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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > June 2010

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Vol. 30 No. 5 — June 2010
FEATURE
Harnessing the Power of SharePoint for Library Applications
by Lisa A. Ennis and Randy S. Tims

According to Microsoft’s website:
Microsoft 2007 Office SharePoint Server is an integrated suite of server capabilities that can help improve organizational effectiveness by providing comprehensive content management and enterprise search, accelerating shared business processes, and facilitating information-sharing across boundaries for better business insight. Additionally, this collaboration and content management server provides IT professionals and developers with the platform and tools they need for server administration, application extensibility, and interoperability.
It is a pretty overwhelming definition that seemingly only has a tangential relevance to libraries. It does mention information and sharing that information. It also mentions content management, and we librarians like that. However, it is hard to go from that definition to envisioning something practical that can help us do our work. But if you don’t let yourself get scared off by that definition and dig a little deeper, you will find a very powerful tool that has a lot to offer any library.

Why SharePoint?

Back in 2008, we were looking for a tool that would replace the library’s Outlook folders and much of what the library had stored on shared network drives. So we were mainly looking for something that would hold our documents, allow us to better organize those documents, offer an easy way to search for those documents, and be easy to access when off campus. As luck would have it, we got an invitation from the University of Alabama–Birmingham Information Technology (UAB IT), where Lisa Ennis is systems librarian and Randy Tims is web coordinator at the university’s Lister Hill Library (LHL) of the Health Sciences, to come learn about a new system that the university was deploying to see if we were interested in using it. We went.

The problem with SharePoint is getting started.

We got three key things from this initial meeting: SharePoint would integrate nicely with other Microsoft products including the Office suite; it would allow for a single sign-on for whatever we decided to use it, with no need for the virtual private network client or running a mapping script; and it would cost the library nothing but time because the university already had all the appropriate licenses. So we decided to go with the university group and implement SharePoint for the library.

Organization and Architecture

In a real sense, the problem with SharePoint is getting started. The product does so much and you can configure it in so many different ways that deciding the best route to take is daunting. You want to make sure you design it so it can grow and be flexible but also make good sense overall. There is no right or wrong way to do this—just make sure you talk it out and involve the whole library in the discussion. Once decisions are made they can be difficult to undo, so if you account for growth and flexibility up front you can head off potential issues down the road. We elected to organize our site collection by audience, such as internal to the library (intranet) users, campus users, etc.

The overall architecture of our SharePoint site consists of a few higher-order site directories. The intranet site directory serves all subsites, which are internal to Lister Hill Library. The extranet site directory serves all subsites, which require UAB community access (using their university logon). Finally, the dev site directory is a testing environment for sites and site features added to either intranet or extranet site directory. The intranet is then further divided into site types: portal site, meeting workspaces, project sites, social sites, training sites, etc.

The intranet portal sites are loosely based on the library’s organizational and committee/group structures. The public services site, for example, is the portal site for the HUB (our main information desk, which is staffed from people from all over the library), reference, and access services sites. HUB, reference, and access services are also portal subsites for their respective areas. Below the portal subsite level, sites are constructed to meet the needs of each of the units. For example, Ask­ Reference is a project site under the reference portal subsite; SharePoint Working Group is a meeting workspace under the systems portal subsite.

Neat SharePoint Features

• “Granular permissions” is one of the most useful aspects of SharePoint. You can set permissions in a number of different ways so that when a user logs in, he or she sees only those things he or she has permission to see, and you can push content from other areas of SharePoint to that person using permission levels that can be assigned at the site, list/library, or item level. You can also assign different levels of permissions to different people all the way from full control to read only.

• With “targeted content,” you can push content to different people or groups using permissions. For instance, if you have people working on a project and they are all from different departments, you can tag content for that project to appear when they log in to SharePoint but not when someone else in their department logs in. By the same token, if there is something important you want everybody to see, you can push that information to everyone so they all see it when they log in.

• The search feature of SharePoint works pretty well for our purposes—at least much better than using Windows Explorer to search through a bunch of files. You can search the whole SharePoint site or limit to any particular subsite, list, or library. And, again, you can set the permissions to control what people see. The advanced search lets you narrow by a number of different fields including document formats such as Word, Excel, etc.

• “Content types” are really neat for organizing your information. A content type is the name you give to describe a collection of metadata. They serve as a super classifier for site content. Each of our sites has a primary content type group, which is further associated with individual site features. Meeting workspaces, for example, have LHL Meeting Documents, LHL Meeting Announcements, LHL Meeting Agenda, LHL Meeting Wiki Library, etc. All site-specific content types are children of a parent LHL Content Types group (LHL Documents, LHL Announcements, etc.), which is a modified version of the default SharePoint parent content types (e.g., Documents, Announcements, etc.). Through the use of custom content types, we can control the deployment (and, when necessary, the removal) of site columns for the entire site collection. You can also use workflows to control the behavior of a content type, such as having leave requests go straight to the person who approves them. Spend some time learning how content types work and you can really do a lot with them.

• Each SharePoint user automatically gets a “My Site” that is specific to that user. Here, the user has a great deal of freedom in the look and feel of the space. You can organize it any way you like and pull in any information that you have permission to view. SharePoint also allows for users to create their own subsites for projects and groups on-the-fly.

