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Using the Stripe API to Collect Library Fines by Accepting Online Payments

*** This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on Sep. 10, 2014.***

Recently, my library has been considering accepting library fines via online. Currently, many library fines of a small amount that many people owe are hard to collect. As a sum, the amount is significant enough. But each individual fines often do not warrant even the cost for the postage and the staff work that goes into creating and sending out the fine notice letter. Libraries that are able to collect fines through the bursar’s office of their parent institutions may have a better chance at collecting those fines. However, others can only expect patrons to show up with or to mail a check to clear their fines. Offering an online payment option for library fines is one way to make the library service more user-friendly to those patrons who are too busy to visit the library in person or to mail a check but are willing to pay online with their credit cards.

If you are new to the world of online payment, there are several terms you need to become familiar with. The following information from the article in SixRevisions is very useful to understand those terms.1

  • ACH (Automated Clearing House) payments: Electronic credit and debit transfers. Most payment solutions use ACH to send money (minus fees) to their customers.
  • Merchant Account: A bank account that allows a customer to receive payments through credit or debit cards. Merchant providers are required to obey regulations established by card associations. Many processors act as both the merchant account as well as the payment gateway.
  • Payment Gateway: The middleman between the merchant and their sponsoring bank. It allows merchants to securely pass credit card information between the customer and the merchant and also between merchant and the payment processor.
  • Payment Processor: A company that a merchant uses to handle credit card transactions. Payment processors implement anti-fraud measures to ensure that both the front-facing customer and the merchant are protected.
  • PCI (the Payment Card Industry) Compliance: A merchant or payment gateway must set up their payment environment in a way that meets the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS).

Often, the same company functions as both payment gateway and payment processor, thereby processing the credit card payment securely. Such a product is called ‘Online payment system.’ Meyer’s article I have cited above also lists 10 popular online payment systems: Stripe, Authorize.Net, PayPal, Google Checkout, Amazon Payments, Dwolla, Braintree, Samurai by FeeFighters, WePay, and 2Checkout. Bear in mind that different payment gateways, merchant accounts, and bank accounts may or may not work together, your bank may or may not work as a merchant account, and your library may or may not have a merchant account. 2

Also note that there are fees in using online payment systems like these and that different systems have different pay structures. For example, Authorize.net has the $99 setup fee and then charges $20 per month plus a $0.10 per-transaction fee. Stripe charges 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction with no setup or monthly fees. Fees for mobile payment solutions with a physical card reader such as Square may go up much higher.

Among various online payment systems, I picked Stripe because it was recommended on the Code4Lib listserv. One of the advantages for using Stripe is that it acts as both the payment gateway and the merchant account. What this means is that your library does not have to have a merchant account to accept payment online. Another big advantage of using Stripe is that you do not have to worry about the PCI compliance part of your website because the Stripe API uses a clever way to send the sensitive credit card information over to the Stripe server while keeping your local server, on which your payment form sits, completely blind to such sensitive data. I will explain this in more detail later in this post.

Below I will share some of the code that I have used to set up Stripe as my library’s online payment option for testing. This may be of interest to you if you are thinking about offering online payment as an option for your patrons or if you are simply interested in how an online payment API works. Even if your library doesn’t need to collect library fines via online, an online payment option can be a handy tool for a small-scale fund-raising drive or donation.

The first step to take to make Stripe work is getting an API keys. You do not have to create an account to get API keys for testing. But if you are going to work on your code more than one day, it’s probably worth getting an account. Stripe API has excellent documentation. I have read ‘Getting Started’ section and then jumped over to the ‘Examples’ section, which can quickly get you off the ground. (https://stripe.com/docs/examples) I found an example by Daniel Schröter in GitHub from the list of examples in the Stripe’s Examples section and decided to test out. (https://github.com/myg0v/Simple-Bootstrap-Stripe-Payment-Form) Most of the time, getting an example code requires some probing and tweaking such as getting all the required library downloaded and sorting out the paths in the code and adding API keys. This one required relatively little work.

Now, let’s take a look at the form that this code creates.

borrowedcode

In order to create a form of my own for testing, I decided to change a few things in the code.

  1. Add Patron & Payment Details.
  2. Allow custom amount for payment.
  3. Change the currency from Euro to US dollars.
  4. Configure the validation for new fields.
  5. Hide the payment form once the charge goes through instead of showing the payment form below the payment success message.

html

4. can be done as follows. The client-side validation is performed by Bootstrapvalidator jQuery Plugin. So you need to get the syntax correct to get the code, which now has new fields, to work properly.
validator

This is the Javascript that allows you to send the data submitted to your payment form to the Stripe server. First, include the Stripe JS library (line 24). Include JQuery, Bootstrap, Bootstrap Form Helpers plugin, and Bootstrap Validator plugin (line 25-28). The next block of code includes an event handler for the form, which send the payment information to the Stripe via AJAX when the form is submitted. Stripe will validate the payment information and then return a token that identifies this particular transaction.

jspart

When the token is received, this code calls for the function, stripeResponseHandler(). This function, stripeResponseHandler() checks if the Stripe server did not return any error upon receiving the payment information and, if no error has been returned, attaches the token information to the form and submits the form.

jspart2

The server-side PHP script then checks if the Stripe token has been received and, if so, creates a charge to send it to Stripe as shown below. I am using PHP here, but Stripe API supports many other languages than PHP such as Ruby and Python. So you have many options. The real payment amount appears here as part of the charge array in line 326. If the charge succeeds, the payment success message is stored in a div to be displayed.

phppart

The reason why you do not have to worry about the PCI compliance with Stripe is that Stripe API asks to receive the payment information via AJAX and the input fields of sensitive information does not have the name attribute and value. (See below for the Card Holder Name and Card Number information as an example; Click to bring up the clear version of the image.)  By omitting the name attribute and value, the local server where the online form sits is deprived of any means to retrieve the information in those input fields submitted through the form. Since sensitive information does not touch the local server at all, PCI compliance for the local server becomes no concern. To clarify, not all fields in the payment form need to be deprived of the name attribute. Only the sensitive fields that you do not want your web server to have access to need to be protected this way. Here, for example, I am assigning the name attribute and value to fields such as name and e-mail in order to use them later to send a e-mail receipt.

(NB. Please click images to see the enlarged version.)

Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 8.01.08 PM

Now, the modified form has ‘Fee Category’, custom ‘Payment Amount,’ and some other information relevant to the billing purpose of my library.

updated

When the payment succeeds, the page changes to display the following message.

success

Stripe provides a number of fake card numbers for testing. So you can test various cases of failures. The Stripe website also displays all payments and related tokens and charges that are associated with those payments. This greatly helps troubleshooting. One thing that I noticed while troubleshooting is that Stripe logs sometimes do lag behind. That is, when a payment would succeed, associated token and charge may not appear under the “Logs” section immediately. But you will see the payment shows up in the log. So you will know that associated token and charge will eventually appear in the log later.

recent_payment

Once you are ready to test real payment transactions, you need to flip the switch from TEST to LIVE located on the top left corner. You will also need to replace your API keys for ‘TESTING’ (both secret and public) with those for ‘LIVE’ transaction. One more thing that is needed before making your library getting paid with real money online is setting up SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) for your live online payment page. This is not required for testing but necessary for processing live payment transactions. It is not a very complicated work. So don’t be discouraged at this point. You just have to buy a security certificate and put it in your Web server. Speak to your system administrator for how to get the SSL set up for your payment page. More information about setting up SSL can be found in the Stripe documentation I just linked above.

My library has not yet gone live with this online payment option. Before we do, I may make some more modifications to the code to fit the staff workflow better, which is still being mapped out. I am also planning to place the online payment page behind the university’s Shibboleth authentication in order to cut down spam and save some tedious data entry by library patrons by getting their information such as name, university email, student/faculty/staff ID number directly from the campus directory exposed through Shibboleth and automatically inserting it into the payment form fields.

In this post, I have described my experience of testing out the Stripe API as an online payment solution. As I have mentioned above, however, there are many other online payment systems out there. Depending your library’s environment and financial setup, different solutions may work better than others. To me, not having to worry about the PCI compliance by using Stripe was a big plus. If your library accepts online payment, please share what solution you chose and what factors led you to the particular online payment system in the comments.

* This post has been based upon my recent presentation, “Accepting Online Payment for Your Library and ‘Stripe’ as an Example”, given at the Code4Lib DC Unconference. See the slides  below..

Notes 
  1. Meyer, Rosston. “10 Excellent Online Payment Systems.” Six Revisions, May 15, 2012. http://sixrevisions.com/tools/online-payment-systems/.
  2. Ullman, Larry. “Introduction to Stripe.” Larry Ullman, October 10, 2012. http://www.larryullman.com/2012/10/10/introduction-to-stripe/.

Why I Don’t Talk Much about Gender or Race & Why I Support the Ada Initiative

I rarely talk about gender or race issues.  Not because I am not interested but because I am afraid that I may say things that are viewed negatively by a socially acceptable norm.  As a person who grew up in one country with one culture (the Confusian culture that is notoriously preferential to men to boot) and then moved to, live, and now work in another country with a completely different culture (just as discriminatory to women and minorities I am afraid) and who often has opinions that are different from those held by the majorities in both societies, I am acutely aware of various disadvantages, backlashes, and penalties that can result as a consequence of a minor slip and the pervasive social norm of inequality applied to women and racial/ethnic/gender minorities reinforced in everyday life.

I hate telling stories about how things went all wrong because it can reinforce negative sentiments such as frustration, anger, and the general sentiment of feeling pathetic about oneself. But I will make an exception and tell you this one story in the hope that you will join me in supporting the Ada Initiative.

