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Standards and Web Conventions

I Didn't Know You Had That... Part 1

March 24, 2009 | Alan H. | Comments (4)

Book Cover Image - UXL Graphic Novelists Book Cover Image - Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia

The Disclaimer: Many of the links in this post will prompt you for your library card number and your PIN, so have your card ready (or your number memorized).  If you don't have a card it's easy and free to get one if you live, work, go to school or pay property tax in Toronto.

The Preamble (you can skip to The Good Stuff if you just want to see some cool web stuff TPL has available that you might not know about)

A challenge libraries face in providing web-based information is the extreme diversity of sources and the requirements to access them.  Along with the open web (the kind of thing you find with Google or another search engine) there is a huge range of subscription-only services that require payment to access and are not typically indexed by search engines because of this.  The library purchases group access to a wide range of these services, allowing you access from home to a wide range of content unavailable on the open web, using your library card.  This includes everything from newspaper archives (some going back to the 19th century) to auto repair manuals to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Ideally we would like a  (relatively speaking) uniform means of access to all our web content, similar to what we have for our books.  But the current common means of access to books is the result of hundreds of years of development of storage methods and well-established systems for organizing them on the shelf and providing topical access to them in catalogues.  The web is a much younger information source than books (and it can sometimes be hard to find the right book as well!).

So we work with tools that are better than nothing, but still not ideal, such as union searching (doing simple searches of multiple subscription sources from different vendors in one go and presenting the results in a single interface).  As the web matures and standards for accessing information from subscription-based sites become better-implemented among vendors, we are hopeful that we can purchase or build better tools for providing access.

The Good Stuff

This is a roundabout way of saying that TPL's website is a gateway to tons of great content that you can't find for free on the web, but it can be difficult sometimes to get the word out.  Safari Books Online has been mentioned on this blog previously, but we're going to be posting regularly in the future to highlight other resources available through the website that you may not be aware of.

The first we'd like to highlight is the Gale Virtual Reference Library.  Gale is a major reference book publisher and a substantial amount of their reference books (totaling hundreds of thousands of pages of content) are available to you as a TPL library card holder from anywhere that can access the web.

The front page of Gale Virtual Reference Library is a list of available categories of reference books (along with almost universal search box).  Clicking the + beside a category (Arts, Business, Technology, etc) will expand the category to show the individual reference works available.  There's a lot, but some notables are:

Business > Business Plans Handbook (Volumes 1-14 available).  An extensive collection of business plans used by small business entrepreneurs seeking funding.  Useful to students studying business and potential entrepreneurs.  A wide variety of plans for different business enterprises are compiled in the 14 volumes available so far.

Environment > Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia (17 volumes) and Grzimek's Student Animal Life Resource (21 volumes) are tremendous surveys of the animal kingdom (the Encyclopedia is nearly 10,000 pages).  The Student Animal Life Resource is more appropriate in level to the higher elementary grades compared to the Animal Life Encyclopedia (written for an older audience).  Great for school projects or for general interest.

Literature > UXL Graphic Novelists (3 volumes).  Over 600 pages in three volumes containing biographies of illustrators, comic book writers, manga authors, cartoonists and others in the broad field of the "graphic novel".  Fills a gap for students writing about graphic novelists or their works, and of browsing interest to readers of the genre.

This very small selection of the reference books available through just the Gale site is somewhere in the range of 20,000 pages of reference material!  There's a lot more there for all sorts of topics--have a look.  And this is only one site out of dozens that you have access to as a TPL cardholder--we'll be featuring more in the future on this blog.

Catalogue Usability

December 10, 2008 | TPL Staff | Comments (7)

As you may have read in this post, an improved version of the catalogue is going live tomorrow. We have received several comments around usability issues and wanted to specifically address the issue of usability and our catalogue.

Unusable Watering Can

What you will see in this version of the catalogue

Your account sign-in – This action now goes to Your Account.

