Friday, June 25, 2010

How to check your library catalogue by using your IPhone as a free barcode scanner - RedLaser

Early this year, I blogged about using Zbar iPhone app as a barcode reader to search your library. You scan the barcode of a book with your phone and it would extract the ISBN and search the library catalogue. You could put a setting in the iphone app and it would work for almost any library catalogue.

Its uses are many, but one way I use it is when I visit a bookstore, and I want to quickly check if a book is available in my library, I pull out my phone , scan the barcode and I see the results/

The main virtue of zbar compared to Redlaser app (which did the same) was that  back then while zbar was free Redlaser wasn't. As such obviously Redlaser wasn't ideal to promote to users.

But as you will see later, arguably Redlaser allows the user to setup a customized library search in a much simpler way. In any case, Redlaser recently was bought by ebay  and went free. So I downloaded and tried it.

To setup a custom search for your library catalogue first go to .

Then fill in the required fields (self explanatory) and click "Build App". 

BTW I'm not sure if there is a need to check the "convert to UPC" seems to make no difference for books I tried anyway.

Then You will be given a url. As shown below, I was given the following url for the catalogue at my institution 

 So all you need to do is to instruct users of your libraries to first install the Redlaser app, and then go to that url on their mobile phone browser.

The url string is pretty long to type in their mobile phones, but they can email it to themselves, use the app pastefire , or perhaps they can use a url shortener like to make it easier to type it in.

Once they have visited the url, they will see something like this

Then the user creates a web app on their homescreen.

Then click on that icon. I actually think it works also if you click on the Red Laser app itself.

It will open their camera, and allow them to scan barcodes.

I found it a bit difficult to position the camera at first but eventually succeeded and the result is shown below.

They can also email themselves the link to this.

As mentioned earlier, this is probably easier to "sell" to users of varying expertise, because compared to zbar they don't have to manually figure out how to configure everything. Just type in a link to their mobile browser and their app will be setup correctly.

I was thinking of possibly improving this.  I wondered if I could set it up but using the mobile version. Surprisingly it seems that for airpac which is from Innovative Interfaces  there is no way to search ISBN in the mobile version, so I can't set up the app?? Is this the same for other mobile library catalogues?

Also, I'm not so sure if the autodetection for mobile devices will kick in, when I access the catalogue the normal catalogue this way with Redlaser.

Dear readers what do you think? Is it worth promoting such apps to your users? After all if you promote QRCodes readers why not this?

One app that does both QRCodes and normal barcodes like above would be a killer. There are probably some out there.. another know?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Getting information to travel to you on your mobile phone

I know I'm a bit late to the party but recently , I came across Helene Blower's "New digital divide" via @digicmb.

As I never had the privilege to hear Helene Blowers speak, I don't pretend to fully understand what she means fully for some statements (particularly the 4th one about "informal languages")*, but the difference between those who know how to get information to travel to them vs those who still chase it is pretty clear.

No doubt, this refers primarily to the use of RSS feeds, or various alerts (email/Instant messaging/Twitter), to be alerted in real-time or near real-time when there is news of interest to you.

With the increased use of smart phones and mobile devices, those on the right side of the new digital divide,  know how to get information to travel to them 24/7 on the go onto their mobile phones and not just their desktops.

With a smartphone, you can choose to be alerted of an event of interest in the following general ways

1. Email
2. SMS
3. Instant Message
4. App notification on phone (Push notification for iPhone users)
5. Phone call!

The event of interest could be  pretty much anything. Some examples

  1. A tweet from an account or on a list you are interested in
  2. A tweet that fits a twitter search
  3. A new rss entry from a feed you are interested in
  4. A rss feed entry that fits a keyword search you setup
  5. A journal article of interest is posted
  6. A journal article of interest is cited
  7. A google or other search engine alert
  8. Reminder of some appointment/event
  9. Person of interest is nearby
  10. Lots more.....
In addition if you are feeling geeky, in certain cases some sort of additional filtering can be also done to ensure a better fit before an alert is sent. For example keyword matching of RSS items (Use YahooPipes or alternatives) or even sophisticated  bayesian filtering of RSS feeds

When I got my iPhone in Dec, I started experimenting with the various types of alerts.

Email alerts

Email alerts are easy to setup and is probably the most common type of alert and is provided by most services.

However it has drawbacks. On my iPhone, I get a chime tone whenever an email arrives. This is nice, but even my most secure work email account has tons of email coming in daily, so you probably don't want to open your email on your phone whenever you hear a chime.

