Monday, 28 September 2009

Top Web Trend 3 of 5: Personalisation

As ReadWriteWeb said in their Top 5 Web Trend for 2009, "ultimately personalisation is about web sites and services giving you what you want, when you want it." While this is true, personalisation is also about giving people what they want in the formats they want. For libraries therefore, personalisation means being able to deliver the information people want, when they want it 24/7, and in the formats they want it. While this is easy to say it is not always easy to do. For example, commercial licenses and insufficient bandwidth, are two factors that can stand in the way of delivering anything and everything 24/7. Furthermore, even with Google Books a lot of information is still only available in print format.

Ultimately there is a tension between what people want and what libraries can technical deliver within their budget constraints. However, because good libraries understand their patron's needs and wants, they should be able to leverage off the advances in Web personalisation and offer even more responsive and relevant services that better meet client's needs.

So what does this mean in practical terms? ReadWriteWeb goes on to say that the personalisation is driven in part by:

  • Filtering the Real-Time Firehose: richer and better tagged semantic data means people can pull out only the bits they are interested in, and there are a growing number of dashboard services that make this happen by giving the user control over the filtering.
  • Open Web: More Data About You, Better Personalization: The growth in personalised filtering is made possible because the underlining data is richer and more structured. It is also possible because to quote ReadWriteWeb "the more data about you and your social graph that is available to be used by applications, the better targeted the content and/or service will be to you."
  • Recommendation Engines: watch what you are interested in and personalise their suggestions to your preferences.
Libraries have being offering personalisation for some time. My public library lets me identify what interest me and I get an email if new stuff comes in that is mapped against my interests.

Libraries (and of course web services and platforms) also offer users the ability to personalise their web sites. Example include:
Libraries are also increasingly allowing patrons to personalise the way they engage with the library through the use of widgets / gadgets. Patron can grab and embed a bit of the library into their own preferred web platform. For example (because they have been in the news of late) see Gone are the days when patrons had to go to a library's web site to use the library's online services.

While this is great, the type of services and trends mentioned by ReadWriteWeb will take personalisation to a whole new level. Mixing personalisation with the other 4 ReadWriteWeb trends (Structured Data, Real-Time Web, Mobile Web / Augmented Reality, and Internet of Things) will give libraries the potential to offer incredibly rich and compelling services that are directly targeted to each individual patron's needs and wants. Welcome to the brave new world!

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Top Web Trend 2 of 5: Real-Time Web

The "real time web" is no longer a future trend, its here. As ReadWriteWeb noted in its second top 5 web trends: Real Time Web "has become a core part of many Internet products this year: Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook, Google, Delicious, Wordpress, and many others. Because real time web is about communicating information that is both immediate and public, it is also having a profound impact on what and how libraries can harvest information, as well as deliver information to their client base.

Let’s not forget that real time web functionality also allows a library's client base to communicate among themselves (as well as back to the library) in real time. However, because the communication is immediate there is an expectation that the response, or answer, will also be immediate. Despite the introduction of excellent services such as Ask a Librarian, are libraries really set up to meet this expectation? For example, on Sunday afternoon as I write this blog post the "Ask a Librarian" service is not available. In the brave new world of social media, real time web implies 27/7, and not 10 am to 7 pm Monday to Friday Australian Eastern Standard Time.

Of course real time information in a library setting does not have to be driven by physical librarians staffing some sort of online client contact centre (the mortal in the portal). News feeds, be they driven by RSS or Twitter, or links to community-of-interest forums, are two other ways of embedding real time updates into a library portal. These and other methods allow a library to provide real time information updates 24/7, though of course they can't necessarily answer specific reference questions.

It is interesting, given the growing importance of real time information, that library portals offering updated real time content on the fly seem far and few between. Interesting, because in my experience, embedding automatically updating information does help make for a very compelling library portal. For example, the library I work at has (like many libraries) an internal wiki. However, many of the articles in the wiki now present buttons which launch updated information harvested from specific news and blog searches. The underlying feed is often aggregated, filtered and de-duplicated before being presented in either relevancy or reverse date order. This means that breaking or more up to date information on the specific topic can be embedded directly into the wiki without the need of library staff (or patrons) to manually update the content.

Lots of libraries offer RSS feeds alerting clients when there are updates and changes in the library's content, but why don’t more libraries embed information that has been filtered and delivered on the fly? After all, it is the skill of the librarian as an information professional that is essential in setting up the filtering to ensure only the best results are delivered. Hopefully one of the top trends for libraries will be an increase in the use of embedded real time information.

