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Category: Random Thoughts

Libguides Asset Management – one admin’s process

If you like to be able to re-use assets easily, you have to be pretty careful not to develop dozens and dozens of nearly identical assets in the Libguides Asset database. Otherwise it’s basically impossible to know which one is THE one you want to reuse. Plus, if a website changes, and therefore the instructions you write into a description here or there changes, it pays to be able to update that kind of thing all in once in one place rather than go through every version of the asset and see if it needs to be updated individually.

Unfortunately, the Libguides system makes it very very easy for duplicate assets to multiply like rabbits. If you copy a box or start from another guide as a template, any asset in that box or guide that you don’t own will automatically duplicate itself. And sure, there are some good reasons to have that as an option, but you don’t have an option in this case — it just happens. Plus as people make guides for last-minute classes or in the middle of working on 16 other things, mistakes happen and people make new assets when they could probably have re-used one. Life happens.

Anyway, all of this means that every summer for the last several years I’ve gone through and done a database clean-up project. I figure out which assets are possibly duplicates of each other, and then I knit the actual duplicates back together into a single “parent” asset. And every summer this means that we go from about 7-8000 assets in our system down to about 6000 assets. And every Fall term we start out with a nice clean database, and sharing is super easy, and it’s a veritable asset utopia… for about 30 seconds. But imagine what it would be like without that reset? The messier the assets get, the harder it is to reuse, and so the messier the assets get.

A few people have expressed interest in replicating or building on what I do, so here are some documents to look over if you’re interested: Our Asset clean-up process, an example of this year’s working spreadsheet, and the rules we’ve made for ourselves in a large part to keep the assets as clean as possible throughout the year. (The Local Practices rules are linked from the main editor interface in Libguides so that they’re handy whenever people are editing.)

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Changing my approach

I went to a bunch of sessions at ACRL having to do with creating a welcoming space for all patrons, and a couple things stood out to me that are prompting me to change my everyday practice, particularly at the reference desk. The session reported preliminary findings of a qualitative research study of students of color and their experience with libraries and librarians prior to coming to college (conference paper here).

Over the years I’ve unconsciously developed a practice that, if I sat down and thought about it, I would say balances my twin goals of appearing welcoming while also not making patrons feel like I’m surveilling them. I know, for example, that it creeps me out when I’m buying groceries or whatever and the check-out person comments on my purchases, or especially if they mention remembering what I purchased last week. So at work I keep track of how people like me to interact with them, but I don’t notice or remember what they’re studying or checking out or looking at unless they open that conversational door themselves. Sometimes I joke that one of my superpowers is being able to help people with the copier without actually seeing what they’re copying.

And I realized while I was sitting in this session that I’ve adopted a similar practice when it comes to acknowledging people when they walk past me at the desk. If they make eye contact in a way that seems to invite interaction, I’ll smile and greet them. If they don’t, I assume they don’t want overt interaction for whatever reason, so I let them proceed on their way without interruption. Again, I didn’t shape this habit consciously — it just developed over time in response to my cumulative experiences on both sides of a service desk.

This approach comes from a genuine desire to put people at ease on their own terms, but the conference session made me realize that I’ve created another of those situations where good intentions can seriously backfire. There was a theme in the responses from the students of color that “the librarian smiled and greeted the white kid in front of me, but didn’t smile and greet me.” Thinking back to my own practice, I realized that of course if someone is unsure if they belong in the library they won’t initiate interaction with me. Duh. They’ll have their neutral face on, or possibly even a “don’t notice me too much” face on, and in response I’ll put my neutral face on. But here I’ll be valiantly “engaging with people on their own terms,” and they’ll be experiencing me disapproving of their presence in the library.

Clearly I’ve got to adjust my practice — a practice I didn’t even fully know I had until confronted with this mismatch in experiences. And of course there are ways to make people feel welcome without making them feel surveilled. Of course there are ways to be engage proactively without forcing similar engagement from the other person. So now my project is to make this new way of being as habitual as my old way of being was.

