Dealing with change in LIS – a personal perspective for #uklibchat

This blog post also appears on the uklibchat site for the chat of 6 August 2013, ‘The changing world of libraries and information‘. This post contains an additional reference to a blog post by the Library Loon on ‘steady-state librarianship‘ which was omitted from the version published by uklibchat – my error.

I have to change to stay the same
– Willem de Kooning

In this guest blog post for uklibchat I’ll talk about how I deal with change in my role at Senate House Libraries, University of London.

For my library masters I studied various models for describing change and how to manage change. I won’t dwell on these in detail but to give one example to think about, Lewin’s (1947) model describes change as a three step process:

  1. Unfreezing: preparing the organization for change, building a case, dismantling the existing “mindset”.
  2. Change: an uncomfortable period of uncertainty with the organization beginning to make and embrace changes.
  3. Freezing: finalizing the organization in a new, stable state and returning to former levels of comfort.

I use this model as a way of understanding a traditional view, sometimes presented as a “common sense” view, of change processes though I find the underlying assumptions in the model itself quite manipulative – for example the idea that to create change, the transient pain of change must be understood to be less for the organization than the pain of keeping things the same. Other models have more steps and so greater complexity. Kotter’s (1996) eight step change model is one example; at that level of complexity it reads more like “Kotter’s tips for implementing change” rather than a theoretical model.

The main things I take from these models and work experience are that:

  • The major challenges in implementing change come down to people rather than technology or machines.
  • The period of implementing change will be disruptive and uncomfortable, as a manager you cannot ignore but must engage with this.
  • Communication at all stages is key to a successful change process – including celebrating success afterwards.

At Senate House Libraries we’ve experienced a considerable period of disruptive change since the mid-2000s. One conclusion I’ve made from this is we are definitely no longer in the business of steady-state librarianship (Library Loon, 2012). Our “business as usual” now includes an implicit assumption that we need to constantly review and adjust our processes and services to meet changing needs and demands, hence my inclusion of Willem de Kooning’s wonderfully mysterious quote above.

This does not mean slavishly following every new trend in technology or being led by the nose by technology, particularly technology as repackaged and sold by library software and hardware suppliers, but actively maintaining current awareness and honestly evaluating the status quo as thoroughly as we do new ideas.

I say this because in some libraries I notice a willingness to subject the new thing in a change process to exacting and rigorous examination but not examine the status quo in the same way. There is an assumption here about the ‘rightness’ of our current approaches, whatever they happen to be. What I find troubling about this is the idea our way of working will remain ‘right’ for any length of time in a changing landscape. It is absolutely right not to try to fix something that isn’t broken or enact change for the sake of change, but this is something only knowable following evaluation.

For me the operational aspect of library service must inform strategic thinking and planning, as it’s those staff that are in constant contact with library members and understand the fine detail of the service. For this reason I involve my whole team in developing operational plans and contributing to strategy by identifying priorities for future work. My view is change shouldn’t just be something that ‘just happens’ to staff but something for all to take an active role in.

Personally I am influenced by approaches from IT as I have a systems background, and more broadly am influenced by application of researched-based and evidence-based practise in librarianship. To be clear I include qualitative research in this as an essential parter to quantitative research, adding much-needed richness and depth to our understanding of user experience and behaviour.

One change process at my workplace where I’ve used this approach is implementing a new discovery layer, or library catalogue, as part of our implementation of a new library management system, Kuali Open Library Environment (OLE). OLE does not have a traditional catalogue so a catalogue or discovery layer such as VuFind or Blacklight is needed.

To do this, we have built and developed the case for changing by:

  • Presenting about the project formally at all-staff meetings and individual team meetings.
  • Informal conversation with staff to answer questions and build awareness ‘things are happening’ around discovery.
  • Involving staff in thinking creatively about discovery in a workshop environment (I blogged about this aspect a few months ago).
  • Giving discovery the respect it deserves by treating it as a Web project that puts user experience at the core – and being seen to do so. This includes hosting a student from UCL Department of Information Studies doing ethnographic research on catalogue user behaviour.
  • Answer technical questions quickly and with confidence, including in-depth questions about SolrMARC (really) and metadata issues.

