Unthinkable Thinking Made Real?

A few days ago was one of the highlights of my conference year, Internet Librarian International, which started on Monday when I joined up with Brian Kelly once again for a second (updated) outing of our Preparing for the Future workshop (Brian’s resources; my reference slides (unannotated for now, will be updated at some point)).

I hope to post some reflections on that over the next few days, but for now would like to mention one of the presentations on Tuesday – Thinking the unthinkable: a library without a catalogue by Johan Tilstra (@johantilstra) from Utrecht University Library. This project seems to have been in progress for some time, the main idea being that discovery happens elsewhere: the university library should not be focussing on providing discovery services, but instead should be servicing the delivery of content surfaced or discovered elsewhere. To support this, Utrecht are developing a browser extension – UU Easy Access – that will provide full text access to remote resources. As the blurb puts it, [the extension] detects when you are on a website which the Utrecht University Library has a subscription to. This makes it easy for you to get access through the Library Proxy.

This reminded me of an old experiment back from the days I hassled the library regularly, the OU Library Traveller extension (actually, a Greasemonkey script; remember Greasemonkey?;-)

It seems I only posted fragmentary posts about this doodle (OU Library Traveller – Title Lookup and OU Library Traveller – eBook Greedy, for example) but for those without long memories, here’s a brief recap: a long time ago, Jon Udell published a library lookup bookmarklet that would scan the URL of a web page you were on to see if it contained an ISBN (a universal book number), and if so, it would try to open up the page corresponding to that book on your local library catalogue.

I forget the various iterations involved, or related projects in the area (such as scripts that looked for ISBNs or DOIs in a webpage and rewrote them as links to a search on that resource via a library catalogue, or dereferencing of the doi through a doi lookup and libezproxy service), but at some point I ended up with a Greasemonkey script that would pop up a floating panel on a page that contained an ISBN show whether that book was in the OU Library, or available as a full text e-book. (Traffic light colour coded links also showed if the resource was available, owned by the library but currently unavailable, or not avaialble.) I also had – still have, still use regularly – a bookmarklet that will rewrite the URL for subscription based content, such as an academic journal paper, so it goes via the OU library and (hopefully) provides me with full text access: OU libezproxy bookmarklet (see also Arcadia project: bookmarklets; I think some original, related “official-ish, not quite, yet, in testing” OU Library bookmarklets are still available here).

So the “Thinking the Unthinkable” presentation got me thinking that perhaps I had also been thinking along similar lines, as well as that perhaps I should revisit the code to provide an extension that would automatically enhance pages that contained somewhere about them an ISBN or DOI or web domain recognised by the OU’s libezproxy. (If any OU library devs are reading this, (Owen?!;-) it’d be really useful to have a service that could take a URL and then return a boolean flag to say whether or not the OU libezproxy service could do something useful with that URL… or provide me with a list of domains that the OU libezproxy service likes so I could locally decide whether to try to reroute a URL through it…) Hmm….

As I dug through old blog posts, I was also reminded of a couple of other things. Firstly, another competition hack that tried to associate courses with books using a service published by Dave Patten at the University of Huddersfield. Hmm… Thinks… Related content… or alternative content, maybe… so if I’m on a journal page somewhere, maybe I could identify whether it’s OA available from a university repository..? (Which I guess is what Google Scholar often does when it links to a PDF copy of a paper?)

Secondly, I was reminded of another presentation I gave at ILI six years ago (the slides are indecipherable and without annotation) on “The Invisible Library” (which built on from a similarly titled internal OU presentation a few weeks earlier).

The original idea was that libraries could provide invisible helpdesk support through monitoring social media channels, but also included elements of providing locally mediated access to remotely discovered items in an invisible way through things like the OU Library Traveller. It also seems to refer to “contentless” libraries, (eg as picked up in this April Fool), and perhaps foreshadows the idea of an open access academic library.

So I wonder – time to revisit this properly, and try to recapture the (unthinkable?) thinking I was thinking back then?

PS I also notice that around that time I was experimenting with Google Custom search engines. This is the second time in as many months I’ve rediscovered my CSE doodles (previously with Creating a Google Custom Search Engine Over Hyperlocal Sites). Maybe it’s time I revisited them again, too…?

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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