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Computing Center/Library Cooperation in the Development of a Major University Service: Northwestern's Electronic Reserve System

Brian Nielsen, Networked Resources Coordinator, Academic Technologies
Susan Swords Steffen, Chair, Electronic Reserve Task Force, University Library
M. Claire Dougherty, Reserve/Multimedia Librarian, University Library

Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois


Introduction | The ERS Initiative at Northwestern | ERS System Description |
ERS System Evaluation | Interorganizational Cooperation | Interorganizational Conflict |
Summary and Conclusion | References

A B S T R A C T

The design and implementation of a network-based document distribution service within a university entails careful planning, considerable communication, and coordinated action between computing center and libr ary staffs. Northwestern University's experience in developing an Electronic Reserve System (ERS) offers a case study of the several elements requiring coordination, including software distribution, system design, the recruitment of faculty for testing and early implementation, and evaluation. This review of Northwesterns ERS highlights how coordination between the two organizations was accomplished, what conflicts were faced and how they were resolved, and how ongoing development of this succe ssful service is being managed. A number of useful insights into organizational roles and boundaries have emerged from this experience, offering a perspective on the relationships between service offerings of library and computing center organizations and how such offerings might change in the future.

INTRODUCTION

Although libraries and academic computing organizations both seek to support research, teaching, and learning on campus, they often conceive of and d evelop services in isolation from one another. This tendency to operate in isolation may arise from differences in organizational culture, varied levels of technical expertise, or turf issues. The isolated approaches may also be due to the simple fact that people in each of the two organizations just dont know what people in the other organization are doing or are supposed to be doing. Regardless of the reason, this style of operation often results in competing services, or services whose avail ability is confined to one set of facilities, does not serve users well, and does not scale well. Instead, when libraries and academic computing organizations collaborate, they can design and deliver services which effectively meet user needs and advance research, teaching, and learning.

Northwestern Universitys experience in developing an Electronic Reserve System offers a case study of collaboration between academic computing and library organizations. The design and implementation of this network-based document distribution service entailed careful planning, considerable communication, and coordinated action between computing center and library staffs. A number of useful insights into organizational roles and boundaries have emerged from this experience, offering some perspective on the relationships between service offerings of library and academic computing organizations and how such offerings may change in the future.

The goals of the two organizations in developing an electronic document delivery service were not identical, but were complementary. What could have been competing goals  actually political jockeying for administrators attention and resources as both organizations sought to exploit what the economist and organizational theorist Anthony Downs has called policy space created by a new technology gap [1] -- were organizational objectives which were articulated with each other so as to drive both units toward the creation of a system with dimensio ns larger than either could have carried out on its own. There were conflicts, of course, but they were resolved through give-and-take as both organizations saw advantage in moving forward rather than letting the work stall.

This paper reviews the recent historical development of Northwestern Universitys Electronic Reserve System and describes the systems components, functionality, and interim evaluation. A further goal the paper strives for is to offer some perspective on how academic c omputing organizations and research libraries might better recognize where each others strengths lie, and thereby foster further development of projects which make a real difference in the learning environment of the university.

THE ELECTRONIC RESERVE INITIATIVE AT NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY

The main purpose of Northwestern Universitys Electronic Reserve System (ERS) is to support instruction in the University by providing course-support materials via the campus ne twork. The project was initiated in early 1994 by librarians who were interested in developing a new service for delivery over the campus network while exploring the technical and policy issues involved in digitizing text, and by academic computing staff concerned with extending and refining communication systems already in wide use around the university. At the same time a task force was established with volunteers from several library departments to design and implement some system to offer electronic text, the academic computing organization was launching a number of instructional support initiatives including listservs, conferencing, and faculty Internet training. As the library was seeking avenues for development of new electronic services which had a clear library identity, academic computing was focused heavily on the wiring of all dormitory rooms and academic buildings, and sought to develop systems which would demonstrate to senior university administrators the validity of th eir own forward-thinking decision to invest heavily in network infrastructure at this time.

Along with these local forces leading both organizations to share in development of a new university resource, there has been a larger economic and legal pressure motivating the participants to implement the Electronic Reserve System in a timely fashion. That pressure is the issue of electronic copyright, specifically the strong interest the university has in preserving the principle of fair use in the new electronic environment. There is a lot of talk about copyright issues now, with the promulgation of the NII White Paper on Intellectual Property and the National Information Infrastructure,[2] the ARL statement on "Fair Use in the Electronic Age: Serving the Public Interest,"[3] and a draft electronic reserve guidelines document now under discussion within the research library c ommunity.[4] Northwestern recognized that it was important to reinforce the stated philosophical position that the fair use provision should remain operative in the new environment with a body of practice which concretely demonstrated that position. Saying that it SHOULD be acceptable by law to do something over which there may be disagreement is not the same as actually doing it. With our project, Northwestern has taken the position that the larger higher education community is not well-served by remaining in a state of paralysis on the electronic copyright issue. We have felt it important to show that a system can operate in a way respectful of publishers financial interests yet firmly assert the fair use right that sets a limit on the protection of copyright holders.

