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From community to technology...and back again

Part 2: The networked library

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In part one of this series, we examined the rise of personal networks. We saw how the giants of the Web−Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon−have succeeded largely by enabling users to create their own personal networks based on preference and need. This strategy rewards the chief difference of the Internet when compared to earlier technological innovations—that there is no center of the network. Or, rather, there are as many centers as there are people willing to define new networks built from the resources and relationships most important to them.

In this issue, we’ll look at how an “inside-out” model for getting library resources out into users’ workflows and community spaces can succeed in a networked information environment.


No fixed center

We had originally intended to title the second part of this series, “Libraries at the Center,” as it would be a discussion of networks built around libraries, in contrast to the personal networks built around individual users as discussed in part one. What we found, though, as we progressed through our research, interviews and writing was that the greatest areas for growth and success for libraries in the networked world occurred when libraries took their materials, services and expertise further away from the center of traditional library contexts. The most profound opportunities for service seemed to occur when libraries placed their resources within the networks and environments already being used and valued by their communities.

Lorcan Dempsey, Vice President, OCLC Research and Chief Strategist, refers to this model as the “inside-out” library. It’s a shift in thinking that requires:

  • a willingness to engage with users in the places that library users already frequent
  • the ability to adopt community goals within library contexts
  • an entrepreneurial spirit, eager to experiment with many nontraditional tools in order to connect with users in new ways.

We’ll look at examples of each of these requirements, and then make the case that library cooperation in key areas such as data syndication is essential to helping libraries succeed with an “inside-out” strategy.

The inside-out library

Traditionally, Lorcan points out, libraries have managed “outside-in” resources, acquiring materials from many sources and then providing them from central locations, either in physical buildings or online services. Now, however, as we noted in the first part of this series, information seekers create personal networks in which they find information based on their own individual preferences. “Access and discovery have now scaled to the level of the network: they are Webscale,” Lorcan says.

“While much of the discovery focus of the library is still on destination or gateway systems which provide access to its collection, much of their users’ discovery experience is in fact happening elsewhere,” he continues. “These factors,” he explains, “shift the discoverability challenge significantly. In addition to improving local systems, a successful strategy must make library resources discoverable in other venues and systems, in the places where users are having their discovery experiences.”

Lorcan believes that there is growing interest in connecting library collections to external discovery environments in order to better release and realize the value of library investments. “There is also now a parallel interest,” he says, “in making institutional resources more actively discoverable. In each case, there is a shift toward inside-out thinking, as the library thinks about promotion and visibility in external services.”

This kind of inside-out thinking suggests that libraries should consider how their priorities and values can coexist within the workflows and services of disparate organizations and audiences. That will involve working to find intersections between the work that libraries do and that of many different partners, both online and off. We’ll look at three examples of how librarians today are making that happen, and also at opportunities for more broad-based efforts to syndicate library data and services into the larger networked information environment.

Libraries should consider how their priorities and values can co-exist within the workflows and services of disparate organizations and audiences.

Where art and libraries overlap

What do libraries have in common with the arts community? Both are often involved in local development, education and personal growth. Both provide lifelong opportunities to expand critical, cultural and intellectual skills. If that’s the case, though…why don’t more libraries have specific outreach programs targeted at artists and their constituents?

That was the question asked by three recent graduates of the University of Wisconsin—Madison School of Library & Information Studies. As a result, they began the “Library as Incubator Project.” Its mission is to promote and facilitate creative collaboration between libraries and artists of all types, and to advocate for libraries as incubators of the arts.

While working in the university libraries, Laura Damon-Moore, co-founder and managing editor of the project, says she “…got interested in visual artists and how they use libraries for inspiration as well as information.” Teaming up with classmates Erinn Batykefer and Christina Endres, the project started in January 2011 while they were still in school, and went live with a website, Library As Incubator Project, in October 2011.

