In one of my major talks - "The Hyperlinked Library" - I use many different examples, and often change them to keep them as current as possible. One example I've used for over a year is the Dublin City Library's creation of a public portal with Pageflakes. While in London for Internet Librarian International, I got to meet up with Edward Byrne, Senior Web Services Librarian , and chat with him about the project.
I use the development of a library portal via a free tool as an example of how libraries can create something useful without 6 months of meetings, decision-making or using a "home grown" IT solution that only one or two people can configure. Eddie agreed to fill me in on all of the details of Dublin's portal. It makes for a fascinating case study and in terms of timing and coincides with some recent developments that show the importance of caution when using Web 2.0 tools without planning for backups and changes in the tool. Our conversation started in London, wound its way through Facebook, and concluded via email.
MS: Tell me about the genesis and implementation of your project with Pageflakes?
EB: Pageflakes, a web-based personalized start page, was adopted by Dublin City Public Libraries towards the end of 2007 to serve as the entry page on all public-access Internet PCs in its 21 branches. Heretofore the default entry page on Internet PCs was the Libraries' own home page; however it was identified that there was a clear need to provide assisted access for users to diverse information sources via a single point of entry, or in other words, a portal. Up to this point also the practice was to add selected resources to the browser's list of favorites as and when required, this process having to be replicated on each of the many PCs by the Libraries' IT staff a time and labor-intensive exercise.
A web-based solution had obvious advantages in terms of time and staff involvement, as it allowed the Internet desktop to be managed centrally, with changes applied in one location taking immediate effect across the whole network of Internet PCs. The choice was between (a) an in-house developed solution, (b) a third-party commercial product (should such be identified), or (c) one of the free web-based solutions. A free existing web-based solution quickly became the frontrunner in terms of cost, development time, and ease of delivery tied in to available staff resources and expertise.
Furthermore, the large community of add-on developers meant that there was a wide choice of widgets or modules available to select from for the two identified candidates, Pageflakes and Netvibes. It was quickly ascertained that Netvibes did not present as a solution as the created page could not at that time be 'shared' with the wider community, while Pageflakes could. Therefore Pageflakes was investigated further in terms of its suitability, practicality and overall usefulness, and having been found to meet certain minimum requirements, was selected for testing in one location, feedback being sought also from the wider international library community. The feedback proved most useful, the one concern common across a number of submissions being that of 'information overload', i.e., trying to provide too much on screen, thereby swamping the user rather than assisting them. This problem was largely overcome by being selective rather than all inclusive in terms of resources selected, and by spreading content across different 'tabs', each tab containing selected modules called "flakes", each of which itself contains different content. These tabs are thematic and user-focused (e.g. Traffic and Travel, Mail and Tool Kit, News, Find It!). This approach also helped reduce loading times.
MS: What have been the positive results?
EB: The end product was rolled out to all branch libraries in January 2008, and can be deemed a success in that it successfully meets the need to provide a single point of access to diverse resources for our users, and it does so in a time- and labor-saving fashion. Cost can be calculated in terms of staff time only (which after the initial delivery can be calculated in terms of minutes rather than hours per week), as there is no other financial outlay involved. Intervention by IT staff is no longer required, the Libraries Web Unit being able to manage the desktop centrally and apply edits and new content as and when required. Indeed the solution has proved a joy to work with, often the type of content that can be presented being limited only by one's imagination.
MS: And what about the pitfalls. I don't want to paint to perfect of a picture about this or any of the social tools.
EB: The only real downside raised its ugly head in November 2008, when Pageflakes became inaccessible on all our public access Internet PCs from around the 6th November. Efforts to contact Pageflakes over the following week met with no response and no improvement; however a mail sent on Friday 14th on foot of enquiries carried out via Facebook (hurrah for Facebook!) may have been what triggered Pageflakes re-appearance later that day, albeit in a buggy fashion. At this point it is too early to say if the situation is going to stabilize. Pending the situation stabilizing and a satisfactory response from Pageflakes, we have replaced the Pageflakes page with a Netvibes-based equivalent. Insofar as can be ascertained, the problem arose as a consequence of a dispute between two ISPs, namely Sprint and Cogent, where Sprint 'depeered' Cogent, this having a knock-on effect on sites hosted on one or other ISP and Internet users. My understanding is that Pageflakes is hosted on Sprint. So depending on your own particular ISP, or rather on how the web is weaved, you may, or may not, have been able to access Pageflakes in recent weeks!
MS: This can be replicated - especially for libraries that do not have a lot of IT support or want a simple, free solution (along with the caveats you mention). What would you suggest to other libraries wanting to try this?
EB: The problem that has occurred in recent days highlights the necessity of having a fallback situation, one that could be implemented with little adverse impact on users. In our case that meant developing a parallel page on Netvibes. Since the original decision to adopt Pageflakes twelve months earlier, Netvibes, the obvious web-based alternative, has since allowed its pages to be made 'public', thus it presented itself as a suitable alternative. So we moved apace to develop a 'similar but different' page using Netvibes. Since most of the content is generated using RSS, the work involved is mainly to do with familiarising oneself with the alternative solution, and having it 'ready-to-go', or as near 'ready-to-go', as possible. Whilst this will mean some development time initially, ongoing maintenance can be kept to a minimum with astute selection of widgets and content sources. And this applies equally to your preferred solution, not just the backup solution.
Please visit the pages to see what was included in the portals:
MS: A lot changed while I was preparing this post for a December publishing date. Eddie wrote to me via Facebook on the 28th November.
EB: Because of happenings in November 2008 with the loss of service for a week and the introduction of an 'in your face' advertisement flake upon its return without consultation or an alternative model being offered, Dublin City Public Libraries was forced to move to Netvibes as its portal delivery platform of choice. An added benefit of the move has been an improvement in page loading time, Netvibes being discernibly quicker to load than Pageflakes. Although Pageflakes have in recent days removed the offending advertisement flake and promised to provide different models in the near future, we have decided at remain with Netvibes for the foreseeable future, while at the same time maintaining a backup solution on Pageflakes. Events of November 2008 have highlighted the need to have a backup plan in place, one that can be quickly implemented if needed.