Sunday, February 15, 2009

Why Wirral? One partial explanation.

A recent article in the Telegraph describes a worrying fall-off in library books and library usage in the UK.

Over the past six years books in public libraries in the UK have fallen 12%, from 116 million to 103.2 million. Library check-outs have fallen faster—16.5%. According to the Telegraph, UK librarians are bracing for another round of declining numbers, coming amid budget shortfalls across the board—and expecting to get their budgets slashed.

Reflecting on these problems, the CEO of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) told the Telegraph:
"[W]e live in an age where books can be bought cheaply from supermarkets or the internet so the reasons to visit a library have changed for many users."


Wirral as a microcosm. Cuts have started. The Wirral council system in NW England (LibraryThing Local), is closing 11 of 24 branches.

They sure don't deserve it. Taking a look at the Wirral Libraries website, anyone can see they're doing a lot of things right. The branches look well-organized and inviting. They've got a fair number of computers and free Wifi. They have a special outreach program for the house-bound. They even lend toys!*

But they are doing one thing very wrong—namely that Wirral, like most libraries, isn't really "on" the web.

People are finding things in supermarkets and the internet because it's easy to do so. On the internet, one-stop shopping means that a huge panaply of useful and interesting things are available from a single, unified and well-understood interface—from local bars, to local bands, to some 600 pizza and 400 curry joints in the area (Man, I love Britain!). Many of these resources are not only in Google searches, but Google will plot them on a map for your convenience.

What isn't online are library books! The Wirral Libraries' catalog, a Talis Prism OPAC, hardly registers in Google, which knows only 7,000 pages, from a library with more than 300,000 items. Worse, virtually every Wirral page in Google is broken. On the right are a representative sample of what Google knows about from the Wirral catalog. Each link has the same title. And each links to an expired session that proclaims:



You can, of course, get to the Wirral Libraries catalog if you know that's where you want to go—fifth link down, then the top rounded button on the right. That's not the same thing.

And even if you find a book, you can't bookmark it for yourself or forward it to a friend--the links will die off in a few minutes. In refusing to allow links and spider, the Wirral website sets itself apart from the other websites Wirral residents might use. The rest of the web just works—it's in your search box, where most internet-aware people do most of their information finding.

Lastly, where is WorldCat in all this, the "switching mechanism" and "point of concentration" (Karen Calhoun) OCLC provides libraries as an alternative to the "lunacy" (Roy Tennant) of libraries being on the web for themselves? Nowhere. None of the Wirral Libraries are in it, and WorldCat doesn't list a copy of Harry Potter in the Deathly Hallows closer than 60 miles away (postal code: CH46 6DE‎). One may speculate that Wirral wasn't willing to pay for the service, which anyway gets quite insignificant traffic.***

Who's to blame? Wirral Libraries' misfortunes are no doubt many, and not being part of the web is not the largest. But it's a part. Wirral citizens aren't seeing their library appear in their search results. They aren't as aware of its riches as they might otherwise be. If they were aware, it's likely they'd use these resources more, and the system would be easier to defend politically.

It won't do to blame Wirral for this. Library vendors have long handicapped their products in this way, and Wirral Libraries surely bought their Talis Prism system a while ago.** Budgets are short—and getting shorter. Both the web and this recession have hit libraries by surprise.

But refusing to participate in the central information technology of the age has its costs. And the leaders of Libraryland who advocated and continue to advocate for closed solutions, closed data and staying out of search indexes—except as "negotiated" with Google—have contributed to this situation. The respected guides have taken libraries off the great river of information, and left them grounded on the shore. Now someone's coming for the boat.

I hope the residents of Wirral fight like hell to keep their libraries open. Then they should fight like hell to make their libraries truly open.


