The library of one

Chip Nilges

2016-02-06 Chip library of one

What does it mean to be a “library user” today? I think we can all agree it’s a question that is less well-defined than in the past. Which is why OCLC Research points out the necessity of “meeting library users at the point of need.” As Lorcan Dempsey puts it in his book, The Network Reshapes the Library, “We are used to thinking about the user in the library environment … a major part of our challenge moving forward is thinking about the library in the user environment.”

I couldn’t agree more. And if the definition of “library user” is fragmented, we need to think in terms of “what people use” as opposed to “what the library traditionally does.” Which leads me to three questions:

  1. What are the environments in which people search for information?
  2. Where in those environments can libraries establish a meeting?
  3. How can libraries add the most value there?

Watering holes and central stations

The first question isn’t too hard to answer. We know from publicly available data the largest sites used for information searching and sharing. These fall into two general categories:

  • Watering holes: places where people spend time using a specific service in order to meet specific information, entertainment or communications needs. People gather on sites such as Goodreads to share reviews and find ratings, make lists and comment on friends’ choices. People go to Wikipedia to track down reference information. We go to these sites purposefully for specific reasons and stay until we are satisfied. Often, the use of these services is, in itself, the goal.
  • Central stations: services that get us, quickly, to a specific answer, even if that’s on another site. Google and Bing and other search engines are classic examples. We may use Google every day, but we use it to go somewhere else. In addition, we have highly specific research and reference tools such as EasyBib that generate a specific outcome. In both cases, these are tools that get us to a goal, rather than a goal itself.

It’s helpful to remember that these categories applied to the pre-Internet library as well. Sometimes we went to the library to browse, discuss topics, enjoy a reading group or just study. Other times we went to get a very specific information need filled quickly. The parallel is already there for us.

Low-hanging fruit

Where can libraries meet users online? The easiest answer, to start, is in places where they are doing “library things” for themselves. Libraries have a traditional, well-established role in a variety of information processes. We are masters of deep searching, of knowledge quests, of local lore, complex questions and lifelong learning. If a website or product is providing a service like that, our immediate response should be, “Let’s get libraries into that mix!”

This has been our charge at OCLC in terms of our partnership programs. Some good examples, across both watering holes and central stations, include Google Books, EasyBib, Wikipedia, Goodreads and FamilySearch. In each case, we could draw a bright, straight line between the service provided and a natural, helpful way for our member libraries to “meet” users in those environments.

The value, then, is added by libraries that register their holdings in WorldCat. Is there anything friendlier than being on a Wikipedia page, searching for information on a specific subject, and having a librarian, essentially, walk up and ask, “Can I help you locate some additional materials?” WorldCat links added by librarians and Wikipedians essentially do that.

This value to users is something that comes from the network effect of tens-of-thousands of libraries adding data to WorldCat for discovery purposes. In most cases, no other action is necessary.

What comes next? We don’t know … and that’s OK.

Are there “nontraditional” environments where libraries can add value? I certainly think so, and the technology that really excites me in this area is linked data. By taking the billions of pieces of data that libraries have contributed to WorldCat and making them machine-readable to many more services, we have the opportunity to put library resources out there in ways we haven’t begun to imagine.

Which is great! Why? Because if we only stick to our own ideas of how libraries can be valuable, we’re not really “meeting the user at the point of need.” We’re making assumptions about where that point is. By exposing library resources through linked data, though, we provide a kind of “skeleton key” for possible partners to unlock great opportunities. Previously, library data was “locked” in formats that only libraries found useful. Linked data turns that model on its head.

Resource sharing gets hyper-local

If I want to do personal research, I can go to a library for reference materials, bibliographies, recommendations, lists and personal help … all kinds of services.

But, today, I can also do those things for myself online. And that’s what many millions of people are doing on computers, tablets and smartphones. If we think of them as traditional “library users” we will be limited in our ability to work with them.

But what if we thought of each person online as a very, very small library? A library with access to reference materials (Wikipedia), research services (EasyBib), lists and recommendation (Goodreads) and millions of books (Google Books). What if we thought of each individual as a “library of one”?

That’s a different mindset, isn’t it? We start thinking in terms of partnerships and what resources we could exchange or leverage, rather than just thinking of ourselves as the source and users as the target of information.

We recognize that people are, in many cases, going to serve others, as well. We know that a huge number of clicks on the Web come not from original searches, but from recommendations. So the “library of one” is also often acting as a provider of reference recommendations.

How can we help everyone be “better librarians”? That may be the defining question for libraries in the Internet age. It’s certainly one I’ll be coming back to here in the future.