The aches and pains of libraries


This post is by Helen Kula, librarian, and one of the organizers of Startup Weekend. Follow her on Twitter @helenkula.

In our outreach to various communities outside of libraries, we were asked a number of times for examples of library problems that might be addressed at Startup Weekend Toronto EDU: Library Edition. And we were also asked about data being available at Startup Weekend to use in response to problems. Here’s our response to both questions.

For those of you who may need to data to incorporate into your solution OR who just like data and might be able to find inspiration there, here’s some links to get you going. Bibliographic data has been deposited by a number of libraries at Internet Archive (thanks for M.J. Suhonos for the tip).
The University of Toronto’s library record data

Toronto Public Library data

With respect to library ‘pains’, here’s a short list that we’ve brain-stormed, based on our various experiences as librarians.

This list is just a start and we know it’s a bit of a grab-bag. Many of the problems listed are big and audacious – some of them are pretty small in scope. Some of them might already have solutions that already exist (we just don’t know about them) OR not be problems really worth solving.

We know there are a lot better ideas out there – just make sure you bring them with you this Friday AND you pitch them! And remember, not just library and information professionals can pitch – we want to hear from the developers, designers and bus dev folk who might be users of libraries and have experienced their own aches and pains when interacting with them! And if any of you out there like these ideas and want to work with them, go to it!

Students pay for content they can access for free at the library
Is there a way to stop students, for example, from purchasing articles they can download for free from licensed content at their academic library? We know this happens – a lot. And what about buying a book on Amazon – when you can get it for free at the library? Can we find a way to target this problem – if it is a problem?

Mis-shelved books
Given bar-coding and RFID, can books ‘self-identify’ before they are mis-shelved – or signal they have been mis-shelved and accelerate re-shelving, saving time and money and increasing user satisfaction?

Used book sales
Many libraries fundraise by selling discards – books or items taken out the collection. Is there a business in linking these sales across libraries via an e-commerce platform that volunteers can administer and which allows for profit-sharing across libraries? And could this be modified to aggregate library-themed paraphenalia?

Library statistics
Many libraries are beginning to rethink their metrics. Can the data trail created by libraries be investigated and new analytics be proposed? What are meaningful data-based measures of library performance?

Mobile app discovery
Can libraries catalog apps better than iTunes (or other app stores)? If so, what would that look like? Can it be at least partially automated?

Particularly in large libraries, folks find an item in the catalog but can’t locate it in the stacks. It’s like the abandoned shopping cart in e-commerce – the sale doesn’t happen in the end. Could we create a widget for the catalogue record that traces a virtual map to the item the user just identified?

Texting is the new email
This is particularly a challenge in college and university libraries which use email to deliver services (e.g. overdue notices, promotion and outreach, reference) but whose student users rely heavily on texting. This might also be a problem in other kinds of libraries.

New approaches to organizing library materials
What are other ways of accessing library materials? For example, could books be tagged by mood or by categories like “books for 20-year olds”? Could users be empowered to create their own mini-catalogs and tagging/taxonomies and share these?

Improving the reference experience
How do we connect or bridge the physical, face-to-face exchange (and pen-and-pencil note-taking) at the reference desk with a user’s digital workspace, where they do the actual work of research and writing? For example, users still often write out step-by-step instructions for accessing a particular resource or conducting a particular search – can we create a digital trail or record of every click we make on a website or catalogue or database that a user can recreate or follow once they leave the reference desk? There’s lots of other aspects of the reference experience that could probably be improved with technology.

Support for information literacy using technology
Libraries have traditionally relied on in-class instruction, reference or research consultations to address information literacy issues. There have been multiple attempts to do this online but it’s not clear these work. Can this be done in a scalable, repeatable fashion for different audiences and for specific information literacy skills or compentencies? And in a way that engages and motivates students – not bores them?

Connecting to online reading platforms
GoodReads, LibraryThing, Wattpad. There’s lots of new online communities out there for readers. How can library (and library catalogs) better integrate with these – and create two-way relationships? For example, could you check out a library book and auto-update your GoodReads account?

Usability of library catalogs and library websites
With Google as the standard, how can we harness the power of the library catalog with a better user interface to make search and retrieval better? The same for library websites – with more and more content and services on offer, navigation is challenging for users.

Confusion around information source types
Many college and academic library users don’t understand the difference between articles, journals, databases, websites, licensed content, and publicly-available, free content. As a result, they have difficulty finding their way to the information they need. Can technology be used to help create an understanding of these concepts (part of information literacy)

Lost books
Again, given barcodes and RFID, can the problem of lost books be solved with a ‘Find my library books’ app? This problem is particularly acute for children’s books (heavily circulated by public libraries) where children seem to ‘hide’ books in unusual places at home.

Library user retention
Can technology be used to create feedback-loops or ‘hooks’ to keep library users engaged – and coming back? For example, could their circulation histories be visualized and emailed to them on a regular basis? How about notification when a new book by an author they’ve previously checked-out has become available in the library? And how can we do this while still respecting user privacy?

Library serendipity
Many people value libraries (and physical book-stores) for the unexpected finds or discoveries they make during their visit. Could a mobile app or other technology support this?

Citations, citations, citations
This is a BIG problem for high-school, college and university students – and even professionals. Users don’t understand citation standards (or styles) – nor when or how to apply them. How can technology solve this problem?

Automated book suggestions
Academic libraries have been slow to incorporate the power of Amazon-like book recommendations into their catalog. Can this be solved while respecting user anonymity? What about recommendations around other kinds of materials – primary or audio-visual, for example.

Anonymized analytics to track user behaviour on library websites, catalogs and databases
Can technology support tracking of activity like articles downloads, check-outs, or the use of reference management software that can be aggregated for various user demographics to get at better analytics? And also identify problems in the online user experience, i.e. the equivalent of the abandoned shopping cart?

Library dating service
Libraries have long been places for love (and other things). Could libraries facilitate dating by matching up folks based on similar reading tastes, e.g. if X checked out this author and so did Y, maybe you should meet. Is an opt-in service of interest? Or how about random pop-up books clubs?