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.


[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).]

Supporting researchers

I have recently attended two of the NoWAL/SCONUL Working Group on Information Literacy Workshops:  one thing about writing for publication, a workshop for library staff supporting researchers, led by Moira Bent and Pat Gannon-Leary; and developments in scholarly communication, led by Bill Hubbard.

At first glance, these workshops may not seem to have much to do with Copac:  after all, the first one even specifies that it is a ‘workshop for library staff’ and, as you may know, Copac isn’t based in a library.  (We’re based in a lovely office, with the Archives Hub team, and daffodils outside the window to distract us.)  However, Copac is all about supporting researchers, with our roots as the OPAC for the Consortium of Research Libraries (CURL), now Research Libraries UK (RLUK).  One of RLUK’s values, as set out on their website, is to ‘work with the research community to promote excellence in support of current research and anticipate future needs’.  This is what we aim to do at Copac, and I got some good ideas for how to do it from these workshops.

Moira and Pat led an interesting discussion about ‘what is research?’, before introducing us to their model of the ‘seven ages of research’ (see slides 8-11).  This was particularly interesting for me, as we’ve recently been conducting some stakeholder analysis, and while we ended up with 5 divisions of librarians with different needs/priorities, we only had one for researchers.  If we are to fully consider and meet the needs of all our users, and ensure that we are communicating with them effectively, then we need to consider the differences highlighted by this model.

Bill Hubbard’s workshop on ‘developments in scholarly communication’ concentrated mainly (and unsurprisingly, given Bill’s role as manager of SHERPA) on Open Access and repositories.  A very timely workshop, following the publication of the much-talked about Houghton report, and one that you might think would be better attended by one of my colleagues from Jorum or Intute repository search.  But it is important that Copac interacts with the OA landscape as well.  Bill returned to the theme of differences between researchers.  This time, it was differences of research methodologies between disciplines:  to crudely condense Bill’s example, economists love pre-prints and working papers, biomedical scientists won’t touch them with the proverbial bargepole.  This, of course, has implications for the types of material that will be appearing in repositories.  It also has implications for how Copac can best serve the needs of these researchers.

So, from our stakeholder analysis which had undergrads, postgrads, and academic researchers all in one nice little box, it now appears that we have to look at not only the career stage of the researcher, but their discipline as well.  Can we do this?  Well, we’re getting closer…  The new Copac Beta (open to members of UK Access Management Federation institutions) is our first step towards a personalised Copac – and the more personalisation we enable, the better able we are to meet the needs of a wide range of users.  It’s still early days, but we’re asking for feedback to find out what you think of the new features, and suggestions for further developments or improvements.

Beta login issues

Users from some Institutions had been unable to login in Copac Beta. Thanks to help from colleagues we think we have now resolved the issue which was related to an exchange of security certificates between servers. The result was that a handful of Institutions were not trusting us and so were not releasing the anonymised username that we require. This seems to be fixed now and we’ve noticed that users from those Institutions can now login.

So, if you tried to login to Copac Beta and received a “Login failed” message, please try again. And please let us know if you still can’t get access.