Predicting our literary future: Recommender systems for libraries

The whimsically named “Book Psychic” seeks to solve the problem faced by library users when they enter the library: too much choice. Book Psychic uses the patron’s previous reading choices and ratings of library material to select the perfect book. The more it is used, the more the selections will reflect the patron’s specific tastes.

Like the ibeacon, the Book Psychic is an example of technology created for a retail setting that has been adapted for use by libraries. Book Psychic is an example of a ‘recommender system’. Lev Grossman’s 2010 Time article How Computers Know What We Want — Before We DoTwo explores the ubiquitous spread of the recommender system to all corners of the web, with computer algorithms helping users select from an infinite number of choices in everything from music to movies. Two very common examples can be seen when Netflix suggests a movie based on your previous selections, or when Amazon suggests a book based on what you last ordered.

Book Psychic was launched in 2012, and is produced by “library thing for libraries” an organization that produces technology to enhance the functionality of the existing library catalogues.

The site, which can be accessed via a link on the participating libraries’ website only recommends books from within that particular libraries catalogue. It is compatible with similar systems that the patrons may be using, so that if they have already used a site such as Good Reads, they can import and build on their existing information.

According the Book psychic website, only Wellington public libraries and Masterton District Library have subscribed to Book psychic so far. Both being public libraries, it would be interesting to see how the technology works in an academic library like ours, which would have a very different selection of books to the average public library.

One issue that could be raised with the recommender system is that when you are being recommended books based only on what you have read before there is a risk of being blinkered by your previous selections. While patrons obviously do not have to use the recommendations, only being shown books of a certain type or genre to the exclusion of other new material could be an annoyance to some.

With academic libraries, however, this fine tuning and honing in on your research interests and subjects of study could be an enormous asset to students, which I believe would make the site well worth the subscription cost.

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The Mobile Library

The term ‘Mobile library’ once referred to a vehicle that delivered books to towns too remote or too small to support their own branch library. Now ‘mobile library’ is more likely to bring to mind the digital equivalent: the library app that is accessible on mobile devices.

Having library services that can be accessed with mobile devices is a significant current trend in library technologies. A 2013 article by Mark Rogowsky The PC Is Dying, The Only Question Is How Fast provides a dramatic commentary on the rise of the mobile device at the expense of the desktop computer. As of 2014, The Pew Research Centre’s Mobile Technology Fact Sheet gives American phone statistics at 90% for mobile phone ownership, 64 % for smart phone ownership and 42% for tablet ownership.

A 2014 article Research and discovery functions in mobile academic libraries (Library Hi Tech, 33(1), 32-40) by Catherine Bomhold puts smartphone ownership at 79% for young adults. According to Bomhold’s article, which conducted a survey of mobile devices in academic libraries, students rated a functional mobile library app as “very/extremely important to school success”. With these statistics and our increasingly tech savvy student population in mind, creating a mobile app should be one of our top priorities in our technology plan.

Library anywhere, created by LibraryThing for Libraries, is a technology that can transform the current catalogue into a site accessible by mobile users. Compatible with both Android and Apple devices, it syncs with the library catalogue so that it remains identical even as items are added or deleted. It can do all of the things patrons can do on the current catalogue, for example, search the catalogue, place holds, and view borrower history.

While it is free for patrons to download the app, one negative is that the app can be difficult for patrons to find. It will be under “library anywhere” in the app store, rather than under the libraries name. Libraries also have to pay to use the service. However, with a free trial available, this site seems like an excellent first step to making our library mobile accessible. The library anywhere could provide us with a fast and efficient way to provide our students with mobile functionality without having to invest time and funds into building our own app.

With a large proportion of our student population working extramurally and far from our physical campus, it is important that we develop a website that will work on the devices that they use most. With the library anywhere service, geographically distant patrons could have our services in their pockets, with today’s version of the ‘mobile library’ providing information accessibility just as bookmobiles did in the past.

Insta-library

If the way to get our students involved with the library is to follow their digital footprints wherever they may lead, then Instagram, the enormously popular social networking site, seems like the logical choice.

Instagram is a free mobile app which, according to the website’s FAQ, allows users to take pictures, edit them using filters, categorise them using hashtags, and then display them on the Instagram site. Fellow users can then like and comment on them.

In 2013 Library Hi Tech News published An Instagram is worth a thousand words (Vol. 30 Iss 7), an article about the myriad uses that the social media app Instagram could have for libraries. Two years later blogs are still buzzing with the unique opportunities that the social media site can provide in engaging patrons and connecting the library community.  Digital trends’ 2014 article Instagram is growing faster than Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest combined, shows the huge growth of the site, with a 23 percent rise in active users.

