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Photograph of 'Everything is Miscellaneous' bookEverything is miscellaneous
I’ve finally got around to reading “Everything is Miscellaneous” by David Weinberger, (yes I know that is about five years after everyone else, and no real reason not to read it, other than a sense of not wanting to follow everyone else.)    I’m reading it in paperback form as we don’t seem to have it on ebook which gives it a slight sense of being older than it actually is.  Particularly with the pages in the paperback being slightly yellowing.  It is also interesting to me to pick up a library book added to stock in 2009 that has two date stamps on the date label. Two loans in four years brings home what a different world academic libraries are from public libraries.

While there’s a slight sense of things having moved on in the post – twitter world in terms of some of the technologies, it is a really interesting read with lots of things to think about and it is really making me think about the approach we take to providing access to library materials.  I am particularly thinking about how we present material through our library website, either with search tabs for articles, books etc, or by categorising library resources into journals, databases or ebooks, or even by us using different systems to manage different types of material.  As David Weinberger points out that is just a carry over from the old analogue and physical world that makes no real sense to users in a digital world.  And that is something that needs reinforcing regularly as it is easy to lose sight of that.

Tagging, sharing and perspective
One of the things that is starting to come out of our personalisation surveying and focus groups is that users want what is relevant to them.   Well, not a great surprise, but then that isn’t something that our systems really faciliate do they?  Where we are at the moment is to still think in terms of how you get something depends on what type of thing it is.  For a physical library that’s relevant in that the leaf is only on the tree in one place, to use Weinberger’s analogy.  But in the digital world, all the stuff is website content, and all the constraints are artificially created (that doesn’t mean that they are not necessary in some cases).   So you access ebooks through the catalogue because that is where we put them, often for our administrative convenience.  But users might want them in different places at different times.  But in a world where users expect to be able to shape their view of the world by customising the ‘library channel’ as you can do with Spotify or any number of web-scale services, the single ‘take-it or leave-it’ library approach seems curiously archaic. 

So what does that mean for discovery and especially for discovery systems?  Are discovery systems the right solution?  Discovery systems and the Google-like search box are an attempt to pull stuff together into one place.  So upload your catalogue into your discovery platform and you can lose the OPAC – maybe.   It seems to me to start to pick up on relevancy ranking becoming a much more important area.  But it still doesn’t really start to approach anything that is particularly ‘socially’ or ‘user-aware’.

As a user you probably want to decide what is relevant to you, you might want to tag that content and probably share it too.  And you’d probably expect to be able to see other users tag and use them to find material relevant for you too.   But with library systems we take the view that we have to have special people who we trust to add accurate metadata.  I hate to say this, but I think that’s another legacy of the physical age and not really viable for the explosion in digital content that is upon us.

So you start to have a model where users expect the system to know something about them (what course they are on for example – does your discovery platform know that?), and to filter based on their likely interests, but then to learn from what they search for (and what others search for, or tag) to find other things they might be interested in.  I start to think that this is at the heart of user disatisfaction with library systems, there is a great disconnection with their experience of the rest of the web.

Is it feasible, could we experiment, what might that space look like?  Discovery is miscellaneous now…

New tools concept
Earlier in the week we soft-launched a new section on our library website.  The New Tools section is a space where we can put out new ideas with the aim of trying to get some feedback about whether users will find them useful.  This parallels the work we’re also doing with a group of students from our Student Panel to work with them to design some new features (blogged about earlier in the week).

Our idea is that we’d use the New Tools section to put up beta tools based on ideas that have come up through a number of ways.  So the ideas that come through the personalisation study work with students will go through a private ‘alpha’ stage where they help with defining the ideas and feeding back on paper prototypes and ‘proof-of-concept’  tools.  Once the tools have been refined the best ones get released as ‘beta’ versions through the New Tools section.  We’d also look at releasing as beta tools some of the ideas that come from other work we’ve done in the past such as in the RISE recommender project and other ideas we’ve come up with.

The idea with the New tools section is that the tools aren’t fully supported but are there for people to try and let us know what they think about them.  If they work then we can refine them and take them into service.  If they aren’t useful then we’ll have a better idea of what people want and what they don’t.

