Falling in love (with libraries)

I’ve just come from the Library, having been invited to join colleagues in a day long strategy workshop, led by a nice bloke called Ken Chad. Throughout the day, we discussed library users’ needs, took a pragmatic view in assessing the work to be done, looked at the barriers we face and some potential solutions. One of the contributions I made was around the benefits of getting to know the users of our Library better and using that knowledge to further improve our library services. There’s nothing remarkable about that. What got me thinking throughout the day was a brief discussion about the role of surveys in soliciting feedback on the services we provide. It got me thinking about some reading I’ve been doing recently around ‘resilience theory’ and a key component of resilience theory is learning from feedback so as to adapt and survive. Resilience theory is a branch of the ecological sciences that “emphasizes non-linear dynamics, thresholds, uncertainty and surprise, how periods of gradual change interplay with periods of rapid change and how such dynamics interact across temporal and spatial scales” (Folke 2006). Folke lists the attributes of a resilient social-ecological system as:

  1. the amount of disturbance a system can absorb and still remain within the same state or domain of attraction,
  2. the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization (versus lack of organization, or organization forced by external factors), and
  3. the degree to which the system can build and increase the capacity for learning and adaptation.

It’s the last point that interests me here. That is, the degree to which something has the capacity to learn and adapt. So, resilience theory is a theory of learning, adaptation and change. It’s not a theory of preservation but rather one of sustainability. Hopkins (2008) has likewise summarised the ‘ingredients’ of resilient systems as:

  1. Diversity
  2. Modularity
  3. Tightness of feedbacks

I think resilience theory is a theory which can be usefully applied to eco-systems, single organisms, individuals, even library systems. Anything that has an interest in longevity or sustainability in the face of inevitable change. So it seems to me that the use of surveys is an implicit admittance of failure in terms of knowing the people who you are surveying.

In our relationships we don’t issue quarterly or annual surveys to find out what people think about us. As I said in the workshop, I’ve never surveyed my wife. I listen to her, I get to know her as she changes and I change, adapt and respond to her needs. This is what it’s like to fall in love. In my experience, you meet someone and the first few months are a concentrated effort to get to know that person. Long days and late nights, talking to each other, discovering connections, sharing ideas and ideals, each person looking for a sense of surprise and delight as we unfold our lived experience in front of each other. In other words, we get to know that person and at the point or the period of falling in love, we commit ourselves to continually learning more about that person, listening to them, taking their feedback and adapting ourselves, growing old together. A relationship where neither or only one person takes on this commitment to listen, learn and adapt is, frankly, living hell.

And in a way, that’s what the most successful online services are engaging in. I’ve never been issued a survey from Google or Amazon. They don’t need to survey me, because they’ve been learning about me, with every click, every purchase, every email, every movement and decision they can track.1 And using that feedback, that learning, they’ve adapted their services to respond to what they think are my needs.2 The ‘tightness of feedbacks’, as Hopkins puts it, is essential to long-term friendships, marriages and, yes, the sustainability of library services. We need to get to the point where the feedback we receive from surveys is not necessarily perfect (what relationship is?), but is no longer of any use to us, because we already know what library users need, enjoy and are interested in. By creating a library system that learns from every person who uses it and adapts over time to the environment it is part of, we create a resilient and therefore a sustainable library system that its users fall in love with.

  1. I completely neglect to discuss privacy issues here. Needless to say, falling in love is quite different to being stalked. []
  2. Sometimes they impose features on users and the technology can drive our actions and create artificial needs, and many of us recognise this manipulation or domination of the technology and begin to reject it, calling off the relationship. Sometimes people can become subservient in the relationship, too. []

Two weeks with a Kindle 3

I have a Kindle 3 (wifi only). Here’s what I think about it after two weeks. I should say that I have absolutely no interest in reading eBooks bought from Amazon on it. What interests me is the ability to read newspapers and academic articles on it.

