Using Smart Widgets to Integrate Information Access

Next post: Adding Discovery and more to Koha with Smart Widgets.

This is the first of a series of blog posts in which we will talk about a concept that we have been developing over the past few years. We call it ‘smart widgets’ to distinguish our approach to widgets from the almost ubiquitous notion of ‘widgets’ meaning little search boxes that you insert into your page, but which ultimately send your users to some remote site.

How do they work? Well, for a really simple example, consider this search box:

You can put in a search and you will search across a collection of different resources, in real time. You might like to look at the HTML source code of this blog post to see how it was implemented, but to save you the trouble, the bit that does the searching looks like this:

<link rel=”stylesheet” type=”text/css” href=”//” />
<script type=”text/javascript” src=”//”></script>
<div class=”mkwsSearch”></div>
<div class=”mkwsResults”></div>

That’s all. You can take that bit of HTML and put it in your home page, and it should do the same thing. The code uses Ajax to communicate with our SaaS MasterKey back-end, and it will search virtually any combination of resources that you can imagine if you have an account.

In a nutshell, our Smart Widgets are intended to make access to information a fluid thing — something that can be easily manipulated and surfaced just about anywhere you can imagine, from a blog post to a library home page. In that sense, our widgets are two things:

  • A technology platform that uses dynamic HTML together with our SaaS back-end to make it incredibly easy to embed access to almost any combination of resources into almost any page.
  • A whole new way of thinking about how information sources are used in the service of library patrons, and how the library can project its services into the surrounding community (whether that is a town, as school, or a business).

In a way that second point arose from the realization that “Searching” — i.e. providing mechanisms by way patrons could access pre-indexed collections of materials by entering search terms — has become a commodity. Librarians have spent decades (if not centuries) thinking of mechanisms to make things findable. Today, the Internet and Google in particular have made that function utterly mainstream — it is part of the fabric of the Internet, and so much a part of people’s everyday experience that it has become very hard for the library community to convince anyone that we have a better solution. This is pleasing in a way — it has been cool to watch something so esoteric as searching become just an everyday part of our culture. But it also presents new challenges. Ironically, while easier access to massive piles of information have lead some decision makers to question the continued value of libraries and librarianship, at the same time people are struggling with information overload; how to filter and select the best sources to answer a given question. Information is not the same as knowledge, and access to too much information may in fact impede the acquisition of knowledge.

We in the library community are partly to blame for this. We have pursued the vision of the ‘universal search box’ for so long and with such ardor that it is only now, as we’re finally reaching that goal, that some people are asking if this really was such a good idea after all. I think certainly for some tasks, single search boxes are a great solution (the success of Google makes this clear), but I don’t think it’s the right answer for every problem. We believe that libraries have more important roles to play than merely managing search boxes, and we would like to use our widget platform to support those roles, by organizing and enabling access to information, and ultimately by facilitating the creation of knowledge from that information.

Below is a widget that surfaces the current results from the Digital Public Library of America for ‘american political history’. There is no search box: The widget retrieves the most current information based on a search that has been prepared by the page author (me, in this case).

DPLA results will appear here

The HTML source code for this widget looks like this:

<div class=’mkwsRecords mkwsTeam_dpla’
autosearch=’american political history’

Why is such a widget useful? Well, the widget can be used to surface results from virtually any combination of resources (up to over 100 databases per widget), ordered in any way desirable, for any given search. The sources for the widget can include subscription databases and open access sources. Different widgets can be combined together on a page to illuminate a current event, a certain genre of literature, or a subject of research. The widgets can be a powerful tool to build information sources of all kinds for the users of a library.

Over the coming days and weeks, we will be discussing various applications and uses of the widgets. We hope you’ll agree they present some pretty exciting possibilities.

As always, feel free to contact us if you have any questions or if you are interested in using the widgets in your own applications or site. You can also find more information at this site.

Next post: Adding Discovery and more to Koha with Smart Widgets.