More EZProxy, a visit to Wolverhampton, some cake and Athens LA

Robin and I had a very productive visit to Wolverhampton University yesterday to talk about authentication, EZProxy, OpenAthens LA, football and also consume some of these.

Ben Elwell from  Wolverhampton was able to share with us their latest news on how they had implemented Summon as- ‘the new Library Catalogue‘.

He reinforced the point that having access to resources in Summon without any proxy at all was a major stumbling block because the student found it hard to navigate between the provider’s logins. This was something we had also experienced.

Although they were running EZProxy for a few resources, Wolverhampton are moving to a later version of Athens, Athens LA 2.2  - which also includes an integrated proxy and improved statistics. One observation to make is that this appears to have better support for username and password protected resources, and configuration seems lot a easier than in EZProxy. 

In a tweet exchange with Eduserv they say there are 60 database configurations out of the box, and more will be contributed by the user community – so Athens LA 2.2 as a alternative solution to EZProxy seems definitely worth looking at.

EZProxy testing : first impressions, ‘less is more’

We are currently are trialling EZProxy and here is an update of where we are with it. At the moment, our CICT colleagues have set it up locally on the network for us, and have got it working through our firewall. I am hoping that it might give us a complementary route to access off-campus resources alongside Athens, IP and username and password. For starters, I have put this list up to see what routing some of them through our EZProxy server might mean. 

After you log on to the server it returns a list – which we can configure by amending a text file. On this initial list are about 16 of our e-resources that we either currently not access off-campus (because the publisher doesn’t support Athens or Shib), or are currently hard to access because the student has to plough through either Athens cookie-setting screens or publisher screens (often a publisher will have many routes to off-access because they have many different types of clients, so these are to be expected) or a heady mixture of both.

Using Jing I recorded two videos from off-campus 1) accessing British Journal of Music Education  from Swetswise via Cambridge University Press as we currently do and 2) accessing British Journal of Music Education via Swetswise going directly through EZProxy. (Apologies – these are very rough cuts but you get the idea – one route asks for money even after the student logs in via Athens, the other doesn’t. The same publisher, the same journal, sometimes the same article). The point is not why this happens, but as Dave Pattern’s series of slides at #uksglive pointed up, why barriers like these still happen in academic publishing and continue drive students away to Google.

To be fair, subscription agents’ websites are not always the best places to start – but that’s matter for another blogpost. And at the moment  we are only trying to show ‘proof of concept’ for EZProxy, so yes first impressions are bound to be good. The next stage is see whether it is feasible to get this new route working in Summon and also through our institutional portal iCity ( with the help of our CICT colleagues) – which is where we factor in more control over who can access this stuff.

But anything that can cut down the number of login screens, over which we don’t have much control, is good. Anything that can mean the student only has to log in once is good. Anything that mean the student doesn’t have to click via a special route to install a cookie is good. Anything that means the student doesn’t have to work out which password to use is good.

Nothing is more annoying than a series of screens one after the other. As Miles said about music (he was really talking about login screens) – ‘less is more’. Play less, design less. Which sounds like an perfect excuse to play some jazz : So What ?

eResource troubleshooting

Inspired by the post eResources “de-tech-tive” work – supporting library staff here is a little about some of the work we are doing in helping library staff answers queries relating to accessing our online resources.

As part of the elibrary team we manage, administer and support e-resources and with the help of Mark and John we wrote a brief guide for staff at our help points. The guide provides the recommended route to our eresources, we advise using our insitutional portal as this also sets the Athens coookie, some basic steps in answering a query (excerpt below) and a list of some common issues.

“Answering e-resource enquiries
1. Establish what the student is trying to access to confirm if this is something we have a subscription to, ie is it on our A-Z e-resource list or journal list and within our holdings.

2. Establish they are a BCU staff and student and have a network ID which allows them access to iCity, Moodle etc.

  • If they have any problems with their network ID or don’t have one they will need to contact the CICT helpdesk.
  • If they are an external borrower with a network ID this will only work on campus with a limited number of resources (those listed on the A-Z e-resource list which say ‘on-campus’)

3. Check whether you can access this resource yourself then determine whether student is on campus or off

  • On campus – If you are able to access it, suggest the student accesses it via the suggested route (accessing e-resources)
  • Off campus – if you can access it, check it is not a resource only available on campus (see notes on A-Z resource list) If it is not restricted to on campus, provide the suggested access route.
  • If they continue to have problems recommend they email athens@bcu.ac.uk with full details for further investigation

4. If you are unable to access it yourself, report to athens@bcu.ac.uk with details of the resource and the borrower if they wish to be notified.”

Some initial feedback from staff is that they would appreciate a shorter guide with bullet points listing key questions they could ask to probe further into the problem, specifically for telephone enquires. They also felt it would be useful to see how the off campus route varies from on campus.

