Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Less Exciting Times: When Your Server Goes Down

Having just spent three months preparing for the EPrints Call for Plugins (see I find that firstly the JISC mailing list server is having problems and it takes a whole day to get the message sent to the repository mailing list which then makes the delayed delivery of the mail coincide with a hardware fault taking our server down!!! I just don't believe it! After all that prep, just when everyone receives the email, they can't click on any of the links to find more information. ARRRGGGHHH!

More to the topic of this blog, the fault also took our school repository down for the day. This is a wakeup call, because it probably means that the hardware is on its way out. I did explain in a post at the beginning of the summer that it was running on a fairly old machine, that has done OK by us for about 5 years.

We do have a replacement waiting in the wings, because it is the EPrints v3 migration. However, we did imagine that we had a more leisurely timeframe to roll it out in - and to do user training so that people would understand the new interface. Looks like it's going to be a bit more rushed than I thought. I'll demo the new setup to our research committee today (that's a good coincidence!), so hopefully they'll greenlight it with minor changes at most.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Exciting Times: The Repository Desktop Experience

I battled with my laptop over the weekend to upgrade it to the latest version of the Mac environment (why is it that my teenage children had no problem with their upgrades?) but I think that the brave new world of "Leopard" is probably worth it.

How is this related to repositories, I hear you cry? Aren't we a little "off-piste"? Well, stick with me, because Apple have been addressing the issue of browsing through collections. First of all it was music collections (iTunes) and then picture collections (iPhoto), but now they have put some of that experience into viewing large collections of documents and files. The Finder (the mac equivalent of the Windows Explorer) has stolen the so-called "cover flow" visualisation from iTunes, to allow you to get the experience of quickly flicking through a stack of albums to identify the one you want by its artwork. The result is that I can flick through the contents of dozens or hundreds of files on my hard disk (powerpoint slideshows, article PDFs, conference posters, funding proposals, committee minutes, photos, videos, the lot). I don't have to open them one at a time in the application that created them. I don't have to stare at lists of file names or grids of icons any more. I can just flick through the contents.

So, by using the simple "Zip" export plugin in EPrints, I can get the files associated with any set of eprints and "Cover Flow" browse them on my laptop. See a video demonstration of what I'm talking about. Please excuse the cheesy voiceover!

Is this "quite cute" or is this "really useful"? Well, it's already really useful for some of the applications that we have at the moment - cover flow or slide shows or similar visualisations are good ways to show off our repository contents. Whether someone is trying to sell the repository to the faculty, or sell the faculty to the funders, or sell the funders to the government, or (as in the video example) sell their own educational achievements to their prospective employers then good presentations are essential.

But I think that this kind of visualisation might well prove useful for helping researchers interact with large collections of research material. Time (and experience) will tell. What is clear is that the user's desktop experience is going to become more multimedia and more interactive and that repositories will need to have a closer integration with the desktop, both for information upload and for information reuse.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width

It's a new academic year and there's a New Head of School in charge. He's visiting all the research groups and so when he turns up to our group we want to have a good display of our research on show, and it seems that if the recent posters presented at conferences and workshops would be good. We've decided to put them all in the repository (those that weren't already in there) and then they can be displayed on a plasma screen.

But, he's also not had the chance to become au fait with the repository or with EPrints yet, and I wanted to try and give some impression of the size of the collection that it represents. So I have created a 'thumbnail wall' of all the files stored in it and I'll get it printed as big as I can for display. There's an interactive version linked to the image above - its in PDF and each thumbnail is linked to the associated record in the repository. It's a bit big - there's over 4000 page images there! The background image between the documents is sky and clouds - for "blue sky research".

I'm going to contact some artists to see if they can help me develop a more interesting and perhaps practical way of looking at large collections!