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Tracking down known (or known-ish) documents — some strategies

A faculty member asked if I could come to his class and teach him and his students to track down documents that they see referenced in their research. Some things they’re seeing are well cited, some things are just alluded to, and some things are decently well cited but they can’t find the text. What strategies and techniques do I use? Where do I look? Basically, what do I do every time he emails me and says “I’m looking for this publication but can’t find it” or “This person mentioned that there’s a study on x, how do I track that down.”

My initial thoughts were “This’ll be fun!” and also “I do this every day but I have no idea how to explain it in a coherent way.” It’s just something I do, and it’s never exactly the same twice in a row. But I decided to distill some of the strategies that I use most often, and then give the students a check-list of potential tools and strategies for their research area.

My Top 8 Strategies

1) Find out as soon as you can what kind of document you’re looking for.
Books and book-like-things (things that are formally published, generally all at once as a single entity) are findable in different ways than dissertations or periodicals or essays or websites or reports, etc. Different places collect information about different kinds of documents, they have different metadata associated with them, and basically if you can’t figure out this part the rest of it will be much, much harder.

2) Assume that key parts of the information you have about the document are wrong. A major early strategy is to find the best and most complete citation possible.
People misspell other people’s names all the time, or get the title wrong, or remember the wrong publication year. Similarly, scholars change their names all the time, or things get reprinted in various ways, sometimes with varying titles. Don’t even get me started on transliterations from non-Roman alphabets. (People are less likely to get the place of publication or publisher wrong because those are things you have to look up on the spot as you’re writing a citation, and they tend to have more standardized ways of being written down.) I can’t over-emphasize how useful it is to reframe your search from “I want to find this document” to “I want to find accurate publication information about this document.”

3) Use creative, “fuzzy” searching and browsing.
Pick out a few words that seem the least likely to be wrong and the most likely to be unique. Maybe choose the author’s last name (first names sometimes get truncated or left off entirely) and a key term or two from the title or topic. Maybe see if you can find everything by a particular author (maybe that author’s CV), or find everything on a topic published in a particular year by a particular publisher. Boolean operators, truncation, and nested search terms are more important in these searches than in a lot of other searching. For example, you can OR together alternate spellings or translations. Basically, figure out ways to give yourself a manageable list (tens, maybe hundreds, but not thousands) of things that could reasonably contain your thing, and then read through that list.

4) No single search tool works every time, and each tool has its strengths and weaknesses, so use multiple tools.
Google is amazing at free-text searching, and it’s HUGE, and it can do things like match up synonyms for you, or correct for spelling variations. It’s not great at letting you work with structured metadata or telling you what you actually have access to from your institution. Meanwhile, library systems don’t contain as many records (sometimes a pro, sometimes a con) and they aren’t as flexible about interpreting search terms, but they’re great at pulling together publications by discipline and/or providing access to structured metadata. And each library tool has its own advantage and disadvantage. So most of the time you’ll end up using multiple tools to track down an obscure document.

5) Always start out with the hope that you’ll find the thing in the most obvious place, but don’t get discouraged if it’s not there after all. (Or the second place, or the third… this is an iterative process)
Sometimes I second-guess myself and think “This thing is so obscure, I should start with a specialized search in a specialized place” only to find out that it would have come up immediately in a basic search of my library’s discovery tool. That said, some things only reveal themselves when you’ve worked your way through dozens of places and picked up bit of information along the way.

6) Tracking down a document is a team sport — ask your team mates and your librarian for help and ideas.
I do this every day, and I have a whole masters degree in exactly this, and I ask my colleagues for help and ideas all the time.

7) If you can’t find the thing, or can’t find it in English, or whatever
Can you find something like it that would help you accomplish your goals? Can you adjust your goals to mesh with the information you can access? Or can you use the non-English version somehow given what you know about the standard structures of most scholarship? Maybe you can find something you can use that cited the thing you can’t get/use and that built on that first thing in useful ways? In a pinch, if no other options are available, is secondary citation an option?

8) Remember to think about whether the document is actually the best document for your needs.
It’s a heady moment when you finally track down that obscure conference paper that you saw referenced as THE source for an idea in someone else’s paper. But is it actually THE source? Or is it just the source that that other scholar knew about? Don’t cite it just because you found it.