We are also looking at ways of improving information on our current webpages in order that our staff and students can troubleshoot themselves at times where library staff are not available to help. We are going to run some staff training sessions which I hope will be a useful in ensuring staff have the relevant support and that we are aware of the different types of enquiries we are facing.

I think the 2 blog posts over on Laura’s Dark Archive are a good introduction for library staff regarding e-resources.

As our collections far exceed the stock in the buildings we occupy it is important that we are able to provide appropriate support for e-resources.

One Day in the Life of an Electronic Services Librarian

Unlike this, or this, my day usually starts with a coffee, then emails. I don’t have the luxury of email zero, it’s usually just making sure I don’t miss important ones. One of my main areas of work centres on the implementation of Summon,and what’s significant for me about this is that it is a joint Library/CICT project that will hugely impact our access to electronic resources which are currently held in separate places.

Being responsible for ‘Electronic Services’ has up until now meant responsibility  for those platforms where most of our eresources are accessed (eg AtoZ of Electronic ResourcesAtoZ of Electronic Journals, and/or also making sure that the methods of authentication for all of them we have in place (Athens,IP, username and password) work as smoothly as possible. Since last September, we offered a login route to our eresources through iCity that has reduced enquiries solely avia our Athens email box to about 300 over six months, so more common issues now centre around content: have we switched on full-text content to we have actually paid for, etc? Are we giving access to the right people?

Summon isn’t magic: it only ‘knows’ about most of our electronic collections if we tell it what we think those resources are, so today I am trying to work out why the holdings that we have via our subscription agent  don’t match those of the publisher (18% of our initial download from Swets didn’t match up with our Elsevier holdings according to Summon, for example). I contact several publishers eg CUP,Taylor and Francis) to start finding out about metadata for our institutional journal subs. I also begin a template to load third party holdings from Ingenta in to our Summon admin area,but decide to put this on hold for a while. Data problems are a longstanding issue, even with national initiatives like KBART, and especially where we don’t buy that many big ready-made deals.

After some mild twittering with @benelwell from Wolverhampton and then, over lunch, chat with @TheCloudSurfer over a new design for a website for a band I play in, I bump into one of the CICT developers for iCity. He confirms that a recent change he had made to the business rules concerning Athens was now working. Back at my desk,after reading the new Student Access Network Policy,I suggest a rewording to a new message screen for alumni (still to be approved:-).

Working out how all to satisfy both our students expectation & get them through the publisher paywalls as painlessly & legally as possible might be easier once we trial some authentication ‘middleware’ called EZproxy. I am excited about this a) because I asked for this software 5 years ago, and b) I want to stop reduce the numbers of hurdles wherever possible that we throw in front of the student –  hurdles like this damage the student experience.

I’m looking forward to testing EZproxy on my phone, and then I remember the mlibs project from Evidence Base here – if only web platform access was as painless as that via mobile apps : we promoted the EBSCO mobile app here some while back for example, and once students register they get access to our subscribed content on their phones, that can be set to remember their logins. I’m keen to be involved in mobile learning, and without sounding too corny, it is the future.

I manage a central fund for electronic resources,so in the afternoon follows some fund management,checking how to measure spend across financial rather than calendar year, following new procedures I agreed with our Finance Officer. Then it’s more of a mixed bag : reading our Dignity at Work policy for the Line Managers Forum I’m attending tomorrow, trying to establish whether colleagues asked us to renew their subscription to an eresource that has been up on our AtoZ pages for a number of months, signing up for a JISC webinar on www.jisc-elcat.com their new machinable readable license system which I picked up via a tweet from JISC’s @carenmilloy, posting on our eresource blog about an Index to Theses problem (now resolved).

Luckily today I have not had to think about whether our authentication systems are giving the right people the right permissions to access content: I was involved in the initial Information Architecture Review at BCU some years back, and it is an increasingly uphill and relevant struggle, particularly as the University focusses outward on partnerships with other institutions. Last year I raised a CICT project proposal for OpenAthensLA that is still on the table, as our current version of Athens is no longer being actively developed by Eduserv, it has also free authentication ‘middleware’ (like EZproxy) that comes bundled with the subscription. But first we have to define who those users are, in a way that our systems can understand – there is a long legacy of working in silos across the institution to unpick.

My day finishes by replying to a student who couldn’t get into an electronic journal on Swets, who had logged on fine but maybe had not realised that she was only being offered an abstract or summary rather than the full-text, so in a way I end where I began…..

Librarians: gatekeepers or sneck-lifters?

IMAG0049I recently attended the JIBS-Eduserv Seminar, ‘Where next for resource licensing?’ – and it struck me that unfairly or not, librarians have always attracted the label of ‘gatekeepers’. The issues discussed here (live blogged on the day) were no exception. We have to deal with an increasing fragmentation in our user base, and at a time of budget cuts, universities will continue to recruit from every where and anywhere just to pay the bills. Several speakers including Jenny Carroll from Eduserv  (‘It’s all a question of scale – joint initiatives in HE institutions’) and Louis Cole from Kingston (“Thorny issues in licensing: an institution’s view”) covered the increasing number of partnerships, validations, alumni, walk-in users,’ non-doms’ etc that are now part of our licensing landscape – and the contradictions that ensue from these.

