Mashed Libraries

Exactly a week a go I was coming home from Mashed Libraries in London (Birkbeck).

I wont bore you with details of the day (or more to the point, I’m lazy and others have already done it better than i could (of course, I should have made each one of those words a link to a different blog but I’m laz… or never-mind)).

Thanks to Owen Stephens for organising, UKOLN for sponsoring and Dave Flanders (and Birkbeck) for the room.

During the afternoon we all got to hacking with various sites and services.

I had previously played around with the Talis Platform (see long winded commentary here, got it seems weird that at the time I really didn’t have a clue what I was playing with, and it was only a year a go!).

I built a basic catalogue search based on the ukbib store. I called it Stalisfield (which is a small village in Kent).

But one area I had never got working was the Holdings. So I decided to set to work on that. Progress was slow, but then Rob Styles sat down next to me and things started to move. Rob help create Talis Cenote (which I nicked most of the code from) and generally falls in to that (somewhat large) group of ‘people much smarter than me’.

We (well I) wanted to show which Libraries had the book in question, and plot them on a Google Map. So once we had a list of libraries we needed to connect to another service to get the location for each of these libraries. The service which fitted this need was the Talis Directory (Silkworm). This raised a point with me, it was a good job there was a Talis service which used the same underlying ID codes for the libraries i.e. the holdings service and the directory both used the same ID number. It could have been a problem if we needed to get the geo/location data from something like OCLC or Librarytechnology.org, what would we have searched on? a Libraries name? hardly a reliable term to use (e.g. The University of Sussex Library is called ‘UNIV OF SUSSEX LIBR’ in OCLC!). Do Libraries need a code which can be used to cross reference them between different web services (a little like ISBNs for books)?

Using the Talis Silkworm Directory was a little more challenging than first thought, and the end result was a very long URL which used SPARQL (something which looks a steep learning curve to me!).

In the mean time, I signed up for Google Maps, and gave myself a crash course in setting it up (I’m quite slow to pick these things up). So we had the longitude and latitude co-ordinates for each library, and we had a Google Map on the page, we just needed to connect to the two.

Four people trying to debug the last little bit of code for my little project
Four people at Mashedlibrary trying to debug the last little bit of my code.

Time was running short, so I was glad to take a back seat and watch (and learn) while Rob went to in to speed-javascript mode. This last part proved to be elusive. The PHP code which was generating javascript code was just not quite working. In the end the (final) problem was related to the order I was outputting the code, but we were out of time, and this required more than five minutes.

Back home, I fixed this (though I never would have known I needed to do this without help).

You can see an example here, and here and here (click on the link at the top to go back to the bib record for the item, which, by the way, should show a Google Book cover at the bottom, though this only works for a few books).

You can click on a marker to see the name of library, and the balloon also has a link which should take you straight to item in question on the library’s catalogue.

It is a little slow, partly due to my bad code and partly due to what it is doing:

  1. Connecting to the Talis Platform to get a list of libraries which have the book in question (quick)
  2. For each library, connect to the Talis Silkworm Directory and perform a SPARQL query to get back some XML which includes the geo co-ordinates. (geo details not available for all libraries)
  3. Finally generate some javascript code to plot each library on to a Google map.
  4. As this last point needs to be done in the <head> of the page, it is only at this point that we can push the page out to the browser.

I added one last little feature.

It is all well and good to see which libraries have the item you are after, but you are probably iterested in libraries near you. So I used the Maxmind GeoLite City code-library to get the user’s rough location, and then centering the map on this (which is clearly not good for those trying to use it outside the UK!). This seems to work most of the time, but it depends on your ISP, some seem more friendly in their design towards this sort of thing. Does the map centre on your location?

ircount : new location, new functionality

A while a go, I released a simple website which reported on the number of items in UK repositories over time. It collected its data from ROAR but by collecting it on a weekly basis could provide a table showing growth week by week.

First it has a new home: http://www.nostuff.org/ircount/

Secondly, it now collects data for every institutional (and departmental) repository registered in ROAR across the world. Not just the UK. It has been collecting the data since July.

The country integration isn’t perfect, you have to select a country, and then you are more or less restricted to that country (though you can hack it, see the ‘info&help’), and there is a lot of potential with improving this. There are also a couple of bugs, for example when comparing four repositories it seems to (a) forget which country you were dealing with, and (b) it stops showing the graph/chart.

I’m currently looking at trying to make an educated guess at how many fulltext items are in a given repository. This is proving to be a steep learning curve in the joys of OAI-PMH, and how the different repository systems (and the different versions on these systems) have allocated information about the fulltext in to different Dublin Core (DC) elements. But this is for another post.

In the mean time, I hope the worldwide coverage is of some use, and feel free to leave any comments.

