Seminar Retrospective - Thursday, 25 May - The Geeky Side of Libraries

The second Thursday of the seminar was probably my favorite, content-wise. Our two morning presenters spoke of much that is geeky in the library world and in the afternoon we got a tour of the Oxford University Press Museum (representing an entirely other kind of geekiness, but still very cool). Before I talk about the fun that was Thursday, though, I need to go back and mention one other thing that happened on Wednesday. On Wednesday evening, Bill Clennell (who I mentioned quite some time ago - he's been involved with UNC Oxford program for many years) and Jane Bale (Bill's sweetie) invited the entire seminar group to dinner at their house in suburban Oxford. Bill and Jane wanted to do this to give us a chance to get away from the school for an evening and to socialize and to see a little bit more of the area. A splended time was had by all (even my cold had finally cleared up), and it was great to have a dinner that really felt like it was a meal shared with friends (rather than just classmates). Ah, but onto Thursday....

The New Computer System

The morning's first presentation proved that when Oxford University Libraries decided to reorganize, they decided to go BIG. In addition to the mergers and consoloditations of departments and collections, they're also rolling out a new computer system (and actually, by now, I think it's supposed to be rolled out) to manage library operations (which if my understanding was correct was likely to cover everything from the online catalog to inventory and ordering to managing some of their digital holdings). Erin Raynor, Library Management System Project Manager explained some of what was involved in managing the project. And this was a challening project. The Oxford University Library system is extremely complex (all those libraries, the fact that a large percentage of the collection is in closed stacks, etc.), and the hope what that the new system would not only be able to fill current needs but would also be scalable to future needs. A tall order.

The project team eventually compiled a 135 page specification, and got a grand total of 7 responses from vendors. 3 of the vendors made the short list and their offerings went through an intensive evaluation process before the contract was awarded. Then of course there's the building of the system (with many custom features), training staff, testing, and roll out. All of this on a timeline that was really too tight to follow (because this is the way it always seems to work). They were still in the testing/training phase in May, but were confident that the system would be up and running (at least in part) on schedule.

This presentation did point out some good points to keep in mind for projects like these, though. The clearer your idea is of what you want, the better off you'll be (hence the 135 page spec.). Take great care when coosing your vendor (make sure they can do what you need and that they're willing to work with you). Make sure that you have a contingency plan in place in case things go wrong (they weren't going to turn off the old library system until they were absolutely certain the new one was working).

A very interesting presentation, in all - and I hope the implementation went as smoothly as the run-up sounded like it went.

Ah, and I've just discovered that it looks like the roll out of the new system has been (at least partially) delayed until December. Which maybe proves another point about good project management - don't go live until you're ready, even if it puts you behind schedule.

Oxford Digital Libraries

The second presentation of the morning was from Michael Popham, Head of the Oxford Digital Library, about, appropriately enough, Oxford's Digital Library (that is, their efforts to digitize library holdings and make them available online). I was actually kind of surprised to learn that they've had digital holdings of one sort or another dating back to the 60s (text archives, I believe, ala Project Gutenberg). They really got going in 2000 though when they got a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and have sense worked on several projects that range from early manuscripts to printed ephemeria.

However, in a library with over 11 million items, you can't digitize everything (well, at least, not all at once), so one of the biggest challenges in managing these projects is simply in choosing what to digitize. Some material isn't really suitable for digitization (at the moment), some of it is still under copyright, which leads to additional challenges. There is also the little matter of the fact that digital libraries are still new and so they're still working the technology out (both in terms of things like scanning and in terms of organizing the collection and making it accessible). The library is hoping to be able to follow a capture once - reuse many times method by providing the best resources they can for selection, capture and management, by providing very good descriptions of the items in the collection (the technical term here is metadata), and by using open standards so that the data will remain usable.

Then, of course, there's the big news on the digitization front at Oxford: their participation in the Google Book Project. And we got to hear a mini presentation about this too. Unfortunately, I can't talk about that. No, really. There's a note on the handout I got that says that rules of commercial confidentially apply, and I'm gonna respect that and play it safe and *not* go into detail about this. I'll just say this - from the sound of it, the folks in Oxford are proving quite nicely that they can work with a big company like Google without compromising their principles and create a resource that will be valuable for all parties concerned. If ya'll want to learn more, check out these sites:

Oxford University Press Museum Tour

Thursday afternoon was taken up by a tour of the Oxford University Press Museum, conducted by Martin Maw, Archivist for Oxford University Press. The museum itself is small - just one room, really, but the tour was excellent. We got a crash course in the history of printing in Oxford. There was quite a lot to say about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (an effort that took... rats, now I don't remember exactly how long, but I think something along the lines of 80 years to get the first edition completed) - which is surely one of the great feats of humanity (and if you don't believe that, go read "The Meaning of Everything" by Simon Winchester, a book about which I must say more at some point). Very interesting stuff. The museum is open by appointment only (although according to my Lonely Planet Guide, it's free), but if you find yourself in Oxford with an hour or two to spare, I'd say it's worth making the appointment.

All in all, an excellent day.