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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > February 2006

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Vol. 26 No. 2 — February 2006
FEATURE
Delivering Services to Patrons’ Doorsteps
by Robert P.  Rynkiewicz

There’s so much we can do online 24/7. I wanted my library to be that convenient and dynamic. Open source software allowed me to take my library to my patrons.

By the time this article is published, I will have had yet another pleasant and stress-free holiday shopping experience. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I’ll have avoided the traffic jams and the maddening crowds at the mall in favor of the ease and comfort of shopping at home online. I save time, I can compare prices with just a few clicks of the mouse, and the products I purchase are delivered to my doorstep in a few days. And let’s not forget gift-wrapping either! It’s a wonderful thing that I can shop at thousands of Internet sites that serve millions of visitors 24 hours a day and not have to stand in long lines to purchase gifts. I want my library to be convenient and dynamic like this. I want to deliver services to my library users over the Internet and not require them to visit the physical building.

I’m the assistant director of The Atlantic City Free Public Library. Atlantic City is generally associated with casino gambling and the Miss America Pa­geant, not with innovative libraries. As the person responsible for the computer systems, I have been fortunate to be at the center of many new and exciting computer-based services, including the ongoing development of the Web site. Our approach is that library services do not only have to be provided to customers walking into the building; they can also be delivered to people in the comfort of their homes by using the Web. Beginning in October 2004, I ad­ded newer Internet protocols and tech­niques to push information. We are sending library members e-mail about items that are coming due or are overdue, as well as news of events that are scheduled to take place at the library. We are using WebCalendar (a Web-based calendar application) and Mambo (a Web site content management system) to achieve this goal of pushing information. And like so many librarians these days, we are syndicating news and information using RSS, and we’ve considered using podcasting and vidcasting to send audio or video information right to the computer user.

The Atlantic City Free Public Library serves a diverse population that represents a patchwork of people literally from throughout the world. Our book and audiovisual collections include materials in the Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Hindi, Gujarati, and Urdu languages. Our staff is a diverse group as well, both in age and ethnic origin. Employees speak Spanish, Hindi, Mandarin Chinese, and Vietnamese.

The library is just beginning to come out of a long period of budget constraints. The ups and downs of tax revenue in Atlantic City have greatly affected our budget for the last 7 years. Thanks to the e-rate (or, more precisely, to the Schools and Libraries Universal Service program and a gift of computers, servers, and software from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), we have been able to not just maintain but also to expand computer services. The open source movement has also greatly assisted us in delivering cost-effective computer services. Since 1995, I’ve used the Linux operating system for our Internet server. I was lucky enough to have a local computer company that had a Linux guru to provide maintenance and support, especially in the system’s early days. Ten years later, I am still solidly convinced that open source software can be cost-effective, secure, flexible, and very powerful.

Our staff members are very aware of the shift in services in libraries. During the ’90s, we watched as our book circulation statistics steadily dropped. We are adapting to these changes and have managed to stabilize these book circulation statistics. Like many libraries, we have shifted our priorities to providing online databases and a subject page of links on various topics on our Web site. We also provide e-books in our online catalog and are about to experiment with delivering au­diobooks over the Internet with Digital Library Reserve Overdrive Audiobook Project offered through the South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative (a multitype organization funded by the New Jersey Library Network). What excites me most in the digital world are the open source LAMP applications that are just exploding onto the mainstream of computer tech­nology. Previous issues of Computers in Libraries, especially the May 2005 one focusing on Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP, Perl, or Py­thon applications (LAMP), show this growth. I have installed and am actively using several of these software programs to enhance our computer services.

How We Use Calendar Software for Outreach

WebCalendar is one such LAMP application. I installed and incorporated this software into the library Web site in February 2005. It is a Web-based calendar application written in PHP scripting language using a database, in my case MySQL, to store event data. It can be configured as a single-user calendar, a multiuser calendar for groups, or as an events calendar viewable by visitors to your Web site. I chose the latter, using it as the Atlantic City Library Events Calendar on our Web site.

