Where the rubber meets the road...

By Cindi Trainor |

...applying what I learned at Computers in Libraries 2009

Have you ever cleaned papers off your desk, only to find lurking at the very bottom that list of nifty ideas from that awesome conference you attended months ago? It's easy enough to report what was seen and heard at a conference; it’s more difficult to apply that knowledge and demonstrate its application. Life and work inertia typically get in the way, even at institutions that welcome new ideas. The Computers in Libraries 2009 conference was a month ago. Have I applied what I learned there? The answer, not surprisingly, is “yes and no.” Here is a brief summary of the takeaways from my favorite session at this year’s CIL—and what I have (or haven’t!) done with them.

"Free" as in "freedom"

Eric Lease Morgan kicked off the “Open Libraries” track with a talk defining open source software and elucidating what it takes for a library to support open source software. Morgan is a long-time advocate and user of open source software in libraries. The relatively recent open source movement in libraries is certainly growing, but as Morgan pointed out, open source is not new, nor is it particularly new in libraries. Many programs that comprise much of the internet—and, therefore, the backbone of the modern library—are open source, including sendmail and the web server Apache.

Eric Lease MorganMorgan began his talk by defining open source software. Many people associate open source with “free,” as in lack of a purchase price. “Free,” when used in reference to open source software should be equated with “freedom,” not price. This software, free as in “free speech,” is software with which we are free to do as we please. [1] We can download and install open source software; we can make changes to its code and contribute those changes for anyone to implement. While there is no initial cost for open source software itself, costs are incurred in the form of hardware, development, and expertise. What users of OSS get in trade for vendor development and support is a community of users and developers actively using and improving a software package.

After defining open source, Morgan outlined eight skills needed in libraries to implement and sustain open source projects on a larger scale than Apache or Firefox: collections, organization, preservation, public service, relational databases, XML, indexing, and programming. We librarians have the first four down pat; the final four are technological skills that not every library has on staff. In thinking how to apply this scheme to my own library, I find that we lack expertise with indexing software. Indexing is something that I think of as built into a piece of software.

Under the hood, however, indexing is more complicated than creating a relational database or adding a search box to a web page. Relational databases require an indexing application to make them searchable in today’s web environment. Without an indexing program such as Lucene or Sphinx that allows speedy searches of concatenated, disparate fields and data types, users are stuck searching specific fields formatted the way that the data was entered in the database. Think Google vs. OPAC. In Google, we search for william shakespeare; in an OPAC, we search for Shakespeare, William in Name: Personal (KPNC). In this light, it’s easy to see that so-called Next Generation Catalog interfaces are those that have implemented indexing in order to pull all appropriate MARC fields together in a single search, rather than forcing librarians and users to learn arcane field labels and Boolean operators.

See Morgan’s web site for a summary of his talk [PDF]. Kudos for an engaging talk completely free of PowerPoint slides. [2]

Tricking out Firefox

Jessamyn West

In her Open Source Browsers presentation, Jessamyn West deftly narrowed down the large array of free web browsers to two: familiar, friendly Firefox and SeaMonkey, the Internet suite formerly known as Netscape Communicator. Setting SeaMonkey aside, Jessamyn demonstrated several ways to make the web-browsing experience more efficient. Often search the same websites? Add Smart Keywords to Firefox, or add your favorite search boxes to Firefox’s search bar. Firefox extensions can help you do everything from banish ads to trick out your gMail to organize your browser history by day. Perhaps the most versatile extension is Greasemonkey, for which literally hundreds of scripts exist, enabling you to download YouTube videos or banish comments, change Facebook’s colors, hide time-wasting websites from yourself, and change flickr’s home page.

Jessamyn’s presentation inspired me to revisit and customize my browsing experience. I recently started using the gmail interface for my work email. Because it’s not possible, by default, to run simultaneously more than one instance of Firefox on a Mac, I’ve been unable to keep an eye on the gmail account that I use for committee work and other professional contacts. Doing this is easy enough in Windows, using icons that launch separate Firefox profiles, but the Mac solutions I found only taught me to create differing profiles, not how to launch them simultaneously. After a bit of digging around, I pieced together and posted a relatively easy way to get this done. I’ve been using two instances of Firefox—with different bookmarks, saved tabs and extensions—for several days now.

