Travelling at the Speed of Discovery: The MALIBU Project's Most Valuable Lessons
The MALIBU Project has as its main goal to develop examples of hybrid libraries, focusing specifically on the humanities, at each of three major partner institutions (King’s College London, University of Oxford and University of Southampton). The research and outcomes of the project have reinforced generally held ideas about issues such as what users want, and how they go about obtaining what they want. However, it has also highlighted some important distinctions about the process of providing hybrid services to the user and the impact on the hybrid library. Each discovery has involved a great deal of learning and synthesis of those lessons, followed dissemination to relevant colleagues and institutions through workshops, presentations, papers, etc.
Though the end of this leg of the trip will end in a few months, the most salient lesson of MALIBU is that the journey is far from over. There is still a great deal of work left to be done in the area of hybrid library management in general.
MALIBU staff identified five areas where the most valuable lessons were learned, though there were certainly many more lessons to be shared. One unique feature of the MALIBU lessons is that they not only reflect the experience of the MALIBU team, they provide insight into the issues that are important for future uptake, whether by other projects or agencies.
The MALIBU lessons are in the following areas:
- Overall project management
- Search engine development and interoperability
- User testing
Overall Project Management
The MALIBU project utilized a unique organizational structure, with staff on each of the three major partner institution campuses – King's College London, University of Oxford and University of Southampton – participating equally. Each site had library team and technical representatives, as well as Project Coordination Team (PCT) members. The PCT members shared coordination of management of the project, a very unique approach to management structure. The role of the PCT was balanced with the role of the Senior Project Manager, responsible on a daily basis for the operational and functional aspects of the project.
The team members collaborated cross-site to accomplish a wide variety of tasks, everything from design of the search engine prototype to the development of the user questionnaires.
In addition to the cross-site team, the project had local teams that were cross-disciplinary, and it was this structure that allowed for much of the sharing of expertise between teams and sites. The structure also allowed each team member to contribute to the project based on their skills and knowledge base, and made maximum use of the diverse backgrounds of each team member. This diversity added a certain depth and richness to the project, as well as provided a meaningful experience for team members. Much of the learning for the project as a whole began with the process of team members learning from one another.
The distributed nature of the project placed added pressure on communication mechanisms, such as email lists, shared webspace, regular meetings, etc.; this all proved considerable overhead for the project. The organizational structure for any project needs to take this type of overhead into account, and investigate the most efficient ways to keep members of the team in touch and connected.
Working on the MALIBU project often (unintentionally) created new opportunities for team members, in the way of full-time and newly created positions based at the partner institutions. This was indication that at the institutional level, the project was recognized as being important and meaningful, and also, that MALIBU team members had very desireable skills that would serve the institution well. As some of the MALIBU team staff were on secondment from their initial appointments, participation on MALIBU affected and was often affected by this status.
One lesson that was reinforced time and time again was that of so much to do, so little time. This lesson had two parts. Despite long hours and herculean efforts, the MALIBU team still felt time was not on their side – a reflection of the the project generating a great deal of useful but often complex information and lessons that needed to be shared; too much to do so completely within the context of a three year project. Thus the exit strategies at the institutional level become the vehicles for sharing project outcomes and knowledge widely.
Another lesson from project management was the importance of having a solid platform to provide the theoretic and practical fuel for the project. The MALIBU models provided that fuel.
One of the primary aims of the MALIBU project was and still is the development of hybrid library models, focusing on organizational and management aspects. From the start, a tension existed between wide applicability and practical applicability, an issue that became increasingly obvious during the lifetime of the project.
Models require supporting tools and documentation to allow for their assessment; such assessment is the only way to assure they providing a strategic framework and informing relevant decisions. Early on in the project it became clear that within the highly interdisciplinary MALIBU team, development of these models challenged basic assumptions about user behaviour and the functions of the hybrid library. It was essential to go back to the basics and to map user actions from the beginning of their search process – the query – to the end – the answer. This process followed the user through identifying the question, evaluation, location of resources, manipulation and analyzation of information.
The resulting framework provided a solid platform for the other models to be built upon. These models included the Organization and Management models, and the Hybrid Library Services model. As part of this process, a greater mutual understanding and common vocabulary was developed within the project team.
The models, once developed, provided the basis for the development of the MALIBU search engine prototype, and also highlighted the importance of complimentarity between a dynamic physical environment and the hybrid environment.
We called this concept “hybridicity”.
Project MALIBU's own prototype search engine was designed to give prominence to both local resources and external resources of relevance to Humanities scholars in an increasingly multimedia world. Questionnaires had shown the breadth of resources consulted from radio programmes to archives and electronic citations to microforms, supplemented by consultation of the "respected peer". We were encouraged that users showed enthusiasm for a friendly, uncomplicated, introduction into relevant but unfamiliar resources. Archives become less hidden away and web resources more accessible.
