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Tim Spalding, President of LibraryThing
Toward the third wave of catalog enrichment
In the first of this two-part series, we took a look at the two waves of development that have enriched and enhanced library catalogs. What will a third wave of catalog enrichment look like?
I’m not sure. I don’t see Amazon blazing a trail ahead of libraries anymore. Perhaps some bright future programmer will emerge from the shower with the best answer. Until then, I have a few ideas.
First, future catalog enrichments must advance the overall revolution of user experience. Too many catalogs today resemble ransom notes—jumbled collections of discordant pieces, with enrichments just more jangly bits. Future enrichments must prioritize simplicity over complexity, insight over data, and usability over merely “having it there.”
Usability data provide some answers. From analyzing usage statistics from hundreds of catalogs, LibraryThing has learned that enrichments hidden behind tabs or other such elements are effectively invisible and rarely used. Users have been trained to scroll up and down, but they are averse to clicking to see “what else there is.” (Amazon, the king of user-testing data knows this, which is why their pages are long).
This is just one example, but it points a way. Future catalog enrichments must prioritize user experience, and collect and analyze the data that shows user-experience success.
User experience also throws the distinction between website and catalog into question. Libraries think of them as separate things, often placing them under separate teams. But users do not. Future catalog enrichments must be conceived of as library enrichments, appearing inside or outside of the catalog as needed. In this age of mobile access, library enrichments must adapt themselves seamlessly to web and mobile formats. Nor should the website and catalog be the final horizon. Libraries today exist on social media as much as anywhere else; enrichments should too. This is something LibraryThing has endeavored to do with our Book Display Widgets product—an all-purpose “display rack” for a library’s catalog, blog, website, Facebook, Pinterest or Twitter. But there’s so much more to do in bringing the library into the world, and the world into the library.
True “library” enrichment also extends well past books and into all the other resources libraries have to offer. In the near-term, this may mean video games, movies, and music. Some enrichments, such as ProQuest’s Video Game Enriched Content, already address these. In the future, however, event programming, maker spaces and all forms of audience and community outreach will enhance each other seamlessly and automatically, with no technical constraints. Nor would the library stop at its walls and website. Finding a book in the catalog, you’d learn the author is coming to the library next month, and the local bookstore the month after. Search for something on Google and some excellent hits from your library would show up on the page as well. Order sushi and your library holds would also arrive. (Okay, that might just be my dream).
Silos and walled gardens
Unfortunately, things may be heading in the other direction. Collections are increasingly divided between “the catalog,” and a host of siloed solutions—separate “catalogs” for services that provide ebooks, movies, and music—leading to a fractured user experience. Some libraries have completely separate web and mobile catalog solutions. And many have apps, kiosks, digital signage and self check-out stations, all concerned with the same collection, yet technologically distinct and largely unenhanced. Catalog vendors, digital providers, and enrichment services must work together to create rich, but unified, offerings.
Even as technology unifies, libraries must resist closed solutions and “walled gardens.” Catalogs and other services must be open to enrichment, not just for enrichment vendors with a business relationship to the ILS companies. Such freedom is essential to the many home-grown and collaborative, open-source enhancement projects too. We can expect growth there, as more and more libraries recognize a need for dedicated developers, and the community of library developers grows.
Find, discover… and trip over
In preparing for this piece, I asked people on Twitter what they thought the next phase of catalog enrichment was. Jason Griffey suggested “interactive bots” and “chat interfaces.” I have my doubts about artificial intelligence solutions, but the suggestion points out something about the bounded nature of catalogs and catalog enrichment—catalogs aren’t librarians.
What’s the difference? For starters, library catalogs are good for specific, focused searching. Current enrichments have given patrons the ability to discover high-quality “read-alikes.” But that’s as far as it goes. And patrons don’t want read-alikes—they want great reads!
More can be done technologically. I think we’re still in the infancy of recommender systems, and “serendipity-systems” have barely been tried. But the best resource will remain a librarian, assisted by technology. Catalog enrichments must recognize that, by incorporating the librarians into their library’s enhancements.
Finally, a good visit to the library nets some things you wanted, some things like the things you wanted, and some things you didn’t know you wanted. Serendipity and “tripping over things” plays a role in library discovery that has yet to find a home in software.
After that, Jason can get his chat bots if I get my sushi books. Here’s to the future!