Navel gazing

I was having a quick think about the categories I use here. I have tried to use categories which match people’s interests. e.g. someone from Brighton can choose to read (and subscribe to) ‘Brighton’, same for technology or libraries.

I’ve recently started to blog a bit more about things related to my work. Which is best summed up as where technology (& web) and libraries (& information management) meet. This includes searching, metadata, cataloguing, making data and information accessible, and scholarly publishing (and changing it to be less stupid). My rule of thumb is that if I feel something would only be of interest to those in the library (or HE) tech area, I stick it in ‘libraries and technology’, if it could be of interest to those who are generally interested in techy stuff then it is added to the technology category.

So if you are interested in reading my ill informed rants relating to libraries and technology (but don’t wish to have to suffer the rest of the crap i post) then you can subscribe to the following feed:

http://www.nostuff.org/words/category/information-searching-and-libraries/feed

oh, but that’s a good point. I have started to talk about the Library world more, in a ‘I’m presuming you know what I’m talking about‘ type way. I’m hoping that hasn’t alienated my huge previous user base (if you were that reader can you let me know). Some keep a seperate blog for work and home. I’ve resisted this, my thoughts about the things I encounter due to work, and those I encounter due to outside interests are all basically me, if you like one or the other (but not both), just follow the rss feed for the appropriate category (maybe I need one called ‘not work’). By the way, you can subscribe to a feed for a category by going to the categories main page, and then added ‘/feed/’ to the end.

(would be great if you could create a feed which is a combination of several categories you are interested in). Oh and one weakness of the blogging model is that one person’s output is distributed and not easily connect-able. so all the comments i have made in other blogs are disconnected to this blog (of course the alternative is to reply via this blog and rely on ping/trackback) and this is one of the reasons why I don’t run multiple blogs, there’s no easy way to say ‘this blog should include any content i post to another specified blog’ or ‘include my comments in other blogs’ or ‘when posting this, also post it to blog X’. but i digress.

I occasionally chatter on about politics, but also talk about more general stuff happening in the world today, this can be anything from shops, to phones to education. I tend to stick all this under ‘politics and current affairs’, but it is a broad church and really need a better category for the ‘stuff around me today which takes my interest’, any ideas?

Peter Suber recently described me as ‘anonymous’ blogger in a post of his. Which turns out to be true, so I have updated my blog theme (see earlier post) to show a mini profile at the top of the page.

You can also find me at:

And randomly some embedded stuff:

Friendfeed

Dipity

Radio Pop

Radio Pop is an interesting experimental site from the fantastic BBC radio labs.

It is a sort of soical network site for radio listening. It only records your listening through the ‘radio pop’ live streams. I (like many) mainly listen to listen again and the radio iplayer, and they are working on intergrating with both. You can see my profile here.

Screenshot of radio pop
Screenshot of radio pop - click for a larger version

You can ‘pop’ what you are currently listening to (basically a ‘i like this’ button). I’ve added my ‘pop’ rss feed to my dipity timeline.

WordPress themes and plugins

Of interest to those who use WordPress (and those who have an opinion on web design).

Had a few hours off this afternoon so have been playing around with WordPress a bit.

New plugins:

  • Google sitemap XML : does what it says, and easy to use
  • Theme Test Drive : allows you to preview other themes (on your site) without having to make the switch first. Good plugin, seems to work well, config settings are under the theme menu of WP.
  • Twitter for WordPress‘ : you guessed it, shows one (or more) twitter feeds either as a widget or by calling a function. Works well as a widget (and all config is carried out in the widget area).
  • OpenID for WordPress : allows those leaving comments, and myself as blog author to sign in via OpenID. While it’s been noted that OpenID does have usability issues, it still seems like a good option to have. I’m leaving this active, it does work, though can’t see it being used. You don’t it near the ‘comment’ box on a post, though it is there on the signin page (which people probably would never go to), once signed in to openid (which, if you are like me, requires trying to remember what your URL is) you are actually taken to the WP admin dashboard (which scared me to start with, anyone can do this on my blog!), but the dashboard itself doesn’t reveal anything important and all other areas are locked down. In theory the user could then set up a profile, though comeone this is nostuff, why would you want a profile here? So kudos for a good plugin, though can’t see it being used on this backwater of a blog.
  • links to the above can be found here.

Themes

The first browser I used was Netscape 1, possibly 2. By default it would display black text on a grey background. This was good, far easier to read than black on white.

Since then I’ve always had a thing against plain white backgrounds, and have avoided using them for my personal sites: from the mid/late 90s (but then didn’t we all have coloured backgrounds back then!), to static web pages today, and also this very blog.

The theme is Greening, I like it as the shades of green is quite unusual, and yet – for me – quite nice to read.

However, the font is quite small [update: I’ve increased the default font size in the theme] and I couldn’t help thinking that other themes seem to be easier to read.

