When I finally got control over the library’s Web presence last year (a long process better discussed in a post of its own), the first thing I did was take down the library “subject guides.” You could hardly call these things subject guides; they were just a bunch of Web links in different areas. Some were more useful than others. The guide for “science” had three links. In addition, a very high percentage of the links were dead, because it wasn’t anyone’s job to check them and for a long time, there was no one to make changes to them. This just wasn’t a priority for anyone.
When our Coordinator of Public Services started a little over a year ago, she was really gung-ho about creating useful subject guides for our patrons. There were a few barriers though. The first was (or is) time. Each librarian is a liaison to a whole lot of programs. One person is liaison to “Social Sciences.” Another is liaison to “Humanities.” As Distance Learning Librarian, I am the liaison to 10 academic programs (from Masters in Business Administration to Masters in Civil Engineering to Masters in Nursing to Masters in Military History and more). I’m lucky, because I’d been creating subject guides for my programs over the past two years and have pretty well-developed ones already in use. My colleagues are starting from scratch with our on-campus students, so it’s a lot of work and for everyone, subject guides are more of a “when I have free time” sort of task. Were I running the show, I would probably set a deadline for when people had to be done with these, because otherwise, there are always more pressing things to do.
The second barrier was technology, which wasn’t really seen as much of a barrier by anyone but me. Currently, the way the website runs is that people give me content and I put it up online. This seems to me like a recipe for disaster with the subject guides. Sure, it’s not so hard to initially put some subject guides online, but what about when links change? Or when a database changes its URL and I have to make the change on 20 separate pages? I’d originally thought that we were just going to link to the relevant area on the “databases by subject” page, but the Public Services Coordinator wanted the individual databases to be explicitly linked to in each guide. I wanted to figure out a system where I wasn’t totally in control of maintaining the content, because it would be a full-time job in itself (and, as you can imagine, I do have a few other duties… just a few!).
So began my exploration of the options for low-threshold, sustainable subject guides. I say low-threshold because I’m not a coder. I can’t rig up some fancy ColdFusion CMS like the lovely Karen Coombs did at the University of Houston. The main goal for me was to have my colleagues be able to update as much of their own content as possible and to not have a situation where when a link changes, I will have to change it in a million places.
del.icio.us would also work for the database lists. I could create a bookmark record for each database in our library (with the proxy prefix). I could then tag each of these databases with the names of the subjects they should be placed into (such as db_political_science, db_mathematics, etc.). That way, if the URL of a database changes, I would only have to make the change in one place in del.icio.us.
I actually got so far as training my colleagues on how to use del.icio.us before I changed my mind. The main reason I didn’t go with del.icio.us was because I didn’t want to be so dependent on a third-party vendor; especially one that we didn’t pay to provide the service. I know del.icio.us isn’t going anywhere, but it can and has gone down. When it does go down, lots of the content from our subject guides will inexplicably disappear. While I don’t imagine that disaster will strike del.icio.us and it will be put out of commission forever, I’d just hate to be that dependent on it. As bad a server administrator as I am, I’d rather have the data living on our server. Also, I’d still be responsible for maintaining the rest of the content on each subject guide (contact info, subject headings, book lists, journals, etc.), so it wasn’t a perfect solution for the whole site. Still, I think this would be a great option for many libraries, especially those who don’t have regular server access to update their web content.
Our Electronic Resources Librarian and I discussed LibGuides, but we knew that the library was not going to spend the money on it. I must admit that LibGuides is very cool, but we don’t currently need a lot of the features they offer. I like that they have a bookmarklet for web resources, that you can easy embed search tools (for catalog, databasese, etc.) and that you can easily display RSS feeds on the site. Usage stats are very nice too. The rest of the stuff is cool, but not really that important to us. I think it’s a great tool for larger libraries where there are lots of subject guides and lots of hands in those guides. For the number of subject guides we’d create at our little library with six liaisons contributing, we don’t need something we’d have to pay for. It’s also great for libraries that are integrated in social networking software or have blogs and websites they might want to embed subject guide content on. It’s cool, but not really something we need. For more views on LibGuides, check out reviews from the Academic Librarian, the Librarian in Black, and BiblioTechWeb.
Next, I started looking at open source options. There are plenty of libraries that have created their own homegrown systems for creating and maintaining subject guides. Some (like the one that Karen Coombs created at the University of Houston) are Cold Fusion-based and are not something one can easily just install and get going with. Others are much simpler. Some libraries/librarians have been kind enough to make the products of their labor open source.
