Summon-ing the courage: JIBS user event

I was fortunate enough to be asked to talk at the JIBS User group event and AGM held at SOAS in London on Monday 25 February.

The whole day was fascinating, with many interesting presentations from institutions that had implemented a discovery system. I was worried that much of my content would have already been covered by the time I was due to speak, but even though the situations were similar, we all managed to present our stories with a unique voice. I was specifically asked to speak about cultural changes when implementing discovery systems. I touched on various aspects that I’ve spoken about before, but it was refreshing to be able to talk about the OPAC and its redundancy in the light of these systems. (My slide entitled NO-PAC was inspired, even if I do say so myself!). I was surprised when someone in the audience asked generally how many institutions had hidden or got rid of their OPAC and about 15 hands went up out of about 100 attendees. A surprising amount, and definitely a good start.


People have been discussing the problems with OPACs for a very, very long time. It’s surprising that we are still in a position where we actively promote it as a tool for students. If we get implementation of discovery systems correct, and if we make sure that’s backed up with the other systems, then the OPAC should never have to take centre stage. I’m not saying we’ve got this right at SHU yet, but we’re getting there. It’s a tool for advanced searchers and librarians. And that’s what it says on our library website:

Highlights from the day for me included Paul Stainthorp’s take on the little problems that become apparent during these sort of changes and Isla Kuhn’s take on Summon – a game of Two Halves. Adam Edwards‘ talk sounded really interesting, but I had a stinking cold and felt dizzy for a bit so missed most of it.


My slides from the day are available as a PDF.
I referred to our usability testing, which is based on the stonking work done by Matthew Reidsma over at GVSU.
JIBS have posted a lot of the presentations from the day on their slideshare page.

Context and the discovery journey

It’s hard to talk about specific examples of searches that “don’t work” in Summon, isn’t it? Firstly you’ve got the problem that a search in one institution’s implementation won’t match another’s. Secondly, and more worryingly, the examples we talk about are generally ones that we come up with, rather than ones our students bring to us. Specifically, those one word searches that don’t bring up what one expects.

For example, you could, if you wanted to, just search for Dementia in Summon, and for our implementation the first 5 results don’t look particularly useful. The first is from 1987.

Alternatively, you could compare this to Google – first three results are paid for ads, then wikipedia, then useful stuff aimed at general public from NHS.

Or let’s look at Google Scholar – first five results seem to look better, but again they are old! 1968, 1982, 1950.

I think what’s missing from this conversation is the context that students place on their search terms when they start using Summon. Students are rarely, if ever, given one word assignments. They will be told to concentrate on the effects of dementia, or the treatment of dementia.

Additionally, now that we have Summon, we’ve more time for concentrating on identifying search terms and alternative words in our information literacy teaching.

It’s not that scientific, but I asked a couple of students what exactly they would search for it they needed to look for dementia.They both replied that it would depend on what the assignment was, but would start with dementia, and then add stuff like treatment, diagnosis, symptoms etc.

We also know that the number of students that actually only use one search term is low. Stats from Huddersfield pin this to around 8%.

One word searches are not useful to demonstrate positives or negatives of Summon or its relevancy ranking or its ability to link (or not link) to other material. But we need more conversation about the context within which students search in Summon and web-scale discovery.

Summon and Information Literacy webinar

So last week I spoke at a Serial Solution webinar on Summon and its impact on information literacy at Sheffield Hallam. The talk I gave was a mash up of a talk I gave with my colleague Angie at the IFLA satellite conference, a talk I gave at the M-Library conference, the talk I gave at the July 2012 Summon Information Literacy event and a sprinkling of some other things I’ve been thinking about.

I really, really, really, wanted to get across what a change Summon has made to our information literacy teaching, but that it was only possible to embed that change in our teaching when we presented Summon within a clear to understand, easy to navigate interface. I think I managed to explain why we’d made the choices we have. And there was certainly some interest in how we designed the library website. There were some technical issues, but it worked out fine in the end.

Sidenote> It’s fascinating doing a webinar when you are used to speaking in front of a crowd of people! I started sat down, talking into the phone, but I found myself sounding really flat. I ended up standing up and pacing around the room as far as the phone line would allow me to. There were some excellent, tough questions at the end, which I should’ve prepared more for, but I answered them honestly.


The webinar is available on the Serial Solutions site, although I haven’t listened to it, so I’m not sure whether the technical issues are left in.

