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Harvard Library Innovation Laboratory

The second aspect of data that caught my interest today was Harvard’s Library Innovation Laboratory.  I must admit that when I saw the link to it I did wonder whether it was going to be a list of library tools aimed directly at users (I’m sure I’ve seen the name used elsewhere recently for just such a list).  I know we are looking at redoing our library toolbox to update it and library lab or labspace sounded like a good name for something like that. But the Library Innovation Laboratory is much more interesting proof of concept for anyone with any interest in what you can do with library activity data.

Using library circulation data that has been contributed to the LibraryCloud there are some really imaginative prototype visualisations in the Stack View and Shelf Rank tools.  Two values are shown instantly.  The book width is determined by the numbers of pages in the book and the book colour corresponds to the volume of loans so the darker the blue the greater the traffic.  ShelfLife screenshot Titles are then shown as a stack one on top of each other.   It’s a really neat visualisation of the data and I’m already wondering if that approach would work equally well with visualising library data that is entirely electronic resources.  [It’s actually one of the big problems about anything to do with electronic resources – that there isn’t really a universal icon or symbol that you can use that everyone recognises that it relates to stuff that is online and in electronic form].

There’s quite a lot of interesting stuff in the site and also in the LibraryCloud site at One of the things that particularly interested me (from experiences with the RISE Activity Data project) was the section about data privacy and anonymisation, as a key requirement always has to be that with any dataset where the aspiration is for open release, it must be prepared in a way that ensures that users are unable to be identified individually.

The checkout visualisation is also a neat way of showing that sort of data in a nice clear fashion. Checkout screenshot The feature that lets you sort the data by different schools is useful and slightly brings to mind one of the MOSAIC competition entries that used a graph-type visualisation that allowed you to navigate through library use data.  It did amuse me though that ‘Headphones’ appears twice in the top ten with different numbers.   The perils of libraries using their Library Management Systems to loan all sorts of other things!
LibraryCloud screenshot

LibraryCloud currently has data from Harvard and Northeastern Universities and Darien, San Francisco and San Jose public libraries.  A couple of sites to keep an eye on over the next few months.

Courtesy of a couple of tweets from @psychemedia and @simonjbains two items about data and data visualisation caught my attention today on twitter.  Firstly a great post by Pete Warden ‘What the Sumerians can teach us about data’ on his PeteSearch blog and secondly Harvard’s Library Innovation Laboratory.   Both items covering particular aspects of data, one talking about the history of data, the other a great set of examples of how to use and visualise data, in Harvard’s case library circulation data using the LibraryCloud library metadata repository.

A history of data
I found the blog post on the Sumerians to be particularly interesting.   The starting point is the contention that their greatest achievement was the invention of data and there are some good examples of how the written language was used to record who owned what (or who owed what to whom).  I like the comparison made between the ‘threats of supernatural retribribution’  being used to protect the integrity of the data with modern warnings over video copying, both being ‘ways of forcefully expressing society’s norms, rather than a credible threat of punishment’

It find it interesting how often we seem to find that early examples of writing often turn out to be lists, in other words data rather than stories.  Another example that comes to mind are the Vindolanda tablets.  These are from the Roman period and found during excavations at a roman fort in Northern England.

“… for dining pair(s) of blankets … paenulae, white (?) … from an outfit: paenulae … and a laena and a (?) … for dining loose robe(s) … under-paenula(e) … vests … from Tranquillus
under-paenula(e) … [[from Tranquillus]]
from Brocchus tunics … half-belted (?) … tunics for dining (?) … (Back, 2nd hand?) … branches (?), number … a vase …
with a handle rings with stones (?) …”
Writing lists of things seems to have been a recurrent story and it strikes me that being able to list and count things must have been an early skill that would have to have been mastered by early farmers at least.  To my mind there’s no reason to suppose that early peoples would have been any less intelligent than modern day people.  And as the archaeologists are fond of pointing out ‘absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence’ so there’s no reason to suppose that people weren’t collecting lists of data long before the Sumerians maybe?

I also thought the comments making a comparion between instructions for interpreting omens and predicting the future from data to be really interesting.  A great deal is often made of the importance of ‘facts and data’ and it has long seemed to me that the critical factor isn’t the data that you have, but how you interpret it and what decisions you make.  And it often seems to me that the interpretation of data and decision making is a much less scientific exercise.

Part two covering the Harvard Library Innovation Laboratory to follow in the next blog post.

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June 2020

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