Monday, May 20, 2013

My experience visiting China for the Serialssolutions Greater China User Group Meeting

Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to visit Xi'an China from 9 May to 11 May 2013 to attend the Greater China SerialsSolutions' User Group meeting.

Regular readers of my blog will know since 2011, I have been reading (see list of articles I am curating) , thinking and blogging about discovery systems, leading up to the implementation of SerialsSolutions' Summon in 2012 in my institution.

I have tried to keep up-to-date with what pioneer librarians and libraries around the world have done with discovery and have interacted and learnt much from librarians in UK, US, Australia etc via Facebook, Twitter & blogs etc.

Obviously this was a very Anglo-Saxon view of things, but hard to avoid, given the nature of the social networks I was on.

But this User group meeting was in China! I was excited to have a chance to have contact with librarians in China to see what they were doing with Summon and learn about librarianship in China as I had never been to China before in my life.

Preparing for the User Group Meeting

Of course by now, I have attended a few library conferences overseas and am even fairly adept at giving talks at conferences (eg Internet Librarian International last Nov), but this time it was particularly tricky because the whole meeting would be in Chinese and I would have to present in Chinese.

For the benefit of international readers,  let me explain why that would be tricky.

While it is true that Singapore is majority ethnic Chinese (about 75%), and Singaporean Chinese like myself study Mandarin in schools as our mother tongue, English is our first language (though it may not be apparent with my odd lapses in written and spoken English I bet) and medium of instruction in schools. We also use it at the work place to communicate with all Singaporeans including non-chinese Singaporeans.

We are supposed to be bilingual in theory but effectively for many including myself it works out that while I can use Mandarin for everyday conversations eg. to talk about shopping, food, movies, Chinese songs (I listen to Chinese pop songs as well as English ones!), I struggle when it comes to professional terms as I studied librarianship etc in English.

Quick, what's "catalogue" in Chinese? Or even "metadata"?

Initially it was suggested that I do the presentation in English and SerialsSolutions staff from China would translate (there were other presentations by American and Australian SerialsSolutions staff done that way) but I decided to stretch myself and try to give it in Chinese.

I generally don't write out every word I want to say in a presentation, though this time I thought it was prudent to do so. I translated what I wanted to say from English with the help of Google translate and additional help from colleagues from our Chinese Library but still ended up with a pretty simplified presentation because I thought it would be best to keep it simple given my limited command of Chinese.

As a sidenote, I was quite impressed by how well Google translate was working, it was pretty good at translating even very technical terms and while it sometimes got the grammar and syntax order wrong it was usually spot on.

I also read a couple of articles on discovery in Chinese and this helped me pin down terms like "Unified search platform".

My institution has also one Chinese library but I must admit up to recently I didn't really focus on Chinese language searches but before leaving for China, I looked up what queries people were doing in Chinese (about 6-8% of queries were in Chinese).

I was also reminded of a feature of Summon that I read before but I forgot, that changing the interface language doesn't just change the text labels of the UI, but the search algorithm applied will change. In most cases, it seemed to make no difference in the search results ordering but in some cases it might give you better results if you changed the interface to Chinese and searched in Chinese as opposed to searching in Chinese using the English interface.

The user group meeting

The User group meeting was hosted by Xi’an Jiaotong University at the Nanyang Hotel. I was nervous as I was the third presenter, after presentations by Pecking University (the flagship Summon Library in China) and Xi’an Jiaotong University.

I was not sure what I expected but I did discover two things.

Firstly, I generally had no problems understanding the presentations even though they were in Mandarin (save one extremely technical presentation about some complicated custom integration of Summon with a OPAC system which I suspect would be difficult for me to grasp even in English).

When they said the term for say "relevancy ranking of search results" in Chinese, I had no problems knowing what they said, though the reverse doesn't apply and if I wanted to say that in Chinese  I often came unstuck :)

Secondly, it became apparent to me that the Librarians in China were mostly facing many of the same issues as librarians around the world.

