Notes on (Re)Modelling the Library Domain (JISC Workshop).

A couple of weeks ago, I attended JISC’s Modelling the Library Domain Workshop. I was asked to facilitate some sessions at the workshop, which was an interesting but slightly (let’s say) ‘hectic’ experience. Despite this, I found the day very positive. We were dealing with potentially contentious issues, but I noted real consensus around some key points. The ‘death of the OPAC’ was declared and no blood was shed as a result. Instead I largely heard murmured assent. As a community, we might have finally faced a critical juncture, and there were certainly lessons to be learned in terms of considering the future of services such as Copac, which as a web search service, in the Library Domain Model would count as national JISC service ‘Channel.’

In the morning, we were asked to interrogate what has been characterised as the three ‘realms’ of the Library Domain: Corporation, Channels, and Clients. (For more explanation of this model, see the TILE project report on the Library Domain Model). My groups were responsible for picking apart the ‘Channel’ realm definition:

The Channel: a means of delivering knowledge assets to Clients, not necessarily restricted to the holdings or the client base of any particular Corporation, Channels within this model range from local OPACs to national JISC services and ‘webscale’ services such as Amazon and Google Scholar. Operators of channel services will typically require corporate processes (e.g. a library managing its collection, an online book store managing its stock). However, there may be an increasing tendency towards separation, channels relying on the corporate services of others and vice versa (e.g. a library exposing its records to channels such as Google or Liblime, a bookshop outsourcing some of its channel services to the Amazon marketplace).

In subsequent discussion, we came up with the following key points:

  • This definition of ‘channel’ was too library-centric. We need to working on ‘decentring’ our perspective in this regard.
  • We will see an increasing uncoupling of channels from content. We won’t be pointing users to content/data but rather data/content will be pushed to users via a plethora of alternative channels
  • Users will increasingly expect this type of content delivery. Some of these channels we can predict (VLEs, Google, etc) and others we cannot. We need to learn to live with that uncertainty (for now, at least).
  • There will be an increasing number of ‘mashed’ channels – a recombining of data from different channels into new bespoke/2.0 interfaces.
  • The lines between the realms are already blurring, with users becoming corporations and channels….etc., etc.
  • We need more fundamental rethinking of the OPAC as the primary delivery channel for library data. It is simply one channel, serving specific use-cases and business process within the library domain.
  • Control. This was a big one. In this environment libraries increasingly devolve control of the channels via which their ‘clients’ use to access the data. What are the risks and opportunities to be explored around this decreasing level of control? What related business cases already exist, and what new business models need to evolve?
  • How are our current ‘traditional’ channels actually being used? How many times are librarians re-inventing the wheel when it comes to creating the channels of e-resource or subject specialist resource pages? We need to understand this in broad scale.
  • Do we understand the ways in which the channels libraries currently control and create might add value in expected and unexpected ways? There was a general sense that we know very little in this regard.

There’s a lot more to say about the day’s proceedings, but the above points give a pretty good glimpse into the general tenor of the day. I’m now interested to see what use JISC intends to make of these outputs. The ‘what next?’ question now hangs rather heavily.

Catalogues as Communities? (Some thoughts on Libraries of the Future)

At last week’s Libraries of the Future debate, Ken Chad challenged the presenters (and the audience) over the failure of libraries to aggregate and share their data.  I am very familiar with this battle-cry from Ken.  In the year+ that I’ve been managing Copac, he’s (good-naturedly) put me on the spot several times on this very issue.  Why isn’t Copac (or the UK HE/FE library community) learning from Amazon, and responding to user’s new expectations for personalisation and adaptive systems?

Of course, this is a critically important question, and one that is at the heart of the JISC TILE project, which Ken co-directs (I actually sit on the Reference Group). Ken’s  related argument is that the public sector business model (or lack thereof) is perhaps fatally flawed, and that we are probably doomed in this regard; private sector is winning already on the personalisation front, so instead of pouring public money into resource discovery ‘services’ we should instead, perhaps, let the market decide.  I am not going to address the issue of business models here – although this is a weighty issue requiring debate – but I want to come back to this issue of personalisation, 2.0, and the OPAC as a potential ‘architecture for participation.’

I fundamentally agree with the TILE project premise (borrowed from Lorcan Dempsey) that the library domain needs to be redefined as a set of processes required for people to interact with ‘stuff’.  We need to ask ourselves if the OPAC itself is a relic, an outmoded understanding of ‘public access’ or (social) interaction with digital content. As we do this, we’re creating heady visions where catalogue items or works can be enhanced with user-generated content, becoming ‘social objects’ that bring knowledge communities together.  ‘Access’ becomes less important than facilitating ‘use’ (or reuse) and the Discovery to Delivery paradigm is turned on its head.