Here were some of the tools I looked at that seemed at least remotely feasible for me to take on:
- Research Guide – From the University of Michigan. Wayne State also uses it. Looks good. Was updated in 2006. Was just concerned about how to set up the authentication stuff.
- LibData – from the University of Minnesota. Hasn’t been updated since 2003 or 2004.
library is not using it anymore.(update: looks like they are still using it; not sure where I got the idea that they weren’t)
- Pirate Source – This one was developed at Eastern Carolina University, but is used at a bunch of libraries. The install script didn’t work so I had to create the tables and SQL queries manually. Had trouble trying to get it to work with PHP5. Not sure I like the initial page since people are inundated with choices and it may confuse some.
- Subjects Plus – my personal fave. This is an enhancement of Pirate Source developed by Ithaca College. It’s great-looking though it takes up a lot of screen real estate. In the sidebar you can put info about the liaison, links to tutorials, call numbers and syndicated news feeds. I love the “Try these First” feature since students usually just want to know what the very best resources are. I still don’t love the initial page where they choose the guide and then have the option to select the types of resources they are looking for. It’s good to give people options, but sometimes less is more, I think.
I was actually all set to go with Subjects Plus (which really does rock as far as subject guide software goes) and had it installed on our server, but then got cold feet. While it’s a great option now, will I (or my successor) be able to successfully maintain the software? These are all software projects developed by one or a few people. If these universities end up implementing another tool in the future, there probably won’t be continued development of the software (as was the case with LibData). For libraries without coders, open source software like this is probably not a good long-term option. I can usually muddle around enough to get something installed, but if we eventually upgrade our versions of PHP or MySQL and something breaks, I won’t know what to do to fix it. And when I leave my job in the future, I have no idea if they will make web skills a real priority when hiring my successor. Non-coders are better off relying on thriving community-driven projects with lots of people fixing stuff, extending the functionality, and writing documentation. That was my next stop.
It’s kind of funny that it didn’t dawn on me to try MediaWiki until I’d exhausted most of the other reasonable options (does that mean I can’t be called the Queen of Wikis anymore?). It’s not that a wiki is a bad idea, but I worried about getting my colleagues on-board with using it. While MediaWiki is not the most difficult thing in the world to use, wiki markup isn’t intuitive, which I see as the big barrier to its use. Anything that involves learning a new way of doing things is going to be difficult for some people. I thought about installing a WYSIWYG editor, but I have a bad taste in my mouth from recently upgrading Drupal and having TinyMCE and the chat extension break. I want to be as little dependent as posible on extensions that could break when I upgrade the software. This is an important thing to consider when you’re using wiki/blog/CMS software. These extensions are great, but if they are dependent on a specific version of the software, you will either be stuck not upgrading or will have to make it compatible with the latest version on your own. Just like the wiki/blog/CMS itself, make sure there is a community behind the extensions you choose; a community that will make absolutely sure these extensions work with the latest version of the product.
There are a few key benefits of using MediaWiki software for this purpose in my opinion:
- It’s the software that runs Wikipedia, so it isn’t a project that’s going to go South anytime soon.
- Granular permissioning allows me to give my colleagues only the rights they absolutely need and to give a select few more rights.
- If we want faculty or students to contribute in the future, it’s possible.
- The full-text of the wiki is searchable.
- We can assign each subject guide to categories so that the guides can be browsed as well.
- It’s completely flexible; we can make the pages be however we want.
The two big negatives in my opinion are the lack of a WYSIWYG editor (which is something they said was soon going to be a part of MediaWiki back in August 2006) and the fact that it’s a pain in the behind to monkey around with the look. Because it’s designed specifically for the Wikipedia, making it easy to change the look wasn’t a big priority. I think I “broke” the wiki 20 times while messing around with the PHP for the skin I’d chosen. I’d make a change, get an error message, back out of my change, figure out what I did wrong, fix it so that the syntax is correct, make another change, get an error message again… I think I’ve made it look halfway decent (click on the pics below to view the full-sized images of the template I created for my colleagues), though there’s still a lot of tweaking I want to do, like adding our logo. We don’t have any content up yet, because no one has given me any, but once I receive it, it shouldn’t take me long to have it looking good. I’m itching to get some guides up there already!
To deal with the problem of database links being scattered all over the place, I came up with a decent, but not perfect, solution that I borrowed from UNC Chapel Hill. I noticed that in their subject guides, they didn’t link directly to the database but to what was essentially an “authority record” for the database; a single page where the link to and description of the database resided. I decided that I’m going to create a page for every database we have and in the subject guides, we will simply link to that page. Therefore, if the link to a database changes, we’ll only be fixing it in one place in the subject guide wiki rather than a million places. It means two clicks for the student, which sucks, but I’ll try to make it as obvious as possible what they need to click on once they get to that intermediate page.
