Library ditches microfilm in favour of RIAs

Nestled up in the northern interior of British Columbia, even the small town of Terrace isn’t untouched by the rich Internet applications trend — the local public library has recently recreated its newspaper archiving system into a digital version that’s getting rave reviews.

The Terrace Public Library is a trove of local history, as newspapers make up the bulk of the historical records of this small town. According to chief librarian Ed Curell, the newspapers — stored on microfilm — are called upon by everyone from lawyers settling estates to Australian researchers. “Often the person would have to read through two or three years’ worth of microfilm to find what they wanted,” he said.

Tim Willings of the Terrace-based consultancy Willings Multimedia worked as a technical consultant with the library, and suggested digitizing the library’s newspaper archive, taking a rich Internet application approach. Working in partnership with the Montreal-based Internet company Integration New Media, Willings set about bringing the archive into the new age.

Integration New Media’s director of projects, Jason MacDonald helped lead the charge of creating a searchable online catalogue (titled the Eleanor Muehle Newspaper Archive), offering technological expertise and designing the user interface.

“We had to decide whether it would be desktop-based or Web-based, and we went with rich Internet applications (RIA). They provide the user with desktop-like applications delivered over the Web — keyboard shortcuts, drag-and-drop,” he said.

This approach also allows the servers to take a load off. Said MacDonald: “Traditionally, HTML solutions need to be reloaded, which puts stress on the back-end server…this reduces the stress, as the client’s Internet connection assumes a lot of the data, and there’s less network interaction between the client and the server.”

He pointed out how HTML-based solutions often also only benefited the advanced user, while an RIA would offer significant ease-of-use to the library patrons, many of whom might not be particularly Web-savvy. “RIA gives the user an experience refined to them,” said MacDonald. Examples of this include step-through help and transitional effects between pages.

Another user-friendly feature is the ability to view the actual documents without having to download any third-party applications or plug-ins (and, said Curell, in any enlargement you choose). The microfilm was scanned into PDFs (which, said MacDonald, are easily adapted and changed on the fly, if necessary).

The archive functions with Adobe’s Flex program, working off of a SQL server back-end (maintenance is made easy with the ability to catch bugs and make changes from the centralized point of a server deployment). To integrate it all and display the pages, MacDonald implemented Integration New Media’s own INM Reach software.

This especially comes in handy in terms of server loads, said MacDonald. “With INM Reach, it’s updated on the server, so that you can use Adobe Acrobat to push the PDF to the server and then INM Reach pushes it out to the application with no need for Adobe Acrobat on the user side,” he said. All that’s needed is Flash Player 9.

But RIAs do have a cornucopia of capabilities, one of which is the ability to work online while offline. MacDonald said that this isn’t on the Terrace Public Library’s roadmap just yet, but said that there is a possibility of working toward this sometime in the future, utilizing Adobe’s new Air technology. “This is essentially a business proposition,” MacDonald said, “as it would allow you to grab more down-time to spare, as it would be local to their machines.”

For now, the users are enjoying the RIA-enhanced archive, which has been live for about a month now. Patrons are already brimming with suggestions, including the ability to search by issue (instead of keyword alone), and more specific search capabilities, but, Curell said, “they love it and think it’s fabulous…the ease of use is great.”

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