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The Digital Library Development Laboratory team

Paul Bramscher, Shane Nackerud, and John Butler of the U's Digital Library Development Laboratory have developed a portal application that is changing the way users look at libraries.

Go with the flow

MyLibrary portal moves the University of Minnesota Libraries into the student information stream

By Jim Thorp

Brief, May 9, 2007

Let's face it: With more than 6 million volumes and nearly 37,000 serial subscriptions, the University of Minnesota Libraries can be intimidating. And with more information easily available via the Internet, students are becoming less patient when it comes to navigating the stacks.

To make such virtual legwork less formidable, the U's Digital Library Development Laboratory has created MyLibrary, a new portal application that filters library resources and provides quick online access to the collections, tools, and library personnel most suited to the user's specific profile.

University librarian Wendy Pradt Lougee characterizes the project as a response to "Web-use trends and Amazoogle forces." It's also changing how people view libraries.

Window to the world

Although MyLibrary strongly complements the U's goal of becoming a top-three public research university, Lougee says the initiative is rooted in University Libraries' studies of faculty and graduate student behavior and Internet use. Those studies suggest that scholars across the academic disciplines are increasingly looking to the Web for information, and they want tools that better filter and integrate relevant sources and services into their scholarly workflow.

"As a result, we began thinking about how we could get the libraries in the flow and become more agile in response to researchers' needs," she says.

About University Libraries

* Number of U library locations in the Twin Cities: 14

* Number of volumes: 6,200,669

* Number of serial subscriptions: 36,900

* Number of annual user visits: 2 million

* North American ranking (for collection size): 16 (of 113 research libraries)

* North American ranking for loans to other libraries: 1 (of 113 research libraries)

* Number of annual reference questions answered: 186,000

* Number of annual workshops/class sessions delivered: 1,100

Enter John Butler, director of the Digital Library Development Laboratory. His team had worked with the University Libraries' Undergraduate Initiative team on the Undergraduate Virtual Library (UGVL), which launched in fall 2005 as an effort to bridge the gap between what a Web search can generate and what the libraries can offer. The UGVL offers new student researchers a Google-like search engine and interface, helping them navigate collections in a way that feels familiar to them.

"We've always had an interest in personalizing and customizing content to smaller units and developing specific library resources at a course level," Butler says. "Over the years we have developed a suite of tools that help librarians deliver reference, liaison, and instructional services to students. The challenge here is to provide meaningful services in the University's large-scale environment.

"The Libraries have about 100 professional staff and, of those, roughly 50 to 60 positioned to provide direct services to the student body. So, conservatively, we are challenged by a librarian-to-student ratio of 1:500--and it's probably a much larger ratio than that."

The University's MyU portal is home to a host of online resources for students, staff, and faculty, providing single sign-in access to most online administrative applications, personalized news and information, and secure areas for sharing and collaboration. Since MyU boasts more than 140,000 registered users and 17,000 unique logins each day, it's an ideal vehicle for delivering library resources to the masses.

Butler's team developed MyLibrary as a personalized view of library resources for students using the MyU portal. With their single MyU portal sign-on, users log in, then click the MyLibrary tab at the top of the page to access a University Libraries home page with convenient search tools, single-click access to discipline-specific collections and resources, and contact information for the most appropriate librarian for the user's field of study or role at the U.

"A lot of library sites are built like library buildings -- everything's there, but you have to go and find it," says Butler. "It's overwhelming." The U Libraries approach is fundamentally different.

Affinity strings--strings of data that track certain characteristics of a user, such as campus, role, unit, program, and degree--are used to personalize the content delivered to the user. These strings are mapped to MyLibrary page templates according a user's status or role (e.g., graduate student, incoming freshman, research staff, and such), then to the appropriate discipline or content area--effectively determining what information is likely to be important to a user and how best to present that content. Additional links provide access to the rest of the libraries' online resources.

As a result, the critical difference between the UGVL and the MyLibrary is personalization.

"When user X comes to the UGVL, he or she gets exactly the same view that user Y gets," explains Butler. "Although the UGVL is oriented to an undergraduate sensibility, the presentation is generic, flat, one-sized. In the [MyLibrary] portal, we differentiate users and present them with discipline-sensitive views."

Less is more

The University isn't the first organization to attempt to create a comprehensive online view of its library resources--but the approach has been fundamentally different than most such efforts.

"Information has reached a saturation point on the Web," Butler says. "A lot of library sites are built like library buildings--everything's there, but you have to go and find it. It's overwhelming."

Butler describes most early efforts to create online libraries as "pull-heavy" and says they were "high on novelty and abandonment." The U's goal, on the other hand, has always been a hybrid push-pull model.

"What becomes more important is what's excluded from that initial view," Butler says. "It's the notion of pushing content to the user based on our expertise. The typical user's attention span is getting shorter and shorter, so there's more value in identifying and privileging content based on what we know about the user."

Phase I of the MyLibrary rollout is almost exclusively a push model, with librarians and subject-matter experts advancing selected content based on what's-best principles and the use patterns of particular affinity groups.

Phase II will enable users to customize their view based on personal preferences and favorite resources. A third phase of development will enable the creation of community or mentoring views, in which the use patterns facilitate interaction and collaboration between users and affinity groups with similar interests and goals.

Graduate students were given access to Phase I of the MyLibrary portal in late December, and a gradual rollout continues. The team launched MyLibrary for all Academic Health Center audiences in February and for the Class of 2011 incoming freshman in April. The goal is deployment to all audiences by this summer.

Expanding MyLibrary services to other U of M campuses is also being explored.

FURTHER READING "Libraries for a new generation: Getting the Net Gen on the right information highway," spring 2006 "The past in the present," a feature on University Archives, Dec. 29, 2006