Still here…

Sorry, I haven’t had much time to post recently. Focused on the regular pile of summer development projects… I have a few drafts on the go, so I hope to be able to share something soon!

(This post, while true and somewhat informative, is mostly for testing purposes.)

Changes: Organizational and personal

If I’ve been somewhat remiss in posting updates on the state of web services at the McGill Library it’s mostly because I’ve been too busy but also because of looming changes to how our department is organized. Last week, the new organizational structure was revealed to us, so I feel like this is as good a time as any to resume sharing my thoughts and experiences on web services at the Library.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll limit my discussion for now to how the changes impact me and my team. I’m assuming we’ll be sharing news of the new structure and roles publically at some time in the near future, so I’ll share a pointer to that info once it is available.

The short version of the change: (a) our department is now called Digital Initiatives, (b) the developers are now a separate unit within the department. (This doesn’t do justice to change, but is an overly concise summary of what has changed, at least from my perspective.)

Within the new structure, my title is Coordinator, User Experience and User Support. I’m responsible for both the user experience as well as the support of public and internal users across most of the Library’s systems. What this means in terms of concrete change is that in addition to the web services and I’ve been responsible for up to now, the scope of my responsibility extends to other online services such as the discovery layer. The main exception to this remains our ILS (Aleph) which is managed by another team. (I expect that I will work with this team on any UX work involving the Classic Catalogue, though.)

As mentioned previously, the two developers that were on my team are now part of a separate applications team. I expect that I will still work with them (and other developers, now) on my projects: they just won’t report to me. (Fortunately, I still have two people who report to me.)

The new structure came into effect last Wednesday, so while the structure and responsibilities have been put into place, a lot of work remains to be done to revise job descriptions of people on the various teams, and to determine how projects and operations will be managed in the new structure. In addition, aside from the ILS, we need to clarify who (aside from our AD) has overall responsibility of each of our systems (assuming we decide it is important to have individual responsibility for systems).

My immediate priorities have not changed. My high-priority projects remain (a) upgrading the Library’s web site to Drupal 7 (a.k.a. WMS 2014), (b) managing the decommissioning of our MetaLib and SFX services, and (c) implementing an intranet for the Library. Beyond that I think that most of my time in the near future will be spent adapting myself and my team to the new organizational structure.

As for how I feel about the changes, I’d say that overall I’m feeling optimistic but find the uncertainty around how we will coordinate projects and operations disconcerting. Although the new structure will give us more flexibility in how developer resources are assigned to projects, the amount of coordination required to move things forward is going to increase.¬†There are other potential benefits aside from increased flexibility. Having responsibility across all online services, for example, makes a lot more sense since it is how our users conceive and experience our online services: as one system. However, since I started at the Library three years ago I’ve been focused on leading my team through through an ever-growing pile of work, on getting things done, and so my first instinct is to evaluate the new structure from this perspective. We have a good team, though, and I know we will figure things out. I just hope it happens quickly!

Risks of using embeds in digital collection sites

This morning I read the news that Getty Images was going to start allowing people to use their images for free for non-commercial uses. This would be accomplished via an embed mechanism common on many other media sites where the sites provide some HTML code that you can paste into web pages or other online services. The code will retrieve the image from Getty’s servers whenever the web page / blog post / tweet / etc is viewed.

While certainly a useful feature and one that will make it a lot easier for people to share these photos legally, the use of embeds does raise an issue that I think librarians need to be aware of:

“Embeds from Twitter and YouTube are already a crucial part of the modern web, but they’ve also enabled a more advanced kind of link rot, as deleted tweets and videos leave holes in old blog posts. If the new embeds take off, becoming a standard for low-rent WordPress blogs, they’ll extend that webby decay to the images themselves. On an embed-powered web, a change in contracts could leave millions of posts with no lead image, or completely erase a post…”

This reminded me of a discussion I had earlier this week regarding the potential use of embeds in a future digital collection site. Specifically, one of the curators was interested in using TimelineJS to create and embed a timeline as supplemental content to the digital collection itself. The TimelineJS allows you to create a timeline on their site and then provides you with code that you can paste into your own web pages. That code retrieves your timeline from the TimelineJS web site and displays it in your own web page.

