Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship

v.6 no.3 (Winter 2005)

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Narrowcasting to Faculty and Students:
Creating an Efficient "Research by Subject" Page

Rob Withers, Assistant to the Dean & University Librarian
Miami University Libraries
rwithers@lib.muohio.edu

Rob Casson, Computing Information Services Specialist
Miami University Libraries
cassonrd@lib.muohio.edu

Aaron Shrimplin, Electronic Information Services
Miami University Libraries
aaron@lib.muohio.edu

Abstract

Libraries provide thousands of e-resources, but most users need only a handful. Miami University has created an interface which enables subject specialists to select from electronic resources provided by the Libraries, add links to related resources, and post announcements in each subject area. In addition, subject specialists can create multi-database searches for each subject area. Subject specialists can make immediate changes, web developers are relieved of reviewing and making changes submitted by others, and students and faculty see the resources they need. The University portal will eventually link to subject areas corresponding each students’ classes and faculty member’s teaching area.

Introduction

Library web sites provide resources to faculty and students in dozens of academic disciplines, but most users only needs information in a handful. Information providers such as television channels and web portals narrowcast information to meet specific needs of small, well defined groups and screen out items which do not match those needs. In such an information environment it is important that libraries, too, narrowcast the many specialized resources they provide to those users who most need them.

During 2000 and 2002 redesigns of the Libraries’ web site, developers created tools for managing access to several types of information. Each of these tools had a separate interface, public display, and organizational scheme. During the 2004 redesign, developers began to integrate the administrative tools and public display of information managed by these tools, with a goal of creating a “Research by Subjects” area. This resource is intended to more effectively guide end users to resources they need, and includes interface which enables subject specialists to create and edit web pages containing lists of indexes, electronic journals, electronic books, and other resources. In addition, they can also post messages relevant to their subject area.  Links are grouped by subject areas which correspond to academic programs.

Developers used php scripting and MySQL query language to develop tools for selectors to manage this information and for end users to view it. Php is an open source language, which means that source code used to develop these products may be freely distributed and modified, thereby encouraging continuous refinements to existing scripts and benefiting non-commercial information providers such as libraries that traditional work cooperatively and share information.1

Challenges

The Libraries at the authors’ institution belong to a consortium which has aggressively pursued licenses with providers of information in electronic format. In addition, the Libraries have supplemented these licenses with additional subscriptions to meet the expectations and needs of faculty and students unique to their institution. By the time of the 2002 redesign, the Libraries at the authors’ institution provided electronic access to over 10,000 journals, 80,000 lines of poetry and play dialogues, and 10,000 electronic books. The redesigned web site included administrative interfaces that enabled subject specialists to manage lists of web sites and electronic journals within their subject areas. These advances confirmed that subject specialists could work with administrative interfaces to manage content and indicated that they were willing to accept the standardization of layout entailed by users of a database driven system.

This redesign left several challenges.  Most significantly, the dynamically-driven systems for managing indexes, e-journals, web sites  attempted to match the subject organization of existing static pages. The organizational schema were therefore  inconsistent. For example, Internet web sites were grouped under “Languages and Literature,” Indexes were grouped under “Literature, Film and Folklore,” electronic journals were grouped by subject areas that corresponded to library fund codes, and electronic texts were grouped by country, time period and genre (e.g., “American Literature,” “British Literature,” “Medieval Literature,” and “Individual Authors”). Also, although the number of electronic books and book collections had skyrocketed, the “electronic books” portion of the web site consisted of a static page containing an alphabetical listing of titles. Faculty and students tended not to be aware of titles of interest to them in collections such as the Oxford Reference Collection and an ABC-Clio collection. Directing faculty and students to such resources demanded a new approach.