A few years ago, in one of the library mailing listservs, the idea of creating a sub-group of women among the members was floated up. I do not recall all the context now but in relation to that idea, which I supported, I posed a question to the listserv specifically directed at only women.  To my dismay, this did not stop any men on the mailing list to liberally exercise their freedom to object to the idea in the name of the good of the listserv.  The idea was attacked as something akin to a separatist movement and was vehemently objected by a man who is regarded as very influential in that venue. My response to this was simply “how dare you,” not personally to me but to the entire group of women in the listerv. The question was submitted to women. No opinion was solicited from men.

But this is not why I brought up this story. The reason why I brought up this story is that I wanted to tell you what I did after this incident.  I didn’t respond back and communicate my indignation, frustration, and anger.  I simply disengaged myself from the conversation and abandoned the whole thread.  I didn’t want to have a conversation with this famous person who was so blatantly unaware of his faux pas. (Although his describing that idea as a separatist movement was not at all fair, I now see the point that it is actually a valid worry as women are not a minority but 50 percent of the population. And we all know well that the majority in the library is indeed women, not men. Potentially, the current listserv may have to compete with this new one -if the new one succeeds- and may lose its precious prestige and some other social privileges that go with the membership for some people.)

I justified my behavior by telling myself that I don’t have enough energy to deal with this right now. Fortunately, women who are much wiser, more articulate, and more courageous than me stood up and wrote great replies to this person.  Because I decided to not attach myself to the thread any longer, I also sent a personal email to these women who were my heroes.  At that time, I thought that was a good thing to do because I was so relieved by and hugely appreciated the fact that someone was taking the stance and was articulating the reasons in such a cool manner that I could not maintain. But looking back I can’t but think that it was so cowardly of me not openly supporting them. I have to add that this realization only dawned on me when the same thing happened to me only in the reverse role this time around. Another librarian sent me a private Twitter message personally thanking me about what I said openly. This taught me the lesson that what I meant as kudos to someone could have felt to that person like a punch in the gut instead. I thought about this incident a lot always as one of my (many) failings, although I only once dared to vent about it to one of my male colleagues because I knew he wouldn’t mind listening to me. (Our internalization of the social norm is indeed very deep even when we are critical of the very norm.)

It wasn’t until at last year’s Code4Lib pre-conference, “Technology, Librarianship, and Gender: Moving the conversation forward,” organized by Lisa Rabey and attended by many awesome people including Valerie Aurora from the Ada Initiative — She also gave the keynote at the Code4Lib Conference — that I was told for the first time that those who belong to minority groups do NOT have the obligation to always speak up, defend their positions, etc., etc. That was a refreshing thought that respects the additional burden that many minorities carry, the feeling of having to be a vocal champion of a cause at a personal level whether you are exhausted and sick or all or not. I also loved hearing that one thing that those with existing privileges can and should do is to listen to those without such privileges and their experience, not shouting out their own thoughts and dominating the conversation. It recognizes the important fact that the voice of sympathetic advocates should never overpower that of women and racial/ethnic/gender minorities. To be sustainable, a social change must be implemented by those who need and want the change by themselves.

So it is not an exaggeration to say that being a woman in technology can complicate things. (And I only told you just one story, and I am not even touching the issue of belonging to a racial/ethnic minority group here.) How many more awesome and productive things would women be able to achieve if they do not have to deal with this kind of crap that turns up all the time when they are simply trying to get things done?

I support the Ada Initiative because it acknowledges and articulates common issues often unacknowledged, opens and legitimizes a conversation about those issues, and helps organizations institute and establish more just and more equitable norms with useful and tangible tools and resources, thereby leveling the playing field for everyone. This results in benefiting all, not just women and minorities in race and gender.

ada_circle

Consider donating to the Ada Initiative below or at https://adainitiative.org/donate/?campaign=libraries. Share your reasons in Twitter with the hashtag, #libs4ada, and check out many thoughtful and amazing posts people wrote about their reasons for supporting the Ada Initiative. (If you think that this is all irrelevant because you have never been physically harmed or threatened in librarianship, check out this terrific post by the Library Loon.) I invite you to become an ally to those who are with less privileges than you. Thanks for reading this post!

Donation button

Donate to the Ada Initiative

If you are not familiar with the Ada initiative, here is some information from its website.

The Ada Initiative helps women get and stay involved in open source, open data, open education, and other areas of free and open technology and culture. These communities are changing the future of global society. If we want that society to be socially just and to serve the interests of all people, women must be involved in its creation and organization.
The Ada Initiative is a feminist organization. We strive to serve the interests and needs of women in open technology and culture who are at the intersection of multiple forms of oppression, including disabled women, women of color, LBTQ women, and women from around the world.

We are making a difference in open technology and culture by:

  • Supporting and connecting women in these communities
  • Changing the culture to better fit women, instead of changing women to fit the culture
  • Helping women overcome internalized sexism that is the result of living within the existing culture
  • Asking men and influential community members to take responsibility for culture change
  • Giving people the tools they need to change their communities (e.g., policies and ally skills)
  • Creating sustainable systems to support feminist activists in these communities
  • Being the change we want to see by making our own events and communities safer and more inclusive

 

What I Will Be Doing at the 2014 ALA Annual Conference

A. Programs Where I Will Be Speaking

At this year’s ALA conference, I will be participating in three programs as invited panelists and speakers. If any of these topics interests you, come on by!

Game Making Interest Group Sunday June 29, 8:30-10 AM

This is the meeting of LITA Game-Making Interest Group. At the conference this year, several chapter authors of the recently published book, Games in Libraries: Essays on Using Play to Connect and Instruct (McFarland, 2014), will be discussing the ideas that they put into the chapters they contributed to this book. I will briefly talk about my chapter “Learning with Games in Medicine and Healthcare and the Potential Role of Libraries.” and the variables that affect the pedagogical efficacy of games. Most of the time at the meeting will be spent on a discussion between the attendees and the chapter authors. So bring your ideas for the exciting discussion on libraries, games, and gamification. Below are the slides for my part.

Top Technology Trends Sunday June 29, 1-2:30 PM

I am very excited to be on the Top Technology Trends panel this year. The trend that I will be talking about is Biohackerspace and DIYbio. Never heard of either of them? Check out this TED talk by molecular biologist, Ellen Jorgensen, who is also the founder of GenSpace in Brooklyn.

Won’t be attending the ALA conference this year? There will be live streaming! Follow the Twitter hashtag #ALATTT, and the live stream URL will be posted on the event day by @toptechtrends. The recording will also be made available later. (Big thanks to LITA Top Tech Trends Committee members for making this happen!)

All the trends that will be discussed by this year’s panelists are up on the Top Tech Trends page. This year’s trends include exciting topics such as Open hardware and Personally-tuned discovery system.

Emerging Leaders Interest Group World Cafe Sunday June 29, 3-4:30 PM

This is a meeting for past and present ALA Emerging Leaders, and I will be representing my 2011 class of Emerging Leaders along with other past ELs representing their class. Other EL class representatives are: 2013 Tyler Dzuba, 2012 Erica Findley, 2010 Leo Lo, 2009 Lisa Carlucci Thomas, 2008 Lauren Pressley, 2007 Alexia Hudson-Ward.

The questions that the each class representative will answer are:

  •  What was the best thing that happened to you since being named EL?
  •  Is it really true that being an EL is your ticket to fame and glory within ALA?
  •  Do you think you’re in your place in your career now because of the EL experience? Why and why not?What was the most important/memorable thing you learned from your EL experience?

If you have been one of the ALA Emerging Leaders, come chat with us and other ELs to talk about your experience!

B. Programs that I Will Be Attending

Now that I covered the programs where I will be speaking at, I may as well share some of the programs that I am planning to attend. Please comment if I missed anything great and hopefully this may help others in deciding what program to attend among the wide array of great choices.

Friday June 27

“Enough PHP to Be Dangerous” 9 AM – 5 PM

I am arriving at Las Vegas in the morning. If I can still function after the five hour flight and don’t crash at my hotel room, I will be at “Enough PHP to Be Dangerous” program to hang out with librarians who are interested in coding. This is not an official ALA program. But if you are interested in learning how to code, this should be on top of your list along with the LITA/ALCTS Library CodeYear IG Meeting on Saturday!

“Enough PHP to Be Dangerous”  is an event organized by Tim Spalding at LibraryThing. It will be 9am-5pm at Embassy Suites Convention Center, three blocks from the Convention Center. To cover the cost of the room and the free lunch, donations will be appreciated ($55 per person). Hope you can support so that more programs like this will continue to take place in the future!

Taiga Forum Meeting 2-4PM

I have never been at a Taiga Forum meeting. So I am planning to check out the program at the Annual this year. The program description says it will cover the way search firms look for academic library AULs & ADs. I am currently in an AD position and so I am hoping that this program will also cover the leadership qualities and experience sought from current and future AULs and ADs.

Even if you are not in a AUL or AD position, if you are interested in learning how decision-makers are selected for an academic library leadership positions, this may be a useful program to you. Or like me if you are just curious about Taiga Forum, that will do as well since the Taiga Forum always produces a controversial position paper.

LITA Open House 3 – 4 PM

If you are curious about LITA, make sure to check out LITA Open House program. Then come to the LITA Happy Hour on Sunday. If you work in libraries and work with technologies, LITA is a great place for you to meet like-minded, super-friendly, and knowledgeable people.

Opening General Session – Featuring: Jane McGonigal 4-5:15PM

And of course I am going to this one as I am a big fan of gamification. I will be also writing another Library Technology Report to be published by ALA TechSource on the topic of gamification this year. (My previous one was titled “The Library Mobile Experience: Practices and User Expectations”.) So hopefully I will get some insight from McGonigal, who is well known form her book, Reality is Broken.

Saturday June 28

> 8:30-10 AM

I think I will be at one of these places. Too many good choices.

> 10:30-11:30AM

Is the Public Library the New Education Institution of the Future?