I don’t think MediaWiki is the perfect solution and other solutions will work better at other libraries. I think it’s important when looking at any alternative to static HTML subject guides that you sit down and really think about what functionality/features you absolutely need vs. what would be cool but isn’t totally necessary. The simpler you can make things, the easier it will be to maintain. Then, look at what is already out there. Will anything out there meet your needs or do you need to create something yourself (or pay someone to create something for you)? Finally, think about whether this is a sustainable solution. What will it take to maintain this next month? Next year? In three years? If it’s an open source tool, is it developed by a community or just one person? If that person stopped development, would someone on your staff (or in IT) be able to continue development so that it continues to work and isn’t a security hazard? The same goes for something you create yourself or pay someone to create; think about what it will take to make this work in the long-term, not just to get it working now.
Honestly, I have my doubts that these subject guides are going to make much of a difference for our students. Looking at our Web stats, I see that our undergrads simply aren’t visiting our site, and I don’t think that is going to change. I’ve been putting course guides up for my own and my colleagues’ instruction sessions and it hasn’t impacted Web traffic (beyond the day of the session). I think the key is to focus on being where our students are, both physically and online. If we can understand their information-seeking behavior and put ourselves in their path, right at reach, we’ll be much more likely to have an impact. I think the library resources should be like the impulse buy area in a store. It’s just so easy when you’re paying for your groceries to reach out and grab that Star Magazine or that pack of gum. I want the library to be that pack of gum (or Star Magazine… that would work too). And while we truly have achieved that with the online graduate students, who have the library right in their classroom, we haven’t even started to move in that direction with the on-campus folks. Putting our stuff where our users are… now that would be 2.0.
I’ve been thinking about the issue of successful subject guides quite a bit. We have many subject guides here and they just don’t get the love. The biggest problem is that subject guides were designed for a print world and we don’t live in a print world any longer. So I’ve trying to get people here to re-conceptualize them as subject portals with a key piece to their success being that the content is in the university course management system. The other key thing is that nothing that is part of a subject guide isn’t compartmentalized and already someplace else on our site. I’m hoping some of these portals will be the spin-off point for personalization but only time will tell.
Karen, we recently did some usability testing on our subject portals and one of the things that came out of it was that students get pretty much nothing out of the word ‘portal’. This may be one reason why they just don’t think to click on the ‘subject portals’ link.
Getting content into the course management system sounds promising, though – that’s getting them where they are.
Hey Meredith, we struggled with the same issues at Williams. Having all our databases in a database helped – we have one link that points to an authority record like yours and another that bounces the user straight to the resource. Since it’s in the database, we only have to make the change once.
You’re also right on about using a wiki. We’ve made our entire site into a wiki, so that any librarian who’s logged in can make changes. If you see a broken link, fix it. If you see an outdated statement, update it. It’s been working really well. I’m not sure what my successor will someday make of the homegrown PHP/MySQL CMS and Wysiwyg editor but it works.
Meredith, I’m glad you talked about this topic. Although I work at a public library, I thought it would be nice to set up subject guides for our patrons (local interest stuff, educational resources, etc) and I was considering using del.iciou.us. In fact, I set up an account already. It never occurred to me to consider a wiki. Out of curiousity, is there anyway to change the skin of a wiki to make it reflect the company image?
Here at the University of Illinois – Springfield we are using LibData and are just about to launch our subject pages and reference shelf.
Also, U of Minnesota is still using LibData:
So is Gustavas:
As well as St. Cloud State:
This past term we just started using our home-grown Interactive Course Assignment pages. I know we’re using Drupal, but that’s the extent of my knowledge for the backend. However, I can tell you my students are using this one a lot:
Since I have my meebo widget on the page I can tell when students are looking at the page if I’m logged onto meebo. I’d say about 5-8 students are accessing it between 9-6 pm (when I’m in the office). I’m guessing usage will go up as the deadline for the assignment draws near.
OCLC as part of the CORC experiment had an enhanced pathfinder tool. Sounded nice at the time, I’m not sure of the current status. It used PURLs to help with the upkeep of links.
Meredith, you cover so much ground and make so many good points, it’s hard to decide what to comment on.
Librarians having control over the library’s web presence. Who uses the subject guides? What technology to use? Priority given to content upkeep.