Library as Incubator Team

Erinn Batykefer
Co-founder & Managing Editor

Christina Endres
Co-founder & Managing Editor

Laura Damon-Moore
Co-founder & Managing Editor

Their basic idea is to combine noncommercial assets from the art and library communities in ways that provide value back to both, and to the communities they serve. “We look at partnerships as a kind of product,” says Laura. “A way to quantify the benefits that libraries provide.”

Most communities and universities have active art communities…but often aren’t served by library services designed to meet their specific needs. “In some cases, libraries already serve as important anchors for artists’ work and research,” Erinn explains. “We’re collecting examples of these successes so that other libraries can have some practical, actionable ideas on where to start.”

“Providing services and resources for the artistic community is a great example of network building that libraries can develop as part of their strategy,” Laura says. “Libraries can extend the assets they have to help artists better reach their goals. In many cases, that will give libraries an advocacy boost from an important segment of their community. And it can transform the ‘free’ nature of library services into something supporters associate with commercial success, too.”

By exploring the areas where the library and art worlds overlap, both can learn how to better serve their communities. As Erinn says, “Explorations like this gives libraries a way to try out new things that might be considered, initially, at the fringe of their ‘normal’ offerings. But you never know what’s going to take off and become, over time, a core part of your services.”

“Libraries can extend the assets they have to help artists better reach their goals.”

Your users’ goals are your goals

Another way to connect with other networks, whether online or out in the community, is to look past your organization’s internal metrics and try to discover the goals of those you serve. Columbus Metropolitan Library CEO Pat Losinski wanted to go beyond traditional measurements of library success and consider the specific goals of the community his libraries support.

“Our vision statement focuses on community−not the library−and the impact we hope to make,” Pat says. “Our feeling is that if we take care of our community, our future will ultimately take care of itself.”

When Pat and his team began looking into how they could support the community in new ways, one area that surfaced was kindergarten readiness. They discovered that 34 percent of the children in the Columbus, Ohio area were unprepared for kindergarten, based on state KRAL (Kindergarten Readiness Assessment for Literacy) scores. That’s almost double what the rest of the state’s school districts experience.

“We took those numbers and we said to ourselves, ‘OK, if people tell us we are one of the best public libraries in the United States, what part of this performance does the library own?’” Pat says. “We have kids that come to story time and who participate in our summer reading program. But how do we help prepare those youngsters who aren’t coming through our doors? Without the foundation at kindergarten, the lack of preparation continues to reveal itself over time−40 percent of Columbus third graders are not proficient readers, compared to 20 percent of third graders in the rest of the state.”

The customers in this equation aren’t “library users,” or even “students of the public schools,” but young kids who need more help before interacting with those organizations. So Pat and his team created a program called Ready to Read−and none of it happens in the library.

“Our vision statement focuses on community—not the library—and the impact we hope to make.”

Six teams of two are out Monday through Thursday in Ready to Read vans visiting with the parents of at-risk kids. They try to instill an understanding that they, the parents, are their kid’s first teacher, not the school or the library. And, that if they don’t participate in that process, their child will not be ready for kindergarten.

“I’ve been out with this team,” Pat says. “They are fearless. They will go anywhere. They go to homeless shelters and methadone clinics and laundromats; wherever at-risk people congregate, our team is there. The first thing this program did was dispel the myth that low-income or at-risk parents don’t care about their kids’ performance. They care deeply. They just don’t have the right information or tools to take the first step.”

Parents receive three board books, alphabet sponge letters for their child’s bath time, and other tools to help kids begin to have some exposure to early literacy.

“Some of the stories that you see are actually pretty chilling,” Pat says. “You hand a book to a child and they hold it upside down and you realize that they’ve never had a book in their home and never held a book. No awareness of letters. No awareness of sounds or rhyming, very simple tests. And this I always say is not a school issue. It is a community issue.”