Kate SheehanA Gem from the Darien Roadshow

In the time since I've been home from CIL, the moment that has bounced around in my head most often was a quote from fellow TechSource blogger Kate Sheehan. During her part of “Innovation, Services and Practices,” she remarked “The chief export of our libraries is kindness.” It seems so obvious, so nostalgic—and distinctly low-tech—for a librarian to announce that we are, above all, kind to our patrons. Yet many people in our service industry, well, aren’t. I once heard a reference librarian refer to her stone-cold demeanor as “business-like.” An otherwise merry librarian, she probably would have been horrified to know that students thought her “mean.” In this age of snark and snipe, anonymous and named, a little kindness goes a long way, and I’m taking this one to heart.

Drupal one-on-one: where kindness and openness intersect

As Karen Coombs[3] wrote in her blog, she and I spent more than an hour in a hallway at CIL in conversation about the open source content management system, Drupal. Karen demonstrated some of what she’s developing at the University of Houston and answered all my painfully newbie questions quite patiently. Karen is wicked smart, and if I ever come to understand Drupal one-sixth as much as she does, I’ll count myself successful. I described the web-searchable image database  at my library, which was created on a Tomcat server and works with an Access database. Karen deftly explained several strategies for migrating to Drupal and improving it, including how to expand and standardize our metadata. We talked some about how to add and batch-process images using various Drupal modules and WordPress plug-ins; we did a little brainstorming on creating a home-grown electronic resources management (ERM) system; she enthused that LibGuides functionality could be replicated on a library’s own website using Drupal Panels and Views. Talking with Karen about Drupal is like drinking from a firehose—I could only nod and take copious notes that I hope mean something to me later.

These informal conversations with Karen have provided me with a list of modules to try, as well as an idea of the scope of what my library could truly do with Drupal, provided we plan it adequately and devote enough staff to it. I think I also have a better idea of just how complicated Drupal is, if it’s to be done right. This makes me think back on Eric Lease Morgan’s list of skills:

  1. Collections that are appropriate to be digitized sit all around us in libraries; the hard part is choosing what to do first and then prioritizing from there.
  2. Libraries have been applying principles of organization to our collections for centuries, but in order to thrive and survive, staff who work on organizing our collections have started thinking differently about those collections, to think outside the book, as it were. Conversely, it’s important for library technical staff to understand the history and principles of collection organization in libraries in order to help libraries move forward in this miscellaneous century.
  3. Preservation is a must; we don’t do enough of it collectively; and digital technologies change so quickly that preservation of digital items is a house of cards built on a sand dune, at best. Preservation awareness is an important part of every librarian’s toolkit. Preserving access to humanity’s information, as well as preserving the artifacts wherein that information is contained are long-accepted mantles of librarianship, and ones that we must not shrug off.
  4. Public Service is not merely satisfying information needs. Excellent public service comprises filling those needs and treating our users and each other with kindness.
  5. Relational Databases make up the backbone of any robust and dynamic website, and understanding database design and normalization is helpful to any librarian using Excel or Access to collect and organize information. [4]
  6. XML, from which springs the schemas to mark up and organize web pages, full texts, and just about any other data presented on the web.
  7. Familiarity with indexing software and expertise in  programming and scripting are the two skills that many libraries still lack on staff. Developing in these two areas allows a library to move from creating and maintaining a mostly out-of-the-box Drupal interface to designing and developing a Drupal digital repository of its own.


[1] Stallman, Richard. “The GNU Operating System and the Free Software Movement,” in Chris DeBona, Sam Ockman, and Mark Stone, eds., Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution. Sebastopol, Calif.: O’Reilly & Associates, 1999, p56

[2] See also the CoverItLive archive on Kathryn Greenhill’s blog for notes from most of the sessions in the open track.

[3] Alas, I do not yet have a portrait of Karen Coombs.

[4] Many thanks to Dr. Stan Hannah [PDF], who introduced me to RDBMS in library school.