It’s the ‘context’ of the OPAC as a site for participation that I am interested in questioning.  Can we simply ‘borrow’ from the successful models of Amazon or LibraryThing? Is the OPAC the ‘place’ or context that can best facilitate participative communities?

This might depend on how we’re defining participation, and as Owen Stephens has suggested (via Twitter chats) what the value of that participation is to the user.  In terms of Copac’s ‘My References’ live beta, we’ve implemented ‘tagging with a twist,’ where tagging is based on user search terms and saved under ‘Search History’.  The value here is fairly self-evident – this is a way for users to organise their own ‘stuff’. The tagging facility, too, can be used to self-organise, and as Tim Spalding suggested way back in 2007, this is also why tagging works for LibraryThing (and why it doesn’t work for Amazon). Tagging works well when people tag “their” stuff, but it fails when they’re asked to do it to “someone else’s” stuff. You can’t get your customers to organize your products, unless you give them a very good incentive.

But does this count as ‘community’ participation?  Right now we don’t provide the option for tags to be shared, though this is being seriously considered along the lines of a recommender function: users who saved this item, also saved which seems to be a logical next step, and potentially complimentary to Dave’s recommender work. However,  I’m much less convinced about whether HE/FE library users would want to explicitly share items through identity profiles, as at LibraryThing.  Would the LibraryThing community model translate to the models that university and college libraries might want to support the semantically dense and complex communities for learning, teaching and research?

One of the challenges for a participatory OPAC 2.0 (or any a cross-domain information discovery tool) will be the tackling of user context, and specifically the semantic context(s) in which that user is operating.  Semantic harvesting and text mining projects such as the Intute Repository Search have pinpointed the challenge of ‘ontological drift’ between disciplines and levels (terms and concepts having shifted meanings across disciplinary boundaries).  As we move into this new terrain of Library 2.0 this drift will likely become all the more evident.  Is the OPAC context too broad to facilitate the type of semantic precision to enable meaningful contribution and community-building?

Perhaps attention data, that ‘user DNA,’ will provide us with new ways to tackle the challenge.  There is risk involved, but some potential ‘quick wins’ that are of clear benefit.  Dave’s blog posts over the last week suggest that the value here might be in discovering people ‘like me’ who share the same research interests and keep borrowing books like the ones I borrow (although, if I am an academic researcher, that person might also be ‘The Competition’ — so there are degrees of risk to account for here — and this is just the tip of the ice-berg in terms of considering the cultural politics of academia and education).  Certainly the immediate value or ‘impact of serendipity’ is that it gives users new routes into content, new paths of discovery based on patterns of usage.

But what many of us find so compelling about the circulation data work is that it surfaces latent networks not just of books, but of people.  These are potential knowledge communities or what Wenger might call Communities of Practice (CoP).  Whether the OPAC can help nurture and strengthen those CoPs is another matter. Crowds, even wise ones, are not necessarily Communities of Practice.

The reimagining the library means reimagining (or discarding) the concept of the catalogue.  This might also mean rethinking the  OPAC as a context for community interaction.

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[Related ‘watch this space’ footnote: We’ve already garnered some great feedback on the ‘My References’ beta we currently have up — over 80 user-surveys completed (and a good proportion of those from non-librarian users).  This feedback has been invaluable.  Of course, before we embark on too many more 2.0 developments, Copac needs to be fit-for-purpose.  In the next year we are re-engineering Copac, moving to new hardware, restructuring the database,  improving the speed and search precision, and developing additional (much-needed) de-duplication algorithms.  We’re also going to be undertaking a complete  overhaul of the interface (and I’m pleased to say that Dave Pattern is going to be assisting us in this aspect). In addition, as Mimas is collaborating on the TILE project through Copac, we’re going to look at how we can exploit what Dave’s done with the Huddersfield circulation data (and hopefully help bring other libraries on board).]

Copac is twittering: the where and the why

Many of you will know that Copac now has a presence on Twitter.  Some of you may have come to this blog from our Twitter feed.  Many of you, I’m sure, will be devout Twitterers, tweeting away with your pithy and insightful comments.  Others will be shaking their head and saying ‘Eh now? Tweeting? Is the latest interweb craze to pretend you’re a bird?!?’ [note: stereotype used for comedy purposes only, and guaranteed to bear no actual resemblance to any of our readers.]