*I don't know how common this is in Britain. I get the sense it's not too common in the US, but it happens. The Hingham Public Library in Hingham, MA lends practically everything, from toys to paintings on the wall.
**It's ironic that Wirral's OPAC was made by Talis, now one of the more progressive and forwarding thinking library vendors. I'll put this in a footnote to avoid "shilling," but if Wirral can get a new OPAC, I'll arrange for them to get LibraryThing for Libraries for free until they get back most of their funding. Maybe Talis would kick in an incentive to upgrade their OPAC?
***WorldCat is supposed to be the central website of Libraryland, but third-tier websites like LibraryThing and Dogster—the social network for dog lovers!—are currently beating it.

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13 Comments:

Anonymous Andrew B said...

Oh dear, has Talis fixed this in a newer version of the Prism OPAC? I sure hope so, I'd have expected more from them after reading their blogs and listening to some of their podcasts.

As a programmer (albeit not library software nor OPACs) this obsession that library software vendors seem to have with session based URLs just makes no sense to me. Is it some kind of unwritten law that every OPAC has to be crippled like this? Very sad :(

2/15/2009 1:54 AM  
Anonymous Richard Wallis said...

The visibility of library items within Google/Yahoo!/Ask, etc. Was something that came up on this month's Library 2.0 Gang with Google's Frances Haugen.

The consensus was that there isn't a harvesting protocol that adequately exposes items from within the catalogue that search engines would crawl. Within the show the idea of the Open Catalogue Crawling Protocol was born. In emails after the show, this idea is gaining some traction so watch this space for developments. Meanwhile take a listen to the show where many of the issues around this problem were explored.

On the specific Talis questions the new Talis Prism OPAC, being a Software as a Service application, is architected to make this kind of thing easier.

2/15/2009 9:44 AM  
Anonymous Ross said...

Actually, this sort of problem should be fixed in Prism 3 (the newest version of our OPAC), and Google is apparently crawling catalogs using it (or some of it). Yahoo! seems to be crawling the entire catalogs. Microsoft Live Search is more like Google. Granted, the pages should be much better optimized for search engines (the page titles, for example).

Now, that does nothing to help pagerank, of course.

Libraries with legacy (read: session-in-the-URL) OPACs could generate Google sitemaps, I suppose. Pagerank would still suffer (since nobody else would know these sessionless URLs), but I might play around with a Jangle adapter to help facilitate this.

Back to the Worldcat-as-conduit-to-Google, Ed Summers wrote an interesting post on Worldcat and their robots exclusion file. I have to wonder if OCLC's 'special deal' to give Google records rather than be crawled actually works against them since they are outside the normal Google indexing workflow. Google is a large company, how easy would it be for edge cases to fall between cracks when they tune their page rank algorithms?

2/15/2009 2:51 PM  
Anonymous Meghan/littlebookworm said...

I wonder if the UK's problem is indeed the abundance of cheap books. You can get many great books for 50p in charity shops, which are everywhere, and that way you don't have to worry about fines, waiting lists, or due dates, and you can pat yourself on the back for contributing to your favorite cause. This is a phenomenon I don't see in the US where independent and used bookshops are dying away. Over here, the libraries are busy, but mostly with people using the free internet.

2/15/2009 2:53 PM  
Anonymous GeekChic said...

Google/Yahoo/Ask used to be able to crawl our catalogue. Used to be able to (note the past tense). They were blocked because when they were crawling no one else could get any response out of that server and our out-bound connection speed suffered as well. There simply isn't money in the budget to buy the kind of network pipe to handle the hit.

As for WorldCat... I've only ever worked with 2 (out of 30+) libraries who were on it. Most either couldn't afford to join or weren't in the U.S. and contributed their records to their national union catalogue (so they saw WorldCat as superfluous). The assumption that "everyone" is on WorldCat needs to go away.

2/15/2009 4:57 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Chances are very good it wasn't a bandwidth issue. Bandwidth is VERY cheap these days. Integrated Library Systems are extremely expensive by comparison. But most OPAC systems have a hard time dealing with too many hits. In particular, it seems to be mostly about sessions. Most systems can deal with a session zooming around forever. But hitting the "permanent link" often creates a new session. We once brought down a library system in this way—just hitting permanent links.

Fundamentally, this is idiotic. There's no other industry whose online presence is so deeply—pardon my French—fucked up. That this isn't just any old industry, but what ought to be at the *center* of information online is a tragedy of the first degree.

