The State of the Library Website

T’was a time when the Library Website was an abomination. Those dark days have lightened significantly. But new clouds have appeared on the horizon.

Darkest Before the Dawn

In the dark ages of Library Websites, users suffered under UX regimes that were rigid, unhelpful and confusing. This was before responsive design became a standard in the library world. It was before search engine optimization started to creep into Library meetings. It was before user experience became an actual librarian job title.

We’ve come a long way since I wrote The Ugly Truth About Library Websites. Most libraries have evolved beyond the old “website as pamphlet” paradigm to one that is dynamic and focused on user tasks.

Public libraries have deployed platforms like BiblioCommons to serve responsive, task-oriented interfaces that integrate their catalogs, programming and website into a single social platform. Books, digital resources, programs and even loanable equipment are all accessible via a single search. What’s more, the critical social networking aspects of library life are also embedded along the user’s path. Celebrated examples of this integrated solution include the San Francisco Public Library and Chicago Public Library. Queens is also hard at work to develop a custom solution.

In the academic realm, libraries have turned to unified discovery layers like WorldCat Discovery and EBSCO Discovery Service to simplify (Googlize) the research process. These systems put a single-search box front and center that access resources on the shelf, but also all those electronic resources that make up the bulk of academic budgets.

And while there are still many laggards, few libraries ignore these problems outright.

The Storm Ahead

While the general state of online library interfaces has improved, the unforgiving, hyperbolic curve of change continues to press forward. And libraries cannot stay put. Indeed, we need to quicken our pace and prepare our organizations for ongoing recalibration as the tempo of change increases.

The biggest problem for library websites, is that there is little future for the library website. That’s because people will get less and less information through web browsers. Indeed, consider how often you use a web browser on your phone versus an app. Developments in AI, Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality will compound that trend.

If you’re like Chris Milk, videographer and VR evangelist, you see the writing on the wall. The modes of how we experience information are about to undergo a fundamental revolution. Milk likens the current state of VR to the old black and white silent films at the dawn of motion pictures.

I’d extend this line of thinking to the web page. Within a decade or two, I expect people will look back on web pages as a brief, transitory medium bridging print information to linked data. And as our AI, VR and AR technologies take off, they will liberate information from the old print paradigms altogether.

In short, people will interact with information in more direct ways. They will ask a computer to provide them the answer. They will virtually travel to a “space” where they can experience the information they seek.

Get Ready to Re-invent the Library…again

So where does the library fit into this virtualized and automated future?

One possibility is that the good work to transform library data into linked data will enable us to survive this revolution. In fact, it may be our best hope.

Another hope is that we continue to emphasize the library as a social space for people to come together around ideas. Whether its a virtual library space or a physical one, the library can be the place in both local and global communities where people meet their universal thirst for connecting with others. The modes of those ideas (books, ebooks, videos, games) will matter far less than the act of connecting.

In a sense, you could define the future online library as something between an MMORPG, Meetup.com and the TED conference.

So, the library website is vastly improved, but we won’t have long to rest on our laurels.

Ready Player One? Put on your VR goggles. Call up Siri. Start rethinking everything you know about the Library website.

 

 

Virtual Realty is Getting Real in the Library

My library just received three Samsung S7 devices with Gear VR goggles. We put them to work right away.

The first thought I had was: Wow, this will change everything. My second thought was: Wow, I can’t wait for Apple to make a VR device!

The Samsung Gear VR experience is grainy and fraught with limitations, but you can see the potential right away. The virtual reality is, after all, working off a smartphone. There is no high-end graphics card working under the hood. Really, the goggles are just a plastic case holding the phone up to your eyes. But still, despite all this, it’s amazing.

Within twenty-four hours, I’d surfed beside the world’s top surfers on giant waves off Hawaii, hung out with the Masai in Africa and shared an intimate moment with a pianist and his dog in their (New York?) apartment. It was all beautiful.

We’ve Been Here Before

Remember when the Internet came online? If you’re old enough, you’ll recall the crude attempts to chat on digital bulletin board systems (BBS) or, much later, the publication of the first colorful (often jarringly so) HTML pages.

It’s the Hello World! moment for VR now. People are just getting started. You can tell the content currently available is just scratching the surface of potentialities for this medium. But once you try VR and consider the ways it can be used, you start to realize nothing will be the same again.