I had no problems understanding and even some but not all cases nodding with agreement with some of the points made. Eg. difficulty of selecting appropriate packages in 360 core, relevancy ranking issues.

On the second day during the round table session, requests were made by China reference librarians for features including ability to sort by citation count, ability to filter by databases, social sharing features etc. Again these requests weren't unique to China users, I myself have heard such requests from our own users and librarians.

But by now I am familiar enough with the philosophy of Summon to know such requests were unlikely to be supported without strong evidence these would be used by searchers.

Of course, like every local market, China has unique requirements and features including censorship, discussions about working with China Academic Library and Information System (CALIS) - the China Consortium group to create packages for selection etc, libraries presenting on chinese ebook batch loading etc.

And of course there was concern that while Summon had very good coverage of Chinese material, compared to some local Chinese discovery systems it was still weaker, and a discussion on whether this was truly a problem.

From  the admittedly simplistic point of view of a librarian outside China, it seems to me that if the best University in China - Peking university has chosen Summon, there is some assurance at least that Summon has reached a certain level here, though obviously it can be improved further particularly if Chinese material is your main concern.

It was also impressed on me, how much Summon benefited from collaborating with Peking University, the university helped Summon with relevancy ranking of searching in Chinese and I think helping to provide a Thearusi/list of 2.7 million dictionary of Chinese names etc

There was also discussions of the possibility of use of Summon's API to populate Institutional repositories (probably not), and future developments. Unfortunately I promised not to blog about some of the possible future developments mentioned, though I think I can say that Serialssolutions is working hard on further improving relevancy ranking.

It was also announced that 10 universities in China are currently signed up with Summon as well as other high profile signups around the world including Yale and Cambridge (I think).

Somewhat amusing is that I also sat through my third talk on the upcoming Summon 2.0, by 3 different presenters to boot at 3 different occasions. :)

It was not all about Summon as this was a serialssolutions user group meeting, there were presentations and discussions on 360Marc, 360Counter, Intota.

Interaction with librarians

Sadly even in the best of times, I am quite introverted but this time my doubts about my command of the Chinese language made it even harder for me. Thankfully, some librarians from China, took the initiative to talk to me and I tried to converse about librarianship in general e.g the image and perception of librarians in China in my poor Chinese.

Some librarians I spoke to were also from Universities that traditionally have strategic alliances with Universities in Singapore and a few others also mentioned colleagues currently working in libraries in Singapore.

This led me to think about the possibilities of exchanges and strategic alliances between libraries in Singapore and China as well as in other countries.

Coincidentally upon returning I read about the online collaborative projects between China Librarian Hua Sun & American Librarian Mark Douglas Puterbaugh entitled Using Social Media to Promote International Collaboration. This paper described how interaction via the Facebook group Library related people led to fruitful international collaborations.

As a sidenote, there's a certain librarian in Singapore who seemed pretty famous in China as I was asked by at least 3 librarians whether I knew her and asked to pass on their best wishes. :)

Besides Chinese librarians, I also had the chance to meet and chat with  John Law, Vice President, discovery services, Serials Solutions who was at the user group meeting as well. The librarians in China were calling him "the Father of Summon" and it was interesting to hear his take on why he came up with Summon.

Travel & Sightseeing

As is traditional for me to combine work with sight seeing, I also extended my trip a couple of days and took the opportunity to tour Xi'An China after the user group meeting. This was my first visit ever to China, and Xi'an is a very old and ancient city that was the seat of power/capital of many past dynasties in China.

I visited the Terracotta warriors (twice!) , Huaqing Hot Spring or Huaqing Palace etc. Since this is a librarian blog not a site-seeing blog, I won't describe further what I saw and experienced but I will say if you are into culture and history, Xi'an is definitely a good place to visit.

Obviously, it was a very interesting and educational trip for me, my very first trip to China!

I would like to thank the staff of SerialsSolutions and Xi’an Jiaotong University for graciously hosting us and showing us around.

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