Library Media Servers

Several months ago a friend and I were enjoying the Blu-Ray vs. HD debate until that mess sorted itself out. I remember saying at the time that I thought either format was just a stopgap measure until better/faster broadband and home media servers combine to allow us to purchase our high-definition movies online and download them directly to our own servers for storing and playing in a variety of ways.

This (kind of) reminded me of the way our music library worked when I started college. Students could search the catalog, but we were not allowed to browse the LPs. When the library started adding CDs it was under the same restriction. Students also could not handle these media items themselves: all of the items and equipment were managed in a sound room that output to numbered listening stations. If students needed to listen to the same track – or even worse, to a few measures of a track – over and over, they had to constantly ask the librarian to restart the section.

Of course that changed with time. But with so many bits and pieces of technology now in place, I want to achieve a similar end for different reasons. I want to take that old notion of students not being allowed to handle the media items and change that into students not having to handle the media items. We have a couple of online music databases that in some ways obviate the need for a media server. However, most libraries will have a collection of media items that are not available through subscription services. Whether it’s a video of a lecture held on campus or that one particular Mendelssohn recording that brings out the nuance a professor wants to highlight, online subscriptions can’t be all things to all people.

So when will media servers come into their own as a library tool? From a number of comments on Engadget, it sounds like a lot of people are taking a do-it-yourself approach for home servers.

What would this service look like in a library setting? (I’ll set aside copyright discussions and leave those to others since I have little experience in that area.) There should be an intuitive yet flexible librarian interface for importing data. The system should be able to read import media from many sources: ideally, if the library can play it and the player has an output jack, the media server should be able to import it. The media server should integrate easily with the library’s patron authentication system. The media server should be robust enough to serve many simultaneous streams to in-building, on-campus, and off-site locations with no performance degradation. Oh, and the user interface should be both slick and powerful. That’s not asking too much, now is it?  😉

What a Great Meeting!

I know of few people who would say “What a great meeting” after a first-thing-Monday-morning meeting, but this one really was outstanding. We tried to work through a couple of things through e-mail and over the phone, but it was finally just time to get together face-to-face.

I met with a couple of people from Campus IT today. We’re still refining the database report that will produce the patron data I pre-load into our catalog. We’re working steadily towards removing a few little glitches (such as duplicate records), and it really feels like we’re in the home stretch.

But why the effusiveness over a Monday morning meeting? Several reasons!

1. We all went in with the common goal of solving a single problem.
2. We each learned a little bit more about how the other unit operates.
3. We each learned a little but more about the other unit’s data considerations.
4. We each came away understanding the needs and limitations of each unit.
5. We all participated as equals in the discussion.
6. We were all free to share ideas that contributed to the overall solution.
7. We talked through several scenarios to arrive at the best possible solution.
8. We considered “unique cases” to determine whether the report would erroneously include or exclude any patrons.
9. We evaluated the viable options.
10. We decided on a solution.

Sounds like a lot, but isn’t that really how all meetings should go? You go in to solve a specific problem, everyone contributes, everyone leaves with more knowledge, and the group arrives at a solution. Simple enough, so why is it usually so difficult? Never underestimate the power of a GOOD meeting!

The Art of Troubleshooting

I’m thinking about Meredith‘s survey again this morning. In particular I’m thinking about one of my responses to question # 4: What skills and competencies do you think are most important for librarians to have today?

In answering this question, one of my replies had to do with troubleshooting. As libraries add more electronic resources, new online services, and more computing facilities, troubleshooting and technology problem-solving skills become more and more important.

However, even though I gave this answer within the context of a survey on library education, I don’t know how easily troubleshooting skills can actually be taught. With many troubleshooting issues, intuition, instinct, and gut feelings all play a part.

Of course there are certain things that people can be taught to check systematically. But this is only one part of troubleshooting, and those who rely exclusively on a list of steps are somewhat akin to a telemarketer sticking to a badly-written sales script.

Consider some of the steps in troubleshooting a problem with an attached printer. Many things are both obvious and easy to check.

Is the printer plugged into a power source?
Is the printer connected to the computer?
Is the printer turned on?
Does the printer have paper?
Does the printer have toner?
Is the printer displaying any error lights or codes?

Moving beyond this initial list, there are still a number of basic things to check.

Is the application sending the print job to the correct printer?
Has anything changed on the computer or has anything new been installed recently?
Does Device Manager (for Windows users) show any hardware errors?
Is the correct printer driver installed?
Is the printer driver up-to-date?
Does the printer work properly with another computer?
Does the computer print properly to another printer?
Is there any sort of local security software that might be interfering?

