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Yesterday I attended the inaugural #citymash, a “Mashed Library unconference event” on various issues associated with libraries and technology at City University London. The event took place over a full day, with five slots featuring a choice of lectures, demonstrations and discussion sessions. I enjoyed the day immensely, and I feel that I gained new knowledge from each session that I attended. Perhaps what was most impressive was that some of them were led by my Library or Information Science coursemates, in addition to research students, academics and professional librarians. What follows is a brief review of each of the sessions that I attended.

UX for the WIN! (Andrew Preater and Karine Larose) Andrew and Karine, who both work at Imperial College London, gave a presentation on an ongoing project to improve the user experience (UX) of their library’s Online Public Access Catalogue (OPAC).  Imperial uses Primo, a widely-adopted discovery tool produced by Ex Libris, a company that specialises in library technology.  For this project, they conducted interviews of a sample of Imperial students, and used the principles of grounded theory to undertake open coding of the transcipts (supported by video recordings and screen captures of user interaction with the catalogue), in order to identify underlying and pertinent themes. The results of the research have indicated (unsurprisingly) that students prefer a library catalogue searching experience that is as quick and as “painless” (for example, that typographical errors are recognised and corrected, instead of returning no results) as possible, and that users prioritise information when selecting results from a multitude of options. The library team at Imperial are therefore redeveloping their OPAC over the summer to include an auto-complete function within the search bar, and to simplify its overall presentation. In the second half of the session, we were given the opportunity to put what we had been told into practice ourselves by listening to two of the student interviews and attempting our own open coding of their responses.  For me, what emerged was that although the two students selected were extremely different in many ways in terms of an overall search strategy, their underlying information needs remained the same, and accommodating a wide range of user preferences whilst retaining a simple, elegant front-end design must be a major challenge for any systems librarian.

Further resources:

Using Markdown and plain text (Daniel van Strien) For the second session of the event, my coursemate Daniel van Strien gave a presentation on text file formats—proprietary, plain and FOSS (free and open-source software). In day-to-day life, most people (including librarians) will probably use a proprietary file type such as a Microsoft Word document (doc) for word processing and text entry. The problem with these is that they are heavily encoded, and that the nature of the encoding tends to be altered with each new release of Microsoft Office, giving rise to the unwelcome situation whereby a old Word file that has not been opened for many years will become unopenable, as the encoding used to display it correctly rapidly becomes incompatible with later versions of the same programme. This problem can be avoided using plain text within an application such as Notepad, but then the text cannot be formatted at all, making it unsuitable for all but the most basic of uses. Forms of text encoding which are directly visible to the user, such as HTML and LaTeX, are more open to advanced typesetting and formatting, but are often too complicated for quick, general use. Daniel argued that we need documents that are sustainable, portable, translatable, human-readable, and gives the user version control, before presenting Markdown, developed by John Gruber with assistance from Aaron Swartz, as a potential solution. Markdown is a syntax for formatting plain text and also a software tool that automatically converts the formatted plain text into HTML, as the Dillinger Markdown online editor demonstrates. It is relatively simple to learn, yet allows for a range of formatting and typesetting options. When combined with a powerful conversion tool such as Pandoc, this allows the Markdown text file to be automatically converted into a huge variety of formats, including doc, pdf, epub, and LaTeX, potentially saving the time of people such as academic journal editors, who often receive submitted articles in one format and have to convert them manually into another. This session was particularly interesting to me as it highlighted a potential area of technical librarianship of which I was previously unaware. Further resources:

What about the Future? (James Atkinson) My third session of the day saw James Atkinson, another coursemate (and colleague at City University’s library), deliver a presentation on the futurology of the book and of libraries in general. As he covered such topics as Paul Otlet and the Memex, I even had a slight feeling of déjà-vu! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSyfZkVgasI Aside from a slightly different perspective on some familiar topics, James also went further back in time to discuss “The Victorian Walkman”, sharing a number of contemporary suggestions (many of them quite humorous) for what the recently-invented phonograph would be used for in the far-off days of the twentieth century. Going back further still, it is worth remembering that the book itself (codex) was also once a new technology that replaced the previous scroll format. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQHX-SjgQvQ For me, the highlight of the session was our division into groups to discuss our own thoughts on what could happen to libraries and information provision in the future. This produced a variety of stimulating responses, although many of them did tend towards the stranger areas of dystopian science-fiction! https://twitter.com/rddave/status/609722231812411392

Open-source implementation (Simon Barron) My choice for fourth session of the day was hosted by Simon Barron, an Analyst Programmer for the SOAS Library, which has recently made waves in the LIS world by becoming only the third university in the world (and the first in the United Kingdom) to implement an open-source Library Management System (LMS): Kuali OLE (Open Library Environment). He gave a detailed overview of how the system had been implemented, followed by the adrenaline-fuelled thrill of a live demo (as he joked on a number of occasions, “what could possibly go wrong?”). As the appearance system’s front-end OPAC implies, Kuali OLE has the same functionality as any proprietary LMS, but without the cost. Simon made the point, however, that choosing an open-source system was not due to cost savings, as the money saved was reinvested in hiring highly-skilled IT staff who could implement it well. I must admit that, with my arts and humanities background, most of the technical material in this session went over my head, but it was interesting to see the back-end of a LMS, going beyond the parts which I normally have access to as a library employee.

NSFW: Fanworks in the library (Ludi Price) My #citymash experience ended with a talk by City University PhD student, Ludi Price, on the information behaviour of fan communities, and how the lessons learned from researching these communities could influence library practices. She showed us fan-fiction websites such as Archive of Our Own to indicate that the dedicated fans of books, films, TV shows, games and so on who write their own creative works in the “universe” of the original are extremely organised, using highly granular levels of category to create a folksonomy—a collaborative creation and maintenance of tags to categorise content. Moreover, repositories of fan fiction habitually display statistics indicating how many times a particular work has been read, downloaded, voted on etc.—the equivalent of a library catalogue publicly displaying its circulation statistics for each item, and allowing users to rate and comment on every bibliographic record. Indeed, many public libraries now feature ratings, recommendations and reviews in their own catalogue records, and the “world’s largest book club”, LibraryThing is a social media platform based on the same principles.

As should be clear from these summaries, the sessions were diverse in nature, covering technical, historical, social and conceptual themes. The other sessions that took place during the event were as follows: