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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…

One of the good things about being at an HE institution is that you get the opportunity to find out first hand about some of the research that is going on.  Often that provides a fascinating glimpse of a range of new ideas and concepts.

This week I had the chance to see the current state of play with some research into methods of using images to support learning.  The research took a collection of photographs, loaded them into a learning system and then asked learners to categorise them against a set of criteria.  Interestingly the system used that data to visualise the results and feed back to the learner.  This process helps the learner by getting them to identify and explain patterns from the data. 

A couple of prototype systems were discussed that used Magic Studio software from Lexara and images from the Bridgeman Art Library.  The first system used 19th and 20th century images to investigate the role of women.  The system was tested in four schools with 12-14 year olds being asked to consider and categorise each of the images.  Although it seemed to have worked well as a learning activity it did flag up the need to provide more in the way of support in interpreting the images and identifying patterns.

A second prototype was developed covering aspects of sustainability.  In this example a set of images of buildings was used and learners had to tag them using a set of keywords and then answer a series of questions in a quiz about their attitudes to sustainability.

Magic Studio screenshot
Magic Studio screenshot

Learners were also asked to plan a town using the various buildings and were then able to look at factors such as the environmental and economic impact of the decisions they had made.  They could also compare with other people in class and collaborate.

Underlying the Magic Studio front end was a ‘reasoning engine’ that was designed to ‘build a model of the learner’ and ‘find out what is missing and guide then towards it’. 
Using ID3 decision tree algorithms the system was able to take the tagged data, run comparisons and identify patterns in the data.
The project is now looking at the potential for using the technology in other areas and with adult learners.    The system involves learners in a much more engaging activity with a set of images and it is fascinating how the background technology is able to analyse learners responses and provide them with support to help their learning.  Many libraries and archives have built up large collections of images and it was certainly interesting to see one area where they could be used to support learning.

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July 2020

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