Besides in the case of an iPhone, I'm not aware of any way to quickly preview to see if you are interested in the mail but instead you must unlock your phone, go to the mail app and wait for the email to load.

You could do some sort of email filtering so whenever you hear a chime it's something you definitely want to notice of course but you still can't get away from needing to unlock your phone.

SMS alerts

How about getting alerts via SMS? This seems ideal, as on an iPhone, the text message will popup on your phone , and you don't even need to unlock to read the message.

The problem here is that while many services provide alerts via SMS (Twitter is probably the most famous one) or you can use something like (a generic system that offers SMS,IM,Email alerts for RSS feeds etc) , in general if you are outside the US, such services don't work.

The only reliable service I'm aware that does SMS alerts no matter where you are is Google Calender alerts. This has in fact being exploited by Hongkong libraries to setup free alerts

Another possibility would be to try playing around with email to SMS services, but such services are not stable in my experience.

Instant Messages

Relatively few services provide alerts via IM, but you can use Friendfeed or to accomplish most of this if RSS is available.

On an iPhone using either paid IM clients like BeejiveIM or free ones like Meebo, one can receive an instant push notification, which allows you to preview the message.

One example would be to setup a search in Google alert as RSS feed, then feed it into  Friendfeed or . These services can then send an IM to you, whenever there is a new entry (typically you have to add some bot as a contact first)

Notification by your smartphone app

In some cases, the service you are using might have an app, that does notifications on its own. This is almost always superior to the above methods, since it's direct and opening the notification will directly send you to the right app.

Some examples

1. Facebook app (free)
2. FourSquare app (free)
3. App for some journal/magazine/database site e.g Scopus app (mostly free)
4. Some Twitter app such as iTwitter or echofon pro with push notification (paid)
5. Scheduing type apps like ReQall

But most of these apps are limited to specific events, but there are iPhone apps that provide generic notifications. The three free ones I know of are BoxCar, Notifo & Webwag iflow

Service/ App  Boxcar Notifo iflow
@mentions/dms to your account  Yes Yes Yes
Your timeline Yes No No
Tweets from other selected accounts No Yes No
Twitter search No No  Limited
Twitter lists Yes No  No
Twitter trends Yes No  No
RSS feeds Yes No  No
Email Yes No  No
Facebook Yes No  No
Google Voice SMS alerts No Yes No

Facebook itself is somewhat irrelevant, as there is already a Facebook app that does a good job of notifications. 

They all cover Twitter to some extent, except BoxCar currently doesn't do Twitter searches (or am I missing something). Webwag iflow does seem to support Twitter searches but the last I checked there is a bug so you can only enter one keyword!

Overall based on the table above BoxCar is still the most flexible, this is due to the fact that it  does RSS feeds as well as emails. Obviously support of RSS means pretty much any service can be added.

As the figure below shows Boxcar receives notifications on Tweet replies, RSS feeds and emails.

Support of emails is probably even more important. 

For the latter, what you can do is to setup email alerts as per normal. But as mentioned above, email alerts tend to be easy to miss amount all the other emails, and emails don't display in preview mode.

So what you do is you setup a filter rule (I use Gmail) to forward to a special email created by BoxCar .

What I do is to setup filter rules for alerts, I want Boxcar to pop up on.

So for example I set up a rule to forward an email whenever I get a web of science citation alert or when an email comes from a certain sender.

Whenever, this happens , Boxcar will popup a nice preview notification showing who the sender is, and what the subject is.

Notifo is interesting as well, use it with the free to get tweets from up to 30 accounts (useful for those of us in countries where there is no free sms from twitter).

Below shows a notification from Notifo , a tweet from the Twitter account timeshighered (an account I follow closely)

There are other services including Femtoo which tracks webpages changes, Listia for auctions etc.

In my last post, I shows examples of the importance of doing scanning of mentions of your library on the net, and responding when necessary .

The apps above allow you to set up alerts to your phone so you can be alerted and respond quickly. Unfortunately, for twitter searches, there isn't a good free app. BoxCar used to support this, but it seemed to have disappeared when they went free (can someone confirm)?

Webwag iflow has this option (see below), but as I write this it only works with single keyword searches (bug?)

There are paid solutions for notifications for twitter searches such as itweetreply (which I use).

