Getting to know the Copac libraries 3: Exeter, ‘ayns, and hamzas

If you’re not familiar with the holdings of the University of Exeter, you may be slightly confused by the title of this post. Exeter holds, in its Special Collections, Middle East Collections, and Arab World Documentation Centre, a significant collection of resources on the Arabian peninsula and Middle East, including over 15,000 books in Arabic.

Books written in non-Roman scripts have always been a slightly tricky issue for the cataloguer: is it transliterated correctly? Does there need to be a colloquial translation? What about classification, and subject indexing? Does my OPAC support searching in different character sets? Will my OPAC return results in Arabic if the search is performed in English? Will searching in Arabic (which Copac allows) return transliterated results?

This is where we come (if you hadn’t guessed it) to the ‘ayn and the hamza. The ‘ayn is a letter in the Arabic alphabet, while the hamza represents a glottal stop, and they are both often (incorrectly) transliterated as apsotrophes.

This makes the cataloguer’s job even more tricky. Add to this the fact that we deal with the records of over 50 libraries – records which have been created over a large number of years, during which cataloguing practices have changed – and you can see that we have a bit of a situation.

Apostrophes are, as a general rule, non-filing characters in catalogue records. But what do you do when an apostrophe is not an apostrophe? This problem with ‘ayns and hamzas (which can occur at the beginning, middle or end of words) was making it very difficult to find Arabic records on Copac: whether you included the correct character; an apostrophe; or nothing at all, you were unlikely to get the results you wanted.

Paul Auchterlonie, Librarian for Middle East Studies at Exeter, took the opportunity of being interviewed by me about Exeter’s experiences of being a member of Copac to raise this issue. He not only raised it, he entirely convinced me (who had never heard of either an ‘ayn or a hamza before in my life) of its importance. Then the Copac staff fixed it. Simple, no?

Well, not that simple. The fixing did take Shirley and Ashley some time and effort. Then the data had to be reloaded. And all is not entirely well yet: records in Farsi and Hebrew which have similar problems still need to be reloaded. But the moral of the tale: have a problem with Copac? Let us know! We like fixing things 🙂

DISCLAIMER: While Copac staff do like fixing things, there are issues which we can do nothing about (in the short term, at least – we’re looking at long-term solutions for many issues). This makes us sad. If we can’t fix your issue immediately, please be assured that it’s not because we don’t want to!

Copac is twittering: the where and the why

Many of you will know that Copac now has a presence on Twitter.  Some of you may have come to this blog from our Twitter feed.  Many of you, I’m sure, will be devout Twitterers, tweeting away with your pithy and insightful comments.  Others will be shaking their head and saying ‘Eh now? Tweeting? Is the latest interweb craze to pretend you’re a bird?!?’ [note: stereotype used for comedy purposes only, and guaranteed to bear no actual resemblance to any of our readers.]

Twitter is a microblogging service, where users answer the question “What are you doing?” in 140 characters or less. Thanks to prominent Twitterers such as Barack Obama, Stephen Fry, and … umm… Darth Vader, Twitter has recently gained enormous media coverage. Obama used it for campaigning. Stephen Fry live-tweeted being stuck in a lift. Darth Vader does Thriller.

It’s fairly obvious that there’s a large amount of the wild and wacky on Twitter – as well as a fair amount of the frankly banal. Updates about meals/gym regimes/bedtimes may be scintillating stuff for your close circle of friends, but unless you have a particularly effulgent turn of phrase – or a dangerously exciting lifestyle – they aren’t going to thrill the twitosphere.

We’re all guilty of it. A look at my personal tweets will … well, you looked. However, it’s a bit different when you’re not tweeting for yourself. Tweeting on behalf of Copac means that I have a whole different audience, a different set of priorities. What will Copac users find interesting? What will they ignore with a yawn? And I’m finding it surprisingly difficult to do in that format.

The tweet, the microblog, is – like the Facebook status – an informal medium. It’s hard to be otherwise in 140 characters. Trying to be formal results in very stilted tweets, where the occasional (space-necessitated) contraction and web-speak glares and jars. If you’ve got this far, you’ve probably realised that formal isn’t really my style. And yet the point of the Copac Twitter account is to… is to…

Ah. I think we’ve found the root of my style problem. What is the point of the Copac Twitter account? Surely we’re not just doing it to be fashionably web 2.0. Are we doing it to inform people of Copac news? Yes, but we already have a news blog for that. Are we doing it to promote Copac developments? Yes, but we already have a development blog for that. Are we doing it to connect with our users and our peers? To get closer to the Copac community? Yes!

So there we are. We’ve found our audience. Now can you help us find our voice? What do you want Copac to tweet about? How do you want us to speak to you? Please let us know! You can contact us through the comments here, at the news blog, on our Twitter account, on our Facebook page,  by email, or phone. Or shine the Copac symbol from the top of a tall building on a dark and stormy night, and await the caped librarians…

Search results as an Atom feed?