By reaching into the education network a little more deeply, Pat and his team have redefined the library’s value proposition, moving the emphasis away from the traditional output measures of library usage to community-based impact and outcomes. “People are less and less impressed with me telling them that 15 million items were checked out of the library. I think a more important and compelling story is how many of those books were read, how many of them were applied, how many of them changed a life for the better, and actually did some good in the community.”

“The first thing this program did was dispel the myth that low-income or at-risk parents don’t care about their kids’ performance. They care deeply.”

In the three-year period the Columbus Metropolitan Library has been running the Ready to Read program, it has reached more than 26,000 parents of pre-k kids.

  • About 8,000 of these parents have been issued library cards
  • 1/2 of the library cards that have been issued have been used at a branch to check out children’s materials
  • Approximately 60% of the parents surveyed tell the library that they read to the kids every day

The most promising outcome is the KRAL scores. “In some surveying, we’re seeing a 2-3 percent increase in KRAL scores, which may not sound like a great deal, but if we can get 2-3 percent a year for five years, we’re talking about a 10-15 percent swing, which would be significant in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Pat says.

Any tool, anytime

The Music Library and Sound Recordings Archives at Bowling Green State University is always looking for new ways to feature its rich collection of pop music, both with its own students, and outside the university. For several years, a dedicated team of five librarians have used blogs and social networking sites−Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, GooglePlus, Flickr−to place their resources and expertise in networks valued by their community. The latest tool? Pinterest, a photo-sharing website where users pin or re-pin images on pinboards in theme-based collections. Launched in March 2010, Pinterest hit 10 million monthly unique visitors faster than any other social networking site and by February 2013 had 48.7 million users.

While all of these social networks are useful for extending the library’s reach, Pinterest gave the team the visual impact they were looking for to highlight the largest collection of popular music and historic sound equipment in an academic library in North America−nearly 1 million recordings, album covers, posters, songbooks, turntables, amplifiers and more.

“Our collection is very visual but we have closed stacks so people can’t physically browse it,” says Susannah Cleveland, the library’s director. “When we saw Pinterest we knew this would be the perfect way to organize and present our collection to the public and connect with virtual users. It gave us a way to create a flashy, visual gallery with a compelling browse experience so people could see what is really cool in the collection. And it’s fun!”

Susannah, Liz Tousey, the library’s social media architect, and their team work with students to create ‘sleevefacings,’ a process where a person places an album cover in front of his or her face for a photo to go on the library’s Pinterest board. Using students opens up relationship with them and makes librarians more approachable, Susannah says. “So many students come and go for months on end, using our library as a study space. This has helped us break down barriers. Once we interact with them in such a fun way, they see us as less serious and more casual and informal.”

Like the Library as Incubator Project does with art, the Bowling Green program helps the library expand its reach outside the library to intersect and interact with other people’s networks. Their efforts have been noted by Wired, Library Journal and other “sleevefacing” pages. “Pinterest has raised our profile and made the Bowling Green name a little more familiar to some people in circles outside of our most local ones. Anytime someone at Wired is talking about your collection, I think you have a win,” says Susannah.

“It gave us a way to create a flashy, visual gallery with a compelling browse experience so people could see what is really cool in the collection. And it’s fun!”

Exploring—and erasing—online boundaries

There are, as we’ve seen, a variety of ways for libraries to interact with the networks that users and communities utilize and create. But on today’s Web…is that enough?

“While any library, no matter how small, can easily have a presence on the Web,” says Chip Nilges, OCLC Vice President, Business Development, “that doesn’t mean that they can easily be found in the online networks their users create and rely on for information. Frequently,” he continues, “those networks are built around major network services that serve hundreds, thousands, even millions of times more people than any library. In which case, while libraries are often local hubs for information and study, online they compete with truly massive, global providers.”

Any single library is going to have a hard time competing with Web giants like Google and Facebook for attention online. Even when connecting to a local audience, the “gravity” of those services is much stronger than what most local organizations−of any kind−can hope to muster. But to turn their resources “inside-out,” as Lorcan Dempsey suggests, and get attention on the wider Web, libraries can find ways to connect their services to those with much larger audiences. And one strategy for accomplishing that kind of task has been around for almost a century: syndication.