Page titles and permanent links – With this function we ensure that each item in the catalogue has a permanent link that you can use to share or bookmark in your browser.  Along with this we ensured that the bookmark would be titled appropriately.

Warnings when you are about to affect all items (e.g. item renewal and cancelling holds) – This was implemented to stop you from unexpectedly affecting all your holds with a single click.

Screen refresh – When you renew items or cancel holds, the screen now refreshes after you take your action.  This ensures you see the results of your action and don't take the same action again.

Hold suspension process simplified – To help make this process easier for everyone, we've introduced a way to activate or suspend holds without specifying a date range.  You may also continue to indicate a date range should you wish to do so.

Headings, labels and error messages – Previously ambiguous, misleading and/or repetitive.  We've made numerous improvements to this area.  We have also used better text size for headings to improve scanning of pages and have removed headings that repeat where necessary.

Links that look and behave like links – As much as possible, we've make all the links look and behave like links – (e.g. underlined, mouse pointer changes to the 'hand' icon).

Formatting and page width –The catalogue content is better formatted so you can find what you are looking for more easily.   For example, the New Titles lists are now broken up into sections with headings as opposed to a list with a system order.  We also fixed the width of the catalogue so the viewing experience on monitors of all sizes is the same.

Spacing – To improve your ability to scan through content on pages, much more space and 'breathing room' has been added.

What you won't see

The catalogue is a proprietary software and in some instances we are unable to control its functionality.  As a result, some things we really wanted to do for our customers were simply not possible and are still under investigation and consideration. These include:

Sign-in from anywhere in the system – Allowing a customer to login and return to the site where they left off (e.g. mid searching or hold process).

Using the browser back button – The catalogue does not give the expected result from using the 'back button' on your web browser.  This means you must use the in–page back option (now better positioned). TIP: If you find yourself caught out (I know I regularly do!) having used the browser back button, hit the browser refresh button and the page you are looking for should display.

Human readable URLs you can copy and paste from the address bar – the catalogue adds special codes into the URLs to indicate that you, a specific website user, from a specific computer have requested information so that the information can be sent back to your computer browser.  This instance of one person using the catalogue is called a 'session' and it is the session codes that appear in the URLs.  Some pages work without the session codes, and on these pages we have provided a Link To This Page feature.   The other challenge with the links to catalogue pages and items is that the links are codified and reference things like 'uhtbin' and 'cgisirsi' when what you really need to see are author names, titles, search terms in clear readable language.>

Search assistance – such as spell check or “did you mean” – the catalogue does not have this functionality, and we are not able to add it to this product.

Sort and limit options for all types of search results – Ideally, you would be able to sort any set of search results into the order that works best for you (e.g., alphabetically by author) or narrow the results to include only what you’re looking for (e.g., only DVDs at Downsview branch). Unfortunately, the catalogue allows sorting and limiting only for keyword search results. The results of a browse search (exact title, author, or subject) and the lists of Our Newest Titles, Award Winners, and Best Sellers cannot be sorted or limited.

An easy way to tell which items you can place holds on – “Place Hold” buttons still show up for many items that you are not able to put holds on. We have not been able to find a way to consistently suppress them for materials that are not holdable. This is something we’re still working on.

Standard accessibility features, such as the capability to resize text using the controls in your web browser – Accessibility is very important to the library and will be a major focus of our website redesign project.

Perfection – Things that seem simple to achieve may, within the constraints of this technology, be unattainable.  We've endeavoured to affect every issue we possibly can and continue to work closely with our supplier to improve things even more.  We know there are more things we can do and we have a long list of outstanding issues we are continuing to work through.  We also know how important this system is to your library experience and are committed to ongoing  and regular improvements.   Thanks for everyone's patience, and keep the comments coming – we love your engagement and feedback.

Staff from the Toronto Public Library's eServices team talk about recent changes, future plans and ideas and issues you raise about the library's online and mobile services.

What the Web Team is reading on the web