The important point for me as the head of our systems team is so much of this is not about technology, it’s about surfacing opinion and including staff in conversation. For example we’ve set up a beta test VuFind 2.0 instance to provide food for thought, but it’s not core

By necessity this blog post is brief, but I hope this specific example and the more general things I’ve said above help seed discussion for uklibchat.

References

Lewin, K. (1947) ‘Frontiers in group dynamics: concept, method and reality in social science; social equilibria and social change’, Human Relations, 1 (1), pp. 5-41, PsycINFO [Online] doi:10.1177/001872674700100103 (Accessed: 27 July 2013)

Kotter, J.P. (1996) Leading change. Watertown, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Library Loon (2012) ‘Steady-state vs. expanding-universe librarianship’, Gavia Libraria, 22 July. Available at: http://gavialib.com/2012/07/steady-state-vs-expanding-universe-librarianship/ (Accessed: 7 August 2013).

Transcending the LMS – Jisc Library Systems Programme workshop

On Monday 15 July I attended Jisc’s Library Systems Programme workshop which summed up experience from the LMS Change programme and the various Jisc-funded pathfinder projects. Our Bloomsbury LMS project to implement the Kuali OLE library services platform at the University of London is not funded by Jisc, we were participating as part of Jisc’s wider community engagement.

Helen Harrop of Sero Consulting collected tweets from the day here – Jisc Library Systems Programme Event on Storify and Ben Showers blogged a summary of the day including presentations here – Library Systems Workshop.

Thanks to Jisc for organizing the workshop – super job.

On being provocative

In the afternoon I spoke on a panel with Owen Stephens and Martin Myhill. I was asked to be provocative and talk about what I want to see in my imagined library system of the future – what is on my systems wishlist?

What a great platform. I think systems librarians and shambrarians are good at provocative, sweeping statements as we often need to see things terms of complete systems and the structure and interconnectedness of their component parts. Add to this years of experience with libraryland systems, and the 2012-13 turning point where next-generation library services platforms started being deployed in our libraries and things get quite interesting.

As I prepared slides in advance I didn’t have much chance to tweak what I’d say over the day. Listening to Ann Rossiter of Sconul and Ben Showers of Jisc speak about the history of the project and the current landscape I worried I might just be telling directors and systems workers things they already know and agree with. Nice as motherhood and apple pie is, it’s not provocative.

I wanted to expand on my points and relate things other speakers said to my vision of how I think we should develop our systems. My sides from the day are available on Slideshare, but they were only intended as soundbites for me to talk around so I’ve reproduced those as my headings below.

What’s I’ve missed out is a major point about the opportunity to disrupt our traditional procurement approaches to drive new systems and especially adoption of Free and Open Source software. This point was made by Ben Showers early on and it kept coming back to my mind over the course of the day, what I heard from Glyn Ryland of the Whelf shared LMS project about their next steps to procure and implement a new system was particularly thought-provoking. A blog post will follow on this in future.

Transcending the LMS

Transcending the library management system is the fundamental issue for me.

Next-generation library services platforms are now being implemented and deployed in libraries in higher education. They are a thing of concrete reality not of the imagination. For me the vision of the next-generation is hidebound and limited by notions of what is appropriate for libraries and what lies outside these systems.

I guess most of us in systems are familiar with the corporate slide decks library vendors present for these platforms. They are all similar with a circle of components such as discovery, resource discovery, ERM, perhaps even digital asset management and reading lists, grouped around the vendor’s core library system at the centre. The implication is the vendor understands the complete picture and you’re in safe hands buying everything you need from them.