Historically, we’re most accustomed to hearing about how syndication helps deliver media−like music−to large audiences, using a distribution technology like radio. The term is also associated, of course, with other media such as newspapers, magazines and TV shows. In every case, though, it involves taking content that has been created for a central audience and getting it out to more people, often in widely diverse audiences. In the case of radio, this meant taking expensive content developed for large stations and “syndicating” it to a network of smaller, local stations that then went on to deliver it to their local audiences.

This method has also been very successful on the Web. Amazon, for example, sells products−content−to consumers directly through its Amazon.com website. But it also provides resources for people to build their own stores with the Amazon Associates program. Amazon, as the hub in these relationships, syndicates both services (e-commerce applications and features) and content (books, music, etc.). Associates act as nodes on this network, selling both Amazon content and their own materials to more specific customer bases. By some reports, 40 percent of Amazon’s sales happen through associates.

“While any library, no matter how small, can easily have a presence on the Web, that doesn’t mean that they can easily be found in the online networks their users create and rely on for information.”

Whether through traditional media networks or online, diverse audiences can access resources that would otherwise have been too expensive or hard to find. And local affiliates can improve community relationships by acting on their behalf within these larger networks.

“WorldCat,” Chip points out, “is a good model of how library cooperation can create opportunities for syndication.” He points out that the technology may have changed in the last 40 years−going from magnetic tapes and dedicated data lines to cloud services−but the fundamentals haven’t.

“Libraries start by registering their data in WorldCat via cataloging,” he explains. “When enough libraries do that, you have a significant aggregation that isn’t just useful to the libraries themselves for activities like copy cataloging and resources sharing−but to ‘edge’ partners like publishers, search engines and other Web service providers.”

It’s this combined data−many libraries registering and aggregating their resources in one place−that then makes syndication within larger network hubs possible. “22,000 members have aggregated data within WorldCat in one way or another,” Chip continues. “Together, they provide a hub for 290 million records and information to access more than a billion electronic items and 2 billion holdings.”

By aggregating shared library data and then syndicating it through other network hubs, each library can get its resources out into the wider information environment. “This kind of cooperation, aggregation and syndication,” Chip concludes, “can soften gravitational borders and help users find their way back to libraries. Last year, for example, WorldCat was able to deliver more than 231 million clicks back to libraries from various syndication partners on the Web like Google, Goodreads and EasyBib.”

Local efforts, global reach

As libraries seek to create, nurture and improve networks that add value to their users’ information-seeking activities, it may be that two sets of strategies are needed to move forward. Local efforts—such as those championed by the Library as Incubator project and Columbus Metropolitan Library−can literally take a library’s message and physical materials and services to the streets. This creates opportunities to understand users’ needs more fully, establishing local networks that align library metrics with those of the community.

But, as Lorcan Dempsey points out, more of our search behaviors are moving online and diversifying. Cooperative strategies like syndication can help groups of libraries expand their traditional boundaries and interact with online networks in ways that no single location can.

Laura Damon-Moore sums it up nicely: “Many artists and art programs now have both local followers and fans all over the world. Libraries can help them network and succeed online as well as in local classes and galleries. That’s a big win for our communities at the street level, and online.”

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About the Author

  • Andy Havens

    Andy Havens

    Andy Havens is OCLC’s Manager of Branding and Creative Services. He is Managing Editor of OCLC’s NextSpace magazine, leads the OCLC Cooperative Blog team and is “head tweeter” for the @OCLC Twitter account. He frequently works on the writing, editing, design and production of OCLC Membership Reports, white papers and symposium materials.

  • Tom Storey

    Tom Storey

    Tom is an Editor at OCLC and works on NextSpace, OCLC’s membership magazine, as well as OCLC Abstracts, a weekly e-news update, and the OCLC Annual Report.

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