Goodbye: Cutting out the middle man

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The library online is an absurd concept: coercing real-world institutions
into online entities is doomed to failure. Kill the library, free up the content, attract the users.

OK, that seems a bit strongly worded, but I’m beginning to think that it’s true, because

  • so many library sites mimic the physical library
  • library sites are “collection presentations”
  • concepts like OPAC are intrinsically linked to the physical library
  • tacking on a bit of Javascript isn’t going to change things.

I think that the reason library websites fail where others succeed is that library websites generally focus on “presenting the collections and the library”, which is of course great except for the fact that the user is interested in something that is totally unrelated to this.

Users are interested in finding stuff, which is why search engines are popular. A library site typically tries to tell a user where and — if you’re lucky — how to find things in the library. Tying the online library together with the physical library often seems like a good idea; if you consider the OPAC, you’ll notice that this is largely useless without the physical library (in fact, it’s mostly just a tool for navigating the physical library), and as such in an “online library”, the OPAC is an irrelevance. Adding “user favourites” and “-reviews” to an OPAC isn’t going to help increase your user statistics (unless you’re going to allow online users to receive books by post — which is why Amazon is comparatively popular). Sure, it’s nice to be able to check if a title is in the library, or order it online from home, but a visit to the physical library is inevitable. The OPAC is tied to the library (any libraries out there that don’t require patrons to meet up in person in order to get a membership card?).

From the perspective of the academic library, a lot of our content is online (I’d say over 90%); we have web pages that present system upon system, providing cute little taxonomies that allow the user to discover the wealth of information that is at their fingertips. All to no avail.

The majority of users will find the online information they need without ever realizing that they are getting it from the library. Awareness of
the fact that the library pays for online resources is very low — people still assume that information on the Net is free; they don’t understand that their IP address is recognized and authorized; they don’t understand what the VPN client does. Why should they? They’re trying to do their job.

Pointing a user in the direction of a webpage that lists resources “they can use” isn’t working; trying to educate people about things that they don’t understand the importance of isn’t working. Maybe it’s time to think about things afresh.

The purpose of a successful information site like Google is clear: to let people search for information across a diverse array of sources, and provide an understandable results set (OK, it’s actually more like “to attract users so that we can intersperse their user experience with targeted marketing, which means that we make advertising revenue”). I don’t personally think that Google does “finding” particularly well in respect to the kinds of sources library users want, which is the niche I’m talking about. Googling is nevertheless one of the most common ways of gathering academic information.

Perhaps the goal of the library website should be akin to that of Google, but with a focus on quality controlled, paid-for and deep-web content that the library owns. These are our goodies, and we should be exploiting them.

There are really two ways of achieving this: selling the farm and exporting everything to Google/Google Scholar; or creating a perfectly transparent information discovery platform.

If you want the quick and dirty fix, choose Google (you should probably consider doing this anyway in addition to any other measures). If you’re in for the long haul, create a site that focuses on integrating content into one template, create direct linking to actual content (i.e. the PDF, not the site that hosts the PDF) and make it as like Google as you dare, only more intelligent.

A big step in this direction is federated search; users like recognizable interfaces; they want conformity. Federated search allows users to access both shallow and deep-web sources via a consistent interface, and this is the future.

The physical library should not be predominant; all resources are equal — your OPAC should be getting special treatment, it’s just another source in your federated search arsenal. Help for online users is as important as help for physical borrowers.

Once you’ve got a consistent interface thanks to the federated search platform, you can start simplifying the way users interact with it, moving it out of the browser content space, and integrating it into the browser itself, giving context-sensitive feedback, as well ass providing direct search capability.

You’re cutting out the middle men of the online library:

  • the reference database
  • the publisher website
  • the OPAC

And you’re maybe cutting out the physical library (only to bring it back when it’s relevant).

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