Providing a welcoming electronic environment needs to be supplemented by a dynamic physical environment. Southampton University's extension of its main library with an Electronic Information Services Wing provided an effective example of a model for bringing together both hybrid resources and services in an organised fashion. For example, music can be listened to and worked with in a managed environment much closer to traditional resources such as books and music scores. Training in a well designed training room gives the librarian an opportunity for "hands on" teaching for searching "hybrid" resources. It also provides an occasion to bring students into the library to retain more familiarity with traditional resources in which the library has made such a huge investment over the years.
This proximity of services gives the librarian an opportunity to work closer to users and remain more aware of their needs. MALIBU's 'digital library' training courses for information services staff , particularly in Oxford, proved very popular and timely. They reflected the need to update digital skills (supplemented by project management skills) for the librarian who wishes to become the truly rounded "hybrarian". At the same time, the hybrid library emphasis of the eLib projects has enabled us to focus on new library developments with a truly hybrid library awareness. We have come closer to the scenario where traditional resources, like physical libraries and archives, are exploited to their full extent, but in a managed environment with guided access to the global electronic world.
Search Engine Development and Interoperability
The Malibu Search Engine prototype interface was designed to simultaneously search many different types of on-line information resources or 'targets', including OPACS, full-text journals, web sites, archival finding aids and digital archives. Developing such a tool was always going to be a major technical challenge, but in fact also turned out to be a time consuming and complex exercise in administration.
One of the technical challenges was the fact that the Search Interface was developed using 'agent' technology; it was constructed as a series of independent agents that communicate through a 'meta-agent'. This technology is still fairly new and more complex than the traditional development methodologies, but the benefit has been that as newly written agents have been completed, they have been fairly easily integrated into the Interface.
Another main technical challenge was raised by the diversity of the targets chosen for searching. Roughly half of them used Z39.50, a search and retrieval protocol, to deliver information. Z39.50 was developed with adherence to a certain standard, thus the Z39.50 targets should have been straightforward to communicate with. This was not the case, and we found that a slightly different approach had to be taken with each Z39.50 target to successfully obtain search results. The remaining targets were web sites that had their own proprietary method of searching their data, which the Malibu Search Agent attempted to emulate. In practice, we discovered that we needed to write a separate agent for each of these targets rather than just one per target type.
Negotiation with the providers of the targets was much more time consuming and complex than was ever envisaged. It was not always easy, for instance, to determine who the technical contact was, and even when identified, (s)he was often not available. Much time was spent waiting for responses, and in some cases, discussions with technical staff eventually came to nothing, as they seemed unable to respond to queries from MALIBU in sufficient detail. Some resource providers wanted to charge for access, which was unexpected, and some persistently referred MALIBU to the sales staff. This inconsistent response pattern affected the development of the agents in turn; development could take a few hours to several weeks.
The development process for the search engine prototype was reiterative, and often ran in parallel to the user testing process, with users providing feedback that was fed back into ongoing development.
Users are not a heterogeneous group. They have different methods of working, which will reflect their character, their particular situation and perhaps most importantly their previous experience. It is perfectly reasonable behaviour to follow strategies that have proven successful in the past, but the rapid changes which now take place in the world of information provision mean that many paths that were once useful may now be more like dead-ends.
A source that has proved successful in the past will be often used for new searches, whether it is apparently appropriate or not; the "comfort" factor is very influential. Equally, a search strategy that produces acceptable results when looking for an item in a library catalogue will be employed in a very different situation, such as using full-text services or online archives. When using electronic services, a lack of understanding of the data that is offered and how it is organised is more likely to lead to poor quality results than in the print world, where users may find it easier to gain an overview.
In the same way, it is less likely that unfamiliar resources will be tried. Few end-users have the luxury of enough time to follow up service announcements, publicity flyers, etc as they appear. Unless the incentive is very strong, or there is a fortuitous coincidence of discovering a new resource just when information is needed, the learning curve is too much effort. At present, personal recommendation by a respected "peer" (who may be a librarian, colleague, supervisor) is probably the most effective way of persuading users of any level of experience to try something new.
The hybrid library service aims to provide information in the fittest format for its users' purposes. Doing so does not stop at selection of materials to be provided, but involves adding value by knowing users and their circumstances, and by fostering the expectation that time spent updating information skills is a good investment. There is a balance to be reached between suppressing variations that act as a barrier to use and impoverishing the quality of the information itself.
The MALIBU Project will leave as its trademark, a road map. A rather complex one, but one that will compliment the maps that will no doubt be left by the other hybrid library projects. These maps, a mosaic of the outcomes and deliverables for each project, as well as the informal lessons learned, will clearly indicate what supplies are needed to travel, have warning signs for those who will follow similar routes, suggestions about alternative routes to research, and hints about areas to investigate that can’t yet be seen on the map. A very valuable legacy indeed.