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Great though touch-screens on tablets and smartphones are, one of the drawbacks with them that I’ve found is that the experience of typing on them isn’t a particularly nice experience. It’s all too easy to type the wrong character and it’s one of the things that is always frustrating about typing notes on an ipad, how much time you have to spend correcting what you’ve typed. So I was really interested to see a tweet today about a technology that has been around for a litle while that makes raised buttons appear from the surface of a touch screen when needed. Checking out the article from Business Insider and then browsing around for some other information about the technology, including this Techcrunch blog post and the website for Tactus Technology, the company developing this idea, and it looks like a really interesting idea that could make typing on a tablet a much nicer experience and avoid having to cart around a chunk of peripherals such as add on keyboards.
Essentially the technology seems to consist of a fluid layer that can generate raised buttons as and when needed. It’s quite intriguing to see buttons suddenly morph (?) out of a flat screen. But what you get is a small raised button that looks like it will be easier to touch and reduce the chance of mistaken keystrokes. I’d be intrigued to find out what the buttons actually ‘feel’ like but they look like being a really useful feature.
Ideally this technology would be integrated into the design of the smartphone or tablet and driven by the software although I see that they’ve also worked on an interim approach using a case. It will be really interesting to see how they get on with getting this technology integrated into mainstream devices and when we might see the first production examples of the technology. It also strikes me to wonder whether the fine-definition of the technology would let you develop a tablet that could display braille writing.
iBeacon is an interesting piece of location-based Apple technology and I started wondering about how useful it might be in a library context. Essentially (as this article from the Guardian describes) it is being sold as a micro-broadcast technology where transmitters can communicate with nearby smartphones. So there have been applications that have been proposed to allow shops to send you messages about special offers for example as you walk past, a sort of advertising sandwich-board I suppose.
But that technology might be interesting in a library context. You could see it directing you to where there is a public PC that is available for use, or telling you when you enter a library that something you have reserved is available for collection (or reminding you of things that are due for return). You could envisage it flagging up new resources as you walk round different sections in a library, or maybe tell you about library events related to that section. Browsing the fiction, maybe you might be interested in knowing about the ebooks that are available, or knowing about the book group that meets?
I wonder about how it might relate to the RFID tags in many libraries now and whether you could combine the technologies to use your phone to direct you round the library to find the book you wanted, and maybe to borrow it without ever needing to go near the self-service machines or a library checkout desk?
Most of the time my interest is about making sure that users of websites can get access to an appropriate version of the website, or that the site works on a variety of different devices. But as websites become more personalised, my version of your website might look different to your version.
But one of the other projects that I’m involved with is looking at web archiving of University websites, mainly internal ones that aren’t being captured by the Internet Archive or the UK Web Archive. And personalisation and different forms that websites can take is one of the really big challenges for capturing web sites. So I was interested to read a recent article in D-Lib Magazine ‘A method for identifying personalised representations in web archives’ by Kelly, Brunelle, Weigle and Nelson, D-Lib Magazine, November/December 2013, Vol. 19, number 11/12 doi:10.1045/november2013-kelly http://www.dlib.org/dlib/november13/kelly/11kelly.html
This article describes how the user-agent string in mobile browsers is used to serve different versions of webpages. They show some good examples from CNN of the completely different representations that you might see on iphones, desktops and android devices. The paper goes on to talk through some possible solutions to identify different versions and suggests a modification of the Wayback machine engine to allow the user to choose which versions of a user-agent you may want to view from an archive. Combined with the memento approach that offers time-based versions of a website it’s interesting to see an approach that starts to look at ways of capturing the increasingly fragmented and personalised nature of the web.
It was Lorcan Dempsey who I believe coined the term, ‘Full library discovery’ in a blog post last year. As a stage beyond ‘full collection discovery’, ‘full library discovery’ added in results drawn from LibGuides or library websites, alongside resource material from collections. So for example a search for psychology might include psychology resources, as well as help materials for those pyschology resources and contact details about the subject librarian that covers psychology. Stanford and Michigan are two examples of that approach, combining lists of relevant resources with website results.
Princeton’s new All search feature offers a similar approach, discussed in detail on their FAQ. This combines results from their Books+, Articles+, Databases, Library Website and Library Guides into a ‘bento box’ style results display. Princeton’s approach is similar to the search from North Carolina State University who I think were about the first to come up with this style.
Although in most of these cases I suspect that the underlying systems are quite different the approach is very similar. It has the advantage of being a ‘loosely-coupled’ approach where your search results page is drawn together in a ‘federated’ search method by pushing your search terms to several different systems, making use of APIs and then displaying the results in a dashboard-style layout. It has the advantage that changes to any of the underlying systems can be accommodated relatively easily, yet the display to your users stays consistent.
