Monday, October 20, 2008

LITA Forum 2008, part 1

I attended my first LITA Forum this past weekend, which was held in Cincinnati, OH, and found it to be an enriching and rewarding experience. While others will comment on the keynote presentation, I would like to launch straight into the concurrent sessions I attended. During the second concurrent session, Jean Rainwater and Bonnie Buzzell from Brown University talked about the challenges involved in borrowing materials not located in their own collections. In “Don’t Make Me Choose! (or, Just Get What I Need!),” they showed how it took 33 clicks to borrow an item from another library within the multiple consortia they belong to, which is 9-10 times the number of clicks the typical user will put up with. Rather than waiting for vendors to come up with a solution, they decided to develop one in-house, even if it was only a partial solution. When a new University Librarian (i.e., head of the library) was hired, this person made simplifying the borrowing process a priority, and put together a team with different, complementary skill sets to do the job.
The “guiding principles” for this project were that the system they developed had to be:
  1. Simplicity for the user.
  2. Work with what is.
  3. Release early and often.
  4. Expect change.
They called their system “easyBorrow,” and used WorldCat as their starting point for acquiring materials not in the collection. They placed a simple search box on the page that pops up when a search returns zero results, with three-step instructions on how to proceed. As they moved through the system, it did require an extra authentication step, but in the end, it took only 10 clicks to borrow the same item from the same source. It required a combination of open source tools (Java, Tomcat, Python, Django, PHP, MySQL), APIs and system components to do so, and resulted in a marked increase in ILL requests and user satisfaction.
In a time of shrinking budgets and other resources, this project clearly demonstrates the value of agile software development, and having the staff available to make this happen. Commercial software companies, despite devoting enormous resources and funds to design and development of library systems, cannot keep up with the changing and evolving needs of patrons. Libraries need effective teams with a complementary skill sets to “stitch together” disparate systems to make serving the public more efficient and effective. The presenters used a quilt analogy in presenting this topic, and it rings true: libraries have a patchwork of different services and systems, which will be more immediately and effectively utilized when someone can sew them together, a few squares at a time, into a coherent whole, instead of waiting for a vendor to assemble the machinery to turn out a software “blanket” system.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Thoughts on Quality Management & Contol

Stories in the media about toxic chemicals in toothpaste, and lead in the paint on children's toys highlights the ongoing importance of quality control. Producing an online database, and the software to interact with it (as in a project for my Systems Analysis and Design class) probably will not affect the health and safety of the users, but it still needs to be a quality product. One of the most critical aspects of quality control when creating online systems is the protection of personal data. Searching the LexisNexis database using the term "identity theft" generated 999 results. Titles included "To Fight Identity Theft, a Call for Banks to Disclose All Incidents," "The Identity Theft Scare," "Employers joining identity theft battle; But many unconvinced job-related assistance outweighs the added work," and "A Banner Year for Identity Theft; 2006 was a banner year for identity theft - at least it was for me." The ease with which a tech-savvy individual can steal information gives me pause in this assignment. Pioneers in "quality management" such as Deming, Juran, Crosby, Ishikawa, Kaplan and Norton have given us a solid foundation of principles and standards on which to build. But the fluid, changing nature of electronic systems, and the security weaknesses that result from these changes, has dramatically increased the importance of having an ongoing quality control process. From a tech librarian's perspective, I wonder how many vendors that build integrated library systems (ILS) have someone on staff to attempt to hack into their systems as they are being developed, checking security.

On a more local note, the system I am prototyping has to be of a certain quality to be accepted and used. In addition to protecting private data, it must be useable and maintainable by non-techies, since my work on the project will end upon graduation. Reliability and usability are the most critical aspects I face in its development. My boss, the Principle Investigator, has a reputation of being able to crash any system you ask her to test. If she is interested in having me develop the system beyond the prototype stage (which is all that is required for my class assignment), it will require careful definition of the end result, and many iterations to result in an acceptable product. I am reminded of a bumper sticker from one of my favorite catalogs, which reads: "Oh no, not another learning experience!"