I mentioned above that one of the plugins allows you to try out themes without full swapping to a new one. This allows me to do cool things like show you this blog post in three different themes, try these links:

The latter two are those I’ve come across that I like the look of. The test is I can read a large post without it being a strain. By coincidence they are both by Chris Pearson.

As you can see above, some of the new plugins I’ve installed work best as widgets. Widgets are blocks in the left/right menu (categories, pages, links, etc) you can add, and order as you wish, independent of theme. This ability to easily configure and customise you’re blog’s sidebar is a powerful feature. So I was keen to move to a theme which supports widgets, there are surprisingly few. To my shame, it was only by accident that it was just now I realised that Greening has supported widgets all along.

For the time being, I’ve increased the font size on my current theme, I think it looks better. Meanwhile I’m pondering moving to one of the themes above. Ironically for all my raving about widgets above, the one which looks better to me is Pressrow, the only one of the three that does not support widgets.

Would be interested in any one’s preferences regarding the three themes above?

Update Oct 2008: Have also added the ‘Subscribe to Comments‘ extension, allows those who comment to tick a box and have any further comments emailed to them.

to do list software

this is a ‘thinking out loud’ blog post.

For years my to-do list survived as a combination of my email inbox and a bit of A4 paper which i would scribble lists on to and write numbers next to them in the planned order i was going to do them. (which was somewhat laughable)

But things were being missed so it was time to look at different ideas.

Nothing has yet hit the sweet spot. This blog post tries to decide what the sweet spot is and if anything has yet come close.

Ideally: Something that can be accessed anywhere, is real quick to bring up and use, presents information just as I want it, allows me to track progress of the job/task, allows me to pass it to someone else (yes!). Also, ability to track changes, and – if it doesn’t accept email (like RT) have a nice big notes field for paste-ing in the email which started it all off.

So what have I tried:

Meetingmaker

Meetingmaker it pretty good software, and as you might guess, its main function is shared calendars (making meetings). A slightly odd history, it had no software updates for years, then suddenly they released a new version (about 2005) which was a lot nicer to use, with the message that they were now actively finding out what users wanted and developing new versions. Nothing has come since (apart from an update to change light-saving hours for a timezone somewhere).

Anyways, it comes with a to do list function. It has a windows3.1 feel to it, and a big thumbs down is the user interface. Being part of the diary/calendar package, it tends to be the window sitting behind your calendar window, which can be annoying. And it doesn’t remember your settings, so even though each time i open it i set it to not show completed tasks and to show in order of priority, it forgets this. Which is annoying.

Apart from this it does its job well. Title, Category (which are user defined), priority, percentage done and a nice big notes field. It does all the basics (in a ugly and slightly tedious way). What it fails on is the other stuff. When did I create this task, when did i finish it. I want to transfer it to someone else (should be do-able as we all use MM), I want to see a list of items completed this month. What progress have i made? All impossible.

RT

Until recently RT was not an option, it was so amazingly slow. I mean really slow. But now our IT services have upgraded it, and it’s much improved.

RT is a Request Tracker, and as such is not really a to-do list, and its functionality (and lack of) reflects this. A RT install has a series of Queues (e.g. helpdesk, webteam, workstation-support), and each queue has tickets (i.e. jobs/tasks). So, What’s it good at?

  • you or someone else (just by sending an email to a specific address) can easily created a new ticket, with the title being the emails subject line
  • It provides excellent progress tracking, each email you send is tracked, and you can add comments (which can cater for any notes you want to add but don’t want the requester to see).
  • You can add requesters, add owners (people like you who are dealing with this task), and remove them as needed (useful as jobs change in nature and different people required).
  • You can easily transfer to a new ‘queue’, if it belongs to another department
  • It includes ‘time taken’ and percentage done
  • everything is time stamped.

Downsides

  • Interface not great, eg when listing tickets (tasks) you just see the title of each ticket and last time someone updated it. anything more than that requires going in to the full ticket.
  • editing anything (owner, requester, status, flags) requires going in to some sub-screens, which is slow and annoying. They really need AJAX for this (hello flickr, you are amazing).
  • General navigation sucks. big time.
  • Things you think will be built in are not, especially reporting. What have we completed recently? my tickets? my tickets that i haven’t done anything with recently? tickets that need attention? or took a long time to complete? It does give you what is essentially a SQL interface, which is good, but not a quick way to recall saved reports or views, which in many cases is essential.
  • When looking at a ticket it can be very verbose. telling you lots of information you don’t want to know, and the log of activity takes lots of space but still missing out key information. For example, a ticket with just a few emails can easily span many many printed pages, as it shows the quoted text for each email, and has lots of lines showing you that an outbound email was recorded (which actually take up much more than a line as it has its own block), but still fails to show some important things, such as who exactly got that email (important for covering your arse!).
  • It has a concept of ‘fields’ which are associated to queues, you can think of them like categories. You can associate each ticket in a queue to many fields (the names of which you decide). However this is far to slow and requires far too many clicks.
  • People only appreciate the value of entering metadata/information if it is quick to enter and provides useful information in return. RT, like so many applications, does not meet this.

dot.project

I only tried this as my webhost, dreamhost (get good stuff by following that link!), has a one-click install for this open-source web based system.