ERS SYSTEM DESCRIPTION

The Electronic Reserve System began as a gopher-based document delivery system using the Gopher Plus Internet protocol. At the beginning of the 1995 academi c year, the system migrated to a World Wide Web interface. Users must have a copy of a forms-capable Web browsing client (Netscape is the supported Web browser at Northwestern) and a connection to NUNet, Northwesterns campus network backbone, either through a direct Ethernet or a remote modem connection. The Electronic Reserve System at Northwestern may be accessed by any student, faculty, or staff member from all networked computers in the libraries, campus computer labs, dormitory rooms, and other campus buildings. Because access to ERS is restricted to the Northwestern University community, those users connecting via a modem from their homes or anywhere else off-campus must attach directly to Northwesterns modem pool through a SLIP connection.

The ERS Web site and documents are housed on the Librarys Web server, an E-series Hewlett Packard UNIX server running Netscape Commerce server software. Its design structurally mirrors the gopher prototype used in the 1994-95 academi c year, which was run on an HP 715-33 workstation. Users are offered two modes of access to the reserve materials, a"browse" mode and a search" mode. The browse mode offers the user an ability to traverse a hierarchical tree of university schools, departments, and courses to locate material for a particular course, provided in a list. The search mode enables the user to locate ERS documents through searching by professor, department, or course name, either as single words or as multiple words combined through implicit or explicit Boolean operators. The index, developed originally using Jughead in its first life as a gopher, is now built by SWISH, (Simple Web Indexing System for Humans), a free software product developed at CNIDR. Users are not permitted to locate any item through an author or title search, a design element deliberately made in consideration of copyright issues, issues to which we will return later.

Most of the documents distributed through the Electronic Reserve System are in Adobe Acrobat Portable Document Format (PDF). During the spring and summer of 1994, academic computing tested a number of electronic publishing tools, including Common Ground and Replica, before settling on the Acrobat family of products. Adobes decision in 1994 to distribute the Acrobat Reader at no charge solidified this decision; the Reader may be downloaded directly from the Electronic Reserve home page or the NUInfo Campus Wide Information System and used as Netscapes hel per application to view Electronic Reserve documents as well as many other documents published electronically for general campus use. Users may both view and print documents with the Acrobat Reader. Acrobat PDF files also support internal hypertext links and, with the latest release of the Reader, external hypertext links to locations on the World Wide Web and embedded Quicktime movies.

Acrobat PDF is based on the Postscript page definition language and can incorporate both text and bitma pped images. Documents in PDF appear onscreen in their electronic format much as they would on paper. The commercial products used to create these files are Acrobat Distiller, which will convert any Postscript text or graphics document directly to PDF, and Acrobat Exchange with its included PDF Writer. The PDF Writer acts as a printer driver with which the operator may literally print to a Portable Document Format file from any application. Exchange is used to collate and edit existing PDF fi les, to attach security specifications to individual documents, and to provide value- added document navigation features. We have also begun working with Acrobat Capture, a product which melds optical-character recognition functionality with the other Acrobat products in use at Northwestern for nearly two years.

Documents are prepared by library staff in a number of ways. Documents which already exist in electronic format are the easiest to handle, and are welcomely received from faculty memb ers; they are simply"printed" to PDF from the originating application with the Acrobat PDF Writer. To encourage use of this format, academic computing has also"seeded" Acrobat Exchange into a number of academic departments, enabling faculty to produce PDF files by themselves for use in classroom conferencing applications supported by the computing organization. This method is most commonly used with examinations, course syllabi, handouts and lecture notes. The faculty members can simply email as attachments such PDF files to the reserve staff who then make links to these files on the server.

Documents provided by faculty in paper format, such as journal articles and book chapters, are scanned. They may be converted to PDF as bitmapped image files, or are sometimes scanned and converted to text and then to PDF using an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) application. The decision whether or not to use an OCR package has been mostly based on the length of documents. Pages compo sed of bitmapped pictures of text characters are, without exception, a great deal larger in file size than those which contain recognizable text, but the time involved in using an OCR application, and its often mixed recognition results, has often made it an impractical choice for producing and distributing course materials. PDFs built from bitmaps are also slow to deliver over the network, and are essentially unprintable, though on-screen reading is possible and acceptable, if not always accepted.

