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Two things this week made me think about how the HE library landscape might be changing in the next few years.  One, was the SCONUL Shared Services event, the other was Lorcan Dempsey’s keynote presentation from the emtacl conference in Norway that is now on the web (http://www.ntnu.no/ub/emtacl/?programme).

The connection between the two was that both saw a potential future for libraries in the networked environment where shared services had a part to play.  One of the comments that is sometimes made in relation to shared services in HE is that things are different in HE because HE institutions are competing with each other.  I’d question how much of the institution’s competitive edge the library represents and I’d argue that the distinctive elements are more likely to be in their customer service, expertise or collection quality rather than their systems.

Amongst his remarks on the network effect and how much that will lead to changes Lorcan pointed to examples from the commercial world where companies like Netflix buy-in services from Amazon who are a competitor, because of Amazon’s expertise, which represent the best available.  In the library world Lorcan saw much duplication of activities around libraries with “redundant, complex systems apparatus will have to be simplified” with “a move to shared infrastructure in the cloud”

The SCONUL Shared Services event covered a model for how Shared Services might work for HE libraries.  The day was spent talking about the Shared Services study Business Case that was submitted to Hefce towards the end of 2009 requesting pathfinder funding. (http://helibtech.com/file/view/091204%20SCONUL%20Shared%20Service%20-%20for%20distribution.pdf)

SCONUL Shared Services domain model

In brief the report proposed a three phase set of developments:

1.  the creation of a national-level managed ERM system that would manage national level subscriptions to resources and a national ERM licensing service – rather than each HE library having their own ERM processes

2. the creation of a Discovery to Delivery service that would combine the national ERM entitlement data with authentication and search services at a national level

3. removing duplication with library management systems, using the national-level authentication infrastructure and inter-operating with institutional systems

The expectation is that savings would be made by reducing duplication in licensing and rights management, by saving on the cost of e-licence deals by negotiating national subscriptions (going beyond the opt-in model) – so individual HE libraries would do less rights/licensing work, there would be savings in the cost of local ERM systems, licensing staff and Search/LMS costs/LMS support staff.

Unfortunately Hefce have not approved the request for pathfinder money so SCONUL are looking at what options there are to move this forward.  There was the feeling at the meeting that the ERM element could be an achievable step, although a lot of detail still needs to be sorted out.  The suggestion was made that progress could be made if enough HEIs were prepared to contribute a small amount to getting it off the ground.    The general view was that we should be doing this, but probably more realistically not as a single large project but as a step by step process.  JISC and SCONUL are keen to move it on but it isn’t all that clear how it might be funded.

Thinking about the proposals there are a few things that strike me about it:

  • I wonder about the realism of the timetable – mainly in relation to whether this can happen quickly enough given the likely scenario of major cuts in funding for the sector.
  • I must admit to a slight sense of déjà-vu – having sat through a lot of the MLA Stock Services review in public libraries – and seen that go from proposals for shared services to something that just ran into the ground – then I’m interested to see how the HE library sector tackles something like this and whether it has any more success with instituting such a major network-scale change.
  • Others are a lot more qualified to comment on the technical practicality of some of the developments but I find it strange that while there are several examples of shared library management systems (LLC, SELMS for example), there are few in HE these days.

It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few months and what opportunities there are to get involved.

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I’m always interested to see new ways of visualizing data but I hadn’t come across this tool for visualizing Google Analytics data Juicekit visualizations.  This tool links in to your Google Analytics account and asks you to agree to grant access.  Then it offers a couple of different visualizations of the data:  Referrer Flow and Keyword tree.

Referrer flow
This is essentially a tree map view of your website referrals.  There are a few options and you can click on one of the boxes to filter by a particular page.

Screenshot of Google Analytics Juicekit

Screenshot of juicekit flow referrer

Keyword tree
The other option is to look at the keywords used by people coming to your site.  Again there are options to filter by different words and you can continue to drill down with combinations of words.

Screenshot of juicekit keyword screen

Screenshot of juicekit keyword tree screen

My immediate reaction as with so many visualizations is that it looks nice – but does it help understand what is happening on the site – or make it easy to show people what is happening.  The tree map approach is often useful to help people see what gets most use.  What is particularly nice is to be able to do it without having to download CSV files and export them into Many Eyes or something similar.

One area that it would be good to see visualized would be something that shows users progression through a site – as some form of flow or tree diagram – showing the routes users take.  I’m sure there are many other ideas for further development.