Lists of Web Sites
Mentioned in This Article

Apache Web Server
http://apache.org

Apple iCal Web site
http://www.apple.com/
macosx/features/ical/library

Atlantic City Free Public Library 
http://www.acfpl.org

Horizon Information Portal listserv         
http://lists.tblc.org/mailman/listinfo/ipac

Linuxtoday
http://linuxtoday.com

Mambo CMS
http://www.mamboserver.com

Mamboforge
http://mamboforge.net

MySQL
http://www.mysql.com

PHP
http://www.php.net

SirsiDynix
http://www.sirsidynix.com

Sourceforge
http://sourceforge.net

UserLand Software
http://www.userland.com

WebCalendar
http://www.k5n.us/webcalendar.php

And if you want a chuckle:

MSLinux
http://www.mslinux.org

The installation required using a combination of the Web-based install wizard program and Linux and My­SQL commands. Everything was very clearly documented in text files that were included in the tar ball (compressed file) that I downloaded. Happily, Microsoft people can use this software too! The most recent version has significantly improved the Web-based install wizard so that there is very little need for using the operating system’s command-level language. This is another benefit of using open source software—the update cycle for enhancements and bug fixes can be incredibly fast since many times users have direct access to the developers. In fact, in June 2005, I downloaded an update to WebCalendar and discovered a problem with one of the PHP scripts. I reported the bug on the WebCalendar forum and got a patch from the developer within 48 hours.

WebCalendar is easy to configure using a Web-based interface. Further customizing is relatively simple if you understand and have used HTML code as well as cascading style sheets (CSS). For instance, I’ve added a custom header to the look of the events calendar by adding HTML code and altering the style sheet (see Figure 1).

I have written a procedure and trained staff members to regularly enter events into the public access calendar using their Web browsers. New events and newly edited events can appear instantly after they’re saved, but I chose to have them approved first by the library administration office. This serves two purposes: The entries are proofread and the events are cleared by the administrative office before being advertised. I’ve also configured Web­Calendar to use a built-in event conflicts feature so as to avoid multiple entries and scheduling conflicts.

WebCalendar includes a few additional PHP scripts that can enhance your Web site. I am using the script file “upcoming.php” to show the latest upcoming events in a small frame on the library Web site (see Figure 2). The list of events is linked to the database entries so that users can click on an event and see detailed information. Text information can include HTML code including Internet links using embedded images. I’ve used this functionality to show the image of a guest speaker as well as to link to his Web site.

There is a very nice mini-calendar script included in the software that I have yet to use. WebCalendar has an RSS script that will regularly push the latest library events to a customer. This is a great way of doing computer-based outreach to the community and some­thing that I started using in June 2005. It’s one more way to deliver info to your patrons’ digital doorsteps. As part of this service, I created a Web page to explain to users what an RSS feed is and to advertise the feeds that the library provides. And I’ve included one of the standard RSS icons on our site to advertise that we provide the service.

WebCalendar is compliant with iCalendar, which is a standard for storing and exchanging calendar data used by Apple since the inception of its OS X operating system. It supports publishing and network synchronization and is further supported by the .Mac hosting environment. Microsoft started support­ing iCalendar events in Outlook 2000, but only as “imports.” iCalendar adoption and support are already in Novel’s Ximian Evolution client as well as Mo­zilla applications. Using the publish.php file provided with WebCalendar, you can upload and synchronize data between a library events calendar and iCalendar-compliant software. I’ve imported a U.S. holiday file from the Apple iCal library Web site into our events calendar to make the library calendar even more appealing and useful.

Ringing the Doorbell: Notifications via ILS

Many integrated library systems have e-mail components, including the SirsiDynix Dynix Classic system that we use. I found setting up the e-mail notification system in Dynix Classic to be very easy. The ILS sends notifications to members when items are coming due, when they have a reserved or interlibrary loan book being held for them, and when items are overdue. We started this notification system more than 2 years ago and find that it saves us money by not having to process burst mailers. Customers that choose to get e-mail notifications receive them 24 hours earlier than they would via the U.S. Postal Service system, and it is just very convenient for them.