In the meantime there is a very good post on the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) blog which lists some of the characteristics of the real-time library. These are:
  • The real-time library is socially networked but it’s about more than just owning social network accounts; the real-time library has an active presence and shares information in real time.
  • The real-time library updates its status regularly.
  • The real-time library offers targeted services to the networked community.
  • The real-time library is accessible on real-time communication devices.
  • The real-time library is ready and waiting – all the time – to deliver information services.
  • The real-time library monitors the multitude of emerging real-time web services and experiments to find those with the potential to enhance service in real-time mode.
  • The real-time library designs information services specifically for delivery and use on the real-time web.
  • Real-time librarians are adept at creating relationships with real-time library users.

Monday, 21 September 2009

The Library as a kids place

I have been looking at the Libraries for Children and Young Adults and Library Buildings and Equipment session at the recent International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) conference in Milan and keep thinking of the line "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man" which is attributed to St Francis Xavier. This is also the quote which forms the basis of the long running Seven Up documentary. Basically the line means that who we are as adults is shaped by our childhood.

If this is the case (and I think childhood is incredibly important to shaping who we are as adults) then some of the libraries currently being built for children have the potential to make a real difference and inspire a joy of reading, learning, and discovery. If libraries want to continue to have a role for future generations, creating stimulating and fun places for children can only help. After all it is not only about technology. But back to the IFLA conference, there are a lot of very good papers in this session but the stand out for me was the paper from Denmark "The red tread - new central library in Hjørring, Denmark" [PDF].

This Danish presentation (with lots of great pictures) shows the new central Library in Hjoerring. It does not take long to read.
  • I love the red ribbon pathway through the library (it even encourages kids to crawl through one of the book shelves).
  • I love the slippery slide between the book shelves.
  • I love the more adult club chairs in the older kids reading area.
  • I love the messy activities area with paint and costumes.
  • I love the V.I.P. (Very Important Parent) corner, and
  • I love the tree structure and the soft floor mats in the kids reading area.
If only libraries where like this when I was a child. The librarians at Hjoerring are clearly very good at creating fun spaces that kids would love to use. They also seem very good at using technology, and (importantly) having fun. There is some very good information about this library on the web site and there is even a YouTube video of them building the fit outs for this library. Enjoy!

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Top Web Trend 1 of 5: Structured Data

Structured data has always played a role in libraries. Think MARC and MARCXML. Therefore, any increase in the importance of, growth of, and reliance on, structured data will have an impact on libraries. If the process of adding structure to data is increasingly automated, or becomes a seamless part of building online content, this will also have a huge impact on libraries.

Using structured data libraries will be able to build content that is richer as well as more accurate. It also means that information can be harvested and reused in more meaningful ways. For example, XBRL is structured data for financial reporting. Using XBRL companies can code up their financial reports and all the various regulatory authorities can automatically harvest these reports and process the information they contain without the need for humans to "read" and decipher them. A lot of companies and governments are hoping this will significantly reduce reporting and compliance costs. For libraries it means we could more deeply and accurately harvest mashed up information.

Structured data by its very nature is created through establishing links (structures) between bits of data. These links are based on meaningful associations and as a result they help turn data into information. One example cited in the ReadWrite Web top 5 web trends is Calais. The library I work for is already using Calais to categorise content relating to specific people, places, companies, facts, and events.

But what does this means, how does it work, and why is it important? Well, there is a good description on the Drupal OpenCalais project site which says "Using natural language processing, machine learning and other methods, Calais analyzes your document and finds the entities within it. But, Calais goes well beyond classic entity identification and returns the facts and events hidden within your text as well. The web service is free for commercial and non-commercial use."

Another good example which helps explain Calias (and structured data) relates to the Calais Wordpress blog plugin which is called Tagaroo. With Tagaroo, as you are write your post, is automatically analyzes it and suggests both tags and images from Flickr to enhance your blog. Other applications would include linking relevant geospatial information to information on an entity or event.

There is also a promotional video on the Calias web site. Yes it is a promotional video, but it does provide an easy to understand overview. And by the way, Calais has been developed by Thomson Reuters so there is some serious money been thrown at building structured data on the web.

Top 5 Internet web trends of 2009

Every year so many of us look out for the top trends from ReadWriteWeb and this year is no different. However, what do these trends mean for libraries and how will they shape the library of the future?

In 2009 the ReadWriteWeb top 5 trends seem particularly relevant to libraries, so ignore them at your peril. I was a bit surprised that a commentator of Stephen Abrams's stature just listed the trends and did not offer any commentary. Maybe Stephen thinks these 5 trends are self evident, or maybe he was just busy. Anyway, given the importance of these trends, and the fact they are starting to have an impact in many of the libraries close to me, I thought I would add my two cents worth (see the following blog posts for details). As you are no doubt aware the top 5 listed web trends are:

ReadWriteWeb has also posted their 5 top web trends presentation on to SlideShare. It is definitely worth the look. Question: How many of these things are you doing or about to do?

