Volume 28, Number 2, Summer 2006


Mangaig Texas Digital Projects through Consortia and Collaboration

by Danielle Cunniff Plumer, Beverley Shirley, Kevin Marsh, and Michael Avila, Texas State Library and Archives Commission

According to Stephen Crane, “Every sin is the result of collaboration.” We are glad that this was not turned around so that, “Every collaboration results in sin.” If that were the case, our library cooperatives would be the most sinful places on earth! At the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC), valuable, innovative collaborations are being developed and sustained every day, every hour, every minute. We would like to describe the tricks we have learned for successfully managing digital projects and highlight some of our digital service: our TexShare statewide database program; our statewide metasearch tool, Library of Texas (LoT); the electronic archives for Texas documents, the Texas Records and Information Locator (TRAIL); and our new initiative for coordinated search and retrieval of digital collections, Texas Heritage Digitization Initiative (THDI).

Identifying Stakeholders

All project managers should recognize the importance of identifying and communicating with project stakeholders. The trick is to correctly identify all of the important stakeholders in a project.

Sometimes the program is conceptualized by stakeholder groups themselves. For example, TRAIL was first envisioned by the Texas Government Documents Round Table (Tx-GODORT) and presented to TSLAC as a resolution. Even more interesting has been the evolution of the THDI. THDI started as a grass roots confederation of libraries, archives, museums, and state agencies. In taking on a leadership role with this collaborative, TSLAC had to take a hard look at its mission and statutory authority, stretching and straining to address the needs of constituents new to our organization—the museum community.

For other projects, such as our LoT federated search tool, we conceptualized the project as a solution to a perceived need and then moved to identify the stakeholders who would be impacted by the service. When identifying stakeholder groups, consider a broad universe of potential users or participants. We originally believed the Texas Z39.50 implementers group would adequately represent key stakeholders for LoT. It soon became apparent that this expert group of cataloging and automated services librarians did not reflect the full scope of constituents who would be impacted by the search tool. It took a year-long program of outreach to a broad cross section of library staff –- increasing the representation to include library directors, reference librarians, interlibrary loan staff, training staff, and others –- before we had garnered enough buy-in to proceed with the project.

Project leaders must also remember the importance of monitoring stakeholder groups throughout the life of the project. As a project grows and changes, so will the numbers and types of stakeholders. In Texas, we’ve seen our statewide database service grow from separate programs for academic and public libraries to a single program that has expanded to include medical and school libraries.

Identifying Requirements

For any new project there will be a diverse set of ideas within the stakeholder community as to what features are important, which are desirable, and which should be avoided. Unless some consensus can be reached there will probably be some stakeholders whose needs are not met, and others who will be unwilling to participate due to unaddressed concerns. The consortial environment presents some particular challenges because instead of satisfying the needs of an individual customer, this sort of project must satisfy the needs of a large and possibly diverse set of organizations. A well-defined and widely accepted set of project requirements will give the development team a target to shoot for, making it far more likely that the project will be a success.

With a digital project that makes innovative use of information technology, we discovered that we had to first inform our stakeholders about available technologies before we could begin collecting meaningful input. When we asked, “What features would you like to see in a regional federated searching system?” we did not get usable results at first because our audience was not familiar with federated searching, had not considered how it might work on a regional scale, and did not know what technical capabilities were available in such a system. It might take some time, but sharing a vision of the possibilities for a new project through meetings, presentations, newsletter articles, and other methods will prepare stakeholders to have a more meaningful role in the development of project requirements.

The process of informing and educating stakeholders will lead to opportunities to collect their ideas and concerns. With LoT, we organized a number of focus groups around the state, facilitated by a consulting partner. The results of these focus groups were then analyzed and made available to stakeholders. We also used e-mail lists, discussion groups, and surveys to collect stakeholder input. Our partners at the University of North Texas documented the entire process of moving LoT from conception to functional requirements; their documentation is available online.

When the ideas and concerns have been collected, it is time to weigh and evaluate them. Some suggestions may be impractical, too costly, or beyond the scope of available technology. Others may be feasible but only offer value to a small part of the consortium. Some features may be strongly desired by some stakeholders while adamantly rejected by others; but more commonly it is a matter of taking each proposed requirement and seeing how many participants value it, how highly they value it, and what it will cost to implement. With this information, a project leader or project management team can make informed decisions and create an effective set of project requirements.