Key tools

  • For Everything
    • Google (keeping in mind its search operators – and remember you’re looking for information about the thing as much as the thing itself)
    • Wikipedia (especially for alternate spellings, related terms, citations)
    • Internet Archive (kind of like google books, but a different set of digitized things, and not just books, from institutions as well as from individual people)
    • LC Authorities (for alternate spellings/names for particular authors)
    • Any other tool that lets you search through the full text of scholarship in your area (JSTOR, Project Muse, etc), so that you can find other scholars mentioning the thing you’re looking for.
  • For Books and Book-like-things
    • Your library’s catalog
    • Google Books (especially for finding citations in scholarly works, or finding essays or reprints within compilations)
    • WorldCat (especially for searching by publisher or publisher location, or for any books or book-like-things — it’s not great at non-roman letters, though. If things get really hairy the old FirstSearch interface allows some ultra-advanced options that are helpful)
    • HathiTrust (added thanks to comments!) — especially for scans of out-of-copyright things, including really really old cool stuff.
    • The national library of whatever country seems most relevant
    • Publisher websites, researcher websites/CVs, academic department websites, etc
  • For things published in periodicals
    • Your library’s journal browse list
    • Disciplinary research databases from relevant disciplines
    • Google Scholar (especially for broad, fuzzy searching, or for cited reference searching)
    • Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory (especially to find out where a periodical gets indexed for searching/browsing) – requires subscription
  • For dissertations
  • For reports and conference papers and the like
    • Mostly Google, some disciplinary repositories or research databases… Often these aren’t actually publicly available, and when they are they can be difficult to track down.

For the topic these students were exploring, I put these tools into this long checklist of possibilities.

What about you?

Most of you are librarians — what are your go-to strategies for tracking down the documents your researchers are looking for?

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I coded from an API for the first time, and so can you!

A couple of weeks ago, my library upped our Libguides instance to Libguides CMS, which means that a few weeks ago I came to be in charge of a system that has APIs for the first time in my life. We got the system so that we can pull more robust information from Libguides into our discovery system (so that’s our systems librarian’s domain, not mine), but there have been a couple of tiny things I’ve wanted to do that would be so much better with an API than with the built-in widgets, so I cracked my knuckles and set to learning.

Here’s the first tiny project I did, narrated so that you can do something similar if you, like me, are not an expert in web coding but have access to Libguides APIs.

Building an API-fed dropdown menu

I know, I know, there are dropdown menus of guides available in the built-in widget builder, but I don’t like how they look, and I don’t like that you need the “Go” button to make them go. So this made a perfect first toe-in-the-water project for me.

Getting data via the API

First, I needed to figure out how to make an API request. Libguides CMS “Endpoints v1.1” has a section to GET Guides, a list of “parameters,” an example request, an example return, and not much else. It took me a while to figure out that the example request didn’t work because it was asking for 2 specific guide IDs — IDs for guides that do not exist in our system. Once I deleted those two numbers I could start building requests that actually worked.

Then I figured out that you add a parameter by adding “&parameter_name=parameter_value” to that base URL. So http://lgapi-us.libapps.com/1.1/guides/?site_id=…=owner&sort_by=name would take all our guides and sort them by guide name. From there I could happily keep adding parameters, and if I wanted both “Course” and “Subject” guides but not other guides, I could put a comma between the parameter values “2” and “3” to get “&guide_types=2,3” in my request URL.

Other useful terminology I learned along the way that will help my future Googling includes:

In the end, I created an API request for published guides, sorted by name, and filtered to just those having a particular tag. Here’s an example record from the JSON output I got from that request:

Using the API-generated data to feed a dropdown menu

Then came the searching around through StackOverflow for examples of code that uses a URL to point to JSON-formatted information, examples of code that use JSON fields to populate a dropdown menu, and examples of code that use javascript to add an “event sniffer” to a dropdown menu so that when a user selects an option, the menu opens a new URL without requiring anything else (like clicking a pesky “go” button). This step took me a while… In the end, I fiddled and fiddled with example code until all of a sudden, bits and pieces started to work! So exciting! And little by little I arrived at code that works for me.

Here’s an annotated version of what I built (and an html document you can download and mess with).

(And if you are someone who actually knows what they’re doing, and you see that I made dumb mistakes/choices, please let me know! I’m eager to learn.)

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