Here’s a few questions for you. Would it be useful to be able to get your Copac search results as an Atom feed? If so, would it help in aggegrating Copac searches with results from other services? Would it make writing widgets for, say, iGoogle or Netvibes, easier? Would you like Copac urls to be RESTful (I hope so, as they will be before long.)

Yesterday I was thinking about the different search result formats we provide and I was wondering if Atom might be useful. Then a conversation I’ve had this morning with some colleagues have made me think an Atom format could be very useful in the areas outlined above. However, I don’t have experience of implementing widgets or working with Feeds, so I thought I’d ask here. Any thoughts, anyone?

Amazon Profits from Copac Usability Testing

Well Amazon profits a bit.  Last week I busily printed off a spate of £35 Amazon certificates; these are being used as incentives for those willing to spend a few hours with the Copac interface and the CERLIM team (the Centre for Research in Library and Information Management, conveniently located just down the road at MMU).  As we start to plan some (not inconsiderable) overhauls to the service, the time seemed very much right for undertaking some serious usability testing too. As we begin to develop new features for users, including some personalisation tools, it’s more than necessary to take a reality check on how much this feature creep is going to affect users.  So, over the next few weeks we have tasked the research specialists at CERLIM to help us better understand how our users navigate (or don’t) the current interface,  and also provide us with concrete ideas on how our new interface should look as we redevelop over the next year.    They’re going to be using a mixture of search tasks, interviews and structured focus groups, and have managed to engage a good sample of ‘typical’ users (i.e. researchers and postgrads from a range of disciplines).  We know the findings are going to be invaluable (even while we brace ourselves, just a tad;-)).

Getting to know the Copac libraries 2 – York Minster, antiquarian material, and local notes

One of the major assets of the Copac libraries is their collection of pre-1801 works. A (very rough) search on Copac, limiting the date to 1000-1800 returns 4.3 million results, which represents 1/8 of Copac’s total number of records. Even allowing for a 10% erroneous return rate, that is an awful lot of books. And, in this case, it is actual items, rather than works, expressions or manifestations (to borrow from FRBR ), as Copac doesn’t de-duplicate pre-1801 materials.

You may wonder why. With early published material, it can be very difficult to establish whether items are the same work, let alone expression or manifestations. Titles were often not uniform, and even titles that appear uniform can disguise differences in content. A slight difference in title or publication details can indicate a range of scenarios – from exactly the same content with a typo on the title page, to entirely different content. The ISBD(A) recognises this, and says in the introduction that

The aim of the rare book librarian here is not only description of an antique, but, more important, the clarification of the transmission of the text and the “points” which distinguish editions
[ISBD(A):  International Standard Bibliographic Description for Older Monographic Publications (Antiquarian)
Second revised edition

It is not just differences in the official content of the book that make items unique.   Librarians hate people writing in books. It stirs some primeval anger – unless, of course, the person doing the writing is famous. Or dead. Preferably both. Many antiquarian books contain annotations and additions that make all the difference for researchers. What makes this Chetham’s Library copy of Serrani’s Plato different from others? Well, it could be former owner Ben Jonson’s name on the title page…  (which excited me and Lisa very much when we visited!).

Libraries indicate the presence of these in local notes fields in their catalogue record, and Copac preserves, displays, and indexes these local notes. This means that all of the effort that librarians put into creating this valuable information directly affects the finadability of an item.

A fantastic example of this high-quality cataloguing is that of the playbills collection held at York Minster. Librarian John Powell is including details of all plays and actors mentioned on the bills, building up a fantastic picture of eighteenth and nineteenth century theatre. A Copac search for ‘Theatre Royal York’, limited to ‘York Minster’ shows the level of detail being added. When I spoke to John recently, he highlighted how crucial this level of detail was for the resources to be used to their fullest potential. Having such a collection, catalogued with such care, and available for discovery on Copac, is a real asset to the research community.

While I’m getting to know the collections in the Copac community better as time goes on, the people who know them best are the librarians who look after them.  By talking to these librarians, I’m learning more about the collections, and how best to promote use of them. Stay tuned for future thoughts.
PS You may also be wondering why 1801 is chosen as the cut-off date for antiquarian books. So was I!  The answer lies in the industrial revolution, and the invention of printing presses that were machine-, rather than man-powered. (yes, yes, I know… if you have a more authoritative source, please feel free to add it to the comments.)

National Trust libraries to be added to Copac

Copac is pleased to announce that the book and manuscript holdings of the National Trust are to be added to Copac. These consist of around 250,000 titles held across 130 historic libraries. Many are country house libraries, some collected by wealthy bibliophiles, others containing more practical everyday books, including rare provincial printing. Other collections reflect the interests of middle-class readers; some were assembled by literary figures, such as Kipling and Shaw. Together these libraries provide an unparalleled resource for the study of the history of private book ownership in Britain and Ireland.

For more information on this and other forthcoming Copac libraries, see

Copac scheduled maintenance

Due to scheduled maintenance, the Copac service will be at risk on the morning of Tuesday 17th February. Work is expected to take place between 7am-10am, but please be aware that the service may be at risk outside these times.

We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause.