SocialPACs, Community and… Sourdough.

An interesting, but low-key thread unfolded over at Panlibus earlier last week. I found it to be a good starting-point for a larger discussion about how Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 technology and software could come together in a cohesive manner, instead of the traditional ad hoc, piecemeal, vendor-driven method.

In response to Hennepin’s new commenting capability, Talis’s Paul Miller asks the question, “Participation is an important part of moving forward. How much better might shared participation be?” What he’s talking about is allowing other libraries to access Hennepin’s comments in an effort to provide a more enriching search experience beyond Hennepin’s OPAC, say, at Ann Arbor, or wherever.

What Paul goes on to propose in a follow-up post is a shared collectionof user participation much like the UK’s archival project. This would provide a central database and, presumably a set of web tools to access and interact with the data. Libraries anywhere in the world would have access to add and read content. It would be a shared, collaborative clearinghouse of participation.

I’m all for it–but with some caution. Isn’t that what Amazon is now? If you take away the e-commerce, Amazon is a collection of reviews, tags, and ratings on an insanely large amount of material. Interesting? Indeed. Useful? Of course. But I feel the need to point out that libraries are community-based institutions. They are supported by local taxpayers and are run, mostly, by members of the communities they serve. As such, wouldn’t we want any social element that is incorporated into our OPAC to reflect the tastes and opinions and personality of our community? I think so, and so does Ed Vielmetti:

…here in Ann Arbor there are a lot of book readers, and it’d really be rather nice to read comments from people who shared the same town with you. If I want to read random untrusted comments from people all over the world there’s already Amazon.

I mentioned some of this a while ago, though never specifically addressed the local vs. global social data repository idea. All this is not to say that in addition to community-driven social software we can’t access and make use of a shared data store. In response to a comment I made to Paul’s second post on this, Fiona Leslie made two very good points that she has seen come up repeatedly.

1. Libraries have reading groups and staff who create reviews, and there is no mechanism for getting those reviews “available” beyond posting them on notice boards, or perhaps on the library’s web pages. A few of them have an OPAC implementation that allows the reviews to be viewed in their OPAC.

2. Libraries have few or no reviews, but they see the value in having them, and would really appreciate a kickstart by having access to a shared repository of reviews created by other readers and staff in other areas.

Ok, so I’ll address each one separately. First, she is absolutely right, there is no de facto method of integrating participation in to our OPACs. This is compounded by the fact that our OPACs themselves tend to be unalterable beasts and we must rely on vendors themselves to make changes and enhancements to them. Many of you who follow what I write here know that’s a contentious issue for me, but I’ll keep my hackles down for now and simply remind everyone that this is another reason to demand a few basic rights from our vendors.

But even if we did all have unfettered access to our OPACs, or were resourceful and persistent enough to subvert the plain vanilla foisted upon us, what would a socialPAC look like? Fiona specifically mentions reviews, so lets stick with that for the purposes of this post. Actually, let’s not, because it doesn’t matter what the implementation looks like–that’s the fun part you and your development team get to mess about with when you do your redesign. What’s important is what we do with that review data after we get it and the value it adds to the process of searching for material. I’d suggest that the data be made available via two conduits. First would be the end-user interface. That is, the website or application patrons use to both consume and produce the content. How you weave this in to your OPAC is ultimately up to you (or… up to your vendor).

Richard Wallis weighed in ad responded to my comment. He writes:

So what are my assumptions then? Well firstly, the contributions of the citizens of Ann Arbor would be of great use, interest, and value to a far wider audience than just their district. Secondly, contributions to any global pool should be tagged as to their source and type. Thirdly, because of that tagging, selection of results should be able to be via many filters such as library, library authority or institution, library type, country, language etc.

So following through those assumptions in John’s situation, I would hope that contributions for my community would add value to the global pot; be displayable locally in isolation as a coherent set; and optionally could be supplemented by those from other appropriate communities around the country and the rest of the world.

I suppose I was a little unclear in my comment on Panlibus. I’d agree with Paul that, once the data is in, it would be nice to have a way to share it with other libraries. And I also agree with Richard that there is a place for supplementing existing data with a larger pool. In fact, I believe we have an obligation, as libraries, to do some manner of both. I envision Ann Arbor’s system providing a very lean web service on top of this entire system. Using this model, we will be able to share our community-driven social data beyond our borders. Libraries who do not enjoy the same community support that Ann Arbor, has will still benefit from the data. I believe this distributed approach to generating and maintaining socialPAC data will ultimately offer both redundancy and diversity. The thought of hundreds of libraries making their data available is certainly a more appealing alternative than that of the monolithic database. Metadata itself is an archive–it tells a story.

Fiona’s other point was that kick-starting a service may be difficult, especially in communities that are not likely to respond to and prime a service like this. Personally, I think we all might be surprised at the response that socialPACs will have with our constituents. Almost everyone has an opinion, and most people want to share it. That aside, however, Fiona is right. There will be cases where social software is not successful, popular, whatever.

So how do you evaluate your own situation with respect to social social software? Can your community sustain a socialPAC in perpetuity in a manner that will continually reflect a unique attitude and personality? If it can, how do you get it started?

First, you’re going to have to be honest with yourselves about the project itself. Do you want to pursue social software because it’s cool and hip, or do you really want to change the way your users interface with your collection in profound and personal ways while building a legacy at the same time? You can get a good feel for the level of Web 2.0 participation your community engages in by using existing Web 2.0 services which often let you dial in on specific locales. This may give you a good indication of whether a program like this might be a success.

If you’re convinced that your community will support a socialPAC, the next step is to come up with a a design and interface concept that will truly let your existing catalog shine while providing all the Web 2.0 immersion people expect. (easier said than done). This is where the innovators need to step in and start coming up with tangible examples of how this might work. I suspect that most libraries that do this will pursue a variation on a theme, but bear in mind that there are a lot of directions to take this stuff and in the end, it’s the one-of-a-kind feature that will give your OPAC its fingerprint. I suppose that vendors will dial in on the more popular and successful models and run with those. I have no problem with that as long as they adhere to the Web 2.0 spirit.

What about the initial “jump-start”? While I was writing this, my thoughts kept drifting to sourdough and I remembered a good friend of mine who, on occasion, liked to bake sourdough bread. It was this person who introduced me to my first sourdough starter. A shapeless blob that lives in your refrigerator and which, on occasion, you feed. At any rate, he was telling me how some sourdough starters have very rich and colorful histories because they have been passed down, literally, through generations. Some are closely guarded, while others have been disseminated and passed around liberally. It’s pretty fascinating.

But before I digress completely, Fiona’s concern about kick-starting can be addressed if we make our metadata available to systems starting up. Instead of one or two large repositories, however, wouldn’t it be great if we could choose from hundreds and all we had to do was send a request against a web service to get started? The tools are in place to allow this kind of interaction. All it takes is a willingness to communicate and share.

I suppose I may be searching for blue sky here, but Web 2.0 gives us a chance to do things properly from the beginning. Ultimately, the successful system will be rich with good data and useful to your patrons. The deeper significance of a unique repository will not emerge right away, but in time, you’ll see how data, like buildings themselves, can add to the legacy of a place. Make it available to the larger library community and we’ll see some very interesting things, indeed.


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