The technologies for managing these different users is already here : in his talk Ed Dee from EDINA  told us how Shibboleth authentication can be exploited for granularity – although interestingly he said that its potential was under-developed : not many institutions had gone beyond releasing basic attributes.  Matt Durant from Bath Spa took us through a demo of how Open Athens LA 2.0 would manage differing user-groups.  He focussed on the student experience, which was overlooked in my view by some of the designs of pop-up screens for e-journal articles shown by Mark Bide, from EDItEUR in his presentation on machine-readable licences.

But expressing complex licenses in XML isn’t easy : though the forthcoming JISC Collections’ online Licence Comparison and Analysis Tool will definitely help. And it also struck me that the further removed some of these user groups are from our home brand, the questions ‘What is Athens, (etc.) how do I log-in’ will be naturally even more insistent.  Once upon a time, for most a students a library was just a building, but that model is challenged not least  by the rise of mobile devices. Owen Stephens’s keynote speech Where are you: Does physical location matter in the digital world? showed how the old definitions of ‘walk-in user’ may need rethinking – and I would agree it is a confusing concept. What does walk-in really mean when most institutions have a VPN or use EZProxy to emulate their institutional proxy? When the numbers of students with smartphones wanting access to our services will soon start to take off?  When those courses who ask for ‘walk-in’ are often many miles away?’

You might be wondering what all this has got to do with the picture alongside – this particular tipple (which I can warmly recommend to you by the way) was named after ‘a man’s last sixpence, allowing him to lift the pub’s door latch and purchase a pint, whereupon he hopes to make enough friends that they may offer to buy him further rounds’ (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jennings_Brewery).

A wise investment methinks –using limited funds to allow us to discover more resources to share with a wider audience is better than barring the door to that audience altogether.

JISC Federated Access Management Conference

I recently attended a useful JISC conference entitled Federating the next generation which looked at access management using tools such as Shibboleth and Open Athens to authenticate logins to publisher resources. There was also strong representation from Eduserv Athens – for example their new release of OpenAthens LA 2.0 includes not only a Shibboleth install package but also a single-sign on to Google Apps for each institution domain – free to existing subscribers!

Some librarians reported workflow issues when they switched from Athens to Shibboleth (it seemed for one institution that their IT department had simply installed it on a server and left the library to do all the testing of links!). Other libraries reported a smooth switch over and that they were continuing to use Athens to support non-standard users so adopting a hybrid approach.

Many publishers could not agree on standard login, and some were still not ready; a common solution for libraries was EZProxy which allow off-campus access to products that did not offer either Athens or Shibboleth access.

Successful approaches to identity management were obviously relevant here :  ‘Unless institutions have a much better grasp of who its external users are, its almost impossible for the library to sort out‘  - was one key quote for me. Apparently a Shibboleth server install can be done in 12 mins –according to one speaker – so its not just about how to set it up but how to use it eg who is logging on, what format/syntax of ID they are using, and where they are logging on from: these are the things that will impact the student experience the most, especially as commercial and educational applications of federated identity may converge more in the future. 

JISC have put all the presentations up at http://sites.google.com/site/jiscfam/ and these will be added to the main conference site too in due course.

Thoughts on publishers and where the challenge comes…

A key theme for me that seems to be emerging is the relationship of resources discovery product to the publishers’ content (eg the full-text articles). Solutions to this ‘problem’ – of how to search across publishers’ native databases and harvest content back from them seem to take different forms:  a company like ExLibris will for example still depend on their federated product product (Metalib - either hidden or overt) to search across publishers’ and aggregators’ databases using pre-written connectors, whilst companies like Serial Solutions will by-pass this stage and rely on Open-URL access to publisher’s metadata with a product like Summon, in the same way 360 Link can pick up an article reference from within a third-party A&I database . 

It is interesting that Summon is built using an open-source product  architecture – and ditching the need for a federated search back-end is quite a radical step forward into the cloud.  I’m wondering if this is related to their different approach to authentication: both Summon and Metalib seem to be ‘authentication agnostic’ and could work with a variety of authentication systems: but ExLibris seems to prefer the ‘up-front’ password challenge as opposed to Serials Solutions who give you it the other way round: metadata first and only authenticate later.

Is it harder to integrate authentication, as opposed to searching for content, into an institutional login this way round? I don’t yet know as I think it depends what choices we make on identity management. Personally I’m drawn to the ‘up-front’ approach – even though the simplicity of what Serials Solutions are doing is very attractive, I prefer my password challenges at the beginning – rather than at the end of the process. What about others?