Prowl isn't free but is even more flexible. Essentially a program called Growl runs on your PC, and sends notifications to your iPhone when necessary. See a list of events/apps that can push events notifications to your phone.

Future - internet of things 

Currently what events you can be notified about are limited to web services or events on your desktop. However visionaries are dreaming of a world, where the fabled "internet of things" is in place,  sensors in every device and every household device is intelligent and capable of sending information to you when needed.

For example your fridge could tell you that it is running out of milk which would popup as a warning on your phone....

This would be indeed knowing how to get information to travel to you!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Why libraries should proactively scan Twitter & the web for feedback - some examples

I have shared in the past techniques that allow you to be aware of what users are saying about your library online. By using free tools, one can easily set up a system that alerts you in real time when your library is mentioned and gives you the opportunity to respond immediately if you wish. (See Twitter scan techniques and Facebook scan techniques).

Twitter is the main channel one should scan, but monitoring the web as a whole (Facebook, YouTube, Popular forums) using google alerts is also quite important.

So what type of information do you get from such scans? Are users happy when you respond to them almost immediately online?

To do this, I have decided to post tweets, blog posts etc I have found online from such scans in my own work for my institution.

I will only post public tweets, updates or blogs, and will blur out avatar pics and nicks. Obviously with some work you can still work out who was the author, but I believe as everything is public, there shouldn't be any privacy concerns anyway.

In most of the cases below, tweets were found by users that drew my attention to things I need to know about the library. They were usually not directed to the library Twitter account directly but were found using scanning techniques mentioned in earlier posts.

Complaints about library service 

When users are unhappy about your service, they don't necessarily email or even tweet you. It's a truism that for every 1 negative comment you do get, there might be more from users who don't bother to contact you about their unhappiness but instead voice their unhappiness in public, and increasingly these days it means posting on Blogs, Facebook or Twitter.

As you will see in examples below, in almost every case, users were pleasantly surprised and delighted when the library noticed their unhappiness and responded with solutions or workarounds.

Here are some complains I picked up and responded to.

 Surprised and delighted users

The library holds the responsibility of uploading "e-reserves" (electronic copies of readings placed online by professors).

I spotted the above tweet and tweeted the user asking which course he was talking about. The user kindly explained that the professor promised that the reading would be up by noon and it was past noon.

It was just before the start of the term, and the library department in charge was swamped, but a quick email and my efficient colleagues managed to get it up almost immediately. The response from the user can be seen below.

Clearly the user was very pleased, and couldn't stop raving about it. This led another 3 of his followers (themselves fairly influential with 1K followers) to inquire why and what the twitter account url was, and they themselves eventually followed and retweeted.

Similar kudos can be seen below from another user who made a request/wish on Twitter.  I spotted it and made sure his request/wish went to the correct authorities. Though we ultimately could not fulfill his request , he was still nevertheless impressed

Server issues

Another thing I noticed about scanning Twitter alerts is that whenever our server is down, Tweets about it start appearing almost immediately. We were having a spate of problems with this, for a month or so and whenever that occurred, Twitter would light up with complaints.

I've selected these 3 representative tweets

In the first case it was a scheduled disruption but the student stated that it was not a good time as it was the day just before the one week break ended, and students were rushing to finish their assignments.

In the other cases, I was able to assist them, tweeting workarounds, in particular while the front page did not work, one could still go directly to our library catalogue and access electronic resources (which was what most people wanted anyway).

It is important to note that most of these tweeting did not tweet directly to the official Twitter account, even though many of them followed our Twitter account. This is where proactive scanning of Tweets is very powerful and you can head off problems even if they don't come directly to you.

The users were obviously very grateful. Here's a small sample of tweets.

Recently I spotted the tweet below. Basically it was the exam period and the library was more crowded than usual, and as a result there were not enough bins. The user even kindly linked to a photo showing the situation.

I alerted my colleague and by the next day we had extra bins just in case.

We also tend to get complains or queries about the temperature in our library, both directly or indirectly (picked up via scans)

Besides the fact that people have different sensitivity to temperature, the air conditioning is also centrally controlled, so it takes some time to adjust but users are appreciative, when we manage to do it.

Interesting enough, when one user asked another why he was following the official twitter the account, you can see the awesome answer below.

Breaking events

We open part of the library for 24 hours during the examination period as a service for students who want to study. During this period, the library is manned only by student assistants. I was at home relaxing, when an alert was sent to my phone about this tweet.

