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Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

Annotated Bibliography Application Launched

  hcl committees

Senior Software Engineer and application developer Chris Jeris discusses the newly launched annotated bibliography application with Bassey Irele, Librarian for Sub-Saharan Africa.

February 12, 2010 – As an important resource for the study of African culture, identity and history, the annotated bibliography on Harvard College Library’s African Video Collection is heavily used by students and researchers. For Bassey Irele, Librarian for Sub-Saharan Africa, however, the bibliography presents a host of challenges – because it is largely a hand-crafted document, maintaining and updating it is a labor-intensive, time-consuming process.

The solution for Irele, and possibly for dozens of other bibliography authors, is a new Web application, developed by HCL ITS and released this week, which greatly simplifies the process of creating, maintaining and updating annotated bibliographies. Rather than manually cutting and pasting information into bibliographies, authors will now be able to import new records with a single mouse click. The new application also automatically checks for changes in cataloging records, and alerts authors when any are found.

The benefits of the new online tool aren’t limited to bibliography authors, however.

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“This new application is a beautiful tool that will greatly facilitate my work,” Irele said this week. “The process of entering data and updating the bibliography is a lot simpler with this application than with its predecessor. In addition to being searchable, the bibliography is now much richer, because I can provide links to other, related library materials. For instance, I can include a link in the annotations to a microfilm, a book, an audio recording, or government document that is related by subject to a particular video. There is even the possibility of providing links to resources or Web sites beyond Harvard.”

Since bibliographies created using the new application are essentially highly-specific databases, students, researchers and faculty will now be able to search bibliographies by keyword, title, subject, language, country of focus and HOLLIS number, and will even be able to fine-tune searches using online tags.

As another important benefit, the new tool is also compatible with the iSites platform, meaning it can be incorporated into course Web sites and into iSite pages created for specific research guides.

“I think it’s a great asset for HCL,” Irele continued, of the new application. “It enables discovery of material not only in this one bibliography, but also in other bibliographies and across library collections, thereby revealing to researchers certain connections they may not have seen otherwise.”

The new application’s intuitive, easy-to-use interface, however, belies the robust technology that went into its creation. In an effort to speed up the process of creating similar tools in the future, the bibliography application was developed by Senior Software Engineer Chris Jeris using the programming platform Ruby on Rails.

“We decided to use Ruby as a new platform because once you learn how to use it, it’s much easier to do complicated things much faster,” Jeris said. “It’s my hope that we will be able to add new features for new bibliographies much more quickly and more robustly than we could had we done this using another platform.”

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A screenshot of the newly-launched annotated bibliography application.


The development of the application began with a working group made up of Jeris, Irele, Research Librarian Mary Beth Clack, Communications Designer/Multimedia Specialist Enrique Diaz, Research and Learning Technology Head Michael Hemment and Librarian for Western Europe Sebastian Hierl. Coordinator of Reference Services and Training Elizabeth McKeigue was also an early member of the group, which helped to shape the requirements of the project, as well as the design and interface of the final application.

Mark Farrar, Assistant Director for Systems Management and Infrastructure, Zhenyu Zhao, Network and Systems Administrator, Steven Ng, Systems Administrator, and Julia Ashmun, Manager of Systems Analysis, Software Development and Projects also took part in the development of the application.

With the requirements laid out, Jeris was able to identify three challenges which the application’s development had to overcome – creating a template for the application which could be used for other bibliographies, getting access to the data stored in HOLLIS or other catalogs and ensuring the application could be used on the iSites platform.

“From an organizational point of view, the hardest of those to tackle was getting access to the ALEPH data,” Jeris said. “I could create an application which would submit a Web request through the HOLLIS system and then parse out the data – that’s called “screen scraping” – but the problem is that system is fragile, because if anything changes in the HOLLIS interface, the application no longer works.”

Simply building an application which pulls information straight from the cataloging system also wouldn’t work due to the risk of overloading the system. The solution, Jeris decided, was to create a virtual collection for the African Video Collection. A tool provided by the Office for Information Systems, Virtual Collections allows users to gather and display thematically-related items. In the case of the bibliography application, the virtual collection acts as a surrogate for HOLLIS, allowing bibliography authors to harvest records for their bibliography without stressing the ALEPH system.

“In addition, the virtual collection can ask HOLLIS to check every day if any records have been updated or changed,” Jeris said. “Authors can see which records, if any, have been updated and pull those changes into their bibliographies.”

Presenting the application using the iSites platform was the other major technical challenge Jeris had to overcome.

“Increasingly, our research guide content is being delivered on iSites, because that is the platform used for FAS course sites,” he said. “At the broad level, delivering an iSites application isn’t that different from a Web application, but there are a lot of details to work out. As a developer, the process involved taking the Web application and manipulating it until we got something that would work inside the iSites platform. The feel of the application is very similar.”

With the launch of the application, Jeris said he expects to receive requests from other bibliography authors who want to use the application as well.

“We’ve had informal interest from almost everyone who has looked at it,” he said. “I think we’ll hear from a lot of people who are looking for an easier way to manage bibliographic content.”

Bibliography authors seeking to create an annotated bibliography using the new tool are encouraged to submit requests using the ITS Online Special Request Form.