I can understand how this kind of functionality is attractive to librarians, since it allows you to provide enhanced content, integration, or functionality on your web site with very little effort. In addition, there no need to go through your likely-already-overtaxed systems group to implement the same functionality on the library’s own servers. You can just cut-and-paste and you are done!

In some cases, this approach makes complete sense, especially when you are dealing with information or content that is temporary or transitory. (Note: There are risks relating to security and privacy when embedding someone elses code on your web site. Do your homework!)

When we’re talking about digital collections, however, our timelines stretch out some. Most folks expect digital collections to be available for a long time, sometimes persisting as-is, sometime via a series of platform migrations. For me, if a curator invests their time in developing a timeline to accompany the digital collection, I want to make sure that timeline, like the digital objects that make up the collection, is available to visitors for as long as the site exists. If I use an embed to pull the timeline from another web service, there is a good chance that in 2, 5 10 years that the embed will fail resulting in an empty space on my digital collection site.

There are ways to mitigate against this problem. For TimelineJS we could grab the source code and run it off our own servers, but that requires time from the systems folks and becomes yet another web service that we are committing to run and maintain. In many other cases, setting up a local instance of the service isn’t even an option. At the very least, make sure that you have some sort of local copy of the content that you could use to recreate and/or replace the embed should you need to. For example, if we decided to embed a timeline using TimelineJS we’d want to try to grab a static image of the timeline as well as the source data the curator uploaded to Timeline JS to create it.

The ability to embed content and functionality from other services into your library’s web site can be an effective way enhancing your patrons user experience on the site, but remember that when it comes to building digital exhibits and collections we need make sure we don’t sacrifice long-term access and preservation requirements to our desire to just get things done.

Visits per hour

I was digging up some 2013 web stats for someone else and came up with two quick stats that might be of interest to some:

Averaged over the year (2013), our digital exhibit and collection sites saw around 100 visits per hour, while our main web site saw around 280 visits per hour.

Or if you prefer, digitization sites saw ~2,400 visits/day, while the web site saw ~6700 visits per day.

No idea how this compares to other places, but good to know if only as a benchmark.

Update on running iOS 7 on my iPhone 4 (A4)

If you have a first-generation iPhone 4 (i.e. running the A4 processor) and are considering upgrading to iOS 7 my recommendation would be to hold off until you have a new phone with the processing power to handle it.

After upgrading to iOS 7 after a few weeks ago, I can safely say that while the phone remains usable, it is a lot more sluggish even for basic operations. Sometimes the lag is barely noticeable, sometimes maddenly so.

It wasn’t too hard to get used to the changes in the interface, but I while the UI for iOS 7 is different, I’m not sure it is any better. Learning the new way of doing things felt like climbing a hill to get back to where I was. Except that everything is a bit slower.

So aside from getting to play with the new UI, in my opinion there is no upside to upgrading a first-gen iPhone 4 to iOS 7.

Update (Mar 10): This Ars Technica article takes a more detailed look at running iOS7 on an iPhone 4 and more or less jives with what I’ve experienced myself.

Running iOS 7 on an old iPhone 4

After putting it off for what seems like forever, I recently decided to give in to the nagging iTunes dialog box and upgrade my iPhone 4 to iOS 7.

I have a first-gen iPhone 4, meaning that it runs the older A4 processor. I was already seeing performance issues as I updated my apps to versions designed to take advantage of the newest iPhone hardware Apple had to offer. Everything still worked, but the responsiveness left a lot to be desired.

In this scenario, upgrading to a new OS is probably the last thing one would normally do. Still, hope springs eternal, and after my research failed to turn up any horror stories, I decided that I had little to lose, so I went for it.

Short version: everything is fine.