The Internet Will Disappear

So said Google CEO Erik Schmidt in 2015. He was talking about the rise of AI, wearable tech and many other emerging technologies that will transform how we access data. For Schmidt, the Internet will simply fade into these technologies to the point that it will be unrecognizable.

I agree. But being primarily a web librarian, I’m mostly concerned with how new technologies will translate in the library context. What will VR mean for library websites, online catalogs, eBooks, databases and the social networking aspects of libraries.

So after trying out VR, I was already thinking about all this. Here are some brief thoughts:

  • Visiting the library stacks in VR could transform the online catalog experience
  • Library programming could break out of the physical world (virtual speakers, virtual locations)
  • VR book discussions could incorporate virtual tours of topics/locations touched on in books
  • Collections of VR experiences could become a new source for local collections
  • VR maker spaces and tools for creatives to create VR experiences/objects

Year Zero?

Still, VR makes your eyes tired. It’s not perfect. It has a long way to go.

But based on my experience sharing this technology with others, it’s addictive. People love trying it. They can’t stop talking about it afterward.

So, while it may be some time before the VR revolution disrupts the Internet (and virtual library services with it), it sure feels imminent.

AI First

Looking to the future, the next big step will be for the very concept of the “device” to fade away. Over time, the computer itself—whatever its form factor—will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day. We will move from mobile first to an AI first world.

Google Founder’s Letter, April 2016

My Library recently finalized a Vision Document for our virtual library presence. Happily, our vision was aligned with the long-term direction of technology as understood by movers and shakers like Google.

As I’ve written previously, the Library Website will disappear. But this is because the Internet (as we currently understand it) will also disappear.

In its place, a new mode of information retrieval and creation will move us away from the paper-based metaphor of web pages. Information will be more ubiquitous. It will be more free-form, more adaptable, more contextualized, more interactive.

Part of this is already underway. For example, people are becoming a data set. And other apps are learning about you and changing how they work based on who you are. Your personal data set contains location data, patterns in speech and movement around the world, consumer history, keywords particular to your interests, associations based on your social networks, etc.

AI Emerging

All of this information makes it possible for emerging AI systems like Siri and Cortana to better serve you. Soon, it will allow AI to control the flow of information based on your mood and other factors to help you be more productive. And like a good friend that knows you very, very well, AI will even be able to alert you to serendipitous events or inconveniences so that you can navigate life more happily.

People’s expectations are already being set for this kind of experience. Perhaps you’ve noticed yourself getting annoyed when your personal assistant just fetches a Wikipedia article when you ask it something. You’re left wanting. What we want is that kernel of gold we asked about. But what we get right now, is something too general to be useful.

But soon, that will all change. Nascent AI will soon be able to provide exactly the piece of information that you really want rather than a generalized web page. This is what Google means when they make statements like “AI First” or “the Web will die.” They’re talking about a world where information is not only presented as article-like web pages, but broken down into actual kernels of information that are both discrete and yet interconnected.

AI First in the Library

Library discussions often focus on building better web pages or navigation menus or providing responsive websites. But the conversation we need to have is about pulling our data out of siloed systems and websites and making it available to all modes like AI, apps and basic data harvesters.

You hear this conversation in bits and pieces. The ongoing linked data project is part of this long-term strategy. So too with next-gen OPACs. But on the ground, in our local strategy meetings, we need to tie every big project we do to this emerging reality where web browsers are increasingly no longer relevant.

We need to think AI First.

ProtonMail: A Survivors Tale

Beginning November 3rd, encrypted email service provider, ProtonMail, came under a DDOS attack by blackmailers. Here is my experience, as a supporter and subscriber, watching from the sidelines. It’s a survival story with many heroes that reads like a Mr. Robot script.

Why Encrypt Your Email?

ProtonMail is an encrypted email service that I just love. It overcomes the problems with email providers’ harvesting your personal data for resale, the pitfalls of these databases falling into criminal hands and just plain weirdness you feel when every word, attachment and contact is shared to whomever.

To make my point on why everyone should use encrypted email, like ProtonMail, consider this experience: I recently had to fill out an affidavit confirming my identity but did not have all the particulars with me, such as past addresses, etc. No problem, I just logged into my 12 year old Gmail account and did some searching. In no time, I had all the personal info the affidavit required to prove my identity.