The wealth of e-journals placed a significant strain on this system, however. Cataloging for e-journals lagged behind subscriptions, particularly for aggregators such as EbscoHost or LexisNexis, which rapidly change subscriptions or include embargo periods for articles. Another challenge that emerged was management and use of lists of web sites. Many of these collections swelled to hundreds of web sites for a single discipline. This approach was successful at introducing people to the breadth and scope of resource available for many areas. As students and faculty became more computer savvy, use of these resources dwindled. The extensive size of some of these sites made efficient maintenance challenging as well. Only a handful of subject areas were updated even once per year. The yearly review of these links by webmasters indicated that more than 25% links in this area were inactive, with no readily identifiable substitutes. In addition, many subject specialists used these web sites only to link to external web sites, rather than in-house resources such as handouts, presentations, and bibliographies.

Solutions

As the Libraries began to plan the biennial redesign of their web site in 2004, one of the stated goals was to develop a way to enable the Libraries’ subject specialists to effectively manage lists of electronic information central to the research needs of faculty and students in each academic program. An administrative interface with a password and login was needed to ensure timely updates and minimize workload on webmasters. Unlike previous interfaces for editing lists of electronic journals and web sites, the new interface applied a consistent and standard list of subject headings to all resources. The interface designed in response to this call enabled selectors to manage lists of indexes & databases, e-journals, e-books, web sites and documents, as well as to post targeted announcements. In addition, the interface enables selectors to manage a list of databases included in a multi-database search for their discipline.

Future Challenges

“Research by Subject” helps to direct end users towards research resources they need, but work is underway to develop “Research by Course,” a model which might more closely direct end users to relevant sources.2 This model is important for several reasons:

The current model for creating “Research by Course” involves collaborations between subject specialists and teaching faculty to create and manage this list of resources. In addition to helping to meet information needs of end users, it is anticipated that this effort will also enable subject specialists to better alert faculty to new electronic resources appropriate to the courses that they teach.

In addition, the authors’ institution is currently investigating the development and use of a portal that will display content which is customized by the profile of individual users. Because much of the information provided by the Libraries is specific to one of the many academic departments on campus, each students and faculty member is likely to need only a fraction of the information provided by the Libraries. The portal will provide a mechanism for this kind of narrowcasting, and unlike many campus services such as health, dining, and parking, the Libraries are able to provide information targeted to many small, well-defined groups. The Libraries hope that the portal will provide links to those parts of “Research by Subject” which correspond to the courses in which students are enrolled or the programs in which faculty teach. The Libraries are currently negotiating access to course enrollment data and department affiliation of faculty with the hopes of quickly launching this service.

Conclusion

Development of the “Research by Subject” area benefits all involved with the Libraries’ web site. Subject specialists can make immediate changes to web sites within their purview. In addition, the administrative interface for adding electronic books and electronic journals helps to familiarize them with titles available in their subject area and quickly make these resources available to their faculty and students. Web developers also benefit from the development of this interface. They no longer need to input information provided by subject specialists or review html files for compliance with web publishing guidelines and xhtml standards. And most importantly, end users are immediately guided to a selection of resources in their area of interest.

Figures


(Figure 1) Main menu of the administrative interface showing two subject areas


(Figure 2) Managing Indexes and databases. Subject specialists can select from more than 200 databases and customize the order in which they appear.


(Figure 3) Administrative interface for electronic books and book collections.


(Figure 4) Managing electronic journals. Subject specialists can search for titles by keyword or browse by letter of the alphabet.


(Figure 5) Searching for electronic journal titles by keyword and/or date added


(Figure 6) Selecting electronic journals from keyword search results. Previously-selected titles are already checked.


(Figure 7) Interface for Multi-database searches.


(Figure 8) Interface for creating multi-database searches

Footnotes

1. Open Source Definition http://www.opensource.org/docs/definition.html

2. Reeb, Brenda; Gibbons Susan L. “Students, Librarians, and Subject Guides: Improving a Poor Rate of Return.” Portal: Libraries and the Academy 4:1 (January 2004) 123-30.

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