We expect our recent purchase of Acrobat Capture to make documents existing initially only on paper to be much more amenable to network distribution, and thus to lead to much more scanning work. Captures page-to-PDF handling of documents and its ability to retain both text and graphics in their original page layout, along with providing a very useful interface for human operator interpretation of OCR uncertainties, will also significantly improve the slow printing problems our students n ow face.

The library owns three workstations dedicated to the production of Electronic Reserve materials, two Power Macintoshes and one Pentium PC. Each is equipped with a color desktop scanner, scanning software, the complete Adobe Acrobat suite (Distiller, Exchange, PDF Writer and Reader) and is attached to the network. Acrobat Capture is only installed on the PC as a version does not yet exist for the Macintosh. Common office applications which faculty may be using for authoring their original documents, such as Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, PowerPoint, and the like, are also on hand so that conversion through PDF Writer of such documents is possible. Three additional Wintel- based production workstations are planned for other library departments participating in Electronic Reserve.

Besides ERS availability being provided in all academic computing labs in the university, library-managed public workstations are in place in the Reserve Room on the Evanston campus and in th e Schaffner library on Northwesterns Chicago campus. The public Macintosh and PC in Reserve are both equipped with DeskJet printers; the public PCs in Schaffner are connected to a laser printer. Three additional public workstations will soon be installed in the Transportation, Music and Science and Engineering libraries. Beyond the libraries, the Acrobat Reader software is installed on all machines in all the Universitys academic computing public labs. All printing in all locations  curren tly over 100 workstations in public labs and reading rooms  is at this time free.

For the first year of the Electronic Reserve project, materials were produced by staff in the Reserve Room of the Main library and staff working in the Schaffner. In August, 1995, a half-time professional position was added in Main Reserve; ERS demands the equivalent of one full paraprofessional position and one student work/study position from this department. The Schaffner staff member processing materials for ERS was able to incorporate his new responsibilities into his existing workflow. The Electronic Reserve task force continues to act in a planning, advisory and technical support capacity and currently consists of representatives from the music, transportation, science and engineering, preservation, and media departments of the library, as well as academic computing. The newest members of the task force have been additional participants from academic computing who have joined to lead the deve lopment of an Oracle-based database management system at the back-end, to tackle the automation of ERS administrative tasks.

SYSTEM EVALUATION

User evaluation of the Electronic Reserve System has so far not been analyzed in particularly formal ways, though comment from staff, faculty, and students have from the beginning contributed to design modifications to the system. Transaction logs of both the gopher and web iterations of the systems exist, though weve not exploited them for evaluation purposes as yet. Feedback from academic computing lab managers reveal that the use of ERS appears to be one of the most popular applications in all our labs, leading to additional growth in lab use and demand for printing. Student feedback is encouraged both via an electronic form on the web site and a paper questionnaire left at the library public dedicated ERS workstations. Student responses have in general been quite favorable, though problems with slow docum ent printing are a source of significant frustration. Our expectation that students would read PDF files on-screen has proven to be naive; just as students often retrieve paper reserve materials simply to photocopy them, they retrieve the electronic files with the idea of printing them to paper. Printing delays are interminable with scanned/bitmapped PDFs, and often only tolerable with PDF files created from electronic originals, especially those with non-textual elements. Thus the nature of t he materials placed on electronic reserve colors significantly the students overall evaluation of the system.

Apart from some users frustration with printing ERS files, other problems encountered have centered around users becoming more comfortable with the electronic interface. Requiring off-site users to acquire, install, and configure the Acrobat Reader software has caused some frustration, especially among users with older equipment and those who are unfamiliar with the functioning of their operating systems. We hope this particular difficulty will be reduced with the next releases of the Netscape browser and Acrobat Reader, which will allow users to view and print PDF documents from within the Netscape browser itself. We have also encountered students whose Internet access has been through external providers, such as Compuserve or Prodigy, and who thus are blocked from retrieving electronic reserve documents because their IP addresses do not reflect their Northwestern affili ation. Pointing out to them that they can overcome this problem by obtaining a free account and software from academic computing is of course appreciated.