It’s not that I purposely saved all this information in there. It just accumulates over the years organically.

Imagine if that data fell into the wrong hands.

ProtonMail is a crowd-funded, free email service that comes out of the CERN laboratories in Switzerland and MIT. The engineers at these research facilities were inspired by the revelations of Edward Snowdon about back doors into email servers and the general collection of data by governments, so they built ProtonMail.

The service is simple, elegant and super secure. The encryption happens through the use of a client-side password, so theoretically, nobody, not even ProtonMail, can decrypt your emails and read them.

ProtonMail Taken Down

The recent Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attack began on November 3rd when a group held for ransom access to ProtonMail’s email service. This was a very sophisticated attack that flooded their servers with requests, but also their ISP. The result was that ProtonMail and several other sites, including e-commerce and banking sites, were unreachable. After failing to successfully fight back, the ISP and other firms put enormous pressure on ProtonMail to pay off the cyber gang. They did so and the attack stopped…momentarily.

Less than half a day later, the attack re-commenced. This time it was even more sophisticated and destructive. And, things got even weirder. The original blackmailers actually contacted ProtonMail to let them know they were not involved in the new attack. ProtonMail is pretty certain that the second attack was likely a state entity.

You can read all the details on their blog post on the incident.

Over this past weekend, November 7-8th, ProtonMail launched a response to the ongoing attack, deploying new defensive technologies used by large Internet firms, funded through a GoFundeMe campaign. As of this writing nearly 1,500 individuals donated $50,000 in just 3 days to help in this regard.

Those would be the first, rather large, set of heroes. Thanks to you guys!

Click here to add to the fund.

Social Networks Get the Word Out

The media was really late to this story. It was not until the end of the week that the first news reports came out about the blackmail story made sexier by the fact that the ransom was paid with bitcoins.

Most of the breaking news, however, was only available on ProtonMail’s Twitter feed and their Sub-Reddit.

It was on their Twitter page that they first disclosed the moment-by-moment details of their fight to restore access and their ultimate attempt to fund new defensive technologies. It was on Reddit that the controversy and pain was aired such as reactions to their payment of the ransom and frustration of everyday users at not being able to access their email.

People really gave them a lot of credit, however. And it was heartening that, despite some rather single-minded rants, most people rallied around ProtonMail.

Lessons Learned

One thing I was surprised about were some of the complaints from business people that were using ProtonMail as their exclusive business email. They were losing money during the attack so they were often the most irate. But you have to wonder about someone using an emerging tool like ProtonMail for something so critical as company email. Obviously, new Internet services take time, especially when they are not backed by seasoned VCs who are risk adverse.

I personally had not made the switch to ProtonMail entirely. Part of this was because they don’t have an iPhone app yet, which is where I do about 50% of my emailing. But I was getting close.

So, yes, I had a few important emails get bounced back to the senders. And perhaps one or two have been lost permanently (I may never know). But it does go to show that, for the foreseeable future, ProtonMail is not a reliable sole-email solution. However, given the work they are doing in response to the latest attack, this event may be the turning point that makes them a truly stable email service.

Just this morning, they came under another attack, but unlike previous days over the past week, they were back online very quickly. Hopefully this means their new defenses are paying off.

Bottom Line

ProtonMail rocks. I really love it. The recent DDOS attack only confirms that the good team at CERN and MIT are dedicated to doing what it takes to keep this alive. I can think of other such services that have folded when they came under similar pressure. In fact, the user community around ProtonMail is as serious as ever, shelling out the money required to safeguard encrypted email just when it counted.

There will likely be further trouble ahead. The British government has suggested it might ban encrypted email services. And who knows how the US will respond long term. So, there could be more chop ahead. But for the time being, it seems that ProtonMail may have survived a very critical test of its resilience.

Stay tuned!

The People Wide Web

The debate around Net Neutrality has taken an interesting spin of late. Just as foes to Net Neutrality have gotten closer to their goal of setting up tollways and traffic controls on the information superhighway, some drivers are beginning to build their own transportation system altogether.

