Library Portals and What's Next
Is the library portal about to yield to the Next Big Thing?
A funny thing happened to the traditional library card catalog as it morphed
into the online public access catalog (OPAC). The whole mission of the library
changed along the way, and the purpose of the library catalog changed along
with it. Enter the library portal.
But, first: How did we get here? The file-drawer-based card catalog was an
inventory of the objects (mostly books and periodicals) that were physically
present in the library. With the burst of new electronic resources-first electronic
databases on CD, then eJournals (full-text electronic collections), and all
manner of resources on the Internet-the library's job got a lot bigger. People
who used the library expected it to help them deal with the entire universe
of information, not just the books on the nearby shelves. So, the OPAC had to
transform itself to meet a similar challenge.
VIA MY LIBRARY, LEHIGH STUDENTS
can now build their own
customized resource portals
with material from the
Linderman Library (left)
--or anywhere else.
The online library software somehow
had to catalog, or at least provide a gateway to, a huge variety of materials
in the hands of many different proprietors. Integrated Library Systems (ILSs)
have met this challenge by converting the simple OPAC into a comprehensive,
customer-driven library portal. (See the box below for a sampler of portal-style
features offered by various vendors and institutions.)
Here, in a nutshell, is what makes a library portal different from the OPAC
Federated search. A well-stocked library may subscribe
to hundreds of online databases and other resources on behalf of its patrons,
each with its own search interface and login procedure. A federated search lets
the user enter the search criteria once and eliminates duplication among the
User profiles and contexts. The system knows who
the user is and what the user generally wants, and uses that information to
tailor its services, integrating with the campus's administrative information
and course management systems.
Multiple channels of content. The system can offer
weather reports, RSS feeds, and the dining hall menu, in addition to more formal
library databases and collections.
Customizable content and interface. The library can
customize the portal by branding it with its own look and feel. Users can choose
interface design and needed tools, by default. Some library portals even offer
the flexibility of "skins": easily interchangeable surface designs such as those
featured by MP3 software.
The Crystal Ball
Stephen Abram, VP of Innovation for the Sirsi Corporation (www.sirsi.com),
is a seer in the library automation field. (See his articles at www.sirsi.com/Resources/abram_articles.html
He says that Sirsi, for one, is building a "framework" for college and university
library sector success. For instance, the company will be introducing a product
this year called Enterprise Portal Solution (EPS), built around the concept
of "rooms." A Sirsi Room, says Abram, is a context that a user is working in
at the moment, such as cell biology or finance. With EPS, the university library
will be able to assemble the right resources in that room to prevent information
overload (hundreds of resources that may not be relevant), and increase the
likelihood that the user will find solid, reliable information. Other areas
the company is working on include: closer integration with course management
systems like Blackboard (www.blackboard.com)
and WebCT (www.webct.com);
an instant-messaging-style virtual reference desk; profiles linked to a user's
library card that automatically invoke accessibility software matching the user's
special needs; federated identity management so that users only need to log
into the campus systems once; and support for experience-based learning styles
rather than just text-based ones (accessible today through Sirsi's Hyperion
streaming media server; in the future, perhaps, nurses will be able to interact
with a virtual cadaver).
Susan Wagner, Sirsi's Northeast account manager, claims the company is putting
"content in context." She says that Sirsi is merely "bringing to the table what
librarians have brought to the table for hundreds of years: the ability to distinguish
between relevant material and junk"-only now in a virtual environment.
U.S. PORTAL AND FEDERATED SEARCH FEATURES
||Portal & Federated Special Features
|Endeavor Information Systems Inc.
|| WebVoyàge, MyOPAC
|| MetaLib, SFX (OpenURL), MetaSearch
|Geac Library Solutions
||ADVANCE, Vubis Smart
|| Vubis Smart Web OPAC
|Innovative Interfaces Inc.