There is something seductive about this, but for me it’s incomplete and self-limiting. There are risks here too, as Owen Stephens made the point that by buying from that one vendor, you might end up prioritizing ease over your strategic goals.

To unpack this with an example, I want a library system that understands metadata and content beyond library. So I imagine a system that can manage our library and archives metadata equally well and support cataloguing workflows for both. This will be possible because my future system won’t have one cataloguing user interface; it’ll be possible to build your own interface as needed for different staff and workflows. My future system would be built with an understanding of our need to move to linked data approaches to cataloguing (catalinking, if we must), and our need for cohesive presentation of different types of content and descriptive metadata while avoiding creation of yet more silos.

My system of the future would transcend the limited notion of a library system for managing local bibliographic data and providing inventory and circulation functions – and it could really exist! In the cataloguing examples above I’m cheating as these are features either being coded or planned for future Kuali OLE releases, not pie in the sky.

By and for higher education

I want a library system that does what an academic research library wants and needs to support our business. A system we can employ to improve user experience for our students, and the academics who rely on us for their research and supporting their teaching. But library staff and IT staff count too. Improving user experience for colleagues in the library, and system functionality for our IT departments smooths the operation and maintenance of our systems.

Some of this sounds abstract, but comes into sharp focus as I think of how many times I’ve run into problems with my favourite monolithic library system because it’s just not designed for a complex group of higher education libraries.

In defence of librarians

It’s a bit fashionable to say librarians don’t really understand concepts around service and should borrow ideas from other sectors. Retail springs to mind here. For my part I think librarians don’t appreciate how similar the customer-facing aspects of our roles are to those in IT services, and how service management concepts can be re-used in libraries.

However, as a professional I believe strongly librarians in higher education do know what we’re doing in supporting our core purpose as universities, and I have much less faith in software suppliers to do that. One point made on the day was it’s not just what library software supplier are doing doesn’t reflect what libraries need, but that it might not reflect what they themselves think they should be doing. Rather, they are doing whatever best creates value for the private equity firms that own most of them nowadays.

The Kuali Foundation ‘gets it’ in this respect as our subject matter experts – meaning librarians and other library workers with expert knowledge – sit within a foundation that includes development expertise in analysis, consultancy, and project management. That means you avoid pitfalls that you can imagine if I asked you to imagine a library management system built by librarians.

Enterprise, not libraryland

Having said all that I think we’ll get best use from our future library systems by focusing on what we’re good at, which is providing library services, rather than what we’re not, which is generic IT and systems administration.

To enable this my wishlist includes features that allow our future systems to be taken seriously by colleagues in IT and the wider university. This means stepping away from libraryland systems and towards enterprise IT.

So, expect to take various options for cloud hosting using commodity IT services to our IT department rather than a single ‘vendor cloud’. I expect the future system to plug into a standard enterprise backup system, and I expect it to support virtualized hardware without being overly fussy about which particular Linux distribution or virtualization technology it runs on. I expect to be able to cope with peaks of demand over the academic year by temporarily bringing in more (virtualized) application servers.

Open and interoperable

My future library system will be open and interoperable with documented, web-based APIs and will be based on service-oriented architecture. Here I am almost quoting Ken Chad in his presentation on the day word-for-word.

It will be possible to get data into and out of the system easily, in whatever machine or human-readable form we wish to describe. These will be standard features rather than expensive optional extras. I’m thinking of features at the level of then button present in Kuali OLE 0.8 that produces XML output from the bibliographic database to feed into a discovery layer.

I’m entirely opposed to building the hacked-together and kludgy solutions “made out of glue and string” as my colleague Tim Fletcher at Birkbeck, University of London calls them.

Any library technology company could and should be able to do this now: there are no excuses. In my view software supplies do understand this and are moving in the right direction. This is great to see as we have been asking for this for quite some years. The point where vendors start getting tricky is in trying to convince us that some limited “openness” in the form of open APIs and accessible data is quite enough, which finally brings me on to…

Free and Open Source software

My future LMS will be be released under a license that appears in the Free Software Foundation’s list of free software licenses.

