Alternatives to stacks

Edit 24/7/12: Gary Green has written a good explanation of what stacks are and why he liked them, if you wanted more background info.

Unfortunately Delicious has just announced that they plan to stop supporting Stacks in August. Users will still be able to save bookmarks to Delicious, but won’t be able to make a page (stack) of links where they choose the image for each link, change the order of the links, etc. Update 24/7/12: on Twitter yesterday, Delicious told me “While stacks are going away, visual tag & link displays are in development that we think your library is gonna love!”. I pointed out it might have made more sense to develop these features before removing the existing stacks functionality, but hey ho.

I co-run a Keeping Up-to-date With Your Field workshop for staff at my conservatoire, and this year a few members of staff were excited by this feature of Delicious, and keen to use it to curate pages of links for their students. I therefore quickly collated a a few alternative options for them, and thought I’d blog it here to plug the gap until Phil Bradley does it better!

 1. Delicious tags instead of stacks

If you want students to look at a selection of links, you could give them all the same tag and then send students the link to that tag (or put it on Moodle). For example, here’s my library’s links on keeping up to date on Delicious.

The downside is that you can’t choose the order of links – they’re ordered by the date you saved them.

2. Diigo

Diigo is another social bookmarking site like Delicious, and it allows you to make lists – these resemble image-free stacks and let you edit the order of links. An example list is below:

Text view

Visual view (via ‘Play as webslides’ link at top-right)

Diigo also offer a free educational account where you can set up student accounts and put them in private groups.


These look the most similar visually to stacks. I haven’t used the site myself but had it recommended by Susan Merrick (a school teacher/librarian) at the recent London LibraryTeachMeet (which I’ve nearly finished writing up, honest!)

Downside: looks like there’s a limit of five pages (topics) per free account.

4. Jog the Web

This leads students through a menu of websites which are loaded in the same window – good if you want them to look at sites in a specific order. This was also recommended by Susan Merrick.

Downside: I have some concerns about the longevity of this site as the FAQ and support forum are inactive. Use at your own risk!


Group mash – creating subject search from reading list

Pens at Mashed Library 2009
Pens at Mashed Library 2009

As promised, this is a write-up of the Group mash project I participated in at Mashed Library 2009, which won team members Amazon vouchers – thanks UKOLN!

Something I learned from last year’s Mashed Library event was that if you have an idea, tell people about it before you forget what it was and you may well get help to bring it to life. So this was my tweet (with corrected typo!) that started the project:

#mashlib09 I want a tool that takes in feed of reading list and suggests new items to add to reading list. Any takers?
2:07 PM Jul 7th

Fortunately for me, Owen Stephens quickly replied and took me under his wing, and had soon recruited Fiona Bradley, Nicole Harris and Chris Langham to complete our team.

The idea

I expanded on my tweet to the group. Our college has externally validated degrees, and this year its courses were revalidated by a new university. The courses passed, but one comment the validating body made was that the reading lists were a bit out of date and could do with revision (a story I’m guessing is familiar to many). So, it’s looking likely that next term I’ll give a half-hour training session to academic staff on revising reading lists, covering searching relevant literature indexes, current awareness etc, as we particularly want to encourage the use of our journals. I thought it would be good to give them a starting point by analysing each course’s existing reading list and using the content to generate suggested searches.

The plan

I found it interesting to see what Owen did once we’d discussed the absolute basics – he started mapping out on paper the different stages required to make the tool, then we discussed what web services we could use to obtain/wrangle the data for each part, then divided up the workload between us.

  • Input = reading list data – I knew I could get this in a rudimentary RSS format from my library’s catalogue, but hadn’t yet done the custom work required. However I had set up feeds for new items, including one for new books, so we chose to use this as a proof of concept.
  • Output = We scaled this back – originally a list of results from carrying out suggested searches, we decided instead to provide a list of suggested searches which the user can click on to execute.
  • Process = the tricky bit! We decided Yahoo Pipes would allow us to manipulate the data. We needed to take in the RSS reading list, extract the subject terms from each item, then count up the most common subject terms and output those. We’d then use those to build search URLs for an online resource, in this case RILM, which is an excellent service abstracting musical literature.

