Agora: building the technological infrastructure
Rosemary Russell (UK Office for Library and Information Networking), Agora Communications Coordinator and Greg Newton-Ingham (University of East Anglia), Agora Project Manager
This text is based on the Agora presentation at the Hybrid Libraries regional workshop in Leeds on 15 October 1998. It covers some of the background and motivations for the project and information about the Agora consortium and associate partners. It also discusses the development of the prototype hybrid library management system, together with some of the challenges and emerging issues.
Background: the MODELS project
The Agora hybrid library project is implementing many of the concepts developed by the MODELS (MOving to Distributed Environments for Library Services) project. MODELS is a UKOLN project, which receives funding from eLib and the British Library Research and Innovation Centre. It has been exploring ways of more effectively managing access to distributed heterogeneous information resources. The project has discussed technical and organisational issues with leading stakeholders via a series of focused workshops. Issues and requirements identified have led to the development of the MODELS Information Architecture (MIA), a technical framework based on a three-layer model, for talking about service components with a common language. It provides a tool which helps library managers to lever development, and guides systems developers.
The prime motivation for MODELS (and therefore also for Agora) is that library and information services are currently unconnected: users cannot easily move from one service to another. Instead they are forced to access databases individually, using a range of interfaces and following varying procedures. A survey undertaken by the HyLiFe project has shown that users want one single interface. If an item of interest is found, there is usually no link to local catalogues, to reveal if the item is available in the user’s ‘home’ library; it is even more difficult to find out availability information and terms for remote resources. Finally a different set of procedures is necessary in order to request the item, involving library staff and further duplication of effort (redoing local catalogue searches etc). This repetition is extremely wasteful of time and resources, for both end users and library staff. Using different interfaces is confusing and inefficient. Useful network resources can be ‘invisible’, since there are no mechanisms for connecting user interests to services; it is difficult for end-users to easily discover new services and there is consequently a tendency to stick to well-known ones. The lack of connection means a range of management problems for libraries.
Developing integrated information services
MODELS has therefore advocated the development of integrated systems to manage the discovery and location of information resources, through to requesting/ordering and delivery. In order to provide this integration, a layer of services or ‘middleware’ is needed, which will shield the user from the complexity, heterogeneity and repetitive processes described above. The Agora hybrid library management system (HLMS) is based on the architecture and standards identified by MODELS and is working on a range of middleware issues.
One essential middleware component Agora is addressing is collection level description. Access to collection and service descriptions will help to solve the problem of ‘invisible’ network services, identified above. They allow discovery of collections of interest to users and reduce unnecessary load on servers when cross-searching (through filtering out servers which do not hold relevant collections). One of the breakout sessions run by Agora during the workshop also focused on this theme. The workshop group used the draft collection description attribute set to describe a known collection; this was useful in highlighting some of the practical difficulties. Collection level descriptions are needed to support the construction of ‘information landscapes’, a term used to describe the different individualised views which can be presented to users, depending on their needs.
The Z39.50 protocol for search and retrieval plays a key role in connecting services currently. However the project is also investigating the use of other protocols in addition to Z39.50; for example it is desirable to incorporate Whois++ (the search protocol used by the eLib subject gateways) into the HLMS.
Agora consortium and associates
Agora is a consortium-based project involving UEA (University of East Anglia), UKOLN (UK Office for Library and Information Networking), CERLIM (Centre for Research in Library and Information Management) at Manchester Metropolitan University, and Fretwell Downing Informatics. The consortium is led by UEA.
Agora also has significant commitment from the wider communities including a representative cross-section of libraries, data suppliers and systems developers. It is hoped that this broad based input and collaboration will lead to the creation and use of truly open standards. The project will also inform wider standards activities. Evaluation is being carried out by CERLIM; it is seen as essential to gather results that can inform the communities on the progress and lessons an innovative project of this kind can provide.
The objective of the project is two-fold: firstly to build a robust technical system to manage diverse resources and user needs in a modern hybrid library; and secondly to provide tools for the library community when dealing with change and the transition to a hybrid library. The first goal is highly technical but perhaps represents the least difficult of the two threads of the project. The second presents many more issues.
Challenges in developing the hybrid library
Looking firstly at the technical issues, a range of challenges can be seen. These challenges cover the interoperation of widely different systems, how collections or services might describe themselves, what changes are needed by providers to allow their data to be used in the Agora system etc. Many systems development projects have failed through lack of user involvement. In order to gather the best possible feedback early in the project, a prototype was built to focus discussion. This was made available in August 1998. The prototype has been demonstrated and used by the associates in the project. The prototype implements parallel Z39.50 searching with information landscape management. The prototype supports multiple search strategies over a diverse range of resources (eg library catalogues, CD-ROMs, subject gateways, archives and data archives). This diversity has highlighted differing professional views on features considered important or correct. The final version of the system (which is due in 2000) will provide support for the complete user cycle from discovery through to delivery of both electronic and physical resources. The project will address electronic commerce, auditing and accounting, supplier interfaces, infrastructure and processes to support a hybrid library.
The second project thread is the social context of the hybrid library. There is the outstanding question of the role of the library in a networked electronic environment. Previously the reputation of a library was based on the size and quality of the local collection. All the costs for access to resources were either hidden or entirely in the realm of the user. If an item was not available locally (free at the point of use) then the library user would have to travel to another library to access it. In the electronic world and with the pressure on resources this situation changes dramatically. Any item may be available from a number of suppliers, at various prices. Some or all of these costs may be passed back to the individual through quota systems or by allowing the user to spend their own money to buy access to a resource that is not available locally. This transparency of accounting means that the user has more opportunity to question the decisions of the library staff in terms of acquisitions and the services provided.
In addition to this demystifying of the library, collection development and management is also open to scrutiny by users, eg why does a librarian choose resource A over resource B? This kind of questioning is a trend in society that we can see echoed in other professions such as medicine and education. To compound this issue there is the ongoing debate in the library community about the role of the librarian. Does the librarian act as an advisor by presenting an organised view of the intellectual record,
or is the librarian a gate keeper, negotiating access to a range of resources on behalf of the users, the selection of which is primarily driven by users?
Although the project does not set out to resolve all of these issues it will provide tools and support for libraries wishing to evolve their services to meet the challenges facing us all.