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Fishing for Results: In Interview with Christopher Harris

Submitted by Michelle Boule on February 7, 2008 - 6:48pm

Incorporating social software into libraries and the idea that the OPAC just may suck, have been discussed at length on this blog by various authors. Incorporating Web 2.0 ideas or technologies into your library's web page may be difficult for many reasons. If you are a school librarian, your obstacles increase exponentially. Many of the innovations available to other libraries are not accessible to school libraries.

There is a new tool, a multi-use platform really, that has been built by a small team in Rochester, New York which has the potential to greatly impact school libraries and their ability to implement social tools into their OPACs and websites. I wanted to share the project, called Fish4Info, with others. The leader of the team that created the program is Christopher Harris.

Christopher Harris, author of the blog Infomancy, is the Coordinator of the School Library System for the Genesee Valley Board of Cooperative Educational Services. I met him while participating in the ALA Emerging Leaders program last year. He is a smart guy with a big heart for school libraries. I emailed him recently and asked him some questions about his project.


First, tell me a little bit about yourself. Who are you, what do you do, and why school libraries?

I feel like I have an odd background for being where I am now. I started as an elementary teacher, but was always someone who was very interested in technology and libraries. During high school and college, I was one of those A/V geeks who pushed the TVs around the school and threaded the 16mm projectors. During those 8 years of A/V service, I was actually working in the library, but not as part of the library. Still, it kept me very interested in libraries. In college, I met my soon to be wife who worked in the library, and ended up following her to North Carolina while she went to library school at UNC-Chapel Hill. I got a masters in instructional technology at NC State after switching from being a third grade teacher to an elementary computer lab teacher and integration specialist (a position that had me again working "in" a library). A bit over three years ago, I became the Coordinator of the School Library System for the Genesee Valley Board of Cooperative Educational Services, an educational services agency that provides support for 22 small, rural districts in western NY. The SLS is a state funded part of the organization that specifically works with and for school libraries. So why school libraries? Probably because they are the best place to combine my loves for teaching, technology, and libraries. I have always been a part of libraries (I even married a school librarian) and probably the only reason I didn't enter the field earlier is because a librarian in West Virginia at the library where I worked one summer pulled me aside showed me her salary, and told me to stick with teaching. I recently finished my educational administration degree and after this semester have one class left in the MLS program at the University at Buffalo.


What exactly is Fish 4 Info and who is the audience?

Fish4Info is a library portal designed to meet the needs of K-12 librarians, but it certainly can be used by other types of libraries. The heart of the system is a library catalog (most certainly NOT an OPAC) that is fully integrated with the rest of the portal. The vision behind Fish4Info was a desire to create a positive library experience. I wanted to change the typical library catalog which is often used as a pass through to information into a destination where students would stay and interact. This means that the catalog had to become more social. To accomplish this, we fully integrated book reviews into the catalog along with ratings and tagging. We are also using tags to offer recommendations for similar books. This gives students a reason to come back to the catalog even to search for books that they have already read! My wife, who is a school librarian in a K-12 library, told me the other day that her students love Fish4Info. They are exploring the library collection in a way they never did using the OPAC.

In addition to the catalog, we also included a place for news updates (i.e. a blog) , and a one-click feature that promotes books to the front page to highlight them in a featured list. The portal also includes a calendar for upcoming events and a pathfinder module that can include books from the catalog, databases from your subscription list, and websites. Websites are drawn from an integrated del.icio.us like social bookmarking tool we call Library Links.

Fish4Info homepage

Why did you decide to start this project?

A bit over three years ago when I started in this position, my first day on the job was a vendor demonstration day coming at the end of a bid process looking for a new automation system. We found ourselves rather underwhelmed by all the choices. I was especially unimpressed by the OPACs. As someone new to the library world, I couldn't understand why OPACs insisted on giving students access to MARC records. Our users aren't looking for MARC records, they are trying to find books. So Fish4Info was born from my saying that we could do better ourselves. It took a couple of years for us to figure out how. We didn't know how to create an OPAC (search was the problem) but we began with book reviews and had huge successes. A little over a year ago, IBM released their OmniFind Yahoo! Edition search engine with a free license up to 500,000 records. We used that to crawl our books as nodes and generate a basic search interface. Now we have migrated back to using Drupal for search, and have very carefully constructed the environment so that users can focus on finding instead of searching. The whole goal was to create what we referred to as a "positive finding experience." Thus our logo, Your search is over, find it here!