The mash

Extract keywords from RSS pipe Extract keywords from RSS pipe

I’ve published the two Pipes that make up the tool: Extract keywords from JL book feed and Create RILM search from keywords (which uses the keywords pipe). Virtually all of the first pipe was done on the day plus the groundwork for the second pipe (figuring out the syntax of a RILM search URL). Afterwards I joined everything up and made a few tweaks, including ditching a plan for searching different combinations of search terms.

A summary of the steps involved (you can ‘view source’ to see the modules in each pipe – Yahoo account required):

  • Keywords pipe: Fetch feed from inputed URLs
  • Use a regular expression to extract the subject
  • Filter non-unique items, which adds a count of how many times each subject appears
  • Sort descending by this count, then trim off everything but the top 3 subjects
  • Strip out everything in the feed except the subject terms, and make them into a new RSS feed
  • RILM pipe: Take in the output of the keywords pipe, then do a bit of data tidying – add ‘Search RILM for’ to the feed title, and set up the subjects for the search URL by inserting Boolean ANDs etc.
  • Build the URL using the cleaned search terms, and add it as a link to the RSS feed
  • Output – three-item RSS feed with the title ‘Search RILM for x’, linking to the search URL.

To give it a go, go to Create RILM search from keywords, copy a reading list RSS feed from my library catalogue’s RSS page and paste it into the ‘Enter RSS url’ box then submit (or just use the example feed provided), and hopefully you’ll get three suggested searches back. If you have IP/Athens/Shib access to RILM via Ebsco, feel free to click through and see how the search results look! Known bugs include that some of our search options don’t seem to be working via permalink, e.g. sorting by date descending and limiting to published from 2000 onwards. There’s likely to be some rather dud searches too, but I hope this can be resolved by pointing out these are only suggested starting searches and will need tweaking.

Although lots of the specifics are tailored to my needs, e.g. the regular expression for extracting the subjects and the data-cleaning/URL building, and the pipe I made myself is a bit clunky and could do with streamlining, these pipes could be quite easily adapted for other institutions or indeed different purposes, so please feel free to clone the pipes and tinker away!

Mash Oop North write-up (part 2)

Cake by me (bitospud)
Afternoon chocolate cake at Mashed Library 2009

Here’s the long-awaited (!) write-up of the second half of the Mash Oop North, apologies for the stream-of-consciousness writing style. Last time I neglected to mention a brief session before lunch which was loosely based on a kids’ TV programme called Runaround (which I was too young to have heard of!). Volunteers stood around the room holding up different topic ideas, and we were invited to go to whatever topic interested us, talk to the other people there, then move on (or not) each time someone shouted ‘runaround’. I think this was a valiant idea but didn’t quite work as planned – in most of the groups I encountered one or two people dominated the conversation, and as fairly few people shifted around each time it made it difficult to break into an existing discussion, especially for someone like me lacking in concrete ideas at that stage, and rather more outgoing online than in person! I did hear a couple of people coming up with good ideas though, so it certainly was productive for some people and bore fruit later.

Lunch included both Papa John’s pizza and Seabrook crisps, two excellent foodstuffs. I ate a bit of the pictured cake in the afternoon and it was as delicious as it looks! There was more opportunity for networking and starting to come up with ideas for the afternoon.

After lunch came the lightning talks. These were a fab idea but too popular for their own good – unfortunately I couldn’t hear terribly well from where I was sitting. One time I realised too late that one speaker was extolling Tufte, who I learned about on my library course and is a fantastic source of good advice on the graphic display of information. I’d have tried to move forward had I twigged sooner! I eventually decided to give up on the lightning talks and do something practical – during lunch I’d had an idea, so I tweeted it, and fortunately Owen Stephens offered to help make it a reality. He soon gathered a few others to work on the idea, and after an hour or so of mashing (with snatches of cake and coffee) we nearly had a working prototype. I’ve got the start and end of the process in Yahoo Pipes and just need to find time to create the middle bit and stick the two halves together, so will blog on the project as soon as that’s done. What I can reveal now is that we were awarded the group mash prize (perhaps by default!) which was a £20 Amazon voucher each, I think sponsored by UKOLN. Totally unexpected and very appreciated!