+ Size, weight and general form are good. Feels nice to hold. I also have the leather case for it, but it doubles the weight and is awkward to hold so I only use it when the Kindle is shoved into my bag.

+ The screen is excellent for reading text in the .mobi and native amazon format. I appreciate the ability to change the font size more than I imagined I would and have found myself wishing that I could change the font size on print books now. The screen appears sharper the more light that is shining on it (i.e. daylight) but is unreadable in poor light/darkness (much like a book).

– Despite the screen being the main strength of the Kindle, looking at a grey scale screen still feels like a distinct step backwards. I’m reminded of using my mid-90s laptop. Page turns/screen refreshes are about as fast as turning a page in a print book, which sounds satisfactory but the experience is all wrong. Page turns are clearly visible screen refreshes/flashes.

– The speed of the device feels retrograde. My touch screen phone feels faster despite having roughly the same 500MHz processor speed.

+ Having said that, from an engineering point of view, the device is apparently a thing of beauty. I can appreciate that.

– The screen is poor for reading A4 sized PDF files. It’s just not big enough and the font on a full page view is too small. On landscape mode, it is better but requires lots of button pressing to scroll through the text and is generally not worth the bother because…

+ You can email .doc and .pdf files (and other text formats) to your @kindle.com or @free.kindle.com email address and Amazon will immediately send you a nicely formatted conversion of the PDF to your device.

+ Feedbooks is a nice way to get out of copyright (i.e. classics) books on the Kindle for free.

– All content is homogenized to become ‘Kindle Content’. Newspapers, books, articles, whatever they originally might have looked like, become the same standardised text on the screen, surrounded by a dull graphite border. I tried to tell myself that it strips away the fluff to reveal the true essence of the book/newspaper/article, but I find the experience of reading otherwise creatively designed content (i.e. a newspaper) on the Kindle quite dispiriting. Even images become washed out and gray. Thankfully, for academic papers, it doesn’t matter so much because they tend to include little more than text in the first place.

+ The battery life is excellent. Over a week with wifi turned on all the time. Apparently a month if turned off, but that’s not how I use it.

– The 3.0 software was very unstable and the device froze regularly. However…

+ The 3.0.1 software upgrade fixes any software issues I experienced.

-/+ The browser is OK. Mobile sites are bearable. I would usually choose using my touch screen phone to browse the web over the Kindle. Web browsing on a slow device with a black and white screen isn’t much fun. However, the ‘Article Mode’ option, which is based on the same idea as Readability, is a nice touch and makes reading a long article a pleasure. Better than using my phone or my laptop or PC. I was already in the habit of saving long print view versions of articles on the web to PDF for reading and now I can email them to my Kindle to read or browse to the web page on the Kindle itself.

-/+ The keyboard is OK. I wish there were keys for numbers. Initially I found the keyboard awkward and navigation around the device and content, a hassle. I’ve got used to it and it’s beginning to make sense to me now. It’s no match for touch screen navigation on the iPhone or Android phones though. The keyboard buttons make a noise so it’s irritating if you’re in a quiet room (i.e. reading in bed with your partner).

– It’s linked to my Amazon account and so it’s yet another device I have to password protect.  I hate the fact that I have to login to the device just to read something.

– The annotation and sharing features are very basic. You can make notes on selected text using the fiddly keyboard but it’s no match whatsoever for the convenience of scribbling in the margins with a pencil. Sharing to Twitter simply tweets a note and link to some selected text on an Amazon web page. I would much prefer a ‘share by email’ feature, like I have on my phone, so I could send myself or others, annotated text by email.

– I wish I had the 3G version. There are times when logging into wifi or having no wifi at all is a minor inconvenience. I thought I’d be able to tether it to my phone but the Kindle wifi won’t work with enterprise/P2P wifi networks. Given the cost, I would trade the leather case for the addition of 3G.