I think public and academic libraries need to communicate and learn from each other more. This is the program that was recommended to me by Amy Garmer at Aspen Institute, whom I met at the Future of the Libraries Meeting this spring organized by ALA current president Barbara Stripling. She told me about the recent program she worked on at Aspen Institute, which interviewed many policy makers and various industry business people regarding the future of public libraries. It is likely that I will miss this because I have to go to the Top Tech Trends Committee meeting at the same time. But I think some of you may want to check this out!

Top Technology Trends Committee

I will be a good committee member attending my TTT committee meeting while missing the other two LITA committee meetings that are taking place at the same time.

New Members Discussion Group

ACRL New Members Discussion Group is a vibrant and friendly informal group that can be amazingly useful to new academic librarians and librarians-to-be. I highly recommend this meeting, and this year it has a great topic – the identity of academic librarians – and great speakers. There is a strong chance that if you like this group, you will end up hanging out with a lot of cool people at ACRL. It is at the same time as ACRL President’s Program: Financial Literacy at Your Library though. So you will have to make a wise choice!

> 1 – 2:30 PM

Library Code Year Interest Group

I will be probably going to be at this meeting! The topics look fantastic.

But if you are less interested in coding, some other options which I would be sad to miss are:

Always go to the Interest Group meeting that interest you. It is a great place to be even more so often than big programs according to my experience.

> 4:30 -5 PM

Redefining Humans from the Past to the Future

Many librarians’ beloved program by sci-fi and fantasy authors organized by LITA Imagineering IG meeting. Come early to get free books! These are usually the only free books I take with me from the ALA conference I attend.

> 9PM

After Hours Party

I am not organizing a tweet-up at this year’s ALA annual conference. (Gasp! But there will be one in the upcoming Midwinter. So don’t be disappointed!)

But I am going to the After Hours Party, which is always fun.

Sunday June 29

LITA Board of Directors Orientation 10:30 AM-12 PM

I am starting my 3-year term on the LITA board of directors after this year’s ALA Annual Conference. So I will be oriented at this meeting. If you are a LITA member and have any thoughts, ideas, opinions, please let me know or communicate with any other LITA board of directors. BTW, the current board member, Andromeda, wrote an interesting and informative blog post about the LITA budget for the next year. You should check it out if you are a LITA member!

I will be sad missing these other programs taking place at the same time. But maybe some of you would be lucky and can go!

Monday June 30

Conversation Starter: Where Does My Money Come From and How Can I Get More? 8-8:45 AM

We can always learn more about library advocacy and funding I think.

User Experience IG 1PM

This is the inaugural meeting of LITA User Experience IG meeting which I am co-chairing. If you are interested in UX, come by and have an informal and fun conversation with us!

Conversation Starter: Data for Librarians 2:45pm – 3:30 pm

I need to learn more about data management just like everyone else.

Conversation Starter: What I Really Want to Do is Direct: First-Time Library Directors Discuss Their Experiences. 4:00pm- 4:45 pm

I recently started my new position as an Associate Director at my library. So I am looking forward to this program to learn more about management and leadership.

The Library Games 5:30pm to 7:00pm

If I am still standing at this point, I might enjoy watching librarians playing some games.

*        *        *        *        *

Did I miss any great obvious choices? Any programs that slipped through my radar? Let me know and see you at Las Vegas. Safe travels, librarians!

 

 

 

Future? Libraries? What Now? – After the ALA Summit on the Future of Libraries

*** This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on May 21, 2014.***

I attended the ALA Summit on the Future of Libraries a few weeks ago.

[Let's give it a minute for that to sink in.]

ALA President Barbara Stripling at the ALA Summit on the Future of Libraries at the Library of Congress

ALA President Barbara Stripling at the ALA Summit on the Future of Libraries at the Library of Congress. (Photo by the author)

Yes, that was that controversial Summit that was much talked about on Twitter with the #libfuturesummit hashtag. This Summit and other summits with a similar theme close to one another in timing – “The Future of Libraries Survival Summit” hosted by Information Today Inc. and “The Future of Libraries: Do We Have Five Years to Live?” hosted by Ken Heycock Associates Inc. and Dysart & Jones Associates – seemed to have brought out the sentiment that Andy Woodworth aptly named ‘Library Future Fatigue.’ It was impressive experience to see how active librarians – both ALA members and non-members – were in providing real-time comments and feedback about these summits while I was at one of those in person. I thought ALA is lucky to have such engaged members and librarians to work with.

A few days ago, ALA released the official Summit report.1 The report captured all the talks and many table discussions in great detail. In this post, I will focus on some of my thoughts and take-aways prompted by the talks and the table discussion at the Summit.

A. The Draw

Here is an interesting fact. The invitation to this Summit sat in my Inbox for over a month because from the email subject I thought it was just another advertisement for a fee-based webinar or workshop. It was only after I had gotten another email from the ALA office asking about the previous e-mail that I realized that it was something different.

What drew me to this Summit were: (a) I have never been at a formal event organized just for a discussion about the future of libraries, (b) the event were to include a good number of people outside of the libraries, and (c) the overall size of the Summit would be kept relatively small.

For those curious, the Summit had 51 attendees plus 6 speakers, a dozen discussion table facilitators, all of whom fit into the Members’ Room in the Library of Congress. Out of those 51 attendees, 9 of them were from the non-library sector such as Knight Foundation, PBS, Rosen Publishing, and Aspen Institute. 33 attendees ranged from academic librarians to public, school, federal, corporate librarians, library consultants, museum and archive folks, an LIS professor, and library vendors. And then there were 3 ALA presidents (current, past, and president-elect) and 6 officers from ALA. You can see the list of participants here.

B. Two Words (or Phrases)

At the beginning of the Summit, the participants were asked to come up with two words or short phrases that capture what they think about libraries “from now on.” We wrote these on the ribbons and put right under our name tags. Then we were encouraged to keep or change them as we move through the Summit.

My two phrases were “Capital and Labor” and “Peer-to-Peer.” I kept those two until the end of the Summit and didn’t change. I picked “Capital and Labor” because recently I have been thinking more about the socioeconomic background behind the expansion of post-secondary education (i.e. higher ed) and how it affects the changes in higher education and academic libraries.2 And of course, the fact that Thomas Picketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century, was being reviewed and discussed all over in the mass media contributed to that choice of the words as well. In my opinion, libraries “from now on” will be closely driven by the demands of the capital and the labor market and asked to support more and more of the peer-to-peer learning activities that have become widespread with the advent of the Internet.

Other phrases and words I saw from other participants included “From infrastructure to engagement,” “Sanctuary for learning,” “Universally accessible,” “Nimble and Flexible,” “From Missionary to Mercenary,” “Ideas into Action,” and “Here, Now.” The official report also lists some of the words that were most used by participants. If you choose your two words or phrases that capture what you think about libraries “from now on,” what would those be?

C. The Set-up

The Summit organizers have filled the room with multiple round tables, and the first day morning, afternoon, and the second day morning, participants sat at the table according to the table number assigned on the back of their name badges. This was a good method that enabled participants to have discussion with different groups of people throughout the Summit.

As the Summit agenda shows, the Summit program started with a talk by a speaker. After that, participants were asked to personally reflect on the talk and then have a table discussion. This discussion was captured on the large poster-size papers by facilitators and collected by the event organizers. The papers on which we were asked to write our personal reflections were also collected in the same way along with all our ribbons on which we wrote those two words or phrases. These were probably used to produce the official Summit report.

One thing I liked about the set-up was that every participant sat at a round table including speakers and all three ALA presidents (past, president, president-elect). Throughout the Summit, I had a chance to talk to Lorcan Dempsey from OCLC, Corinne Hill, the director of Chattanooga Public Library, Courtney Young, the ALA president-elect, and Thomas Frey, a well-known futurist at DaVinci Institute, which was neat.

Also, what struck me most during the Summit was that those who were outside of the library took the guiding questions and the following discussion much more seriously than those of us who are inside the library world. Maybe indeed we librarians are suffering from ‘library future fatigue.’ And/or maybe outsiders have more trust in libraries as institutions than we librarians do because they are less familiar with our daily struggles and challenges in the library operation. Either way, the Summit seemed to have given them an opportunity to seriously consider the future of libraries. The desired impact of this would be more policymakers, thought leaders, and industry leaders who are well informed about today’s libraries and will articulate, support, and promote the significant work libraries do to the benefit of the society in their own areas.

D. Talks, Table Discussion, and Some of My Thoughts and Take-aways

These were the talks given during the two days of the Summit:

  • “How to Think Like a Freak” – Stephen Dubner, Journalist
  • “What Are Libraries Good For?” – Joel Garreau, Journalist
  • “Education in the Future: Anywhere, Anytime” – Dr. Renu Khator, Chancellor and President at the University of Houston
  • “From an Internet of Things to a Library of Things” – Thomas Frey, Futurist
  • A Table Discussion of Choice:
    • Open – group decides the topic to discuss
    • Empowering individuals and families
    • Promoting literacy, particularly in children and youth
    • Building communities the library serves
    • Protecting and empowering access to information
    • Advancing research and scholarship at all levels
    • Preserving and/or creating cultural heritage
    • Supporting economic development and good government
  • “What Happened at the Summit?” – Joan Frye Williams, Library consultant

(0) Official Report, Liveblogging Posts, and Tweets

As I mentioned earlier, ALA released the 15-page official report of the Summit, which provides the detailed description of each talk and table discussion. Carolyn Foote, a school librarian and one of the Summit participants, also live-blogged all of the these talks in detail. I highly recommend reading her notes on Day 1, Day 2, and Closing in addition to the official report. The tweets from the Summit participants with the official hashtag, #libfuturesummit, will also give you an idea of what participants found exciting at the Summit.

(1) Redefining a Problem

The most fascinating story in the talk by Dubner was Kobe, the hot dog eating contest champion from Japan. The secret of his success in the eating contest was rethinking the accepted but unchallenged artificial limits and redefining the problem, said Dubner. In Kobe’s case, he redefined the problem from ‘How can I eat more hotdogs?’ to ‘How can I eat one hotdog faster?’ and then removed artificial limits – widely accepted but unchallenged conventions – such as when you eat a hot dog you hold it in the hand and eat it from the top to the bottom. He experimented with breaking the hotdog into two pieces to feed himself faster with two hands. He further refined his technique by eating the frankfurter and the bun separately to make the eating even speedier.

