from access to association

Yesterday was the start of the Electronic Resources & Libraries conference, which is being held at UCLA. (There was actually a reception on Monday night at the Fowler Museum but, since I’m on a vanpool, I haven’t been attending any of the evening events.) I went to the office first before trekking to Covel Commons for registration and some breakfast. (Conference registration actually includes breakfast, including a hot dish, and snacks!) I was actually a bit late getting there, so I had to eat my breafkast–fritatta and a muffin–rather quickly.

I then headed two buildings over to the Northwest Campus Auditorium to listen to the keynote speaker, Elizabeth Goodman. Goodman, whose background is in interaction design (she admits she’s not a librarian), is currently a PhD student at the UC Berkeley School of Information. She was a great speaker. And she had a fabulous-looking Powerpoint presentation, too.

Goodman started her talk by saying that libraries are very stable–they’ve been around for a long time and they are trusted, even with personal information. She then said that it’s time for libraries to move beyond just providing access to also providing associations–that libraries should be building relationships between things and with data. She asked us to think about the mobility and ability of information–how fast can it move?–and that libraries should not just be about connectivity but about connections–connections between people, between people and information/data/objects.

She then presented us with three “information science fiction,” as she calls them. These are basically thought-provoking ideas designed to make us think differently about the way we do outreach and provide access and services.

1. Public displays outside the confines of the library: Publicize things that seem internal to libraries in order to create associations and identifications. She gave the examples of displaying library statistics and tag clouds representing borrowers, subjects, etc. This “personal data visualization” can be displayed in the same way as murals or city screens. When people see these statistics or tags, they could identify with the words–e.g., Oh, I read those kinds of books;I didn’t know that that many people like those books, too.

I think this is a very interesting idea. Out of sight, out of mind. So, what would happen when you put the library in people’s faces? People know libraries are there, but this kind of display would remind them, nudge them. We’ve read the article about people turning to libraries more during these tough economic times, so how many more would be reminded of its value? At the same time, I think that people do have such a need for identification and affinity that even seeing words that apply to them or to which they can relate might just in fact encourage them to check out their local libraries or to utilize them even more.

[2/12/09: I’m not sure if Goodman mentioned this example in her talk, but this is exactly what DC Public Library is doing with their circulation data, or more accurately their OPAC searches. Look at their data visualization.]

2. Patron matchmaking: Building on the trust that people have in libraries, why not provide an opt-in matchmaking service where patrons can be introduced to each other based on their borrowing habits? Libraries already have your information, and this is a way for them to create connections by facilitating intellectual matchmaking and brokering relationships. This has nothing to do with romantic matchmaking (though I can imagine relationships springing from such matches); instead, this is about matching people who have the same reading interests.

Goodman knows, of course, that this would be difficult to realize given the privacy laws (and I would add to that, the additional expense and manpower needed), but think about it. People like book clubs. This is the same idea, except on a more individual level. She gave the example of her books being recalled; while she hates the people who recall her books, she is at the same time interested in meeting them, as she would then have someone with whom to discuss the book, give her ideas, etc. I find this an intriguing idea, even if perhaps a little creepy.

3. Enhancing digital texts with relevant resources: Goodman admits that this isn’t fiction; it’s something that’s already happening. This is basically linking to other documents and texts related to your topic. Essentially, when you have a digital text, have a system that automatically detects names of places, people, things, etc. and provide links to other texts and documents about these. This would then provide a new “reference room” for online resources.

I’ve already seen something like this. When I visited Purdue University in 2007 as part of being ARL Diversity Scholar, one of the sessions talked about something like this. They showed us a text of a geological survey and linking that to older surveys and doing a mashup with an area map. I believe they also showed how this can be applied in something like a literary text and how there could be links to places and people. This makes good sense. I certainly often look up things when I’m reading. But how would one do this on a massive scale and actually linking to authoritative sources? I’d imagine it would be more feasible to link to searchable Internet sites, but is that really what we’d want? Otherwise, it would take so much work, and it could get very unwieldy.

I think that Goodman presents some fascinating ideas. Though libraries are often seen as static, they actually are the opposite. And I think these ideas show, in a more obvious way, how dynamic libraries and their resources can be. The notion of access seems rather passive, when libraries do in fact provide connections. So, why not indeed move to providing associations? Why not become community centers in all the facets of that phrase? Food for thought, that’s for sure…


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