Local Developer Success Story: University of Leeds

May 23, 2011 by

Local developers focus on user needs to create an online reading list system that saves time and offers a more efficient service to students and academics.

In this DevCSI case study, Jane Plenderlith finds out more about the University of Leeds Module Reading Lists project and the role that local developers played in its success…

The problem space

Library staff at the University of Leeds found that they were spending too much time at the start of every academic year trying to locate links to resources on module reading lists. Much of this work was duplicated year on year, and from module to module. There were inconsistencies in the presentation of reading lists by the teaching staff, lists were often provided at the last minute, and recommended resources were not always available in the library collection.

A developer working in the library realised that significant amounts of time could be saved, and a more efficient service to students and academics provided, if there were a consistent and accessible online system for recording, reviewing and transmitting reading list information to the library.

What the developer did

The first task was to understand the workflow involved in the creation of a reading list, with a view to a comprehensive understanding of the citations academics would include, and the information that librarians would require. An iterative and user-centred process of discussion, user testing, prompting and feedback took place over several months to ensure that the online tool would be useful and usable.

At the same time, the developer reviewed various tools and platforms, and came to the conclusion that the most appropriate solution was to use Dreamweaver to create a bespoke tool for use with the Leeds University library management system which could search the catalogue and return active links to catalogued resources.

Consideration is now being given to ways to make this tool more transportable for the wider sector, moving away from a bespoke application to a generic web-based tool.

Tangible business benefits

The main benefits lie in reducing duplication of effort for library staff, saving time and improving the quality of the information that is provided for students. Feedback from the academic community has been mixed. A survey revealed that some academics were protective of the intellectual property of their reading lists, and that by providing them online discourages students from honing their own research skills. However, the majority of respondents could see real benefit in using an online system which enables them to provide information to assist librarians in providing access to relevant resources, reduces the amount of effort required to update and refine reading lists, includes comments and requests for digitisation and orders, and engages academic staff actively in the development of library services.

Why use a local developer?

As a member of the library staff, the developer had an in-depth knowledge of the nature of the problem and the potential value of the solution. He was accustomed to working with the systems and processes of the institution, understood its culture, and knew the key people to approach to inform and support the initiative. He was therefore able to use the limited time that was available for development work investigating tools and platforms, and refining these to optimise their functionality to meet the institution’s needs.

The view of the developer is that an alternative strategy – outsourcing the development to an external agency with more knowledge of the tools but with no understanding of the institutional context or the inner workings of the library – would not have delivered a quick and effective solution, nor enabled the library development team to plan future initiatives that will improve efficiency and enhance the quality of the service.

As the developer, John Salter, explains:

“We didn’t know what was possible at the start, but we were there and we had an idea which we were able to work on. Using a local developer means you can have a quicker, simpler solution, it stops you going down a lot of dead ends. Local developers working to recognised professional standards can deliver quick and lasting solutions to institutional problems.”

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