Twitter is a microblogging service, where users answer the question “What are you doing?” in 140 characters or less. Thanks to prominent Twitterers such as Barack Obama, Stephen Fry, and … umm… Darth Vader, Twitter has recently gained enormous media coverage. Obama used it for campaigning. Stephen Fry live-tweeted being stuck in a lift. Darth Vader does Thriller.

It’s fairly obvious that there’s a large amount of the wild and wacky on Twitter – as well as a fair amount of the frankly banal. Updates about meals/gym regimes/bedtimes may be scintillating stuff for your close circle of friends, but unless you have a particularly effulgent turn of phrase – or a dangerously exciting lifestyle – they aren’t going to thrill the twitosphere.

We’re all guilty of it. A look at my personal tweets will … well, you looked. However, it’s a bit different when you’re not tweeting for yourself. Tweeting on behalf of Copac means that I have a whole different audience, a different set of priorities. What will Copac users find interesting? What will they ignore with a yawn? And I’m finding it surprisingly difficult to do in that format.

The tweet, the microblog, is – like the Facebook status – an informal medium. It’s hard to be otherwise in 140 characters. Trying to be formal results in very stilted tweets, where the occasional (space-necessitated) contraction and web-speak glares and jars. If you’ve got this far, you’ve probably realised that formal isn’t really my style. And yet the point of the Copac Twitter account is to… is to…

Ah. I think we’ve found the root of my style problem. What is the point of the Copac Twitter account? Surely we’re not just doing it to be fashionably web 2.0. Are we doing it to inform people of Copac news? Yes, but we already have a news blog for that. Are we doing it to promote Copac developments? Yes, but we already have a development blog for that. Are we doing it to connect with our users and our peers? To get closer to the Copac community? Yes!

So there we are. We’ve found our audience. Now can you help us find our voice? What do you want Copac to tweet about? How do you want us to speak to you? Please let us know! You can contact us through the comments here, at the news blog, on our Twitter account, on our Facebook page,  by email, or phone. Or shine the Copac symbol from the top of a tall building on a dark and stormy night, and await the caped librarians…

Perspectives on Goldmining.

Last Friday, Shirley and I headed down to London for the TiLE workshop: ‘”Sitting on a gold mine” — Improving Provision and Services for Learners by Aggregating and Using ‘Learner Behaviour Data.’ The aim of the workship was to take a ‘blue skies’ (but also practical) view of how usage data can be aggregated to improve resource discovery services on a local and national (and potentially global) level. Chris Keene from the University of Sussex library has written a really useful and comprehensive post about the proceedings (I had no idea he was ferverishly live blogging across the table from me — but thanks, Chris!)

I was invited to present a ‘Sector Perspective’ on the issue, and specifically the ‘Pain Points’ identifed around ‘Creating Context’ and ‘Enabling Contribution.’ The TiLE project suggests a lofty vision where, with the sufficient amount of context data about a user (derived from goldmines such as attention data pools and profile data stored within VLEs, library service databases, institional profiles — you know, simple enough;-) services could become much more Amazon-like.  OPACs could suggest to users, ‘First Year History Students who used this textbook, also highly rated this textbook…’ and such. The OPAC is thus transformed from relic of the past, to a dynamic online space enabling robust ‘architectures of participation.’

This view is very appealing, and certainly at Copac we’re doing our part to really interrogate how we can support *effective* adaptive personalisation. Nonetheless, as a former researcher and teacher, I’ve always had my doubts as to whether the Library catalogue per se, is the right ‘place’ for this type of activity.

We might be able to ‘enable contribution’ technically, but will it make a difference? An area that perhaps most urgently needs attention is research on the social component and drivers for contributing user-generated content.  As the TiLE project has identified, the ‘goldmine’ here to galvanise such usage is ‘context’ or usage data. But is it enough, especially in the context of specialised research?

As an example of the potential ‘cultural issues’ that might emerge, the TiLE project suggests the case of the questionably nefarious tag ‘wkd bk m8’ which is submitted as a tag for a record. They ask, “Is this a low-quality contribution, or does it signal something useful to other users, particularly to users who are similar to the contributor?”

I’d tend to agree the latter, but would also say that this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to rhetorical context. For example, consider the user-generated content that might arise around contentious works around the ‘State of Israel.’ The fact that Wikipedia has multiple differing and ‘sparring’ entries around this is a good indicator of the complexity that emerges. I would say that this is incredibly rich complexity, but on a practical level potentially very difficult for users to negotiate. Which UGC derived ‘context’ is relevant for differing users? Will our user model be granular or precise enough to adjust accordingly?