Friday, 18 September 2009

The Machine is using us with reCAPTCHA

Like a lot of people I am a big fan of Mike Wesch and his videos on the impact the Internet has had on society and learning. Like a lot of people I have enjoyed his take on The Machine is Us/ing Us.

A really good example of how we have become personally intermeshed into the workings of the Internet (and as a result are inadvertently building content or teaching computers to think) struck home when I saw that Google had announced they had purchased reCAPTCHA. For details see Teaching computers to read: Google acquires reCAPTCHA.

Over the last 12 months I have set up a digitisation project at work. As with a lot of other digitisation projects we faced hurdles when we had to digitise poor quality and / or old documents. As humans we could read the old text but the scanners could not make sense of faint, fuzzy, and or distorted text. What makes reCAPTCHA so interesting is that you can pass onto reCAPTCHA the images of the words your optical character recognition (OCR) scanning software has trouble reading, and then you leverage off the concept of crowds teaching computers so that the "Internet" learns to interpret and therefore process text that has otherwise stumped your OCR software.

The win win is that you are populating "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart" or CAPTCHA security devices, at the same time as "teaching" your OCR software to overcome difficulties associated with processing poor quality and distorted text. So it looks like the Machine is really Us/ing Us after all.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

OECD on your iPhone

...and in case you missed it, the OECD now offer for free 100 economic indicators from their 2009 FactBook in a format specially designed for your iPhone. For more information see the OECD 2009 Factbook section on

Education matters (and so should libraries)

At a time when there are cuts to library budgets, and large library systems such as the Free Library of Philadelphia look like they might close for good, it is interesting to see that the OECD has come out with its Education at a Glance 2009: OECD Indicators that demonstrates that investing in education will beat recession and boost earnings.

According to the OECD "going to university pays dividends in later life through higher salaries, better health and less vulnerability to unemployment... In most countries, the difference in pay levels between people who have degrees and people who don’t is continuing to grow." The OECD goes on to say that not only do "Government budgets and the overall economy also reap an advantage from higher numbers of graduates", but that there are many other social benefits.

So what has this got to do with libraries? Well,... if you believe that we live in the information age, and that libraries (because they are about information) have a role in education, this must mean that libraries play an important role in building (and maintaining) an up-to-date, educated, and informed civil society. The OECD figures also suggest that the benefits that accrue from building and supporting such a population far outweigh the costs of supporting education (and by extension) libraries.

Of course before you get to university you need to get through school, and after you have left university you need to keep your education up to date, so these OECD figures should also give comfort to school libraries as well as the public libraries who support life long learning.

The challenge for libraries is to measure the benefits they deliver, not in terms of how many people walk through the door, borrow books, or use their databases, (though these metrics are still important), but rather measure the impact they have in boosting their population's social cohesion (though educated does not always mean people are any more cohesive), employment opportunities, health, affluence, and general wellbeing.

Following is the OECD TV report that provides a summary of the benefits they say comes from investing in education. I want to avoid participating in party politics, but the OECD findings also seem to support the Australian Government's AUD $ 16.2 billion dollars Building the Education Revolution economic stimulus programme. A considerable amount of this money has gone towards building and redeveloping Australian school libraries. At a local level it looks like we might get some very good libraries that will make a difference. Lets hope so!

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

RSS in the cloud

There is an interesting post on about WordPress is going for RSS Cloud. It is interesting in that the post reminded me how far we have come as we move from listservs to RSS, to twitter to... whatever comes next.

RSS cloud will bring bloggers and podcasters will get a step closer to real time updates on WordPress. I agree with "the big question is whether or not bloggers will be willing to shift from social networking sites to RSS Cloud to get regular updates on their feeds." I also wonder if RSS Cloud will work with Yahoo Pipes. After all Yahoo Pipes is a great way to consolidate, filter, and dedup multiple RSS feeds.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Get your library listed in a mobile phone augmented reality

Augmented reality on your mobile phone! It had to happen sooner or latter. Check out WorkSnug. It's a pity that as of September 2009 it is only available in London, but their web site does say they are going to go global.

Worksnug provides an information overlay on top of your phone's camera. Point the phone into the street or down the road and the WorkSnug overlay tells you about what you are looking at. Designed for all those road warriors in the business community, it shows you the nearest and best places to go online, it even rates the coffee. How cool is that!