So where can libraries apply this lesson? One thing I can think of is the problem of the low attendance of some library programs. What if we ask what barriers we can remove instead of asking what kind of program will draw more people? Chattanooga Public Library did exactly this. Recently, they targeted the parents who would want to attend the library’s author talk and created an event that would specifically address the child care issue. The library scheduled a evening story time for kids and fun activities for tween and teens at the same time as the author talk. Then they asked parents to come to the library with the children, have their children participate in the library’s children’s programs, and enjoy themselves at the library’s author talk without worrying about the children.

Another library service that I came to learn about at my table was the Zip Books service by the Yolo county library in California. What if libraries ask what the fastest to way to deliver a book that the library doesn’t have to a patron’s door would be instead of asking how quickly the cataloging department can catalog a newly acquired book to get it ready for circulation? The Yolo county library Zip Books service came from that kind of redefinition of a problem. When a library user requests a book the library doesn’t have but meets certain requirements, the Yolo County Library purchases the book from a bookseller and have it shipped directly to the patron’s home without processing the book. Cataloging and processing is done when the book is returned to the library after the first use.

(2) What Can Happen to Higher Education

My favorite talk during the Summit was by Dr. Khator because she had deep insight in higher education and I have been working at university libraries for a long time. The two most interesting observations she made were the possibility of (a) the decoupling of the content development and the content delivery and (b) the decoupling of teaching and credentialing in higher education.

The upside of (a) is that some wonderful class a world-class scholar created may be taught by other instructors at places where the person who originally developed the class is not available. The downside of (a) is, of course, the possibility of it being used as the cookie-cutter type lowest baseline for quality control in higher education – University of Phoenix mentioned as an example of this by one of the participants at my table – instead of college and university students being exposed to the classes developed and taught by their institutions’ own individual faculty members.

I have to admit that (b) was a completely mind-blowing idea to me. Imagine colleges and universities with no credentialing authority. Your degree will no longer be tied to a particular institution to which you were admitted and graduate from. Just consider the impact of what this may entail if it ever becomes realized. If both (a) and (b) take place at the same time, the impact would be even more significant. What kind of role could an academic library play in such a scenario?

(3) Futurizing Libraries

Joe Garreau observed that nowadays what drives the need for a physical trip is more and more a face-to-face contact than anything else. Then he pointed out that as technology allows more people to tele-work, people are flocking to smaller cities where they can have a more meaningful contact with the community. If this is indeed the case, libraries that make their space a catalyst for a face-to-face contact in a community will prosper. Last speaker, Thomas Frey, spoke mostly about the Internet of Things (IoT).

While I think that IoT is an important trend to note, for sure, what I most liked about Frey’s talk was his statement that the vision of future we have today will change the decisions we make (towards that future). After the talk by Garreau, I had a chance to ask him a question about his somewhat idealized vision of the future, in which people live and work in a small but closely connected community in a society that is highly technological and collaborative. He called this ‘human evolution’.

But in my opinion, the reality that we see today in my opinion is not so idyllic.3 The current economy is highly volatile. It no longer offers job security, consistently reduces the number of jobs, and returns either stagnant or decreasing amount of income for those whose skills are not in high demand in the era of digital revolution.4 As a result, today’s college students, who are preparing to become tomorrow’s knowledge workers, are perceiving their education and their lives after quite differently than their parents did.5

Garreau’s answer to my question was that this concern of mine may be coming from a kind of techno-determinism. While this may be a fair critique, I felt that his portrayal of the human evolution may be just as techno-deterministic. (To be fair, he mentioned that he does not make predictions and this is one of the future scenarios he sees.)

Regarding the topic of the Internet of Things (IoT), which was the main topic of Frey’s talk, the privacy and the proper protection of the massive amount of data – which will result from the very many sensors that makes IoT possible – will be the real barrier to implementing the IoT on a large scale. After his talk, I had a chance to briefly chat with him about this. (There was no Q&A because Frey’s talk went over the time allotted). He mentioned the possibility of some kind of an international gathering similar to the scale of the Geneva Conventions to address the issue. While the likelihood of that is hard to assess, the idea seemed appropriate to the problem in question.

(4) What If…?

One of the slides from Thoams Frey's Talk at the ALA Summit. (Photo by the author)

One of the slides from Thomas Frey’s Talk at the ALA Summit. (Photo by the author)

Some of the shiny things shown at the talk, whose value for library users may appear dubious and distant, however, prompted Eli Neiburger at Ann Arbor District Library to question which useful service libraries can offer to provide the public with significant benefit now. He wondered what it would be like if many libraries ran a Tor exit node to help the privacy and anonymity of the web traffic, for example.

For those who are unfamiliar, Tor (the Onion Router) is “free software and an open network that helps you defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security.” Tor is not foolproof, but it is still the best tool for privacy and anonymity on the Web.

Eli’s idea is a truly wild one because there are so many libraries in the US and the public’s privacy in the US is in such a precarious state.6 Running a Tor exit node is not a walk in the park as this post by someone who actually set up a Tor exit node on a hosted virtual server in Germany attests. But libraries have been a serious and dedicated advocate for privacy for people’s intellectual freedom for a long time and have a strong network of alliance. There is also the useful guidelines and tips that Tor provides in their website.

Just pause a minute and imagine what kind of impact such a project by libraries may have to the privacy of the public. What if?

(5) Leadership and Sustainability

For the “Table Discussion of Choice” session, I opted for the “Open” table because I was curious in what other topics people were interested. Two discussions at this session were most memorable to me. One was the great advice I got from Corinne Hill regarding leading people. A while ago, I read her interview, in which she commented that “the staff are just getting comfortable with making decisions.” In my role as a relatively new manager, I also found empowering my team members to be more autonomous decision makers a challenge. Corinne particularly cautioned that leaders should be very careful about not being over-critical when the staff takes an initiative but makes a bad decision. Being over-critical in that case can discourage the staff from trying to make their own decisions in their expertise areas, she said. Hearing her description of how she relies on the different types of strengths in her staff to move her library in the direction of innovation was also illuminating to me. (Lorcan Dempsey who was also at our table mentioned “Birkman Quadrants” in relation to Corinne’s description, a set of useful theoretical constructs. He also brought up the term ‘Normcore’ at another session. I forgot the exact context of that term, but the term was interesting that I wrote it down.) We also talked for a while about the current LIS education and how it is not sufficiently aligned with the skills needed in everyday library operation.

The other interesting discussion started with the question about the sustainability of the future libraries by Amy Garmer from Aspen Institute. (She has been working on a library-related project with various policy makers, and PLA has a program related to this project at the upcoming 2014 ALA Annual Conference if you are interested.) One thought that always comes to my mind whenever I think about the future of libraries is that while in the past the difference between small and large libraries was mostly quantitative in terms of how many books and other resources were available, in the present and future, the difference is and will be more qualitative. What New York Public Libraries offers for their patrons, a whole suite of digital library products from the NYPL Labs for example, cannot be easily replicated by a small rural library. Needless to say, this has a significant implication for the core mission of the library, which is equalizing the public’s access to information and knowledge. What can we do to close that gap? Or perhaps will different types of libraries have different strategies for the future, as Lorcan Dempsey asked at our table discussion? These two things are not incompatible to be worked out at the same time.

(6) Nimble and Media-Savvy

In her Summit summary, Joanne Frye Williams, who moved around to observe discussions at all tables during the Summit, mentioned that one of the themes that surfaced was thinking about a library as a developing enterprise rather than a stable organization. This means that the modus operandi of a library should become more nimble and flexible to keep the library in the same pace of the change that its community goes through.

Another thread of discussion among the Summit participants was that not all library supporters have to be the active users of the library services. As long as those supporters know that the presence and the service of libraries makes their communities strong, libraries are in a good place. Often libraries make the mistake of trying to reach all of their potential patrons to convert them into active library users. While this is admirable, it is not always practical or beneficial to the library operation. More needed and useful is a well-managed strategic media relations that will effectively publicize the library’s services and programs and its benefits and impact to its community. (On a related note, one journalist who was at the Summit mentioned how she noticed the recent coverage about libraries changing its direction from “Are libraries going to be extinct?” to “No, libraries are not going to be extinct. And do you know libraries offer way more than books such as … ?”, which is fantastic.)

E. What Now? Library Futurizing vs. Library Grounding

What all the discussion at the Summit reminded me was that ultimately the time and efforts we spend on trying to foresee what the future holds for us and on raising concerns about the future may be better directed at refining the positive vision for the desirable future for libraries and taking well-calculated and decisive actions towards the realization of that vision.

Technology is just a tool. It can be used to free people to engage in more meaningful work and creative pursuits. Or it can be used to generate a large number of the unemployed, who have to struggle to make the ends meet and to retool themselves with fast-changing skills that the labor market demands, along with those in the top 1 or 0.1 % of very rich people. And we have the power to influence and determine which path we should and would be on by what we do now.

Certainly, there are trends that we need to heed. For example, the shift of the economy that places a bigger role on entrepreneurship than ever before requires more education and support for entrepreneurship for students at universities and colleges. The growing tendency of the businesses looking for potential employees based upon their specific skill sets rather than their majors and grades has lead universities and colleges to adopt a digital badging system (such as Purdue’s Passport) or other ways for their students to record and prove the job-related skills obtained during their study.