Let’s get this out of the way, the GNU four freedoms are a matter of liberty rather than cost and for me are central as a wishlist item for a future library system.

However there are more sophisticated and nuanced arguments to be made in favour of Open Source software. Liberty is important for practical reasons because it drains away risks associated with having a single software supplier for support and development, and it provides a safe and secure future for our system that won’t be influenced by private equity firms buying up library vendors. Commissioning development specifically of an Open Source system would allow a group of libraries to pool resources without one partner ceding their control to others, or becoming locked in to the particular technology or development roadmap that suits the vendor best.

Happily, we know systems vendors agree Free and Open Source Software is good software, because they use this software themselves as components to develop and build their systems. It’s wonderful to see library technology companies generating value by selling this software. No sarcasm intended: it’s what that Free Software Foundation think too.

Discovery at Senate House Libraries: staff focus groups

Introduction

At Senate House Libraries, University of London we’re part way though our project to migrate our library management system (LMS) to Kuali OLE, a Free Software / Open Source library services platform. As a deliberate design choice OLE does not come with an online catalogue for end users, so we are approaching discovery as a work package in our LMS project. To this end I recently ran focus groups for staff to start to specify what goes into a functional specification for our discovery system.

Part way into writing my summary of the high-level requirements I realised I was writing something like a manifesto. I stopped and split this into a separate page in our Confluence wiki, and this is what I wanted to share with you. If you want to see something more like a specification for a library discovery / vertical search system, take a look at Ken Chad’s libtechrfp site on Vertical Search as a starting point.

Running focus groups

From my point of view it’s liberating to start with a clean slate for discovery and not with the limitations of existing library vendor solutions. There are a whole host of implications here, primary for me are not being tied to vendor development roadmaps and technology choices, and not having limitations from the LMS carry through to the discovery layer. So, I wanted to start with an open mind and not presume too much about staff received opinion or staff use of our existing discovery systems.

I asked participants to think about some questions as a prelude to a mix of small- and big-group discussion in a workshop context.

  • What’s valued in our current discovery systems, and what are outstanding problems?
  • What’s missing that should be included in the next discovery system?
  • What’s most important to researchers?
  • What would a good discovery system look like, and how would it behave?

I have to apologize for management-speak of asking what does good look like, but it’s a serious point. It is incredibly hard to describe what a successful new system would be like to use, but these are the things we need to be thinking about rather than say, a list of missing features in Innovative’s Encore Discovery versus their older WebPAC Pro catalogue.

Just to add that yes, testing with library members is to follow. This will include the usual usability testing that accompanies and informs any sane web project, and also a more in-depth investigation into user behaviour using ethnographic methods.

“[We want] the moon on a stick”

These group discussions were incredibly productive and featured a good deal of imaginative and daring thinking about what a library catalogue should be and how it should behave. My favourite headline from these small group discussions was a page titled, “the moon on a stick”. I think this is a good starting point: we should think big and aspirational, not small and limited.

Our goal should be full discovery of everything including searching across books, journals, archives, images, and so on in a way that is clear about what you’re searching and provides options to include and exclude different content. In this context the local bibliographic database becomes the biggest of several databases that discovery draws from alongside the archives catalogue, eprints repository, and digital asset management system.

Unfolding complexity

So, how do we provide breadth and depth of discovery without overwhelming the reader with a firehose-like experience of masses of information; and impossible complexity that requires a LIS masters degree to understand?

The key point for us is discovery needs the ability to be as simple or complex as you want to at any given time. We need a way of providing a range of levels of complexity in the same system rather than hiding all the complexity behind an ‘advanced search’ link.