Apparently, one of the water pipes burst! The person tweeting even kindly linked to a photo.

This was not the only tweet of course, I even got a tweet to the official Twitter account asking if this was really happening!  Most tweets were semi-humorous, including one joking update wondering where Spiderman was... (a joking reference to this incident)

In fact, not only was there a photo, but someone also recorded a video of it, which was duly picked up in a google scan.

 Fortunately, when we called to check, it was only a minor incident affecting only one of the sprinklers, but nevertheless it could have being worse.

Help needed

I've being trying to proactively find users who tweet about needing help but tweeted not directly to the library. The idea was to find people tweeting about EndNote, citation management, needing databases or articles for assignments and to proactively step in and help. In practice currently while I have detected border line cases, very few are full blown examples.

There was one example when a user Tweeted something along the lines of "Help! How do I use the electronic resources on the NUS library portal". I responded of course. Interestingly enough, another Twitter account run by another University department actually retweeted that cry of help and directed to me as well. This would have being helpful, if my scans had somehow overlooked this.

BTW the reason why I'm not showing this tweet is because since then the user has chosen to make his account private.

Some other tweets I received included the tweet below needing help to set up his Mac to the print release service stations. Eventually, this also led to a discussion about the databases he should use for his business assignment.

I've also received/spotted tweets complaining about noise levels, food issues and questions about loan policy.
Below is an unusual tweet by user pointing out that the noise level in the library is actually roughly 40 decibels instead of the targeted 20. When asked how he measured , he pointed out that there were free and paid iPhone apps that measured sound levels in decibels!


There is some evidence that compared to blogging tweeting tends to yield more positive comments (determined via sentiment analysis). The theory seems to be that blogging requires a lot of effort so naturally only the most unhappy customers would make the effort to blog and hence a selection effect would lead blogs to be generally negative in nature.

On the other hand, tweets tend to take less effort to tweet, and hence users are as likely to tweet about positive issues as to negative issues.

 Here are some comments I picked up via Facebook/Twitter generally praising the strength of the library collection both print and electronic. Remember these compliments were all unsolicited and most were not directly communicated/tweeted to the library account.

Clearly, students love our electronic resources!

Beyond Twitter

While Google alerts in my experience tends to give more false hits, it is still important to monitor them. I can relate 2 cases. In the first, a user posted a blog post with the provocative subject
"Getting irritated at the incompetence of NUS departments" 

The library was mentioned and we responded and helped to resolve the situation. The user stated he was satisfied with the responsiveness of the library.

In another case, my scans spotted a user who was unhappy about the poor usability of NUS webpages, particularly the libraries and mentioned this in a blog.

As it happens we are aware of the problem and was in the midst of doing usability testing for a new portal design and it made sense for us to invite him to assist. The user was delighted and was eager to help.


This blog post just provides a sample of some of the gains received from a proactive scan of the web. 
For privacy and space reasons, I've left out some other transactions that are probably even better examples.

While the library Twitter account currently only has a modest number of followers as it is currently only in the piloting stage and has not being officially advertised yet (it's not even linked to the library portal page yet), this alternative/complimentary technique of using Twitter seems to be surprisingly effective.

By proactively scanning for stories about user negative experiences and quickly responding, the library can use this technique as an excellent service recovery tool. 


Saturday, June 5, 2010

Customizable library portal pages

The rise of web 2.0 sites has led to the idea that sites should be customizable and personalized. FaceBook which was recently crowned as the most popular site on the web by Google, allows users to customize their Facebook accounts by adding and moving around Facebook apps. Users can also add tabs of apps they want to see etc.

How do libraries stack up in this area? In the past I have covered libraries using dynamic startup pages like Netvibes, pageflakes as subject guides. My own institution supports Nexus , which is described as a
"open source web 2.0 personal social platform, something like igoogle and pageflakes. It allows you to mix both your personal, social and corporate content all into a single portal."

 Recently, I came across another 3 examples.

The Helskinki University Library has a link on their front page to a MyTerkko page

This learning portal is clearly optimised for academic use, you can see boxes for citation analysis (bottom right, covering Scopus, WoS, Topcited and something called Scholar Chart which I believe shows impact factors of Finnish Medical Scholars), links to reference management and the interesting option "Feed Navigator"  

While you can add any RSS feed you want, the Feed Navigator (see below) helps you select relevant ones. This is particularly helpful for users who don't know how to handle RSS feeds, particularly when complicated by factors such as authentication via ezproxy etc. 