But when we talk about the future, many of us tend to assume that there are some kind of inevitable trends that we either get or miss and that those trends will determine what our future will be. We forget that not some trends but (i) what we intend to achieve in the future and (ii) today’s actions we take to realize that intention are really what determines our future. (Also always critically reflect on whatever is trendy; you may be in for a surprise.7) The fact that people will no longer need to physically visit a library to check out books or access library resources does not automatically mean that the library in the future will cease to have a building. The question is whether we will let that be the case. Suppose we decide that we want the library to be and stay as the vibrant hub for a community’s freedom of inquiry and right to access human knowledge, no matter how much change takes place in the society. Realizing this vision ‘IS’ within our power. We only reach the future by walking through the present.

Notes

  1. Stripling, Barbara. “Report on the Summit on the Future of Libraries.” ALA Connect, May 19, 2014. http://connect.ala.org/node/223667.
  2. Kim, Bohyun. “Higher ‘Professional’ Ed, Lifelong Learning to Stay Employed, Quantified Self, and Libraries.” ACRL TechConnect Blog, March 23, 2014. http://acrl.ala.org/techconnect/?p=4180.
  3. Ibid.
  4. For a short but well-written clear description of this phenomenon, see Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Andrew McAfee. Race against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Lexington: Digital Frontier Press, 2012.
  5. Brooks, David. “The Streamlined Life.” The New York Times, May 5, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/06/opinion/brooks-the-streamlined-life.html.
  6. See Timm, Trevor. “Everyone Should Know Just How Much the Government Lied to Defend the NSA.” The Guardian, May 17, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/17/government-lies-nsa-justice-department-supreme-court.
  7. For example, see this article about what the wide adoption of 3D-printing may mean to the public. Sadowski, Jathan, and Paul Manson. “3-D Print Your Way to Freedom and Prosperity.” Al Jazeera America, May 17, 2014. http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/5/3d-printing-politics.html.

Higher ‘Professional’ Ed, Lifelong Learning to Stay Employed, Quantified Self, and Libraries

***  This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on March 23, 2014. ***

The 2014 Horizon Report is mostly a report on emerging technologies. Many academic librarians carefully read its Higher Ed edition issued every year to learn about the upcoming technology trends. But this year’s Horizon Report Higher Ed edition was interesting to me more in terms of how the current state of higher education is being reflected on the report than in terms of the technologies on the near-term (one-to-five year) horizon of adoption. Let’s take a look.

A. Higher Ed or Higher Professional Ed?

To me, the most useful section of this year’s Horizon Report was ‘Wicked Challenges.’ The significant backdrop behind the first challenge “Expanding Access” is the fact that the knowledge economy is making higher education more and more closely and directly serve the needs of the labor market. The report says, “a postsecondary education is becoming less of an option and more of an economic imperative. Universities that were once bastions for the elite need to re-examine their trajectories in light of these issues of access, and the concept of a credit-based degree is currently in question.” (p.30)

Many of today’s students enter colleges and universities with a clear goal, i.e. obtaining a competitive edge and a better earning potential in the labor market. The result that is already familiar to many of us is the grade and the degree inflation and the emergence of higher ed institutions that pursue profit over even education itself. When the acquisition of skills takes precedence to the intellectual inquiry for its own sake, higher education comes to resemble higher professional education or intensive vocational training. As the economy almost forces people to take up the practice of lifelong learning to simply stay employed, the friction between the traditional goal of higher education – intellectual pursuit for its own sake – and the changing expectation of higher education — creative, adaptable, and flexible workforce – will only become more prominent.

Naturally, this socioeconomic background behind the expansion of postsecondary education raises the question of where its value lies. This is the second wicked challenge listed in the report, i.e. “Keeping Education Relevant.” The report says, “As online learning and free educational content become more pervasive, institutional stakeholders must address the question of what universities can provide that other approaches cannot, and rethink the value of higher education from a student’s perspective.” (p.32)

B. Lifelong Learning to Stay Employed

Today’s economy and labor market strongly prefer employees who can be hired, retooled, or let go at the same pace with the changes in technology as technology becomes one of the greatest driving force of economy. Workers are expected to enter the job market with more complex skills than in the past, to be able to adjust themselves quickly as important skills at workplaces change, and increasingly to take the role of a creator/producer/entrepreneur in their thinking and work practices. Credit-based degree programs fall short in this regard. It is no surprise that the report selected “Agile Approaches to Change” and “Shift from Students as Consumers to Students as Creators” as two of the long-range and the mid-range key trends in the report.

A strong focus on creativity, productivity, entrepreneurship, and lifelong learning, however, puts a heavier burden on both sides of education, i.e. instructors and students (full-time, part-time, and professional). While positive in emphasizing students’ active learning, the Flipped Classroom model selected as one of the key trends in the Horizon report often means additional work for instructors. In this model, instructors not only have to prepare the study materials for students to go over before the class, such as lecture videos, but also need to plan active learning activities for students during the class time. The Flipped Classroom model also assumes that students should be able to invest enough time outside the classroom to study.

The unfortunate side effect or consequence of this is that those who cannot afford to do so – for example, those who have to work on multiple jobs or have many family obligations, etc. – will suffer and fall behind. Today’s students and workers are now being asked to demonstrate their competencies with what they can produce beyond simply presenting the credit hours that they spent in the classroom. Probably as a result of this, a clear demarcation between work, learning, and personal life seems to be disappearing. “The E-Learning Predictions for 2014 Report” from EdTech Europe predicts that ‘Learning Record Stores’, which track, record, and quantify an individual’s experiences and progress in both formal and informal learning, will be emerging in step with the need for continuous learning required for today’s job market. EdTech Europe also points out that learning is now being embedded in daily tasks and that we will see a significant increase in the availability and use of casual and informal learning apps both in education but also in the workplace.

C. Quantified Self and Learning Analytics

Among the six emerging technologies in the 2014 Horizon Report Higher Education edition, ‘Quantified Self’ is by far the most interesting new trend. (Other technologies should be pretty familiar to those who have been following the Horizon Report every year, except maybe the 4D printing mentioned in the 3D printing section. If you are looking for the emerging technologies that are on a farther horizon of adoption, check out this article from the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies, which lists technologies such as screenless display and brain-computer interfaces.)

According to the report, “Quantified Self describes the phenomenon of consumers being able to closely track data that is relevant to their daily activities through the use of technology.” (ACRL TechConnect has covered personal data monitoring and action analytics previously.) Quantified self is enabled by the wearable technology devices, such as Fitbit or Google Glass, and the Mobile Web. Wearable technology devices automatically collect personal data. Fitbit, for example, keeps track of one’s own sleep patterns, steps taken, and calories burned. And the Mobile Web is the platform that can store and present such personal data directly transferred from those devices. Through these devices and the resulting personal data, we get to observe our own behavior in a much more extensive and detailed manner than ever before. Instead of deciding on which part of our life to keep record of, we can now let these devices collect about almost all types of data about ourselves and then see which data would be of any use for us and whether any pattern emerges that we can perhaps utilize for the purpose of self-improvement.

Quantified Self is a notable trend not because it involves an unprecedented technology but because it gives us a glimpse of what our daily lives will be like in the near future, in which many of the emerging technologies that we are just getting used to right now – the mobile, big data, wearable technology – will come together in full bloom. Learning Analytics,’ which the Horizon Report calls “the educational application of ‘big data’” (p.38) and can be thought of as the application of Quantified Self in education, has been making a significant progress already in higher education. By collecting and analyzing the data about student behavior in online courses, learning analytics aims at improving student engagement, providing more personalized learning experience, detecting learning issues, and determining the behavior variables that are the significant indicators of student performance.

While privacy is a natural concern for Quantified Self, it is to be noted that we ourselves often willingly participate in personal data monitoring through the gamified self-tracking apps that can be offensive in other contexts. In her article, “Gamifying the Quantified Self,” Jennifer Whitson writes:

Gamified self-tracking and participatory surveillance applications are seen and embraced as play because they are entered into freely, injecting the spirit of play into otherwise monotonous activities. These gamified self-improvement apps evoke a specific agency—that of an active subject choosing to expose and disclose their otherwise secret selves, selves that can only be made penetrable via the datastreams and algorithms which pin down and make this otherwise unreachable interiority amenable to being operated on and consciously manipulated by the user and shared with others. The fact that these tools are consumer monitoring devices run by corporations that create neoliberal, responsibilized subjectivities become less salient to the user because of this freedom to quit the game at any time. These gamified applications are playthings that can be abandoned at whim, especially if they fail to pleasure, entertain and amuse. In contrast, the case of gamified workplaces exemplifies an entirely different problematic. (p.173; emphasis my own and not by the author)

If libraries and higher education institutions becomes active in monitoring and collecting students’ learning behavior, the success of an endeavor of that kind will depend on how well it creates and provides the sense of play to students for their willing participation. It will be also important for such kind of learning analytics project to offer an opt-out at any time and to keep the private data confidential and anonymous as much as possible.

D. Back to Libraries

The changed format of this year’s Horizon Report with the ‘Key Trends’ and the ‘Significant Challenges’ has shown the forces in play behind the emerging technologies to look out for in higher education much more clearly. A big take-away from this report, I believe, is that in spite of the doubt about the unique value of higher education, the demand will be increasing due to the students’ need to obtain a competitive advantage in entering or re-entering the workforce. And that higher ed institutions will endeavor to create appropriate means and tools to satisfy students’ need of acquiring and demonstrating skills and experience in a way that is appealing to future employers beyond credit-hour based degrees, such as competency-based assessments and a badge system, is another one.

Considering that the pace of change at higher education tends to be slow, this can be an opportunity for academic libraries. Both instructors and students are under constant pressure to innovate and experiment in their teaching and learning processes. Instructors designing the Flipped Classroom model may require a studio where they can record and produce their lecture videos. Students may need to compile portfolios to demonstrate their knowledge and skills for job interviews. Returning adult students may need to acquire the habitual lifelong learning practices with the help from librarians. Local employers and students may mutually benefit from a place where certain co-projects can be tried. As a neutral player on the campus with tech-savvy librarians and knowledgeable staff, libraries can create a place where the most palpable student needs that are yet to be satisfied by individual academic departments or student services are directly addressed. Maker labs, gamified learning or self-tracking modules, and a competency dashboard are all such examples. From the emerging technology trends in higher ed, we see that the learning activities in higher education and academic libraries will be more and more closely tied to the economic imperative of constant innovation.