Real-Life SharePoint Examples

It is pretty clear that SharePoint can do some cool stuff, but how have we used it in practical, real-life ways other than as a document repository? We’re glad you asked. We are going to focus on three real-life examples of how we’ve applied SharePoint in our library: Educational Sessions, ILLiad, and Virtual Reference.

• The Educational Sessions site includes a form that allows anyone in the UAB community to request a class. All the data submitted in the form are gathered on the back end into a database where staff can filter the information by requestor, lead instructor, date, etc. There is also an administrative back end for librarians to add additional data, such as whether they received evaluations, class size, and the like. A webpage also allows users to track the status of their requests. The really cool thing is that the data can be linked to an Excel spreadsheet where you can view reports on-the-fly.

• Reference staff members wanted to track their Virtual Reference encounters and create a knowledgebase for their own use. We used SharePoint to create a form through which reference librarians can enter transcripts from chat sessions and other data. This information can then be bound to Excel and Access, where reference staff can retrieve real-time reports and charts. If they feel something needs to be included into their knowledgebase, all they need to do is mark a single check box. In addition, tables and charts within PowerPoint presentations can be bound to the same data source, so data within slides can be refreshed (with a click of a button) without ever having to manually modify slide data again.

• This year, as is true at a lot of places, we’ve had a number of budget cuts. The library decided to use a portion of the collections budget to subsidize interlibrary loan requests. Not only is the cost of an interlibrary loan much less expensive for our users, but we are also experimenting with pay per view with some publishers. To make this project work, a number of different people from all over the library had to be involved, so we used SharePoint to coordinate the effort. This was the first time we had the opportunity to explore a decentralized approach to a project. The majority of the files associated with this subsidy project reside in the Document Delivery portal site. For instance, the vendorID list, which automatically creates a vendor­ ID for inclusion in certain ILLiad client requests, was created on this site. Public services staff members, who are being trained to process ILLiad requests, need to contribute to this list. To accommodate users without giving each member explicit access to the entire site, a security group for the public services staff was added to the list and given read/write permissions. Because we made changes to both the ILLiad back end and client, the canned reports provided didn’t work for our unique purposes. Since ILLiad uses an Access back end, we were able to connect ILLiad data to an Excel spreadsheet in SharePoint, so that staff can carefully monitor the resources. With one click, staff members can see billing information (subsidy and nonsubsidy) by month, by status, and a variety of other pricing and user information in real time.

Lessons Learned

• SharePoint is a lot like a Swiss Army knife. It can do a ton of different things and has a variety of different tools. So when planning out how you are going to configure the system, plan ahead for unexpected growth. Design a scheme that is capable of meeting future and unexpected challenges, not just the issue you are working on today. Make sure the infrastructure and organization of your SharePoint instance is extensible and flexible. For example, in organizing our users we mainly used the Outlook distribution groups we already had so that SharePoint pulls from one place, and when there are personnel changes we only have to add and/or delete from our Outlook groups. This has worked really well. New people automatically and instantaneously have access to SharePoint. This is a small example, but it saves time and effort.

• For SharePoint to be successful, it takes a commitment from the whole library. There is a learning curve for everyone involved. SharePoint isn’t an “install and go” program. So training and dedication to learning the system are very important. It is an investment of people’s time and energy, so it shouldn’t be a temporary solution. If you choose to use SharePoint, be prepared to be creative with your training opportunities. Here, the university training and development group offers free classes on SharePoint, but there are all kinds of SharePoint user groups. So ask someone to come in for a talk. We’ve found that people who love SharePoint also love talking about SharePoint. Also, there are a number of online tutorials for free on the internet. In addition, for about $99 you can buy the “SharePoint 2007 Essential Training” electronic user guide from www.lynda.com (Lisa keeps her copy in her DVD drive and refers to it all the time).

• Start small but think big. Don’t start off using SharePoint for a “mission critical, we can’t have mistakes in this” project. Start with something really small and get people used to navigating around in SharePoint. We started with using meeting spaces for each standing library committee or group where staff could post agendas and minutes.

• SharePoint is a Microsoft product, so it works better in Internet Explorer (IE). It works in other browsers but there may be more clicks and less fluidity. So if you can train folks to use IE for SharePoint stuff, all the better.  

Conclusion

We’ve only really begun to scratch the surface of what SharePoint can do. But from what we’ve discovered so far, we’ve been very encouraged by what we’ve been able to accomplish. One thing we aren’t investigating is using SharePoint as the library’s publicly accessible website, but there are folks out there who have done this. If your organization is a Windows shop, ask your IT people about SharePoint. You may already have access and don’t even know it! See if they will set up a development site for you to experiment with the functionality. The investment in time and effort has definitely been worthwhile for us.


Lisa A. Ennis is the systems librarian at the Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences at the University of Alabama–Birmingham and can be reached at lennis@uab.edu.
Randy S. Tims
is the web coordinator at Lister Hill Library and can be reached at rtims@uab.edu. They both are up to their eyeballs in Joomla! and SharePoint but would love to hear from others using or interested in SharePoint.

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