deep participation in library catalogs

Last week An Event Apart, billed as “two days of peace, love, design, code, and content” took place in Seattle. I kept up with some of the stuff going on there and noticed this tweet. I saw it while Jared Spool was speaking and knew that he’s done work with Amazon so I figured the factoid came from him. I was able to verify this by finding an article: The Magic Behind Amazon’s 2.7 Billion Dollar Question. All of this is to just provide a bit more of a citation.

Jeffrey Zeldman on Twitter

These big numbers got me thinking about the viability of patron review and comments in library catalogs. Should we be discouraged? After all, how many library websites have 3 million visitors every day? I don’t actually care. It doesn’t matter. We shouldn’t be discouraged. I’m not even interested in the metrics. Why? Because library websites should just be as normal as possible. Full stop. Part of this normality is the possibility for interaction. People should have the opportunity to voice their opinion if they feel motivated.

What interests me more than these stats is how most of the discussion I’ve seen surrounding improving the OPAC has stopped with making them social and easy to use. I’ve advocated for these goals and will continue to do so. They’re important and they should be a priority, but in the scheme of things they’re low hanging fruit. Shouldn’t we be aiming to make some deeper, more significant connections? What I haven’t seen, and I just might not be looking in the right spots, is advocacy for going beyond creating OPACs that are imitation amazon.coms. We can do better. I’m not 100% sure what they’d look like, but they’d be more than just inventory systems for book mausoleums.

For one, they could include user generated content. I’m not necessarily talking about YouTube videos created by local people. I’m talking about capturing and making available information produced in library programs. There’s a ton of great stuff happening in our buildings. Not only could we do a better job telling those stories, we could do a better job making the content from those programs and meetings available and useful. Thinking about this end goal might even have an impact on how a library plans and conducts events.

Let’s not exclude stuff created by organizations and enthusiast groups around the community. I know that the Helsinki City Library is exploring this idea. There are probably some great curricular tie-ins too. Local university and high school students could produce reports relevant to the community. Into the OPAC they go. Useful chat transcripts could be findable in the OPAC too. Taking it a step further, why not make scapes created by librarians and others findable in the OPAC.

Again, a deep participation OPAC wouldn’t just keep track of where books are. It would also be a evolving database of things important to the community. Yes, this has everything to do with my thoughts about the unsustainability of libraries relying on content provision as their reasons for being.

I can’t think of a much better way to engage people than to say to them, “We want to know what’s important to you. We want to help you share your expertise.” By doing this librarians can fulfill their role as universal joints, connecting people to information, information to other information, and people to people.

5 thoughts on “deep participation in library catalogs”

  1. I like the idea about incorporating content from enthusiast groups. If the library is transitioning to more of a community cultural center (which I would argue it is), and is also becoming partially dissociated from its buildings (ditto), then trying to include culture from outside of the libraries would make the OPAC and website far more useful to the Library system’s goals. How many poetry-readings, author readings, musical events, plays, etc. are happening in the average city. Of these, how many are taped in one form or another? If the library actively courted cultural institutions and venues and provided space on their sites for this content, how much better would the sites represent the scope of the city’s cultural life?

  2. I take your point of having a deeper social catalog, but I also find the quoted statistic about reviews to be telling. There are two problems currently with the social OPAC. First of all, there are other places doing it better, with more users. Libraries have to decide how much effort they want to put in to competing with these other places. I am more likely to send someone to LibraryThing type site or even Amazon than any social OPAC. You can argue that it is not competition but complementary, but people only have so much time on their hands and libraries have only so much money to support social catalogs. I do know that there are some libraries harnessing these sites as well.

    The other challenging issue is that of community. I consider my library to be a part of many communities, including national and global. While users will get some use out of having a local community resource, they will be ill served if they are not part of a larger community as well. As a concrete example, romance books are not heavily used in my community, so our users are not well-served unless they are part of a larger or targeted community.

  3. The closest big-city library to me just implemented the option to write reviews, ad tags and so on, in their OPAC. Which is a wonderful idea, and I can’t wait until *my* library implements the same.

    BUT – this library has made it so that you have to be a patron at *their* library to add content. I’m sure there are good, valid reasons for this – but the fact remains that although most of the books I read comes from their collection, I can’t add content however much I want to – because I’m not one of *their* patrons.

    Which, frankly, makes me a little depressed about the future of such services. Because while, yes, you have to have an account at Amazon to add content – it’s as simple as making your own. It takes, what? 30 seconds? Whereas, here, I’d have to go 20 miles out of my way to a library I’ve never set foot in, and have *them* do it.

    It’s a wonderful idea, and a great concept – but we’ve got snags to sort out along the way…

  4. I’d question the need to have a bezillion users to get a few usable reviews, and look at the problem from the other end of the telescope.

    If you have a handful of users all collected in a single portion of the catalog; and if they all care about that part of the catalog; and if the catalog’s own search terminology fails to do a very good job of capturing the distinctions between books –

    Then with that handful of people you mark up or review or tag some portion of the collection which that community sees as “its own”, and you work forward from that success.

    I’ll point you to this anime collection in Ann Arbor:

    and note that the official catalog term is “Animated television programs – Japan” which doesn’t really capture it – and thus the unofficial tagging does a better job than any official cataloging can do for this niche.

    I’m more hopeful for cataloging than I am for reviews, giving the difficulty of writing a good paragraph about something vs. the relative ease of simply saying “this is in the same category as”.

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