Academic libraries may even go further and take up the role of leading the changes in higher education. In his blog post for Inside Higher Ed, Joshua Kim suggests exactly this and also nicely sums up the challenges that today’s higher education faces:

  • How do we increase postsecondary productivity while guarding against commodification?
  • How do we increase quality while increasing access?
  • How do we leverage technologies without sacrificing the human element essential for authentic learning?

How will academic libraries be able to lead the changes necessary for higher education to successfully meet these challenges? It is a question that will stay with academic libraries for many years to come.

Query a Google Spreadsheet like a Database with Google Visualization API Query Language

***  This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on Dec. 4, 2013. ***

Libraries make much use of spreadsheets. Spreadsheets are easy to create, and most library staff are familiar with how to use them. But they can quickly get unwieldy as more and more data are entered. The more rows and columns a spreadsheet has, the more difficult it is to browse and quickly identify specific information. Creating a searchable web application with a database at the back-end is a good solution since it will let users to quickly perform a custom search and filter out unnecessary information. But due to the staff time and expertise it requires, creating a full-fledged searchable web database application is not always a feasible option at many libraries.

Creating a MS Access custom database or using a free service such as Zoho can be an alternative to creating a searchable web database application. But providing a read-only view for MS Access database can be tricky although possible. MS Access is also software locally installed in each PC and therefore not necessarily available for the library staff when they are not with their work PCs on which MS Access is installed. Zoho Creator offers a way to easily convert a spreadsheet into a database, but its free version service has very limited features such as maximum 3 users, 1,000 records, and 200 MB storage.

Google Visualization API Query Language provides a quick and easy way to query a Google spreadsheet and return and display a selective set of data without actually converting a spreadsheet into a database. You can display the query result in the form of a HTML table, which can be served as a stand-alone webpage. All you have to do is to construct a custom URL.

A free version of Google spreadsheet has a limit in size and complexity. For example, one free Google spreadsheet can have no more than 400, 000 total cells. But you can purchase more Google Drive storage and also query multiple Google spreadsheets (or even your own custom databases) by using Google Visualization API Query Language and Google Chart Libraries together. (This will be the topic of my next post. You can also see the examples of using Google Chart Libraries and Google Visualization API Query Language together in my presentation slides at the end of this post.)

In this post, I will explain the parameters of Google Visualization API Query Language and how to construct a custom URL that will query, return, and display a selective set of data in the form of an HTML page.

A. Display a Google Spreadsheet as an HTML page

The first step is to identify the URL of the Google spreadsheet of your choice.

The URL below opens up the third sheet (Sheet 3) of a specific Google spreadsheet. There are two parameters you need to pay attention inside the URL: key and gid.

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AqAPbBT_k2VUdDc3aC1xS2o0c2ZmaVpOQWkyY0l1eVE&usp=drive_web#gid=2

This breaks down the parameters in a way that is easier to view:

  • https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc
    ?key=0AqAPbBT_k2VUdDc3aC1xS2o0c2ZmaVpOQWkyY0l1eVE
    &usp=drive_web

    #gid=2

Key is a unique identifier to each Google spreadsheet. So you need to use that to cretee a custom URL later that will query and display the data in this spreadsheet. Gid specifies which sheet in the spreadsheet you are opening up. The gid for the first sheet is 0; the gid for the third sheet is 2.

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 9.44.29 AM

Let’s first see how Google Visualization API returns the spreadsheet data as a DataTable object. This is only for those who are curious about what goes on behind the scenes. You can see that for this view, the URL is slightly different but the values of the key and the gid parameter stay the same.

https://spreadsheets.google.com/tq?&tq=&key=0AqAPbBT_k2VUdDc3aC1xS2o0c2ZmaVpOQWkyY0l1eVE&gid=2

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 9.56.03 AM

In order to display the same result as an independent HTML page, all you need to do is to take the key and the gid parameter values of your own Google spreadsheet and construct the custom URL following the same pattern shown below.

  • https://spreadsheets.google.com
    /tq?tqx=out:html&tq=
    &key=0AqAPbBT_k2VUdDc3aC1xS2o0c2ZmaVpOQWkyY0l1eVE
    &gid=2

https://spreadsheets.google.com/tq?tqx=out:html&tq=&key=0AqAPbBT_k2VUdDc3aC1xS2o0c2ZmaVpOQWkyY0l1eVE&gid=2

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 9.59.11 AM

By the way, if the URL you created doesn’t work, it is probably because you have not encoded it properly. Try this handy URL encoder/decoder page to encode it by hand or you can use JavaScript encodeURIComponent() function.
Also if you want the URL to display the query result without people logging into Google Drive first, make sure to set the permission setting of the spreadsheet to be public. On the other hand, if you need to control access to the spreadsheet only to a number of users, you have to remind your users to first go to Google Drive webpage and log in with their Google account before clicking your URLs. Only when the users are logged into Google Drive, they will be able see the query result.

B. How to Query a Google Spreadsheet

We have seen how to create a URL to show an entire sheet of a Google spreadsheet as an HTML page above. Now let’s do some querying, so that we can pick and choose what data the table is going to display instead of the whole sheet. That’s where the Query Language comes in handy.

Here is an example spreadsheet with over 50 columns and 500 rows.

  • https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?
    key=0AqAPbBT_k2VUdDFYamtHdkFqVHZ4VXZXSVVraGxacEE
    &usp=drive_web
    #gid=0

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AqAPbBT_k2VUdDFYamtHdkFqVHZ4VXZXSVVraGxacEE&usp=drive_web#gid=0

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 10.15.41 AM

What I want to do is to show only column B, C, D, F where C contains ‘Florida.’ How do I do this? Remember the URL we created to show the entire sheet above?

  • https://spreadsheets.google.com/tq?tqx=out:html&tq=&key=___&gid=___

There we had no value for the tq parameter. This is where we insert our query.

Google Visualization API Query Language is pretty much the same as SQL. So if you are familiar with SQL, forming a query is dead simple. If you aren’t SQL is also easy to learn.

  • The query should be written like this:
    SELECT B, C, D, F WHERE C CONTAINS ‘Florida’
  • After encoding it properly, you get something like this:
    SELECT%20B%2C%20C%2C%20D%2C%20F%20WHERE%20C%20CONTAINS%20%27Florida%27
  • Add it to the tq parameter and don’t forget to also specify the key:
    https://spreadsheets.google.com/tq?tqx=out:html&tq=SELECT%20B%2C%20C%2C%20D%2C%20F%20WHERE%20C%20CONTAINS%20%27Florida%27
    &key=0AqAPbBT_k2VUdEtXYXdLdjM0TXY1YUVhMk9jeUQ0NkE

I am omitting the gid parameter here because there is only one sheet in this spreadsheet but you can add it if you would like. You can also omit it if the sheet you want is the first sheet. Ta-da!

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 10.26.13 AM

Compare this with the original spreadsheet view. I am sure you can appreciate how the small effort put into creating a URL pays back in terms of viewing an unwieldy large spreadsheet manageable.

You can also easily incorporate functions such as count() or sum() into your query to get an overview of the data you have in the spreadsheet.

  • select D,F count(C) where (B contains ‘author name’) group by D, F

For example, this query above shows how many articles a specific author published per year in each journal. The screenshot of the result is below and you can see it for yourself here: https://spreadsheets.google.com/tq?tqx=out:html&tq=select+D,F,count(C)+where+%28B+contains+%27Agoulnik%27%29+group+by+D,F&key=0AqAPbBT_k2VUdEtXYXdLdjM0TXY1YUVhMk9jeUQ0NkE

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 11.34.25 AM

Take this spread sheet as another example.

libbudgetfake

This simple query below displays the library budget by year. For those who are unfamiliar with ‘pivot‘, pivot table is a data summarization tool. The query below asks the spreadsheet to calculate the total of all the values in the B column (Budget amount for each category) by the values found in the C column (Years).

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 11.46.49 AM

This is another example of querying the spreadsheet connected to my library’s Literature Search request form. The following query asks the spreadsheet to count the number of literature search requests by Research Topic (=column I) that were received in 2011 (=column G) grouped by the values in the column C, i.e. College of Medicine Faculty or College of Medicine Staff.

  • select C, count(I) where (G contains ‘2011’) group by C

litsearch

C. More Querying Options

There are many more things you can do with a custom query. Google has an extensive documentation that is easy to follow: https://developers.google.com/chart/interactive/docs/querylanguage#Language_Syntax

These are just a few examples.

  • ORDER BY __ DESC
    : Order the results in the descending order of the column of your choice. Without ‘DESC,’ the result will be listed in the ascending order.
  • LIMIT 5
    : Limit the number of results. Combined with ‘Order by’ you can quickly filter the results by the most recent or the oldest items.

My presentation slides given at the 2013 LITA Forum below includes more detailed information about Google Visualization API Query Language, parameters, and other options as well as how to use Google Chart Libraries in combination with Google Visualization API Query Language for data visualization, which is the topic of my next post.

Happy querying Google Spreadsheet!

 

Do You Feel Inadequate? For Hard-Working Overachievers

I have not been a very diligent blog writer in the year of 2013. So on the last day of 2013, I decided to write a post. I thought about writing a post with the title of “Adieu 2013!” but then I changed my mind. So here is a more sensational title, “Do you feel inadequate?”

Inadequacy is an interesting feeling. While I often felt inadequate as a college and grad student in academia and sometimes as a librarian in the libraryland, I was also pretty convinced that I was quite smart and bright. (Don’t throw stones at me just yet; Look what I said is ‘was’!) So how do you feel smart and inadequate at the same time? The answer is actually quite simple. You feel inadequate because you are smart enough to know that there are smarter people than you. So feeling inadequate itself is not a bad thing. But being unable to set the goal for you to overcome that feeling is a problem. Being unable to be at peace with the fact that there will always be people who are more bright and talented than you is a problem.

