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Tucked away near the bottom of Hefce’s Shared Services announcement on Monday amongst the cloud computing, IT shared services and administrative systems was something that might well make a major impact on how academic libraries will operate in the next few years.

“a service to support electronic resource management. This will include:

  • shared systems and electronic resource management information
  • support for the management of licensing information for libraries and the resources they provide”

It’s interesting to me to see an initiative aimed at HE libraries being funded as part of a fairly high profile HE sector programme,  especially as it is looking at an aspect of HE library practice that is probably little understood outside of most academic libraries.  The funding announcement is the latest milestone in SCONUL’s Shared Services work (for the background look at the website here) and is a culmination (or at least a step on the way) of work by SCONUL, JISC and the group of consultants and academic libraries involved in the programme.

Monday’s Hefce announcement was timely as Wednesday saw the latest activity in SCONUL’s Shared Services work when I was with a group of academic library staff that got together with the SCONUL team in London to look at the latest work on Electronic Resources Management case studies. The case studies have been developed through a series of visits to some 16 universities who are helping to define a practical model for how ‘Shared Services’ might operate for ERM in HE libraries.  The case studies, available here, cover a range of ERM procurement workflows, from E-books, through budgeting, usage data and procurement of different types of electronic material.   The plan is to use the case studies and discussions to prepare a model of where ‘Above campus’ services might be feasible and look at what systems and services will be necessary to deliver the model.

With the likelihood that academic library budgets will be coming under increasing pressure over the next few years as HE adjusts to the new funding realities, Shared Services for libraries may allow libraries to reduce costs in the area of E-resource management.  It seems pretty clear that some difficult decisions are likely to be needed about what is core business, what has to be done locally, what can be shared, and what might have to be abandoned.    With Hefce now providing some money to move this project forward it seems a pretty clear indication that Shared Services is going to play some role in meeting the funding challenge.  It will be interesting to see how the project progresses.

The Plan
As with any project one of the key steps is to plan how you are going to go about your task.  So with our library website migration we sat down to work through the stages we will need to go through between setting out the initial objectives, as described in an earlier blog post and the new site being launched.  So in this blog post I’m going to cover the stages we are planning to break our website migration project into.  Some will be unique to us as they reflect our particular circumstances, but others will be more generic.

We’ve arranged the stages as a series of workpackages covering different themes rather than as a straightforward set of tasks arranged by date.  It tends to be a bit easier to work out where you are by grouping the tasks in themes or workpackages.  To draw up the plan we’ve been using Excel as a high-level tool.  It’s a bit easier for people to look at an Excel version of the plan (using a great Excel 2007 template for gantt charts) rather than having to use MS Project.  For project management purposes we’ll use an MS Project version.  So the Excel version looks like this:

Website planWe’re planning to split the project into workpackages that cover the different themes of the project, so, for example there are workpackages covering the technical preparation of the site environment, activities around reviewing and migrating content, a workpackage covering usability and accessibility testing, and another one around the creation of a mobile version of the website.   [I’m still getting used to the idea that the mobile library isn’t a large bus full of books – too many years struggling to get reliable online technology onto them I suppose!].

Workpackage 1 – Site setup
This is covering our site preparation activities, from agreeing the URL, through setting up the test environment, loading the design templates, configuring the site structure and setting up the standard website features.  In the main this work is being carried out by our website developer with help from other university colleagues.  The bulk of this work happens in the first few months while we are on the development site.

Workpackage 2 – Content
This covers a wide range of tasks from reviewing the Information Architecture, through looking at User requirements, to reviewing the content, documenting new processes and then training staff, and the actual content migration into the new site.   There’s a lot of preparation needed so it’s one of the earliest workpackages to start.  So we’ve begun with some workshops to look at the current Information Architecture and user requirements.  We’ve been looking at results from surveys, from user feedback and at analytics data to inform that work.  One of the next steps will be to survey users with some specific questions about the website.  This then needs to be pulled together into a prototype Information Architecture that can be tested with users later in the year.

Workpackage 3 – dynamic content and search
Our current website displays some content as lists taken from our library catalogue and other sources.  These include lists of databases, ejournals and FAQs.  Our analytics data show that these are the most popular elements of the site so we need to retain these in the new site.  Generating them dynamically from systems where they are already being updated is much more sensible than having to create a separate static list and then update it.  Search is also a very important element of our site, whether that is search of our electronic resources, library catalogue or the website itself.

Workpackage 4 – Help and Support
Analysing our site shows that a large proportion of our content is Help and Support materials such as FAQs, How To guides and other help materials.  Finding a way of helping users find relevant help materials more easily on the new site is a key objective for this workpackage.

Workpackage 5 – Mobiles
We’ve had a mobile version of the website for a few years now.  It gets a steady stream of users, mainly ipad and iphone but with an increasing number of android phone accesses.  As part of this workpackage we are working with other university colleagues to create a new version of the mobile library website.

Workpackage 6 – Testing
Although the plan is very much to test as we go along, we’ve put our testing into a separate workpackage, as much as anything, to make sure it gets the attention it needs.  We’re planning our accessibility testing using a range of devices we have such as screenreader software.  We also plan usability testing with eye-tracker software to check the prototype site.  And we expect to make the site available in ‘beta’ to gain feedback and allow us to address any issues before the final launch.