At the end of the afternoon prizes were awarded – you can see the list of excellent ideas on the mashlib09 blog, and I do recommend taking a look as there’s things there that should definitely get developed. After prizegiving ended, we decamped to the pub before heading our separate ways. All in all, a highly recommended event and format which both broadened my professional horizons and helped me take more online contacts into ‘real life’, and I’m looking forward to MiddleMash in Birmingham towards the end of the year (if I manage to get a place, given how popular these events are!).

Mash Oop North write-up (part 1)

Spread some joy
Spotted in the Creative Arts Building at Huddersfield Uni

I’m on the train home from Mashed Library 2009 just now. It’s been an excellent day, with huge thanks due to Dave Pattern and everyone else involved in organising it. As someone said, it was the most organised unconference ever – properly organised chaos!

The event for me started yesterday evening, as I decided to avoid a 4.30am start by travelling up the day before and staying locally (I can recommend the Cambridge Lodge – very friendly staff and excellent fried breakfast!). A trip to a noodle bar and several local drinking establishments had been organised, which was very enjoyable both because of the delicious food and drink and the chance it gave to meet people informally before the event. This really helped me get over my usual introversion and get chatting, which helped me off to a good start the next day.

First session I attended was Dave Pattern on library usage data and Iman Moradi on gaming and libraries. I failed to take notes in any sessions except on Twitter, so here’s scrappy recollections:

  • Uni library stats show 20-25% of keyword searches end with 0 results. Resulting page is often a dead end – adding spellcheck etc will give a route out.
  • Huddersfield has done all sorts of wonderful things with their usage data – ‘people who borrowed x, also borrowed…’, general suggestions, and increasingly course-specific stuff. I was particularly taken with the way they can use course-based usage stats to create course-specific new items lists!
  • Visual features prove very popular (with stats to prove it) so finding ways to include book covers etc is a good idea. I wish sheet music covers didn’t all look so similar! AV material has more promise, but I’m imagining getting matches without ISBNs is slightly nightmarish.
  • Dave has a vision of the library website in 2012 – modular, flexible, with services that can be pulled out into students’ website of choice. Also pulling in non-catalogue links and resources, e.g. BBC news feeds and journal articles chosen with knowledge of student’s course and interests.
  • Iman had gorgeously designed slides, as you’d expect – he lectures in design iirc, as well as being a library fan! He reminded us of the user perspective, that finding stuff is complex and the more we can smooth that along the better. Serendipity can serve a purpose too, e.g. Huddersfield Town Library did a serendipitous display of novels by colour, which looked pretty and encouraged browsing.
  • He also pointed out possible similarities between library use and gaming (sorry Iman, I don’t play World of Warcraft, I’m too busy on my DS). He pointed out a library borrowing history is a bit like a game achievements list – there can be bragging rights on reading certain books. Dave touched on this gaming idea too with the notion of karma points earned by helping other students, redeemable for free printing etc.

Second up was Richard Wallis on Talis’ open source Juice Project. Its aim is to make it easy to enhance OPACs without duplication of effort, or as Richard said ‘slap some mash on your OPAC’ (wonder how he got that authentic mash-on-plate sound effect?). This is achieved by the writing of cross-OPAC extensions to e.g. add Google Book API features, look up a title in Worldcat (and display it in an in-page lightbox if so desired), plus the writing of a vendor-specific ‘metadef’ which defines where the ISBN etc are located on the page. If these are in place, all your friendly OPAC sysadmin has to do is write a little script to tell Juice where to put the extra content on the page, add a few lines of code to the OPAC source page and voila! This is something I’m hoping to get time to play with soon, although I’ll need to learn some Javascript and hope someone writes a metadef for SirsiDynix elibrary, else I’ll need to learn a lot of Javascript. Hoping some more real-world examples will start appearing soon too.

