An Open Access Peon

07 March 2007

The case of the vanishing interoperability

So, you have your nice, shiny new repository. You've put a lot of effort into it to encourage your faculty to use it, perhaps even to learn to love it. You've made sure its indexable by Google, followed the relevant accessibility guidelines and generally made sure it's doing its primary job: making your faculty's work as accessible as possible. You did do that, right?

UQ eSpace is the new incarnation of the University of Queensland's (AU) institutional repository which uses Fez (a Web interface to Fedora). Previously they were using GNU EPrints 2. (At this point I should let you know I am an EPrints developer, but right now I'm talking with my ROAR hat on.) I've picked on UQ eSpace as an example, but I think these criticisms hold for a lot of IRs out there.

What has drawn my attention to UQ eSpace is the disappearance of their OAI interface. In December 2006 it disappeared, resulting in UQ eSpace no longer being trackable in ROAR. I don't keep a proactive eye on these things, so it can take a while for me (or someone else) to notice something's disappeared. Ok, so as the developer of ROAR it's time to go hunting for the OAI interface ...

But first, a little digression. In EPrints 3 we've added a note to EPrint's home page that gives the (human-readable) location of the OAI interface (e.g. see http://demoprints3.eprints.org/). That makes my life (with ROAR hat on) a whole lot easier. NB EPrints was already the easiest of the repository softwares to locate the OAI interface for because it always resided at /perl/oai2, compared to e.g. DSpace with its combinations of 'request' 'dspace' and 'oai' terms in the OAI URL. When you have an index of 800-odd entries, consistency and obvious descriptive data are the difference between spending 10 seconds or 10 minutes editing an entry. Some people might suggest I should email administrators but that assumes an obvious point of contact is provided (again, rarely the case).

... back to the hunting. The first step in the trail of the OAI interface is whether its broken or gone. UQ eSpace returns a 404 at the ROAR-registered location (http://espace.library.uq.edu.au/oai). Not so good, but at least its a genuine 404 page. The interface has obviously gone and has been for a while. Next stop, the repository home page (http://espace.library.uq.edu.au/). All very pretty and familiar. Thumbs-up also for putting a clear description on the home page. But a scan of the home page shows no reference to OAI. How about Help? (I've not come across a site yet that provided the OAI interface in help, but one lives in hope)

Help documentation will be available here soon.
Hmm, not so good. Let's take a look at the software behind UQ eSpace. A search for Fedora and OAI throws up a promising lead - try accessing /fedora/oai. 404. Oh dear. Perhaps the Wiki for Fez might help?
In Fez 1.2 you have the option of configuring the Fedora OAI provider to provide access to your content.
Uh huh. So it exists, maybe, but where? Strangely enough I can find out the OAI location for EPrints from that same Wiki. How about Fez' documentation? 403 Forbidden. Hurumpf.

It's at this point I hang up my deerstalker hat and smoking pipe. Perhaps the UQ eSpace OAI interface doesn't exist yet, but I wouldn't know either way. It's not difficult to help out services that want to promote you, you just need to put some clear guidance on your site: who are you? what do you contain? how do I harvest your content? how do I contact you? In fact, obvious stuff if you think about - it's what scholars having been doing for over a century.

Ordinarily I'd skip past UQ eSpace without comment but they've triggered another of my pet-hates. A well-designed, modern Web page should consist of well-structured content in HTML/XHTML and one or more style sheets that translate that content into the appearance you want. This enables better accessibility (for poor-sighted/disabled users), cross-browser compatility and cross-device compatibility (screens, printers, hand-held devices etc.). There are many accessibility benefits to this: the page is laid out in its logical structure, allowing screen readers to work, users can increase colour contrast and all text can be scaled by the user (vs. text rendered as images). I use a plugin for Firefox called Web Developer that with a single keystroke can disable all styling on a Web page. My definition of a well-designed Web page is that when you disable styling, it falls out into a well structured, logical page. That means all the custom layout/colouring/backgrounds should disappear. Let's try my test on UQ eSpace's home page?

With styling UQ eSpace has a top bar, two columns and a bottom bar. This is a classic layout with high-level, little-used options and branding at the top (links to the institution, user-login functions), content and news in the two columns and technical data at the bottom (but no contact details). Fonts are changed to sans-serif and reduced in size (a little unfriendly to high-res screens). Various title bars have background colouring/images.

Without styling not a lot changes: the fonts revert to serif, links revert to their default colours. The column layout is generated through tables - which accessibility guidelines will tell you should only be used for data (allowing a screen-reader user to skip over large data sets). The top bar links are rendered as a single mapped image: for our poor-sighted user who can't read the (small) text-as-images, or is using a screen reader lets try disabling images. Unfortunately the university links now disappear completely (no ALT-tags). The backgrounds persist (which makes it difficult to get a high-contrast or printer-friendly version).

Why does this matter? Fez is being widely implemented in Australia and is promoted as a competitor to existing repository interfaces. I strongly believe that good Web design does not have to take longer or result in poorer interface design when compared to circa Netscape 5 technology. It does however require an appreciation of and adherance to standards - after all, that's what they're there for. Before I'm accused of throwing bricks in glass houses I do acknowledge that accessibility is tough but I've found modern XHTML/CSS Web design isn't difficult and can go a long way towards a better structured Web (if for no other reason than to get pages that are printer-friendly).

I hope UQ eSpace and the Fez developers will in future address both interoperability (i.e. where the heck is it?) and accessibility. I watch and wait with interest.

1 Comments:

  • Hi Tim
    I have taken on board all your comments about UQ eSpace and OAI interoperability. We will be addressing these issues very soon. Thanks for your tips on how best to make the OAI information available. We do still have our ePrintsUQ repository open and fully OAI-compatible so none of that information has been lost to harvesters. A lot of what has been added to UQ eSpace since it opened (apart from the migrated ePrints) is 'hidden' material - collections we have had to create for RAE-style exercises where the content cannot (yet) be made openly available because of some copyright and privacy issues. We certainly intend to throw the metadata parts of it open at some stage.)
    UQ eSpace does NOT represent a decline in our interest in, or commitment to, interoperability - we specifically moved to MODS as our repository base metadata schema to ensure greater interoperability. However, Fez, which underpins UQ eSpace, is still in development. Some features have taken longer than expected to be addressed, and a lot of time is also spent supporting other institutions which have begun to use the software. We could have waited to launch UQ eSpace until ALL outstanding issues had been addressed, but this was not acceptable in terms of our project commitments and institutional objectives.
    So be assured that your comments about OAI will be addressed, and soon.
    While it is good that these issues are aired on the Net, it is also useful to contact the services you criticise directly so that your views can be made known to the people they most obviously concern. That way, any need for change can be addressed. I was only aware of this posting because the link was mailed to me - I am currently just too busy to look at blogs, even by RSS. If you had emailed me directly, via the email link on the UQ eSpace home page, I could have responded sooner.
    regards
    Belinda Weaver
    Co-ordinator, UQ eSpace
    Email: espace@library.uq.edu.au

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:59 pm  

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