Library Subject Guides (does this have something to do with Sakai?)

I have been thinking lately of a library subject guide system. A really great utopian library subject system. I imagined a system where librarians would list databases and other resources (chosen from Metalib and/or some other central repository of our stuff, when possible; URLs entered manually when not); also add other narrative text as desired. And organize the whole thing coherently somehow, without knowing any HTML.

And then we’re kind of at the kind of subject guides most of us have today (but perhaps easier to create), but then there’s all sorts of cool new features (I really hate saying ‘2.0’) we can imagine:

  • You should be able to take an RSS feed from somewhere else and add it to your subject guide.
  • All the metalib-searchable resources listed on your subject guide should be meta-searchable with a box right on the subject guide (probably in a custom interface that ISN’T metalib, using XServer, but that’s another story).
  • Hey, this subject guide should have a community-editable wiki on it too, for people to share their own subject/discipline-specific tips and tricks.
  • It should have a librarian blog on it too.
  • It should have RSS feeds coming out of it too, that people can subscribe to, to get new content.

So this has been this fantasy that’s been building in my head for a while. (Incidentally, Andrew Nagy’s system at Villanova takes some really nice steps in this direction; this is also along the lines of what the CDL subject portal project is supposed to accomplish). And I even thought “Gee, if we built this system, we’d probably want to make it available for faculty too, if they wanted to use it for specific courses.”

So today I saw a brief demo of Sakai. And I thought, hmm, how is this different from what I’m envisioning? Isn’t Sakai already a place to provide an organized ‘research guide’—with the collaborative tools I’m envisioning as part of an ideal 21st century ‘subject guide’ resource? It already has some (beta/alpha in-development) Metalib integration. To be sure, it lacks significant integration features I’d want, not only with Metalib but with other library systems. But would adding those features to sakai be any harder than adding everything we need to any other base platform, or writing them from scratch?

I think this isn’t just an issue with ‘subject guide’ and sakai, it will increasingly be an issue with various things we are used to thinking of as seperate components, but which we realize:

a) have significant overlapping functionality

b) we want to operate as part of a unified integrated environment.

In the end, I’m not sure Sakai is my answer for subject pages. I in fact know very little about it. It might be overkill. It might in fact be a lot more work to try and get what I need in Sakai than to try and get what I need from a different platform.

But I think these are provocative questions–how do we best get everything to operate as a unified integrated environment, and how do we keep from re-inventing the wheel when the functionality of “different” systems is increasingly convergent?


4 thoughts on “Library Subject Guides (does this have something to do with Sakai?)

  1. Commenting to myself: I know a bunch of you have home grown systems that go a bunch of steps toward accomplishing this. rsinger has another that he tells me about:

    I know there are others that I don’t know about! I’ve be overjoyed if you are reading this and you have such a homegrown (or open source) system you use for subject guides along these lines (even if not all the way there yet)—-comment and point me to it! Especially if you are willing to share the code!

  2. Hi Jonathan, some interesting ideas here about dream subject guides. I talked in blithering idiot fashion about this at code4lib, but i’ve got a new version of ECU’s pirate source available to share. actually, it’s not really ready for prime time yet, but i’ve shared the code with a couple of places nonetheless. Here’s what a public page looks like: also generates a staff list and a-z list.

    drop me a line if you want more info.

  3. Even though Andrew Darby says SubjectPlus (nee Pirate Source) isn’t quite yet available for prime time, he’s still put up a GREAT web page explaining the software project, with some screen shots of admin screens:

    More of us working on projects should provide such good efficiently-read summary info like this. Thanks to Andrew.

    Myself, it’s going to be a while until I have the time to work on something like this locally, but when I do I’m definitely going to try to do it by taking one of the _several_good starts out there and adopting it/customizing it, rather than re-inventing the wheel. Ideally customize it in a way that can be shared without ‘forking’, it’s time we got some actual collaborative projects going on this that we try to run like a real distributed open source project (not that I have ANY experience participating in such things, sadly), instead of everyone just taking the code and forking it locally.

  4. My dream is that we realize that those new Web features (if you don’t want to call the Web 2.0) give us the same opportunity that MARC gave to the catalogers: to collaborate with each other. I have the impression that each library Web site is and island by it self. Hundreds of librarians are keeping hundreds of subjects guides and dublicating their efforts with no neet. Why don’t we intstead collaborate to build a wiki of a universal subject guide? I think that many libraries (e.g. small libraries and libraries in the developing wolrd) who do not have systems with meta search capabilities will only need to provide a link to it. Other libraries can use it for user guidance and it can also be a great collection development tool for their reference materials

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