The Library Reloaded: The Catalog

[In previous editions of the Library Reloaded series, there has been discussion about what materials make up a collection, different ways to approach fines, and alternate forms of library cards. Unlike those previous posts, in writing and thinking about the catalog, I have found that my thoughts have lingered on what the catalog of the future should do and look like rather than offer alternatives to the catalog. So, this post will have more of a sandbox feel to it in listing what I’d like in the next generation of library automation. Also, since I’m vastly unfamiliar with cataloging, I am hoping that any cataloger reading this will write their own blog post to fill in that aspect so that I can link to it. –A ]

There’s a quote that is attributed to astronaut John Glenn, remarking on his space flight:

“As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind: Every part of this capsule was supplied by the lowest bidder.”

There are times when I can’t help but think that when I’m navigating through my library system’s automation program. As a public entity, I understand that there are limitations; there is the balance of funding versus the options available and the degree of competitiveness that vendors will undertake to land a deal. And certainly, on the average, this is no different when it comes to selecting an automation system.

When I’m on the reference desk, every time I turn the monitor to show someone their record or a listing in the collection, I always refer to it as “the ugly backend”. This is only a partially truth; I find the front end (the side that patrons see) to be equally ugly and perhaps worse in terms of misleading people as to what we have the library system. I sometimes cringe on the inside when I see how results are displayed since any variation from the exact title, subject, or author will send people off with the impression that we don’t carry it.

While I could go on and on about the shortfalls, I’d rather shift the attention to what the next generation of library automation should look and act like. As I really only interact with it on a reference (and sometimes circulation) capacity, my commentary will be more focused on that aspect.

Without further ado, some of the things that the next generation system should have (please bear in mind that my thoughts are based entirely on my experience with my system’s automation program):

Front end:

  • Display, display, display – Any query into the catalog should create an explosion of possibilities with the most likely front and center & at the top. To cover all the bases, I’d like to see other potential results as a link on the side. “(“Do you mean titles with John Doe? Authors with the name of John Doe? Subjects with the term John Doe?” as a series of side links.) In addition, offer close alternatives as another list. (“Do you mean the author Jon Doe? John Doh?”) Make the display as interactive as possible; consider how much you can look, touch, and move at the shelf level and

This is not a call to reinvent the Google or Bing display. This is a call to make the resulting search more intuitive to the patron’s eye and offer easy suggestions as to other possibilities. A ten line text output laying bare on the screen is pretty damn stark and relentlessly unforgiving. It can be made to reflect both people who know exactly what they are looking for and those who have an idea of what they are looking for. Put exact matches right where people are looking and the “close” results nearby.

  • Holds & Requests – An interface that would allow for a patron and drag & drop materials into a request bucket would be a nice step up from tiny boxes, especially those stupid little check boxes. Think of it akin to moving icons on a desktop. That’s how easy it should be. There isn’t much that can be done for logging in and logging out, save for making that box bigger so people aren’t wrecking their eyesight squinting at the screen.

When people are in their accounts, it really needs to be a command center. Show them a summary of everything with tabs that go into specifics such as items out, requests, fines, and messages. As to this last bit, having a simple message system in which general library reminders, news, and announcements would be a good way of creating interaction with the patron. Also, the ability to send and receive messages between staff and patrons creates a new point of contact.

  • “I NEED HELP” box – Both at the location and offsite, there will arise a time when people simply need help. The ability to page a librarian onsite to the catalog computer for additional assistance would be a giant plus; it saves time for the patron walking around looking for help. Offsite, an ability for someone to get a person to chat, call, or email with the option of sharing a screenshot and the list of last couple of actions within the catalog so as to give a responding librarian an idea of what has been attempted so far. (I’d also say screensharing, but I would have concerns about the logistics as well as the privacy.)

Of course, these capabilities can be tailored to staff ability and availability. I wouldn’t want to create an expectation of instant service if the possibility doesn’t exist.

  • A variety of methods of contact – In addition to calling or emailing, I’d like to give patrons the option of receiving texts. While this brings up other issues (such as how many per week), allow them to choose which alerts would generate a text message and the maximum number they would get in a week (with overflow messages going to email or a call).

Hell, while we’re at it, why not have the capability to send a Facebook message or send you a tweet (either @reply or a direct message)? More options for how people are contacted would be a major bonus.

  • Mobile display – The capability of navigating the catalog through the screen of a smartphone should be included. And (since this is a wishlist) the ability to import some of that functionality into an mobile app would be a major bonus. While not every library would consider creating an app, the option is always an attractive one.