First new tools – single search box
The first two tools that we’ve made available in beta are both around library resources.  The first one is a single search box (I”ve written before about the library quest for the google-like search box – and I’m starting to get more interested in the Google-like search box actually being Google and that libraries might be better concentrating on helping users in Google find library resources that they are entitled to access – but Google’s decision to ‘retire’ Google Reader certainly gives me pause in relying too much on something from Google).   Behind the search box is a search that pasSingle search box screenshotses your search string to our version of EBSCO Discovery (using their API) and also to the library resources database that powers the resource lists that are fed into the library website.  The idea behind this is that it will bring together results from our various systems into one place and particularly that it will be better at finding Journal titles that are direct matches.

Search results screenshotThis single search box is designed to also test the feasibility of bringing together different search results into a single interface.  It’s a bit federated-search-like in that the results are presented in separate boxes (sort of like a stacked bento-box approach inspired by Stanford and others – it’s interesting also to see the approach that Princeton have taken with their beta version of their library website).  We also haven’t strayed too much into the area of adding some of the surrounding functionality (saving citations, sharing etc features) that a fully-fledged system would need.  This is just about testing whether pulling together these results is a workable and useful thing to do.

First new tools – My recent resources
The second tool is about trying to see if giving users access to a list of library resources they have recently accessed is useful to them.   If you’re not an OU user (or aren’t signed-in) you’ll just see a demonstration list of resources.  But if you are signed-in you should see a list of the resources you’ve used, with the most recent ones first.  These resources will include ones you’ve looked at directly from the library website, or ones articles that you’ve viewed through our One Stop search discovery system.  For this prototype we have offered RSS and RIS formats to export your records so you can put them into your favourite reference management tool. My Resources screenshot We’ve also included a box on the right to list your most used resources, with the number of times in brackets.

The format and description of the entries just picks up the standard format we already use on the library website and we’ve started to add in book covers for ebooks (although that gets me thinking that I’ve never really worked out what the point is of a book cover for an ebook anyway – Kindles seem to take you to the start of the book, not to the cover, so maybe ebook covers aren’t that relevant anymore – but in any case it breaks up the blocks of text neatly).

Next steps
The plan is to develop more prototypes and build up a pool of tools in this space that we can get people to look at and comment on.  Hopefully it will be useful to people,

One of the bits of work that we’re doing at the moment is to talk to students about their thoughts about personalised library services. The aim of the work is to help us to understand what students might want (or not want) and to then use that information to build some tools that we can test with them.  In part it is being driven by a realisation that library websites and systems are competing against expectations that are shaped by sites such as Google and Amazon.  Traditional library websites such as OPACs seem to be a world away from a modern web experience (see Aaron Schmidt’s blogpost on Library Journal for example).

One of the interesting things that is coming out of the work for me is around attitudes and expectations for the personal use data that is being collected as part of user engagement with our systems.   I’d expected that students would be quite guarded about what they would expect a library system to know about them, because generally speaking, libraries rarely seem to use data to provide much in the way of a personalised service.  But expectations seem to be that once a student has logged in then library systems should know their name and the course they are studying, at least.  But that maybe the library systems should also know what previous courses they’d studied or their contact preferences.   And that is really interesting to know as it’s difficult to think of many (any? other than some experimental work) examples of library systems that do track what courses a student is studying and actively use that data to provide a tailored service.

When we asked some specific questions about whether students would object to us using certain data to tailor services, over 90% of respondents didn’t object to us using their course or previous material they’ve accessed as a means of providing personalised services.  More than 80% had no objection to using their previous courses or search terms for personalisation. I think I would have expected a larger number of respondents who objected to the use of their data.

What I think is that there’s a trade-off between privacy and service (highlighted in this article by Li and Unger ‘Willing to pay for quality personalization?‘ (link is to abstract) from European Journal of Information Systems (2012) 21, 621–642. doi:10.1057/ejis.2012.13).  So there is a conscious calculation being made in terms of being able to see that you, the user, are getting a direct benefit from allowing the system to know something about you.  As a user you make that calculation and judge whether it seems reasonable to you or not.  ‘Does the benefit outweigh the loss of privacy?’  It strikes me that there seems to be an element here where users might be ascribing a ‘value’ to their data and they’d ‘trade’ that value for a benefit.  That makes me wonder whether the likes of Google (that essentially make their business model in part at least out of the value they can leverage from user data) have had the effect of making users realise that their ‘data’ also has a value that they can swop for a service?

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March 2013

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