eMPower-ing soliNET

Nov 01, 2002

November 2002 Issue

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BEST PRACTICES SERIES

Well, they managed. But it is difficult for the generation of electronically-enabled to imagine searching for information before search engines. However, for better or worse, the card catalog days have, for the most part, passed and now library patrons are provided with the benefit of computerized cataloging at their fingertips. In fact, most people would not leave the house before hitting the Web to do their initial research. Along the way, libraries and library networks have also evolved to meet the growing demand for immediate access to information as well as to leverage the power of the Internet and digital content management to keep patrons and members better informed.

The latest incarnation, virtual libraries and library portals, offer more or enhanced access information than their traditional library counterparts in part because their proprietary collections are supplemented by large electronic databases. These databases provide access to information owned by companies that typically sell libraries access to them on a contract basis rather than as an outright purchase. The databases primarily offer academic information and allow a library's users to use the information either in the library or—via the portal—at other locations including classrooms, offices, and the user's home. Access to other library features like elearning and access to partner libraries' digital materials are also made available to remote patrons.

But, as with all digital evolution, the path to building effective library portals has been littered with its share of roadblocks. The directors of The Southeastern Library Network found themselves faced with some formidable obstacles of their own when trying to make the transition from first-generation Web site to next-generation portal.

Based in Atlanta, the group, dubbed SOLINET, is a membership network of libraries and other information organizations that work in collaboration with many partners, from local to international. SOLINET serves the Southeastern U.S. as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands because they are geographically closer to SOLINET than any of the other library networks. SOLINET's objective is to "provide leadership for cooperative action, improve access to information, and enable members to effectively anticipate and address the region's needs for education, economic development, and improved quality of life." Initially, SOLINET constructed a Web site to aid its efforts, but it contained pages and pages of material with little or no consistency to its format so finding information was frustrating for its users. So, in an effort to better meet the needs of its patrons, SOLINET decided it was time to do a site overhaul and make the transition from library Web site to information portal.

The transformation of a Web site, especially one with the volume of content SOLINET has, is a massive undertaking. SOLINET's IT manager Mike Bailey says, "While we were looking for a quick turnkey solution, we knew taking on this project ourselves would have doubled or even tripled the project length, and other internal projects and support functions would have suffered tremendously." Thus, he set out to find a better way to build.

Once SOLINET settled on a site designer, Ace Web Builders of Alpharetta, Georgia, they began to explore content management options. Mischa Uppelschoten, SOLINET's Web developer and database administrator, heard about Ektron's eWebEditPro on a ColdFusion discussion list. From there he discovered the eMPower product and suggested it to SOLINET's IT manager, Bailey and Ace's president, Tim Spaid, as a possible out-of-the-box solution to manage the site's content as well as to enhance other planned features. Spaid had not previously used a content management tool and Ace was able to take that tool and make magic. By March 2002, after just over eight months of work, SOLINET's site reemerged as comprehensive and easy to navigate, enabling SOLINET to effectively address the Southeastern U.S.' and Caribbean's needs for education, economic development, and improved quality of life.

Robert Hulshof-Schmidt, SOLINET's manager of member services says, "Our original Web site was every department-silo-based. It operated on how we functioned internally, rather than how our site would be used conceptually. Thus, we focused on the kind of services we provide, which might be handled by different departments. eMPower has allowed us to provide information out of those departmental silos into conceptual areas that make sense to our Web visitors."

Putting the Pieces Together
Before starting the project, Ace conducted a Needs Assessment Requirements-gathering phase. Key persons from each of SOLINET's 11 departments "met with Ace and described how they were currently using the Web site, and how they would like to use the Web site," according to Spaid.

Bailey explains that, through the process, Spaid identified SOLINET's basic goals. One objective was to continue to use Macromedia ColdFusion as the development platform, since it had been running on their site for a few years already. The software was originally chosen to support SOLINET'S Continuing Education and Training department's online registration. "ColdFusion was then, and still is, a leader in the industry for providing the ability to deliver dynamic content," according to Bailey. The other primary goals were to improve site design and navigation by employing effective content management, and to be able to dynamically drive site information. "We want to have one central location of data and, therefore, only one place that the data needs to be maintained. Some of our data, particularly our membership data is used by several different applications including the Web site,' says Bailey.

More eMPower
Ace was already about 20% into the project when they began using eMPower but, after a demonstration of the product with its creator Ektron, Spaid decided that it was well-suited to SOLINET'S needs and budget. He says, "This product was basically what I had been proposing, so I went with it. Otherwise, I would have been reinventing the wheel. I would not have been able to create as many features as were already available in eMPower."

According to Ektron, eMPower is "business-user friendly." Its users are small- to mid-sized businesses or organizations that have content-heavy Web sites. Although it is an out-of-the box solution, it does allow for customization. With eMPower, documents are created in a setting much like Microsoft's Word, thus users work in a familiar environment. "Anything that can be done with Word can be done with eMPower," says Spaid, "and more." And, significantly for SOLINET, eMPower pricing starts at $2,999. He says, "Other products were as much as 15 times more expensive, and in some cases even more than that."