Alternatively, to offer an app as an additional option for an automation package could be another viable service. I’m not sure what the mobile or tablet market will look like in five years, but I’m going to take a wild guess and say that it will be more sophisticated.

Back end:

  • Better patron data manipulation options – If someone misses a hold, I’d like to be able to put the hold back on in a few clicks. I’d like to be able to identify the patrons that haven’t been to the library in the last couple of months and send them an email saying, “Hey, what’s up?” (Someone was tweeting something about this the other day, but I can’t find the tweet to attribute it to. I will add that once I find out; I think it was you, David Lee King. -A) I’d like to be able to queue up multiple holds and place them all at once rather than the tedious cycle of placing each hold one at a time. And, while I’m holding the brass ring, I’d like some more intuitive menus for those operations that I don’t do on a regular basis (such as suspending a hold, changing the delivery destination of a hold, or adding particular notes to a patron’s file.)

For all the steps taken to smooth out the patron/collection interface, that’s more time I can spend providing service to patrons and (in a seemingly paradoxical way) patrons can spend less time with me waiting while I navigate the system. Personally, I’d rather be smiling and chatting than furrowing my brow as I reach through the computer labyrinth that resides on the screen in front of me.

  • Complete collection integration – The ability to look at the entire holding of a library in one go. Databases, magazines, serials, physical holdings, and subscription services all on one search. It doesn’t have to give me the specific results from each source, but I would like to be able to say to a patron, “Ok, under that subject heading, we have 20 books, 5 ebooks, and 400 database articles. Which format should we examine first?” People want to know all their options and I, as a librarian, want to be able to show them all their options. Integration of all the subscriptions and purchases into one central display is the only way to achieve that.

I realize that what I am asking in this particular bullet point is pretty much proprietary and against the nature of current material providers. But my job, as I see it, is to provide the richest and greatest amount of access and materials to the community that I serve. This option is for them, the end user; it is for the people who ultimately benefit the most from such an integration. My interest is their interest: to be able to survey all possibilities and make the best information decisions. Only through a complete collection integration will one get an immediate sense of the possible results from all connected resources.

The catalog. It’s our method of organization, our means to carry out the work of the library, and the ultimate source of the knowledge contained in a library. It should be working for us, not against us.

(If there are any vendors or open source developers out there, feel free to add your comments to the mix. And if you take something away from this post, please at least attribute either myself or the commentator who made it. And if you do take it from me, I look forward to some swag love at conferences.)

Previous Library Reloaded entries: Collections, Library Cards, Fines.

The Library Reloaded: Fines

It’s been on the brain for awhile, but I have been wanting to make a Library Reloaded post about fines. This week has been productive for writing so I might as well go for it.

Fines or late fees (as Leslie Burger likes to say) are a mechanism to ensure that material is return before or on the due date. Almost exclusively financial in nature, fines can range from a mere nickel to various higher denominations of paper money depending on the type of material, the loan period, and the amount of time past the due date. The purpose of this post is to consider the position of fines in the library world and some potential alternatives. Not all of these are truly viable, but let go of your preconceived notions and let the ideas get your thinking process going.

(Payment of lost materials, collection fees, and other administrative fees will not be discussed, as I think that represents a different financial category for libraries. -A)

1.) No fines for overdue materials.

This is by far the polar opposite of the status quo and represents the argument that accumulated fines are a barrier to access. By removing the financial penalties, you move closer to an ideal of unfettered access to library services and materials. It also avoids uncomfortable encounters with patrons who have high fines or creating financial pressures on individuals and families that rely on the library. On the backend, this gives back valuable staff time that would otherwise be dedicated to the accounting of the collection of fines and managing the money involved.

The tradeoff is the revenue lost for the library that the fines would generate. In addition, there would need to be an incentive created to encourage people to return books. A ‘no overdue’ policy could work in which borrowing is restricted or completely blocked on a card with library material that is overdue. Perhaps even something akin to “hold until a hold”; the capability of borrowing something indefinately until someone else asks for it. Under this concept, there would be a defined borrowing time (to ensure popular items get to multiple people); however, if there is no one else waiting for it, then the borrower can hang onto it for as long as they like. This presents a different set of logistics and collection management (such as “when does an item become lost?” and replacing materials on the shelf in order to facilitate serendipity), but I think with the right library, materials, and management, it could be feasible.