Having exhausted the obvious possibilities, that’s when troubleshooting has to get creative.

Can you print a document from another application? I once saw an odd problem where a printer experienced memory overflow errors when trying to print PDFs, but all other document types were fine. the manufacturer’s official solution was to lie to the printer: tell it you’re using a different model, and that solves the problem.

When you move into the more exotic troubleshooting like this, it becomes more a matter of methodical trial and error guided by instinct, and that’s hard to teach. How can you tell someone to follow a hunch if they never get the hunch in the first place? I’ve worked with a number of people who had great troubleshooting skills, and they sometimes seemed to pull solutions out of thin air. It’s great when it happens, but how do you teach that?

The Future of Library Education – and again, and again, and again

Over on her blog, Meredith Farkas has a post and a brief survey about the future of LIS education. This one is only four questions and doesn’t take long to complete. Dontcha just love SHORT surveys? It seems to be one of life’s little ironies that the shorter surveys sometimes seem to draw out the most thoughtful and meaningful responses. With a long survey you sometimes just click click click wondering when you’re ever going to get to the end. With Meredith’s though, everything is there on one page – nice and concise. But I digress . . .

Most people will agree that the nature of the profession has changed drastically over the past 30 years. Rapidly changing technologies have introduced an amazing amount of innovative programs and services – some that were just a flash in the pan and others with decided staying power.

Meredith’s survey is very open-ended. It isn’t tied to a specific technology trend, but it leaves the door open for people to discuss technology where they find it appropriate. In fact it’s so open-ended that it makes me wonder how people would have answered the questions 5, 10, or 15 years ago. I’d kind of like to see this one go on for awhile. Given the pace of technological change, I think it would be interesting to compare a decade’s worth of responses to this one. That way we could hear from actual practitioners how the profession is changing on a yearly basis and how the profession is staying the same. I think we would find some surprises in both areas!

Look for the Simple Solution

This week I’ve come across a trio of things that reminded me to look for the simple solutions.

The week started with two patron records mysteriously sharing the same barcode number. Because of some recent testing I’ve done with loading patron records, I immediately went back to the data looking for anomalies and mismatched data fields. A colleague over in Circulation was also looking at the records which incidentally both had the last name. He quickly hypothesized that a student worker had pulled up one record by name and accidentally linked the barcode to the wrong record. Oh yeah. That could be it too.

Yesterday started off with the SharePoint problem. All of the other computers were working properly. The reference desk computer is running Windows Vista and is therefore just a little different from all the others. We looked at some network settings and SharePoint permissions before finally isolating AIM Toolbar as the culprit.

Just by way of making things lively yesterday, a power outage threw things into disarray when the firewall failed to come back up properly. When we first started investigating, the odd mixture of public and office problems made this issue seem more widespread than it actually was. In the end, the problem was resolved simply by rebooting the firewall.

All of these problems had fairly simple explanations or solutions. However, in each case I started troubleshooting by looking for the hard answers instead of the easy ones – a backwards approach if there ever was one. Lately I’ve worked on a number of odd problems that had complicated solutions or causes. Because of this, I think I’ve fallen into the habit of looking for the hard-to-find exotic solution rather than the simple straightforward one. I guess after so many hard problems, you kind of think that the simple solutions just won’t work. After all, they haven’t worked the last few times you tried ’em, right? But of course the simple solutions often DO work. And yes, sometimes rebooting really will make a problem go away; it’s not just a tech support ploy to buy time.

So . . . note to self . . . remember to look for the simple solutions!

One Toolbar Too Many

I ran across a strange problem today. The computer at the reference desk couldn’t access our SharePoint server using just the server name, but it could access it if we used the full hostname. I saw this problem with all of our computers during the initial setup, and I solved this problem by adding a public URL as outlined here.

This time though, it was just the one computer. Every time we tried to browse by the server’s name, IE did an AOL search on the name rather than resolving the name locally on our intranet. NSLOOKUP returned the correct IP address when I tried searching for the short name as well as the full hostname. Firefox worked just fine with the short name. It seemed then that the computer knew what to do, and the problem was occurring only in IE.

AOL was defined as the default search engine in IE. I tried changing that to Google just to see if it made any difference. Strangely enough the browser still searched for the server name on AOL. I tried deleting all search providers except Google, but IE still ran an AOL search. After we dug around a bit more, we found that AIM Toolbar was installed on the reference desk computer. We uninstalled the toolbar, and everything was back to normal.

Yeah, there are some good browser toolbars and add-ons, but a bad one can really gum up the works!