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When I was looking for an image to start off the RISE presentation I tried to find an image that visualised the challenge and issues that users face in finding and accessing library resources. So the phrase ‘needle in a haystack’ came to mind, particularly as the first slide was about the difficulties that users found coping with the old federated search tools we used in 2009. And I found a great image to use.

The intended metaphor was that the difficulty of finding resources was the ‘needle in a haystack’, but the image of the oversized needle also seemed to me to be symbolic of our aim of improving our systems.  So introducing a new discovery system and creating a system through RISE to provide activity data-driven recommendations would make the process of finding library resources easier for users.

It’s probably a good thing that there is a person on the right of the image to give a sense of scale.  Otherwise you could intrepret it differently. The needle isn’t oversized at all, but is normal size. And it’s the haystack that has shrunk as library budgets shrink and our haystack (the licensed content) shrinks in size. But maybe that is rather too pessimistic?

Using evidence of what customers are doing to shape personalised services is now common practice across the business and commercial sectors. From giving people special offers based on their loyalty card transactions to the ‘Customers who bought this also bought this’ of Amazon, many companies are exploiting user activity data in numerous ways.

Libraries, though, have been very slow to realise the potential of activity data. With modern Library Management Systems now recording and keeping transactions for many years, and with the growth of systems such as ezproxy to control access to eresources, Libraries now have a rich seam of user activity data. But, with the exception of a few people such as Dave Pattern at Huddersfield, the take up in the HE sector hasn’t been high.

[Interestingly there is some use of this data in the public library sector. Evidence Based Stock Management takes details of library loans and uses that data to build a set of reports to allow librarians to make decisions on stock purchasing. In times where public library stock funds are under severe financial pressure (and from personal experience that has long been the case), being able to have evidence of stock performance is a powerful value for money, stock quality and customer service tool.]

To investigate the potential JISC have funded the MOSAIC project (Making Our Shared Activity Information Count) MOSAIC ‘is investigating the technical feasibility, service value and issues around exploiting user activity data, primarily to assist resource discovery and evaluation in Higher Education.’ MOSAIC builds on some of the work undertaken as part of the JISC TILE project and has used the user-activity data from Huddersfield University to build a demonstrator system and as the basis for a developer competition to identify some possible ways user activity data can be used. The project has also been looking at issues around data protection and getting permission for data to be made available for reuse.

I was able to attend one of the workshops the project held earlier this month to look at the work so far and the competition entries. The workshop aimed to get feedback from a range of librarians and academics. It was good to get to look in detail at the competition entries and talk about the work of the project. There were a total of six competition entries:

Interestingly three different approaches were taken with essentially the same set of data. The three approaches covered different ways of search, tools to show value for money and using the data to provide information about particular courses. Given the limited data available and the short timescale to develop a new service it was encouraging to see so many different approaches. The MOSAIC project is in the process of writing up their project report and it will be interesting to see what the outcomes will be.

In the next blog post I hope to cover some of the ways that libraries can make use of user-activity data to improve or deliver new services.

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June 2020

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