I referenced many, many useful things including

Matt Reidsma
Twitter Bootstrap

The slides are also available


About 18 months ago, toward the end of 2010, we started to look at implementations of discovery systems. We had already decided to move from federated search to a discovery platform (best. decison. ever.) and were keen to see what others were doing.

Eventually we decided on Serials Solutions’ Summon, loaded it with our catalogue holdings and began a closed beta trial. Feedback came swiftly from the academic librarians. They suggested that their searches were producing odd and unexpected results. This was worrying as we knew that other institutions had reported benefits such as a large increase in full text downloads. Not good. These were the guys that had to be our proponents of the system to the wider university community. If we couldn’t convince them, then we were going to struggle.

Chilax dude!

So I went to a meditation session… and stumbled upon a concept that, for me at least, began to explain some of the unexpected results. Shoshin or “beginner’s mind” comes from the dichotomy that exists between the beginner’s and the expert’s mind. It is taken from Zen Buddhism and was made popular by Shunryu Suzuki (a Zen master) in his 1970 book “Zen Mind, Beginners Mind” in which he suggests:

“The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities.”

do NOT do that, AND instead do this OR it won’t work

When I applied this concept to the way I was testing the web-scale discovery system it became apparent why my results were dissatisfying. My colleagues and I had been using hyper stylised searches, throwing in all the boolean that we could muster. Once I began to move away from the expert approach and treated Summon as I thought our first year undergrads might use it, and spent more time refining my results, then the experience was much more meaningful. Connections between search terms and results were more obvious. I started thinking that the expert mind focuses on the content, the beginner mind focuses on how the content is experienced. We need to worry much more about the second category. As Suzuki himself suggests:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Which leads me on to the free Information Literacy and Summon event that Sheffield Hallam are hosting on July 18th – come and learn all about Summon, information literacy and Shoshin! Interested? Here are some more details and a booking form.

Mobile technologies in libraries : information sharing event

Today I gave a talk at the Mobile technologies in libraries : information sharing event on “Creating a separate mobile library gateway with a framework called iUI – and why I wouldn’t do it again” (which I attempted to acronymise as “CASMLGWAFCiUIAWIWDIA”, but I don’t think it caught on).

As promised, the slides and the resources I mentioned are below.

What I forgot to mention was that having an in-house style guide can go some way to helping with all of this. Using the same framework across a number of pages of your site can help with navigation, and just keeps it all looking wonderful.

There are some examples of style guides out there – but I think it’s wonderful to have a look at the work that Starbucks do – so I’ve linked to their style guide below.

Thanks to @ostephens and @joeyanne for letting me talk!


The slides


Where are the beautifully designed interfaces?

I recently tweeted (rather inelegantly over two separatetweets,) that;

using web-scale discovery means a move away from interfaces designed by and for librarians…

…to a model of beautifully designed screens that will create simple user interactions

Matthew Reidsma replied asking the very pertinent question:

“Where are these beautifully designed web-scale discovery UIs?”

I was being aspirational, rather than thinking of actual examples. But the facetious part of me wanted to immediately reply with: and

But the question deserves more thought than that. I was specifically thinking about how web-scale discovery fits in with library websites, not how the discovery service presents results (although Summon doesn’t do a bad job). However, I can’t find any examples of beautifully designed user interfaces that combine web-scale discovery with the library website. Aaron Schmidt suggests that

Ideally, there would be no visual distinction between your library website and catalogue

And this is almost getting us to the crux of the problem. The examples I was looking for were one page designs that incorporated web-scale discovery as if it’s just an extension of the library, rather than another place one needs to visit.

There are good library websites out there – I’d include GVSU and to an extent our own Library Gateway (although I’m well aware of the problems we have). And these sites go someway toward the UI I was aspirationally musing about. But there are no beautiful UI designs that fit in with using web-scale discovery. (Although I do recognise that “beautiful” is a very subjective term.)


The problem is that there are far too many external influences on what needs to be on the library website. Matthew Reidsma covers most of these in his excellent talk Your library website sucks, and it’s your fault. Essentially, it boils down to some politics about who wants to put stuff there from outside the library (Marketing, we’re looking at you) and internal pressure to include stuff that librarians think users need (all librarians, we’re looking at you.)