2/15/2009 8:08 PM  
Blogger RJO said...

Some industries that start out on the cutting edge get jumped over (or rolled over) as the rest of the world improves around them. My sense is that's what happened to library catalog computerization over the last 30 years or so. Back when this stuff began, with MARC and mainframes, (big) libraries like LC were at the forefront, but because everything had to be big and expensive (mainframes, custom programmers, idiosyncratic local networks, etc.), they got locked into slow and hard-to-change systems. The fast-changing insect world of PCs and the web evolved so fast around them that they couldn't keep up.

I worked at the Smithsonian for a couple of years around 1990, well into the personal computer era when every office had a small PC or Mac and things like dBase were common off-the-shelf tools. The Smithsonian museums were still employing teams of mainframe programmers to handle database queries for collections which in some cases had only a few thousand records.

But one of these days the Library of Congress will learn to write simple and short URLs (like every other good web designer learned to do 10 years ago), and will learn elementary SEO (they can hire me and I'll teach them), and then LC records will become the records-of-record for book information.

That is, unless LibraryThing beats them to it (and beats out Amazon, which is now the clear leader).

2/16/2009 2:20 AM  
Blogger John said...

For me, the greatest British library asset is its provision of the Oxford range of reference books. That demonstrates that the original reason for libraries - the high relative cost of books - still holds some sway, if only now for costly works.

How significant is the reducing availability of relatively cheap books? Every town with a public library now has several charity shops with books cheaper than a cup of coffee!

Providing books online is no doubt possible, but why need this be done locally? Surely centrally offers better choice?

What I'm finding frustrating is locating obscure books - often not 'high literature'. Should it be impossible for a library to find books in UK that are available for $30 on abe.com?

John.

2/16/2009 4:00 AM  
OpenID anam-uk said...

There is definately something a bit wrong with worldcat, as CH46 is on the wirral, not 60 miles away, that however is an aside.

British libraries are failing and a lot of it is due to lack of investment, they are caught in a vicious downward spiral that goes a bit like this. "Libraries aren't getting visitors through the door, therefore they need less funding" vistor numbers keep decreasing so funding keeps decreasing.

Tim makes a very good point, sat at my desk I can search nottingham libraries catalogue and make use of their electronic information, but as usual there is a gateway page that I have to keep bookmarked. Its a tricky question to deal with & no doubt in a couple of weeks we'll see newspaper articles bemoaning the woeful state of literacy in the UK

2/16/2009 4:58 AM  
Anonymous Laurie Gerholz said...

I'm in Minneapolis, MN in the U.S. Just in this morning's newspaper was a big article on how use of the public libraries here is way up.

This is primarily due to economic conditions, with people interested in cheap/free entertainment and internet after having dropped expensive home internet connections.

That said, those same economic conditions are still going to cause cuts in library budgets. So even when they can prove they're in higher demand, their budgets aren't safer as a result. Sounds screwy to me.

2/16/2009 10:43 AM  
Anonymous GeekChic said...

Tim: Glad you know all the ins and outs of our situation from down there in Maine *rolls eyes*.

Part of our issue was a server issue - but part of it was most definitely bandwidth - because up here bandwidth is NOT cheap (hate to break it to you).

2/17/2009 1:43 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

Well, you know what it costs you where you are. If you're not very rural, bandwidth is practically free for pushing small text files around. A single low-def movie from iTunes runs around 2GB, or 32,000 Horizon pages. (How many books do you have anyway?) With a crap personal cable connection I often download three or four a night, which amounts to maybe 100,000 HIP pages. All things being equal, I'll bet your library users' viewing of the Evolution of Dance takes up more bandwidth than pushing catalog files.

2/17/2009 2:12 AM  
Blogger Iona said...

I didn't know this was happening - thanks for the heads-up. One of the Wirral libraries, Heswall, was the first public library I can ever remember being taken to - at the grand old age of three - and seeing it close is just awful.

2/18/2009 3:38 PM  

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