+ Calibre is a fantastic bit of open source software for creating newspapers and delivering them to your device. I have it set up so that my laptop at home wakes at 6am, opens Calibre, downloads three newspapers and sends them to my Kindle ready for when I wake up at 6.30ish. The papers are nicely formatted, with images, and easy to read on the way to work. This somewhat makes up for the complaint about homogenized content I mentioned above. You can pay for Amazon to deliver newspapers to you, too, but by most accounts I’ve seen, they are poorly presented and expensive compared to the print editions. Why bother when Calibre does it for you (and much more)?

– I haven’t used the text-to-speech feature yet. The music player on it is very basic. It’s like using an iPod Shuffle. Stop, start, forward, backwards.

– Already having a smart phone, iPod Touch, home laptop, work laptop and work desktop, the Kindle is an improvement in some areas (straight forward reading of natively formatted text), but is yet another device to throw in my bag. I was sat at a conference recently with my phone, laptop and Kindle all at hand, feeling like a bit of an idiot.

Scholarly publishing with WordPress

Working on the JISCPress project, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about scholarly publishing on the web, and in particular with WordPress. This morning, I read a post over on the ArchivePress blog about some WordPress plugins which are useful additions for creating a scholarly blog and it got me thinking a bit more about what features WordPress would need to support scholarly publishing.

JISCPress does away with the idea that WordPress is a blogging tool, and instead uses WordPress Multi-User as a document publishing platform, where one site or ‘blog’ is a document. The way WPMU is structured means that despite serving multiple (potentially millions) of document sites, the platform remains relatively ‘lightweight’ as each document site generates just a handful of additional database tables, while sharing the same administrative core as a single WordPress install. So, 100 WordPress blogs on WPMU is nothing like the equivalent of running 100 separate WordPress blogs, both from the point of resource requirements and administration. In fact, quite soon, there will be no such thing as WPMU as the two products are going to be merged and because they share 90%+ of the same code already, it’s not too difficult to achieve.1

Anyway, my point here is to discuss whether WordPress can be extended to accommodate most conventions found in scholarly publishing and where it is lacking, to identify the development work required to meet the needs of most academic who wish to write on and publish to the web.2

Scholarly publishing extends to a wide variety of published outputs. As a Content Management System (CMS) and technology development platform, I believe that WordPress has the potential to support any type of scholarly publishing that the web supports. It is extremely extensible, as can be seen from the 6000+ plugins that are available. However, what I’m interested in is what can be done now, by an academic wishing to publish their work through the use of WordPress acting as a CMS. What can be achieved with a few quid3 to self-host WordPress so that a few plugins can be installed and a well structured, typical, scholarly paper can be published.

My Dissertation

For some time, I’ve been meaning to publish my MA dissertation. Back in 2002, I undertook some unique research which has not, to my knowledge, been repeated and I think there is some value in having it easily accessible on the web. I have an OpenOffice file and a PDF and, in the course of a morning, have published it under my own domain. The reason I did not publish it on the university WPMU platform is because I have been experimenting with different plugins and did not want to install plugins that were untested or we may not support long-term.  In this case, I’ve used a single WordPress installation, but ideally an individual researcher, group of researchers or research institution, would run a WPMU installation which allowed multiple documents to be authored individually or collaboratively4 and published directly to the web as XHTML.

BuddyPress, by the way, can make the experience even more natural, not only because it is based around a community of like-minded people writing together  on the same web publishing platform, but also because, with a few tweaks here and there, we can move away from the language of blogs and towards the language of documents.


BuddyPress admin bar

Profile menu

Enough of BuddyPress on WPMU for now and back to my dissertation. I set up the site in ten minutes, without using FTP or a command line because I use a host that provides a one-click install of WordPress and WordPress allows you to search for and install plugins from its Dashboard, rather than having to use FTP. Once the site was installed, I then  made some basic changes to the settings, turning on XML-RPC and AtomPub, so that, if I decided to, I could publish to the site using my Word Processor.5 I didn’t use this in the end, but trust me, it works very well using recent versions of MS Word, Open Office (free) and other blogging clients such as MS Live Writer (free).

