The more I develop Umlaut, the better understanding I have of what makes it cool.
So, okay, it’d have to be a long elevator ride, but:
Umlaut could be described as an ‘openurl link resolver front-end’, or just an ‘openurl link resolver’. But, okay…
What is a ‘link resolver’
Nearly every academic library has one. Most of the staff may not realize they have one, but if a typical staff person could answer at all, they might say “It’s that thing that gets us to full text for journal articles,” and other staff would say “Oh, yeah, that thing.”
That’s true as far as it goes, but in fact even for typical commercially purchased link resolvers like SFX, SerSol 360Link, or whatever OCLC is calling theirs at the moment — that’s not all it does.
Not just full text — your link resolver probably also has ILL links, and some kind of attempt to show you what’s in the catalog (probably in print) too. The only thing is it does these services-other-than-online-fulltext really poorly (especially print/catalog), and doesn’t do very many of them.
Not just articles — whether a book citation from a licensed scholarly databases that contain a few books amidst the journal articles, or a book citation from Google Scholar or Worldcat, your link resolver already does more than find full text for journal articles.
It just does these things really poorly. Full text for journal articles is it’s ‘core competency’ (although there’s room for improvement even there), and everything else is a mess.
What if it did these well?
What if your link resolver handled not just article citations, but increasingly handled any kind of citation for a library-type item with appropriate services?
What if these services included not just full text, but ILL, other document delivery options, other things you can do with the citation (search inside the book, search inside the journal title, various kinds of export, show me similar articles), and more.
What if it consulted not just a built-in vendor provided knowledge base that comes with a commercial link resolver, but other local knowledge bases (like your catalog, for both print and electronic stuff that may be in your catalog but not your link resolver kb, like e-books), and even third-party remote knowledge bases (likely for publically available stuff, like Hathi Trust).
What if it actually did these things reasonably well giving users an integrated interface, eliminating extra clicks, only showing them links that will actually get them to what they advertise.
Once you’ve got that, instead of trying to discourage use of this tool, you want to encourage people to use this tool. And you keep realizing that this tool is the solution to a bunch of problems you have (some you realized you had and some you didn’t). Adding publically available e-text links to your catalog; giving people library services in as few clicks as possible from whatever discovery tool they happen to use, whether library provided or on the public web; exposing licensed services you were already paying for in a much more convenient package for your users.
The Known Item Services Provider as Key Infrastructure
What you’ve got then is a piece of library infrastructure you didn’t really have before at all, something for lack of a better term let’s call a ‘known item service provider’.
What you’ve got is Umlaut.
I then made an attempt to describe how our “next generation” library catalogs could go so much further by providing services against the texts as well as services against the index. “Discovery is not the problem that needs to be solved.”
Umlaut is the solution to this problem that needs solving. But it’s not part of a next-generation library catalog, it’s a de-coupled service focusing like a laser just on these ‘known item services’. You can integrate it in your catalog of choice, but you can integrate it a bunch of other places too. It has services for items that are traditionally found in the catalog, but also items not traditionally found in the catalog, like journal articles.
Umlaut aims to live wherever you need it to live, take whatever kind of known item citation you can throw at it, and give the user what they need. Of course, it’s aims are bigger than it’s currently capabilities, but it’s current capabilities aren’t too shabby, and are so beyond your current commercial link resolver, that adding Umlaut on top of your current link resolver gives you an entirely new kind of thing, the piece of library infrastructure that (in my case at least) you didn’t even realize you were missing until you had it.
And all this can be yours for the low price of no money but a willingness to get your hands a bit dirty collaborating in some open source software, which is getting more mature by the month.