Net Neutrality is a concept that has been the norm on the Internet since its inception: the idea that every website gets equal treatment by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). But of course, media companies and the ISPs could conceivably benefit greatly if surcharges for access to higher bandwidth were allowed on the Net. For example, let’s say that Cable Company A offers priority bandwidth to Media Company X, allowing it to serve super high-def streaming video to users at lightning speed. However, Startup Company Z will then be obligated to compete against Media Company X for that bandwidth in order to provide the same quality service. Same goes for Blogger Y.

Fat chance of that. Indeed, given the pace at which media consolidation continues to go unchecked by regulators, were Net Neutrality abandoned, the Internet would quickly resemble something akin to how Network Television dominated communication in the years before high-speed Internet arrived.

And this is what concerns many people since a free, open web has so clearly promoted innovation. So far, the battle is not lost and Net Neutrality is still the norm. Nevertheless, some are creating back up plans.

This past week, BitTorrent, the people behind the popular torrent app uTorrent, announced they are exploring the creation of a new Internet which takes back control of the web and distributes access to websites across peer-to-peer networks.

Called Project Maelstrom, this torrent-based Internet would be powered by a new browser which would effectively rework the Internet into a much freer network with pretty much no gatekeepers.

Details are sparse at the moment, but essentially access to websites would be served as torrents, and thus not served from a single server. Instead, the sites would exist across the peer-to-peer network, in small, redundant bits living on people’s computers. Essentially, its the same technique used for torrent-based file sharing. When you try to access a site, your computer queries the torrent network and dozens of computers begin sending you the packets you need to rebuild the web page in question on your browser. And even as the web page is partially assembled, your computer then begins sharing what it already has with other people trying to access the site.

The result could likely be a much faster Internet, with much greater assurances of privacy. But technical questions remain and this does sound like it could take some time. But wow, what a revolution it would be.

Of course, this could get tricky to pull off. As you may have heard this week, the infamous torrent website Pirate Bay was taken down by authorities in Sweden this week. Pirate Bay serves up links to torrents allowing people to download everything from freeware applications to Hollywood movies that haven’t even been released yet and so has been targeted by law enforcement for years now. Even on today’s Internet, Pirate Bay could conceivably come back online at any time. But if the BitTorrent’s peer-to-peer Internet were realized, Pirate Bay would be back up instantaneously. Indeed, it would probably never come down in the first place. Same goes for Dark Net sites that sell everything from drugs to human beings, which have also been recently taken offline.

Bottom line is: Project Maelstrom is another example of how a free and open Internet is unlikely to ever go away. Question is, how much freedom is a good thing?

My own personal take is that taking back control of the Internet from media companies and ISPs would, on balance, be a great thing. Bad people do bad things in the physical world and that’s why we have never defeated crime 100%. As long as there is an Internet, there will be those that abuse it.

But even more importantly, innovation, freedom of speech and freedom to access information are core to advancing society. So I welcome Project Maelstrom.

So here’s a toast to the People-wide Web!

Library as Digital Consultancy

As faculty and students delve into digital scholarly works, they are tripping over the kinds of challenges that libraries specialize in overcoming, such as questions regarding digital project planning, improving discovery or using quality metadata. Indeed, nobody is better suited at helping scholars with their decisions regarding how to organize and deliver their digital works than librarians.

At my institution, we have not marketed our expertise in any meaningful way (yet), but we receive regular requests for help by faculty and campus organizations who are struggling with publishing digital scholarship. For example, a few years ago a team of librarians at my library helped researchers from the University of Ireland at Galway to migrate and restructure their online collection of annotations from the Vatican Archive to a more stable home on Omeka.net. Our expertise in metadata standards, OAI harvesting, digital collection platforms and digital project planning turned out to be invaluable to saving their dying collection and giving it a stable, long-term home. You can read more in my Saved by the Cloud post.

These kinds of requests have continued since. In recognition of this growing need, we are poised to launch a digital consultancy service on our campus.

Digital Project Planning

A core component of our jobs is planning digital projects. Over the past year, in fact, we’ve developed a standard project planning template that we apply to each digital project that comes our way. This has done wonders at keeping us all up to date on what stage each project is in and who is up next in terms of the workflow.

Researchers are often experts at planning out their papers, but they don’t normally have much experience with planning a digital project. For example, because metadata and preservation are things that normally don’t come up for them, they overlook planning around these aspects. And more generally, I’ve found that just having a template to work with can help them understand how the experts do digital projects and give them a sense of the issues they need to consider when planning their own projects, whether that’s building an online exhibit or organizing their selected works in ways that will reap the biggest bang for the buck.

