Web Magazine for Information Professionals

IT for Me: Getting Personal in South Yorkshire Public Libraries

Liz Pearce and Neil Smith introduce the IT for Me Project which aims to provide personalised access to online resources in South Yorkshire's public libraries.

Personalisation has become an increasingly salient topic in the UK library and information management sector, yet to date much of the work undertaken has been in the academic and knowledge management sectors [1]. However, the South Yorkshire-based IT for Me Project [2] is looking to bring personalised access to online resources to public libraries. The project, which began in October 2003, will create a Web-based platform to provide access to personalised resources. IT for Me is a European Union Objective 1-funded project and is a partnership between the four South Yorkshire public library authorities, the Department of Information Studies, the University of Sheffield, Knowledge Integration, a company specialising in the development of open source software for information retrieval and Mediac, a community-owned media production and training company. The Objective 1 funding programme [3] is designed to support the economic regeneration of Europe's poorest areas and the IT for Me Project is working, in the first instance, with libraries and communities in five of South Yorkshire's most deprived areas.

Why IT for Me?

Visitors to UK public libraries, or regular readers of Ariadne's Public Library Focus column, will know that the completion of the UK People's Network Project has provided over 4000 public library service points with access to IT infrastructure. The People's Network aimed to connect:

"... all public libraries to the Internet, as part of the Government's commitment to give everyone in the UK the opportunity to get online." [4]

Yet whilst the 'opportunity to get online' in public libraries been seized by many, for others the 'motivation to get online' is still lacking. Recent statistics show that 42% of UK adults have either never accessed the Internet (36%) or do not access it regularly (6% had not accessed the Internet in the three months prior to the survey) [5]. For those experiencing aspects of 'social exclusion', such as unemployment or low educational achievement, uptake is much lower. For example, an initial user needs survey conducted in IT for Me's five target communities found that over 50% of respondents had never used the Internet. Thus, whilst the UK government envisages the widespread development and uptake of e-government services [6], it is doubtful whether access to such services will inspire occasional or reluctant users to develop or acquire the necessary ICT skills. It is clear that the shift from access to IT facilities to user engagement is reliant on providing access to content which is both interesting and meaningful.

The IT for Me project aims to facilitate user engagement with ICT by making content appropriate to individuals' interests directly available. Users will register to use the system by completing a simple personal profile which will include information about their hobbies, interests, characteristics and geographical location (via postcode data). Once a user has established their profile a personalised selection of quality-assured resources will be available to them immediately and on return visits. User interaction with the system will enable individual profiles to be amended and adapted over time, as interests change and new resources become available.

A Bottom-up Approach

In order to understand the types of content required to motivate IT usage the project has undertaken an initial user needs survey in an attempt to gauge subject interests amongst target users. The survey was conducted in the five participating branch libraries and 289 surveys were returned. Whilst some of the results were, perhaps, predictable - gardening, reading and sports all rated highly - the varied level of detail at which participants expressed their interest reflects the need for content to be provided at distinct levels of granularity. For example, whilst some respondents articulated their reading interests merely as 'fiction', others focused on particular genres (Detective / Romantic / Science Fiction), others on time periods (Modern / Classic fiction) and a more limited number on particular authors. The survey results will be used to inform both the wording and structure of the user profile and the types of content delivered through the system. As the project continues, and versions of the user profile and technical platform are delivered, further user consultation will be undertaken to ensure that the system meets the demands of its user population. By ensuring that the needs of users are central both to the development of the IT for Me system, and the resources provided through it, the project will engage users with ICT in the context of their information landscape.

Engaging Content

Three strands of content will provide the basis for the IT for Me system in the first instance:

Local Community Resources

Working in collaboration with the South Yorkshire Community Information (SYCI) Project [7], IT for Me will present resources developed by, and about, local communities themselves. SYCI is working with community groups, individuals and small businesses in and around the IT for Me target communities to develop local ICT capacity through the creation of Web content. Providing users with access to resources relating to their immediate geographical location will provide a familiar point of reference in the, potentially alien, online environment. Within the first six months of the project over 100 groups and individuals have expressed an interest in developing a Web site ranging from readers groups, handicraft and gardening clubs to single parent support organisations.

screenshot: (75KB): Figure 1: Barnsley Mountaineering Club, just one of the sites that has been developed as part of the South Yorkshire Community Information Project.

Figure 1: Barnsley Mountaineering Club, just one of the sites that has been developed as part of the South Yorkshire Community Information Project.

Community Information Resources

Each of South Yorkshire Authorities involved in the project has existing databases of community information. Figure 2 shows the interface to Sheffield's 'Help Yourself Database' which contains information about over 5000 Sheffield-based groups and organisations. The project will explore how the information captured in a user profile can be use to 'push' community information to potentially interested users.

screenshot: (50KB): Figure 2: The Sheffield Help Yourself Database provides details of clubs, organisation and societies in the Sheffield area.

Figure 2: The Sheffield Help Yourself Database provides details of clubs, organisation and societies in the Sheffield area.