I wish I realized this, much earlier in my life. But it should still count just the same. I do no longer believe that I am particularly bright nor that I am seriously inadequate. I am just OK. That’s really not bad at all. I think that actually, this is a great place to be – knowing that I am OK to be who I am. This may sound mundane to many. But I guarantee you that if you are one of those exceptionally bright and successful over-achievers with little experience in failure then this would be a particularly hard belief for you to subscribe to.

[ADDED: I also want to emphasize that smart or brilliant is not an innate quality. You have to work on it to become smart or brilliant. So if you do work on things you want to become smart about, you will become smart. Believe me and go for it. On the other hand, you also need to 'actively decide' on what boundary you will set up in pushing yourself towards smartness or brilliance because there will be certain things you want to preserve such as sanity and work-life balance. For example, are you willing to sacrifice your 2 hours at a gym everyday and spend that time instead for getting smarter? How about sleeping only 4 hours a day and use the rest of it on some project you love? It will work, but maybe that is or is not what you really want. (Also consider if it will be a long-term or a short-term thing.) And so, you will be less smart than those who take those measures. So you are just OK. But it is you who decide to be so! No hard feelings, right?]

(On the other hand, if you have had this belief that you are just OK in your entire career and have never been discontent with yourself, maybe that is a clear warning sign. Don’t be a seat-warmer and go find a challenge that excites your librarian heart!)

Back in January, 2013. I read this blog post by Miss July, “ego, thy name is librarianship”. Many librarians shared the angst of wanting to be recognized widely and quickly for their hard work and intelligence. But the thing is, a lot of times, what makes someone recognized is chance and luck more than anything. Sometimes, a project you put a lot of work into and is completely worthy of others’ acclaim will go unnoticed. At other times, something you haphazardly put together to meet a deadline may make you famous! When I was a babybrarian, one of my friends, Will, who was a few years senior to me in being a librarian, asked if I recognized someone’s name. I had zero idea who that person was. But during his LIS days, that person was beyond famous in the libraryland, I was told.

I am not saying that luck and chance are important to fame than hard work and intelligence to dismiss the famous ‘and’ brilliant ‘and’ hard-working people in the libraryland, whom I  admire. I just want to point out that hard work and brilliance is only a sufficient condition for being a good librarian and professional, not for gaining fame. If you are aiming at the former, your hard work and brilliance will be more than rewarded. If you are aiming at the latter, on the other hand, achieving that will be way trickier since it is mostly up to others. I am simply sharing this to help other bright librarians who are struggling with the work-life balance and the feeling of inadequacy in spite of hard work and many achievements.

I also want all LIS students and grads in the library job market to know that something similar applies to the hiring process. I used to believe that only the best candidate with the most achievements gets hired. (Just like the grades given on an absolute scale!) But this naive belief is simply not true. From serving on multiple search committees at academic libraries, I have learned that candidates’ applications, resume/CVs, and cover letters are evaluated on a relative, not an absolute scale. And each organization has different priorities, specific needs, and most of all, unique individuals on their search committees or as hiring officials at any given time. You need to be the right fit for a given position at a given time and at a specific place. Being that right fit requires a lot of luck and chance beyond your many achievements. I also saw many cases in which some candidates whom the search committee I belonged to rejected but who found jobs that are just as good as or even better than what we had to offer. So no need to fall into despair by a rejection letter. You just have to try a little longer until you get selected.

From Flickr Creative Commons by Mari Z

If I were wiser, perhaps I would have written “How to Overcome Your Feeling of Inadequacy in Five Easy Steps(!)” instead of “Do You Feel Inadequate?” Unfortunately, I don’t have such five easy steps. I can only say that it took very many years for me to understand that working on the stuff that seems to you most difficult and unenjoyable doesn’t make you the most brilliant and hard-working person (It is probably a rather poor investment of your time and brain and so please don’t do that.) and that being a good supporter and follower can make just as great a contribution to a project as being its leader. A good thing about becoming a mid-career professional and getting old is that you get to care less about stupid stuff like what others think about you and more about important stuff like what you can do to make yourself better at things you want to do because you think they matter. How smart I look to others or whether I can be famous becomes rather trivial compared to whether I can get this thing done or to work, I understand something correctly, and what I do makes me happy and proud. I also recommend great blog posts by Andromeda and Coral about how to overcome the feeling of inadequacy, particularly in library technology and coding. Like they recommend, go sit at the table and develop your own swagger!

The New Year’s Eve is a great moment for reflection. In Müdigkeitsgesellschaft (Fatigue Society) (Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2010), which I’ve read recently (not in German but in Korean translation), a Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes that driven by the goal of maximizing production, the contemporary society no longer disciplines people and instead makes all of us into individual entrepreneurs. He calls this new society ‘achievement society’ over-saturated with positivity and affirmation. All of us are now free to exploit ourselves, and there is no limit to how far we can go in our own free self-exploitation.  Doesn’t this sound familiar and similar to the mantra of managing oneself and the celebration of creativity?

Happy New Year to you all!

LITA Forum 2013 – My Talks on Google Visualization API and Faculty Bibliography

I did two presentations at LITA Forum last week. One was a concurrent session and the other was a lightning talk. This was the first time I attended a LITA Forum and it was a really great conference.  All of the LITA Forum presentations are available to everyone here: http://connect.ala.org/litaforum.

Below are the slides of my two talks.

1. Take Better Care of Library Data and Spreadsheets with Google Visualization API Query Language

2. Building a Faculty Publications Database

Redesigning the Item Record Summary View in a Library Catalog and a Discovery Interface

***  This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on Oct. 15, 2013. ***

A. Oh, the Library Catalog

Almost all librarians have a love-hate relationship with their library catalogs (OPAC), which are used by library patrons. Interestingly enough, I hear a lot more complaints about the library catalog from librarians than patrons. Sometimes it is about the catalog missing certain information that should be there for patrons. But many other times, it’s about how crowded the search results display looks. We actually all want a clean-looking, easy-to-navigate, and efficient-to-use library catalog. But of course, it is much easier to complain than to come up with an viable alternative.

Aaron Schmidt has recently put forth an alternative design for a library item record. In his blog post, he suggests a library catalog shifts its focus from the bibliographic information (or metadata if not a book) of a library item to a patron’s tasks performed in relation to the library item so that the catalog functions more as “a tool that prioritizes helping people accomplish their tasks, whereby bibliographic data exists quietly in the background and is exposed only when useful.” This is a great point. Throwing all the information at once to a user only overwhelms her/him. Schmidt’s sketch provides a good starting point to rethink how to design the library catalog’s search results display.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 1.34.08 PM

From the blog post, “Catalog Design” by Aaron Schmidt

B. Thinking about Alternative Display Design

The example above is, of course, too simple to apply to the library catalog of an academic library straight away. For an usual academic library patron to determine whether s/he wants to either check out or reserve the item, s/he is likely to need a little more information than the book title, the author, and the book image. For example, students who look for textbooks, the edition information as well as the year of publication are important. But I take it that Schmidt’s point was to encourage more librarians to think about alternative designs for the library catalog rather than simply compare what is available and pick what seems to be the best among those.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 1.44.36 PM

Florida International University Library Catalog – Discovery layer, Mango, provided by Florida Virtual Campus

Granted that there may be limitations in how much we can customize the search results display of a library catalog. But that is not a reason to stop thinking about what the optimal display design would be for the library catalog search results. Sketching alternatives can be in itself a good exercise in evaluating the usability of an information system even if not all of your design can be implemented.

Furthermore, more and more libraries are implementing a discovery layer over their library catalogs, which provides much more room to customize the display of search results than the traditional library catalog. Open source discovery systems such as Blacklight or VuFind provides great flexibility in customizing the search results display. Even proprietary discovery products such as Primo, EDS, Summon offer a level of customization by the libraries.

Below, I will discuss some principles to follow in sketching alternative designs for search results in a library catalog, present some of my own sketches, and show other examples implemented by other libraries or websites.

C. Principles

So, if we want to improve the item record summary display to be more user-friendly, where can we start and what kind of principles should we follow? These are the principles that I followed in coming up with my own design:

  • De-clutter.
  • Reveal just enough information that is essential to determine the next action.
  • Highlight the next action.
  • Shorten texts.

These are not new principles. They are widely discussed and followed by many web designers including librarians who participate in their libraries’ website re-design. But we rarely apply these to the library catalog because we think that the catalog is somehow beyond our control. This is not necessarily the case, however. Many libraries implement discovery layers to give a completely different and improved look from that of their ILS-es’ default display.

Creating a satisfactory design on one’s own instead of simply pointing out what doesn’t work or look good in existing designs is surprisingly hard but also a refreshing challenge. It also brings about the positive shift of focus in thinking about a library catalog from “What is the problem in the catalog?” to “What is a problem and what can we change to solve the problem?”

Below I will show my own sketches for an item record summary view for the library catalog search results. These are clearly a combination of many other designs that I found inspiring in other library catalogs. (I will provide the source of those elements later in this post.) I tried to mix and revise them so that the result would follow those four principles above as closely as possible. Check them out and also try creating your own sketches. (I used Photoshop for creating my sketches.)

D. My Own Sketches

Here is the basic book record summary view. What I tried to do here is giving just enough information for the next action but not more than that: title, author, type, year, publisher, number of library copies and holds. The next action for a patron is to check the item out. On the other hand, undecided patrons will click the title to see the detailed item record or have the detailed item record to be texted, printed, e-mailed, or to be used in other ways.

(1) A book item record

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.46.38 PM

This is a record of a book that has an available copy to check out. Only when a patron decides to check out the item, the next set of information relevant to that action – the item location and the call number – is shown.