We intend to begin formally offering project planning help to faculty very soon.

Platform Selection

It’s also our job to keep abreast of the various technologies available for distributing digital content, whether that is harvesting protocols, web content management systems, new plugins for WordPress or digital humanities exhibit platforms. Sometimes researchers know about some of these, but in my experience, their first choice is not necessarily the best for what they want to do.

It is fairly common for me to meet with campus partners that have an existing collection online, but which has been published in a platform that is ill-suited for what they are trying to accomplish. Currently, we have many departments moving old content based in SQL databases to plain HTML pages with no database behind them whatsoever. When I show them some of the other options, such as our Digital Commons-based institutional repository or Omeka.net, they often state they had no idea that such options existed and are very excited to work with us.

Metadata

I think people in general are becoming more aware of metadata, but there is still lots of technical considerations that your typical researcher may not be aware of. At our library, we have helped out with all aspects of metadata. We have helped them clean up their data to conform to authorized terms and standard vocabularies. We have explained Dublin Core. We have helped re-encode their data so that diacritics display online. We have done crosswalking and harvesting. It’s a deep area of knowledge and one that few people outside of libraries know on a suitably deep level.

One recommendation for any budding metadata consultants that I would share is that you really need to be the Carl Sagan of metadata. This is pretty technical stuff and most people don’t need all the details. Stick to discussing the final outcome and not the technical details and your help will be far more understood and appreciated. For example, I once presented to a room of researchers on all the technical fixes to a database that we made to enhance and standardize the metadata, but his went over terribly. People later came up to me and joked that whatever it was we did, they’re sure it was important and thanked us for being there. I guess that was a good outcome since they acknowledged our contribution. But it would have been better had they understood, the practical benefits for the collection and users of that content.

SEO

Search Engine Optimization is not hard, but it is likely that few people outside of the online marketing and web design world know what it is. I often find people can understand it very quickly if you simply define it as “helping Google understand your content so it can help people find you.” Simple SEO tricks like defining and then using keywords in your headers will do wonders for your collection’s visibility in the major search engines. But you can go deep with this stuff too, so I like to gauge my audience’s appetite for this stuff and then provide them with as much detail as I think they have an appetite for.

Discovery

It’s a sad statement on the state of libraries, but the real discovery game is in the major search engines…not in our siloed, boutique search interfaces. Most people begin their searches (whether academic or not) in Google and this is really bad news for our digital collections since by and large, library collections are indexed in the deep web, beyond the reach of the search robots.

I recently tried a search for the title of a digital image in one of our collections in Google.com and found it. Yeah! Now I tried the same search in Google Images. No dice.

More librarians are coming to terms with this discovery problem now and we need to share this with digital scholars as they begin considering their own online collections so that they don’t make the mistakes libraries made (and continue to make…sigh) with our own collections.

We had one department at my institution that was sitting on a print journal that they were considering putting online. Behind this was a desire to bring the publication back to life since they had been told by one researcher in Europe that she thought the journal had been discontinued years ago. Unfortunately, it was still being published, it just wasn’t being indexed in Google. We offered our repository as an excellent place to do so, especially because it would increase their visibility worldwide. Unfortunately, they opted for a very small, non-profit online publisher whose content we demonstrated was not surfacing in Google or Google Scholar. Well, you can lead a horse to water…

Still, I think this kind of understanding of the discovery universe does resonate with many. Going back to our somewhat invisible digital images, we will be pushing many to social media like Flickr with the expectation that this will boost visibility in the image search engines (and social networks) and drive more traffic to our digital collections.

Usability

This one is a tough one because people often come with pre-conceived notions of how they want their content organized or the site designed. For this reason, sometimes usability advice does not go over well. But for those instances when our experiences with user studies and information architecture can influence a digital scholarship project, it’s time well spent. In fact, I often hear people remark that they “never thought of it that way” and they’re willing to try some of the expert advice that we have to share.

