Local Developer Success Story: The South-West Wales HE Partnership

Sep 9, 2011 by

In this DevCSI case study, Jane Plenderlith explores a local developer success story from South West Wales, where developers helped to customise an open source solution to meet the key requirements of a group of institutions working together to share library resources…

The problem space

The South-West Wales HE Partnership (SWWHEP) is a collaborative shared services initiative between the University of Swansea, Swansea Metropolitan University and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. Aware for some time of the potential opportunities for shared resource discovery, SWWHEP had been looking for a next generation solution to provide integrated search functionality across the three institutions, and also to make general improvements to the library user experience.

What the developer did

A review of options confirmed that all of the proprietary systems that were currently available failed to match SWWHEP’s requirements in key areas, or were simply too expensive. An exploration of open source alternatives then settled on VuFind as the most mature, flexible and stable choice.

Swansea University Head of Collections Mark Hughes says:

“We accepted we’d have to put in quite a bit of development work, but we had staff resource available through the project, and felt it would be a better investment of our time to utilise this, rather than rely on a third party proprietary product that didn’t quite do what we wanted.”

Developer Luke O’Sullivan describes the approach as perpetual rolling beta:

“No official or recognised developmental strategies were used – the process was driven by the perceived functional needs of the project, which were revisited and revised on a regular basis.”

Obtaining and acting on feedback from users was key:

“We’ve had a Feedback button live on the resource discovery interface right from day one, and we’ve had regular comments back and suggestions for improvement. We felt this kind of perpetual feedback seeking was more in line with our incremental development strategy than doing a one-off survey at any given point.”

The system is unique in that it is the first implementation of VuFind in a multi-institution context, and is also the first to be integrated with the Talis Library Management System. All of the changes to the system have been documented and the code has been made available for the VuFind community. Many of the local changes implemented by the team have since been adopted by the core product and are now supported as standard.

Tangible business benefits

With less financial investment than an proprietary system would have required, SWWHEP has developed a solution that matches its very specific requirements. Furthermore, new and improved skill sets amongst key staff will enable more in-house work in the future. As Mark puts it:

“We now have a working product and a relatively experienced and skilled in-house developer. I see this as an investment. With a proprietary product we’d still have a legacy of upgrade and maintenance costs ongoing for however long we kept the product, and with no additional internal resource to show at the end of the process. It’s like doing a car maintenance course and equipping yourself with a decent set of tools rather than paying out a continual stream of funds to a garage. Costs are similar in the short term, but there’s a potential for real financial savings over a longer period.

As a business benefit we’ve gone from three university libraries using fairly unattractive “out of the box” resource discovery solutions to the provision of a joint solution that is modern, flexible, and, judging from feedback, far more user friendly than any of the previous alternatives.”

Why use a local developer?

Keeping the development local had several significant advantages for SWWHEP. Capital costs were minimised, and salary costs were already included within the project. Local knowledge of library procedures, and the ability to liaise quickly and closely with stakeholders at each institution, helped to maximise the effectiveness of the development.

The team also had flexibility to develop to its own priorities and project timescale rather than one imposed by an external agency. Utilising an open source product and keeping development in-house allowed a far greater measure of control over the project and the end product.

From a management perspective, the enhancement of staff skills has added value to work being undertaken in other areas of the University of Swansea library, which will be of great benefit to the future development of the service.

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