Libraries are tapping into this surge in popularity, using the primarily image based site (the only words really are the hashtags and the comments) as a way to show off their physical library space and collections and get the word out about library events. It also provides an opportunity to forge a closer relationship between librarian and user, with Instagram providing a visual and informal way of showing users the inner workings of the library and its staff.

Instagram uses hashtags, where users ‘tag’ images with words or phrases (a popular tag being #shelfie, a ‘selfie’ taken by a shelf of books). This system, also used on Tumblr and twitter, lets the users categorise and thus organise the content of the site. A 2015 article from the blog 5minlibrarian 10 Instagram Tips for Instasuccess suggests that establishing a unique library hashtag is essential. This is so that users can find your content easily, as well as being able to upload their own photos with the hashtag when they take relevant images.

Public libraries online’s 2015 article Libraries of Instagram by Kristine Techanavitch suggests that looking at the way in which users have mentioned or tagged the library is an easy way of gauging how the library is being used and how patrons feel about it. Whether scrolling through the endless feed of images can be classed as “easy” is up for debate, however.

These elements make a compelling case to add the social media app to our library services. If we needed any more convincing, according to LSE’s 2014 article Five ways universities are using Instagram, Instagram’s key demographic also happens to be our student population, with university students making up the majority of Instagram users.

While Instagram seems to be the new big thing for a library to acquire, it is important to remember that social media sites, while free to use, can be an expensive investment because of the staff hours spent monitoring the site. It is also not guaranteed that students will follow the account and engage with the library. However, if the payoff is as good as the many articles suggest it is, perhaps this is a gamble worth taking.

The Ibeacon : the physical library experience goes digital

An example of Ibeacon technology. Image from http://www.melikeyilmazel.com/location-based-e-marketing/

An example of Ibeacon technology.
Image from http://www.melikeyilmazel.com/location-based-e-marketing/

The Ibeacon is an example of a technology that can augment the experience of patrons in our physical library space. As the name suggests, the Ibeacon beams out a stream of information around the device, which users can tap into with their mobile devices (“ibeacon” is the Apple version of the technology, with other versions simply called “beacons”).

Originally adopted by retailers as new way of advertising and even paying for goods, a number of articles and blogs have promoted the technology as a way in which libraries can deliver focused and personalised experiences to their users. Proquests’ blog including the ibeacon in the 2015 article “What’s New in Library Technology for 2015″  and Victoria University publishing the article Using iBeacons to create location-based learning zones are just two examples of this.

According to ibeacon Insider, the ibeacon uses Bluetooth technology to communicate with your device when it is in close proximity. With the installing of a corresponding app, it will allow users to receive content that is tied to their location.

The beacons themselves are small and unobtrusive – around the size of the palm of your hand, and would therefore be easy to integrate into the physical library collections. They don’t even need to be plugged in as they have a battery life of around 2 years. The physical hardware is also relatively cheap, valued around $50 (US) (Using iBeacons to create location-based learning zones). The real cost is doubtless in customizing the technology to the specific library needs; building an app and keeping this updated.

Capiratech is a company that provides “ibeacon library app integration”, which integrates the libraries existing app so that it works in tandem with the beacon technology. According to the website this became commercially available in January 2015. Features listed on the website include the ability to inform patrons of any overdue or reserved items as they enter the library, imminent events that may be of interest to the patrons and information about the different sections of the library. The patron is even able to get a snapshot of what’s on the shelves around them. The ability to track the way in which patrons move through the library could aid in gathering statistics about popular areas or neglected areas.

This technology is still relatively new, so we don’t have many examples of how it has worked in New Zealand.  However, from the evidence available, this app does seem to be have potential for our students. The ability to give virtual tours could be a great way of introducing our library to new students (or even those who haven’t used the library before), and with help potentially available at the touch of a button (or a swipe of the screen) could free up staff time.

However, there are some aspects of the app that raise some questions: the privacy implications of being able to track a user throughout their time in the library, for example.  And do we really need our phone to tell us what is on a shelf when we are standing right next to it?

These concerns aside, however, this could be the push we need to get students back into the physical library space, as with the digitization of library resources  it is entirely possible for our potential patrons to avoid the library altogether. The ibeacon could be the perfect fit for patrons who are increasingly seeing their information, and indeed the world, through the lens of their mobile devices.