The Work


Lorcan Dempsey, whose team at OCLC I admire like no other, had a great post last week that has stuck with me. I frequently say “shop=search” – that the storefront for media is essentially the Google search box. Lorcan describes this with regard to libraries, who do an amazing job curating and aggregating, but for a specific audience – library patrons and librarians. However, as he says,

[A]ccess and discovery have now scaled to the level of the network: they are web scale. If I want to know if a particular book exists I may look in Google Book Search or in Amazon, or in a social reading site, in a library aggregation like Worldcat, and so on. My options have multiplied and the breadth of interest of the local gateway is diminished: it provides access only to a part of what I am potentially interested in. As research and learning information resources have become abundant in this environment, the library collection and its discovery systems are no longer the necessary gateway for library users. While much of the discovery focus of the library is still on those destination or gateway systems which provide access to its collection, much of their users’ discovery experience is in fact happening elsewhere.

Second, the institution is also a producer of a range of information resources: digitized images or special collections, learning and research materials, research data, administrative records (website, prospectuses, etc.), faculty expertise and profile data, and so on. How effectively to disclose this material is of growing interest across libraries or across the institutions of which the library is a part. This presents an inside-out challenge, as here the library wants the material to be discovered by their own constituency but usually also by a general web population.

These factors shift the discoverability challenge significantly. The challenge is not now only to improve local systems, it is to make library resources discoverable in other venues and systems, in the places where their users are having their discovery experiences.These include Google Scholar or Google Books, for example, or Goodreads, or Mendeley, or Amazon. It is also to promote institutionally created and managed resources to others. This involves more active engagement across a range of channels.

This is an amazing articulation of a fundamental problem – libraries have extremely rich assets, and they are proprietary and in many cases closed, unavailable on the open web. Which is fine…but you can’t even see that they exist. Which is not fine. The web would be enormously enhanced if we could see what information is actually available (even if you have to set up credentials to log in, even if you have to pay).

It’s more than a question of engagement, and Lorcan is quite right to include the word “active” – it requires work. It requires structuring the resources in such a way that they can be mapped effectively to one another, or to bridge systems which serve as Rosetta stones, enabling a user to go relatively easily from one resource to another, or to search many resources simultaneously (the holy grail of “federated search” probably will be Google. Who knew?).

There are a lot of us who worked on these problems in other arenas – in my case, commercial bookselling on the web – who have a tremendous amount of experience that could be brought to solving this new iteration of issues. I’m really happy to be working on the bibliographic extension of, with Richard Wallis, but there’s so much more work that needs to be done.



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