Have you ever wanted to read a library? I know I have. More than once when I was young, and introduced to a new library, I’d contemplate, if just for a moment, whether I could read every book in it. (Eventually I’d do the math and realize I’d never finish in my lifetime. But I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who thought about doing it.)
While human beings can’t literally read the text of every book in a library past a certain size, “reading libraries” from a distance — that is, understanding the nature of a large collection of information, and how it can answer out questions and satisfy our interests — is something that researchers do a lot, and for good reason. We do it, in different ways, when we survey the research output of an individual or institution; when we scan shelves of books for relevant sources; when we assess the likely worth of material from a given source; and when we conduct searches in catalogs, or library databases, or web search engines, for books, articles and websites that will answer our questions.
Computer-mediated aggregation and analysis of online information gives us a whole new set of methods for “reading” collections from various distances and viewpoints. Collectively, we’re still trying to determine the most useful methods, and the most effective implementations, for “distant reading” of collections of information. Lately I’ve been putting a fair bit of time into thinking and talking about some of them.
Back in August, for instance, Anne Seymour and I gave a talk at the VIVO 2013 Conference in St. Louis, titled “How to Read 200,000 Publications: VIVO and the Intelligent Evaluation of Scholarship”. VIVO is a semantic web application that we’re now using at Penn to aggregate, analyze, and share information about the research publications of thousands of Penn’s faculty researchers in health sciences. In our talk, we discuss ways that people could use the VIVO service and its data to better evaluate the work of these researchers. We emphasize the importance of looking at a body of work in a variety of ways, both from a distance, and close-up. And we note the dangers of relying on tempting shortcuts, like “impact factors“, to substitute for more relevant and considered assessments. We’ve posted the slides and approximate script for our talk online.
Another kind of library-reading occurs where library users ask “What does the library have to offer on a topic I’m interested in?” (“How should I start reading what it offers?” is an important followup question as well.) Librarians expect their catalogs and discovery systems to be able to answer these questions for their patrons. Some of us, like Lorcan Dempsey, say that libraries can provide much better answers if our systems support “full library discovery” encompassing many different types of information. Some, like Dale Askey, say that “Google won the discovery wars years ago“, and conclude that it’s not worth spending a lot of resources on library-specific systems that “are of little interest to our users”.
I see some truth in both of these positions. I believe that libraries have a lot of relevant offerings (not just books, articles, and other information sources, but also guidance, expertise, and space) that can help answer researchers’ questions. I also believe we could do a lot better at making these offerings apparent and intelligible to our users. But I agree that library discovery systems are not going to retake the lead of Google (and other heavily used Internet sites like Wikipedia) as common starting points for research. The findings in OCLC’s recent Perceptions of Libraries survey report, which includes the note on page 32 that “Not a single survey respondent began their information search on a library Web site,” are sobering confirmations of the futility of trying to out-Google Google.
That’s why I’ve lately been stressing the importance of making it easy for library users to find their library’s offerings from wherever they start searching. Search-engine-friendly catalogs and digital repositories are important parts of solving this problem. So is the ability to seamlessly route library users to resources that the library licenses, without them being stopped by a paywall. And so is referring users looking up topics in their favorite search engines and information sites to overviews of what their own libraries offer on those topics. Those overviews could be the attractive “bento box” overviews that Lorcan Dempsey discusses, or they could just be plain old library catalog searches, if that’s all a library can manage. Either way, getting a user to those summaries of a library’s offerings helps ensure they will get used when needed.
OCLC has offered local library referrals for specific bibliographic items from Worldcat.org for a while through its deep linking service, which is based on ISBNs and similar identifiers. More recently, I’ve been implementing local library linking for specific subjects, authors and works through the Forward to Libraries service. I’ve described in previous posts how this service now provides links from The Online Books Page and from Wikipedia, and can link to an ever-growing array of libraries of all kinds. Lots of other sites could be linking out to libraries using the FTL service as well. I’d like to get more digital and local libraries involved both in supporting and improving library-referral links.
To that end, I’ll be giving a couple of talks on Forward to Libraries in the next few weeks. At the DPLAfest in Boston on October 25, I’ll be co-leading a workshop on “Using Digital Tools to Extend the DPLA and Connect with Local Libraries“. Participants will not only see how they can take advantage of Forward to Libraries, but they’ll also get to see John Sarnowski describe and demonstrate tools that local libraries can use to digitize and share their local content with the world. At the Digital Library Federation Forum in Austin on November 5, participants will get to hear about FTL in “Forward to Libraries: Experiences Connecting Digital Libraries, Local Libraries, and Wikipedia“, one of a series of snapshot talks that also features many other interesting projects and ideas.
While my formal presentations at both meetings will be relatively brief, I’m very happy to talk more with interested folks about how they can provide links and overviews for local library resources. And outside those meetings, I’ll be glad to help hook up your library. At this point, all of the general research libraries in DLF should be registered with FTL, and hundreds of other libraries are registered as well. If you’d like to register your own library, or let me know of better ways for FTL to link to your library, just drop me a note via the service’s request form.