Fish4Info is built on Drupal. Why did you choose Drupal for this purpose?

The real secret of Fish4Info is that we didn't have to code the whole thing. While we like to talk about this portal being developed by the School Library System of Genesee Valley BOCES which sounds quite impressive, there are only three of us working on the project. Only one of us is a real programmer (and he was an English major), and we all have primary jobs that we have to work on. As such, we turned to the open source Drupal framework to provide the back end for the system. Drupal has a vibrant development community who have provided the basis for many of the modules we are using (book reviews, library links, calendar, etc.). We have made a few contributions back to the Drupal community including a MARC module that converts MARC records into Drupal nodes. Drupal is such a powerful framework that it can be extended to do almost anything.


What army did you have helping you build Fish 4 Info?

Army...you are funny, Michelle. Being a small, rural library system, we didn't have an army directly helping us build Fish4Info. This is why we went with the open source Drupal framework; it provided us with an army of developers from around the world that could provide a back end system on which we could build some library specific extensions. Andy Austin is our Drupal coder and Brian Mayer has been working on interface and design. I help maintain the vision and drive and sometimes go in and break a few things as I try to hack around in code.

Fish4Info at a Middle School 

What does Fish 4 Info enable school librarians to do for their communities?

Primarily, it allows them to actually create an online community. Students have individual logins so they can write book reviews and otherwise interact with each other and the books they are reading. Since it was designed for schools, it is set up to be a secure environment. Nothing that students write will be published until it is reviewed and approved by a librarian. This has helped us get past the initial concern that is sometimes encountered in schools when it comes to "social" software.

This also lets librarians focus on creating a learning community. Between featured book lists and pathfinders, librarians can guide students and teachers to excellent resources. Some of our librarians have fully adopted this and are having great success.


What is the feature that you like the most?

While the book reviews are very cool and have been shown to be very educationally beneficial, I have to admit that my favorite part of Fish4Info are the item details pages. From the beginning, certain things were banished from Fish4Info. The word search was one of them (only shows in the logo), but more importantly were col. ill. and other AACR2 formatting strings. Titles do not have a "/" at the end of them, authors are displayed first name first, and the number of pages in the book is just a number and doesn't also talk about how tall the book is. Our whole goal was to put the book cover (from Amazon API) and summaries (from the record) at the top of the details page as the two things our users would be looking at. Everything else that is necessary is there, but parsed out to display in English.

Fish4Info book reviews

Are there any exciting functionalities that your team is currently working on adding to the program?

From a technical level, support for 13 digit ISBNs. On a user level, one of the things we really want to work on is bringing FRBR to our holdings. Our school users don't care as much as academic users about which edition of the book we have. Having a book cover that matches what is on the shelf is critical, but we want to do more to support looking at one page for everything that is Hamlet; books, movies, criticism, etc. Of course we are also looking for ways to make it more social, but I can't share those quite yet...


What is the future for Fish 4 Info?

We really aren't sure. Everything is being released as open source to the Drupal site to enhance further work for libraries. We are looking very closely at the University of Rochester's eXtensible Catalog as a more powerful search that could be extended with the Fish4Info front as a theme. There is quite a bit of excitement around our region about using Fish4Info, so we are looking at piloting it in a few more districts in neighboring systems.


How can people get more information about Fish 4 Info?

We are working on getting more information about the project online at http://fish4info.org/gofish. Right now, the code (a slightly older version) is there for downloading, more information will be up soon.

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Christopher and Andy Austin are writing a Library Technology Report on Drupal which features Fish4Info as a case study. The issue will be available in May.