(2) With the check-out button clicked

check out box open

If no copy is available for check-out, the best way to display the item is to signal that check-out is not possible and to highlight an alternative action. You can either do this by graying out the check-out button or by hiding the button itself.

Many assume that adding more information would automatically increase the usability of a website. While there are cases in which this could be true, often a better option is to reveal information only when it is relevant.

I decided to gray out the check-out button when there is no available copy and display the reserve button, so that patrons can place a hold. Information about how many copies the library has and how many holds are placed (“1 hold / 1 copy”) would help a patron to decide if they want to reserve the book or not.

(3) A book item record when check-out is not available

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.34.54 PM

I also sketched two other records: one for an e-Book without the cover image and the other with the cover image. Since the appropriate action in this case is reading online, a different button is shown. You may place the ‘Requires Login’ text or simply omit it because most patrons will understand that they will have to log in to read a library e-book and also the read-online button will itself prompt log in once clicked anyway.

(4) An e-book item record without a book cover

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.35.54 PM

(5) An e-book item record with a book cover

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.48.33 PM

(6) When the ‘Read Online’ button is clicked, an e-book item record with multiple links/providers

When there are multiple options for one electronic resource, those options can be presented in a similar way in which multiple copies of a physical book are shown.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.35.22 PM

(6) A downloadable e-book item record

For a downloadable resource, changing the name of the button to ‘download’ is much more informative.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.35.13 PM

(7) An e-journal item record

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.47.31 PM

(7) When the ‘Read Online’ button is clicked, an e-journal item record with multiple links/providers

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.41.56 PM

E. Inspirations

Needless to say, I did not come up with my sketches from scratch. Here are the library catalogs whose item record summary view inspired me.

torontopublic

Toronto Public Library catalog has an excellent item record summary view, which I used as a base for my own sketches. It provides just enough information for the summary view. The title is hyperlinked to the detailed item record, and the summary view displays the material type and the year in bod for emphasis. The big green button also clearly shows the next action to take. It also does away with unnecessary labels that are common in library catalog such as ‘Author:’ ‘Published:’ ‘Location:’ ‘Link:.’

User Experience Designer Ryan Feely, who worked on Toronto Public Library’s catalog search interface, pointed out the difference between a link and an action in his 2009 presentation “Toronto Public Library Website User Experience Results and Recommendations.” Actions need to be highlighted as a button or in some similar design to stand out to users (slide 65). And ideally, only the actions available for a given item should be displayed.

Another good point which Feely makes (slide 24) is that an icon is often the center of attention and so a different icon should be used to signify different type of materials such as a DVD or an e-Journal. Below are the icons that Toronto Public Library uses for various types of library materials that do not have unique item images. These are much more informative than the common “No image available” icon.

eAudiobooke-journal eMusic

vinyl VHS eVideo

University of Toronto Libraries has recently redesigned their library catalog to be completely responsive. Their item record summary view in the catalog is brief and clear. Each record in the summary view also uses a red and a green icon that helps patrons to determine the availability of an item quickly. The icons for citing, printing, e-mailing, or texting the item record that often show up in the catalog are hidden in the options icon at the bottom right corner. When the mouse hovers over, a variety of choices appear.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 4.45.33 PM

univtoronto

Richland Library’s catalog displays library items in a grid as a default, which makes the catalog more closely resemble an online bookstore or shopping website. Patrons can also change the view to have more details shown with or without the item image. The item record summary view in the default grid view is brief and to the point. The main type of patron action, such as Hold or Download, is clearly differentiated from other links as an orange button.

richland

Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 8.33.46 PM

Standford University Library offers a grid view (although not as the default like Richland Library). The grid view is very succinct with the item title, call number, availability information in the form of a green checkmark, and the item location.

Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 8.37.37 PM

What is interesting about Stanford University Library catalog (using Blacklight) is that when a patron hovers its mouse over an item in the grid view, the item image displays the preview link. And when clicked, a more detailed information is shown as an overlay.

Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 8.37.58 PM

Brigham Young University completely customized the user interface of the Primo product from ExLibris.

byu

And University of Michigan Library customized the search result display of the Summon product from SerialsSolutions.

Screen Shot 2013-10-14 at 11.16.49 PM

Here are some other item record summary views that are also fairly straightforward and uncluttered but can be improved further.

Sacramento Public Library uses the open source discovery system, VuFind, with little customization.

dcpl

I have not done an extensive survey of library catalogs to see which one has the best item record summary view. But it seemed to me that in general academic libraries are more likely to provide more information than necessary in the item record summary view and also to require patrons to click a link instead of displaying relevant information right away. For example, the ‘Check availability’ link that is shown in many library catalogs is better when it is replaced by the actual availability status of ‘available’ or ‘checked out.’ Similarly, the ‘Full-text online’ or ‘Available online’ link may be clearer with an button titled ‘Read online’ or ‘Access online.’

F. Challenges and Strategies

The biggest challenge in designing the item record summary view is to strike the balance between too little information and too much information about the item. Too little information will require patrons to review the detailed item record just to identify if the item is the one they are looking for or not.

Since librarians know many features of the library catalog, they tend to err on the side of throwing all available features into the item record summary view. But too much information not only overwhelms patrons and but also makes it hard for them to locate the most relevant information at that stage and to identify the next available action. Any information irrelevant to a given task is no more than noise to a patron.

This is not a problem unique to a library catalog but generally applicable to any system that displays search results. In their book, Designing the Search Experience , Tony Russell-Rose and Tyler Tate describes this as achieving ‘the optimal level of detail.’ (p.130)

Useful strategies for achieving the optimal level of detail for the item summary view in the case of the library catalog include:

  • Removing all unnecessary labels
  • Using appropriate visual cues to make the record less text-heavy
  • Highlighting next logical action(s) and information relevant to that action
  • Systematically guiding a patron to the actions that are relevant to a given item and her/his task in hand

Large online shopping websites, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and eBay all make a good use of these strategies. There are no labels such as ‘price,’ ‘shipping,’ ‘review,’ etc. Amazon highlights the price and the user reviews most since those are the two most deciding factors for consumers in their browsing stage. Amazon only offers enough information for a shopper to determine if s/he is further interested in purchasing the item. So there is not even the Buy button in the summary view. Once a shopper clicks the item title link and views the detailed item record, then the buying options and the ‘Add to Cart’ button are displayed prominently.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 1.21.15 PM

Barnes & Noble’s default display for search results is the grid view, and the item record summary view offers only the most essential information – the item title, material type, price, and the user ratings.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 1.24.05 PM

eBay’s item record summary view also offers only the most essential information, the highest bid and the time left, while people are browsing the site deciding whether to check out the item in further detail or not.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 1.28.47 PM

G. More Things to Consider

An item record summary view, which we have discussed so far, is surely the main part of the search results page. But it is only a small part of the search results display and even a smaller part of the library catalog. Optimizing the search results page, for example, entails not just re-designing the item record summary view but choosing and designing many other elements of the page such as organizing the filtering options on the left and deciding on the default and optional views. Determining the content and the display of the detailed item record is another big part of creating a user-friendly library catalog. If you are interested in this topic, Tony Russell-Rose and Tyler Tate’s book Designing the Search Experience (2013) provides an excellent overview.

Librarians are professionals trained in many uses of a searchable database, a known item search, exploring and browsing, a search with incomplete details, compiling a set of search results, locating a certain type of items only by location, type, subject, etc. But since our work is also on the operation side of a library, we often make the mistake of regarding the library catalog as one huge inventory system that should hold and display all the acquisition, cataloging, and holdings information data of the library collection. But library patrons are rarely interested in seeing such data. They are interested in identifying relevant library items and using them. All the other information is simply a guide to achieving this ultimate goal, and the library catalog is another tool in their many toolboxes.

Online shopping sites optimize their catalog to make purchase as efficient and simple as possible. Both libraries and online shopping sites share the common interests of guiding the users to one ultimate task – identifying an appropriate item for the final borrowing or access/purchase. For creating user-oriented library catalog sketches, it is helpful to check out how non-library websites are displaying their search results as well.

Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 9.52.27 PM

music

themes

Once you start looking other examples, you will realize that there are very many ways to display search results and you will soon want to sketch your own alternative design for the search results display in the library catalog and the discovery system. What do you think would be the level of optimum detail for library items in the library catalog or the discovery interface?

Further Reading

 

 

Suzanne Briet’s Document Antelop in Celebration of Ada Lovelace Day

**This is part of the blog bomb that all the librarians at LibTechWomen planned and I am excited to participate. : )  Find more posts celebrating Briet today in Twitter with #briet**

Ada Lovelace from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ada_Lovelace_portrait.jpg)

Ada Lovelace from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ada_Lovelace_portrait.jpg)

 

In celebration of Ada Lovelace Day, I am posting this short blog post on a female librarian, Suzanne Briet, the author of “Qu’est-ce que la documentation? (What is Documentation?). For those who do not know Ada Lovelace, she was ‘the world’s first computer programmer, and the first person to realise that a general purpose computing machine such as Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine could do more than just calculate large tables of numbers.’

Getting back to Briet, in her manifesto published in 1951, she argued that the antelope in the wild is not a document but the antelope in the zoo is. If you ever hear “Is the antelope a document or not?,” now you know that the antelope example comes from Briet’s manifesto.

Unfortunately, this idea of the document antelope was often wrongly attributed to Michael Buckland, a professor at the School of Information, University of California, Berkeley, who actually introduced Briet to many students in library and information science.

About Suzanne Briet’s manifesto, Michael Buckland wrote:

In her manifesto, “What is Documentation?” Briet argued that the scope of Documentation extended beyond text to evidence and she defined “document” as any material form of evidence.
(Source: http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~buckland/briet.html)

According to Briet, the antelope in the zoo was a document just as much as the stone in the museum or the photo of the star in the sky.

For more information, see:

Happy Ada Lovelace Day, everyone!