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by Christopher M. Williams and Marcia L. Santore
You can’t trip over what’s not there. Every day millions of Internet users search online for information about millions of topics. And none of their search results includes resources from the countless libraries around the world—until now.
Casey Bisson, information architect for Plymouth State University’s Lamson Library, has received one of the first Mellon Awards for Technology Collaboration for his ground-breaking software application known as WPopac. The WPopac software will allow titles and descriptions of library holdings to be found on the Internet.
“For years we’ve been talking about the digital divide in terms of access, and we’ve been working hard to put computers and networks into every school and library,” Bisson said. “But those same libraries, and their communities, are invisible to people online.”
Bisson points out that prior to the Internet, when people wanted information on a given topic, they would go to the library and ask a reference librarian to help them find it. Nowadays, they go to the Internet. And they also stop at the Internet. If people don’t find what they need online, they stop looking—either blaming the system or assuming the answer doesn’t exist. The vast array of information available right in their own communities, or just an interlibrary loan away, goes undetected. Meanwhile, visits to libraries remain relatively flat while search engine use is growing by leaps and bounds.
“If libraries are to be more than study halls in the Internet age, if they’re to continue their role as centers of knowledge in every community, they need to be findable and available online,” Bisson said. “They need the tools to represent their collections, their services, and the unique history of their communities online. That’s what WPopac does.”
Bisson has a way of following his nose to find what interests him. His father taught history at Keene State College; Bisson was looking for a college that wasn’t so close to home. In the early 1990s, he came to Plymouth State, where he studied anthropology and English, and served as the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Clock. He began doing graphic design work and “found myself more able to answer technical questions than those around me.” That knack turned into answering questions for Plymouth’s Information Technology Services, and that turned into a job with ITS. When a liaison was needed between ITS and the library, the job went to Bisson. Today he works for Lamson Library directly, solving technical problems wherever he finds them.
Bisson’s mild-mannered demeanor and self-deprecating style are only partly successful in masking his active intelligence and intense interest in solving problems. “I’ve never seen a problem I didn’t want to solve,” he said. And he’s remarkably good at doing just that.
He points out that most technological systems for libraries are designed to make things easier for the librarian. Bisson comes at the problem from the other side. “I always start with the question, ‘What does the user need?’ I’m also a mixture of foolish and naïve, meaning I think it’s worth it to try to solve problems. I’m not on a mission—I just don’t know any better. It sometimes gets me in trouble and sometimes it leads to success.”
Bisson was instrumental in developing PSU’s my.Plymouth portal and Lamson Library’s highly-successful search interface. What seemed like obvious solutions to him were eye-opening for others in the field. He began getting requests to make presentations at other schools as well as at conferences. And he began looking for the next problem to solve.
“There were a lot of questions about how to make library resources work to solve problems we know of now,” Bisson recalled. “What do we do to continue to improve service?” He calls it looking for a way to shorten the distance between Q and A. But there was no existing library technology to do that.
In late 2005 Bisson wrote a post for his blog, MaisonBisson.com, expounding the problem and describing the product he wished existed to solve it. Then it struck him: if he could describe what he wanted, there was no reason not to build it.
“There’s a high wall that separates libraries from the rest of the online world,” said Bisson. “I realized that I could get rid of this wall by using technologies that came from the wider world. I started working on it nights and weekends, just to see if I could do it.”
What he came up with is an OPAC—a library catalog—inside the framework of WordPress, the popular blog management application. “Why misuse WordPress that way?” Bisson wrote in his blog. “WordPress has a few things we care about built in: permalinks, comments, and trackbacks (and a good comment spam filter), just to start. But it also offers something we’ve never seen before in a library application: access to a community of knowledge, programmers, and designers outside libraries.”
As Bisson likes to say, “Change happens slowly—then all at once.”
In January 2006 he presented his idea at the American Library Association midwinter conference in San Antonio, Texas. Not long after that, Jenny Levine, Internet development specialist for the Suburban Library System in Burr Ridge, Ill., began talking about Casey Bisson and WPopac on her blog, “The Shifted Librarian.” That led to further online discussions and interviews, and in no time, the blogs were alive with chat of WPopac.
In February 2006 a colleague at another institution sent Bisson a notice about the new Mellon Award. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supports the thoughtful application of information technology to a wide range of scholarly purposes, including developing digital technologies to enhance research, teaching, and online and distance learning, and new technical approaches to archiving text and multimedia materials.
“I inquired among people I knew, including Jenny Levine, and other people in the library world who are recognized as leaders,” Bisson said. “I was fortunate enough that several of them decided to nominate me for the award.”
Bisson received the award at a ceremony hosted by the Mellon Foundation on Dec. 4 at the fall meeting of the Coalition for Networked Information in Washington, D.C. WPopac was selected as one of only 10 recipients out of several hundred nominees for 2006, the first year the MATC awards have been granted. The decision was made by an all-star panel that included Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Mitchell Baker, CEO of the Mozilla Foundation.
“The award committee was particularly excited by the way WPopac makes library patrons more active participants in their library experience,” said Christopher Mackie, program officer for Research in Information Technology at the Mellon Foundation. “By allowing patrons to add information to library records online, the software allows the community to work together to make their library resources more informative and more valuable. When you couple this with the reduced costs of access that WPopac permits, and the enthusiasm with which it has been received by librarians and patrons alike, the committee judged the project to have a truly revolutionary potential.”
One of the Mellon Foundation’s criteria was that the project “includes the development of intellectual property that is freely available to the academic community under one of the approved open source licenses.” To that end, WPopac will be made available to other institutions free of charge. Bisson would like to place the software in every library in New Hampshire—large and small—but acknowledges that this goal will take further funding.
Bisson’s accomplishments are earning him praise both on and off campus.
Levine wrote in her blog. “This project is usually at or near the top of my list when I show creative, innovative thinking (and implementation!) in libraries. … Congratulations to Casey and a big thank you to PSU for supporting his work.”
PSU President Sara Jayne Steen says Bisson’s work is yet another example of the exceptional effort and entrepreneurial spirit demonstrated by PSU faculty, staff, and students day in and day out.
“Casey recognized a need for broader access to the myriad of resources contained in our libraries and developed a unique and creative solution designed to re-engage users of today’s Web-based technologies,” Steen said. “We are proud of the Mellon Foundation’s recognition of the University and Casey’s innovation and initiative.”
“Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not?” David Beronä, director of Lamson Library (quoting George Bernard Shaw) said this is an apt phrase to apply to Casey Bisson and his work. “His enhancement to the library catalog, with the integration of the user and commercial links, promises to deliver the best search results to all library users. In addition, Casey’s WPopac provides a doorway from Google into libraries, and once inside our doors users will discover unexpected informational treasures and digital resources. There is no one worth more than a person like Casey, with a viable curiosity, the skill to make his dream a reality, and the willingness to share this software freely, without personal profit, with others.”