So, what are the common characteristics of an academic paper? What does WordPress have to support to provide functionality that meets most scholars’ publishing requirements? I scratched my head (and asked on Twitter) and came up with the following:

  • footnotes/endnotes
  • citations
  • use of LaTeX (sciences)
  • tables
  • images
  • bibliography
  • sub-headings
  • annexes
  • appendices
  • dedication
  • abstract
  • table of contents
  • index to figures
  • introduction
  • exposition
  • conclusion

Many of these are supported in WordPress by default and don’t require any additional plugins (tables, images, sub-headings, annexes, appendices, dedication, abstract, introduction, exposition, conclusion, are all either basic literary conventions or just part of a simply structured document).

For additional support, I installed digress.it, which we have funded through the JISCPress project. This is a WordPress plugin which allows readers to comment on the paragraphs of a document, rather than at the document section level. We’re adding a lot more functionality to meet the objectives of the JISCPress project, but I chose digress.it, principally for the reason that it is designed to turn a WordPress blog into a document site. I could have used any other WordPress theme, but digress.it automatically creates a Table of Contents and allows you to re-order WordPress posts when they are read so that you don’t have to author your document in reverse or adjust the publication dates so the document sections appear in the correct order.

My dissertaion published using digress.it

My dissertation published using digress.it

I added the abstract for my dissertation to the ‘about’ page, so it shows up on the front of the site. I also uploaded a PDF version so that people can download it directly. You’ll see that I also added some links to a related book and DVD, which will certainly appeal to people who are interested in my dissertation. The links pull an image and some basic metadata from Amazon, using the Amazon Machine Tags plugin. This could be used to link to the book in which your article is published and earn you money in click referrals. An alternative, would be the Open Book Book Data plugin, which retrieves a book cover and metadata from Open Library, where your book may already be catalogued. If it’s not on Open Library, catalogue it!

After setting this up, I installed a few more plugins:

Dublin Core for WordPress: Automatically adds ten Dublin Core metadata elements to the document mark up.

wp-footnotes: This allows you to easily add footnotes to your document by enclosing your footnote in double parentheses.6

OAI-ORE Resource Map: Automatically marks up the document sections with a OAI-ORE 1.0 resource map.

Google Analyticator: Adds Google Analytics support so you can collect statistics on the readership of your document.

WP Calais Archive Tagger: Analyses your entire document and automatically keywords each section, using the Open Calais API.

Search API: WordPress comes with search built in, but there is a new search API which will eventually make its way into the WordPress core. I’ve installed the plugin to provide full-text search across the document. It can also add Google Search to your document site.

wp-super-cache: This is simple to install and will significantly speed up your document site, making it a pleasure to navigate through and read :-)

Plugins I didn’t use

wp-latex: Although I didn’t need it for my dissertation, it’s worth noting that WordPress supports the use of [latex]\LaTeX[/latex].

Academic Citation: You need to add a line of code to your theme for this to display. It supports the concept of an article being a single blog post, rather than a ‘document site’ and displays a variety of citation formats for readers to use.

Do you know of any other plugins for a scholarly blog?

The Beauty of Feeds

The other useful thing about managing a document using WordPress and in particular, using digress.it, is that you automatically get RSS/Atom feeds for the document. I’ve already discussed these in detail. It means that I was able to read my document in my feed reader, with footnotes and images displayed correctly.

Document in Google Reader

See how nicely the formatting is preserved. [latex]\LaTeX[/latex] is also rendered correctly in feed readers.