Faculty have expressed interest in the system, but have been somewhat slow to respond. The most enthusiastic responses so far have been concentrated, with a few exceptions, in the graduate school of management and among faculty teaching in the sciences and engineering. Currently, twenty-one courses are supported on ERS in this Fall 1 995 Quarter. A number of the faculty participating in the ERS project have been initially identified through their inquiries directed at academic computing staff in the areas of classroom conferencing, the use of electronic mail as a teaching tool, and their interest in linking self-produced web resources into the existing Campus Wide Information System infrastructure.

The migration to a World Wide Web interface has added more flexibility to the types of materials which may be distributed v ia the Electronic Reserve System. Rather than limiting course information to materials processed by library staff and stored locally on the librarys web server, as had been the original model for Electronic Reserve, ERS pages now include links to other Internet sites. These sites include professors personal or departmental gopher and web resources, newsgroups created specifically for university courses, and other Internet sites of interest. It is hoped that the Electronic Reserve System will no longer be seen merely as an electronic version of traditional reserve, but rather as a central gateway to students course materials located at various electronic sites on campus and around the world. This approach to ERS offers faculty greater control of the organization of materials they place"on reserve," reinforces the librarys gathering role by eliminating the need for faculty to communicate to students what are often long and complex URLs, and offers the institution a more unified app roach toward dealing with copyright permission issues which will become increasingly contentious in the new electronic environment.

INTER-ORGANIZATIONAL COOPERATION

Both library and computing organizations made critical contributions to the development of this successful system. Librarians came to the project with a long experience in providing course support materials through traditional reserve functions and in developing successful information retrieval sy stems. This experience included considerable knowledge about copyright issues. They also brought a strong mission to serve all faculty and students  not just those interested in technology. The University Librarian was also willing to commit financial and staff resources to the project. The academic computing organization supplied a higher level of technical expertise than was available in the library as well as access to software and hardware resources in the development phase. It also prov ided a more current perspective of the development of the larger campus network. Academic computing made critical connections with Adobe, with faculty interested in participating in the pilot project, and with its own staff who would be responsible for implementing the system in computing labs. Finally, the academic computing representative approached the project with an experimental method new to many of the librarians, allowing the project to assume risks and move forward more quickly than on e sees with most library projects.

The collaboration between academic computing and the library resulted in a more successful service than either organization could have developed independently.

A remarkable feature of the electronic reserve system in the eyes of many was that it was developed, tested, and implemented very quickly for a system of its size and complexity. Planning and design work was begun in the summer of 1994, a pilot was launched in the fall of 1994 in which over a dozen classes participated, and a production system was in place by the fall of 1995. During that time, the user interface was also rewritten and transported from gopher to the worldwide web. This rapid progress would have been highly unlikely in a project developed solely by the library with its more deliberative development style. The academic computing organization possessed greater technical expertise particularly in the areas of software selection and programming, as well as easier access to machine resources during the pilot phase. Although the initial server was a machine owned by a library department, it was managed by the academic computing organization. In addition, the academic computing organization was accustomed to developing projects quickly and delivering them to users without elaborate testing or extended internal review. The library task force elected to share in this development style, which allowed the project to move along quickly without much reporting to regu lar library review groups. As stated above, the motivation to bring forward a body of practice in the area of electronic copyright fair use proved a valuable spur to action across both organizations.

The interest in a speedy implementation led to a number of decisions being made that would have been much slower to implement had each organization felt they were working alone, clearly a synergy effect. The library implemented public Internet-accessible workstations in its reserve rooms so th at user behavior could be observed and the system modified accordingly. At the same time the academic computing organization offered the service in its public computing labs, a practice that had not been so automatic in previous library projects. The representative from academic computing was able to work closely with the lab coordinators to insure that properly installed software was available and to address implementation problems as they occurred, rather than awaiting a hierarchical organizati on-to-organization communication process. This widespread implementation allowed many more students to access and experiment with the system than if access had been limited to a few public workstations in the library. Electronic reserve quickly became one of the most frequently used services in the public computing labs. Academic computing was also able to introduce the system as part of a suite of network applications that students were introduced to, rather than identifying it as a specialized library project. The computing staff approached the new system as just one of many that they had to implement and felt some ownership of the system. The sense of shared ownership, rather than a working relationship in which the computing organization merely offered technical advice on a system developed outside by the library, was critical to the projects success.

INTER-ORGANIZATIONAL CONFLICT

One should not regard the success of the Electronic Reserve System as a simple matter of interorganizational efficiency, as there were areas of conflict too. Recognizing that such conflicts are bound to exist can go a long way toward resolving them without their becoming insurmountable barriers which could otherwise cause similar projects to stall. We present here some examples, to demonstrate that teamwork often entails compromise.

