Virtual Shelf Browse

We know that some patrons like walking the physical stacks, to find books on a topic of interest to them through that kind of browsing of adjacently shelved items.

I like wandering stacks full of books too, and hope we can all continue to do so.

But in an effort to see if we can provide an online experience that fulfills some of the utility of this kind of browsing, we’ve introduced a Virtual Shelf Browse that lets you page through books online, in the order of their call numbers.

An online shelf browse can do a number of things you can’t do physically walking around the stacks:

  • You can do it from home, or anywhere you have a computer (or mobile device!)
  • It brings together books from various separate physical locations in one virtual stack. Including multiple libraries, locations within libraries, and our off-site storage.
  • It includes even checked out books, and in some cases even ebooks (if we have a call number on record for them)
  • Place one item at multiple locations in a Virtual Shelf, if we have more than one call number on record for it. There’s always more than one way you could classify or characterize a work; a physical item can only be in one place at a time, but not so in a virtual display.

The UI is based on the open source stackview code released by the Harvard Library Innovation Lab. Thanks to Harvard for sharing their code, and to @anniejocaine for helping me understand the code, and accepting my pull requests with some bug fixes and tweaks.

This is to some extent an experiment, but we hope it opens up new avenues for browsing and serendipitous discovery for our patrons.

You can drop into one example place in the virtual shelf browse here, or drop into our catalog to do your own searches — the Virtual Shelf Browse is accessed by navigating to an individual item detail page, and then clicking the Virtual Shelf Browse button in the right sidebar.  It seemed like the best way to enter the Virtual Shelf was from an item of interest to you, to see what other items are shelved nearby.

Screenshot 2015-07-23 15.09.12

Our Shelf Browse is based on ordering by Library of Congress Call Numbers. Not all of our items have LC call numbers, so not every item appears in the virtual shelf, or has a “Virtual Shelf Browse” button to provide an entry point to it. Some of our local collections are shelved locally with LC call numbers, and these are entirely present. For other collections —  which might be shelved under other systems or in closed stacks and not assigned local shelving call numbers — we can still place them in the virtual shelf if we can find a cataloger-suggested call number in the MARC bib 050 or similar fields. So for those collections, some items might appear in the Virtual Shelf, others not.

On Call Numbers, and Sorting

Library call number systems — from LC, to Dewey, to Sudocs, or even UDC — are a rather ingenious 19th century technology for organizing books in a constantly growing collection such that similar items are shelved nearby. Rather ingenious for the 19th century anyway.

It was fun to try to bringing this technology — and the many hours of cataloger work that’s gone into constructing call numbers — into the 21st century to continue providing value in an online display.

It was also challenging in some ways. It turns out the nature of ordering of Library of Congress call numbers particularly is difficult to implement in computer software, there are a bunch of odd cases where to a human it might be clear what the proper ordering is  (at least to a properly trained human? and different libraries might even order differently!), but difficult to encode all the cases into software.

The newly released Lcsort ruby gem does a pretty marvelous job of allowing sorting of LC call numbers that properly sorts a lot of them — I won’t say it gets every valid call number, let alone local practice variation, right, but it gets a lot of stuff right including such crowd-pleasing oddities as:

  • `KF 4558 15th .G6` sorts after `KF 4558 2nd .I6`
  • `Q11 .P6 vol. 12 no. 1` sorts after `Q11 .P6 vol. 4 no. 4`
  • Can handle suffixes after cutters as in popular local practice (and NLM call numbers), eg `R 179 .C79ab`
  • Variations in spacing or punctuation that should not matter for sorting, `R 169.B59.C39` vs `R169 B59C39 1990` `R169 .B59 .C39 1990` etc.

Lcsort is based on the cummulative knowledge of years of library programmer attempts to sort LC calls, including an original implementation based on much trial and error by Bill Dueber of the University of Michigan, a port to ruby by Nikitas Tampakis of Princeton University Library, advice and test cases based on much trial and error from Naomi Dushay of Stanford, and a bunch more code wrangling by me.

I do encourage you to check out Lcsort for any LC call number ordering needs, if you can do it in ruby — or even port it to another language if you can’t. I think it works as well or better as anything our community of library technologies has done yet in the open.

Check out my code — rails_stackview

This project was possible only because of the work of so many that had gone before, and been willing to share their work, from Harvard’s stackview to all the work that went into figuring out how to sort LC call numbers.

So it only makes sense to try to share what I’ve done too, to integrate a stackview call number shelf browse in a Blacklight Rails app.  I have shared some components in a Rails engine at rails_stackview

In this case, I did not do what I’d have done in the past, and try to make a rock-solid, general-purpose, highly flexible and configurable tool that integrated as brainlessly as possible out of the box with a Blacklight app. I’ve had mixed success trying to do that before, and came to think it might have been over-engineering and YAGNI to try. Additionally, there are just too many ways to try to do this integration — and too many versions of Blacklight changes to keep track of — I just wasn’t really sure what was best and didn’t have the capacity for it.