I’ll have to spend some more time working through the options and understanding a bit more about the message it is showing.  The sorts of key things we want to show (which follows on a bit from a previous post about skills for Digital Librarians) is who is using our resources/website – where they come from – so we can assess the value of links etc in specific places.  So anything that helps to understand that is a useful tool.

We had a couple of interesting workshops earlier in the week, led by Tony Hirst an academic at the OU, familiar to many from his blog at http://ouseful.info and as @psychemedia on twitter.  The workshops covered a couple of topics that I believe are increasingly critical for librarians, looking at some challenges for libraries in the realms of the Social Researcher and Digital Infoskills.  Slides from his presentation can be found on slideshare at http://www.slideshare.com/psychemedia [PS. Tony has now blogged about the sessions at http://blog.ouseful.info/2010/05/20/imaginings-around-infoskills-for-digital-librarians/]

The second workshop on Digital Infoskills set a series of challenges for librarians in coming to terms with the new information sources and skills that Tony advocates that librarians should be acquiring.  His contention is that if librarians don’t grab this role then someone else will.  After a short, but wide-ranging series of examples – from facebook network visualisations through to Formula 1 circuit height mapping – we were set to work on a selection of tasks from eight challenges – as illustrations of the sort of activities that ‘Digital Librarians’ might need to engage with as well as to see how our current skills matched up.

Tony outlined 8 challenges for librarians with some specific questions to answer:

  • Current awareness – keeping track of articles, resources or legislation
  • Live data  – where to find particular types of data and how to make sure it is up to date for use in courses
  • Linked open data – using government data
  • Text handling – manipulating data
  • Mapping – plotting latitude and longitude
  • Visualisation – visualising a social network
  • Licencing – what can I do with different types of content?
  • Analytics – how are students using resources?

As a test of our skills and abilities it asked some difficult questions.  We had some answers – in some cases we knew where to get the data from – but didn’t know how to manipulate or combine it – or we could work out how to visualise it but didn’t know where to find the data from.   The feeling in the workshop was that most people thought these were skills that librarians should have so they can help students, researchers and academics.

Reflecting on the session I think the skills and knowledge needed by a ‘Digital Librarian’ breaks down into four distinct areas:

  1. What data is out there?
  2. What are the tools that help to extract, manipulate, combine and present data?
  3. What do librarians need to know about rights and licensing for this type of material?
  4. What tools can be used for assessing use, quality and value of this material

1 is clearly a library role and I’d struggle to see it as being in any way different to finding data in printed reference sources or licensed databases. Librarians should know about relevant data sources in their area.  Similarly with 3 I’d expect librarians to be aware of copyright requirements – they may not have detailed expertise but would know the basics and where to get advice on more complex matters.

With area 4 although the tools, such as website analytics, are different to COUNTER statistics or loan statistics the concept that we should identify what use is being made of our resources is familiar, even though the particular systems and techniques might not be.

2 is I feel, slightly different, and takes librarians out of their comfort zone.   In general librarians don’t have the skills to manipulate data using regular expressions, they don’t know about tools that you can use to extract data from Facebook (e.g. netvizz http://thepoliticsofsystems.net/2010/03/22/netvizz-facebook-to-gephi/ ) or tools to use for visualisation (e.g. Many Eyes http://manyeyes.alphaworks.ibm.com/manyeyes/ ).  One of the challenges with this area is that these tools are proliferating and it is difficult to keep up to date.

So how do I think librarians should react to this challenge?

  • Firstly, library managers need to understand what is involved and decide exactly what role librarians should play (and to an extent who in libraries should be doing what)
  • Secondly, librarians need to consider data stores alongside other sources of information and build up (or enhance) their knowledge of what data is out there
  • Thirdly librarians need to start build up their knowledge and skills in data manipulation and visualisation through training and other staff development activities
  • Fourthly, librarians need to start using these data sources as responses to customers (staff and students)
  • Finally, librarians need to start to demonstrate to users that they have mastered the skills and can advise and guide them how to exploit these data sources.

Ok, so if librarians take on these new roles – where does the time come from?  Well, less time spent on managing print or cataloguing, less time on carrying out activities that might be better handled through shared services or by other university systems. And like any new set of skills and change of role it is going to mean challenges for librarians.  But librarians have faced constant changes in the last 20 years as the digital information revolution has taken hold.  Librarians have constantly had to acquire new knowledge about different content sources and ways of exploiting them.

Like many of the best workshops it probably raised more questions than answers but it certainly made more people aware of the challenges and possibilities for future librarians and it was great to get the chance to hear Tony Hirst’s thoughts on the challenges and issues.

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