At Middlebury College, we have face many of the typical issues. We went to Microsoft CMS as part of a college-wide mandate several years ago, and this has constrained the library quite a bit as for as trying new things with our guides. I mention this only to point out that, if you’ve seen our subject guides, they’re visually boring. Although we have been able to leverage some of the behind-the-scenes power of a CMS to make management easier, the results do not keep the attention of a typical user. (I’m not saying our old static HTML guides were better, though.) As Karen points out above “they [guides] are designed for a print world” and as such, our users most likely just click to some other page.
From my perspective, these types of guides are useful more for the librarians to share subject expertise with each other, so that we can help students and faculty find resources that are outside our liaison areas (areas of expertise).
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be using a wiki or SubjectsPlus instead. I do think we should. Problem is, if you can’t get folks to maintain their guides, how can you get them to learn a new technology for their guides to boot? (That’s a rhetorical question.)
Again, referring to another part of Karen’s comment, “reconceptualizing subject guides and subject portals” is where I am placing my bets. We have done work breaking our guides into “microcontent” and sharing, rearranging, connecting, etc. Now, with the newer version of our courseware in beta, there is a vision of developing a multiplicity of modules to integrate content from diverse sources, essentially creating miniportals within the class portal. (Our system is called Segue, it’s open source, OKI-compliant, home-grown.) Appropriate subject guides (or any component parts) could be inserted into the appropriate part of the class sites. This would drive traffic to the guides or take the guides to where the traffic is (i.e., in the course-sites.)
We are just starting to switch over our subject pages to MediaWiki and there is a WYSIWYG available at least in the version we have downloaded. Although I’ve added so much stuff to it I’ve found it easier to just use the wiki markup.
We’ve been using PBWiki for subject guides and to GREAT success. Our students are using them more than ever before, our faculty are participating in generating content, and all the librarians contribute because it is so darn easy!
We are looking into using del.icio.us for some other things and you make some very useful points about other options.
I’m building a research portal prototype (really, a subject guide on steroids) that I hope our public services librarians will use…done with WordPress and the Scout Internet Portal Toolkit. We’re only a few weeks into the project but I think it has potential. You can take a look at the effort (and please, offer any ideas or suggestions that come to you) at:
Aren’t you tired of the [everything] 2.0 meme yet?
Wow, great comments, everyone! Nick, I hadn’t realized that you’d wiki-ized the Williams library site. Hot stuff!
I love seeing how other libraries are dealing with these issues. Laurie, your guide rocks! I considered Drupal, but nixed it because I know I am incapable of making Drupal look pretty.
Thanks for the info on the OCLC project. Will definitely have to check it out.
This is the sort of stuff we really need to be sharing information about more. So many of are struggling with the same issues regarding subject/course guides and how to make them useful. It would be nice to share ideas and discuss what has or hasn’t worked for us.
Dani, great to see you on here! Yes, you can change the look of a wiki; depending on what software you use. I made the wiki for our subject guides look nothing like the Wikipedia, which is the default for MediaWiki. It helps to know PHP and you definitely need to know CSS to be able to make it look consistent with your website. I’ve heard that PmWiki is much better in terms of styling it to look however you want. You may want to check into that one. I know the University of Minnesota https://wiki.lib.umn.edu/ uses it and they made it look quite pretty.
Karen, I totally agree that putting content (or at least a link to the content) into the course management systems is where it’s at. A CMS is basically the online equivalent of campus, so if the library’s not in there, it’s the equivalent of asking students to drive 20 minutes to get from class to their library. How many people would make the effort?
I am at a small library (6 librarians total) and we got LibGuides. It was well worth it- I see LibGuides allowing us to create easy shortcuts for specific classes and easily linking to them in Blackboard (or any other CMS). We are struggling with how to include ourselves on Blackboard and this has allowed us to get around license restrictions.
It has also allowed each of our librarians more control over their guides. We don’t have to wait for someone else to make our updates. Also, as someone who looks at our stats to make decisions, it has increased our stats for each database we list.
That’s terrific Sara! I’m very happy to hear that it’s had such a positive effect.
I’m well plugged into WebCT with the programs that I’m a liaison to, but it’s not something the undergraduate liaisons are currently doing (the undergrads use Moodle). It’s hard for me because it’s not my area, so I have no say, though I’d love to see them more plugged into there.
Hi Meredith, thanks for the kind words about SubjectsPlus. I don’t love the two-step entry page either, but actually we include the dropdown of subjects directly on our library home page (leading to the full result set), and that’s how most of our users encounter it.
Your point about being leery of products with a single developer is well-taken; I “adopted” Pirate Source because the original developer moved to Abu Dhabi and there was no one left at ECU to maintain it (afaik).
As for traffic, we found a huge increase in use of our subject guides once we stuck the dropdown on the home page, and it’s now usually #2 or #3 for hits (almost always below the dvd list–such is life).