This doesn’t just mean copying from web search, as a single search box is very difficult to get right in the library context. Even if many libraries are going this way nowadays it is very hard to do it well and impossible to please everyone. On the one hand, old school OPACs rely too much on specialist knowledge of how the catalogue works and the structure of the underlying metadata that powers them. On the other, library attempts at single search boxes use keyword indexes that fail to make best use of the complexity and richness of that underlying metadata.

Instead we need an approach that respects the intellectual ability of our readership and the status of our institution, and respects the reader’s conceptual understanding of the library. Our approach should reflect the pride we have in being a library and our professional abilities as librarians, without attempting to turn readers into mini-librarians.

Discovery must include ways of bringing in complexity from a simple starting point, something web search engines can do quite well.

Readers shouldn’t feel they’re starting from a position where they’re telling the library, “I’m stupid”, or “I’m intelligent”. Discovery needs to reconcile providing a simple starting point with surfacing information that may be relevant, but is deep and complex. We know that buried somewhere in the clutter are results that are useful to the reader. The underlying technology may be very complicated but the experience of the system should be the opposite.

We need to meet the needs of different groups of users, or the differing needs of the same user. We know there are primary and secondary uses of our collections for the same person, and a reader may have a different approach in a different context depending on what they are using us for. Staff are users of the catalogue and discovery tools should be easier for staff, too.

User experience

To inform this ‘unfolding complexity’, discovery must bring in user experience concepts and best practise from elsewhere in and outside libraries. The starting point in our thinking here is discovery should be navigable like a modern web site is, and to achieve this it will be designed in a similar way to how our our website was designed. That is, similar approaches and techniques given a library spin that respects our role and the reasons readers choose to sign up for membership.

User experience is key to our web presence but it must be a theme throughout the services we offer: it can’t stop at the library website. There is a gulf between library websites and library catalogues and discovery that we need to bridge. Libraries spend time and money building good websites, but you’ll still find terrible usability when you move over to their catalogues. John Blyberg sums this up as:

The problem lies with inflexible and outdated systems rather than no-one bothering with usability testing or not caring about their readers. Our next discovery system can’t be another weird product from Libraryland that is disconnected from the approach we take when building our websites.

Objecting to my own methodology

I’d like to end on a little reflection about methodology and our subjective views of catalogues based on our experience and familiarity.

Many staff expressed a wish for a “simple”, “uncluttered”, “user friendly”, or “intuitive” interface as contrasted with a “busy”, “cluttered”, or “clunky” interface. I understand these wishes, and I think there is a certain know it when I see it gut feeling about overall user experience that makes something “simple” or “clunky”, but intellectually I know it’s difficult to unpack what these terms mean as they’re so subjective. You might guess a concern here is a term like “user friendly” being used as a proxy for personal preferences or familiarity, and there is a contrast between familiarity of staff traditional information retrieval interfaces versus familiarity of readers with modern websites that I think is important too.

So we do need to dig in! At this point the workshop format breaks down because it’s difficult to employ methods such as close questioning or laddering in a group work situation, you really need a one-to-one interview. However, I tried to unpick this as much as possible in the focus groups without anyone feeling too interrogated. For example, if the Encore feel is “cluttered” what is it that would improve it? What is it about the classic WebPAC Pro or another catalogue that is uncluttered?

I can see a danger here in acting as an interpretive layer or a translator between what someone says and what I think they really mean, and then how I think that should be implemented in a new discovery layer. In hindsight I wish I could’ve sat everyone down one-to-one and ran through some repertory grids to allow for comparisons between different catalogue interfaces based on those constructs such as “clutteredness”.

I had done this in my masters dissertation on library catalogue user experience and found it works really well, once you get over it being an “out-there method” (I smiled in agreement when I read that in Lauren Smith’s recent blog post on fieldwork).

This is something I may try as part of testing options for discovery interfaces such as VuFind and Blacklight.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Andrea Meyer-Ludowisy (Research Librarian, Western European Languages) and Joe Honywill (Associate Director, Digital Futures) at Senate House Libraries for helpful discussion on the subject.