So this is just the components I had to write for the way I chose to do it in the end, and for my use cases. I did try to make those components well-designed for reasonable flexibility, or at least future extension to more flexibility.

But it’s still just pieces that you’d have to assemble yourself into a solution, and integrate into your Rails app (no real Blacklight expectations, they’re just tools for a Rails app) with quite a bit of your own code.  The hardest part might be indexing your call numbers for retrieval suitable to this UI.

I’m curious to see if this approach to sharing my pieces instead of a fully designed flexible solution might still ends up being useful to anyone, and perhaps encourage some more virtual shelf browse implementations.

On Indexing

Being a Blacklight app, all of our data was already in Solr. It would have been nice to use the existing Solr index as the back-end for the virtual shelf browse, especially if it allowed us to do things like a virtual shelf browse limited by existing Solr facets. But I did not end up doing so.

To support this kind of call-number-ordered virtual shelf browse, you need your data in a store of some kind that supports some basic retrieval operations: Give me N items in order by some field, starting at value X, either ascending or descending.

This seems simple enough; but the fact that we want a given single item in our existing index to be able to have multiple call numbers makes it a bit tricky. In fact, a Solr index isn’t really easily capable of doing what’s needed. There are various ways to work around it and get what you need from Solr: Naomi Dushay at Stanford has engaged in some truly heroic hacks to do it, involving creating a duplicate mirror indexing field where all the call numbers are reversed to sort backwards. And Naomi’s solution still doesn’t really allow you to limit by existing Solr facets or anything.

That’s not the solution I ended up using. Instead, I just de-normalize to another ‘index’ in a table in our existing application rdbms, with one row per call number instead of one row per item.  After talking to the Princeton folks at a library meet-up in New Haven, and hearing this was there back-end store plan for supporting ‘browse’ functions, I realized — sure, why not, that’ll work.

So how do I get them indexed in rdbms table? We use traject for indexing to Solr here, for Blacklight.  Traject is pretty flexible, and it wasn’t too hard to modify our indexing configuration so that as the indexer goes through each input record, creating a Solr Document for each one — it also, in the same stream, creates 0 to many rows in an RDBMS for each call number encountered.

We don’t do any “incremental” indexing to Solr in the first place, we just do a bulk/mass index every night recreating everything from the current state of the canonical catalog. So the same strategy applies to building the call numbers table, it’s just recreated from scratch nightly.  After racking my brain to figure out how to do this without disturbing performance or data integrity in the rdbms table — I realized, hey, no problem, just index to a temporary table first, then when done swap it into place and delete the former one.

I included a snapshotted, completely unsupported, example of how we do our indexing with traject, in the rails_stackview documentation.  It ends up a bit hacky, and makes me wish traject let me re-use some of it’s code a little bit more concisely to do this kind of a bifurcated indexing operation — but it still worked out pretty well, and leaves me pretty satisfied with traject as our indexing solution over past tools we had used.

I had hoped that adding the call number indexing to our existing traject mass index process would not slow down the indexing at all. I think this hope was based on some poorly-conceived thought process like “Traject is parallel multi-core already, so, you know, magic!”  It didn’t quite work out that way, the additional call number indexing adds about 10% penalty to our indexing time, taking our slow mass indexing from a ~10 hour to an ~11 hour process.  We run our indexing on a fairly slow VM with 3 cores assigned to it. It’s difficult to profile a parallel multi-threaded pipeline process like traject, I can’t completely wrap my head around it, but I think it’s possible on a faster machine, you’d have bottlenecks in different parts of the pipeline, and get less of a penalty.

On call numbers designed for local adjustment, used universally instead

Another notable feature of the 19th century technology of call numbers that I didn’t truly appreciate until this project — call number systems often, and LC certainly,  are designed to require a certain amount of manual hand-fitting to a particular local collection.  The end of the call number has ‘cutter numbers’ that are typically based on the author’s name, but which are meant to be hand-fitted by local catalogers to put the book just the right spot in the context of what’s already been shelved in a particular local collection.

That ends up requiring a lot more hours of cataloger labor then if a book simply had one true call number, but it’s kind of how the system was designed. I wonder if it’s tenable in the modern era to put that much work into call number assignment though, especially as print (unfortunately) gets less attention.

However, this project sort of serves as an experiment of what happens if you don’t do that local easing. To begin with, we’re combining call numbers that were originally assigned in entirely different local collections (different physical library locations), some of which were assigned before these different libraries even shared the same catalog, and were not assigned with regard to each other as context.  On top of that, we take ‘generic’ call numbers without local adjustment from MARC 050 for books that don’t have locally assigned call numbers (including ebooks where available), so these also haven’t been hand-fit into any local collection.

It does result in occasional oddities, such as different authors with similar last names writing on a subject being interfiled together. Which offends my sensibilities since I know the system when used as designed doesn’t do that. But… I think it will probably not be noticed by most people, it works out pretty well after all.


3 thoughts on “Virtual Shelf Browse”

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