Karolinska Institute is possibly the most interesting example. While all the earlier examples, have a "proper" fixed library page and link out to a separate dynamic portal page , they have chosen to integrate everything into the front page.

As shown below, the top portion, including the by now standard tab interface with search options is fixed. However, everything underneath is customizable.

You can drag and drop each of the boxes, or delete any box, just like a normal netvibes type page.Clicking on "Add More", gives you some options (see below).

In fact, my own institute has some minor personalization features. Once you have logged in, the follow will appear.

Essentially you can customize what your favourite databases/journals are, and a shortcut will appear. You can also customize other links (news events, new books, databases) by discipline, by changing the preferences (see below).

Granted such customization is fairly minor compared to what you can achieve with netvibes like widgets but this portal was designed quite a while back.

Wild thoughts & speculation

While it is always possible for libraries to create pages which allow highly customizable and personal library pages the question of course is will our users bother to do so? 

In the examples above there seems to be two different approaches. 

The first approach which is more common would be to keep the main library page static, but link out to another dynamic personal page (whether it's something like Netvibes or something inhouse like PennPortal). The hope here would be that this page would be the one stop shop for researchers who would instinctively start on this page whenever they wanted to do research.  

The second approach would be to allow users to change various aspects of the main library page, this is similar to the approach by Karolinska Institute or my own institution.

I've being thinking about the strengths and weakness of both methods, it seems to me it comes down to this.

Users will make the effort to personalize and customize only if they anticipate they will see or use it often. 

Here's where the problem lies, unlike say Facebook, where you need to login to access your account, you can very well go to a library page, and do a search in the catalogue without logging first and I believe this is what most people do. I.e They just want to find if a book or article is available.

They will not bother to login UNTIL they need to.. which is typically when they try to access a electronic journal or want to access some other library service (e.g. place a hold on the book, do document  delivery service etc). (I'm assuming here also that all these services use only one login). The problem is by then, they are leaving the library portal page.

The other major task that users want to achieve is to check their loan record for due dates and fines, but traditionally this isn't very well integrated with the library portal as the LMS (Library Management System) is typically a separate system and in most library portals, checking your loan record involves pushing you to some other page away from the library portal.

As a result, my guess is most users will not bother to spend a lot of time customizing because in their mind there is no need to do so. By the time, they bother to login , they are already eager to jump off their library page to some ejournal site. They have finished their task and are ready to leave.

As such they are not conditioned to login immediately when they hit the library site.

I'm not sure what the solution here is.

Force all users to login the moment they hit the library site? There are a lot of issues with this idea, for example how do you handle non-members? Would that push users even faster into the arms of Google, since putting a login box is known to discourage usage? (That's the reasoning behind allowing users to use Summon without login first according to a sales rep at a recent Summon demo I attended)

You could of course encourage users to login.

I suspect simply allowing users to add quick links to favourite databases probably isn't enough, since they can already go directly to these places via bookmarks etc. It's also unclear if  the idea of a creating a one-stop shop research dashboard with RSS feeds of Tocs of journals, will appeal to more than a small minority of users (even for such tech savvy users, they might prefer viewing it in Google reader etc).

For the majority of users,  perhaps populating part of the portal with loan record information and urgent news (your loans are overdue!),  past searches of the catalogue will appear, with new entries since you last logged in etc might be more useful.

Even that might not be enough. Most library webpages feature the search box when prominently and for good reason. The typical user will want to search and their eyes will be drawn to that box and will probably not look at the login button.

It's interesting to note that for some library sites, the login button isn't even visible on the front page probably because the design doesn't require or encourage users to login unless they need to.

The other wild idea I have is taking a leaf out of Facebook, logging onto to the library portal, allows you to see which of your other friends are online to and to chat with them if possible, similar to Facebook chat!

Imagine an undergraduate logins to library portal and spots that his classmate is online too and given he is logged on to the library portal he is probably working on his assignment too and they can chat!  This increases the amount of stickiness of the site.

But the library alone (or maybe even a university wide network) probably doesn't have enough weight to start what essentially amounts to a competing social network. But what about implementing something like Facebook Connect?

Thus far, I know of only one library that does this via a Facebook library app, so that one can pull library loan information into the facebook app. This does what the other examples in this blog post in reverse of course, the idea is that users don't even visit the library page, but can do all the library related services in a facebook app.

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