One early difficulty encountered by the project occurred during the year-long pilot phase, when the delivery mechanism for reserve documents was gopher-based. Although Northwesterns computing organization had not at that time settled on which graphical user interface Web clients would be supported campus-wide, we had settled on gopher clients, as our rapidly-developing NUInfo CWIS was at the time gopher-based. The clients supported on the dominant platforms were TurboGopher and WSGopher, and Internet program disk suites were already being widely distributed among students and faculty interested in net connections. The library, on the other hand, had instituted their own process for deciding what software would be on library microcomputers, and had chosen the Boston College gopher as the preferred gopher client because of its uncluttered design. Though in most circumstances this library decision would not have significant impact beyond its own walls, the fact that the Boston College gopher did not support the gopher plus protocol, necessary for easy integration of Acrobat documents with the ERS user interf ace, the library was forced to revisit the decision as a result of the ERS project. Faced with the problem of weighing additional decision criteria that had not been recognized before, the library did reverse itself and supported the WSGopher as a standard, but the loss of autonomy in this case was for a while a sore point.

On the other side of the inter-organizational process, academic computing at first did not support the librarys strong interest in delivering electronically-scanned docu ments through the ERS. Computing staff advocated restricting the service to documents which were natively available in electronic form, so that the corresponding Acrobat PDF files would not be extremely large and the copyright issues would be non-problematic. From the librarys perspective, this restriction was absolutely untenable. Library staff argued that, even if printing and network delivery times were to suffer, a system calling itself a library reserve service had to accommodate paper do cuments if it was to maintain credibility in the eyes of the faculty. Even though it is recognized that the decision has some service efficiency costs, both organizations now recognize the value the decision has had, especially in the area of setting precedent in fair use of copyrighted material.

Still another area in which conflict has arisen, in this case within both organizations internally, has been the question of the viability of the Adobe PDF format as a reliable technology for sustai ned service delivery. Soon after the introduction of the Acrobat technology, there was widespread outcry from the SGML community that a format-description language such as PDF invited rapid document obsolescence, and this consideration led many in the library community to look upon Acrobat suspiciously. From open-system oriented technologists, there was similar concern about PDF. Why not just put up all the information in HTML, it was asked. This view has often been articulated despite the f act that the PDF specification is published, likely we suppose because of Adobes status as a for- profit corporation. Both sources of objection to the Acrobat format have been quieted by the passage of time and the growing popularity of the technology, and it is recognized that the current difficulties with HTML authoring, the far distance HTML is from SGML in terms of capturing semantic meaning, and the quite transient nature of most reserve documents all confirm that the ERS decision to go with Acrobat has been wise.

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION

Not only was its implementation smoother and faster, but the Electronic Reserve System has reached a broader audience of users than a service developed by either library or computing organization would have. Academic computing organizations tend to develop services for users who are interested and motivated to use technology. Libraries, the other hand, have always had broader mission to serve all user groups on campus regardless of their interest in technology. Because of academic computings involvement, technology leaders among the faculty were recruited for the pilot project. Because of the librarys involvement, the system was designed and promoted as service for all students regardless of their level of technical expertise and interest.

While the library could probably have developed an electronic reserve system on its own, it is doubtful that it would have been as innovative as Northw esterns electronic reserve system without collaboration with academic computing. The academic computing representative had already established a relationship with Adobe that led us to choose Acrobat Reader as a delivery mode before it was commonly in use. As we developed the systems gopher version, we had good support from the developers of WSGopher and the Minnesota gopher team. As ERS has been transported to the Web, we have been able to coordinate web development with other new projects in both academic computing and the library.

This collaboration resulted not only in an effective and successful electronic reserve system, but it also built and strengthened the relationship between the academic computing organization and the library. The differences in organizational culture between the two groups have been much discussed. As we worked towards a common goal, all team members developed new understanding and became more respectful of the human and political elements in bot h organizations. We developed a methodology which moved ahead quickly, but which included enough reporting and review to satisfy the library. We avoided many turf issues and minimized conflicts which often arise when organizations develop projects separately but implement them together. We established relationships which can and will carry over into other projects and initiatives as we build and enhance information technology across the university.


REFERENCES

  1. Anthony Downs, Inside Bureaucracy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967.
  2. http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/com/doc/ipnii/
  3. http://arl.cni.org/scomm/copyright/uses.html.
  4. "Fair Use Guidelines for Electronic Reserve Systems," available within the listserv archive of July 1995 for the arl-ereserve list, at listproc@cni.org.


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