I had a great time meeting people and attending talks at this year’s ALA conference in Anaheim. Although I’ve so far focused on software development for publishers, there’s a lot of need for innovation in library software as well, and is something I’m interested in exploring.
Tim Spalding from LibraryThing convincingly demonstrated that ordinary readers can, in aggregate, contribute accurate metadata and even scholarly initiatives. UGC initiatives don’t replace professional cataloging or research, but they can galvanize interest in a subject by using tools “where people are” on the net, whether it’s LibraryThing, Facebook or Amazon.
Once a resource’s content and metadata are available on the net, the library can broaden the scope of what its “local community” means. It may no longer service just people living in its immediate vicinity but anyone who has a interest in the library’s holdings, e.g. retirees who grew up in that area, or individuals with historical interest in the location.
This Flickr photostream from the Library of Congress allows anyone to add historical notes and corrections. Ironically, this project also validates the need for editorial control, as some popular photos are overloaded with inane comments. A sensible moderation policy admits potentially-useful information while deleting random valueless statements (“nice hat!”).
For better or worse, most archival library holdings will draw less attention, and thus UGC is likely to be of higher quality. Without UGC many collections might languish unseen for decades because the resources don’t exist to professionally catalog them.
Software services and discovery
I’m reading about a book on the net, and decide I’m interested in it — but not to buy. Perhaps it’s out of print, or extremely expensive, or I’m only mildly curious about the title. I should be a maximum of one or two clicks away from finding out that it’s available via my local library and ordering it.
(I don’t especially care where the book is or how the library acquires it, although I do need to know an estimated time of arrival in case that’s important to my use case. One ALA speaker suggested the unorthodox practice of buying used books online and mailing them directly to patrons, simply because it can be cheaper than old-fashioned inter-library loan.)
Right now, my local library catalog accepts only inbound requests. I have to go to the site and initiate a search for the title of interest (assuming I even know what I want). My library network (a consortia of many city libraries in a well-off, highly-educated region) isn’t part of WorldCat and certainly doesn’t provide any advanced discovery tools of its own.
Libraries need to move in the true Web 2.0 direction of providing outbound services. They should broadcast their catalogs using a simple REST-like API. It could be as simple as asking for http://mylibrary.org/isbn/123456789 and getting a brief XML response back: the book is available via loan and will take 3-5 days to arrive at the local branch. (An authenticated POST request could then reserve it.) There are already good models for these services in the form of the Google Books and Amazon APIs and there is nothing technically infeasible about it.
The regional library of the future should not be just a physical building to store books but a public service for getting books into its community.
Inspired by the conference, I did come back and make my first online request to my local library. It wasn’t difficult, and this morning I got an email notice that the book is waiting for me at the regional branch a couple blocks away. But it could be even easier, and I’d love to help build out that infrastructure.