The presentation identifies quite how inter-connected the library website is with the whole university website strategy and if that isn’t clear then it makes delivering a roadmap for a library website very difficult.

The comments from the surveys are particularly informative. It is fascinating that users aren’t that much interested in Web 2.0. It seems that there’s a small group of enthusiastic adopters but most students aren’t yet convinced that it has any great appeal or relevance (?) to them.

There’s also the often reported comment that users want a simplified ‘google-type’ search box. That’s a quest that has been exercising librarians and library systems people for quite some time and many are looking at the likes of Summon as a solution. I suppose I’d comment here that Google is only recently starting to bring back results that are more than just a list of webpages. It doesn’t really have the challenge of sorting out the range of different types of content and access permissions that libraries have to cope with. Creating a simple search box to search all our content is only part of the answer, the key is more around presenting the search results in a meaningful way that distinguishes between web sites, databases, books, ejournals, full text, abstracts, ebooks and an increasing amount of multimedia content.

Although UCD feel that the process could have achieved more there are some really good reflections that are picked up in their presentation. Key points around the importance of communicating, providing support and training, what user priorities are and of integration into the university web presence are valuable insights for university library websites.

I saw an interesting presentation today on web personalisation and profiling.  Delivered by Dr Nikolaos Nanas from LiSys in Greece.   He talked about the way that the Internet was moving away from being a digital library of content and moving towards more user-generated (and user ‘broadcast’) content.    He described the increasing number of tweets, status updates and sharing as ‘the real-time web’ leading to a broadcast web that might challenge traditional mass media.

With the development of ‘the real-time web’ he sees a key feature being the need to personalise the information stream through a profile.  He suggested that profiles need to be:

  • Media-independent
  • Multi-modal
  • Multi-functional
  • Scalable
  • Dynamic
  • Variable

Dr Nanas described an information filtering system that has been inspired by how biological systems, in particular the immune system, function.  This autopoietic view describes how organisms distinguish between self and non-self as a way of determining essentially what belongs and what doesn’t.  He went on to draw an analogy with Adaptive Information Filtering.  The work led to the development of the Nootropia system.

One of the demonstration systems from the work is available at This allows you to pull data from RSS feeds while the profile ranks the results according to the profile you build up by clicking on news items.  You can create an account on the system and try it for yourself.

Noo screenshot

Noo screenshot

Demo systems have also been developed for search, using widgets ( and as a news reader for iphones.

The profiling system uses an analysis of the text in selected articles to build your profile of your interests.  It appears to use some statistical analysis of the frequency of words, the distance between words or phrases being repeated and a hierachical weighting system to calculate the relevance of articles.  That relevance algorithm is used to rank articles.  Dr Nanas did suggest that there was some bias in-built within the system towards the sources that you choose, but as this is learnt by the profile as part of the process then that probably reflects the user preferences for particular sources.

A fascinating session that illustrated how technologists are building search systems that can learn from user behaviour to improve the relevance of search results.  Comparing these sorts of developments with the simple search and catalogue systems that libraries currently reply upon it is evident quite how much scope there is to improve library search.  In many cases library search hasn’t really scratched the surface of personalisation.  Even the new harvested data discovery services such as Summon don’t yet have these sort of in-built profiling systems.  Even where organisations do have data about their users (such as which course they are on) this personal data isn’t being used to inform their interactions with the Library search systems.

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September 2009

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