Monday, October 08, 2007

Brief detour into geekishness

As I work through my readings and other coursework enroute to my MLS degree, I have heard various authors and bloggers lament the lack of what I would refer to as serendipity in the search process. In the days of the card catalog, a student doing research would determine the general location of books on the topic, and then head to that section of the stacks and search, not only for the book(s) they found, but also for any nearby that could meet the need. The serendipitous nature of the search becomes apparent when the student, unable to find enough resources to satisfy their needs, begins to browse, looking at titles and subjects in the same general area. Books are repeatedly pulled out, flipped through, and then (hopefully) re-shelved, while the searcher looks for materials and information to meet their needs. Our fictitious student may stumble upon a related topic that interests them even more, and has adequate resources to help the student succeed at the given assignment.

Jump forward in time to today, and into the age where students’ first choice for research is the Web. Most library catalog systems lag far behind the tools available on Amazon and Google, where browsers can look at the table of contents and portions of the book online. Tech-savvy librarian writers for ALA and its alphabet-soup mix of sub-groups seem to be calling for libraries to make a jump to an ILS that keeps up with advances young people take for granted. But technology changes so fast that for libraries to catch up is like trying to jump on a moving train while carrying two full-size suitcases without wheels!

Instead, why don’t we try to jump ahead? Or, at least jump to the cutting edge. But which edge? Whatever we jump to, it has to be seamlessly capable of click-and-browse in any direction, and at any level of depth. One new product on the market offers an interface that comes closest to capturing the capability to physically browse while being on the cutting edge: Apple’s newest iPod, the iTouch, and its cousin, the iPhone. Watching the online tour of the iTouch in particular, I was struck by the “album view” capability built into iTunes, the software that plays music and other media. Here is a picture:

Here is one possible place where libraries can jump in, and become both relevant and valuable to the next generation of users. Currently, when someone carrying an iTouch walks into a Starbucks coffee shop, it automatically accesses an electronic “music store,” where patrons can buy the songs they hear over the store’s sound system. Why not offer similar wifi network in libraries? Patrons carrying such a device can walk in, and immediately have the electronic catalog available to them, in the same feature-rich format. Click on a button or icon, and begin a metasearch on a given topic. From the list of items found, patrons can browse the table of contents, or pages within the item by “flipping” through in album-view. If the items listed do not meet the need, the patron can click on hyperlinked terms from controlled vocabulary, and easily tap into even more resources!

I could go on for enough pages for a conference presentation Instead, I challenge any open-minded library student or professional to view one or both of these tours (iTouch or iPhone); as you watch, mentally note how easily many of these features could be transformed into all the disparate, valuable tools and services we offer – metasearching, links to OCLC and ILL, searching subscription databases and the web simultaneously, etc. All of this available in the humble context of flipping through the pages of an electronic, book-like device that patrons already own!
Latté, anyone? ;-)


Ellen said...

You bring up some great ideas, Todd! What you propose should definitely appeal to the "Millenials" and whatever they call the generation after them. My only concern is that libraries don't end up going completely into the "techie" world and lose the services that appeal to the less tech-savvy patrons.

Sue said...


How did you get that incredible picture on your post?