New Web Technology Affords Libraries More Awesome

By , July 22, 2013 2:08 pm

by Tal Noznisky

Sunday morning’s keynote speech drew in a pretty full house. Hundreds sat and listened to presenter David Weinberger discuss the state of libraries’ metadata. It’s a mess, he said, but something can be done about that: it can be ordered and repackaged as regular data. This begs the question: what is the difference between data and metadata? That’s a squishy topic. Libraries may objectively nonetheless repurpose data generated by means such as description or use into discoverable and shareable content. Doing so would, in Weinberger’s terms, be awesome. Awesome stuff gets the word out about a library’s resources and value.

Creating awesome web content is a magnificent challenge that is worthy, if not yet obligatory, of our efforts. There are foundational tasks at hand, however. Weinberger laid out three essential instruments in building libraries up as platforms for metadata:

  1. Software
  2. Skills
  3. Standards

The software we need is either out there or waiting to be developed. The skills to build, implement, and understand the software seems like a tricky task, until one considers the hurdles and long-view which are parcel to the standards-development process. The road to libraries-as-platform is a complex technical triathlon.

Fortunately, manageable software tools are coming into maturity with best practices and standards following suit. Several librarians explained their experience making web technologies work for them at the Computer Services SIS program, “Responsive Web Design: Designing One Website That Looks Great on Every Device.” The variety of technical control and skill level between the speakers varied slightly, but they each aptly presented how they solved the challenge of adapting their libraries websites to web-enabled devices.  An important value of theirs was creating sites that were structurally responsive to the different display formats of each device.

Marcia Baker from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln described the delicate balance between support and mandates at her institution. Nebraska had mandated that the school’s web presence be streamlined and updated. Marcia had, however, little technical support to build a new site that needed to scale comfortably to students’ various devices.  She found herself in a fortunate position of trust with the communications coordinator to publish content as she liked, but without significant IT support. Marcia’s situation is leading her to a practically self-supporting trial-by-fire autonomy that forces her to master site-publishing software.

Jason Eisemen of Yale Law School and Elmer Masters of CALI described their respective experiences with customizing Drupal, an open source web development platform. Jason began with a mobile-first design, a principle that starts the web design process at the handheld level. This means designing layout and navigation to fit on the pixel width restraints of an iPhone, for example, and then creating a full monitor screen display from there. Jason used Drupal to preset the structure and handy modules to insert custom CSS that will change the site’s dimensions and layout as users log on from different devices. The flexibility and control that this process afforded him was remarkably simple once he was able to get past fairly basic web development skills.

Elmer Masters also demonstrated the new simplicity of customizing web presence of library tools. He used Drupal in conjunction with a site-customizing framework offered by the developers of Twitter called Bootstrap. Bootstrap is a free open source software. Using Drupal and Bootstrap together, Elmer was able to create an interactive and device-responsive web page in two hours.

From these stories one can grasp that web technology is getting to level where implementation is less costly both of time and of effort. It may still be terribly complex and frustrating, but the whole process is becoming far more manageable for the average librarian. And it is progressively becoming simpler. What does this have to do with platforming metadata through libraries? With less time and effort spent struggling to present information resources online, wrangling with metadata becomes a less daunting task. Ultimately bringing the user-oriented transformation of metadata to date in technical terms will not be such a difficult task, and won’t that be awesome?

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