Such advice includes things like:

  • Best practices for writing for the web
  • Principles of information architecture
  • Responsive design
  • Accessibility support
  • User Experience design

Marketing

It’s fitting to end on marketing. This is usually the final step in any digital project and one that often gets dropped. And yet, why do all the work of creating a digital collection only to let it go unnoticed. As digital project expert, librarians are familiar with the various channels available to promote and build followers with tools like social networking sites, blogs and the like.

With our own digital projects, we discuss marketing at the very beginning so we are sure all the hooks, timing and planning considerations are understood by everyone. In fact, marketing strategy will impact some of the features of your exhibit, your choice of keywords used to help SEO, the ultimate deadlines that you set for completion and the staffing time you know you’ll need post launch to keep the buzz buzzing.

Most importantly, though, marketing plans can greatly influence the decision for which platform to use. For example, one of the benefits of Omeka.net (rather than self-hosted Omeka) is that any collection hosted with them becomes part of a network of other digital collections, boosting the potential for serendipitous discovery. I often urge faculty to opt for our Digital Commons repository over, say, their personal website, because anything they place in DC gets aggregated into the larger DC universe and has built-in marketing tools like email subscriptions and RSS feeds.

The bottom line here is that marketing is an area where librarians can shine. Online marketing of digital collections really pulls together all of the other forms of expertise that we can offer (our understanding of metadata, web technology and social networks) to fulfill the aim of every digital project: to reach other people and teach them something.

Private Google Search Alternatives

Google NSA skin using Stylish Browser PluginA few weeks back, I dropped Google search in favor of DuckDuckGo, an alternative search engine that does not log your searches. Today, I’m here to report on that experience and suggest two even better secure search tools: StartPage and Ixquick.

The probelm with DuckDuckGo

As I outlined in my initial blog post, DuckDuckGo falls down probably as a consequence of its emphasis on privacy. Whereas Google results are based on an array of personal variables that tie specific result sets to your social graph…a complex web of data points collected on you through your Chrome Browser, Android apps, browser cookies, location data, possibly even the contents of your documents and emails stored on Google’s servers (that’s a guess, but totally within the scope of reason). This is a considerable handicap for DuckDuckGo.

But moreover, Google’s algorithm remains superior to everything else out there.

The benefits of using DuckDuckGo, of course, are that you are far more anonymous, especially if you are searching in private browser mode, accessing the Internet through a VPN or Tor, etc.

Again, given the explosive revelations about aggressive NSA data collection and even of government programs that hack such social graphs, and the potential leaking of that data to even worse parties, many people may decide that, on balance, they are better off dealing with poor search precision rather than setting themselves up for a cataclysmic breach of their data.

I’m one such person, but to be quite honest, I was constantly turning back to Google because DuckDuckGo just wouldn’t get me what I knew was out there.

Fortunately, I found something better: StartPage and Ixquick.

Google but without all the evil

StartPage is a US version of the Dutch-based search engine Ixquick.

There are two important things to understand about StartPage and Ixquick:

  1. Like DuckDuckGo, StartPage and Ixquick are totally private. They don’t collect any data on you, don’t share any data with third parties and don’t use cookies. They also use HTTPS (and no Heartbleed vulnerabilities) for all transactions.
  2. Both StartPage and Ixquick use proxy services to query other search engines. In the case of Ixquick, they query multiple search engines and then return the results with the highest average rank. StartPage only queries Google, but via the proxy service, making your search private and free of the data mining intrigue that plagues the major search engines.

Still some shortcomings remain

But, like DuckDuckGo, neither Ixquick or StartPage are able to source your social graph, so they will never get results as closely tailored to you as Google. By design, they are not looking at your cookies or building their own database of you, so they won’t be able to guess your location or political views, and therefore, will never skew results around those variables. Then again, your results will be more broadly relevant and serendipitous, saving you from the personal echo-chamber that you may have found in Google.

Happily private

It’s been over a month since I switched from DuckDuckGo to StartPage and so far it’s been quite good. StartPage even has a passable image and video search. I almost never go to Google anymore. In fact, I’ve used a browser plugin called Stylish to re-skin Google’s search interface with the NSA logo just as a humorous reminder that every search is being collected by multiple parties.

For that matter, I’ve used the same plugin to re-skin StartPage since where they get high marks for privacy and search results, they’re interface design needs major work…but I’m just picky that way.

So, with my current setup, I’ve got StartPage as my default browser, set in my omnibar in Firefox. Works like a charm!