This collaborative approach to understanding project requirements doesn’t end with this first draft or with the initial project implementation. Unforeseen staff impacts or user behaviors are inevitable. New ideas will emerge and new expectations arise after the project goes into operation. New technologies will also become available, offering new possibilities for services. The process of sharing a vision, gathering ideas, weighing priorities, and implementing changes requires ongoing effort and is never really complete during the lifetime of the project. Formative evaluation to support mid-course corrections is ongoing.

Building the System

Once the functional requirements have been developed, it seems obvious and reasonable that system-building will begin. However, our experience with collaborative efforts is that systems are built at the stakeholder level before, during, and after the technology is developed.

TSLAC, along with a number of institutional partners around the state, is currently working to build the search interface for the THDI. Before we could even issue our request for proposal, the THDI coordinator visited twelve of our partner institutions, building support for the interface and particularly for the interoperability requirements that the partners had helped to identify. Because of the experimental nature of the project, partners will have to make changes, often substantial, to their existing databases and collections.

For example, TSLAC maintains a republic claims database of claims for payment, reimbursement, or restitution submitted by citizens to the Republic of Texas government from 1835 through 1846. This database runs on a proprietary system, does not use standard metadata, and cannot be extended to incorporate additional materials. To enable cross-searching of republic claims with other digital collections, adaptations will be required, particularly in recreating the database in an open-source database tool and adding an interface layer to translate database queries into a form our Z39.50 search engine will be able to understand.

We call this process of upgrading existing services to match the requirements of new systems “uplift,” a term originally used during the development of LoT. Uplift was defined as the process of enhancing a local library catalog so that it supports the standards and profiles required for interoperability, particularly in the area of Z39.50 server capability. The LoT Working Group developed an “uplift application form” for local libraries to complete. Each application for uplift was evaluated in terms of the value of the catalog to be included and the ease of enhancing the catalog using existing software and services.

LoT taught us many important lessons, including the fact that system building and development is never finished. Even after the initial search interface was deployed, work continued on major and minor enhancements in response to feedback from stakeholders and users of the system. In THDI, the post-deployment process will be formalized using an outcome-based evaluation model. We are working with stakeholders to identify the impacts they expect the system to have on users, primarily researchers, teachers, and students. As the system is developed and after the interface is deployed, we will be able to evaluate the extent to which our system provides the outcomes we identified as desirable. We can then modify the system as needed to improve user outcomes.

Maintaining and Growing

Once the digital program framework has been put in place, a plan for sustaining the project must be developed. Essential to the continuing success of the program is constant communication of the project’s benefits and uniqueness to stakeholders, end users, and underserved populations. It is never easy to sustain the relevance of the project in the minds of the library community, especially as so many online products and services vie for the limited time and budgets allowed to library managers and administrators. Without specific legislation allowing them to promote certain services, Texas state agencies are prohibited from expenditure of state money for marketing campaigns. However, state law does allow for the development of informational materials and communication avenues to inform others about our services.

A communication plan that specifies, among many other things, goals, measurable objectives, and market research is needed for the success of outreach efforts. We developed our communication plan in 2002, outlining specific strategies to be implemented between September 1, 2002, and August 31, 2003. In order to sustain and strengthen outreach strategies in the long-term and to coordinate the efforts of individual project working groups, a TexShare Communications Working Group (TCWG) was created. TCWG also functions as a body that can receive input on changing needs of the program so that controlled growth can occur in a way that meets the needs of members but doesn’t overwhelm any single member or segment of members.

Much of the working group’s efforts to date can be viewed online. A step-by-step marketing guide is being developed for libraries to organize their strategic challenges, market research, goals and objectives, and other areas relating to raising program awareness to internal and external audiences. Included in the workbook is the ongoing need for librarians to gather statistics and to continually evaluate user needs. The final workbook will be presented at the Texas Library Association’s 2006 Annual Conference in Houston, Texas.

Conclusions

Like any other programs, collaborative projects need to evolve or die. Managing collaborative projects is hard work, due to the number and variety of stakeholders involved and the logistical issues that arise when working with institutions, groups, and individuals who have no direct connection to an agency. A popular saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin notes that “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Collaborative and consortial programs must “hang together,” and that requires us to work continually with members and other stakeholders on developing strategies, discussing functional requirements and best practices, building consensus, and providing avenues to encourage informational outreach.