2.) Volunteering/Community Service

Rather than pay a fine, a patron could be given the option to work off their fines in several different ways. Volunteering hours at the library could provide additional manpower in a time when staff layoffs are prevalent. (For example, a New York man sorted books in exchange for fine forgiveness. They even offered him a part time position afterwards.) This could free up staff from doing routine or rote work and allow them time to work on other projects, classes, or even just free them up to be available to assist patrons.

The volunteering possibilities do not stop at the library doorstep. Volunteering in the community is another potential way a person could work off their fines. There are always service organizations and community projects that are looking for additional manpower. In exchange for time spent with those entities, the patron would earn a certain amount of fine forgiveness. This allows an individual to work on something that interests them, the organizations get the person’s time, and the library clears another patron to return to normal borrowing practices.

The easily recognizable cons are the loss of revenue as well as the added logistics of managing volunteers in the library. Right now, I cannot see any additional cons to this type of fine repayment; I hope that someone could point out to me whether I missed something or I’ve hit my mark in the comments to this post.

3.) Pay what you want

I thought of this concept when I was reading an article in Time about Panera Bread’s pay-what-you-want non-profit in Clayton, Mo.  In this establishment, there is only the suggested price; people who can afford more are encouraged to pay that or more while people in need are encouraged to take a discount. Why not library fines?

As it is right now, librarians and library staff bargain with patrons over fines everyday all over the country. This would shift the onus from the staff member to the patron. If people are going to talk and write about empowering their patrons, why not empower them at the wallet level? There could be some goodwill and publicity generated on behalf of the library, leading more people to settle their bills and get back to using the library.

The most overwhelming con on this idea is that the majority of individuals would not pay any fines. The article suggests that most people pay a huge percentage (90% or more) of the suggested price, but it doesn’t take a cynical person to think that library patrons may opt for less than the current amount. There is a risk of fine revenue loss; it would be an interesting study to see how much money was recovered when people were encouraged to pay what they wanted versus static fine amounts.

However, it could be a good opportunity to solicit a donation (I’m not kidding). Give them the option of paying what they want with money over the fine amount being donated to the library. They are already thinking about money so there is nothing wrong with planting a seed for a library monetary donation.

(The next time I am in a bargaining position with a patron over fines, I’m going to try this one out. Nothing like field experiments! –A)

4.) Bartering

Most commonly, there are “food for fines” programs in which donated food grants fine forgiveness. Unlike volunteering, this is the acceptance of goods in exchange for fine amounts. It creates a community benefit of a different kind as local aid organizations can collect donated items for their work. What could people donate? Food, clothes, school supplies, linens, and blankets are possible items. I could even imagine a library having a blood drive that provides fine forgiveness for donations. (Possible announcement title: “I bleed for books”) If there is an organization in the area looking to non-perishable items, the library could set up a donation program on their behalf. Like the other suggestions, it provides a different way of settling fines and getting back into using the library.

Again, there is a revenue loss involved here as well as the managing of a different set of logistics (in this case, physical goods). Again, I am at a loss for any form of deeper issue, though if someone wants to do “pheasants for fines” (a la “chickens for checkups”), I will need to see pictures of this.

5.) Other forms of quid pro quo

I read about a program where children are allowed to ‘read down’ their library fines. The same article talks about exchanging bike riding time (instead of using their car) for fine forgiveness. The only question I have is where to draw the line.

Could the library ask a patron to write a letter of support to a local official in exchange for fine forgiveness? (I’m guessing no, but onwards.) What about having the patron complete a survey about the library? (Such as programming preferences, types of materials they are interested in, suggestions for future services, and so forth.) Could we go so far as link health goals (e.g. weight loss, personal training) to fine reductions? (That is probably crossing the line, but just a thought.)

What else could a library ask a patron to do in exchange for the lifting of fines?

In these Library Reloaded posts, I enjoy imagining possibilities. I certainly hope this gets people thinking about fines; if anyone actually tries something else out (whether it is mentioned in this post or on your own), please leave a comment in the future. I leave you with one last question:

How do you imagine (or re-imagine) fines? What alternatives intrigue you?

Previous Library Reloaded posts: library cards, collections.

The Library Reloaded: Library Cards

Photo by NJLA/Flickr While I was taking a break working on a blog entry, this post by Patrick Sweeney about getting rid of library cards showed up in my Google Reader. He talks about replacing library cards with user names and passwords, with authentication control happening at the library locations. I thought this was such a different take on the one traditional part of the library experience that I started to write a reply. What I wrote grew beyond what felt like a simple note so I decided to drop my current post and craft this one.