Thanks for this timely entry. At our small college, we did have many subject guides, but they were very difficult to keep and maintain by the library webmaster (me).
In August, I pitched del.icio.us to the director and my co-workers, and within a few days I had all the links transferred from the old subject guide to del.icio.us.
Based on the web statistics, the subject guides were little used, and the new del.icio.us subject guide is…little used, but at least can be updated frequently and by more than one person.
View our efforts here and here.
Meredith, we’re struggling with the very same issue in migrating our museum object guides to the online environment. We originally had the resources on our Intranet site: It was a bear to edit and consequently we stopped looking at it much ourselves except as a quick link to url’s we couldn’t memorize. What’s more, it made no sense to ‘hide’ freely available content on a limited-access resource.
In looking at what was already out there, we didn’t want to replicate those (usually university) subject portals already out there, each with (presumably) a staff to maintain links and add content. But those portals are so bewildering in their comprehensiveness that we still felt we needed to identify ‘key’ resources pertinent to our rather narrow subject focus.
Since our blog couldn’t visually and technically carry the weight of these guides, we moved to wikis. After finding one that seemed reasonable, we were still faced with too many resources to maintain links to realistically. Now we’re looking to keep the top sites on the wiki and send users (“see also”) to the del.icio.us site for the secondary web resources. The del.icio.us site can also be a temporary place for resources under review.
What are people doing to balance the limited-access resources and the free ones? We don’t have a natural captive audience (i.e., students), so apart from a small in-house staff and those using terminals on-site, our links might not be functional for the majority of our wiki/del.icio.us users.
Until every book is Google-ized (unlikely), we still can’t provide web access to all the pertinent resources needed to do research on a museum object.
Two alternatives to check out: DocuWiki (for wiki pages) and CMSimple for content management. These are unique in that they do *not* require any detabase back-end, but instead store the content in flat files on the filesystem. I have done everything from Zope to Drupal and back, but I keep reaching for these because they are so simple to set up and run. Both are free.
Thanks so much for this post! I’m at a large library, and have been fretting over managing (many) subject pages for some time now. We’re at a point where ideas of what can or should be on the guides have loosened up so that we can try new things, & I’ve been playing with some alternatives to our static html pages. It’s very helpful to read about what you’ve been testing/considering, and also makes me feel less alone in the information universe.
I expect you’ve already seen it, but Ellyssa Kroski has a nice post on Creating 2.0 Subject Guides.
Research Guides demo did not work which worried me but the ones hosted at UMich looked awesome. But like with everything else I worry about resources… will people at my school be interested or are we stretched too thin to try new things.
I’ve read your post with a rueful grin on my face, because I know just what you’re talking about! I’ve been taking a break from fixing my school library website. The district went with a new provider this year, so my URL changed–so all my links for a webquest on Europe now don’t work. So I’m having to fix the links on 26 different pages for my third graders tomorrow. The only webquest I haven’t had to completely rework is the one on my pbwiki.
We also found that the subject guides just weren’t matching our students’ needs. My colleague Brenda Reeb and I wrote an article about it in Portal 4.1(2003) http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/portal_libraries_and_the_academy/v004/4.1reeb.html
We built a local content management system in order to create course-specific library resource guides. http://www.library.rochester.edu/index.cfm?page=courses Starting this year, these guides are now automatically pulled into the Blackboard shells for each course.
I think some of the issues with del.icio.us being a third-party service can be mitigated by exporting your data – with the API, the RSS & JSON feeds, and in standard browser-bookmarks-format – to make a backup copy of your guides on your website. There are also some tools to help you do that, including http://slashlinks.eyebeamresearch.org/home and http://nanovivid.com/projects/mysqlicious/. Anyway, we at del.icio.us love that library people think about and use del.icio.us!
I noticed you updated the usage information about Libdata, but it also looks like they released a new version in 2005. I installed it and used it while at Rider University, and it was a pretty good tool and came with good documentation. A quick check shows that Rider is still using it and they link to various subject guides right from the library home page (http://www.rider.edu/172_6148.htm). I think that is a key to getting students to use them. Without learning about the guides in a Bibliographic Instruction session or other wise, I don’t think many students will click on a link that says “Subject Guides”, but they just might click on one that says “Biology”.
We developed a custom solution at OSU Libraries called Interactive Course Assignment Pages (ICAP). Laurie mentions it above, but is incorrect about the Drupal part. ICAP is an open-source project built on Ruby on Rails that will be released next week to the public: http://ica.library.oregonstate.edu/about/index.html
The tool has been widely adopted by our Librarians and as Laurie said the pages are also being used by our students.