Document formatted nicely in Google Reader

Reading my dissertation in Google Reader

You’ll see that the document sections are listed in order; that is, first section on top. As I noted above, blogs list posts in reverse (most recent first), so I sorted the feed items in Yahoo Pipes and sorted it in ascending order. Yahoo Pipes exports as RSS and it’s that feed that I subscribed to in Google Reader. Wouldn’t it be nice, if I could import my document feed into an Institutional Repository? Wait a minute, I can! :-)

Importing an RSS feed into EPrints

Click to see the item in the repository

Click to see the item in the repository

When importing the default feed, the HTML output is accurate but in reverse order, while the RSS output from Yahoo Pipes didn’t import into EPrints very cleanly at all. I’ll work on this. UPDATE: Forget Yahoo Pipes. WordPress feeds can be sorted with a switch added to the URL: http://example.com/feed/?orderby=post_date&order=ASC

So there it is. An academic paper, published to the web using a modern CMS which supports most authoring and publishing requirements. I would favour an institutional WPMU platform for academics to author directly to, publish their pre-print to the web for open access and detailed comment, and import their RSS feed into the repository. As a proof of concept, I’m quite pleased with this. We are currently developing a widget that can be embedded in a web page or WordPress sidebar and allow a member of staff to upload a document or zipped folder of documents to the Institutional Repository. I wonder if we can also support the import of a feed from the widget, too?

So, what would your requirements be? Tell me and I’ll do my best to test WordPress against them.

  1. Has anyone done a diff on the two code bases to measure exactly what percentage of the code is shared between WP and WPMU? []
  2. Actually, I think I’ll save the discussion of its shortfalls for my next post. This one is already long enough. []
  3. I pay $5/year for my domain name and as many sub-domains as I need. I pay $10/month for my hosting with unlimited storage and bandwidth. []
  4. Like any decent CMS, WordPress supports role-based authoring and editing and maintains a revision history of edits, auto-saved once per minute. Revisions can be compared alongside of each other. []
  5. On a scholarly WPMU installation, plugins could be pre-installed and activated, a default theme selected and settings tweaked so very little work is required by the academic author prior to writing her document. []
  6. I am using the plugin on this blog! []

Microformats and Firefox

When I have time, I like to read about new and developing web standards and specifications. Sad, you might think, but it’s a way of learning about some of the theoretical developments that eventually turn into practical functionality for all users of the Internet.  Also, I am an Archivist (film, audiovisual, multimedia) by trade, and am somewhat reassured by the development of standards and specifications as a way of achieving consensus among peers and avoiding wasted time and effort in managing ‘stuff’.

So, while poking around on Wikipedia last night, I came across ‘Operator‘, an add-on for Firefox that makes part of the ‘hidden’ semantic web immediately visible and useful to everybody. If you’re using Firefox, click here to install it. It’s been available for over a year now and is mature and extensible through the use of user scripts.  It’s been developed by Michael Kaply, who works on web browsers for IBM and is responsible for microformat support in Firefox.

Operator leverages microformats and other semantic data that are already available on many web pages to provide new ways to interact with web services.

In practice, Operator is a Firefox tool bar (and/or location/status bar icon) that identifies microformats and other semantic data in a web page and allows you to combine the value of that information with other web services such as search, bookmarking, mapping, etc. For example, this blog has tags. Operator identifies the tags and then offers the option of searching various services such as Amazon, YouTube, delicious and Upcoming, for a particular tag.  If Operator finds geo-data, it offers the option of mapping that to Google Maps and, on this page for example, it identifies me as author and allows you to download my contact details, which are embedded in the XHTML. Because it is extensible through user-scripts, there are many other ways that the microformat data can be used.

Of particular interest to students and staff are perhaps the microformat specifications for resumes and contact details. Potentially, a website, properly marked up (and WordPress allows for some of this already), could provide a rich and useful portfolio of their work and experience which is semantically linked to other services such as Institutional Repositories or other publications databases where their work is held.

After using it for a few hours, I now find myself disappointed when a website doesn’t offer at least one piece of semantic data that is found by Operator (currently, most don’t but some do). Microformat support will be included (rather than an add-on) in Firefox 3.1 and IE 8, so we can expect to see much more widespread adoption of it. A good thing.

There’s a nice demonstration of microformats here, using the Operator plugin.