So,  with the spirit of Patrick’s post in mind (getting rid of library cards), I started to think about what existing technology that we have now that could be adopted to fit this ultimate goal. In leaning back in my desk chair and rolling the puzzle around in my head, I brought it down to a few requirements: provide the same level of authentication (for privacy), provide the same level of permissions on and off site (for access), and be arguably easier and cheaper than the process it replaces (issuing library cards). Under those guidelines, I’d like to propose some additional alternatives to the library card (with varying degrees of viability).

1.) Cell phone wallet: Popular in the countries like Japan and South Korea, your library card information is stored on your mobile device. Simply by swiping your phone on a signal reader, you can use it for all of your library business (e.g. checking your account, borrowing materials). Computers in the library could be fitted with readers. For offsite authentication (such as remote account and database access), the user could simply retrieve their stored card number from the phone.

The major con for this is that not everyone has a cell phone, whether they are too young (think babies, toddlers, kindergarten through whenever their parents want to five them phones) or they cannot afford one with cell phone wallet capability. While the technology is popular in other countries, it has not taken off in the United States. In addition, this could also pose account management issues with people wanting to lend their card to others to check out materials, use computers, and other situations of permissible card lending. Unlike a card, a cell phone does not lend itself as well to lending.

2.) Fingerprint Scanner: No need to carry a card when you are using your fingerprint for authentication. Fingerprint scanners have come down in price to being under $100, a figure that is relatively easy to reach. Just scan your thumb or forefinger at the circulation desk or computer lab to prove your identity. It’s more reliable and secure than a library card since fingerprints are a unique biometric. The patron’s privacy is secure behind the fingerprint; it also completely removes the need to remember a library card while providing an accurate way of identifying patrons.

As nifty as this would be, it completely fails the off site authentication test. It would have to rely on a supplemental piece of material so that people could remotely access accounts and databases. However, for libraries where the materials and databases are not generally reached offsite (think of certain types of special libraries), this might be the right approach to securing access to sensitive materials. Like the cell phone wallet, it also creates the same issues for lending of library cards or allowing multiple people to use a card. Also, it does not address the issue of the small number of people who are without hands.

(My next suggestion doesn’t get rid of the library card, per se. However, I think it does present another possibility to the alternative of the library card.)

3.) A hybrid RFID card/’one button’ authenticator: Ok, so this device doesn’t exist, but it does take two types of existing technologies that would not work for the purposes of this idea experiment and put them together. Yes, it’s still something people would need to carry, but I think it could have broader implications and aspirations for a simple library card.

The RFID provides the on site identification for materials. Swipe the card past a reader, do your library business, done. I think the potential for RFID in libraries goes further by acting as a library card in multiple locations. The idea of a single card being able to access multiple locations (for example, your library, your state’s library, and the Library of Congress) would be the ideal; a single library card to access everything.

The one button authenticator provides the off side identification. Pressing the button provides a unique and time sensitive series of numbers to be entered into the interface to provide access. This is used currently in the private sector for secure computer networks (including the largest massively multiplayer online roleplaying game, World of Warcraft, with over 13 million players) Within a combined system, it could provide remote access to accounts and subscription materials for a spectrum of libraries.

While it solves the problems of remote access that are shared by the cell phone wallet and fingerprinting, each technology carries its own baggage. RFID has privacy and security implications that make it a vulnerable means while the ‘one button’ authenticator has the chance of failing like any other computer chip. In addition, there is the additional cost this would incur in the form of cards, readers, and staff training.

I will admit that it is a bit of technology overkill for solving a simpler problem, but it was still fun to imagine. I really liked Patrick’s post because it was bold in its questioning of a status quo. Perhaps libraries won’t replace cards, but it doesn’t hurt to go back and examine practices to either reaffirm, renovate, or remove them. It is this kind of inquiry that tests the boundaries and makes the occupation and practice more interesting to me.

Overall, I think there are alternatives to library cards, but it is on a location and library type basis. There are enough nuances to this that, in the right situation, a library could replace their cards with something else. Perhaps it is on this micro scale that card alternatives could be considered, so long as it is a true replacement and capable of community-wide acceptance. In any case, I wouldn’t think it would be a daring statement to say that anything that eases the patron-library interaction would be possible welcome addition.