Here are a few more details for others contemplating the same upgrade:

  • If you are running iOS 6.x on a first-gen iPhone 4, you are already used to somewhat sluggish performance. With iOS 7 I find my phone is slightly less responsive, but still very much usable.
  • The¬† changes to the iOS 7 UI have a much bigger impact on the usability of the phone than raw performance. The UI isn’t all that bad and I’m sure that I’ll eventually get used to it. First impressions though are that everything just feels kind of “off” and not what you would expect from using an Apple product.
  • Most if not all of the buttons in the UI are gone, replace with text and line-art icons. I seem to have problems ‘clicking’ on these elements, but I can’t tell if that is because the target size has moved or changed, or if the phone just isn’t responding fast enough to my gestures.
  • Battery power seems to drain off a bit faster, but it is still too early to say if this is a will become a major problem.

Those are my initial impressions. I’ll update this post if/when I experience any other issues that I think might be of use to others.



Slides: Harnessing new technologies to get things DONE

Here are the slides from the presentation Sarah Severson and I gave at CMD 2013 on Monday.

Here’s the short description from the program:

This session will showcase new technologies to help you get things done. Everything from online social spaces, to different tools to manage your own information, to tools that help make your presentations and reports look better ! Sarah and Ed will present tips and tricks that all professionals can use.

We also have a shared document that lists and links to all the tools in our presentation. (Google Docs)

Feel free to add in your own!

Google Search… now with ads!

This morning I noticed ads showing up in my Google search results, the first time I’ve seen any in a long time.

I say that it has been a while since I’ve seen ads like this because I’ve long used the Adblock Plus browser extension to remove ads from web sites that I visit. Now either this new ad format hasn’t been added to the Adblock filters or Google has found a way around them. Regardless, all that matters to me is that the top search results being returned by Google are now useless to me.

I was looking for information on how to make networking diagrams using the latest version of Visio, so am I interested in other network mapping tools? No, I’m not. Am I interested, for that matter, in a bunch of related images of networking diagrams? Nope. I’m interested in getting to the info Microsoft has published on the network diagramming features in Visio.

I’ve gotten used to the fact that the Google’s ability to source relevant information has been gradually declining. Blocking the ads on their site has been my way to help Google out, to try to salvage some use out of their search tool. Forcing me to view their crappy ads does little to further endear me to their search product, and everything to make me consider developing new search habits.

Update – Nov 19, 2013: It appears that these ads qualify as acceptable advertizing that adblock agreed to let through their filters. Fortunately, you can turn this off in the add-in options (look in the add-in settings for Adblock Plus and make sure that Filter preferences > Allow some non-intrusive advertizing option is turned off).


Searching for a print item

Following up on my previous post on using various tools to try to find a book published in the 1800s, I thought I would try a similar experiment and try another known-item search, this time to find a book that we have at the Library but that is not in the public domain.

I had to try a few titles before I hit upon one: Lave and Wenger’s Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation, published in 1991.

Again, I’ll start with a basic search in WorldCat, searching for “situated learning.” The book I’m looking for comes up second in the list.

Clicking through to the details page, I see that we have three copies at the Library, but that none of them are available (two are out on loan and one copy is missing).

I could click on the Request button here which would allow me to have the book recalled, which means that one of the people would get an email notice to return the book within a week or two instead of the original due date.

If the book was on the shelf, I would be able to retrieve it myself by noting the location (branch) and the call number, and then going to the branch and using the signage there to make my way to the book. Alternately, I could click on the Request button to have the book retrieved from the shelf and delivered to the branch of my choice. That process takes a bit longer (a day or two) but saves me from having to hunt for the book. It all depends on how urgently I need the book.

(Note: The recalling and retrieving functionality is actually provided by our Classic Catalogue, or more specifically, on Aleph, the integrated library system (ILS) that we use to run the Library. WorldCat relies on Aleph for all information and functionality relating to circulation.)

Repeating the same search in the Classic Catalogue, the book I’m interested in is at the bottom of the first page of results.

Here again I can see that we have three copies. While I know from experience that students are not always able at first to understand the information here to figure out if the book is available. For a student or user who knows how to use the Catalogue, though, it is fairly straightforward.

To access the recall/request functionality, I need to click on the location/holdings information.

Once advantage the Classic Catalogue has is that there is a Map icon that users can click on to see an interactive map that shows exactly where the book is located in that Library branch.

