Tasteful Mashups or Spoiled MoJo

Tim Spalding of LibraryThing just posted about the latest Talis Library 2.0 Gang podcast. The L2 Gang podcasts are produced by Paul Miller and generally involve a number of L2 peeps. This last one focused on mashups, in lieu of the Talis mashup competition. Tim does a great job of summing up the talk and, as usual, I find his energy and enthusiasm inspiring.

I wanted to follow up on some thoughts I voiced during the discussion about distribution. A lot of discussion focuses on the potential for mashups to connect patrons to our collections and other data. Indeed, they can be some ingeniously clever pieces of software that tie together bits of information to make something new and, hopefully, useful. At the very least, they’ll catch our eye for a moment and make us think. In that regard, they can be both functional and artful, they can be applied practically or be used solely to make a statement. Take Tim’s example of the blast radius mashup as an example: while it’s novel and thought-provoking, I’m not terribly concerned about my proximity to a nuclear detonation. Contrast that with the many Greasemonkey scripts that display library availability in Amazon which do have a practical application. I can’t argue over the efficacy and potential of these little bits of code. Like most things, however, they exist on one side of the fulcrum of practicality. What I mean is that in order for a library mashup to be successful, another major component is required: distribution.

More and more, I’ve become convinced that distribution is the quicksand in which libraries have the potential to be mired. This became very apparent to me while I was listening to Chris Anderson speak at ALA. He used the term “bottleneck” to describe traditional distribution avenues. These would be things like broadcast time and shelf space, which have finite capacities. The idea behind long tail is that by giving users the tools to find more “niche” content, retailers can circumvent the distribution bottleneck because more efficient means of delivering content, such as direct shipping or digital download, are used. If you have a digital storefront, inventory can be stored in massive distribution centers dotted across the country–shelf space is not a problem. Of course, the Amazon interface enables customers to discover the long tail content. I agree with Chris that, ultimately, the product pool at our fingertips is enriched because the economy of scale is shrunk significantly, making smaller sales more profitable. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but my point is that long tail economics will benefit both the seller and consumer.

So how does the long tail relate to mashups and libraries? Well, the primary and practical use of of mashups in a library environment would be to provide a way to access niche, or long-tail content. I’ve seen this done in three ways.

First is what I tend to think of as the “suckerfish” method of slipping content in to larger sites. There are a variety of tools available that allow mashup authors to slip related content into another web site. They can often take advantage of an API to merge or cross-reference information. Availability information in Amazon is an example of this.

The second is the aggregation method whereby a mashup gathers information from the library website itself and presents it in a new way. There are a variety of different ways people get online. The web browser may be the most common, but virtually any application can take advantage of online APIs. Cell phones, system-tray notifications, iPods, dashboard widgets can all aggregate library information. Ed Vielmetti’s wall of books is a very simple web script that does this quite well.

Finally, Mashups can be used to add a social dynamic to the library search experience. Library information can be merged with existing or home-grown social networking software. Social interaction is one of the best ways to come in contact with new materials, yet libraries are particularly slow to adopt this for a variety of reasons. AADL’s virtual card catalog is an example of a social mashup.

Each of these mashup strategies can be used to distribute information through a variety of conduits: cell phones, iPods, email, IM, palm pilots–wherever a device is connected or synced-up to the net. What makes the mashup such a promising technology is that the creation of even the most ingenious mashup does not necessarily require a great deal of programming skill.

But, like commercial online sellers, there is a Y component to this equation. What happens once we do provide a wonderfully integrated experience to our users where they can find material in new and exciting ways? Do they place a request on it like they always have and hope it’ll be available to them within the next six weeks? Without the means to deliver material in a timely fashion, we might as well be telling our users to hurry up and wait. Having the tools to find the material we want is nice, but we actually have to make the material available in a timely fashion. This is one of our most challenging hurdles because there are several fundamental differences between us and sellers. The first, and most obvious, distinction is the simple fact that we are not selling content. Where a seller can draw upon what is essentially an infinite supply of books, CDs, and DVDs, we cannot. The other limitation we face has to do with delivery of the physical material themselves. What makes companies like Amazon so successful is the mere fact that they do no have to manage shelf space. Instead, they have a complex inventory management system that allows them to keep much of their inventory in transit at all times. We don’t have that. Moreover, Amazon’s customers pay for delivery, ours don’t.

What emerges is somewhat of a catch 22. On one hand, libraries are, first and foremost, places people go to borrow material. On the other, it is those same physical materials that are becoming a logistical liability. We simply cannot store and distribute them with the same efficiency as the Amazons of the world, nor do we want to. We also cannot guarantee availability of items, especially the more popular titles, where sellers can. In addition, for better or for worse, we exist in a society that has grown accustomed to instant gratification. I’ve heard plenty of criticism directed at this facet of contemporary life, but the fact remains that we’re only going to see expectations rise as the next generation of patrons begin to fill our ranks.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this issue is a crisis. We are approaching one, however. We need to aggressively pursue ways in which we can distribute content electronically. Unfortunately for us, however, publishers, movie studios, and record companies are extremely skittish about copyright issues right now. It’s important, then, that we work closely with distributors to develop a practical way to loan digital content. The technology exists to do so now, fair use of electronic materials is solely a policy issue at this point.

So what can the rest of us do until such a day comes? We find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. In the meantime, we can find creative ways of balancing our collections and distribution capabilities. For example, a lot of talk has been centered around doing Netflix for libraries. This is a great idea, but it requires some fundamental changes to traditional holds process. We would need to have the ability to finely control a holds queue to ensure that patrons are not flooded with material. Specifically, we would need the ability, within our ILSs, to bump users around in a queue. In addition, it would require a bit of software to manage the material assignments.

Other possibilities are within the range of possibility. Print-on-demand technology makes possible a number of options. Events programming can also play a very large part in changing the way patrons regard libraries. And that gets to the rub. Mashups are only a small part of a larger picture of a library industry in flux. Libraries cannot compete with likes of Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon–nor do we want to. But we can change what we are and the role we play in our communities. Lending material is only a small part of what we can offer to our people, and that is ultimately our strength.

The ideal library mashup is one that is created by a patron, but if we do write some ourselves, we need to keep in mind that an exceptionally convenient mashup may imply a level of service on the back end that we just cannot provide. I don’t think we want to be that guy… you know, the one who pimps out a cheap Honda Civic with a spoiler.


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