If you look really closely at their promotional video you will notice they feature a library as a place to go. How very wise. After all, many libraries have become seriously switched on and hip places to work, study, learn, socialise, and play (and of course read). The text on the WorkSnug video says the featured library is a "friendly, vibrant space, lots of varied activities going on, encourage mobile work." Need I say more.

But here's a word of warning, the WorkSnug team go out and rate sites. So if you want your library to get a favourable mention you better make sure there are no grumpy staff on desk duty when the WorkSnug reviews come and visit. Not that you have any grumpy staff now do you.

As an aside it is also interesting to see the simplicity of the WorkSnug web. There is very little text. Most of the content about what it is and what it does is all in the 1 minute embedded video. Does this really mean that YouTube is wining over Google as the search engine of choice for the digital natives?

Books or no Books? But is that the right question?

Like a lot of librarians I was interested to read that the Cushing Academy in Massachusetts had decided to discard all their books and move to a digital future. Instead of a library full of books they plan to spend their money building a learning centre with flat screen TVs and datapoints, and in place of the reference desk they are going to build a cafe.

What is was really interesting about this news item is that it generated so much debate as well as so many comments in the media. Cushing Academy even got a mention on Why? Universities across the world have been busy for some time building learning centres with little or no books. Just look at the following floor plans that popped up when I did a search Google Image for "Learning Commons" - Q. What do you notice? A. No to little books.

In 2008, Princeton (which of course is an Ivy League University) opened its new USD $74 million Peter B. Lewis Science Library. At the time the asked "But where are the books?" The "stacks you'd expect to find in [the library] have largely been banished to a surprisingly small high-density storage space in the basement." Clearly Cushing is not alone in "banning the book" - but is this Fahrenheit 451?

I have refrained from adding my two cents worth about Cushing and libraries without books until I noticed the following post and associated comments in Kathryn Greenhill's excellent "Librarians Matter" blog and I quote.

"During community consultation about the new library in the last few years, the requests have been for books, books and more books. Some of the new libraries I most admire have created more room for users and less room for books. There are so many new formats, accessed so many different ways. To me much of print publishing has morphed into a “push that product, move those units” cynical marketing exercise, that often does not give or expect sustained intellectual effort by either writer or reader. How can I support what the community obviously wants while bringing to them also the online, alternative and exciting content that exists in other formats and via other channels?"

Kathryn raises some very real concerns, and like a lot of librarians I feel we are all still working this out. Don't get me wrong I love books, and as I write this post I am in my study surrounded by bookshelves groaning under the weight of many, many books. BUT...

Are the options available to us really limited to books or no books, and how much of the debate is driven by a very deep emotional attachment to the physical item rather than a objective debate about the future of libraries and the best way to deliver information? Notice this is a question, not a statement. I work in a law library, and more and more legal information is only available online. Yet when we recently moved the library we were obliged to take 9 bays (almost 50 metres) of the UK law reports, not because the clients use these reports (on the contrary they use the online version), but because they like the look of the bound volumes lined up on the wall. If we had discarded these bound reports we would have had some very unhappy campers.

For me there is a place for both book and the online. I suspect the balance depends very much on the type of library and the type of collection. In disciplines such as science, medicine and technology, by the time something some thing is published in a book it can be very much out of date. Yet I still like being surrounded by books, and going to bed with a Kindle is not the same as going to bed with a book.

Libraries cost money to run, and money is increasingly harder to find. So for me the debate has to be about what is the most cost effective and efficient way of delivering information to the client base, and what best meets the needs of most of the client most of the time within the allocated budget. I love books, but as a responsible librarian I don't think I can allow my love of books to get in the way of what is best for the clients and the future relevance and sustainability of the library. I also take comfort in the Aarhus Public Librarian's comment in the article about Cushing Academy in which Rolf Hapel say very simply "The library has never been just about books".

Friday, 11 September 2009

Web applications and fun stuff

Way back in 2007 when I started this blog as part of a Learning 23 Things exercise I had to have a look at cool stuff such as Flickr's the Color Pickr. Color Pickr of course let's you find public photos in Flickr that match a specific colour. I was therefore curious to see the BokehType experiment from The Man in Blue. the man in blue is (and I quote) "the alter ego of Cameron Adams, a Web Technologist in Sydney, Australia. (That means he does graphic design, HTML/CSS, JavaScript, writing, server-side jiggery pokery, and anything else that takes his fancy that day.)"

Cameron has quite a few other experiments which are worth the look. Some are useful, some are fun, and some are both. For example check out his Mouseboard, widgEditor, Circtangles, and Technicolor.

It is also great to see that Cameron has embraced the whole open source approach. The widgEditor code for example is released under a GNU General Public License. Cameron, you're a living legend (and I was not paid to say that).

Thanks also to Chris for putting me onto BokehType.