Now, if I search for ‘situated learning’ in Google, unsurprisingly all the results are pointing to information on the topic of situation learning, and not the book of that title.

Google does pull up what looks like a book as a sidebar item, but that only launches a new search with the complete title of the book. Regardless, most folks who are searching for a specific kind of thing with Google will choose the facet that interests them: images, videos, etc and in our case, we’re looking for a book, so we’ll just click on Books:

Here, the book I’m looking for is first in the results. Lets click through and see what we get:


Here, I have an online preview of the book, which is not the full book, but could still do in a pinch depending on what you are looking for. But let’s say I want the book. Well, Google was good enough to put a big, red GET PRINT BOOK button on the page, so let’s assume that most people are going to click that.


So I have a list of places where I can purchase a copy of the book, along with the price at each for comparison. Better yet, there is a link above this list that says “Find in a library”. Clicking that takes us to the WorldCat page for the item.


Actually, since I am currently on the McGill network, WorldCat detected that I was on the McGill network and offered to redirect me to the McGill-localized version of WorldCat, but I declined since I wanted to consider a ‘worst-case’ scenario where the patron was from McGill but not necessarily on the McGill network (i.e. not physically on campus or connecting through VPN). And although this is the generic WorldCat UI you can see that it provides a note that I am on the McGill Network and gives me links to McGill services that interlibrary loan as well as a link the book’s page in WorldCat Local (WCL) instance.

The WorldCat page (above) gives me a list of libraries that have copies of the book. The page appears to be location-aware: there is a postal code entered in the location box that isn’t my postal code, so I’m assuming it was provided by Google or by my browser… or maybe it is WorldCat that is somehow doing the lookup?

I’d need to do more research to figure out how my location is being determined, but at the moment all that is important is that I have a list of libraries that have the book and McGill is at the top of that list. Clicking on McGill University I’m taken to the Catalogue entry for the book, with all the benefits and potential confusion that that entails.


Still, you can see that here again Google works just fine for a known-item search, even if that item is a book only available in print format at the Library.


I didn’t try this last time, but let me see what happens when I use the Books facet in Google to find Ville-Marie, the Alfred Sandham book I was looking for last time. Searching again on ‘alfred sandham’ then clicking on books, Ville-Marie is second in the list. Clicking through, I’m taken to the same book display as we saw with Situated Learning.


The difference here is that since this book has been digitized and is in the public domain I can flip through it right there on the page or I can again click the big, red READ EBOOK button in the upper left-hand corner of the page to download a PDF or EPUB version of the book.

Actually, you see these options if you hover over the button. If you click the button the book gets added to your Books on Google Play. You can easily read the book on the screen, and if you click on My Books to get back to your list of all books, you can use the context menu on the each book cover to download PDF or EPUB versions.

However, if you have the Google Books app installed on your tablet or phone, the book you’ve added will show up there and with one more click to download you can read it.

So for public domain ebooks, the known item search in Google is pretty slick.


Now that I’ve tried looking for books in the public domain ebooks and now print books, next I will turn my attention to searching for restricted ebooks, that is, ebooks that the Library pays for and that can only be accessed by members of the McGill community.

…but that will have to wait for the next post!

Browser statistics: What a difference a year makes!

I came across a tweet this morning from a librarian who noted that 40% of their users are on Google Chrome. That number struck me as quite high, so I thought I would take a quick look at the usage statistics for the Library’s web site and see where we were at.

I also thought I’d compare it to last years numbers to get a sense of how things had shifted, if at all.

Browser Sept 2012 Sept 2013 Change
Internet Explorer 44% 38% -6%
Firefox 22% 20% -2%
Chrome 16% 23% +7%
Safari 16% 18% +2%

While we are no where near a 40% share for Chrome, Chrome has made the largest gain in our user base, to the point where it is now the second-most-used browser, usurping the long-held order of IE-Firefox-Chrome-Safari!

Again, this isn’t altogether surprising, although I would have expected Firefox to have gained a part of the share lost to IE. Still, it is interesting to note, if only to firmly establish Chrome as browser ascendant.