Final thoughts
Alongside the workpackages are the usal activities around project management, reporting on progress, managing risks and issues and communicating to stakeholders/users about progress.  As we go through the project I’m going to try to update this blog with thoughts and reflections on how the project is taking shape.

How are cloud-based e-learning solutions going to impact on the way academic libraries engage with students?
Reflecting on an interesting presentation by Niall Sclater on ‘E-learning in the cloud’ last week (live-blogged by Doug Clow at http://dougclow.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/elearning-in-the-cloud-iet/ ) I started to think about what some of the challenges were likely to be for academic libraries as universities adopt cloud-based learning systems.

So what is cloud computing?
In essence cloud-computing is internet-based computing where applications, storage and services are hosted on the web.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_computing Generally these systems are provided by a third-party and often described using terms such as ‘SaaS’ Software as a Service.  The advantages of cloud-based computing can include improved scalability, resilience, reduced systems management overheads or cost.  But it isn’t without its issues – around control, security and data protection, for example.

As applied to e-learning, cloud-based computing typically means signing up to either Google Apps for Education http://www.google.com/a/help/intl/en/edu/index.html or Microsoft Live@Edu http://www.microsoft.com/liveatedu/free-email-accounts.aspx?locale=en-GB&country=GB. Google Apps for Education offers a set of tools including Gmail, Google Sites, Google Calendar, iGoogle and Google Docs for example.

Google Apps for Education

Google Apps for education website

In my institution Google Apps is being adopted, with a small number of students initially (about 10% of the 12,000 who have been invited have signed up so far).  It isn’t considered to be mandatory and people are only just starting to look at how some of the tools might be used.  It’s still going to co-exist alongside the VLE and the formal university systems where we expect students to engage with their courses, but it will exist in the more informal, personal student space.

For libraries there are some challenges about how they should approach this new environment.  Should libraries be present in this space at all?  and what services might be provided and how?

Should libraries be present in this cloud-based learning space?
The traditional model of a library as a fairly passive institution that forced users to engage with the library on the libraries terms (by visiting a physical building or using a website portal) is increasingly being replaced by a willingness to engage with users wherever they are.  Driven partly by social networking but also by wanting to engage with users wherever they might be, whether that is in the VLE, in forums and on course websites, many libraries are already linking library content directly from within the VLE, providing information literacy tools, websites that work with mobile phones and engaging with students on facebook or via twitter.  So to choose not to engage with users in a new learning environment really isn’t an option in my opinion.  Libraries need to prove the worth of their services to all users so failing to engage runs the risk of libraries being marginalised.

What services should be provided and how?
The nature of the library services you might provide depends to a great extent on how the environment is being used.  So if it is being used as more of a personal area for students then you need to think about engaging on students’ terms and find out from them to what extent they want the library to be in their space. There has been some research done in this area in projects like the LASSIE project http://clt.lse.ac.uk/Projects/LASSIE_LWW7.pdf and others such as the TWOLER project at Westminster https://sites.google.com/a/staff.westminster.ac.uk/twoler/.  If the environment is a more formal part of the university e-learning experience then the library needs to be delivering key services in this environment.

What services?
So the sort of services you might want to be delivering could include:

  • Help and Support services – web chat, or other contact channels and FAQs, ideally context specific
  • Search services – features to allow users to search and retrieve library licenced content without having to connect to library systems separately
  • Learning activities – such as information literacy tools
  • Library catalogue search, renewal and reservation services, PC or resource booking services
  • RSS feeds of new books or library news or library resources, reading lists etc
  • Lists of course resources or reading lists – maybe linked through to a course calendar so you get the resources you need to be reading now
  • Recommender information – people on my course are reading or looking at this resource, what are the most popular journals being used by people on my course, what journals have similar articles to the ones I’ve been looking at? For example.
  • Tools such as reference management to allow you to manage and cite your references.

How could you present these services?
There are a couple of routes.  If your platform provides APIs you could make use of them (e.g. for Google Apps there are several Google APIs listed here http://code.google.com/googleapps/docs/index.html#)  If you are using Google Apps, then one obvious way is to make use of the iGoogle dashboard and present your services in one of more gadgets http://www.google.co.uk/ig/directory RSS feed gadgets are readily available and many libraries have already developed catalogue search gadgets http://library.open.ac.uk/services/lib20servs/oucatgg/ The advantage of gadgets is that they can be used is a variety of different locations and are reasonably easy to create.

Final thoughts
One aspect of this environment that strikes me is that there’s a similarity in some ways between the services you might deliver to a mobile phone and what you might deliver through a gadget.  In part that is down to the restricted screen/gadget size.  It may also be related to the different way in which the environment is being used.

As more institutions take up cloud-based elearning then the possibilities for how libraries can engage with customers will start to become clearer.  What we need to do is to provide services that users want and will use, those that take the best of our current services and make them more accessible, that support students to work in the ways they want to work, at the times they want to work.

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