Previous Library Reloaded post: Collections

The Library Reloaded: Collections

4249561113_7734cbbc8b[1] Tonight, we hosted my brother and sister-in-law for dinner. While I was cooking, I had asked them for their thoughts on what libraries shouldn’t lend. (The picture above is the PG version of the list created, recopied by me for better presentation.) I’d had asked them for their help because there has been a question gnawing on my mind since the weekend.

What is a collection?

In my opinion, the most common answer to this question is a very dull textbook one. It’s usually a list of mediums plus maybe a statement about how it is a reflection of the community that it serves. The better (and more accurate) answer is that everything falls on three lists: things we lend, things we don’t (or shouldn’t) lend, and things we could lend but we don’t. It’s this third group that I find to be the most interesting because I think it is something that people involved in collection development should consider more deeply. Allow me to illuminate with some examples of what I mean.

  1. The Princeton Public Library lends out watt meters. This small simple device measures the amount of energy being used by electrical devices plugged into it. From regular lamps to household appliances, a customer can learn and alter their energy consumption behaviors. This can lead to direct savings in the form of lower utility bills.
  2. The Sparta Public Library lends out flip video cameras. While checkouts of this device could be people just trying it out, this camera can be used to record family history, events, sports, and other stuff that the patron wants to record and keep.
  3. Some Vermont libraries are lending out items such as garden tools, snowshoes, and children’s games. To me, it speaks to the life enriching efforts of the library and a true focus on the “needs assessment” of the surrounding community. It also proves the merit of non-traditional collections as an added feature of those respective libraries.
  4. Colleges around the world loan out laptops to students. Rather than shackling their student populations to the computer labs, the institutions give them the flexibility to do their computer based work from anywhere. It encourages students to perform their work in the environment that is most conducive to their work habits. (Ok, it’s certainly not always work, but you get the point.)
  5. DOK Library in Holland lends out art. While it is not the first library to lend out art, it is one of the more well known libraries to do so right now.

Moreover, the inclusion of these types of materials in a collection represents a lateral thinking when it comes to the collection. If we lend books on gardening, why not lend gardening tools? If we lend movies, why not lend digital camcorders? If we lend art books, why not lend art itself? It’s this third list that really captures my imagination and makes me look at the mundane items around me and ask myself bemusedly, “Could my library lend that?”

And it begs further questions for some items not mentioned. If we lend a map, why not lend a car GPS? If we lend museum guides, why not lend museum passes? Astronomy books & telescopes, knitting needles with knitting books, puppets with children’s books, carpentry books & stud finder devices, and so forth.

To be fair, I have heard of libraries lending some of these items right now (I just couldn’t find the links!); the real question is why your library isn’t doing it.

The only major objection I can muster to this type of non-traditional lending is that these types of items fall outside the normal scope of the library’s mission. The library simply provides the initial information for activities which require additional equipment, gear, or materials; it is up to the customer to acquire the requisite parts to further their interests. From a budgetary position, a library would be hard pressed to make expenditures that do not add or update current collection mediums (especially when many libraries are facing budget gaps due to smaller local, state, and federal funding). In addition, there are the usual concerns about storage, care, and maintenance of these non-traditional items. 

My answer to this objection is that we already take further steps when it comes to materials that we already lend. We offer crafting classes while having crafting guides in the collection; computer classes while owning computer texts; and story times while having a plethora of children’s books. It is my belief that the library works to provide life enriching materials to the community. Traditionally, this has been books and magazines; but as the technology has revolutionized the information and entertainment formats, the lending of such non-traditional fare is a continuation of supporting life enriching activities.

I’m not indifferent to the budget struggles that libraries are facing in this past and current year; it would certainly rule out some of the higher priced items offered for consideration. I don’t believe it would rule out some of the less expensive examples (like the watt meter and the gardening equipment); I would hope that it would make the staff creative in their potential selections for inclusion. As to storage, care, and maintenance, I would concede that it faces that same assessment concerns that are given to all of our materials. It certainly makes no sense to add anything that cannot be properly cared for. These are all very pertinent and legitimate considerations for any library to undertake in adding these types of items to their collections.

In approaching the addition of non-traditional items to a collection, my inclination would be to focus on three types of objects: the uncommon but situationally useful (like the watt meter), the useful but high turnover types of items (like children’s toys), or the things that take the next logical step from something currently being lent (like a car GPS). In addition, I hope that my fellow professionals will take a moment and think about the question posed above: what is a collection? For myself, it is not a matter of objects or materials, but the lives of the people it enriches.