Quality Online Resources

Public library collections have long sought to serve the diverse subject interests and characteristics of their local communities. Increasingly these collections are encompassing online resources with a number of authorities now providing a recommended links collection. Building on Web site collection and categorisation work undertaken by the participating library authorities (Figure 3), IT for Me will establish a database of quality-assured links, appropriate to users' interests, which can be matched to user interest profiles. The project will explore the potential of integrating resources from other public library collections and from quality-assured links collections beyond the public library sector where the focus and level of content are appropriate to the needs of the general public.

screenshot: (53KB): Figure 3: Barnsley Libraries' Links to Useful Web sites. IT for Me will build on the existing collections of quality-assured Web links.

Figure 3: Barnsley Libraries' Links to Useful Web sites. IT for Me will build on the existing collections of quality-assured Web links.

Underlying Technologies

The technical architecture which underpins the IT for Me system is based upon open standards and is designed to be compatible with both the eGovernment Interoperability Framework (eGIF) [8] and emerging architectural guidelines such as the Common Information Environment [9]. At its heart the IT for Me system is a database containing information about both the resources outlined above and about users. The 'clever bit' is in establishing a relationship between these elements to provide a personalised information environment for users.

Information about resources will be gathered using a variety of methods. Metadata about SYCI-developed local community Web sites will be 'harvested' using open source Web crawlers. Initially this will rely on metadata tags as suggested by the eGovernment Metadata Standard (eGMS) [10] but we will also be experimenting with approaches to the 'auto-generation' of metadata. Existing community information databases will either be exported using XML as a data interchange format or, where possible, searched in real time using Z39.50. Where data is imported into the system, we will be working with data owners to establish efficient updating procedures based upon a Web services architecture [11] and the Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) [12]. As indicated, information about subject resources will be entered onto the system by library staff in each of the participating local authorities or gathered from broader datasets. We will also investigate the inclusion of more dynamic content, such as locality- or subject-based RSS feeds.

Information about users will be gathered via an online profile. Users will be able to choose how much or how little personal information they provide, though the richer the information submitted the greater the opportunity for personalisation. By allowing users to control the information they supply, the IT for Me approach is perhaps closer to what some authors would describe as 'customisation'. However, the system will allow the user profile to be reconfigured based on information collected about user interests.

Perhaps the most technically innovative aspect of the system is the approach taken to matching user interest profiles with metadata describing resources. Again a phased approach is being adopted beginning with the use of structured vocabularies but working towards a system which allows users to express their interest using natural language and to use the principles of concept mapping [13] to establish semantic proximity to metadata terms describing resources. The result of the mapping will be a number of resources which will be presented to the user as potential components of his or her personalised environment. The user will then choose which resources they want to include. Cliff Lynch refers to systems which operate in this way as 'recommender' systems [14]. In order to ensure that the user's environment is able to adapt over time, we will also be looking at a range of approaches to notifying users when new resources are added. These might include on-screen alerts or other delivery methods such as email or SMS messaging.


By providing direct access to resources relevant to the needs and interests of individuals - from quality local, national and international Web resources to community-developed resources and local information - IT for Me seeks to allow individuals to explore the potential of online resources on their own terms. Although fostering user engagement with technology is central to the aims of the project, the ability to 'push' information relating to community organisations, events and activities at potentially interested users will encourage increased participation in local activities and, it is hoped, enhance communities' sense of identity. The IT for Me Project is funded at sub-regional level by the European Union, yet its objectives have much in common with the UK Department of Culture Media and Sport's Framework for the Future [15] which encourages public libraries to foster community cohesion, develop IT skills and encourage informal learning. Indeed, it is envisaged that once established as a working service in its pilot communities, the IT for Me system could be rolled out across the sub-region and, potentially, beyond. Whilst catering to the specific needs of public library users, the use of standards-conformant technologies will allow the IT for Me system to operate within the context of national developments both within and beyond the public libraries sector.


  1. Bonett, M. (2001). Personalization of Web Services: Opportunities and Challenges. Ariadne Issue 28 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue28/personalization/
  2. IT for Me
  3. European Union Objective 1
  4. The People's Network
  5. Office for National Statistics. (2003) First Release: Internet Access. London, ONS
  6. Cabinet Office. (2000) e-government: A Strategic Framework For Public Services in the Information Age. London, Central IT Unit
  7. South Yorkshire Community Information
  8. e-Government Interoperability Framework
  9. Common Information Environment
  10. eGovernment Metadata Standard
  11. For an excellent overview of Web services architecture see
    http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue29/gardner/ or
    http://www.w3.org/2002/ws/ for a more detailed technical view.
  12. Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting
  13. Concept Maps - for a useful overview see
  14. Lynch, C (2001) Personalization and Recommender Systems in the Larger Context: New Directions and Research Questions
  15. Department for Culture, Media & Sport. (2003). Framework for the Future

Author Details

Liz Pearce
Information Development Officer
IT for Me Project
Department of Information Studies
University of Sheffield

Email: e.h.pearce@sheffield.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.itforme.org.uk

Neil Smith
Knowledge Integration Ltd

Email: neil.smith@k-int.com
Web site: http://www.k-int.com

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