It’s the second one that I’m more concerned about. For me, the most important tool on the library website is our web-scale discovery system – we use Summon from Serials Solutions (which we call Library Search at Sheffield Hallam). That’s why I’ve placed it in a massive box at the top of the screen. Other stuff can, and will disappear beneath “the fold” and that doesn’t worry me too much. Web-scale discovery tools are so astonishingly important to the academic library and the future of research, that it really deserves top billing on any site. It’s such a simple three stage process of:

  1. search
  2. refine
  3. get

that it really belongs on its own page, with no other distractions! A powerful tool for students, academics and librarians alike. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that it’s the most important tool in the academic librarian’s arsenal.

Great power…

But, to paraphrase one of the classics:

With great library power comes great librarian responsiblity.

Yes, you can use boolean with these tools. It’s just that you don’t really need to. You can use advanced search, but I’m doubtful it will be beneficial to your first and second years. You can create scoped searches, but your students might be missing out on lots of useful, relevant material.

Web-scale discovery changes the way we do a whole load of stuff that academic librarians have been doing for a very, very long time. And that’s OK. But we need to respond appropriately. Being passionate about our resources is something that we can still do, whilst ensuring that we build an support structure around these tools. And by support structure, I mean appropriate support, delivered in a useful way.

There is a ton of stuff available that we can leverage in this quest; frameworks, pattern libraries, usability testing. But primarily, we need to place our trust in these tools and be passionate about them.

If we ensure that our web-scale discovery resources are given the prominence they deserve on our library websites, the beautiful user experiences will come naturally.

Internet Explorer 6 and library web pages.

I mentioned recently that we needed to think about IE6 when designing and creating library web pages. There is an assertion that this is ridiculous, and we need to move away from catering to a browser that’s over ten years old. However, I think we in HE (and probably lots of other areas) need to pay careful consideration, and that our users have particular needs that have to be addressed.

Google Analytics tells us that in Feb 2012, we had 258,000 visits to the library websites. Of this amount, only 0.4% of visits used IE6. So that sounds good, right? Only 0.4% actually equates to around 1,000 visits! (plus six visits from a machine running IE 4!)

Microsoft pegs worldwide, overall use of IE6 to around 7 IE6 Countdown but this figure is slightly swayed by the circa 23% figure from China. We have students studying in China, so I figured this was probably what made our figures higher than I expected.




However, analytics is clever in that it will let us know additional details, so we can check what browser against the doman that people are coming from, and we see that a large portion of these visits are coming from – i.e. students working on placement. There’s no way we can abandon these guys! But also zero chance of us being able to influence hospitals into upgrading their machines. I’ll stick a message on the new website asking people using IE6 to consider upgrading, and we might catch a few, but in the meantime we have to keep using workarounds to accomodate these page views.


Library website refresh.

We’re committed to getting a refreshed, slightly redesigned Library Gateway out there in time for returning students. Sometimes that feels like it is beginning of October, but then you remember that the Education students start in September, and we need to prepare teaching material. So it actually needs to be ready by August. <gulp>.

There are a few reasons why we’re dissatisfied with the current Library Gateway (60 links!!), which effectively acts as our library website. There are a tone of interesting people writing useful and knowledgeable stuff about library websites and design at the moment, and we’re hoping to capture some of that expertise in our refresh.

Initially, we’ve been looking at new tools, and revisiting tools that we’ve not used for a while. We’ve been doing a series of usability testing, based largely on the work that Matt Reidsma has carried out at Grand Valley State University. Usability testing is awesome! We’ve found out so much from the first few that we’ve done.

We’re trying to follow Matthew’s advice and do this monthly. We don’t have people watching the tests as they happen, but we will present something at our next seminar. I think the chellenge here for us is to make sure that we make gradual, iterative changes, rather than a fully fledged redesign. Oh, and politics!

We’ve also been using Google Analytics and ClickTale. ClickTale allows us to see where people are clicking on the Gateway, and we use analytics primarily to see what tech people are using to get to the Gateway – operating system, screen resolution and browser type and version. This has been really useful recently. We need to migrate from the template we used for the initial version of the Gateway, and I have been exploring other options. I was quite far down the line in researching one option, when I realised that it wouldn’t support IE6. Never mind! I thought. No one is really using IE6 anymore. Even Microsoft have a campaign to stop people using IE6! However, we’re in a position where we simply can’t ignore that some of our users are still on IE6, so have to make accommodations.

The University is also undergoing a brand refresh at the moment – so we’ll have to accommodate that in the next version.

At the same time, we’re also working on an updated version of re: Search, our online information literacy tool, and I need to update the mobile optimised version of the Library Gateway (it still lacks a “view desktop” mode and doesn’t work on Windows phone 7 OS).

LIbrary Gateway with notes