Thursday, March 26, 2009

Discovery is not the problem that needs to be solved

I admire Eric Lease Morgan's ability to distill ideas into words. In his latest musing, he writes about Next-Generation catalogs and begins with asking this key question: To what degree is it an inventory list or a finding aide?

Next generation catalogues are also called discovery layers and on this matter, I would like to quote my favourite passage of the piece

"Discovery" is not the problem that needs to be solved. People can find more information than they have ever been able to find before. We are still drinking from the proverbial fire hose. What is needed are tools to enable people to use, to integrate, to exploit, to understand the things they find.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Branches of Branches of The One Big Library

Well it took just over three years, but I can now say with much conviction that I am a believer of One Big Library. (It just goes to show you that I'm not that swift but I am persistent.)

One Big Library is the notion that "there are many different kinds of libraries (public, academic, school, national, medical, special) but really there's just One Big Library with branches all over the world". Unlike the phrase "Library 2.0", the idea of One Big Library (and its credo "help people build their own libraries") lends itself as a means to understand where we are and in what direction we should be heading. As one commenter put it, the phrase is pregnant with possibilities.

One Big Library is a useful directive that has taken my thinking well beyond the obvious mandate of helping our users get the books and articles they need onto their netbooks.

It happened when I was thinking about branch libraries and I thought of my own experiences with them. I attended McGill's Graduate School of Library & Information Science back in the day when they not only had the word Library in their name but when they even had their very own library to support the school. But that was for a few short months until McGill decided to cut costs and integrate the school's library collection into the larger Humanities and Social Sciences Library.

After leaving McGill, I was lucky enough to find employment at the Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library. Some time after a short summer contract in its systems department, I worked part time in the library's periodical department. Some of the librarians I worked with spoke wistfully of a time when Reference Library was organized by subject - sciences, humanities, social sciences, business - and each discipline had their own periodical section, book collection, and reference staff who only answered questions in that discipline. But in order to cut costs, most of these specialized sections became absorbed into one collection that was reorganized by format: books in one area and periodicals in another.

Lesson learned? Separate branches mean redundancy in staffing and, frequently duplication in library materials. A library is only a growing organism if its regularly fed. Otherwise, its going to be absorbed by another library.

But this lesson only applies to physical libraries. These constraints largely don't matter in the digital realm.

For example, I work at the Leddy Library which collections for all subjects taught at The University of Windsor, except for Law which is served by its own library. While the physical collection is separated by format (books in the main building, serials in the west building), the digital Leddy Library is additionally organized by subject. Some of these subject pages feature links to indexes, key reference works, important journals in the field, contact information for the librarian subject specialist -- subject pages are starting to resemble a digital branch library for that subject.

Other libraries, such as The University of Rochester, are using an even finer degree of granularity : they are organizing their digital library resources by individual course. One course = one library.

Let's break it down even further. What if we could dynamically present our users with a subset of library resources - books, reference works, articles, journals, bibliographies, literature reviews - for every subject query that they ask of us? Isn't that what we really want a "discovery layer" to do for us? To create an instant library of potential resources for our users?

When I first considered Dan Chudnov's introduction to One Big Library, I had difficulty reconciling it with pre-Internet librarianship. But, three years later, I then realized that the digital realm not only makes One Big Library possible, it makes it inevitable.