One of the challenges of accommodating a system-wide model is the tackling of semantic context. Right now, for instance, Mimas and EDINA have been tasked to come up with a demonstrator for a tag recommender that could be implemented across JISC services. This seems like a relatively simple proposition, but as soon as we start thinking about semantic context, we are immediately confronted with the question of which concept models or ontologies do we draw from?

Semantic harvesting and text mining projects such as the Intute Repository Search have pinpointed the challenge of ‘ontological drift’ between disciplines and levels. As we move into this new terrain of Library 2.0 this drift will likely become all the more evident.

Is the OPAC too generic to facilitate the type of semantic precision to enable meaningful contribution? I have a hunch it is, as did other participants when we broke out into discussion sessions.

But perhaps the goldmine of context data, that ‘user DNA,’ will provide us with new ways to tackle the challenge, and there was also a general sense that we needed to forge forward on this issue — try things out and experiment with attention data.  A service that gathers that aggregates both user-generated and attention/context data would be of tremendous benefit, and Copac (and other like services) can potentially move to a model where adaptive personalisation is supported.  Indeed, Copac as a system-wide service has a great potential as an aggregator in this regard.

There is risk involved around these issues, but there are some potential ‘quick wins’ that are of clear immediate benefit. Another speaker on Friday was Dave Pattern, who within a few minutes of ‘beaming to us live via video from Huddersfield’ had released the University of Huddersfield’s book usage data (check it out).

This is one goldmine we’re only too happy to dig into, and we’re looking forward to collaborating with Dave in the next year to find ways to exploit and further his work in a National context.  We want to implement recommender functions in Copac, but also (more importantly) working at Mimas to develop a system for the store and share of usage data from multiple UK libraries (any early volunteers?!)  The idea is that this data can also be reused to improve services on a local level.   We’re just at the proposal stage in this whole process, but we feel very motivated, and the energy of the TiLE project workshop has only motivated us more.

Copac 2.0 (as I prep for the ILI conference)

The blog’s been silent this week. Ashley’s getting on with the practical business of development, and I’ve been spending time writing up content for my presentation at the International Internet Librarian conference, as well as a presentation to the Mimas Board of Directors on D2D and the future of Copac (more on that next week).

I’m speaking in a panel on “The OPAC and the Library of the Future” at ILI, and writing up my thoughts has been a great opportunity to hash out some of the tensions and challenges surrounding the whole Copac 2.0 thing.   I now think ILI “owns” what I’ve submitted to them (and it’s not available online yet). So to avoid any handslapping (and to echo Austen Powers) “allow myself to quote myself”:

As Copac and its stakeholders think strategically about an approach to Web 2.0 and specifically customisation and adaptive personalisation, as I will discuss, multiple issues and tensions emerge. Central among them is striking that delicate balance between ‘openness’ and ‘control.’ We want to promote an ethos where Copac data is opened up (via APIs for instance) and made available for the community in as useful form as possible, but we also recognise that this means devolving control over what happens to that data. At the same time, as a collective resource comprising of over 50 UK libraries, we are also considering how Copac is uniquely positioned as an aggregator and can, to use Lorcan Dempsey’s phrase: “reinforce the value of network effects,” and so increase “gravitational pull” towards a concentrated service that supports UK focussed research. [1]By gathering ‘personalisation’ or ‘intentional’ data, Copac (and other JISC bibliographic services) can potentially move to a model where adaptive personalisation is supported, including those desirable Amazon-like recommender functions. We can potentially help to begin to yield that ‘long tail’ of under-used or little known UK library resources, for example those unique and rare items now incorporated into Copac via the Kew Botanical Gardens, the Natural History Museum, or Royal College of Surgeons.

This, as yet, is a tentative and unformed vision for Copac, a vision we are now attempting to refine and focus. This future for the service is by no means set in stone, and our ideas are very much exploratory at this stage. Copac occupies a single position in a complicated terrain which encompasses the UK resource discovery and library landscape and, of course, the much larger global terrain occupied by WorldCat, Google, Google Books, and Amazon.com. Our strategic planning is necessarily complex. Nonetheless, we are eager to open up conversations about the future of a service like Copac, and at the close of this talk would like to invite feedback and insight over the strategic directions Copac might take, and new questions that emerge.

So that gives you the gist of what I’m planning to talk about, and I am hoping it will be a good opportunity to get some feedback.  In the meantime, any thoughts or comments here are very welcome. Happy friday:-)