For me the disadvantages for this are in the lack of any overriding relevancy ranking for the material and that it perpetuates the ‘silo’ing’ of content to an extent (Books, Articles, Databases etc) which is driven largely by the underlying silos of systems that we rely on to manage that content. I’ve never been entirely convinced that users understand the distinction about what a ‘database’ might be. But the approach is probably as good as we can get until we get to truly unified resource management and more control over relevancy ranking.
Going beyond ‘full library discovery’
But ‘full library discovery’ is still very much a ‘passive’ search tool, and by that I mean that it isn’t personalised or ‘active’. At some stage to use those resources a student will be logging in to that system and that opens up an important question for me. Once you know who the user is, ‘how far should you go to provide a personalised search experience?’. You know who they are, so you could provide recommendations based on what other students studying their course have looked at (or borrowed), you might even stray into ‘learning analytics’ territory and know what the resources were that the highest achieving students looked at.
You might know what resources are on the reading list for the course that student is studying – so do you search those resources first and offer those up as they might be most relevant? You might even know what stage a student has got to in their studies and know what assignment they have to do, and what resources they need to be looking at. Do you ‘push’ those to a student?
How far do you go in assembling a profile of what might be ‘recommended’ for a course, module or assignment, what other students on the cohort might be looking at, or looked at the last time this course ran? Do you look at students previous search behaviour? How much of this might you do to build and then search some form of ‘knowledge base’ with the aim of surfacing material that is likely to be of most relevance to a student. Search for psychology on NCSU’s Search All search box gives you the top three articles out of 2,543,911 articles in Summon, and likely behaviour is not to look much beyond the first page of results. So should we be making sure that they are likely to be the most relevant ones?
But, then there’s serendipity, there’s finding the different things that you haven’t looked for before, or read before, because they are new or different. One of the issues with recommendations is the tendancy for them to be circular, ‘What gets recommended gets read’ to corrupt the performance indicator mantra. So how far do you go? ‘Mind reading search’ anyone?
I’ve definitely blogged less (24 posts in 2013 compared with 37 in 2012 and 50 in 2011), [mind you the ‘death of blogging’ has been announced, and here and there seem to be fewer library bloggers than in the past – so maybe blogging less is just reflecting a general trend]. Comments about blogging are suggesting that tumblr, twitter or snapchat are maybe taking people’s attention (both bloggers and readers) away from blogs. But I’m not ‘publishing’ through other channels particularly, other than occasional tweets, so that isn’t the reason for me to blog less. There has been a lot going on but that’s probably not greatly different from previous years. I think I’ve probably been to less conferences and seminars, particularly internal seminars, so that has been one area where I’ve not had as much to blog about.
To blog about something or not to blog about it
I’ve been more conscious of not blogging about some things that in previous years I probably would have blogged about. I don’t think I blogged about the Future of Technology in Education conference this year, although I have done in the past. Not particularly because it wasn’t interesting because it was, but perhaps a sense of I’ve blogged about it before and might just be repeating myself. With the exception of posts about website search and activity data I’ve not blogged so much about some of the work that I’ve been doing. So I’ve blogged very little about the digital library work although it (and the STELLAR project) were a big part of some of the interesting stuff that has been going on.
Thinking about the year ahead
I’ve never been someone that sets out predictions or new year resolutions. I’ve never been convinced that you can actually predict (and plan) too far ahead in detail without too many variables fundamentally changing those plans. There’s a quote attributed to various people along the lines that ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’ and I’d agree with that sentiment. However much we plan we are always working with an imperfect view of the world. Circumstances change and priorities vary and you have to adapt to that. Thinking back to FOTE 2013 it was certainly interesting to hear BT’s futureologist Nicola Millard describe her main interest as being the near future and of being more a ‘soon-ologist’ than a futureologist.
What interests (intrigues perhaps) me more is less around planning but more around ‘shaping’ a future, so more change management than project management I suppose. But I think it is more than that, how do those people who carve out a new ‘reality’ go about making that change happen. Maybe it is about realising a ‘vision’ but assembling a ‘vision’ is very much the easy part of the process. Getting buy-in to a vision does seem to be something that we struggle with in a library setting.
On with 2014
Change management is high on the list for this year. We’ve done a certain amount of the ‘visioning’ to get buy-in to funding a change project. So this year we’ve work to do to procure a complete suite of new library systems (the first time I think here for 12 years or so), in a project called ‘Library Futures’ that also includes some research into student needs from library search and the construction of a ‘digital skills passport’. I’ve also got continuing work on digital libraries/archives as we move that work from development to live, alongside work with activity data, our library website and particularly work with integrating library stuff much more into a better student experience. So hopefully some interesting things to blog about. And hopefully a few new pictures to brighten up the blog (starting with a nice flower picture from Craster in the summer).