||Web OPAC, My Millenium, AirPAC
(wireless devices), WebBridge Linking
|Mandarin Library Automation
||Mandarin PACPortal, MuseSearch
||iLink e-Library, Enterprise Portal Solution
(formerly Rooms), DataStream,
SingleSearch, Sirsi Resolver (OpenURL)
|The Library Corporation (TLC)
||CARL Solution, CARLX
||VECTORS/Portal, User Reviews & Ratings (peer review),
Smart Device (PDA interface)
|Notre Dame MyLibrary Project
||MyLibrary (open source,
user-customizable interface to
collections of Internet resources)
Lehigh University (PA) is creating context for its library
users with the help of an open source library portal called MyLibrary that is
being developed at University Notre Dame (IN) under the leadership
of Eric Lease Morgan, head of Digital Access and Information Architecture. At
Lehigh, MyLibrary collects information about each user (such as a major declared
in the university's administrative information system), and uses it to build
a customized collection of relevant reference resources, which the user can
then customize to taste. MyLibrary also interacts with the campus's ILS to automatically
retrieve references to journals and databases in the user's field of interest.
Faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates at Lehigh have already used
MyLibrary more than its planners ever projected. Tim McGeary, senior library
systems specialist, explains Lehigh's success with MyLibrary, which is integrated
with the university's SunGard SCT Luminis campus portal (www.sungardsct.com):
"Before students ever step on the campus, they do all their summer orientation
through the Luminis portal. Their Lehigh experience is born through the portal.
If they accept that interface as being the way to go, then a portal-based service
like MyLibrary will succeed."
Integration, Interfaces, and Irony
D'es a comprehensive library portal run the danger of overlapping and competing
with efforts to develop an effective institutional portal? Doug Randall, technology
product manager at Innovative Interfaces Inc. (the developers of the Millenium
ILS; www.iii.com), sees the
two kinds of efforts eventually converging. "Institutional portals can seem
sometimes to subsume the library, by implementing some of the federated searching
and metasearching that the library may already be offering to its users. Where
you draw the line is not clear. But the future is probably integration rather
than fundamental migration of the function- ality totally in one direction or
In fact, much of Innovative's recent efforts have been aimed at making integration
between Millenium's portal and other campus systems easier. Efforts include
support for single sign-on technology based on Apache authentication modules
like Central Authentication Service (CAS) and Pubcookie; the development of
portlets; a project to implement RSS feeds within Millenium; and the development
of a mini-search widget (a small, free-standing application that will operate
outside the Millenium interface).
But what about the future of the portal concept itself? There may be a huge
irony here. The primary concept that makes the portal possible is that information
services can be constructed in a way that makes them independent from a specific
appearance they must have on screen. There are many names and styles for this
abstraction: Web Services/XML, OpenURL, APIs, widgets, and RSS feeds. These
"browserless" services provide information when a program asks for it; a user
d'esn't need to point and click. The information is returned in a structured
form that can be easily processed by the local program that called for it.
Once services like specialized search engines are provided this way, the portal
can freely combine and repackage them. But now the horse is out of the barn,
because the user can begin to choose from many interfaces to reach these abstracted
services. The interface then becomes a commodity, not a monopoly. As a user,
as long as what I want is available in the form of a service, I can build my
own portal (or buy one off the shelf) using my own desktop rather than someone
else's Web server, whether it is the library's ILS portal or the institution's
official one. Even a federated search backed by strict authentication can be
offered as a service, if the provider wishes to do so.
You may already have installed software on your computer that links you up
to the recent crop of consumer- oriented browserless services, programs as simple
as MediaMan (www.imediaman.com),
or an RSS feed reader. MediaMan catalogs your personal collection of books,
recordings, and other media by harvesting information (including book jackets)
from the browserless Amazon Web Service (www.amazon.com).
Other Web services are already being made available for software developers
to use by eBay (developer.ebay.com/DevProgram/index.asp)
and Gracenote CDDB music information service (www.gracenote.com).
Users will still desire a place where they can assemble their favorite services.
But in the world of browserless services there will be multiple, side-by-side
solutions, some of them on the client side rather than on the server side. Certainly,
institutional and library portals will continue to play an essential role, but
the portals that users value in the long run may be the ones that they own and