Philosophically I think the Juice Project has it spot on – it’s mad that so many OPAC administrators spend time coding enhancements which then work on their OPAC and theirs alone. Sharing code is definitely the way forward, and allows lesser-resource institutions with little development time to participate. One potential downside is accessibility – always an issue with Javascript, which is why it’s advised Juice is only used to add extra value to a service rather than critical functionality.

My final morning session was Tony Hirst’s Yahoo Pipes mashalong. I’d attended his Pipes presentation at last year’s inaugural Mashed Library event and been left in awe at what was possible, but not quite sure what to do with it. Sadly this time round Tony was beset with technical problems which cut his mashalong tragically short; on the plus side he’s since done a detailed and interesting blog post mashalong as an ‘apology’ (not necessary!) which I’ll be working through myself at some point. Despite the technical troubles this session was worth attending just for Tony’s brilliantly succinct explanation of JSON, which I’ve been baffled by until now – basically it’s a Javascript representation of an RSS feed which can be used to pull a feed’s contents into any webpage. Now I understand why I might want JSON output!

I’ll leave it here for now as my train’s nearly reached London. Another post (hopefully a briefer one) on the afternoon’s proceedings is coming soon…

Mashed Library UK ’09

Mashupcookbook by Dave Pattern
Mashupcookbook by Dave Pattern

My employer’s agreed to fund my attendance at the Mashed Library UK 2009 unconference in Huddersfield next month, which I’m very grateful for and really looking forward to after the successful inaugural event in London last year.

I think it may be the most well-organised event I’ve ever encountered – Dave Pattern and his colleagues have been gathering tons of information, ranging from asking attendees about their interests and expertise to gauging opinions on the lunchtime pizza options! As part of the build-up Dave’s been carrying out blog chats with various attendees, and today was my turn (hence my hasty blog update!).

Over the next few weeks I’ll consider what sort of things I’d like to explore on the day and perhaps even come up with some fresh ideas. I’d like to make more progress with our OPAC – API work at Christmas enabled auto-plural searching and it now uses a custom synonym list (so finally searches for cello and violoncello give the same results!). I think spell-checking would be a nice thing to add soon, and I saw someone on the Mashed Library forum discussing this so maybe I’ll pick up some tips. Also very intrigued by the Juice Project

Mashed Libraries 2008

Me at Mashed Libraries 2008, taken by Dave Pattern
Me at Mashed Libraries 2008, taken by Dave Pattern

I had the pleasure of attending the Mashed Libraries UK 2008 event in London last week. It had a good mix of librarians interested in technology, technologists interested in libraries, people from library system vendors, etc., and it was nice to put some faces to names/twitter identities!

I’ve decided not to write up the sessions themselves (for now at least) as several others already have and very eloquently to boot! The homepage of the Mashed Libraries Ning linked to above has a list of blog posts; Paul Walk, Jo Alcock and Richard Wallis all have good summaries of the presentations and the general mood of the day.

Personally I’d categorise myself as a librarian who wants to get more into the technology side of things – the phrase several people have used is a ‘tinkerer’ rather than a hard-core programmer. The presentations on the day made me see there was a lot I could do without delving into the guts of systems thanks to the increasing number of open APIs and web apps out there, which is brilliant. Data sources useful for library techies include the Talis Platform and Amazon’s web services API, while apps for doing stuff with them include Google Docs spreadsheets which can import XML and output RSS (I had no idea!) and the amazing Yahoo Pipes.

I played with the latter in the run-up to the event, on the day itself and afterwards to boot as it’s quite a compulsive tool – you can see the results which I consider nearly decent enough to share on my Yahoo Pipes page (yes, I’m chuffed I got the coveted ‘edith’ username). I think writing about my fumblings with the plumbing can wait for a future blog post. In the meantime talking to someone on the day made me realise there’s nothing to stop me adapting the script which creates RSS feeds from my library catalogue’s new item lists and using it to create RSS feeds of our reading lists for mashing up.

Hopefully sometime soon I’ll come up with uses of these mashups that our students might actually want – any suggestions are welcomed!

In the meantime, my thanks go to Owen Stephens for organising the event, and I hope it’s the first of many.