Building Blocks
Spaid then had to review SOLINET's goals and map out how to reach them. One content management roadblock was that items on the home page were divided by the organization's departments rather than by subject. So, when users wanted to find information, they needed to know which department would handle it. "When we began the restructure," he says, "we tried to make it so the entire site was accessible from the main menu. You can click on any of the links and each area has its own mini home page." The result is that the site is more easily navigated and more intuitive to the user.

Prior to the overhaul, SOLINET had no publishing process in place for its site. Basically, the departments would make changes or request changes, but there was no gatekeeper for any of them and no consistency to style or information. And, since this is the Web site for its members, they needed to provide the same kind of quality content editing and publishing process that they would for print.

SOLINET had been using Microsoft's Front Page to edit its site, but that product was not well-suited their needs because it was intended to be a Web page-building product. It offers more features and choices than they needed, which caused a lack of uniformity to the look of pages. First and foremost, Ace needed to create and maintain a standard for the way SOLINET's pages looked. Spaid says, "One of the things about the eWebEditPro within eMPower is that as the administrator of eMPower, I can control capabilities. For example," he says, "I took away some fonts and color options and only left them with a set I want them to use."

eMPower also limits who in the organization can change content. While some systems are page-based, eMPower also allows a page to be divided up and to define sections and access to them. Someone working within eMPower will see different boxes around the content. A green box says the user has access to this content and can do what needs to be done with it. If the box is yellow, someone else has done something in that space and is waiting for approval. If it's red then that space is inaccessible.

Thus, Ace provided SOLINET with a Web-publishing process integrated into the site. Julie LaDell-Thomas, OCLC help desk provider, says it is much easier to supply content and that it is a less time-consuming process. She says, "At least one person is assigned per department to edit content. There's an approval process before it goes to communications: We have different staff people who can harvest that content by subject specialty, then it comes through a preliminary editorial process. I have the responsibility for ultimately approving everything before it gets sent over for the corporate approval. My role is to look at the content and decide what is appropriate for what area, and to then set a time limit for that content to appear if necessary."

All changes go through one of four people in the Communications Department. Everyday, they check the site for change requests and, once they accept them, the modified or new information immediately appears on the site.

Ace's president Spaid says that site now also incorporates dynamically-driven information and uses SOLINET's "What's New" section as the example. Each of the titles is an eMPower document. When a staff member creates a Web item, eMPower's database tracks the documents. The item has a title as well as a start and end date. Thus, if SOLINET only wants an announcement to appear on the Web site for a period of time, the Web site can take it on and off automatically because eMPower tracks each document. It also keeps track of things only seen by a database developer. For example, the system keeps track of whether a document has been checked out by somebody and is waiting for a change approval.

SOLINET'S Self-Improvement Plan
eMPower has allowed SOLINET to continue to improve its site on its own. "Ektron brought a lot to the table in terms of development, the developers brought a lot to the plate to extend the capabilities and configuration, now SOLINET is empowered to do additional things on their own," Spaid says. "We sent SOLINET a whole document of design standards and explained all of the areas that are editable and those that are not. We put it all in a document and gave them design assets on a CD-ROM to make SOLINET self-sufficient."

SOLINET has plans in place to keep it all running efficiently. OCLC help desk provider Julie LaDell-Thomas explains, "We had two separate training sessions: one for the casual user and a second session that was more advanced for creating new content. We're planning to do ongoing training because at any given time you might have a new person who needs to use the content editor."

Everyone needs to remain informed and maintained to which end Web developer Mischa Uppelschoten set up an internal information list. LaDell-Thomas says, "He sends out tips about things we've all approached him about. It has been useful. We archive those tip sheets and create our own knowledge base of things that apply to our system."

While SOLINET's Web building was Spaid's first experience using eMPower he can see how this application can be useful for corporations as well as other libraries. Spaid has already begun work on SOLINET's intranet set as well as on the State Library of Louisiana's Web site.

While SOLINET continues to be a work in progress with future goals that include integrating its Web site with its CRM and accounting systems, IT manager Bailey says, feedback from their membership, thus far, has been extremely positive.

Robert Hulshof-Schmidt, the manager of member services, is very pleased with the new site, which he says is now usable and current. "Our old Web site was pretty static," says Hulshof-Schmidt. "Suddenly, we have staff that is enabled to get new tidbits out there faster and more easily. The editorial assistant who has the publishing responsibilities in our communications department receives between 30-100 submissions daily. The new site is making a difference on how much information we can get out on a timely basis."

"Based on our experience," says Hulshof-Schmidt, "sites need to built more from the end-user perspective and tie things together in ways that previous generations of Web content didn't. The portal model needs to make sure the use of the site does not care from where the information is coming, but rather how it will be used."