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of the American Society for Information Science and Technology       Vol. 31, No. 1    October/November 2004

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Portals in Libraries A Symposium: Symposium Summary
by Roy Tennant and Sarah Michalak

Roy Tennant is user services architect at the California Digital Library (CDL). He can be reached at roy.tennant@ucop.edu.

Sarah Michalak is university librarian and associate provost for university libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She can be reached at Sarah_Michalak@unc.edu.

Roy Tennant of the California Digital Library and Sarah Michalak of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill summarized the day's activities and presentations at the conclusion of the Portals In Libraries: A Symposium.

Tennant offered a short summary called "Slouching Toward the Ideal Portal." He began by reminding the audience to define the term portal when using it because it means different things to different people. He described the characteristics of excellent portals, mentioning, among other things, that they should contain everything the user wants and nothing that the user doesn't want (as an unattainable but worthy goal). Learn-ability, customizability, freshness and interaction were other words he used in his description. Tennant went on to address the challenges to building an excellent portal. He spoke of the importance of interface design, good project management and the need to set an appropriate depth and breadth to the portal project. He also emphasized the notion of "casual personalization" or the ability of the portal to provide personalized content with a minimal amount of direct input from the user.

Tennant also covered development strategies and technical implementation, summarizing the important points made by earlier presenters and placing a heavy emphasis on user needs assessment and usability testing. He did mention one caveat with respect to needs assessment. People don't always know what's possible, so it's not always necessary to give them exactly what they ask for. We also need to bring our own knowledge and experience to the table in creating compelling user services. He also issued other warnings regarding the portal development process. For example, while he agreed that institutional collaboration was a good, and in many cases a necessary thing, it does have inherent problems. He specifically mentioned problems and delays arising from internal politics and the "war for screen real estate."

Tennant identified appropriate software applications as key technologies for integration:

    • commercial and open source portal applications;
    • aggregation tools (for example, the Open Archives Initiative's Protocol for Metadata Harvesting);
    • metasearch software (for simplifying the searching of multiple targets); and
    • Web services (that is, XML over HTTP).

Much, if not most, of this software is still at an early stage of development, and deep integration between information resources is elusive and likely to remain an ongoing struggle.

In the course of his talk, Tennant mentioned several websites with portal characteristics that he found particularly appealing. Among them were Amazon.com and its ability to make book suggestions based on a user's past choices, the Yorba Linda Public Library site and its creative use of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds and the Research Library Group's recently introduced Redlightgreen site (www.redlightgreen.org) which exhibits many good traits of a site well-designed for its target audience. His final admonition was to think in terms of interoperable building blocks, from which various portal services could be constructed or reconfigured to match changing needs and opportunities.

Sarah Michalak concluded the session with her summarization of the symposium and the following observations.

The most notable characteristic of the presentations in the symposium is that every speaker addressed user considerations in choosing, configuring and implementing systems. Portals are of interest to librarians in the first place because users lack an effective way to navigate multiple online information resources, and librarians are committed to finding a solution to that problem. Key concepts addressed by speakers throughout the day were usability, self-navigation, self-sufficiency, personalization and identifying content that is vital to the user (like grades, for instance). As one speaker said, "It's not about the portal it's about the customer and improving service to ensure enduring relationships with clients."

A second theme was the portal's potential ability to unify and integrate information resources for easier user access. Integration requires extensive configuration of multiple kinds of software, but the benefits to users are worth the investment. The audience was urged to consider the qualities and characteristics of the information we want to unify. Achieving the single-query search probably will require us to reorganize our online systems and the information they convey. Powerful tools such as the OpenURL resolver will help achieve apparent seamlessness, but at this stage of development they are quite complicated to implement and require a great deal of work.

Throughout the day speakers presented examples of portals or portal-like systems that exemplify what they consider to be desirable features. It is clear that not every institution working with a portal has the same definition. But it is just as clear that the portal concept is pushing librarians to think in new ways about information retrieval by our users, as well we should be doing. As Roy Tennant has said, "Librarians talk about searching; users just talk about finding."


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