As a Dynix Classic librarian, I belong to an ILS listserv for iPac—Dynix’s Horizon Information Portal (HIP), formerly iPac. I was excited to see that Casey Durfee, systems analyst for the Seattle Public Library, had posted information about RSS feeds for the Sirsi­Dynix ILS. He wrote a few Java serv­lets that you can patch into your HIP to allow patrons to receive RSS feeds about what items they currently have checked out, what materials they currently have on hold, and materials on specific topics or subsets in collections like new DVDs. I implemented our feeds in June 2005 and have found them to be a great way to offer a very practical and very useable computer service with very little overhead. In keeping with my goals, this is akin to not having to travel to the mall to see which DVDs have just arrived.

Let’s Do the Mambo!

The next step in improving the library’s Web presence is to build an entirely new Web site. By the time this article is published, you should be able to see the results of our Web team’s efforts. The Atlantic City Library is taking a whole new approach to its Web page by using the Mambo content management system (CMS). Mambo is yet another LAMP that was created by Miro International in Australia. Mambo open source is a powerful application that facilitates the development, management, and sharing of content.

I found it easy to install and configure Mambo on my existing Linux box. Since I was already using Apache Web Server, MySQL, and PHP, installation involved copying the scripts to my server, then creating the database and the users for the system. The latter part of the install is all handled through a browser-based installation process much like the WebCalendar install wizard.

Mambo consists of a Web-based front end—the public Web site—and the Web-based back end—the administrative side of the site (see Figure 3). By using the back-end interface, I created user profiles for library staff members who were then able to log in to the library site and create news, links by category, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), and just about any kind of content imaginable. This process of distributing responsibility bypasses the middle person, the Webmaster. Management of the Web site will be divided up so that librarians and the library public relations person will have responsibility for adding, editing, and deleting content on the site.

The design elements of the site will still be the responsibility of the computer systems staff. Mambo comes with Web site templates (similar in concept to word processing templates), and you can use those or can create your own or download additional free and/or commercial ones. Switching between templates takes just a few clicks on the Web browser interface to Mambo.

There are more than 750 plug-ins in the form of components and/or modules for Mambo available at mamboforge.net. Early this year, my library plans to use the RSSXT component and module to provide content syndication (RSS) so we can now send the latest library news and events to our users via RSS feeds. We are also planning to use a mass mailer component to send our bimonthly magazine “Discovery” directly to users who subscribe to this service using the Web page. The library public relations staff member will also be able to mass e-mail news on-the-fly if there is a special announcement to make. And that’s not all! There are plug-ins available for blogs, Macromedia Flash, and podcasts, and these are things that I will seriously consider trying in the next year.

Leaders in Delivery

The sky is the limit with these computer tools. LAMPs like WebCalendar and Mambo CMS are providing me with a means to attract Internet customers to the library. Now our services can satisfy people like me, who prefer to go online and have things delivered to their homes. No more requiring people to walk through our doors like the local shopping malls. By using cutting-edge software, we are demonstrating to the community that the library is a leader in new technologies and no longer just a book repository. When properly utilized, the Internet can tran­scend the limitations of physical space, supporting the freedom of imagination and information on which the library profession is founded. The software that I’ve described in this article can only benefit libraries by allowing their patrons to take full advantage of today’s technologies.

The History of RSS

RSS began in 1999 when Netscape created the first RSS, which stood for RDF Site Syndication. This was soon followed by an XML-based syndication protocol created by Dave Winer, founder of UserLand Software. RSS feeds require an RSS reader software program or Internet browser that is RSS-enabled. There has been a progression of RSS versions, so it is best to select one of the newer packages since they are backward-compatible. The current version of Microsoft Internet Explorer cannot receive RSS information, so let me also suggest that you put that IE browser into retirement. The Atlantic City Library staff uses Mozilla Firefox as the browser of choice, and it can receive RSS feeds. Also note that RSS feeds are not just something for your personal computer but can be used with a PocketPC or PDA.

 


Robert P. Rynkiewicz is the assistant director at The Atlantic City Free Public Library in Atlantic City, N.J. He holds a master’s degree in library science from Drexel University in Philadelphia. His e-mail address is brynk@acfpl.org.

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