This is the one I have tried the least, and after quickly logging on to it again, think i should try it again. First of all, when speed is the essence having a piece of software on a server on the west coast of the US, and me on the sunny south coast of the UK does not help (unless the server is google, in which case using it is amazingly fast, I mean amazing). But this small open source project has a lot of potential.

It has the concept of projects, and tasks (and other things, like tickets) associated with that project. But you as a user can see all tasks for you in a nice list, regardless of which project they belong to. In this sense, projects can be treated like categories, if need be. The interface is good. For example, hover over a task and a larger description pops up which the mouse is above it. this is javascript put to good use.

It has a lot of functionality and features and has good support for different users, so if you can get your whole team/colleagues signed up then it could work really well.

A downside, for me, is in the design, currently you need to browse to a project (which I use as categories) and then you can add a task, I would much prefer being able to see my tasks, and from them their be able to add more tasks as they come in (which I often want to do quickly).

Rememberthemilk.com

Rememberthemilk.com has had quite a lot of exposure among web2.0 fans. It has a lovely interface which makes great use or ajax/javascript. It also makes full use of single (no shift/ctl required, good!) keyboard commands, something which I caught on slowly to.

I’ve being trying out rememberthemilk.com for a few days. It works well, and again, brilliant interface, but doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot. Why?

First and foremost, if you select/add a task, and then immediately add/select another, they are both selected. In fact throughout tasks stay selected until you unselect them. Perhaps I am unusual, but i find this annoying.

I add one, give it a priority and some tags (the nearest it comes to categories, but hey, this is web2.0), do the same for another task, and find I’ve updated both.

It, like many of the applications mentioned, make strong use of deadlines and times. Which I don’t really use much (perhaps I should?!). I tend to be much more priority based, rather than hard deadlines. The task info appears on the right of your task list. It does have a number of properties, but these are mainly time/location based. It has a notes tab, and you can add many notes to a task, each – brilliantly – with a timestamp, but these are really designed for notes (it is in a 200px-ish box), so not really great for posting in that important email associated with the task. Plus ‘tags’ really have to cater for anything to do with categories/projects. So no drop down menus to select these by.

I’m not sure if its ‘adding a new task’ function is good or bad. Being ajax, it is quick, click ‘add new task’ type in a title and hit return and you’re done. And its (bank) properties will be shown on the right, but not selected by default (so requires a mouse move/click, or some keyboard command I haven’t learnt yet) Oh and remember that those properties are for the task, AND the one selected previously, unless you remembered to clear it before adding this one (which is quick once you leanr the keyboard shortcut ‘n’)…

…ok so I’ve just played some more to make sure what I was saying is true. I think the key is you need to learn the keyboard shortcuts. Also, oddly for me, even with many select, if you hit s for ‘edit tags’ it will only edit the last selected item. And you can select items, and move the cursor up/down using the keyboard to. It seems it takes a bit of learning, and a bit of getting used to, but could be useful. Again, add contacts, and you can then pass on things as required (though I suspect not everyone would love this interface, something i would have to consider). However one additional limitation is the lack of good progress/percentage complete. Viewing completed items is a little weird too… make sure nothing is selected, and move your mouse to some white space to be able to select ‘9 completed items’ to see them. Apart from the notes (with timestamps), there is little in the way of progress monitoring (I’ve already mentioned lack of percentage complete), and some way to summarise this in the list itself (number of days since last activity, for eg). Would be good.

Summary.

Nothing hits the sweet spot. I really want to-do list, ticket/email tracking and project management in one, with an amazing nice to use, use anywhere interface. Not going to happen. Funny enough, my conclusion after writing most of these is, hmmm, actually I need to investigate further. And that really needs a disclaimer, this is just my random thoughts, I haven’t read the manual or even used them for what they were designed for. I just used them in a way that suits me, and in a way I found intuitive. This means my words are probably of use only to me. Take note!

MM meets my needs in many ways, but the failure to track progress, provide timestamps and allocate to others is a real killer. dot.project needs another look (and perhaps installing on a local sever), and rememberthemilk requires more playing with and learning how to get the most out of it. Finally, I love the fact RT has such a clear record of activity, and as it is used by my peers, an easy way to allocate/pass work to others, across campus, and the need arises. However, it really is a ticket tracking tool and its interface is not perfect (the latter applies to all).

Lifehacker and other reccomendations, many of which I have not tried.

And on a totally different note, if you haven’t already, check out Wine Library TV.